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."

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Ian Levine’s Twitter account is increasingly puzzling.

He was quite disapointed that the Tuesday press conference got put back to Thursday. “SELFISH FUCKING BBC”, he explained. Now that it has been officially confirmed that “a number” of lost Doctor Who episodes have indeed been found his remarks have become even more cryptic.

One thing I can tell you. If we have ANY hope of seeing any more, each and every fan needs to download those iTunes episodes on Friday...or whenever they become available. If people wait, or try to get them for free, or stick them on YouTube, it will kill any chance of...more. EACH AND EVERY Doctor Who fan needs to download those episodes on Friday. Something like fifteen quid to secure Doctor Who's...treasures - we must stop anyone who tries to illegally abuse this. Please everyone do your bit. We have never had this chance before REMEMBER EVERYBODY !!!!! THE FATE OF THE OTHER MISSING EPISODES IS IN YOUR HANDS.

Can anyone parse this? I believe I am correct in saying that every episode of Doctor Who in the BBC archives has been made available on VHS and DVD, with mostly excellent critical apparatus. Either it's commercially viable for the BBC to do this; or the BBC thinks that it’s worth doing even though it doesn't make them very much money. (The Lost in Time “orphan” episode collection can hardly have been a massive money spinner.) The problem has never been "The BBC won't let us see all the episodes it has got". It has always been “There are some episodes we can't see because the BBC hasn't got them." 

So in what way is Doctor Who’s fate compromised if, on Friday, I say “I don’t think I’ll download the complete Web of Fear today -- I’ll stick the DVD on my Amazon list for Christmas”? How is this different from me not having got around to buying "Reign of Terror" yet? If they published the incomplete "Ice Warriors"; why on earth would they sit on a complete "Web of Fear"?


It sounds very much like a conspiracy theory. The BBC have always known about these missing tapes, but they've been "hoarding" them, because they don't want anyone to see them. I don't know why. Possibly they reveal that Doctor Who was married to Susan Foreman and gave birth to the Merovingian dynasty. Or maybe the idea is that some big name fan has all the tapes, and the money from the downloads is going directly to him, and if he doesn't make enough, he'll take his secret stash back to Ethiopia?

Conspiracy minded Doctor Who fans have long believed in the existence of this Secret Stash. There would, at least, be a motivation for a fan having episodes but not sharing them: consider the prestige you would have at Doctor Who conventions if you had the copy of "Underwater Menace" that no-one else had. I certainly went to DWAS meetings in the 70s at which videos of black and white stories were shown, long before the BBC had officially released them, so the story had a certain narrative plausibility. Recently, a strange man on the internet claimed to have, or have access to, all the lost stories, but said he would only let you see them if you went onto his website and purchased photographs of ladies with no clothes on. (True.) Many prominent fans were said (quite wrongly) to be the owners of the Secret Stash; some of them are still quite vocal on the internet. It all seemed a bit Purloined Letter to me: the Secret Stash is only any use to you if you don't let anyone else see it; but once you've let someone else see it, it isn't secret any more. 

Recently recovered 1960s TV material would be on cine film, correct? And probably in pretty poor condition. You can't just take a 50 year old film and "release" it. Work would have to be done turning into modern downloadable format. Quite a lot of jiggery pokery has been done to the stories that are already on sale: a damaged tape eked out with other clips; a sound track from one source married to pictures from another. I seem to think that a whole scene was missing from the "War Machines", and the restoration team sort of faked it and pretended so you wouldn't notice. So it makes some sense that a big box of tapes were found in July, but next Thursday is the earliest date on which episodes can actually be released into the wild. And I don't imagine that they found a box clearly marked "Season 6, Story 5, Episodes 2-6". I imagine there's a big box with dusty Who tape muddle in with On the Buses and footage of Haile Selassie's coronoation. Maybe a little man in a white coat called up the BBC and said "Sorry, there's no way I can have 10th Planet Episode 4 cleaned up before Thursday" or "Cancel the press conference for Tom's sake, there's more here than we thought."

Of course, Ian Levine is a very important person indeed and has a perfect right to be to be told exactly what archive material the BBC has got its hands on the monment that they do. But for the rest of us -- well, it makes sense for the BBC to want to wait until they can show off their exciting, and very valuable, new find to the best possible advantage.

The love of a fan is very, very close to hate. People convince themselves that they know a movie star or a singer and are shocked and disappointed because the star doesn’t know them. There have been terrible cases of fans literally killing the thing they loved; and many more of people swearing to burn their collection of Swamp Thing because Alan Moore wasn’t sufficiently pleased when they told him they were his biggest fan.

I like Doctor Who very much indeed. But I have never, ever felt remotely tempted to behave as if my fannish love means that I somehow own it.




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Monday, September 16, 2013

What Do You Mean, We?


I know six things about the Lone Ranger. That’s probably one more than you do.

1: He wears a mask.

2: He has faithful Indian companion named Tonto, who calls him "kemo sabe".

3: He shouts “Hi-ho, Silver!” to his horse.

4: He uses silver bullets.

5: His theme tune is the William Tell Overture.

6: He’s the Green Hornet's great-uncle.

And that’s literally it. I have no idea if he had a secret identity, a supporting cast or a back story. I assume that’s why the character was so durable -- three thousand radio episodes, and a TV show that ran for five seasons. He’s a peg on which to hang any cowboy story you feel like telling. No-one knows his name; he rides into town; he sticks up for the little guy against the big guy; and then rides out again. And that's it

But it turns out there's a narrative. I took the precaution of watching the first episode of the Clayton Moore TV show before writing this piece, and was surprised how much of it was carried over into Johnny Depp movie. I don't know if that shows a terminal lack of imagination on the part of 21st century screen writers, or a touching respect for foundational texts. Seven Texas Rangers ride into the badlands in pursuit of a baddie called Butch Cavendish. It turns out that they're being led into a trap, and Cavendish kills them all. But then it turns out that one of them is only mostly dead. A passing Indian, Tonto, nurses this Ranger back to health, and they decide that they'd better hunt down bad guys in general and Cavendish in particular. So much for the joke about why he's the "lone" Ranger if Tonto is always with him. 

Stuff I thought was probably late-in-the day over-interpretation (like the idea that the Lone Ranger’s mask is made out of his dead brother’s jacket) turn out to go back to the TV show, if not to the original wireless version. The one substantive change is that the original Lone Ranger was a creature of the Westward expansion, whose every adventure contributed to the development of this great country of ours; the movie version (like Jack Sparrow) represents the last hi-ho of a dying age, starting his adventures just as the coast-to-coast railway is taming the wild West once and for all.

This summer’s misbegotten Man of Steel was so heavy with invented back-story that I wondered why they had even bothered stamping the Superman branding on it. Poor Henry Cavill hardly got to play at being Superman at all: he's mostly a pawn in a manichean struggle between God, voiced by Jor El, and Satan, ghosted by Zod. But the bit about ickle baby Kal being shot into space when his planet blows up remained in place, as if that was the inviolable core that makes it a Superman movie. The Lone Ranger movie makes the killing of Dan Read (our hero’s brother) and the other rangers a cog in a huge conspiracy in which an evil rail-road magnate is in league with a psychotic cannibal who may or may not be Wendigo in order to get possession of a secret Indian silver mine which would enable him to buy all the shares and thus....I admit I got a bit lost. Ever since Jack Nicholson turned out to be both the crimer who shot Brucie’s mummy and daddy and the crazy grinning guy with green hair, superhero movies have worked a bit too hard to tie everything together into single all-encompassing plots. (Did Sandman turn out to be the burglar who shot Uncle Ben? I think I wasn’t paying attention.)

But this time around the backstory avoids smothering the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They may be embedded in a CGI and pop-corn remake of "Once Upon a Time in the West" but they are still basically a whiter than white white guy in a mask and a wise Indian scout who ride along trails and fight bad guys. Every conceivable buckle is swashed. Horses race trains (repeatedly); heroes leap from burning buildings into hails of bullets; the pair rob a bank (for good and adequate reasons) and are buried up to their neck in a scorpion invested desert. Logic and physics are completely abandoned for a climax involving trains, horses, firing squads and exploding bridges. And a ladder. (With the theme tune blasting out in the background, or course. Who was it who said that an intellectual is a person who could hear the William Tell overture and not think of the Lone Ranger?)

God knows, it's a flawed movie. It runs for two and half hours and feels like five, although it is far from obvious how you could make it shorter and retain its encyclopaedic scope. Uneven in tone doesn’t even begin to cover it. Parody of the Lone Ranger? Affectionately camp reworking? Pastiche? Serious engagement with an American icon? The final minutes include a very wholesome tribute the TV show, with everyone thanking the Lone Ranger and asking him to stay around before he rides of into the sunset. No-one says “Who was that masked man?” but you feel that someone might have done. (Like "Play it again Sam" and "Beam me up Scotty", it's a very famous quotation that no-one ever actually said.) But then we cut to him wondering whether to call himself “The Lone Avenger” or “The Masked Rider” which is straight out of Black Adder. I'm not quite what the the point is of making us sit through three hours of John Reid's personal journey from inept goody two shoes to fully fledged hero, only to portray him as an oaf in the final seconds. It really does feel like a cut and paste job between four or five different scripts.

When you don’t have pictures, you need verbal signals to tell the audience what is going on. Radio Superman used to say “Up, up....and away” to signify that he was flying; radio Lone Ranger similarly said “Hi-ho silver...away!” to warn of an impending chase sequence. The TV series used spoken voice overs (quite effectively, based on my extensive survey of one and half episodes) to make the pictures more dramatic, but kept the “Hi-ho silver” catch phrase, must famously in the opening credits. When Armie Hammer delivers the line, Johnny Deep wearily replies "Never do that again." That joke arrived approximately 60 years too late.

The burlesque may be mostly unfunny, but the Lone Ranger’s basic goodness is left intact -- this is the character about whom all those jokes about cowboys walking into saloons and ordering glasses of milk were originally made. We're nearly always laughing with him, hardly ever at him. We are never asked to find the idea of goodness funny, as we were in those cynical Mummy films. We’re nearly always on the hero's side. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a lot less over the top than I expected him to be.

Don Quixote is the story of the friendship between a man who is clever but insane and a man who is sane but stupid. Together, they just about make up one hero. This most Quixotic of movies gives us a hero who is good and brave but completely inept; and pairs him with a companion who is wise and clever but crazy and cynical. Tonto honestly believes that the Lone Ranger, having died and risen again, is the legendary spirit walker who can’t be killed and whose gun never misses. Both sides are arguably frauds: Tonto is making up Indian mythology on the spot (his own tribe regard him as a crackpot) and the Ranger is a lawyer thrust into the role of hero by accident. The idea that these two half competents together make one superhero works better than it probably ought to. The relationship is unpredictable enough and funny enough to very nearly hold this monster of a movie together.

The whole film is wrapped in a frame in which a little boy in a Lone Ranger suit encounters the elderly Tonto in a 1933 Wild West Show. Why? Why, oh why? As if the thing wasn't long enough and confusing enough already? Perhaps it's intended to place it all in some kind of historical context: the Lone Ranger folk tale emerged at a time when the Wild West was still very nearly contemporary -- as close to the first radio listeners as the 1950s are to us. Perhaps it wants to make the point that the Lone Ranger is an iconic figure of whom you ought to have heard, for the benefit of the 90% of the audience who looked at the posters and said “The Lone what?” Perhaps the frame is an apology for the preposterousness of the action: maybe what we’re watching is a tall story, made up by Tonto. Maybe one of the dozens of discarded scripts was going to be reveal a realistic, “historical” Lone Ranger who lay behind the myth. Or maybe someone involved just really liked the Princess Bride. 

There’s definitely some weird shit going on: when Tonto pours peanut shells over the graves of the murdered Texas Rangers in the “historical” segment, the little boys “modern” carnival peanut bag blows across the screen; Tonto is first seen as a waxwork in the exhibition, but then, without explanation, he comes to life. I would bet pence that the original idea was for the little boy in the Ranger suit to have been looking at museum tableaux of the Wild West and then imagining, or dreaming the story, with himself as the hero. Remember the poignant ending of the original Secret of Monkey Island RPG? (1)

All through this summer, and every summer, we’ve had bigger and louder space movies until even those of us who love Marvel Comics with all our hearts are wishing we could just take off the 3D glasses and calm the hell down. The Lone Ranger is having a dang good go at being something better and more interesting than that. It’s a big meaty mythological movie which acknowledges that the guy in the white hat who carries six-guns but doesn’t kill anybody is basically ridiculous. That's what the frame is about, I suppose: it's telling us that this is fantasy wild west; peep show wild west, pop corn wild west, frankly rather racially patronising wild west, the wild west as imagined by a child of ten -- but that at some level, the material is so iconic that it has to stand as some kind of aetiological myth about America. 

It doesn’t work, of course. I lost track of the plot several mcguffins down; and the action is so relentless and over the top that a law of diminishing returns sets in quite quickly. (My heart sank particularly when we arrived at Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel.) On the other hand, the revelation of what the railway boss was planning to do with Tonto’s silver genuinely impressed me, and I can’t deny letting out a (very quiet) whoop of excitement when the Lone Ranger throws the silver bullet to his nephew. I wish that these heroes could be allowed to exist in something like their trashy pulpy context; part of what made Superman and the Lone Ranger and, er, Doctor Who seem so epic is that they appeared in an endless sequence of small adventures; saving America one homesteader at a time, every week for twenty years. An eighty year old radio show is very flimsy material to build a multi trillion dollar epic out of. But where Star Trek and Man of Steel and the Hobbit seem to hate their source material, the Lone Ranger seems to be created by people who love the masked rider of the plains and want to honour his memory. It's much better than I expected it to be, and very much better than it had any need to be.

(1) There’s a very odd moment when the boy interrupts the narrative to say that Tonto is getting the story wrong and that Dan Reid, not John Reid was the Lone Ranger. Tonto claims that “kemo sabe” means “wrong brother”. At first, I thought that this was some kind of continuity easter egg for advances Rangerologist. In the TV version, we are told that Daniel Reid is one of the murdered Rangers, and that he is the brother of the hero, but we pointedly don’t see the surviving Ranger’s face or find out what his first name is, although he had been called John on the wireless. But there doesn’t seem to have been any version in which he was called Dan.


Friday, August 09, 2013

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.’ Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken. -- The Screwtape Letters

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Lewis or Pooh?















The following quotations are widely disseminated on the interwebs.

Some of them are attributed to the Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaiscance Literature, where some of them are attributed to a Bear of Very Little Brain.
  
Can you spot which are which?

And for extra points, can you work out their actual sources?


"You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream."

"You're braver than you believe, and stronger then you seem, and smarter than you think."

"Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them."

"Life is too deep for words, so don't try to describe it, just live it."

"The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem."

"Resolutions are real things. They are things that, when you make them, you hope they will make you a better person in the future"

"Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different."

"Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?"

"We are what we believe we are."

"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard!"

"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why we call it the present."

"Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours."
 


Monday, August 05, 2013

Hello I Must Be Going (5)

Go back and watch the final seconds of Name of the Doctor.

It's rather good.

 
We see the Mysterious Figure, from behind.
 
Clara asks who he is.
 
The Doctor says that "he is me"; but then says that although he is me, he is not the Doctor. 

Clara faints.
 
We hear the Mysterious Figure's voice, saying that what he did, he did without choice, in the name of sanity, and that some day soon, you too will have to make a choice, young Warlock. (I may have made some of that up.)
 
The Doctor says "not in the name of the Doctor".
 
The Doctor turns his back on the Mysterious Figure, and (after the Doctor has gone) the Figure turns around, and looks at us.
 
We see his face for a second—old, beardy, rather weather beaten: a hermit, or and old old soldier, possibly from World War I.
 
And at that precise moment an on-screen caption tells us about the actor. "Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor" it says. At the same moment we meet the character we are told about the actor playing the character

We've always had a certain amount of interest in The Making of Doctor Who, haven't we? Geeky men making sound effects involving piano wires and Vaseline; anecdotes involving eye-patches and trousers. But this is the first time the meta-narrative has folded into the main narrative to this extent.


Not "Gosh, there's an extra Doctor" but "Gosh, it's the one from the Elephant Man and Alien."


Shortly after Matt Smith's departure was leaked to the press, Stephen Moffat issued a press release.


"Of course, this isn't the end of the story, because now the search begins. Somewhere out there right now - all unknowing, just going about their business - is someone who's about to become the Doctor. A life is going to change, and Doctor Who will be born all over again! "


A search begins?


A life is going to change?


Is that all it is? Is that really what Doctor Who has become? Another version of the bloody X-Factor?


It isn't about whether a science fictional character with an odd life cycle is going to regenerate into a female form, and what effect that will have on the fictional character's life. It's about whether girls get their fair turn at "being" the Doctor. It isn't about what the personality of the new Doctor will be, it's a back stage soap opera about how joining in the magical special nauseating Doctor Who Family is going to change an actor's life.


And that, in the end, is why I have become disengaged from Doctor Who.

It's not about the stories any more.

It never was.

This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.