Monday, May 29, 2006


Some of the things that some of the non-canonical texts may perhaps say about Mary Magdalene

The following are cited in M.R James' "Apocryphal New Testament"

1: Fragment of a lost work quoted by Tertullian

John has said that "the teacher" did not permit women to take the Eucharist. "Martha said "It was because of Mary, because he saw her smiling. Mary said "I laughed not yet: for said unto us before that: That which is weak shall be saved by means of that which is strong."

2: Egyptian fragment called "The Twentieth Discourse of Cyril of Jerusalem" in which Mary Magdalene is said to be the same person as the Virgin Mary and Mary the Wife of Clophas.

3: A document called "The Gospel of Peter" which repeats the standard Resurrection story:

"Now early on the Lord's day, Mary Magdalene, a disciple of the Lord...took with her her women friends and went unto the tomb...."

4: An extended Passion story called "Acts of Pilate" in which John tells the Virgin Mary that Christ is condemned and the Virgin goes with Martha, Mary Magdalene and Salome and to the cross.

5: A late "Epistle of the Apostles" which has another version of the resurrection story

"And thither went three women, Mary, she that was kin to Martha, and Mary Magdalene and took ointments to pour on the body."

The Nag Hammadi library of gnostic texts is slightly more interesting.

1: There are a number of writings in which different disciples ask Jesus questions, and receive obscure answers. In several of these, someone called Mary is one of the interlocutor.

Examples include but are not limited to:.

"The Dialogue of the Saviour" "

Mary said "There is but one saying I will speak to the Lord concerning the Mystery of truth. In this we have taken our stand, and to the cosmic we are transparent."

"The Sophia of Jesus Christ"

"Mary said to him "Holy Lord where did you and you disciples come from and where are they going and what should they do here?" The perfect Saviour said to them "I want you to know that Sophia, the Mother of the Universe and the consort desire by herself to bring these to existence without her male consort..."

2: The "Gospel of Phillip" contains one tantalizing non-sequitur:

"For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grave which is in one another. There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary. The father and the son are single names, the holy spirit is a double name. For they are everywhere..."

3: The very brief "Gospel of Mary" contains the following dialogue:

"Peter said to Mary "Sister we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember...."

After she has done so:

"Andrew answered and said to the brethren "Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas. Peter answer and spoke concerning these same things. He question them about the Saviour: did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we turn about and all listen to her. Did he prefer her to us?"

Then Mary wept and said to Peter "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up in my heart or that I am lying about the Saviour?"

Levi answered and said to Peter. "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."

4; The Gospel of Thomas concludes with the following exchange:

"Simon Peter said to them "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male with enter the kingdom of heaven."

The texts which M.R James cites are obviously simply re-tellings of the canonical gospels; the only interesting point is that there is already an ambiguity about whether Mary Magdalene is the sister of Martha.

The Nag Hammadi texts indicate that the idea that Mary was a person of some importance; on intimate terms with or favoured by Jesus; and disapproved of by some of the other disciples, had occurred to a number of gnostic Christians in the third and fourth centuries. They might have been drawing on gossip, rumours, legends or folk-memories which might have been current at the time; and these could have had some historical basis. On the other hand, we might simply be dealing with religious fiction or gnostic allegory.

Two Random Pieces of Information
1: The name "Martha" is the Aramaic feminine of "lord", as in "Lady" or "Mistress."

2: The writer of the medieval York Mystery Play depicts the following dialogue between Mary and the resurrected Jesus. Thinking him to be the gardener, she has asked if he moved Jesus' body:

Woman, woman, turn thi thoght!
Wyt thou well I hyd him noght
Then bare hym nawre with me;
Go seke, loke, if thou fynde him oght.

In fayth I have hym soght,
But nawre he will fond be.

Why, what was he to the

In sothfastness to say?

A, he was to me --
No longer dwell I may.

Mary, thou sekys thy God, and that am I.

Rabony, my Lord so dere!
Now am I hole that thou art here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Everything the Bible says about Mary Magdalene

1: Jesus performed an exorcism on her.

Luke 8:2 ...Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils
Mark 16:9 ...Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils

2: She had been a follower of Jesus in Galilee, and came with him to Jerusalem
3: She was one of a group of women who helped Jesus financially (Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

Mark 15: 40 ...Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome (who when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

Luke 8:2 ....and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

Matthew 27:56 ...And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.

4: She witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke (implicitly) and John.)

Mark 15: 40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.

Matthew 27:56 And many women were there beholding afar off...among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.

Luke 24:10 And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.

John 19:25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

4: She witnessed the burial of Jesus (Matthew, Mark and Luke (implicitly)

Matthew 27:59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.

Mark 16:46 And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.

Luke 24: 55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.

5: She went to Jesus tomb on Sunday morning and found the body missing. (Matthew, Mark, Luke (implicitly) and John)

Matthew 28: 2 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Luke 23:55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

John: 21:1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

6: She was the first person to tell the disciples about the resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.)

Matthew 28: 6 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.

Mark 16: 10-11 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene….. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept

Luke 24:10 And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

John: 20: 4 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him."

John 20:18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

7: She is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus.(Matthew, Mark, John.)

Mark 16: 9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene….

Matthew 28:9 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, "All hail." And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

John 20:10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou?" She saith unto them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, "Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus saith unto her, "Mary." She turned herself, and saith unto him, "Rabboni"; which is to say, "Master". Jesus saith unto her, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God."


Matthew and Mark records a story about an anonymous woman who poured precious ointment on Jesus head. Luke reports a substantially different story about an anonymous sinful woman who poured precious ointment on Jesus feet, “and did wipe them with the hairs of her head”.

Luke and John both say that Jesus was sometimes the guest of two sisters named Martha and Mary who lived in a village called Bethany. John says that Jesus raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead; and that this Mary is the same one who anointed Jesus.

John also tells a story of how Jesus forgave an unidentified “woman taken in adultery”.

None of these women are said to be the same person as Mary Magadelene. Nor for that matter, are the frequently married Samaritan woman, the wise Syro-Phoenician, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus robe, or any other nameless female character in the New Testament.

Monday, May 22, 2006

No one is innocent

I found “See No Evil” -- ITV’s docu-drama based on the notorious Brady-Hindley murders -- very disturbing viewing. But possibly not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.

Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".

The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?

Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.

So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”

In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."

And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.

Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”

At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.

So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.

The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".

Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Doctor Who - Season 2: Episodes 1 - 3

I think that I have worked out what’s wrong with Russell Davies' new 'Doctor Who'. It’s roughly the same thing that was wrong with Tony Blair’s new Labour.

Yes, I know I am being an ungrateful little asexual fanboy. I spent 14 years wanting 'Doctor Who' to return: surely now that it’s back on Saturday nights, it’s my duty to like it uncritically. And no, I’m not denying that a lot of the time the new series is very, very good. Each of the first three episodes of Season 2 has had a number of Great Moments. 'New Earth' had the scenes between the Doctor and the head-in-the-tank. It had the unexpected pay-off scene in which Cassandra dies in her own arms: a genuine coup to turn her from a comic villain to tragic heroine in the space of one episode. (But note: the 'time goes round in a circle' motif has already been used in both 'Father’s Day' and 'Parting of the Ways.' You might want to watch that, Russell.) 'Tooth and Claw' had some neat in-jokes ('Dr. James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory,' indeed.) It had some classic gothic atmosphere; and a really great scene between Rose and the werewolf in the dungeon. It had Queen Victoria. And as for 'School Reunion' -- well none of us asexual fanboys were ever going to be anything other than deliriously happy with a story that had both K-9 and Sarah Jane in it, along with more references to old stories than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. The pre-cred sequence, in which the Doctor walks into a classroom and starts to teach a physics lesson made me laugh out loud.

So what’s the problem?

Before Russell Davies embarked on his Project, 'Doctor Who' had spent 14 years in the wilderness. Of course it had to be re-branded before it could get back on air: no one wanted or expected the new series to be a pastiche of the old. To be a viable TV programme, as opposed to a fossil, it had to look outside its natural constituency (the asexual community) and appeal to the mainstream. It had to become the sort of programme that your mother could watch. Naturally, certain sacred cows -- the TARDIS consol, the 25-minute format, cliff-hanger endings -- had to be slaughtered. We didn’t care. We had our baby back.

However, it has gradually become apparent that the main purpose of Season 1 was to get renewed for Season 2, and the main purpose of Season 2 is to get renewed for Season 4. (Season 3 is in the bag.) To achieve this, R.T.D needs there to be impressive gobbets that can be put into the trailers. He needs unexpected scenes which the tabloids can run spoilers for, as if 'This is the moment when the Doctor kisses Rose' was an important news item. He needs Comic Relief sketches, Christmas specials and Radio Times covers -- so that the series is in people’s minds even when it is off-air. He needs all the papers to run exclusive photo galleries of all this season's 'new monsters'. He needs people to be talking about the return of Sarah and K-9 six months before it actually happens. He needs people to know that the 'The Cybermen are coming back' even if they don't know what a Cyberman is; in much the same way that even of us who don't know anything about cricket can hardly avoid knowing that someone called Wayne Rooney has twisted his ankle. What he doesn’t necessarily need is coherent stories which actually make sense.

Davies conceives of episodes as simple, easily marketable high-concepts. His original pitch for Season 1 included a broad outline of what each story would be about -- first, one set in the far future involving the end of the world, then a ghost story featuring Charles Dickens, then, a big present-day alien invasion (1). It's been a standing joke for years that while asexual 'Doctor Who' fans refer to stories by their titles ('The Green Death', 'The City of Death'), everyone else uses a kind of shorthand -- 'the One with the maggots', 'the One in Paris.' Davies seems to conceive of stories as 'the one with Queen Victoria and a Werewolf' and not feel the need to elaborate the idea much further.

Davies puts it like this:

'Last year we did Charles Dickens and ghosts; this year we're doing Queen Victoria and a werewolf...There's a certain comfort zone in watching 'Doctor Who' and thinking 'Oh, they're doing this sort of an episode. It's what I call a celebrity historical. Shove a real famous person in there - one you will recognise at the drop of a hat. There's no point in doing Louis Pasteur, because what did he look like? With Queen Victoria or Charles Dickens you just recognise them immediately. It's almost like the Horrible History take on historical travel.'

I want to die.

By his own admission, he wants to treat 'Doctor Who' as a character piece in the mould of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' There is nothing particularly wrong with this: 'Doctor Who' has always swiped omnivorously from the TV hits of the day. In an episode of 'Buffy' the theoretical plot -- some new kind of vampire threatens the town -- is rarely more than the background against which the real storyline, about the relationships between the main characters and their supporting cast -- can emerge. In principal this transfers well enough to 'Doctor Who'. In 'New Earth', the science-fiction plot about cloned zombies in the hospital basement (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever) is little more than a device to set up the comedy-romantic situation in which Cassandra steals Rose’s body, which also doesn’t make much sense, but is rather entertaining. The Doctor waves his magical deus ex machina at the zombies and they go away in about 30 seconds. We know quite well that he’s just going through the motions: our attention is meant to be directed at Cassandra, and her realisation that she can‘t prolong her own life at the cost of someone else‘s.

The trouble is that the writers are still under the impression that they are writing 'Doctor Who' stories. They come up with milieu that contain enough material for an old 100 or 150 minute story, and then try to cram the whole thing into 45. Very strong ideas -- anthropomorphic animals vivisecting humans; a Victorian werewolf who wants to found a steam-powered Galactic empire; the Doctor being offered the One Ring and being tempted to take it -- are introduced and thrown away in the space of half a scene.

(Interestingly, the BBC continues to market the programme as a 'spooky' and 'scary' monster show, and to promote it to kids, complete with 'Totally Doctor Who' in the 'Blue Peter' slot, and a comic that includes a free slitheen whoopee cushion with every copy. One wonders how long it will be before some latter day Michael Grade says 'Enough with the soap opera: give the kids more time with the monsters!')

Look at 'School Reunion': not so much a story, more an idea for a story. It’s the three-way relationship between Sarah Jane, Rose and the Doctor that we are supposed to be interested in, and this is handled fairly well. We are asked to picture the Doctor as a tragic, Peter Pan figure with an endless succession of Wendys -- a strikingly new conception of the character, but one that is implicit in everything that has gone before. 'You can stay with me for the rest of your life, Rose, but I can’t stay with you for the rest of mine' is a fine, genre re-defining line. The episode’s central question -- what does a 'companion' do when she stops travelling with the Doctor? -- is one which has never been asked before outside of asexual fan-fiction. However Davies and writer Toby Whithouse do not allow themselves sufficient space to elaborate this idea. Rose realises that she isn’t the Doctor’s first companion; Sarah is pleased to see the Doctor, then angry that he left her behind, then accepts that her time travelling days are over. Rose and Sarah are jealous of each other but become best friends. Even Mickey has an epiphany. That’s more like a novel than a single incident in a soap opera: certainly far to much character development to be squeezed into 45 minutes. One feels that Davies has had the idea of the Rose/Sarah relationship, but can’t quite be bothered to turn it into a story: it is raised and disposed of within a single scene. (2)

We have managed to survive for 43 years without thinking that the Doctor was more or less romantically involved with all of his previous companions, so I don’t really see why Davies feels compelled to re-write history. Yes, there were occasional moments of sexual tension in original TARDIS -- notably the curiously Oedipal relationship between Doctor Jon and Jo Grant. (Jo goes off and marries a scientist who is explicitly said to be like a younger version of the Doctor. The Doctor won’t go to the engagement party, but drives off in a sulk.) And of course Doctor Tom and Romana could easily have been read as an old married couple -- was that trip to Paris a honeymoon, or a dirty weekend? But in general, the relationship between the Doctor and his companion has been avuncular, fraternal or paternal. Doctor Bill once threatened to give Susan a jolly good smacked bottom, which is not something one can imagine Doctor Chris doing to Rose -- although, god knows, I’ve tried. Doctor Jon was Sarah’s eccentric old uncle, even her grandpa. Doctor Tom was younger, but he was too alien, too Other to be the sort of person you could think of taking on a date. Sarah and the Doctor were close, certainly, but there was never anything remotely flirtatious about their relationship.

The background story about the alien infested school, is completely unrelated to the Sarah Jane plot: it’s just a device to bring the Doctor and Rose, Mickey and Sarah together, and to keep them on the move. Any other threat-to-earth would have done as well. It‘s a pretty good idea, or it would be, if Davies would slow down long enough for us to have a look at it. 'There is a school where the teachers are child-eating shape-shifting aliens. The school dinners are made of Magic Alien Goo that keeps the kids pupils docile. While the kids are eating the poisoned school dinners, the teachers are eating the kids!' For an idea like this to feel spooky or scary, it needs to emerge gradually, and we need time to get to know the subsidiary characters. (In an old-style four part story, the fat school-boy who isn’t allowed any chips would have been the viewpoint character in episode 1: we would have followed him through his school day and been presented with a series of mysteries. The revelation that the Headmaster eats children would have been the cliffhanger ending to part 1.) The writer solves the problem of not having enough space to tell even this simple story properly by adding a second story and not telling that properly either. The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures aren’t merely feeding on the kids; they are using them as living components in a super-computer that will enable them to take over the universe. (The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures would have made total sense without the addition of the Demon Headmaster; the Demon Headmaster could have been using the kids in his Magic Computer Plot Device even if there hadn’t been any Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures. It really does look as if two scripts had been spliced together; and the rumour that the Headmaster was originally going to turn out to be the Master seems horribly plausible.) A third underdeveloped plot thread in which the evil Headmaster tries to make a Faustian pact with the Doctor has to be dropped into the mix as well. So while lots of cool stuff happens on the screen -- people run around, things explode, villains talk apocalyptically about the end of the universe and we cut back to short intense character based interludes -- there’s no attempt to make it hang together as a story. One key piece of information is barked out so quickly by David Tennant that I had to rewind twice to work out what was supposed to be going on (3).

It’s a safe bet that RTD and his target audience don’t care. People will turn on 'Doctor Who' because Davies has successfully created a piece of Event Television. Many of them will watch it with their brain disengaged. Provided they are not actually bored they will turn on again next week -- more so, if next week’s episode is an Event as well. If they turn on it will get high ratings; if it gets high ratings, it will be back for a fourth, and a fifth season. Plot explanations, fleshed out minor characters; elaboration and exposition of ideas might risk seeming boring. Action and set pieces won't. And provided there is a programme called 'Doctor Who' on TV on Saturday nights, we asexual fans have nothing to complain about. Davies 'Doctor Who' exists primarily in order to be an advertisement for itself.

(1) Other writers are commissioned to write some of these stories, presumably in close collaboration with R.T.D. Compare this with the Olden Days, where story concepts and scripts were pitched to the producer by freelance writers, and then beaten into shape by a script editor. This meant that the old series had an 'anthology' feel: you couldn’t mistake a Robert Holmes script for a Terry Nation script. The new series is more homogenized -- whoever is actually writing it, you feel you are watching a Russell Davies script.

(2)One is reminded of 'Boom Town', the low-point of Series 1. Davies starts out with the (excellent) idea of the Doctor having to decide what to do with a defeated enemy; he turns this into the (excellent) idea of the Doctor and the Slitheen eating a meal together. The brief restaurant scene contains some (excellent) dialogue between the two characters. But it is embedded in a story that almost ostentatiously fails to make sense (nuclear power station in the middle of Cardiff, blowing up the earth in order to power a skateboard?) and is resolved by a more-than-usually silly deus ex machina. 'That was a good story' we are left thinking, 'I certainly hope they write it someday.'

(3) The shape shifting alien bats have shape shifted so many times that they are now allergic to their own Luminous Magic Alien Goo. Since you have to eat Luminous Magic Alien Goo in order to make a Take-Over-The-Universe-Super-Computer, they are feeding the Goo to human children who are not allergic to it. K-9 can defeat the aliens by blowing up barrels of Luminous Magic Alien Goo and splattering them with it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My computer exploded. Library only gives me 30 minutes unless I book in advance. "Doctor Who" is quite good. That is all.