Sunday, July 27, 2008

Silent But Deadly: Rhetorical Flatulence in "The Aliens of London"



Gavin wrote:

This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”

As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.


Steve Bell's If... is a satirical cartoon strip which has appeared every day in the liberal Guardian newspaper since the 1980s. Its stock in trade is scabrously exaggerated caricatures of public figures: George Bush is a barely articulate chimp; Tony Blair is a swivel eyed lunatic. John Major, famously, was a hopeless superhero who wore Y-fronts over his grey suit.

The figures in this kind of cartoon strip are not characters, but iconographic representations of an argument. If you see a sketch of Tony Blair with a dog-collar and halo, you understand it to mean "In the opinion of this paper, the Prime Minister is trying to gain spurious moral authority from what we consider to be a rather affected religiosity" and not "Our artist happened to see the Prime Minister in an inappropriate shirt and standing in front of a bright light, and turned in a sketch" One of Bell's single-frame editorial cartoons depicted a snow-flake with Iain Duncan-Smith's face, flanked by bowler-hatted demons with tails and pitchforks. This said pretty much all that needed to be said. You would no more look at Bell cartoon and say "But surely, George Bush is a human being, not a monkey?" than you would look at the photo on the front page and say "But surely, George Bush isn't really three inches tall and monochrome?" The cartoonist is not creating another world, but looking at this one through a distorting lens.

Throughout Blair's premiership, Private Eye ran a text feature called "St Albion's News", in which a young and enthusiastic clergyman named Rev. Tony reported on the weekly goings on in his parish. (He was last seen heading off to the Holy Land to start an ecumenical mission called "Drawing All Faiths Together"[D.A.F.T]). For this kind of thing to be funny you do, I think, have to imagine that Rev. Tony Blair is a person with separate existence from Prime Minister Tony Blair. The joke works best when Rev. Tony does something which makes perfect sense for a Church of England vicar, but which ironically parallels something which has happened to the P.M that week. (An argument with parish treasurer Gordon about what to do with the collection money, say.) Of course Rev. Tony can't ever notice that his parish council have the same names as members of the Cabinet. Of course the P.M can't visit his parish. That's not how the joke works. St Albion's may look a little like a real place, but it's really just England looked at through a slightly different kind of distorting lens.

This sort of satirical roman a clef works a lot like classical allegory. It is obvious that Gloriana is Elizabeth I and Timias is Sir Walter Raleigh, at least, it is if you've read the footnotes. But it wouldn't occur to you to ask "Does Timias know he's Raliegh? What if Raliegh met Timias?" Timias isn't actually a person any more than the world of the Fairy Queen is actually a place. He's just a witty portrait of Raliegh -- made of words.

Yes Minister was also a satire on British politics, but its rules are quite different. It certainly depends on comic exaggeration: civil servants aren't really as Machiavellian as Sir Humphrey and politicians aren't really as spineless as Jim Hacker. But the programme is only funny if, while we are watching, we believe that they are. We have to pretend that what we are watching is what really does go on behind the scenes at Westminster. The show goes to some lengths to maintain this rhetorical verisimilitude. At one point, Sir Humphrey points out that civil servants can't have opinions of their own, and that, in his career, he himself has been both a supporter and an opponent of capital punishment, and a supporter and opponent of the Common Market. That places him very precisely in a specific historical time frame. But Hacker pointedly only ever refers to "The Party", "The PM" or "The Opposition": we never discover whether he's meant to be Labour or Tory. He runs such an insignificant ministry that we can mentally "slot him in" to which ever government happens to be in power when we happen to be watching. We could say that the early episodes take place on a parallel would indistinguishable from our own but for the existence of a Minister for Administrative Affairs and that the later episodes take place on one indistinguishable from our own except that James Hacker, rather than John Major, succeed Mrs. T. But only fans talk like that. Everyone else instantly recognizes it as "fiction".

Ian Hislop's short-lived children's show My Dad's The Prime Minister adopted a quite different strategy. Clearly, Michael Phillips isn't Tony Blair: his children are different ages to Leo and Euan and the little Blairs went to poncey private jesuitical establishments, where the whole joke is that Dillon has been sent to a bog standard state comp. But equally clearly, Phillips isn't any Prime Minister apart from Blair: he's obsessed with image, has a sinister spin doctor, is widely regarded as a bit phony, tries to look cool and comes across as "naff", etc. David Lodge's campus novels are set in "Rummage" – a fictional town that occupies the same place that Birmingham does in the real world. One could say the same about this version of the P.M. Again, the general public wouldn't give this kind of thing a moment's thought. It's just how stories work.

The genre which attaches most importance to "reality" is soap-opera. The whole point is that we're watching the ordinary lives of ordinary people: so if we don't "believe" in it, there's no point. Eastenders takes place in real time, in the real London, but in a fictitious Square in a fictitious borough. We can believe this very easily: unless you happen to be a cabbie, there are thousands of London streets you've never heard of. The programme would, I imagine, work differently if it were said to be taking place in an entirely fictitious city in a slightly different version of modern Britain. The fact that there is no such country as Borchester allows Ambridge to continue to be the kind of village that doesn't quite exist in the 20th Century. English teachers will tell you that Christminster "is" Oxford and The Mayor of Casterbridge could just as well have been called "The Mayor of Dorchester." They are wrong.

It may not bother us very much that Walford East can't actually been found on the London Tube map, but it would bother us a great deal if the regulars at the Queen Vic sat down to watch Eastenders at 7.30 on Friday night. What do they watch? Come to that, which soap-stars do the gossip-columnists go on and on about? Presumably, in the Endersverse, the BBC didn't launch a successful twice-weekly soap in 1985. In which case they didn't need to divert cash from other projects to the new show. Ergo, Season 23 was not postponed, Trial of a Time Lord never happened, Colin Baker was never sacked, Doctor Who was never canceled and someone other than David Tennant is very probably the 17th Doctor in Season 45. And everybody in Ambridge listens to Dick Barton: Special Agent after their tea.

Fiction can't ever perfectly model reality; and all fiction follows its own rules. "Naturalistic" fiction is just as "artificial" as dramas in which people express their emotions by singing or communicate in rhyming couplets. But all fiction signifies to you, very clearly, what rules it wants to play by: what kind of reality it's meant to have. Are we to "pretend" that we are watching real people, or are we to keep it very firmly at the forefront of our minds that these are only actors playing a role? When someone dies, are we supposed to feel sad, or are we supposed to imagine that they will pop up again in the next scene​? Misunderstand the signals, and you end up looking very silly indeed. There was an episode of Spitting Image in which the very masculine Mrs. Thatcher goes to a men's hair-dresser to have her hair cut. "I want you to do something which will be universally popular" she tell the barber....who proceeds to take out his razor and slit her throat. Only the most autistically humourless Daily Telegraph reader could possibly have taken this as an endorsement of or incitement to political assassination. Every one else "gets" that it's funny precisely because it's not real.

Now: when Doctor Who was re-introduced to us in 2005, it was made, very, very clear that we were being asked to treat it as having an Eastenders kind of reality. Maybe no such place as The Powell Estate actually existed, but we were to approach it as if it did. Mickey and Rose were real young people who did or failed to do the washing up, ate hamburgers, watched football, bunked off school and conceivably had sexual intercourse or at any rate thought about it. When trying to gain the confidence of Blonwyn in Victorian Cardiff, Rose even said "bum", the rudest word that most of us had heard uttered since William Hartnell said "bottom" in 1964, obviously softening us up for the moment when the Doctor would say "fart" and the Slitheen would say "bollocks", very nearly.

This isn't the only way it could have been done. It could have been a conscious pastiche of 1970s Doctor Who. It could have been a parody. It could have set up ironic contrasts between styles and attitudes of the 70s and the styles and attitudes of the present day, like the Brady Bunch movie. It could have been a dirty post-modern gay sit-com like the dreadful Torchwood. It could very well have been set in generic sci-fi time in which ordinary people never quite came on stage so we don't find out whether they were the kinds of people who say "bum" or not. But the decision was made – real world, real people, real phones, real internet, real sexuality, real pizzas, real mothers.

The first installment of "Aliens of London" presses this strategy extremely hard. Up to this point, Doctor Who assistants had wandered into the TARDIS, traveled around the universe for a few seasons, been dropped off on alien generation ships or at the siege of Troy and never mentioned again. The opening of "Aliens of London" asks us to take Doctor Who literally: to ask what it's been like for the people that Rose left behind. Mummy Rose has been putting out pre-Madeleine posters to try to track down her missing daughter; Mickey has had "stuff" put through his letter box because people think he might have killed her; the policeman assumes there must be something sexy about the Doctor and Rose's relationship, and some brat vandalizes the TARDIS. This is carried on, mostly, through the beginning of the invasion: people's reaction is part panic, part carnival, and we see plausibly over-wrought TV reports of the events.

However, when Andrew Marr starts talking about and MP with special responsibility for sugar quality in imported confectionery and Harriet Bloody Jones continues to obsess about her cottage hospital, we start to get sinking feelings. Rose and Jackie and Mickey and the Doctor are apparently real people, but the characters inside Downing Street seem to be turning into cartoons. I think that it is funny to think of a back-bencher worrying about local hospitals in the face of an alien invasion on condition that we don't believe she is a real person. If we tried to take her seriously as a person, we'd ask if she was suffering from some kind of mental disorder. It also strikes us as odd that Blue Peter should be making cakes in the shape of alien spaceships: this is a good joke, but about as believable as them making cakes in the shape of jumbo jets on September 13th. I think that this is all quite intentional. I think that Davies is consciously looking out from behind the screen and saying "It's all right kids; we're just play acting; it's only pretend."

Then the aliens start farting, and making jokes about farting, and talking about farting using 1970s playground slang; and removing their human disguises using what appear to be zip fasteners. And then we are listening to slightly caricatured American newscasters telling us that there has to be a special U.N resolution to allow Britain to use nuclear weapons and that the farting green babies have "massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed in 45 seconds." And we think: this is a cartoon strip; this is a portrait of the world through a distorted lens; this is a custard pie routine taking place on a vaudeville stage, quite a funny custard pie routine, possibly, but not something that you actually believe is happening. So we expect Relatively Realistic Girl Who Bunks Off School And Says Bum and Relatively Realistic Boy Who Likes Football And Never Does The Washing Up to say "Hang on. We seem to be in some kind of scatological version of the Muppet Show, written by a sixth former who wants to make very obvious points about the Iraq war. Has someone put something in the water? Have we been knocked down by David Bowie's car and gone into a coma like that guy whose going to become the Master in the series after next?"

I mean, it was crap when Donna and the Doctor found themselves participating in an Agatha Christie mystery at which Agatha Christie was physically present, but at least they had the decency to say "Gosh, isn't it crap that we are appearing in an Agatha Christie story at which Agatha Christie is present: all the fault of the giant shape shifting telepathic wasp, I'll be bound." When Jackie was attacked by a Christmas tree she has the decency to say "Gosh, how ironic, I'm being attacked by a Christmas tree" which isn't great, but at least someone was trying.

But Rosey and Jim actually appear not to notice that the farting green babies have deliberately orchestrated their invasion in such a way as to make an ironic point about the Iraq War. My best guess is that, in the same way Donna didn't know about the Cybermen invasion because she was on holiday, so Rose missed the invasion of Iraq because she was dying her hair that night. After all, the population of Cardiff don't know that the earth was invaded by aliens, and the people in London don't notice that a malfunctioning nuclear power station is being built in the middle of Cardiff, so why should an ordinary person know about a war?

To me, this feels as if I've been watching an episode of...I don't know... 24 in which Steve Bell's monkey version of George Bush is having high level discussions with David Palmer. I'm not saying that something like that couldn't conceivably be done in a cleverly surreal post-modern way, like when Buffy turned into a musical for one week. I suppose we'd all be waiting for the revelation that Bauer was having a trauma-induced dream sequence or was hallucinating. But if it turned out that the writers thought that a cartoon chimpanzee fitted in perfectly well with 24 – which isn't realistic, but has exactly the right degree of realism for a thriller, at least during Season 1, or at any rate the first few episodes of Season 1 – then you'd probably stop watching. Particularly if the director said: "Oh, what does it matter if one character is realistic and the other is a cartoon monkey. It makes for a fun scene. No-one expects this kind of thing to make sense, and the ratings are good. Go away, you mosquito, or I shall swat you from my superior vantage point."

The presence of Rose, Jackie and Mickey doesn't prevent the Slitheen satire from being funny. What stops the Slitheen satire from being funny is that it isn't. But the presence of the Slitheen satire makes it impossible for us to continue to take Rose seriously as a real-world character. It fatally undermines the rhetorical strategies that had been set up over the previous three episodes, and opens up a crack in the programme's foundation which will bring the whole thing crashing down in Season 4. Rose doesn't spoil the Slitheen, but the Slitheen spoil Rose.







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32 comments:

Mark said...

Distancing devices can be deployed to great effect by Very Clever People(tm): Peter Greenaway can't seem to present a (just barely) naturalistic sequence without peppering it with a countdown of how long the film has to run, or having the audience-of-the-play-within-the-film turn around and applaud us in the 'real' audience through the fourth wall.

When Who mixes Soap-naturalistic character development with playground fart-joke plots, I think its rather more likely to be extremely bad writing (possibly focus-group driven writing by committee) than a radical reinvention of the televisual form.

So, yes. What you said.

dagonet said...

Its pretty obvious President Bush is not a monkey.
Unlike the rest of us.
http://www.subversiveelement.com/AliensReptoidsIckeShifters.html

But it does not change the fact that Berthold Brecht did have a sense of humour.
Though he would have been somewhat put out that this in any way should validate his "theories" on art.
Oh, &: gothicism!

Gavin Burrows said...

So, Mr Simpson, would you like to present your rebuttal?

Reading that quote back, I realise I was more scoring a rhetorical point than developing an argument. I didn’t, honest I didn’t, seriously believe you wondered what was going on whenever you turned to a Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian.

At the same time, I feel you are shifting the terms a tad. First off, I thought you were saying “there are rules, dammit, if someone is going to do Doctor Who. And satire is not within those rules.” Whereupon I tried to say “ahh, but this is New Doctor Who, a brand new series for the 21st Century. It has a whole new audience in a whole new time and must make up its own rules.”

Now you say “I am happy to report that New Doctor Who is making up its own rules. But the satire element jars with this, and undoes their good work.”

Of course you have every right to amend your thoughts. Without this, ’debate’ would be a rigid and stultified affair, where people picked arbitrary and hardline positions then decried anyone who disagreed, and the internet would... well, by and large the internet would look pretty similar come to think of it. But by you specifying it’s New Who which ill-matches the satire, you’re putting an interesting spin on it. I’d very much seen both developments as welcome.

To be sure I’ve got what you’re saying... There was the cartoonist http://www.cartoonstock.com/portfolios/Annie_Lawson.asp>Annie Lawson who only ever drew stick figures. This worked fairly well for her, as her cartoons were observations about relationships, any more detail would have only got in the way. Meanwhile some comics artists, such as the later work of Paul Gulacy became obsessively hyper-real. Your argument would be that satire and soap work together about as well as a Lawson and Gulacy team-up comic would, the two styles intrinsically vie with each other? Tarka the Otter’s all very well, but we don’t want him turning up on Animal Farm.

Rose and Jackie and Mickey and the Doctor are apparently real people, but the characters inside Downing Street seem to be turning into cartoons... the presence of the Slitheen satire makes it impossible for us to continue to take Rose seriously as a real-world character.

To me the counter-argument lies in an apparent idiosyncrasy of satire. Satire builds a 2D world where only 2D characters can be placed, whereupon it pillories them for this very flatness. Bob Black called John Crawford’s gonzo punk character Baboon Dooley “superficial to the very core of his being.” Which is a great line until you realise all satire characters are built like that, it’s simply the way you have to be to live on the satire side of town.

How do you depict someone who’s a monster but put someone next to them who isn’t a monster? So what do you do with a 2D character but put them by a (by contrast) 3D one?

There was once an old, funny comic called Cerebus. (Unfortunately this often gets confused with another comic by the same, despite that not being around till later.) But the old, funny Cerebus would often lampoon superhero comics. This is pretty hard to do as they are so absurdly exaggerated anyway, the normal tricks won’t cut it. But Sim didn’t exaggerate the way his superhero-comic characters talked, so much as place them alongside other characters who didn’t talk that way. It’s the old trick of giving a comic a straight man, only with a twist.

Of course this isn’t the same thing as ignoring genre. On the contrary, you have to build each genre up note-perfectly to make it clear we’re watching a juxtaposition and not a mismatch.

mark said...
Distancing devices can be deployed to great effect by Very Clever People(tm):...

When Who mixes Soap-naturalistic character development with playground fart-joke plots, I think its rather more likely to be extremely bad writing (possibly focus-group driven writing by committee) than a radical reinvention of the televisual form.

So, yes. What you said.


One or the other of us is getting the parameters of this wrong. I’d taken Andrew’s point to be that the two genres didn’t fit together due to intrinsic differences, not that Davies lacked the skills to splice them.

If the debate’s just about Aliens of London, I’d have to say it seems somewhat overblown. I liked the idea of monsters so unprofessional they break out into celebratory giggles when they get into the Cabinet Office, and the Military Stiff who doesn’t know how to react to it. It was better than the standard ‘Goldfinger Will Now Show Us His Cunning Plan’ moment, which was what I was expecting. It wasn’t the best episode of New Who, not even of the first series of New Who. Maybe the episodes either side of it were better. There were funnier fart jokes in Blazing Saddles.

And it certainly fell apart for the Slithene sequel – Boom Town. It says here this episode was first called ’Dining With Monsters’, proof (if any were needed) that the script was fitted around its one good scene. A shame then, that the script written entirely to support that scene only undermines it, for reasons very close to the ones Andrew gives. But the crucial difference is here we’re expected to at least toy with sympathy for one of the Slithene, who has apparently now grown a third dimension. We can feel a certain grudging sympathy for a Dalek, we did it in the very next episode, because we can sort of respect a Dalek. Dalek’s don’t do fart jokes. (Not even in The Chase.)

Finally and somewhat tangentally, I haven’t seen the episodes since they were broadcast. But did Rose interact with the Slithene that much? I don’t remember her doing it.

Gavin Burrows said...

That link again, just in case anyone needs an illustration of what a stick figure looks like.

http://www.cartoonstock.com/portfolios/Annie_Lawson.asp

dagonet said...

Cerebus being a satirical version of Conan the Barbarian.
Even talks funny (though thats just the Northern dialect, we find out)

And is 4 - dimensional.

What Mr. Rilestone is trying to describe is closer to "Latter Days" (in part, a satire on Superman) than any of the Roaches.

(post - romantic) Gothicism!

Salisbury said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Salisbury said...

Andrew is right in the shape of his argument, of course. Where I'm not so sure is in the idea that Rose and Mickey were ever characters out of a soap opera. Certainly in their first episode, 'Rose', they were characters out of season 24. As was the Doctor, as was Jackie. As was for the whole first season. Except in Steven Moffat's two-parter, which is why old-school fans like it more; and in 'Boom Town', which is why new-school fans like it less.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'd been waiting for this article to resolve my conversation with Mr. Burrows (on this point) in the previous thread.

I finally came to understand that Mr. Burrows's point was that all satire, by its nature, must break mimesis and remind us that we're watching a fiction. I think there is an excellent chance that Mr. Burrows is correct on this (though I might argue that The Sunmakers and Carnival of Monsters were satires and they didn't break mimesis). But, if we grant that this is correct, then my answer to his question, "Are you saying that Doctor Who shouldn't do satire?" is "Yes, that's what I'm saying."

I will, however, continue to defend The Gunfighters and The Chase, both of which were quite funny and entertaining without breaking mimesis (though just barely). And I am one of the few old-school fans who defends those two stories, instead of viewing them as embarrassments.

And, by the by, I find The Threepenny Opera quite funny. However, Brecht must have been quite annoyed that it was so popular because the audience loved all the mock sentimentality and completely missed the joke.

Salisbury said...

At what point is the viewer of the satire or non-satire unaware that he is watching a fiction?

Mark said...

I’d taken Andrew’s point to be that the two genres didn’t fit together due to intrinsic differences, not that Davies lacked the skills to splice them.

I agree: Mr Rilstone's thrust seems to be that the juxtaposition is intrinsically jarring and therefore unacceptable.

My point was trying to be that in certain rare circumstances such jarring effects can be deployed for valid artistic reasons, but that in this specific case I doubt that the distancing was intentional.

I can't comment on Whether Davies can use the technique successfully. My suspicion is that he lacks the respect for the audience of 'this kind of thing' to even try. Why waste good writing on sci-fi fans? They're happy as long as the CGI budget exceeds some threshold. I propose the 'Blakes7' (B7) as the unit of BBC effects budgets, and would set the threshold for New Who at around 8 B7s (a Hollywood blockbuster would come in at around the 1kB7 mark).

Andrew Stevens said...

At what point is the viewer of the satire or non-satire unaware that he is watching a fiction?

Never, of course, but I fail to see how this is relevant to whether the fiction should be reminding you that it is fiction.

Gavin Burrows said...

dagonet said...
Cerebus being a satirical version of Conan the Barbarian.

I liked the satire they did of ‘Conan Becomes the Pope’, that was a good one.

Andrew Stevens said:
I will, however, continue to defend The Gunfighters and The Chase, both of which were quite funny and entertaining without breaking mimesis (though just barely). And I am one of the few old-school fans who defends those two stories, instead of viewing them as embarrassments.

Doesn’t Gunfighters ‘break mimesis’ quite firmly in one infamous moment? (So I hear, I’ve never watched it and doubt I will.) To me The Chase is a good example of something that gets its genres in a twist. At times it feels like the Tardis is travelling through the BBC schedule rather than time and space, appearing in comedy, horror, historical drama etc. I think what really jars about it is that the opening and closing storylines are quite traditional Who. It might have got away with saying “for this story only, all rules are off.” As it is, it says “all rules are off – except of course when they’re on.”

And, by the by, I find The Threepenny Opera quite funny. However, Brecht must have been quite annoyed that it was so popular because the audience loved all the mock sentimentality and completely missed the joke.

Not as much as his missis. Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife and leading actress, ‘broke mimesis’ quite firmly at the opening night of its successor Happy End. She dispensed with the script to tell the theatre-going audience they were all petit-bourgeois types who would be swept away by the upcoming proletarian uprising. They don’t write ‘em like that any more!

But I don’t know if we’re reviving a previous argument rather than replying to Andrew’s new one. He doesn’t object to the social comment element, he had positive things to say about Planet of the Ood. It’s the specific mix of ‘soap’ and satire he objects to. (If I’m reading him right.)

Mike said:
My suspicion is that he [Davies] lacks the respect for the audience of 'this kind of thing' to even try. Why waste good writing on sci-fi fans?

Davies may often be a lazy writer. He creates set-pieces he likes, and doesn’t always pay attention to linking them up. But he’s more likely to cover plot holes with emotional epiphanies than special effects. And I’m not sure any of the above suggests he doesn’t have any respect for his audience. This is akin to saying “George Lucas gave us Phantom Menace because he hates us fans.” It seems to me more likely he was just uninspired.

And saying “this has good special effects but lacklustre writing” does not prove the case that anything and everything with good special effects must have lacklustre writing.

dagonet said...

Burrows:
Preferred the King David satire, personally, though the ideas expressed were nearly completely the mirror opposites of my own. (The exception being that bit about furries as the Beasts of the Apocolypse).

"Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife and leading actress, ‘broke mimesis’ quite firmly at the opening night of its successor Happy End."

well, made mimesis out of breaking mimesis, anyway.

"They don’t write ‘em like that any more!"

Why should they, when wearing a burkha, or just being Brazillian, is so much more effective?

"And saying “this has good special effects but lacklustre writing” does not prove the case that anything and everything with good special effects must have lacklustre writing."

Quite.
Indeed, one understands that Content & Spectacle might even support each other; if you would excuse such a Gothic!ally barberous opinion.
Unfortunatly, due to current "event" theory (based, as far as one can understand, on measuring the mechanical reactions of our brains & ignoring what they are actually reacting to) such synthesis seems about to be ground below the juggernauth of "post" modernist dialectic dualism.

SK said...

Does anyone in this discussion have a coherent idea of what they mean by 'mimesis' and is there even the slightest chance that any two participants' ideas might be even remotely similar?

Mr Rilstone does not object to the mix of soap and satire, as can be seen from his argument that it would have been perfectly in keeping with the style established in Rose to have, say, the TARDIS materialise on a planet on the brink of a war which has obvious parallels with the Iraq war. His objection is to the series first establishing its frame of reference and then, when convenient, standing outside that frame, in the manner of a stand-up comic who inhabits a character only partially, winking at the audience two show them that he is in on the joke as much as they are.

This is not quite the same thing as Brecht or Greenaway, as their gimmicks are part of the milieu indeed part of the entire point of what their work is about. The frame of reference of Mother Courage and her Children, as well as being among the most boring crimes ever perpetrated on a stage, includes the distancing devices. Brecht doesn't present a naturalistic depiction of way that he then steps outside when convenient,all the while winking at the audience and inviting them to share the joke: he presents a deliberately non-naturalistic depiction and that is his medium.

Andrew Stevens said...

Doesn’t Gunfighters ‘break mimesis’ quite firmly in one infamous moment?

Not that I can think of. The Daleks' Master Plan does, of course ("A happy Christmas to all of you at home"), but that episode ("The Feast of Steven") is quite clearly an example of "all the rules are off for this one episode only." The episode has literally no effect on the epic surrounding it and one can easily pretend that "Coronas of the Sun" leads straight into "Volcano." One could make a similar argument about the two episodes of The Chase you're referring to where they land on the Empire State Building, the Mary Celeste, and a haunted house in Ghana in 1996, although those episodes do have an effect on the story around them.

I can't think of any similar incident in The Gunfighters. Of course, arguably it does break mimesis since it's not even remotely historically accurate and, of course, it's got that song narrating the action throughout. You really ought to watch it, by the way. It is one of the Hartnell era's greatest experiments in that most experimental of eras.

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens writes:

Never, of course, but I fail to see how this is relevant to whether the fiction should be reminding you that it is fiction.

Fiction always reminds you that it is fiction, in the same way that a horse always reminds you that it is a horse.

(There's a clever reply to that using the word 'neigh', I'm sure.)

Site Owner said...

Or in otherwords some people can stand their fiction to have more elastic walls than other people.

Simon BJ

Andrew Stevens said...

Fiction always reminds you that it is fiction, in the same way that a horse always reminds you that it is a horse.

I take it that you never engage in what is called "willing suspension of disbelief." Nothing wrong with that (admirable in a way, in fact), but I can assure you that your method of imbibing fiction is not the only such method. Unless, of course, the author ensures that it is.

Site Owner said...

What's your evidence that the Iraq war happened inside Rose's world?
The PM who dies isn't Blair, the new PM doesn't exist in the real world(tm). The UN doesn't control nuclear codes like that in the real world, but it might in the World within the show - something similar is part of the plot of 'Robot'. You seemingly demand that there can be no level of realistic characterisation, unless there is historical and political accuracy, at the level at which a passing satirical dig would be impossible without in world comment. This is a bit daft. Dislike the episodes by all means, but when has Doctor Who been a realistic political drama in *any* of its depictions of whitehall over 45 years? Did the existance of all the farcical civil servants who bumbled and hindered the 3rd Doctor 'spoil' Jo. Did a pre-Thatcher female PM in 'Terror of the Zygons' who is - offstage - presented as a bit of a battleaxe, hinder mimesis of Sarah Jane?

Simon BJ

SK said...

If the many things Coleridge has to answer for, that bloody phrase is surely near the top of the list.

SK said...

Jo hardly needed spoiling.

Harriet Jones makes reference to the Iraq war (though she doesn't name it, so I suppose you could weasel out of it that way, but to me the implied reference seems clear and attempts to claim she's talking about some other conflict are wilful misreadings along the lines of 'when Sarah said "I'm from 1980" she didn't actually mean that she was from 1980':

Harriet Jones: The British Isles can’t access to atomic weapons without a special resolution from the UN.
Rose: Like that’s ever stopped ‘em.
Harriet Jones: Exactly, given our past record. And I voted against that, thank you very much. The codes have been taken out of the government’s hands and given to the UN. Is it important?

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens writes:

I take it that you never engage in what is called "willing suspension of disbelief." Nothing wrong with that (admirable in a way, in fact), but I can assure you that your method of imbibing fiction is not the only such method. Unless, of course, the author ensures that it is.

I'm being a bit of a smart arse, of course, but I really do struggle to think of any piece of fiction that doesn't signify, at some point, that it is fiction, or encourage us to look at it that way. Fiction, almost always, has a beginning, middle and end. That's usually enough.

I think Andrew R's point isn't so much that 'Aliens of London' mixes psychological naturalism and satire, but rather that it mixes naturalism and farce. I think he is correct; where I challenge his argument is in that, as far as this viewer understands it, 'Rose', 'The End of the World' and 'The Unquiet Dead' were also a mixture of naturalism and farce.

Andrew Stevens said...

Simon BJ, it is also implied by the exchange the Doctor has with Rose. One of them asks if the public would fall for the "massive weapons of destruction in 45 seconds" bit and the other says, "They did last time." Nobody is asking that Doctor Who be a realistic political drama (or a political drama of any kind).

Salisbury, I can think of several works of fiction which do not present themselves in any way as fiction, in particular the kind which are trying to pass themselves off as factual (most memoirs). I am, to a certain extent, on your side. My wife is, on occasion, moved to tears by a work of fiction. This has never happened to me. I am simply not capable of that level of immersion in a story about things that never happened to people who never existed. But she is so long as the author doesn't actively (or passively, through incompetence) prevent it.

Gavin Burrows said...

SK said...
...is there even the slightest chance that any two participants' ideas might be even remotely similar?


Have to admit I’m thinking slightly the same thing. It probably doesn’t help that to follow the whole thing you have to start with this thread, then do a far degree of scrolling. SK’s comments about Brecht, for example, merely repeat things said there. But when he says...

...Mr Rilstone does not object to the mix of soap and satire... His objection is to the series first establishing its frame of reference and then, when convenient, standing outside that frame

...he is probably confusing satire and allegory. Wasn’t the argument that things satire inherently has to do involve pushing us outside that frame?

On a similar but opposite tack, Simon BJ neglects to note Andrew was specifically talking about New Who, so Jo Grant has little to do with it. I still disagree with Andrew, but I don’t think he’s being “silly.”

At the same time, I must have had too much time on my hands the other day because I found myself reading my own blog, wherein I said of the episode Turn Left:

The series often foregrounds genre conventions. Normally you're not supposed to ponder on the likelihood of the Doctor meeting Donna twice, you just accept it as a story enabler. Then they suddenly pick it up and wave it at you. The risk here is that by flagging up some conventions they’ll expose and undermine all of them, and bring down the house of cards we’re watching.

...which shares not a few parallels with what Andrew said. In the early days the Tardis was supposed to land randomly. Except it always landed alternately at a point in Earth’s history, then on another planet, then back again. You could make smartarse comments about that, or come up with convoluted cod-explanations. But you were better off just accepting it, as the sort of groundrule the series needed to keep going. But a problem arises if one week you show us the man behind the curtain, then the next tell us not to worry about him. In short, I’m starting to think Andrew has picked the wrong example of a genuine concern.

Andrew Stevens said...

I can think of several works of fiction which do not present themselves in any way as fiction, in particular the kind which are trying to pass themselves off as factual (most memoirs).


It’s interesting the way so many novels were faux-memoirs. Robinson Crusoe, for example, isn’t just written as though narrated by Crusoe, it takes the form of his life memoirs. This wasn’t intended fraudulently, I don’t think it was ever published as if written by Crusoe. But its like early novels had to take on a recognisable form.

“Doesn’t Gunfighters ‘break mimesis’ quite firmly in one infamous moment?”

Not that I can think of. The Daleks' Master Plan does, of course ("A happy Christmas to all of you at home")


Apologies, my error! Of course that was the example I was thinking of. I think Andrew R blogged about them together once, which is possibly how they got mixed up in my mind.

You really ought to watch it, by the way. It is one of the Hartnell era's greatest experiments in that most experimental of eras.

Andrew, I’m starting to wonder now. Are there any Hartnell episodes you don’t like?

Andrew Stevens said...

Andrew, I’m starting to wonder now. Are there any Hartnell episodes you don’t like?

Not many, but you shouldn't let that stop you from watching "The Gunfighters," which is not just a Hartnell episode I like, but one of my favorite Doctor Who stories, full stop. The people who hate it are really po-faced fans of the kind Andrew Rilstone is often wrongly accused of being (even in this thread).

I don't like "The Space Museum" (though I do like the first episode). I don't like "Reign of Terror." I kind of like "The Web Planet," but would recommend skipping it to almost everyone but the most devoted. (The most devoted, however, will love the Zarbi running into the camera.) I'm not fond of "Galaxy 4." And, while I admire the experimentation of it, "The Celestial Toymaker" leaves a very great deal to be desired. (It is baffling to me that there is a significant section of fandom who hate "The Gunfighters" and love "The Celestial Toymaker," since I think Toymaker is obviously inferior. Three seasons later, "The Mind Robber" would be a much better example of whatever genre Toymaker is.)

But mostly I believe the Hartnell era is when Doctor Who was at its zenith. It was just so much fun. In part, my love of the Hartnell era should not be taken too seriously. Like most fans, I am enamored of my "first Doctor" and Hartnell was it for me. (For most people, of course, it's Tom Baker.)

But "The Gunfighters" is great, no matter what. The Discontinuity Guide says: "'All these people are giving me guns, I do wish they wouldn't ' With Hartnell, Purves [playing the companion Steven] and Anthony Jacobs [Doc Holliday] in amazing form, and such a great script, this is a comic masterpiece, winning one over with its sheer charm." And Mssrs. Cornell, Day, and Topping are only wrong about Sylvester McCoy.

SK said...

Please to be assured, I am not confusing satire and allegory, but know exactly what I am saying, have read the rest of the discussion,and am not repeating any of it (I would mention it is I were).

Satire doesn't have to push us outside any kind of frame. The Thick Of It is a satire, establishes its frame and doesn't go outside it.

Gavin Burrows said...

sk said...
Please to be assured, I... have read the rest of the discussion,and am not repeating any of it (I would mention it is I were).

First I said (to Andrew Stevens):
Nobody “falls out of character” in Brecht! Everyone in Arturo Ui stays in character throughout, there’s just a Narrator there to point out people and remind us what its all about. I’ve seen Brechtian productions where actors swap characters constantly, but they’re always in one character or the other right up to the curtain call. What’s different is the style of acting, the way character is conveyed...

It’s like you consider these things to be innate to drama, like trees making up a wood, before Brecht turns up to bulldoze them. Brecht is merely building his drama up from different blocks, not removing elements out of sheer wilfulness.


...later SK says...
This is not quite the same thing as Brecht or Greenaway, as their gimmicks are part of the milieu indeed part of the entire point of what their work is about... Brecht doesn't present a naturalistic depiction of way that he then steps outside when convenient,all the while winking at the audience and inviting them to share the joke: he presents a deliberately non-naturalistic depiction and that is his medium.

One of these things is exactly the same.

SK said...

If you'll read mine, you'll see that nowhere am I talking about whether actors stay in character, but rather I am talking about the devices such as the songs or the titles (if they're shown) in Mother Courage and her Children; or about the narrator in The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui.

For I do not think that the issue of 'staying in character' is relevant to the discussion, as no actor in Doctor Who 'breaks character': the issue is the devices, specifically the reference to the non-diegetic world.

So no, it's not a mere repeat.

Gavin Burrows said...

As SK and his sense of self-importance so clearly want to be left alone, I think I might reply to Andrew Stevens instead...

Thanks for the pointers, though you warned me too late about The Web Planet. Others have said the first episode of Space Museum is good, though i dare not watch it because I would inevitably then watch the others. I'm thinking of writing about the ones I watch on my blog, so I won't clutter things here.

I suppose I'm with the majority, as I'm late Pertwee/ early Baker era, and will insist that its by pure co-incidence this was the very best era. I read a blog on Barbelith lately where everyone went on about McCoy, which made me feel old.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'd love to read your reviews. I'll try to keep an eye out. I should also say that there are a couple of other Hartnell stories that I don't recommend trying to watch all in one go, notably "The Sensorites," "Keys of Marinus," "Dalek Invasion of Earth," and "Daleks' Master Plan." I do believe all of those are perfectly watchable and even quite enjoyable at a pace of an episode a day (the pace I was forced to watch them at originally).

One of the reasons I love Season 3 (most of which is sadly lost) is other than the 12-part "Master Plan," every story is four episodes. Pity they didn't realize what a good idea that had been for the next eight years.

I am currently going through yet another cycle of watching every episode in order (currently at The Abominable Snowmen at the beginning of Season 5, so I've sadly finished all the Hartnells). The more times I do this, the more sure I am that I'd like Troughton's era almost as well as Hartnell's had it not all been junked. (Patrick Troughton is a fantastic Doctor, saddled with somewhat less creative scripts.) By the time I get to the end of Season 5, I'm always heartily sick of the reconstructions. However there is apparently a fan movement to animate all the lost episodes and I'm hopeful that will go somewhere.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said...
I'd love to read your reviews. I'll try to keep an eye out.

Post you e-mail to my blog and I’ll let you know when they’re out! (Spam-proof format may be advisable.)

Amusingly I started with the idea to only watch the good episodes. Of course that didn’t include those stuff historicals. Then people suggested I watch The Aztecs, so I was forced to acknowledge the existence of the good historical and add them to the list. Then it somehow shifted to me watching all the episodes except the bad ones. At least up until the Baker era, perhaps the Davison one. The Space Museum is definitely out, though!

You’re right about four-parters. The Daleks could be cut down to four parts and lose nothing salient. A while ago, The Time Meddler was repeated on UK TV and I found it far too slow. I watched it again recently, after some of the other episodes and it fairly sped by!

Gavin Burrows said...

Umm... that'd be stuffy historicals!