Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fish Custard (12)

"Hi. We're the makers of a TV show about a guy with a Time Machine."
"Ah. You want me to write an adaptation of H.G Wells' The Time Machine."
"No. We produce a children's television series about a man with a Time Machine."
"Oh. What does he do with it?"
"Travels in Time. Goes to the past and the future and meets historical characters and stuff."
"Crazee. Can't see it ever catching on. Why are you telling me about it?"
"We want to commission you to write a story."
"About Time Travel?"
"About people from the present day visiting an historical period. Because you're, like a mainstream writer, who writes period drama. Crossover appeal and all that."
"Any particular historical period you have in mind?"
"No – you choose. The sky's the limit. That's the whole idea. Mainstream writer, thinking outside the box."
"Can I bring historical characters into the present day?"
"Sure. It's, you know, as limitless as your imagination. We generally try to avoid our hero changing historical events too much, though. And he probably shouldn't create established history, either. Saying he caused the Fire of London would probably be a bad idea."
"Or the Fire of Rome?"
"Or the Fire, as you say, of Rome."
"It sounds like a fun, open ended format that will run and run. Here's my idea. Just extemporizing, but could your hero go back in Time and meet Van Goff."
"Van Gock?"
"Van Gow. I'd show all the scenes from the famous paintings – the cornfield, the church, the cafe...and how about this, I'd have the hero bring him some sunflowers, and suggest that he paints them. I'd get lots of irony out of all Van Gock's contemporaries thinking he's a terrible painter, but our hero knows that history will have the last laugh. I'd do a sensitive portrayal of Van Goff's depression, but steer right away from obvious cliched stuff about him chopping off his own ear. I'd probably take the line that he was bipolar. I'd allude to his suicide too. What time does this show go out?"
"Tea-time, but that's okay, we can drop in an 'If You Have Been Affected By' line at the end. Those chaps at the Samaritans get awfully bored if we don't encourage people to phone them, you know."
"But I haven't told you the clever bit yet! The clever bit is that we'll start the story up in an art gallery, doing a Van Goff exhibition. We can show all the paintings, so the young kids will get the references even if they don't know who Van Gock is. And we'll have an art critic doing a tour, talking about Van Gow's life. We'd need a really high class actor to do the cameo."
"I reckon we can get that guy with the tentacles from Pirates of the Caribbean. But we probably wouldn't credit him."
"Great. So he can do some funny dialogue with your hero. Maybe they can compete about who has the best..."
"....Bow tie..."
"Bow tie, great. But then, here's the clever bit. At the end, after the hero has visited Van Gow and got to know him a bit, and Van Gock has even developed a bit of a crush on your hero's beautiful young red-headed assistant, then...and this is the scene I want to write, this is the scene I've wanted to write all my life...your hero puts Van Goff in his Time Machine and takes him back to the present day and shows Van Gock the exhibition. So Van Gow knows that he'll be vindicated and dies happy. He even hears the famous actor lecturing about what a great painter he was, and what a great man he was. And, we'll do this subtly, but wouldn't it be cool if the art critic almost, almost, just out of the corner of his eye, sees his hero for one second, in the flesh! Oh, why I have I wasted my career working within the constraints of narrow social realism! This is the sort of moving, slightly surreal, magical realist material that only the conceit of a Machine that travels through Time can achieve! I hope your series lasts for 46 years and seven months!"
"It sounds excellent. Exactly the sort of thing we're looking for. How does the monster fit in?"
"I'm sorry. I don't quite follow you."
"The monster. We don't feel that a TV series based around a charismatic hero who can visit any historical time period (or, in fact, any place in the universe, but we've played that down, because the punters aren't very interested in stuff set on the planet zog) is exciting enough. So we have a rule that wherever or whenever he goes, and whoever or whatever he meets, there always has to be a monster."
"A monster?"
"That's right, a monster."
"You mean, like a giant chicken or something."
"Exactly. Van Goff, an art critic and a giant chicken."
"You mock me and my muse, Sir. Please do not waste any more of my time. I bid you – adieu."

"What a pseud. I was hoping for something more like Blackadder."


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What I Did Over The Weekend

Naturally, you all know the rules of "Eat Poop You Cat"?

"Picture Consequences" or "Chinese Whispers" for grown ups: player A writes down a phrase; player B illustrates it with a picture; player C tries to work out the phrase from player B's picture; player D illustrates player C's picture, and so on.

So a boringly successful round looks like this:

"Richard drank a lot of red wine"
"Richard got sick on wine".

However, when someone tried to introduce theology into the proceedings, things became more surreal:

"In the beginning, God created the world..."

"Biggles is on his way to destroy the world..."

And politics becomes positively profound:

"Clegg and Cameron formed a coalition that was doomed to failure..."

"The surgeons tried to separate the conjoined twins, but both died."

There was a point to this, but it has temporarily escaped your chroniclers mind.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fish Custard (11)

One last thing, before moving on.

You remember the opening of Genesis of the Daleks? The Doctor tries to "beam up" from the Sontaran base to Space Station Nerva, but finds himself six zillion and four years in the past on the planet Skaro. A Time Lord explains to him that this week's story involves him preventing the Davros from creating the Daleks, and would he get on with it please? Doubtless Terry Nation could have come up with some special reason for the Doctor to decide to go and witness the creation of the Daleks off his own back, but it would have taken much more screen time and probably not been much more fun. Authors always have to nudge their heroes towards the plot: erecting a big neon sign saying "Step right up! This way to the plot!" is merely a particularly transparent way of doing it.

This, incidentally, was just about the only valid use of the Time Lords in the Doctor Who setting: as a convenient reverse deus ex machina to drop the Doctor into interesting situations (but never, ever to get him out of them. Well, hardly ever.)

Someone is already typing that no, in fact, this wasn't a plot device: this was (as explained in the totally canonical 2006 Doctor Who annual) the first skirmish of the last great Time War and therefore a pivotal moment in the history of the Doctor Who universe. I wish they wouldn't. [*]

Similarly, in Star Trek the Next Generation there was an all-powerful alien sprite called Q whose function was to pop up once a season and created a Dilemma for Jean-Luc Picard to agonize over. Although John De Lancie's characterisation was great fun, and although he sparked entertainingly off Patrick Steward, no-one ever really pretended that Q was anything other than a plot device: another stand in for the Author. Q shows Picard a future where he is sad and lonely; this has the result that he become less aloof and more willing to play cards with his colleagues. Q shows Picard and alternate world in which he is a merely competent officer, not a great hero, and this enables him to embrace (rather than feel ashamed of) his reckless youth. Doubtless those things could have been revealed through a more conventional narrative - but the device of the omnipotent god-like alien being, used about once per season, was a perfectly valid short cut.

(Captain Kirk also used to meet up with omnipotent alien beings, at the rate of about one in every three episodes. Some of them have been ret-conned as members of the Q continuum, I believe. But the points of these stories were invariably to show how Kirk reacts in the face of an all-powerful force and thereby make a point about religion and communism, or rather, to make the same point over and over again. The omnipotence and god-likeness of Apollo or the Squire of Gothos was the point of the story: the omnipotence and god-likeness of Q was only ever a means to an end.)

Now: I've said that there is not much point in inserting surrealistic dream sequences into Who, because the series itself is so surreal and dream like that it doesn't make much difference. I think that the same thing is true here. Clearly, The Dream Lord is a stand-in for the Author; and clearly his function is to create an environment which will reveal things about Amy's, or the Doctor's personality. And clearly this is, in the modern show, a pretty redundant plot device because every episode of Doctor Who is an environment which is intended to reveal things about Amy's or the Doctor's personality. The dreamscape created by the Dream Lord brings us to the moment when Amy chooses Rory over the Doctor; but then, the hardly more sensible costume drama in Venice existed mainly in order to bring us to the moment when Rory could tell the Doctor that he doesn't realise how dangerous he makes people to themselves (quite a prophetic remark, as it turns out).

Mr. Moffat introduces Rory (Ep 1) reveals that Amy fancies the Doctor (Ep 5) and kills of Rory (Ep 9). So in episode 6 he needs to accelerate things to the point where Amy definitely knows she love Rory and wants to have his babies and definitely thinks of the Doctor as more of a friend. Ergo, on comes The Author to put up big neon signs which say "The audience knows which way you are going to swing, so could you hurry up and swing that way, please."

Mr Whedon did a similar thing in a more off-the-wall way in the classic musical episode of Buffy. He introduced the very silly idea of a magic curse demon plot machine thingy (I have honestly forgotten) that forced all the characters to sing, which was very silly and very funny, but it had the very serious consequence that, in the best tradition of musicals, all the characters sang their innermost thoughts. Various major plot developments – the departure of Giles, the fact that Xander and Anya's marriage can never work -- are revealed in the space of 45 minutes.

Except...and this is what makes the story either tremendously clever or a bit of a cop out, and I'm guessing we aren't going to find out which until the season finale....except that the God-like Alien, the Surrogate Author is not Q, not a Time Lord, not the Trickster but the dark side of the Doctor himself. And I actually literally don't know what to make of this. I love the way his identity is revealed casually by the Doctor in the final moments, as if it was obvious, which it should have been; and I like the actual sneering persona and the way the Doctor and the Dream Lord interact. But it turns out that the point of the story isn't "Amy realises that she loves Rory" but "The Doctor forces Amy to realise that she loves Rory". And I don't quite know what to make of this. The Doctor has been playing matchmaker: he has brought Rory onto the TARDIS because he thinks it is historically inevitable for his wedding to Amy to go ahead as planned. But when Amy is sort of may be kind off hesitating between her boyfriend and her hero it's the Doctor's evil side which brings them together. (Not, say, an externalisation of his unconscious desires. We could have run with that: at a conscious level, the Doctor wants to stay with Amy, but deep down he knows this is impossible, so the Red Kryptonite empowers his repressed mind to send her back to Rory.)

So what does the Dark Side of the Doctor want? Is the marriage of Amy and Rory so obviously a very bad idea – both for the two characters, and for the future stability of the universe – that it requires the intervention of the Evil-Author-Doctor to bring it about? Or was Amy's romantic development an unintended consequence of a plan to trap the Doctor in a dream-world forever? (Is the idea that if the Doctor had believed the TARDIS dream world was real, he would have stayed there and the Dream-Lord would have taken control in waking Doctor?)

There was a really terrible and badly thought out Colin Baker story in which an evil Time Lord lawyer is said to be a future incarnation of the Doctor himself. The idea there was that if the Valeyard could get the Doctor killed, he will somehow inherit his remaining seven incarnations. Perhaps more intriguingly, we are told that Barry Letts original plan was for the final Jon Pertwee story to have revealed that the Doctor and the Master were the same man.

[*] It's a little more complicated than this, actually. Doubtless, Shakespeare could have used any number of plot machines to tell Hamlet that his wicked uncle murdered his father – maybe the Prince meets a witness who was in the orchard, or overhears Claudius saying his prayers. But, while the plot might come out much the same, the atmosphere of the play would be a lot different: Hamlet isn't just "the story of a man who is told that his father was murdered" but "the story of a man who is told by a ghost that his father was murdered". Similiarly "The Doctor goes back in time to discreate the Daleks" is a different story from "The Time Lords order the Doctor to go back in time and discreated the Daleks". The dramatic "do I have that right?" scene wouldn't work nearly so well if the Doc was there voluntarily.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

While you're waiting for me to get caught up, read Mike on the one in flat and Gavin on the one based on that Don McClean song.

And if you are one of the sixteen people who haven't seen this yet: it's all true, every word of it!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fish Custard (10)

"Leadworth or the TARDIS: which is real, and which is the dream?"

It's an unanswerable question: but it isn't really the question which the Dream Lord is asking.

He's not asking "Which is real" but "Which would Amy prefer to be real?" Faced with a free choice between Leadworth and the TARDIS, which reality would she chose? (Clues in the title, I suppose.)

The answer is never really in doubt. New Who has consistently treated romantic happiness as the ultimate Good. Once the question has been articulated – once it has been made clear that "Leadworth or the TARDIS?" really means "the Doctor or Rory?" we know pretty clearly which way Amy will swing.

In fact, the question isn't even "Does Amy love Rory?" It's more "How will Amy realise that she loves Rory?" or more specifically "How will Amy be brought to the point where she can tell Rory that she loves him?" This is also going to be a large part of the plot of the one in the flat: one human coming to the point where he can say those three little words to another human. The rest of the story -- pollen, dream lord, philosophical riddle, emotional conundrum – is all plot machinery to bring Amy to this point.

There are a lot of good moments along the way. The idea that for Amy (as well as for us) the Doctor "represents" childhood is made explicit. Rory says that they can't stay on the TARDIS indefinitely, because sooner or later they have to grow up. "Do we?" she replies. The Dream Lord repeats the same thing to the Doctor, but puts a creepy twist on it. The Doctor is an incredibly old person playing at being young by always choosing the company of young people. When the Doctor asks what Rory and Amy do in boring Leadworth "in order to stave off the self harm" and Rory replies "we live".

So: that's the point of the story, is it? Amy's choice is really between growing up and not growing up: between being Amy and being Amelia. It's the Peter Pan dilemma: remain a child, and be lonely forever; or grow up, and be bored forever. "He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know, but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred." Remind you of anyone?

It's a silly question, and it always has been. As a matter of fact, and with the exception of a very small number of brain damaged individuals, "never growing up" is not actually an option. And the TARDIS is (whisper it softly) fictitious. Asking an adult to consider what they would do, if, like Peter Pan, they were offered the chance of "never growing up" is only a vivid and rhetorical way of asking them to consider what "growing up" (or "being a child") means. If Peter Pan and Doctor Who "mean" imagination and creativity and the perception of beauty and having fun and all that stuff about the wonders of the universe that Sarah Jane goes on and on about at the end of every. damn. episode. – and if "being a grown up" means losing all of that then surely every relatively well balanced individual would go for Never Never Land every time? But it's a false dilemma. The dichotomy between "being an adult" and "having fun" has been forced on us by psychologically damaged individuals like the Dream Lord and Mr. Darling.

Except... The one thing which adults definitely have which children definitely do not have is the capacity for romantic love And it may be that faced with a straight choice between "the ecstasy of sex" and "all other kinds of ecstasy", most adults would forgo the sunsets and the daisies and keep the squelchy stuff, please. (When he was researching his book Talking Cock, Richard Herring discovered that an overwhelming majority of men would rather be blinded, crippled or brain-damaged than have their thing cut off.) [*] Maybe that's why Amy's choice is so specifically presented as TARDIS vs Marriage; Doctor vs Baby. Maybe that's why, since 1965, it's always been wedding bells that breaks up the happy TARDIS gang. When Susan Foreman fell in love the First Doctor cast her out of the TARDIS. She and her earthling boyfriend went off hand in hand. With wandering steps and slow, I shouldn't wonder.

But even this isn't really a choice, is it? You could choose to be celibate: that's an option; but that won't in itself make the universe more magical. It won't even make Easter Eggs taste like they did when you were six. The myths of Eden, or Never Never Land and of the TARDIS aren't really about choices. They are descriptions of the way things are. "When you were a kid, life seemed to be more happy and carefree, and the colours were brighter and the ice cream more delicious. All that is gone forever. But on the plus side, you get to have orgasms!"

The first person to mention nylons, lipsticks, or invitations will be ejected by security.

O.K. I admit it. I'm over-thinking. Whenever the Doctor asks a companion into the TARDIS, whether it's William Hartnell talking about another world in another sky, or Christopher Eccleston saying "Wanna come with me?", the question is really being director at us viewers. "Going with the Doctor" means "Watching a really quite thrilling TV show". So "leaving the TARDIS" means "not watching your favourite TV show any more." "You can't stay in the TARDIS forever, one day you'll have to grow up and get a life" boils down to "Eventually you'll have to stop reading books about unicorns and start reading books about kitchen sinks." Romance vs realism; escapism vs serious literature.

This seems to have been the kind of thing which Mr Stephen Fry had in mind: a liking for Winnie-the-Pooh automatically and necessarily precludes a liking for Middlemarch. And if we define television which is "surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong" as "adult" and drama which is fun and escapist as "childish"; and if the only two options on the table are a world where all television is "adult" and a world where all television is "childish" then I suppose we'd all go for the former. If the waves on the desert island really did wash away every one of my DVD boxed sets except one, I'd grab Wagner's Ring Cycle before I grabbed Star Wars [**].

But it's the falsest of false dilemmas. Very few people want to eat snail porridge and salmon liquorice every night of the week: but it doesn't follow that they subsist entirely on big macs and deep fried mars bars.

It's quite interesting that Steven Fry should use "adult" as a term of approval. Adults like all kinds of entertainment. They read Mills and Boon romances. They read Agatha Christie whodunnits. They read Zane Grey westerns, Black Lace sex stories and Andy McNabb memoirs about war and torture and field latrines. I don't think that books of that kind are particularly challenging, complex or ambiguous. I think they are safe, simple and straightforward. But wouldn't describing them all as "childish" be a little...well....adolescent?

"Which is the dream: the TARDIS or Leadworth?"

Of course it's an unanswerable question. So of course the Doctor answers it. They are both dreams. That's the trap. When faced with the choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, always choose the third one.

[*] I'm not absolutely sure about this. Suppose NASA said tomorrow "We want volunteers, aged about 20, to travel to Alpha Centuri and contact the aliens who we are now pretty sure live there, and then come home and report. Only catch is, it's a small ship and a forty year round trip: you'd effectively be taking a vow of lifelong celibacy." I'm guessing they'd still have one or two volunteers. Mars is worth any number of grandchildren.

[**] Although I might be prepared to negotiate e.g if I forgo the Norns and the riddle game can I keep "A New Hope"?

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fish Custard (9)

So, in the one with Toby Jones, the Red Kryptonite – sorry, the Psychic Pollen – is pure plot machinery. And the two different worlds which Amy has to choose between – they are plot machinery as well. Toby Jones himself -- the Dream Lord, the Doctor's dark side – is probably best seen as a plot device. In fact, once you've taken all the plot machinery away, it's quite hard to track down the actual plot. At times, it feels an lot like The Edge of Beyond the Inside of the Sun or whatever we're supposed to call it nowadays – the third William Hartnell story, where the TARDIS goes mad and everyone starts having hallucinations and wearing dressing gowns and attacking each other with scissors. Not really a story: more a sort of crucible to force the first story arc to come to some sort of conclusion. The "solution", if you remember, was that everything had gone weird because a button on the TARDIS console had got stuck. The First Doctor spent about five minutes playing around with a torch to make sure that everybody knew exactly what he meant by "button" and "stuck". But it was fairly clear that the point of the story was to bring Barbara to the point where she'd tell the Doctor to stop being such an old git, and to bring the Doctor to the point where he can apologize and agree to be the main character in the series from now on.

So what exactly was the point of Amy's Choice?

When I saw the pre-cred – or at any rate, when I read the summary in Radio Times – I thought that something really interesting was being set up. We'd seen Amy as a child, and as a grown up – it would have been so cool if, without telling us, the story had skipped another 5 years and picked up the action after she'd stopped travelling with the Doctor. So when we flashed forward / backwards to the TARDIS, I was rather disappointed. "Oh", I said "It's just another dream sequence virtual reality alternate time line thang, like Turn Left and Silence in the Library and every damn episode of Sarah Jane."

Actually, that's not quite fair. I like Sarah Jane an awful lot. There's a character called the Trickster who periodically pops up and plays, well, tricks on the main characters. They often involve mucking about with Sarah's time lines, showing her what would have happened if she'd made a different choice. (Who was it who said that "what would have happened" was only ever a vivid rhetorical tool for describing what actually did happen?) In Season 2, the Trickster tricks her into going back in time and (stop me if you've heard this before) preventing her parents from being killed. At the time I said it was the single best thing to have been done with the franchise since the relaunch. The Trickster is really just so much psychic pollen, and Amy's Choice is a very, very good episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures.

So. The Dream Lord sets the TARDIS crew a Puzzle. Are you, he asks them, the crew of the TARDIS dreaming that you are in Leadworth, or three people from Leadworth dreaming that you are on the TARDIS. Chuang Tse asked a similar question, but he didn't expect anybody to answer it. The point of the problem is that it's insoluble: every time Amy says "This is real, definitely real" we feel that she hasn't understood it properly.

Some people claim that they have become aware that they are dreaming without waking up, because they have noticed something in their dream which is silly, illogical, or contradictory. Freud himself says that he once thought, or dreamt that he thought "How can I possibly have arrived late for my first year medical exams, when I am an eminent professor who has been practising medicine for many years?" [*] So all our heroes have to do to identify the dream is to look for elements which are silly, illogical or contradictory.

In an episode of Doctor Who? How could they tell?

Every episode contains things which are silly, unbelievable, or surreal. Shop window dummies, anyone? Gas masks? Statues? Robot replicas of Anne Robinson? In the surreal stakes, evil child eating zombie grannies with eyeballs on stalks that pop out of their mouths would hardly make it into the top ten. And the Doctor can't open his mouth without scientific gobbledegook popping out. The idea of a cold star (and one which freezes the inside of the TARDIS, which is presumably capable of a withstanding the absolute zero of space) is not obviously sillier than sonic paper or fluid links or evil time lords living in black holes or any of the stuff he's been asking us to believe in for decades. Stuff in Doctor Who is "believable" or "unbelievable" purely on the Doctor's say-so. He's the fixed point in an often absurdist narrative. Remove his authority and all bets are off.

Jeremy Bentham (the Doctor Who historian, not the philosopher) once remarked that there were very few successful parodies of Doctor Who. The series undercuts itself so shamelessly that there's no point in a comedian doing so. As early as 1964 Crackerjack had done a sketch featuring Peter Glaze as a dotty old man called Doctor What who lived in a post-box. The substitution of the word "What" for the word "Who" and a post-box for a phone box produced something that was no sillier, and arguably less silly, than the programme that was being sent up.

Doctor Who is already the kind of story where funny men turn up in your garden and demand fish custard; where naughty school children are fed to giant whales who live under London; where statues, and pictures of statues, and memories of pictures of statues, only move when you aren't looking at them. It is already dream like. It already works according to dream logic. In something like Star Trek, a dream sequence is a surreal break with established narrative conventions. In Doctor Who it's business as usual.

Unless – perchance – that is the point? Unless something very clever and story-arcy is going on, and Steven has spent a whole episode drawing our attention to the dream-like-ness of New New Who to soften us up for the moment when Little Amelia wakes up and realises that all her adventures with the Raggedy Doctor were only a dream. Or perhaps a little game that she's been playing with her home made action figures?

Is all that we see or seem....

[*] In my experience, it more often works the other way around: I have occasionally actually been awake and eating breakfast before saying "Since I am 44, I can probably stop worrying about whether or not I left my
homework on the bus."


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fish Custard (8)

I was less convinced by the one with Toby Jones.

C.S Lewis or Aristotle or someone of that kind asks us to distinguish between the plot machinery and the plot itself. It doesn't matter too much if the mechanism by which your hero gets to Mars is plausible if the story was never about the journey, but what he saw when he arrived. We don't have to believe in Delphic oracles, sphinxes or improbable meetings at places where three roads meet: we're interested in how a man would react if he suddenly discovered that the woman he married was his own mother. Folk-singers (and for that matter Mr William Shakespeare) don't really expect us to believe that if a lady-shaped person slips on a pair of trousers, she'll instantly be assumed to be male by everyone she meets, including army recruitment officers and her own true love. We aren't interested in the practical problems faced by 17th century transvestites. "Imagine that a man who robbed at gun-point and the robber turned out to be his own girlfriend!" the singer is saying "Imagine the look on his face when he finds out!"

I forget whether or not Aristotle himself uses the word McGuffin.

If I were to write about The Prisoner, which I probably won't, I would say that in the original version, The Village was pretty obviously a piece of plot machinery, but in the new version The Village is pretty much the whole of what the plot is about. The original version is about the ways in which an exceptionally individualistic person stands up for himself in a society where there are is no such thing as an individual. It's about the relationship of individuals to society and what's so great about being an individual, anyway? It's about that tricks and traps that Number 2 sets to make Number 6 conform, and about Number 6's plans to escape. The remake is about The Village. It's about Number 2 (sorry, "2") who has a back story, a family, and considerably more personality than 6 does. It asks us what The Village is – a real place, the only real place, a dream, a virtual reality? The original only asked us what The Village meant. All sorts of questions which were unanswered and unanswerable in the original version – who did 6 work for? why did he resign? what was his real name? – are neatly tied up. [*]

There are, of course, Portmeirion literalists who try to answer those sorts of questions about the original programme. They are terribly disappointed to discover that English schoolchildren say "break" rather than "recess" so when Number 2 is in the persona of Number 6's old headmaster, he's much more likely to be saying "See me in the morning break!" than "See me in the morning, Drake." But even if you could conclusively prove that the protagonists of The Prisoner and Danger Man were the same person, it's hard to see how that would elucidate The Prisoner.

It occurs to me that a working definition of Science Fiction might be "literature without plot machinery; literature for people who are interested in the plot machinery; literature which tells you how the space-ship works stories where a girl can't pass herself off as a boy without a special sort of bra". Someone in the Grauniad pointed out that Nineteen Eighty-four was certainly not science fiction because it showed no interest in how the Screens worked. (I forget if this was someone who liked Science Fiction very much, but didn't like Orwell, or someone who liked Orwell very much, but didn't like Science Fiction.) Certainly some of the objections to New New Who have been science fictiony nit picks about the plot machinery: Why do the Doctor and the Daleks always meet each other consecutively? Why is the Doctor so confused by money and football and pubs when he's lived on earth for years and usually has no difficulty fitting in on weird alien planets?

We don't care.

It further occurs to me that on this definition I probably haven't read, or at any rate enjoyed, a work of science fiction since Blast Off at Woomera in Miss Walker's class, so you probably shouldn't pay attention to anything I say about the subject. But you probably don't anyway.


[*] SPOILER WARNING: I do give them points for the ending in which 6 takes over from 2 and plans to create a new, happier Village. All the way through he's been saying "I am not a number": although he thinks he's "won", he's only done this by becoming a number, so he's really "lost". That's not a bad reading of the impenetrable final instalment of the original.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Cardinal Ratzinger "Not An Anglican" Shock

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fish Custard (7)

The one with the Vampires is an altogether lighter romp than the previous five episodes, driven by some perfectly harmless gobbledegook. (Naturally, giant fish with cloaking devises don't have a reflection in the mirror, except when they do, because, er...)

Where the one with the Angels was a backdrop for some heavy stuff between the Doctor and Amy and some more clues about River Bloody Song, this was a backdrop to develop the relationship between Amy and Rory. Although he appears in episode 1, this is the first time we've really seen him as a character: in terms of what is going to happen over the next two weeks, it's pretty imperative that we like him. Which, I think, during this story, we pretty much do. He's a buffoon, but a nice buffoon, pointlessly trying to repel the not-vampire with a cross; jealous about the Doctor and Amy but not getting into a Mickey type strop about it. A running thread through Old New Who was that the Doctor is an inspirational figure, changing the lives of everyone he comes across. So it is very pointed and clever for Rory, the gormless normal guy to see through this or at any rate spot the downside of it. The Doctor, just by being the Doctor, inspires people to take risks which may harm them or get them killed.

But mostly, this story was a very agreeable piece of padding; showing us the Doctor and Amy having an adventure and quite enjoying it -- putting across to us the idea that they travel together and have fun travelling together, and that while dangerous stuff happens all the time every single minute isn't as incredibly heavy and angst ridden as last week's story was and next week's story is going to be.

There are Vampire myths in every civilisation in the universe, because the Time Lords had a big war with creatures called The Vampire Lords who drained whole planets of their energy, but who, so far as I know, didn't have heralds on shiny surfboards. However, at the very end of time, the Earth becomes so polluted that the human race evolve into Haemovores who drink blood, dislike sunlight, hang out around graveyards, take boats to Whitby and recoil from crosses. And hammer and sickles. Hammers and sickle. (*) But that's no reason that fish people who drain the water from humans shouldn't have vampirey attributes as well, because the Doctor Who universe is a self-consistent fictitious cosmology which makes perfect sense. When the First Doctor met an animatronic Dracula at a futuristic funfair, he assumed that it was, not a haemovore or a vampire lord or a fish-thing, but that he was in an alien dimension where human nightmares had somehow come to life, and got a jolly stiff cease and desist letter from Universal Pictures a result. I'm sorry. What was the question again?

[*] Radio 4 newsreaders still say things like: "The MOD has announced that three soldiers will face Courts Martial...."


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.