Friday, July 23, 2010

Fish Custard [18]

The real adventure in Moby Dick is the one that happens inside Ahab. The rest is a fishing trip. Salman Rushdie

So. I am watching The Big Bang.
And I realise: this is not "The Eleventh Doctor". This is "The Doctor". There have been other Doctors in the past. There will be other Doctors in the future. There will come a time when there weren't "three Doctors" or "five Doctors", but merely "Doctors". A time when Bill Hartnell and even Tom Baker will be forgotten and a series of pictures of every actor to have played the role will be as obscure and meaningless as a list of every artist to have drawn Superman.
This isn't Doctor Who. This is Doctor Who. This isn't Doctor Who. This is Doctor Who.

You know, in retrospect, the really big change that happened during this season? At the beginning of The Lodger, which I may have mentioned that I rather liked, it's mentioned that Craig has a spare room because his previous flatmate inherited a fortune from an uncle he didn't even know he had. "How convenient," says the Doctor. And at the very end, so off-hand and in passing that I missed it, the Doctor says "Must remember to go back and alter that will."
Always before, there have been stern warnings, or at the very least, payment of lip service to gobbledegook rules which say that the Doctor can't change established history. But now we have a Doctor who messes around with Time in a cavalier way. The show is about Time Travel in a way that it just never was before. Time of the Angels showed us a River Song who can step out of a space ship in the certain knowledge that one day, maybe a million years from now, the Doctor will hear of her predicament and come back and rescue her. In one sense, this is a very logical answer to the question: "What would the universe be like if it contained just one man with a Time Machine?" River's invulnerability is a logical consequence of taking Doctor Who literally: just as much as Mickey having excrement put through his letterbox by neighbours who think he's murdered Rose was a logical consequence of taking Doctor Who literally. But it's much more fun.
The audacious first scene of The Pandorica Opens kicks Doctor Who into the realms of Time Bandits. All of time and space is now just a playground across which "stuff" can happen. Time Travel is what Doctor Who is about: so why shouldn't it be happening in four or five time periods at once? Why shouldn't Van Gogh paint a message to the Doctor and know, for certain, that it will eventually come into his hands? Why shouldn't Winston Churchill have a phone which connects to 3,000 years in the future? (The idea that Churchill can just phone up the Doctor feels so right. Winston and the Queen and Mummy and Daddy and Father Christmas and Doctor Who are all in a grown ups club and you aren't a member.) But the Doctor's manipulation of Time in The Big Bang – popping from a point after he's been rescued to tell Rory how to rescue him – is pure Bill and Ted.
I loved Bill and Ted. "An amiable enough pair of cretins" Barry Norman called them. I could never take the Matrix seriously. I so wanted Neo to say "How's it hanging Morpheus dude?" I'd never seen a story in which Time Travel was used so irresponsibly. Of course it was okay to muck around with history so that a particular future that you happen to like comes into being. Of course, if you were confronted with a locked room and had a time machine, the sensible thing to do would be to tell yourself that at some point in the future you would come back in time and put the keys in a place where you would be bound to find them.
The Pandorica Opens ends on the most over-the-top cliffhanger in the history of Doctor Who. The Doctor is in an impregnable prison, the TARDIS has been destroyed, the universe is about to be destroyed. It is solved, almost literally, by the Doctor going back in time and bribing the architect to put in an escape hatch.
Waters of Mars was about the only story from the second half of the Russell T Davies regime that I had any time for. But I was disappointed that the very, very dark climax – where the Doctor realises that he is the only Time Lord in the universe and therefore free to do whatever he likes – was not followed through. I had suspected that this new, hubristic Doctor would become the much threatened Dark Doctor and that the season climax would involve his previous companions banding together to defeat him. I speculated that this Doctor-turned-evil might be the terrible thing hidden in the Pandorica.
But now we see that it was followed through. Up to now, the Doctor has always felt, at some level, bound by the Laws of Time. Now the Laws of Time no longer exist, he can do what he wants. But what he wants is to have fun: not an evil Doctor, but a happy, impish, joyful Doctor, a Doctor who, in the face of the total destruction of everything that ever existed or ever will exist and his own death...decides that fezzes are cool. This is what the Time Lord Triumphant looks like.

Davies' penchant for over-the-top season climaxes never sat very easily with me. If there is an essence of Doctor Who, which there plainly isn't, it's little small scale stories, half a dozen scientists on a space ship being picked off by two or three Cybermen. Horror of Fang Rock and Ark in Space are the archetypal (not necessarily the best) Doctor Who stories. Doctor Who can, indeed, do "epic", but epic Who has usually been a matter of width, not volume. Dalek Masterplan and Frontier In Space felt "big" because the Doctor trekked through lots and lots of different environments in the course of the adventure: not because a hundred billion million Zulus coming over the hill.
So, yes, it is sort of fun for there to be an armada of every Doctor Who baddie converging on Stonehenge and it is certainly sort of fun when they all surround the Doctor in the catacomb. But this kind of thing always feels to me like Disneyland or, worse, like Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars. Snow White lives next to Winnie-the-Pooh, not because we've imagined a fun fairy tale world in which they might peacefully co-exist, but because they are both Trade Marks of the Disney Corporation. I suppose it is possible to picture a Doctor Who universe such that Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans might come together in an alliance. But one feels that what's really linking them together is simply that they are all "Doctor Who monsters".
But under all the noise, Moffat is actually writing very, very small. The real action in The Pandorica Opens episode 1 takes place in a series of catacombs under Stonehenge: about as old Who a setting as you could want – corridors for goodness sake. And a large chunk of the action consists of Amy being menaced not by an army of Cybermen, not by one Cybermen, but by the dismembered head of one Cyberman – a scene which plays on peoples fear of spiders and snakes and skulls and is as genuinely scary as anything I can remember in Who Old or New.
Be honest: you jumped when the mask snapped open to reveal the skull.

Charles Dickens said that people complained that Our Mutual Friend was spoiled because they guessed the true identity of Rokesmith too easily. He found this odd because he thought he had been going out of his way to make it obvious. I thought I was being terribly smart, stroking my beard and saying sagely "Ah. The most dangerous being in the universe, imprisoned in the Pandorica. Who could it be but the Doctor!" The first episode carried a punch that it arguably didn't earn because all the way through I was waiting for find out what was in the box – but the only reason I cared about what was in the box was because "what is in the box?" had been set up in advance as "something which is going to surprise you". But the twist is an absolute classic: yes, the Pandorica opens, yes, the thing in the box is the Doctor – you were meant to get that – but the box isn't opening to let him OUT, but to put him IN, you dunderhead.

Some people (for example, me) complained about the extensive use of "plot devices" in Old New Who. Some of those people haven't minded the equally shameless use of the "plot devices" in New New Who nearly as much.
There are two reasons for this.
1: We are so pleased that RTD is gone that we will forgive Moffat anything.
2: When lots of other fun stuff is happening, you can forgive the occasional, or, let's be honest, frequent, hand-wave. Yes, in the cold light of day the whole of Flesh and Stone was a sequence of arbitrary manoeuvres in which the baddy developed a new power and the hero developed a new circumstance which would counteract the new power. But the "running around getting captured and escaping" part was so clearly nothing more than a net in which to catch the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and River it really didn't matter.
3: Moffat does it so much much better than RTD.
That's three reasons.

The typical RTD plot device when something like this.
ASSISTANT: Oh my god! Cosmic bibbles!
DOCTOR: Nothing in the universe can destroy cosmic bibbles.
ASSISTANT: We are doomed.
DOCTOR: Unless...unless this Cosmic Bibble Repellent I happen to have in pocket repels cosmic Bibbles.
ASSISTANT Whew – that was close!

The typical SM plot device goes more like this

DOCTOR: Have you seen my Wibble? It tastes nice, but Cosmic Bibbles find it repulsive.
DOCTOR: Careful, mustn't drop my Wibble. That would really repel any Cosmic Bibbles who happened to be passing.
ASSISTANT: Oh my God! Cosmic Bibbles!
DOCTOR: We're doomed!
ASSISTANT: But didn't you mention three episodes ago that you had something called, I forget...

DOCTOR: Brilliant! We can use my Wibble. It repels Cosmic Bibbles, you know.
The notion of "rebooting the universe" is beyond ridiculous. However, we had already been told, over a number of weeks.
a: That mysterious cracks existed in every part of the universe simultaneously
b: That they were caused by the TARDIS exploding in every part of the universe simultaneously
c: That things that go into the Cracks cease to exist retrospectively
d: That light from the Pandorica brings things that have disappeared through the Crack back into existence.
Ergo – when the whole universe is destroyed, the Doctor collides the TARDIS (explodes everywhere at once) with the Pandorica (magic bringy things back light) and brings the whole universe back. I wouldn't go so far as to say "perfectly logical", but...
It really all depends on the audacity of the telling. The stuff which is going on in the foreground is such fun that we are disinclined to complain, or notice, lapses in logic. I don't think anyone actually expected Amy to be properly dead; but we did expect that the Doctor would have to do something incredibly clever to save her. So far as I can tell, the actual explanation is that she's only mostly dead, and that the inescapable prison which the Doctor has just escaped from also functions as a resurrection chamber.
But this isn't what we see. What we see is pretty much a classic bit of conjurer's misdirection. We know that the Doctor is in the box. We know that the Doctor has to get out of the box. We know that the box with the Doctor in it is in the museum. We know that a mysterious stranger is sending messages to Little Amelia telling her to go to the museum and open the box (with the Doctor in it.) Little Amelia goes to the museum and opens the box (with the Doctor in it). And out of the box (with the Doctor in it) steps...the adult, and supposedly dead, Amy.
Does it "make sense?" We're so delighted that we really don't care.

Or, at any rate, I don't. I think this is why New New Who elicits such a Marmite reaction. It is visceral. It talks to our gut. It speaks to people who feel what Moffat feels about dreams and stories and childhood; who agree with him that dreams and stories and childhood and fairy tales are all inextricably bound up with a crazy little thing called Doctor Who. Mr Lawrence Miles may be an arse, but his remark that Doctor Who is his native mythology may be the truest thing that anyone has ever said. [*]
Fantasy and fairy tales (and mythology and religion and poetry) very largely bypass the conscious, rational mind and address the emotions. That's why proper serious science fiction fans like them so little. Proper serious science fiction fans are logical and rational and love to build things with Mecanno. Ursula La Guin [**] as we know, talks about "the language of the night" as opposed to "the language of the day." Good stories, she thinks, are both descriptions of things that happened in the real world, and collections of symbols which only make sense according to dream logic. If you read the Lord of the Rings logically, then Gollum is an avaricious, greedy hobbit who's lived a long time because of a magic item. But if you read it by dream logic, then you can easily see that Frodo and Gollum are one character split into two figures. Or three if you count Sam. Some people can't, or won't understand that a story can be dream-like and conclude that the Lord of the Rings is morally simplistic. And Moby Dick is only a fishing story. Some people are revolted, actually revolted, by the whole idea of fantasy. Lewis says it's like a phobia. Le Guin thinks it's about repression. If fantasy tells the truth about the unconscious mind in dream language, then of course some people can't bear to read fantasy. Why would they want to delve into the soully unconsciousy things? Some people who were quite happy to agree to disagree with me about the Phantom Menace have got positively angry with me for liking New New Who.
But it's probably just a matter of taste, like putting sugar in coffee or spreading salty yeast extract on your crumpets. A while back, on or somewhere, someone said that he liked almost every kind of booze but had never enjoyed whisky. Should he try a more expensive brand? Try it with ice, or without ice? With a mixer? Go to a tutored tasting? After all, everyone says that a good single malt is about the finest liquor money (and its often quite a lot of money) can buy.
"Maybe," said a sensible correspondent "You just don't like whisky."

At the very very beginning, this season functioned perfectly well according to daylight logic. It was merest coincidence that the Doctor arrived in Amy's garden when she was asking Santa to send her a helper. The Doctor is very definitely real: the vagaries of Time Travel mean he disappears for a few years. We see it from his point of view: Amy is a little girl one minute and grown woman the next. That must be what the world looks like it to him all the time. But we also see it from Amy's point of view: the Doctor is a man who turned up from nowhere and disappeared again. Her family THINK he was only ever an "imaginary friend". When he comes back, it's AS IF her imaginary friend became real.
But this isn't enough for Moffat. Oh, no, no, no, no. He can't just say "The Doctor is like an imaginary friend who came to life." He has to say "The Doctor actually is an imaginary friend who came to life." The whole season plays around with ideas about dreams and memories. Braceman the android can become a human being (and therefore not a Dalek controlled bomb) if he embraces and feels and holds onto his artificial memories. Amy must choose which of the Dream Lord's realities is real, which is to say, which one she wants to be real. And over and over and over we are told that things which fall through cracks in space cease to exist – retrospectively wiped from existence – but at some level carry on existing if people remember them.
It's popular for the more dippy kind of book about death and bereavement to assure you that death is a state of being where you "continue to exist in the memory of others." Well, yes. I have a real memory of my grandmother in my mind: it is subjective and real to me, but I can't pass the qualia of that memory on to you. The most I can do is describe her to you, in words: but what you'll then have is not a memory of my grandmother, but a memory of me describing my grandmother to you. So a "story" in the sense of a work of fiction is like the memory of a person who never lived, or an event which never happened. When the Doctor falls out of the universe he become, in Amy's world, exactly what he always has been in ours. We are all stories in the end.
I don't understand, according to the Language of the Day why the Doctor comes back into the universe simply because Amy's remembers him. But we've been told so frequently, through the series that there is a magical connection between remembering things and things returning from the Crack that it really, really, really doesn't matter. By this point, you are either in the poetical fairy tale dream logical world that Moffat has built, or you aren't. You are either laughing and crying at the same time when Amy recites "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" or you aren't. Maybe the universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor.

The wind back through time is stunning: the kind of thing poor Russell was completely failing to do at the end of the End of Time. I did of course, spot that the Doctor in Flesh and Stone (the one who tells Amy that she must remember what he told her when she was a little girl) was wearing a jacket, even though that jacket had been pointedly left in the hands of a Weeing Angel. Or at any rate, I noticed it once it had been pointed out to me. But I assumed that it was a mere production error, one of those little lacunae that asexual bus-spotters read far too much into. When it turned out the jacketed Doctor was indeed, a Doctor from the future travelling backwards through time, my jaw literally dropped. But the real point of the "rewind" scene was Doctor's monologue to the sleeping child. The Doctor was little Amy's imaginary friend; Amy's imaginary friend has now created, or recreated, the universe; the person who created the universe is watching over Amy while she sleeps. If you absolutely insist on turning the Doctor into God, this is the way to do it.
Is this "fetishising" the Doctor? Yes and no. The Doctor created the universe, and died to save it, and watches over little children while they sleep; but this only works if they believe in him. But he's only a story, but that doesn't matter, because stories are important. It's not a subtle message. But it is, at least, a message. If the Doctor is now God, it's because the script has presented him to us as godlike: not simply because he has stolen some of Jesus' kudos by sticking his arms out in a cruciform pose.
Davies used the Doctor simply as an iconic figure. He was important because he was wearing an "I am important" badge. In Last of the Time Lords everyone worships him; in Next Doctor, everyone applauds him; in Planet of the Dead, everyone loves him; in Fear Her...No, let's not even talk about Fear Her. They love, worship and applaud him simply because he has the title of Doctor. Nothing in the episodes have earned that love.
Amy doesn't love the Doctor because he's got Jesus symbols attached to him, or because it's the appropriate thing to do to the star of the show, or even because he's saved the universe. She loves him because he's himself. Very old and very kind. Weird. Fun. Grumpy. And for the first time since the re-launch, that's why I'm watching the programme. Not because it has a label which says "this has a sort of connection with a programme you liked when you are a kid". Not because I would be an ungrateful fan if I didn't boost the ratings. Not because any Who – CD, American, comic book, cartoon – is better than no Who. I'm watching because the Doctor is old and kind and weird and fun and grumpy. I'm watching it because the programme is itself and would be even if there had never been a programme called Doctor Who ever before.

When you ask the wrong kind of fan to explain what Doctor Who is all about, they are apt to say "He's the reincarnation of the Other Time Lord. You see, after the Pythian curse, Rassilon created knitting machines which..." When you ask the wrong kind of American, he says "..A Time Lord has 13 lives, and the Master had already used all of his..." But when Moffat needs a line which sums up Doctor Who, he writes "A daft old man who stole a magic box." That, in a nutshell, is why Season 5 works at and Seasons 1 - 4 didn't. Because it's being produced by someone who, at a deep level, gets what Doctor Who is all about.
It's about time.

[*] "If you read, say, the work of Salman Rushdie... .there's a lot of material in there that comes from traditional Indian culture, there are lots of links to Indian mythology. Which doesn't mean he has to believe in gods with the heads of elephants, obviously. It's just part of his background, those are the symbols he grew up with. That's more or less the way I feel about Doctor Who. I've got a pretty low opinion of a lot of the original episodes, but it's still my home territory. "
[**] As proper and serious a science fiction writer as one could hope to meet, so don't pay any attention to anything I say.

to be concluded

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Mike Taylor said...

I would LOVE to say something deeply insightful here, but it seems Andrew has used up all the insightfulness. So I have nothing to add beyond a big, heartfelt YES and a big of sotto-voce grumbling along the lines of "I still think you were a bit over-harsh on RTD".

Mike Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve H said...

***even though that jacket had been pointedly left in the hands of a Weeing Angel.***

I bet that this new character of the Weeing Angel is just like me. When I'm in the Gents, if anyone is watching, I just freeze up and can't do it. Shy kidneys? Or quantum locked bladder? Who can say.