Thursday, May 16, 2013

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)

But your anchor chain's a fetter, and with it you are tethered to the foam
And I wouldn't trade your life for one day of home

I've been watching Merlin. It's often funny and sometimes exciting. 

There was an episode in Season 4 where Morgana Le Baddie stole a magic cup from the druids. The magic cup made her soldiers immortal, as long as it had some of their blood in it. So Merlin had to go and upset the magic cup. There were lots of scenes of knights fighting immortal soldiers, which were quite fun, but everything depended on Merlin. (The fate of a great kingdom rests in the hands of a young boy, apparently.) 

Art is contrivance; this kind of thing is certainly contrived. It's how computer games are written: you want the hero to be rushing through the castle avoiding immortal knights, so you come up with a silly plot device to give him an excuse to do that, as opposed to working out what the baddie might plausibly try to do and then work out what Merlin might plausibly try to do to stop her. 

But throughout the episode, I was thinking: Merlin is trying to spill the blood from Morgana le Baddie's magic cup. I wonder how Merlin is going to get past all those immortal knights and spill the magic cup. 

I get Merlin.

I know what Merlin's for. Saturday tea-time fantasy for kids and big kids. The characters are well drawn enough for me to care. I've even come to terms with the way they say "And I'm like, so, "fie on thee", innit?" At first I pretended it was a way of showing that the young people spoke a mix of Latin and French, or possibly French and Vernacular. Now I think it's just the way speak on Merlin. 

But Doctor Who? I love it to bits, but I increasingly just don't get it. 

The Doctor and Amy are climbing down the rope ladder. 

I catch myself thinking: "Why are they here?" 

I realise I have no idea. I wonder if it matters. I think probably not. 

I think they have beamed down to a planet full of mad Daleks to do something real important. 

And there sure are lots of Daleks. 

And there are little in-jokes for Doctor Who fans. (That's me! They still believe in me!) The doors in the corridors are triangular -- Dalek shaped -- not human shaped. And the surveillance cameras are shaped like Dalek eye-stalks. And the mad Daleks look like all the different Dalek designs there have been right back to the 1960s, which is kind of cool, but also kind of an admission that the recent vacuum cleaner / tellytubby design was a mistake, which is a shame, because I rather liked it. 

I do not know why there is a Dalek parliament when up to now they have always been an Empire. I just watched the footage of the two old special effects guys talking about making the big battle from Evil of the Daleks in 196something (a DVD extra on Revelation of the Daleks.) They refer to the Emperor Daleks as the Dalek Queen. That's about right, isn't? Mad insects? The Red Tellytubby Dalek was said to be the Drone. I suppose if RTD could make them religious fantastics, SM can make them democrats. Evil democrats. Evil fascist democrats. 

What are we doing here? Trying to shut down a force field, I think, because a space ship crashed through and made a big hole in it, so all the mad Daleks could get out and the sane Daleks would like to blow up the whole planet, but they can't because of the force field, which can only be shut down from the inside and Daleks are too scared to shut it down themselves so they kidnap their worst enemy and force him to do it and also his best friends because they know he needs friends and there is a lady who is going to be the next companion who keeps going on about soufflĂ©. 

So, anyway, the Doctor and Amy are on the end of a rope, and it isn't about why they are there or if it makes sense, because Doctor Who is not about scaring kids with scary monsters (the Daleks are not scary) or exciting excitable geeks with cool hardware (the hardware is undeniably cool). All that is just a mechanism to get to the big Soap Opera moment.

Watching Doctor Who because the Daleks are scary-cool? That's crazy talk. 

Thing is, I think I get soap opera. I may not listen to much Archers or any Eastenders, but I think I get what it's for and things I like like Spider-Man and X-Men and Buffy are basically soaps. 

You have a character. And they have very strong, very fixed personalities; and each character has a very strong, very fixed relationship to each other character. And something happens which disrupts the status quo, and everyone worries about it and talks about it a lot and then they come up with a solution which either creates a new status quo or returns us to the original status quo; so there is perpetual change but perpetual staying the same. Bruce is the studious, well-behaved one, but this week, he doesn't hand in his homework and skips school. And it turns out that this is because he has a crush on Sheila who's not so clever and hangs out with the wrong crowd. So there is conflict between Bruce, the tough teacher who wants to kick Bruce out of school, and Bruce, the young teacher who wants to give him another chance. So maybe in the end Sheila, Bruce's sister, goes and talks to Sheila and persuades her that she's no good for Bruce and should break up with him. So the status quo is no re-established except that Bruce is now studious but sad, which makes him vulnerable to Bruce, who wants him to experiment with marijuana. (On Radio 4, that would be six months of story; in Australia, it would all be sorted out before the first advert break.) But it always cycles back to where it started. The characters don't change: if they did it wouldn't be a soap opera it would be a novel. 

Back in Season Five the Doctor whisked Amy away to have wonderful adventures on the night before she was supposed to be marrying Rory. Her whole fictional being is defined by this moment: will she stay with the Doctor forever, or go back and marry Rory. (There was an episode helpfully entitled Amy's Choice to clarify the point.) We know what she will eventually chose -- the rules of the show say she can't stay with the Doc forever; but we know that if she actually makes up her mind, she'd be out of the series. So she has to be permanently frozen in the moment of not making the choice. 

And, as we are going to carry on seeing, the choice between "staying with the Doctor" and "leaving the Doctor" is now what Doctor Who is about and almost the only thing Doctor Who is about. 

In The One With the Cybermats, last season, we discovered that since the Doctor left them on earth, some time had passed. Amy had become a successful model. Rory was still a nurse, but was still happy being a nurse. 

If this were a soap-opera we would have seen how Amy's glamorous lifestyle puts pressure on her relationship with Rory, and we would see this come to a crisis, and there would be a resolution. (Option 1: Rory quits nursing and becomes a model. Option 2: Amy quits modelling and becomes a nurse Option 3: They have a chat and discover that they are both in fact pretty happy with the way things are.) In fact, we skip over the whole soap opera and rejoin the story when Amy and Rory have already split up. The whole edifice of insane Daleks is only there to engineer the big scene when Amy and Rory realise they want to get back together so they can carry on failing to decide whether to stay with the Doctor or have a settled life at home. 

Because that's all they can do: that's all that ever happens to them. Their entire raison d'etre is to be perpetually separating and perpetually realising how much they love each other. They are like Itchy and Scratchy, never dead, but perpetually frozen in an infinite number of variations on the moment of killing each other. 

The Doctor talks about his life being made up of a succession of high points and interesting days -- living outside of time he can skip the boring ones. And this is increasingly SMs philosophy of narrative: straight from point A to point C without any need to pass through point B. We don't see Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall; we don't even see Humpty Dumpty having a great fall. We just see him in an endless state of having just fallen and being put back together again. 

But point B is where everything happens. Point B is what we normally mean by story. 

When Amy notices that the Doctor notices that she and Rory have fallen out, she also notices him straightening his bow tie. Straightening your bow tie is the sort of mannerism any actor might give a bow tie wearing character, like Captain Picard pulling his tunic down in ever scene of Star Trek. First the audience starts to notice it; then the characters start to notice it; then the writers start to notice it; and if you are not careful the whole character becomes Bow Tie Straightening Guy. When Amy tells the Doctor that she and Rory have actually divorced, and the Doctor is sad, she says that it isn't something he can sort out as easily as straightening his bow tie. 

But when it turns out that there are only two oxygen masks between the three of them, Rory says that he loves Amy more than Amy loves him, which causes Amy, who divorced him not an hour and a half ago, to say that in fact she loves him more than he loves her which is WHY she divorced him. She loves him so much that she thinks he'll be happier without her, because (pulled out of thin air) he wants kids and she can't have kids due to (pulled out of thin air) what eye-patch lady did to her last season. So they are both trying to give the other one the only oxygen mask, and it turns out that in fact there are two oxygen masks because the Doctor doesn't need an oxygen mask due his special Time Lords Lungs so the whole silly mess with the divorce is solved. And as Rory goes off and sells his watch to buy Amy some hair and Amy goes off and sells her hair to buy Rory a watch, we get a close up of the Doctor straightening his bow tie; from which we infer: he deliberately gave them the impression that there was only on oxygen mask, in order to force them to admit that they are still in love. He planned the whole thing. He did sort it out. All of which, you have to infer from the tie straightening motion. Which, on a first viewing, I didn't. 

They aren't oxygen masks but special time lordy bracelet thingies to counter act special turn-humans-into-daleks-pixie dust. Oxygen masks will do. 

Is there a good literary critical word for overloading things with symbolism in this way? Over-coding, perhaps, or entanglement? Is this the sort of thing which young people who are used to moving pictures find very intuitive, and us oldies struggle with? Or perhaps it is there to be spotted by people who are nearly as old as Doctor Who, and completely missed by the young people who may be visually literate but only ever half-watch anything, having a blackberry in their eye and an an Ipad in their ear? I'm not saying it isn't terribly, terribly clever. 

Or is it, like, "There never was a tie-straightening scene, Andrew, oh ghohhhd if you want Doctor Who to be like Crime and Punishment go and read Crime and Punishment and stop finding things in a kids cartoon show that are Just. Not. There." 

I do not want Doctor Who to be like Crime and Punishment. I want Doctor Who to be like Merlin. What I would like best of all would be for it to be like Doctor Who.

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