Thursday, September 24, 2015

8.6 The Caretaker

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. 

Back in 2010, I compared The Lodger with a certain brand of yeasty salty spreadable toast accompaniment. It will, I said, divide Who fans, even as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats. On the left will be the people who are in tune with with what the Matt Smith era is about; on the right will be the ones who are simply not.

The Caretaker is a similar pitch to The Lodger. I suspect it will divide fans for similar reasons.

The Lodger took the Doctor out of his TARDIS comfort zone and dumped him in an ordinary environment – as James Cordon’s flat mate. There was an alien, but we could all see that it was a Perfunctory Alien. The actual alien was Matt Smith. If you liked watching Matt Smith being alien — if you think everything that Doctor Matt did lit up the room, even when it wasn't a particularly interesting room — then the Lodger was the Bestest Ever Story about the Bestest Ever Doctor. If you found Matty Smith irritating, or if you were basically still sore that Jon Pertwee quit, then this was the episode that turned you off Doctor Who for good. Everyone knows which side I’m on. 

So: this week the Doctor announces that he is going into deep cover and pretending to be a normal human for a while. (Two weeks ago he was trying to imagine what a critter that could hide perfectly would be like, and spooking himself out over it.) He gets a job as a Caretaker in Wonderful Clara’s school. He pretends to be human, which he is very bad at, and therefore oddly fits in as the Grumpy Caretaker. The Grumpy Caretaker is one of the stock clich├ęs of school stories, along with the sexy English teacher (played here by Wonderful Clara) and the sadistic P.E teacher. Back in Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Sylvester pretended to go for a caretaking job at this very school and was told he was overqualified for it. There is a Harold Pinter play called the Caretaker. Harold Pinter almost certainly never played a Yeti. There is a Perfunctory Robot, but like the Lodger, this is mainly a character piece. 

But it isn’t a character piece about us getting to know the Doctor. It isn’t a character piece about what would happen if the Doctor came to your school. (Imagine Doctor Matt as Caretaker! Rewiring the slide projector so that it showed 3D pictures; making champagne spew out of the soft drinks machine without quite intending to...) It’s a character piece about Wonderful Clara and Pink Danny. Clara has been keeping Danny a secret from the Doctor for no very good reason. This is a kind of obligatory episode which tells us how the Doctor finds out about Danny and how Danny finds out about the Doctor. Maybe you see it as a bit of a filler that we need to move the sub-plot forward. Or you may think this kind of rom-com scenario is what the series is really interested in, and it’s stuff like “the Doctor and Clara meet Robin Hood” and “the Doctor and Clara rob a bank for good and adequate reasons” that are the fillers. 

For better or worse, I think that the latter is probably the case. Deep Breath, Listen and Caretaker feel as if they are part of one TV series, telling one story, filmed and acted in a mostly similar style. Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist feel completely different – both to this, and to each other. Yes, I know that Horror of Fang Rock isn’t exactly the same as Talons of Weng Chiang and Talons of Weng Chiang isn’t exactly the same as the Invisible Enemy but my point stands.

There are some good gags and some less good gags. 

I thought it was quite funny that Doctor Peter takes it for granted that Clara is dating the Other English Teacher who looks exactly like Doctor Matt, and is perfectly okay with it. (I shouldn’t think that there is a single English teacher in England who talks or dresses like that and studying the Tempest is about knowing the key points which are likely to come up in an exam, not what Mr Chips feels about the “fascinating enigma of it’s fundamental non-finishedness.”) I quite like the long-suffering headteacher, the disastrous parents evening and the problem child’s awful parents. I actually even quite liked the problem child, although I don’t buy the Doctor giving her a ride in the TARDIS and sincerely hope that’s the last we see of her.

And in fact the mutual revelations about Danny, the Doctor and Clara are pretty well handled. I felt embarrassed for Clara and sad for Danny when it came out that she’d been deceiving him and pleased for both of them that he took it fairly well, and cross with the Doctor for being pointlessly jealous. Particularly him arbitrarily deciding that Danny must be a PE Teacher. Does anybody want to make the case that that was Ever-So-Slightly Racist? Does anyone else want to explain that PE teachers haven’t been like that for years? But the programme has gone off in a pretty weird direction when “I was cross with the Doctor” is a point in its favour. 

I could have done without Danny doing a Matrix-style slow-motion leap over the Perfunctory Robot to save Clara. Not because I don’t think he should have saved Clara. As yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea could see from the set-up that it was going to finish with Danny saving the day. But we probably don’t need to equate “soldier” quite so clearly with “action figure.” 

So. Which side are you on?

There are going to be people who are going to say that Doctor Who has no right to be doing stories about the relationship between the Companion and the Doctor and the Companion’s Boyfriend because Doctor Who is about monsters and saving the world and relationship-stories are not allowed. On this view, the whole idea of Companions is deeply suspect. When Old Who was still New people openly complained that Rose had no right to exist because the title of the show was Doctor Who as opposed to The Amazing Adventures of Chav Woman. (They really, really did.) A friend of mine recently said that he had attempted to re-frame season 5 - 8 as The Adventures of Amy and Her Time Travelling Friend to see if that made him like it any better. 

This seems to be the same kind of thinking (though not, obviously, to anything like the same degree) as that of J.C Wright and his canine buddies, who see the intrusion of a lady or a black person — any lady or any black person — into any story as evidence that no one is allowed to be white or male any more. It is obviously true that Rose and Clara have more agency than companions did in the olden days. I myself have complained that there is a tendency for New Who to over-sell companions, starting with Rose’s transformation into Dark Phoenix and ending with Clara accidentally creating the entire franchise. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Presenting the companions as people doesn’t mean that the Doctor is now less of a person. 

If you are on this side of the divide, then presumably you hate the whole idea of the Caretaker and are not reading this. 

On the other hand, there are always going to be people who say that Doctor Who always was about the relationship between the Doctor and his lady friends, that fans had sexual hangups that prevented them from seeing this, that memory plays tricks and that the Caretaker is not really that different from tons of stuff in the Old Series. If you are on that side of the divide, then presumably you think that the Caretaker is what Doctor Who was always like and are not quite sure why I am making all this fuss about it. 

I guess my position is this.

It doesn’t matter what Doctor Who “ought” to be. It is unfair to continually compare a new programme with an old programme; and definitely unfair to compare a real programme with an imaginary programme you’ve made up in your head. The true definition of Doctor Who is whatever happened in Doctor Who last week, and always has been.

On the other hand; you have to play to your strengths. A cop show probably should mostly be about a cop solving crimes. The cop is allowed to be cleverer and more observant than any one real policeman could ever be, and “forensics” are probably allowed to produce plot devices that no real forensics team could possibly produce; but if a fairy pops up and tells Frost whodunnit; or if Morse discovers the murder was committed by a ghost, well, that’s cheating. It’s also cheating to sell us a fairy story and then have a cop turn up and fob us off with a perfectly rational explanation on the last page. Unless the whole point is a big twist about what genre we are in mumble mumble Sixth Sense mumble mumble. But you have to do that sort of thing awfully well for the audience not to feel cheated. 

So it is probably not a good idea to sell us a series about explosions and robots — to show us trailers involving explosions and robots — and then reveal that really, it’s not an exploding robot story, it's a kissing story. 

On the other hand, and this being science fiction I am quite entitled to have three hands, by now, everyone knows that Doctor Who is, or partly is, or sometimes is, a romantic comedy about the Doctor, Clara and Danny (or the Doctor, Amy and Rory; or the Doctor, Rose and Mickey, and no, until I started typing this sentence I hadn’t realised that human boyfriends all have names ending in a Y.) 

I don’t really buy the premise. I never have done. I don’t accept that someone would be exploring the universe with the Doctor and at the same time worrying about whether or not she made a date with a colleague who she only met a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think that the kinds of people who worry about keeping appointments become explorers and adventurers. 

There are people who, offered the chance to spend two years living among the aforementioned previously undiscovered tribes in New Guinea would reply “No, I don’t want to do that, I would miss my kids’ birthday party.” And there are ones who would say “Yes: I will sacrifice everything, even family and friendship, for the sake of Adventure. I would walk naked into a live volcano if it meant I could learn something that no other man knew.”  Me, I don’t specially care if I die without seeing the Taj Mahal. I’d like to go to New York some day. But as Sam Gamgee spotted; the people who stay at home don’t get stories written about them. 

But I am happy to accept the premise. The big question is: is Steven Moffat? Is this definitely the story he wants to tell? Are Clara and Danny real grown up people who are in love? Is their relationship going to proceed to a plausible ending, happy or tragic, and are we going to properly deal with the consequences of that ending? If this answer is "yes" then this was an installment of a very good unfolding story. The problem kicks in if next week, they stop being grown up characters and become action figures again.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

This is a song. It is one of the nicest songs by one my favorite bands. It is not about politics: it is about football. But it sort of sums up my feelings at the end of a week in which I have joined a political party for the first time in my life; and for the first time in my life do not feel entirely cynical about politics.

Perhaps Jeremy could adopt it as his campaign anthem.

8.5 Time Heist

In 1926, mystery surrounded Agatha Christie, who was discovered staying at a Harrogate hotel eleven days after disappearing from her home. She had become distressed after learning her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although in his defense, he claimed that the policeman did it.
I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue

In this week's episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companions are in terrible danger. Does he have a plan to get them out of it?  "My personal plan is that a thing will probably happen quite soon”. 

Last week, at the crucial moment, Wonderful Clara realized how the TARDIS telepathic circuits worked, she said that she thought the could "do a thing". When asked to explain her plan, she replied "it's not a plan, it's a thing." 

Two weeks before that, when they were trapped inside a Dalek, the Doctor and Clara both separately said that they were going to do "a clever thing".

Four years ago when Doctor Who was good, Matt Smith delivered what, at the time, seemed like a funny line. River Bloody Song had asked him how he was going to save Amy, and he replied “I'll do a thing.” What thing, asks River. “I don't know. It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.” 

It was a nice hint about the Doctor Matt's emerging persona. Smith’s Doctor admitted that he rarely knew what he was doing -- that he winged it, and then let people think that whatever happened was his plan after all. He himself was on some level pretending to be the Doctor and not quite sure he could pull it off. He said that he wouldn't know what he intended to do until he had finished talking about it or that he was going to do something incredibly clever that he hadn't even thought of yet.

But as soon as the Doctor says anything at all, that thing becomes a catchphrase, a cliche. One of those things which the Doctor says. Any scene in any episode can be given instant gravitas if the Doctor says something a bit like something he once said before. 

I wear a Scottish accent now. Scottish accents are cool. 


Having rebooted itself three times already this season, and deconstructed itself to death last week the only thing left for Doctor Who is to play about in the wreckage. If the character we knew as the Doctor basically doesn't exist then why not drop the bit that's left into a "high concept" action movie and see what happens. 

Nothing wrong with this story. Didn't need to be a Doctor Who story; but nothing wrong with it. Didn't see the twists coming. Didn't throw anything at the TV. 

The Doctor, Wonderful Clara, and two nondescript NPCs have been told by an unknown third party to rob a bank for an unknown purpose. They have amnesia, so they don't know why they agreed to it, or how they came to be there there. This is the sort of plot summary Douglas Adams came up with when he had writer's block, which was always. He hoped that if he just started writing, the blank bits would fill themselves in.

In fact, it turns out not to be so much a Hollywood Heist movie as a computer game based on a Hollywood Heist movie. The Doctor actually asks the supporting characters what their special powers are. The person who hired them as left helpful technological artifacts hidden all round the bank he wants them to rob.

It turns out that there is more to the person-who-hired them than meets the eye. The "robbery" is not all that it seems, either. Both twists are quite clever, but they seem to come out of Big Book of Quite Clever Twists. They are not twists which arise organically from the story -- twists which make sense but have been cunningly hidden with red herrings and false trails. They are ha-ha fooled you twists which muck about with the expected structure of the story. Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily. I once played a big computer RPG where you are a semi-amnesiac hero hunting down a dark lord who had vanished some years early and about halfway through it turns out, quite unexpectedly... Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. You can probably imagine how it turned out. I quite enjoy being quite surprised.

Old Old Who was a perfect TV format. The hero had a Time Machine that didn’t work and some companions who didn’t want to be there, and it would plonk both of them into a random location each week. The Time Travelers would get involved with whatever was happening in their randomly chosen destination. The TARDIS is a big blue answer to the question “what excuse is there for a hero to be in tenth century England one week and a far future super-bank the next week?” 

Once you have changed the set up (and I understand why the set up had to be changed) and allowed the Doctor to chose his destination each week, then you have to come up with more and more contrived pretexts for the Doctor to get involved in a plot. This week, the contrived pretext is a mysterious shadowy figure who turns out to be...oh, come on, surely you can guess? It's quite fun, of course. But each episode feels like a bigger, more horribly overwritten contrivance than the one before.

In the old days, last Autumn, what would have kept me watching the Doctor and some one-note supporting characters robbing the Biggest Bank In the Universe (a bit like the Biggest Library in the Universe) would have been Matt Smith. In the Old Old Days, it would have been Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy. These were Doctors who fascinated us, and more importantly, Doctors who it was impossible not to like.

Steven Moffat has cleverly come up with a Doctor who it is impossible to like. Colin Baker was meant to be an un-likable Doctor but after an interestingly deranged debut story he settled for being nice but sarcastic. Peter Capaldi is a Doctor who says things like “She is dead and we are alive. Prioritize if you want it to stay that way.” A Doctor who two weeks ago had “Doesn’t like soldiers” on his character sheet but is now talking like a sergeant major. Or a Dalek. Or, indeed, a P.E Teacher. Doctor Tom could occasionally be harsh, but he had a big grin and a bag of jelly babies and a twinkle in his eye. Doctor Capaldi couldn’t twinkle if he tried. 

Wonderful Clara is, I suppose, meant to be a counterpoint to the Nasty Doctor, just as Ace counterbalanced Sylvester McCoy and Evelyn counterbalanced Colin Baker. But all she actually does is walk around with a big arrow over her head saying "I AM WONDERFUL" and banter with him. 

Capaldi is a fine actor, of course. But he is beginning to look like a series wrecking piece of miscasting. 


Every word Andrew has written about Doctor Who in one handsome volume. 

And if you want Andrew to carry on writing about Doctor Who then please consider supporting him on Patreon. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

8.4 Listen

Stop your crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons-of-bitches
Who are waiting to exploit your life away
                Ewan MacColl

Is it ever so slightly incredibly racist for your one black character to be called “Mr Pink”? The black guy in The Mutants was notoriously called Mr Cotton. 

Has the Doctor’s relationship with Wonderful Clara gone beyond “Sherlock says amusingly inappropriate things, bless him” and become actually abusive? The remark about her make-up; the remark about what she looks like from behind: those are not things which an actual actual person would put up with from another actual person.

Matthew Waterhouse said that 80s scriptwriters cared so little about Adric that he had to assume he was playing a different character in each script. This week the artful dodger; next week, the comedy Bunter who munches his way through the entire buffet; then a geek who betrays the Doctor because it seems the logical thing to do; then a side-kick who hangs out with Uncle Doctor. I wonder if Jenna Coleman approaches Wonderful Clara the same way. Last week, flirting shamelessly with Robin Hood; this week, too shy to make small talk with a colleague over dinner. Two weeks ago the joke was that Danny was painfully shy and Wonderful Clara was bubbly and forward. 


Am I perhaps giving the impression here that I’m prepared to talk about everything apart from the actual episode? 

I try to be fair as well as subjective. Different people want different things out of TV shows. The kinds of people who like Doctor Who are no longer the kinds of people Doctor Who wants to be liked by. (S’triangulation, innit?) Other people liked this story. It was up for a Hugo and everything. It deserves a serious critique, not just me informing you whether it made me go “yummy” or “yuck”. 

But I am going to go with my gut instinct. 

I hated it. 


I didn’t hate it because it messed around with the Doctor’s background. I didn’t hate it because it was the second story to mess around with Doctor’s background in three weeks. I didn’t even hate it because it broke a long standing taboo and included flashbacks to the Doctor’s lost boyhood on Gallifrey. I hated it because it messed around with the Doctor’s background in an unimaginative and predictable way that didn’t even make sense on its own terms. 

Two weeks ago, we were told that the Doctor became the Doctor when he met the Daleks and realized that being the Doctor was all about not, definitely not, rampaging around the universe destroying all other forms of life. 

This time, we learn that the Doctor is the Doctor because Wonderful Clara visited him when he was a little boy and recited some motivational poster slogans about not being afraid of stuff.

What makes the Doctor the Doctor is not being evil and not being scared. 

Well, yeah. That’s sort of implicit in being the good guy. I am not sure it’s the sort of thing we need origin myths to explain. 

There is a scene in Very Old Who – The One About the Budgie From Atlantis, I think – where Doctor Jon cheers up Jo by telling him a story about his childhood. Turns out he had a mentor on Gallifrey who opened his mind on his darkest day. (He forced him to look, to look properly, at a daisy for the first time. Very Zen.) It was, even then, a little disconcerting to hear the Doctor talking about something which happened when he was “a little boy”. But Barry Letts ensured that there was a back door in his conjurer’s box. Yes, he slightly demystifies the Doctor by revealing that he had a mentor and a childhood. We didn’t even know the name of his planet in those days. But then he drops a tantalizing hint about “the Doctor’s darkest day” and leaves it hanging in the air. The Doctor is made slightly less mysterious and slightly more mysterious at the same time. 

The childhood scene in Listen merely makes the Doctor more ordinary: implies that he would always have been ordinary if not for the intervention of Wonderful, Wonderful Clara. Gallifreyan childhoods appear to be indistinguishable from Earthly childhoods: barns, doors with latches, mothers with long aprons. 

I remember the days when new Time Lords were grown in vats.

I get that bedrooms are children’s dens, and beds are where you dream and where Santa comes and where Teddy lives, but the adults-in-children’s-bedrooms thing is starting to feel uncomfortable. Wonderful Clara (a qualfieid teacher) sneaking into a boy’s bedroom in a children’s home? Is she out of her mind? The fact that the Doctor met Clara when she was a little girl and Clara met Danny when he was a little boy and now Clara met the Doctor when he was a little boy is starting to feel slightly creepy as well. 


I don’t hate Listen because it was an exact re-run of ideas that Steven Moffat has used, oh, three or four times before. I hate it because they are unimaginative, predictable ideas. 

“What” muses the Doctor to himself “If no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow? What if the prickle on the back of your neck, is the breath of something close behind you?” 

“What”, we all say in unison, “you mean, exactly like the Silence?”

“Did we come to the end of the Universe because of a nursery rhyme?” asks Wonderful Clara? 

“Not a nursery rhyme”, we all exclaim, “like ‘tick tock goes the clock’ in Season 6 and ‘do you hear the whisperman’ in Season 7?”

I understand that, in folk memory Doctor Who was scary. Kids had nightmares about Doctor Who monsters. 

We remember the One With the Spiders because people don’t like spiders and the idea of a giant telepathic spider that can jump on your back and mind-control you is a terrifying idea. Also a Buddhist allegory, but mostly just a terrifying idea.

We remember the One With the Maggots because maggots are disgusting and squick you out, so giant ones are even more disgusting. 

We remember the Daleks because they were creepy and shouty and wanted to kill ua. They forced you to work in coal mines and exterminated the whole work force if it caught one of them slacking, like a particularly unpleasant P.E teacher I once had.

Same goes for the Autons. Lots of people are creeped out by waxworks and dummies. Even people who aren’t have occasionally had bad dreams about waxworks coming to life. Dummies and toys and house hold appliances coming to life and trying to kill you is a scary idea.

But Moffat seems fixated on the idea that a scary story isn’t a story about the kinds of things people are scared of – spiders and lizards and death and cross country runs. It’s a story about being scared; a story about fear. 

His best creations, the statues that come to life when you aren’t looking at them, play on that idea. So do his worst creations; the invisible telepathic piranhas that live in your shadow. And also his exactly the same creations, the evil monsters you instantly forget about five seconds after you saw them. 

So now we have his once-more-with-feeling creations: the creature that is so good at hiding that no-one knows it exists but everyone is terrified of it anyway. “What” asks this story “if the monsters-under-the-bed were real?”

“You’ve done that one before” we all cry “In The One With Madam Pompadieu. And The One About The Dolls House In the Block Of Flats.”


What we are left with is not so much a story as three linked vignettes.

Wonderful Clara goes on a date with Danny. They are both nervous, so it’s a disaster. “First date nerves” are somehow thematically connected to “being terrified of the dark” and “thinking there might be an existential threat at the end of the universe” but there is no narrative connection. We aren’t told that Wonderful Clara messes up the date because the Evil Fear Monster is magnifying her Negative Emotions and Feeding On Them. It would have been better if we had been. 

The Doctor and Wonderful Clara go back in time and visit Danny when he was a little boy. Danny is terrified of the Under The Bed Monster, which Clara assures him does not exist, and then everyone is terrified by a hiding-under-the-bedspread monster. It goes away without revealing whether it existed or not. 

The Doctor and Wonderful Clara go forward in time and meet one of Clara and Danny’s descendents, who is earth’s first time traveler. He has accidentally been sent to the end of time and is planning to set up a restaurant there convinced that there are invisible Under-the-Bed-Monsters banging on the airlock of his moonbase spaceship thingy. Everyone runs away before discovering if they really were or not. 

There is quite a decent prologue of a paranoid Doctor, alone in the TARDIS, convincing himself that he is being followed around by an undetectable alien entity. I quite liked that bit. Capaldi will probably put it in his show-reel. I even almost understood it. The Doctor convincing himself that the universe is full of malevolent entities you can’t see or feel is a bit like a little child convincing himself that there are monsters under his bed.

Then there is the epilogue where Clara visits the Doctor when he was a little boy and tells him that it’s all right, he doesn’t need to be scared of the monsters-under-the-bed, and that anyway, fear can be a good thing. 

Is the idea that the events in the story can be looked at from two points of view — one, in which there really was a monster in Danny’s room, and one, in which everyone was spooked by a kid in a blanket? Is the idea that Wonderful Clara, by going back to see the Doctor when he was a little boy and repeating some of his own platitudes at him, retrospectively changes things so that the Doctor never became scared and paranoid at all? But he did. We’ve just seen the episode. 

I understand that the Doctor has a terrible recurring nightmare in which he wakes up in the night and something under his bed grabs his ankle. (And everyone else has the same nightmare as well, for reasons which are never even hinted at.) And I concede that the moment where Clara hides under the Kid-Doctor’s bed and grabs his ankle to stop a Bad Thing happening, is quite clever. The terrible scary thing the Doctor dreams about is really a Wonderful thing. I read somewhere that that happens in Shamanic initiations — you make friends with the thing in your dream that terrifies you and it becomes your totem animal. But I don’t get what is supposed to have happened in the story. The Doctor has no reason to be scared of the Bed-monster: it was only Clara. But he is scared of it. He’s told us so. And Clara can’t ever tell him what really happened.

Why doesn’t Clara come right out and tell the Doctor how the little boy in the orphanage and the big boy at the end of the universe were related to the guy she was on a date with? The answer “because she’s an idiot” does not seem consistent with what we already know about her. In The Dalek One the Doctor refused to allow the similarly colour coded Journey Blue onto the TARDIS because he “doesn’t like soldiers.” Hello, Sgt Benton. Hello, Captain Yeats. Hello, Ben Jackson. Hello, Ian, probably. Hello “his name was Ross” from the Sontaran One. Was “not liking soldiers” only written in to give wonderful Clara a pretext to keep her relationship with Danny a secret from the Doctor? 

At least, with Nicholas Courtney no longer around, there is no danger of us ever having to deal with the fact that the Doctor’s very best friend in all the universe was, er, a Brigadier.

In the Doctor Who universe, stuff seems to be capable of just spontaneously popping into existence. People can have memories which aren’t memories of anything. The Doctor tells Danny that fear is like a superpower — it makes you cleverer and more alert. Wonderful Clara goes back in time and repeats this to the baby Doctor. So the grown up Doctor is passing on to Danny something that someone once said to him “in a dream”. But Clara was only passing on what the Doctor said to her, which was… Where did the idea originally come from?

It gets more complicated when you try to give innocent little remarks big complicated meanings. In the very first ever story, Doctor Bill told Barbara that “fear makes companions of us all”. He meant was that he was cross about the two teachers barging onto his TARDIS and they were cross about him dragging them back to the stone age, but they were going to have to work together to escape from the cavemen with posh accents. Clara whispers “fear makes companions of us all” at Kid-Doctor — but now it has a complicated philosophical message, or at any rate, a trite philosophical message. “Fear is like a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that's okay, because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I'm going to leave you something, just so you'll always remember, fear makes companions of us all.” 

Of course, the Doctor didn’t understand what Wonderful Clara meant. Or else, he didn’t properly remember it. She said “Fear, itself is a companion” but the Doctor thought she meant “You have to make friends with people you don’t much like when you are scared.”


Does anyone know if probationary teachers at modern comps have to be interviewed by the board of governors? We know from Sarah Jane that friends of the Doctor can sometimes spot each other when they meet. I can imagine the chairman of the Coal Hill School governors being introduced to Wonderful Clara and saying (with a twinkle in his eye) “I expect you are nervous about your first proper teaching job, but don’t worry as a very good friend once said to me ‘fear makes companions of us all.’” 

No. That way fan fiction lies. 


In summary, “yuk”. 

A big big thing in the Doctor’s life was when an earth girl snuck into his room and told him to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

8.3: Robot of Sherwood

--I thought you were with the circus? 
--That was a long-a time ago,  last week. Since then I have lots of jobs.
         A Night at the Opera

It’s not easy being a semi-professional geek.

If you aren’t at all careful, comic books and movies and TV shows are all reduced to "stuff for me to say smart things about on my blog." Clergymen often see the Bible as "that thing which I preach sermons from" and fan fiction writers think that stories only exist as raw material.

If the main point of Doctor Who is for me to review it, then episodes which yield up challenging exegesis are the “good” episodes and the simple episodes about which there is not very much to say are the “bad” ones.

This is why I haven't really written much about the Marvel Comics Movies. A thousand words of me saying "Wow. They really do what they set out to do" is almost as dull for me to write as it is for you to read. I did the Captain America marathon without any real plan to write about it, which was why actually writing about it turned out to be fun.

Oscar Wilde believed that criticism was the highest form of art: poems and plays were just the wood or the marble which critics carved their work from. But Oscar Wilde was a bit of a twit. 

So: Robot of Sherwood. A Doctor Who historical story re-imagined as a Hollywood swashbuckler?

It was funny; but not very funny. It was silly; too silly for Doctor Who, I think, and that’s a pretty high standard of silliness. It passed the time enjoyably. It didn’t make a great deal of sense; but it didn’t matter that it didn’t make a great deal of sense. I quite liked it. 

And that's about as much attention as this romp deserves to have paid to it.

Wonderful Clara wants to meet her hero Robin Hood. The Doctor thinks he is a fictional creation, but he turns out to be entirely real. The Robin Hood they meet isn’t the Robin Hood of medieval legend; and he certainly isn’t a dark ages outlaw. At the climax of the story, he make a big heroic entrance, jumping from the balcony with Wonderful Clara in his arms, digging his dagger into a tapestry to slow his descent. All swashbucklers do this at one time or another. Orlando Bloom does it in Pirates of the Carribean; Errol Flynn does it it in the Sea Hawk — but no-one did it before Douglas Fairbanks in the The Black Pirate (1926). This is a "real" Robin Hood who is only interesting buckling 20th century swashes. Tom Riley’s costume is one part Richard Greene and two parts Errol Flynn; but his characterization is one hundred per cent Carey Elwes playing the Man in Black in the Princess Bride. Ben Miller reciprocates by playing Christopher Guest playing Count Rugen playing the Sheriff of Nottingham, and is still a good deal less hammy than Keith Allen in the Beeb’s actual Robin Hood series.

But it's a mistake to invoke the Princess Bride quite so obviously. The Princess Bride is a cult movie because it plays so cleverly with the difference between history, real life, and story-telling. Westley, with his left-handed sword play and immunity to poison, could only exist inside a storybook; but we don’t love him any the less because he's not real.

The medieval Robin Hood ballads may possibly have had some basis in fact. But characters like Alan A'Dale and Maid Marion are purely fictional: added to the story in the 16th and 17th centuries by writers who were only interested in telling a good yarn. Friar Tuck is Robin's friend in some of the older versions, but there certainly weren't any friars in England in 1198! Doctor Who has never cared all that much about historical accuracy — it’s had cavemen who talk in posh English accents and Charles Dickens exclaiming “what the Shakespeare was that!” and Johnny Ringo dying at the OK Corral. But the Kings Demons, the Crusaders; and indeed the Time Warrior all go to some lengths to present themselves as “real life” according to the prevailing conventions of historical drama at the time they were made. Robot of Sherwood goes to some length’s not to. The whole point of it is that it looks and feels and behaves like a Robin Hood movie, or in fact, like a parody of a Robin Hood movie, with a purely fictional Robin at the center of it. And a lot of the time, that’s great fun: the archery tournament is over-done, but the Doctor and Robin’s contest of egos, repeatedly screwing up their own escape plans, is quite funny. It’s only when someone tries to tell us what it all means that things full apart.

The message of this romp is that everyone will think that Robin Hood is a legend and the real man will be forgotten -- but that's okay because stories are important. And the Doctor is also a story. But the episode is trying to have it's jelly babies and eat them. People may indeed think that Robin Hood is a legend, but according to this story, that legend is literally true in every respect, even the bits that weren't invented before 1938.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four better treatments of this idea. For example:

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara back to 1198. It's all history and gore and grime and there's a realistic outlaw called Robert Hode. But as we get to know him, Robert Hode turns out to be just as heroic as the legend he was the basis for.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara to what is apparently 1198. It's all shiny Hollywoodized Merrie Englande, with a Robin Hood in lincoln green tights. Of course, it turns out we're in some parallel world where stories are real -- call it the Land of Fiction, maybe. Wonderful Clara is sad when she realizes it's just a story, but decides that stories are important too.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara back to 1198, and encounters a fairly unpleasant fellow named Robin who is obviously the basis for the Robin Hood legends. Against the Doctor's will, Wonderful Clara tries to wean him off human sacrifice persuade him to be more heroic and ends up getting crucified in his place creating the legend she came to witness.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara....But no. That way fan fiction lies.

The season opener had me convinced that Doctor Who was trying to re-invent itself as drama. But that was two weeks ago; plenty of time for a complete rethink. It is hard to believe that "Deep Breath" and "Robot of Sherwood" are actually part of the same series. 

8.2 Into the Dalek

--Was the sermon good?
--What was it about?
--What did the preacher say?
--He was against it.
               Calvin Coolidge, attrib.

Daleks are fun. Daleks are baddies but they are fun baddies. Children are scared of Daleks but they mostly want to be Daleks. Pirates are baddies but children do not on the whole go to parties dressed as the noble members of Her Majesty's navy who arrest them. It's more fun to be bad. And members of Her Majesty's pirate-hunting forces don't say "Arrr". 

Last week we had “regeneration considered in the style of a BBC drama”. This week we have “Daleks considered in the style of a big budget sci-fi movie.” I enjoyed the spaceships whizzing around Lucas-style in the pre-cred. I enjoyed the “rebels” — the sort of nasty space soldiers that populated Terry Nation universes, with some modern family angst to keep us rooted in the modern age. (Does anyone know what they were rebelling against?) I enjoyed the all-too-brief scene inside the Dalek spaceship, with loadsadaleks in the control room. I enjoyed the big fight scene with space marines and walls of flame and ray-guns, oh my.

But it only looks like a movie. Like a collection of movie-ish vignettes. It's actually another Dungeons & Dragons scenario in which a party of not terribly interesting characters explore a mysterious alien environment and the Doctor goes all psychodrama on us.

I like Daleks. I have the 60s Dalek annuals displayed in my study. I have read the 70s Dalek annuals so often I could set them to music. Thumping military choral music. But it felt like the rayguns and explosions and space ships were there as an apology, as a sop, a bit to put in the trailers and then rush past as quickly as possible so we can get to the angst and characterization and a big dramatic revelation about the Doctor which is exactly the same as the last seventeen big dramatic revelations about the Doctor.

Laugh? I almost typed “J.C Wright has a point.”

Back in 2007 when New Who was New and could do no wrong, there was a story about a Dalek called Dalek. It was a reworking of a Big Finish story about a Dalek called Jubilee. Both stories were sort of experiments: is it possible to write a script in which a Dalek has a personality —  even a sympathetic one — but is still a Dalek? (A “good” Dalek — a friendly creature that just happened to use stylish pepper pot shaped wheel — would be perfectly feasible but entirely uninteresting.) The answer was “yes”, and virtually all subsequent stories have allowed the Daleks to be just one shade more nuanced than they were in the olden days.

There is a moment in the TV version when the Doctor is ranting at his ancient foe (”Why don’t you just die? Rid the Universe of your filth!”) and the Dalek responds “YOU-WOULD-MAKE-A-GOOD-DALEK”.

This is a crucial moment in the Season 1 story arc. Doctor Chris, as a result of his experiences in the Time War has become like a Dalek. And that is not who he is. His relationship with Rose, and his eventual regeneration into Doctor David, is framed as a kind of redemption.

Seven seasons, three Doctors and oh god about eleven Dalek stories later, “you would make a good Dalek” has become practically the whole of the Doctor’s personality. I think it may be part of the series-bible that ever episode has to conclude with the shock revelation that that gee-whizz the Doctor is a twisted reflection of his enemies.

There is a Dalek. It appears to have discovered morals. It is quite literally a good Dalek. (And therefore not very good at being a Dalek, because Daleks are meant to be good at being bad.) For reasons I didn’t exactly get, the space marines decide to miniaturize the Doctor and insert him into the Dalek to find out why. The Doctor remembers that there’s a movie called Fantastic Voyage but forgets that there was Doctor Who story called The Invisible Enemy. He makes a bum joke.

One of the fun things about Fantastic Voyage was that Prof. Scientist kept telling you interesting stuff about the part of the body the miniaturized submarine was currently passing through. One longed for those kinds of scenes tonight. “We are now crossing one of the Dalek’s balls: they are really sensor devices you know…” “This is the bit where the sink plunger connects to the stick: let me tell you an interesting thing about sink plungers”. I failed the Anti-Dalek Force aptitude test in three consecutive years, but let me tell you: all those schematics look as if a Dalek is a big machine with wires and cables and gears. Climbing along wires and cables and gears and seeing a Dalek from the inside should have been fun. But it turns out that the inside of a Dalek looks pretty much like the inside of any spaceship or shopping center. All these corridors look the same to me.

New bits are added to the Dalek mythos, on the hop, to create little computer game actiony bits. The Daleks have got on just fine for years without being space cannibals. We really don’t need to be suddenly told that they liquify their “victims” when they need protein. There is no particular reason why a Dalek shell shouldn’t have “antibodies”, any more than there is any particular reason why, a Sontaran’s ray gun shouldn’t occasionally catch a cold. But I liked it better when the machine was a big scary tank that the Dalek creature lived in. 

It transpires — excellent word to use when you can’t really follow the plot — that this good Dalek turned good not because of radiation or a previous Doctor injecting it with the Human Factor but because it heard one of Sarah-Jane Smith’s speeches about how the universe is a wonderful place and you can be anything if you try. OK, if you insist, it saw a star being born. There is a bit of jiggery pokery in which it loses the memory of this event and turns evil again; and then Wonderful Clara works out how to restore the memory. But the big set piece is when the Doctor plugs his Time Lord mind into Dalek’s mind while acting a lot.

And get this: what the Dalek sees in the Doctor’s mind is not how much the Doctor loves the Universe but how much he hates the Daleks. So the good Dalek reverts to being a good Dalek: except instead of wanting to exterminate all humans it wants to exterminate all Daleks. The Doctor is horrified by what he has done. “I am not a good Dalek”  the good Dalek explains. “You are a good Dalek.” And we’re back where we were eight years ago.

Since the days of Stan Lee, all superheroes have been reducible to their origin story. And ever since Tim Burton’s daft Batman movie, it’s been fashionable for superheroes and supervillains to share the same origin. If possible, the hero and the villain are supposed to be mutually self-begotten. Batman was responsible for the accident that disfigure the Joker; and the Joker was responsible for the tragedy which caused Batman to become a crime fighter. I made you but you made me and so betwixt the pair of the them they licked the platter clean.

The Doctor, whose origins are by definition shrouded in mystery, acquires a new origin myth at the rate of about two a season. They always diminish the character. Before you make up a silly story that tells us how the Doctor became what he is, you have to know what the Doctor is, and the Doctor isn’t any one thing. 

So, this time, the big revelation is that the Doctor is defined by his hatred of the Daleks – which is ironic because “hate” is the Daleks’ schtick, which is why he would make such a good Dalek.

“See, all those years ago, when I began. I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot and I understood who I was. The Doctor was not the Daleks.”

It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true. Our folk memory of what happened in old episodes is much more important than the episodes themselves. If the Doctor now says that he was radically changed as a person when he first encountered the Daleks then it is neither here nor there to say that no, that’s not at all what happened on the DVD. (Running? The original Doctor was a wandering scientist, interested in learning stuff, and trying, not very urgently, to get back home. The Daleks he first met weren’t the embodiment of evil, but bitter deformed survivors of a war that wasn’t completely their fault. Changed by the encounter? He tells the Thals he’s too old to be a pioneer, and spend the next few months meandering around the Far East with Marco Polo.) What does matter is that it’s boringly, tediously reductive. The Doctor, defined by not being the Daleks? Defined by not being the one-dimensional embodiment of total nastiness? You might as well say that your unique selling point is that you’re in favour of happiness and against wickedness. 

There is a sub plot.

There is a teacher at the school where Wonderful Clara teaches. He teaches Maths. He used to be a soldier. He is a good soldier, because when one of the children ask him if he ever killed anyone, he cries, and good soldiers feel bad about killing. Wonderful Clara and him are going to go on a date, awkwardly.

Does anyone know what Wonderful Clara teaches? I suppose the references to Roman Emperor’s is supposed to imply “history”? There is a precedent for lady history teachers from Coal Hill School travelling with the Doctor. There is even a precedent for them being fond of soldiers, assuming Ian had done his National Service.

We see where this is going. Wonderful Clara no longer thinks of herself as sort of dating the Doctor so it’s okay for her to start date a normal guy in her place of work. I imagine it will end in tears.

Do you know what I would like?

A Dalek story.

Not a story in which the Daleks are a metaphor for id evil dark reflection ego fascism, but a story about outer space robot people hatching a dastardly plot to conquer the entire universe and world and the Doctor foiling them. 

In the meantime, this was actually an okay story. The Dalek fizz was fun but the symbolism was flat.


Monday, September 14, 2015

8.1 Deep Breath

In the perhaps over-discussed Comic Relief skit "Curse of Fatal Death", the Doctor regenerates into a lady. Emma, his companion, who he was planning to marry, cannot accept this: "I don't think this phrase has ever been used quite so accurately" she says "But you just aren't the man I fell in love with."

In Deep Breath, Wonderful Clara finds it almost impossible to come to terms with the fact that the Eleventh Doctor, who she kind of loved, is now the grumpier and older Twelfth Doctor

In the perhaps unjustly neglected Children In Need skit "Time Crash" the Tenth Doctor explains to the Fifth Doctor why it was that the first (and presumably youngest) incarnation of the Doctor looked so much older than the later (and presumably older) versions. " Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you're young."

In Deep Breath, Madam Vastra explain to Wonderful Clara that the Eleventh Doctor chose to look young, even though he is really incredibly old.  "He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover, even..... But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold, he has seen stars fall to dust.....He looked young. Who do you think that was for?"

A wise man once said: Moffat repeats himself; the first time as farce, the second time as melodrama.

Peter Capaldi was always going to be a hard sell.

Matt Smith is the first Doctor I have properly mourned. When Jon Pertwee left, I said “Wow! I’m going to see one of these regeneration things I've heard about”. When Tom Baker left, I said “Wow! Multiple companions in the TARDIS and the return of the Master!” You don't want to know what I said when Peter Davison left.

Matt Smith's going still makes me sad. His tenure still seems like a wasted opportunity. Here today, gone yesterday, so little time to establish his character and yet for with barely time to establish his character; and yet, for a few moments in Season 5, defining and becoming and inhabiting the Doctor in a way that no-one since Tom Baker ever has. No-one since William Hartnell. It was so so right that Matt should be the one looking across the TARDIS console at Bill in Adventure in Space and Time. I wish he could have stayed forever.

I get that Doctor Who is about change and change is the only constant and the one thing that doesn’t change is that it keeps on changing. But does every regeneration need to be a complete reboot, with a new logo, new theme tune, new title sequence, even a new TARDIS interior?

I don’t hate the title sequence. I know that it was based on a pitch by a fan. I like the way it’s trying to represent “time travel” visually, through the numbers on the Doctor’s watch. The bit I liked best in the fan pitch was the camera zooming in on the watch. That's the bit that was dropped.

I loved it that Sylvester McCoy’s TARDIS was basically the same as Willliam Hartnell’s TARDIS. I hate it that Peter Capaldi’s TARDIS isn’t even the same as Christopher Eccelston’s.

But let's accentuate the positive, no? After all, I applauded Moffat’s last re-imagining of Doctor Who as a dark (but not that dark) fairy tale, with Smith coming in as Santa Claus and bowing out as Gepetto.  So let's try to give at least two cheers to the latest relaunch. It give a pretty broad hint about what the next 45 episodes of Doctor Who are going to be about.

Doctor Who is now a Cultural Phenomenon. People who don’t watch Doctor Who but who do know that someone called Capaldi has replaced someone called Smith may well tune in to this episode to see what all the fuss is about. And everyone knows about regeneration, or at any rate that the Doctor Changes.

Rose just accepted that the new guy was the old guy straight off. “You’re so different” was, I think, the whole pitch. Martha and Donna and Wonderful Amy only knew one Doctor each. Wonderful Clara is the first one who has properly had to struggle with Her Doctor not being Her Doctor any more.

So wouldn’t it be a wheeze if, instead of making a classic Regeneration Story we made a BBC drama in which a lady has to come to terms with the fact that a man who she kind of loved has turned into a different man, a man who she is not sure if she can love? A man who is older, not so good-looking, not so charismatic, not played by such a good actor, and Scottish.

I would have liked it better if Peter Capaldi had been given a script which involved him doing something harder than reading out old Matt Smith lines with a Scottish accent. But if I am going to stay on board, I have to accept that that's what Doctor Who is from now on. The underlying deep down personality of the Doctor is of a brilliant, mildly autistic man who talks to himself, zones out when other people are speaking, changes his mind mid sentence, fakes being a genius and generally isn’t quite as good as Benedict Cumberbatch. Doubtless when Moffat goes, that will go as well. But for the time being regeneration involves changing some mannerisms and giving him a different hat.

So: the dark (but not that dark) fairy tale has been re-invented as a movie, or at any rate a drama; or at any rate a BBC romcom. I had a sense that I was watching an episode of a non-existent TV series called The Adventures of Madam Vastra (with the same theme music as Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, obviously) guest starring a whacky time traveler called Doctor.

But although the form is now “grown up drama” the content remains disconcertingly “fan boy”. I like fanboy stuff. I like it that Madam Vastra says "Here we go again" when she realizes the Doctor has regenerated and Wonderful Clara say "You've redecorated. I don't like it" when she sees the TARDIS interior. But I am puzzled when large chunks of plot seem to depend on you knowing your Doctor Who lore and caring about it a good deal.

Have a look at the scene with the homeless man. (I hope that this is a one-off vignette, but there is a serious danger that he will turn out to be Clara’s dad three episodes down the line.) It is as serious and grown up a dramatic scene as I have seen in New Who. In a few paragraphs, I am probably going to complain that New Who rushes from set-up to conclusion without lingering in the actual story; but this scene lingered with a supporting character, and with the Doctor’s poster-regeneration psychology, for fully ten minutes. It's really nicely done. It's what New Who should be. (One of the things that New Who could be, at any rate.)

But the content of the scene seems to be an explanation of why the New Doctor looks like the old Roman guy in the Rubbish One With the Volcano, on the assumption that "because they were both played by Peter Capaldi" is insufficient. It seems to me that this is a lot like writing scenes to explain why until 1980 Dalek spaceships traveled around the universe on the ends o wires but that after 1980 they had blue liens around them. Or, come to that, why the Universe was black and white until 1969.

The idea that the Doctor can choose his face goes back to the War Games. (Douglas Adams riffed on the idea, imagining that choosing a new body was just like choosing a new outfit.) We really can't make up our minds what regeneration is meant to be. As recently as Time of the Doctor, it was meant to be an actual bereavement. We are supposed to mourn Doctor Chris and Doctor David and Doctor Matt as actual people who are actually dying but who somehow pass their essence on to their successor; like that slug-thing in Star Trek. But now we are being asked to think Doctor Peter is simply Doctor Matt wearing a different form.

I was initially inclined to describe this episode as a game of two halves. 60 minutes of BBC drama about Wonderful Clara coming to grips with the fact that the New Doctor is different but also the same as the Old Doctor with part 4 of an old Tom Baker silly monster story tagged on at the end. And, in truth, New Who remains more condensed than I would like it to be: rushing from set-up to resolution without lingering in the story. (Told you.) But on a second viewing, it has a more even tone than I gave it credit for. The Doctor and Wonderful Clara  remain very much the same characters in the Serious Drama bits and the Spacey Action Bits. Too often, in this kind of thing, the interesting characters are replaced with action figures during the big flashy special effects laden climax. (I am looking at you, Fantastic Four.) Although we only see the robots for a few minutes, their back story, their objectives, and the fact they’ve been on earth for a gazillion years is established quite well through dialogue. I am almost tempted to mutter "Aristotelian unities" under my breath.

It may be that young people are better at absorbing information than me. It may be that Doctor Who is now the kind of thing that is only meant to make sense on a second viewing. It may even be that I am the only person on earth who still expects it to make any sense at all. Certainly, lines are spat at us at huge speed. I don't see how anyone could hear, let alone decipher the joke, in this kind of thing....

--Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor. Last of the five good 'uns. Stoic philosopher.
--Superlative bass guitarist. The Doctor really knows how to put a band together.
--And the only pin-up I ever had on my wall when I was fifteen.

…without pausing and rewinding. (*)

It’s quite hard to keep track of what you are meant to know and what you are not meant to know -- which must be maddening for the casual viewer. My reaction to seeing the droid impaled on the clock tower was not “Gosh! How ambiguous! We don’t know if the Doctor pushed him or if he jumped” but “Whaa… did I miss a bit?”

But “missing a bit” is what Moffat does. Most drama is about starting at Point A and getting to Point C. Point B is where everything happens. It is what me normally mean by "story". Moffat rushes headlong to point D and expects you to infer A - C along the way.

Most of this episode does, in fact, make sense. But most of the sense it makes is about imagery and connections and parallels, lines which the viewer is intended to draw for himself.

  • Madam Vastra wears a veil because not everyone can accept that she’s a lizard. 
  • Madam Vastra and Jenny role-play a master/servant relationship. 
  • That’s kind of like like the way the Doctor plays at being Clara’s boy-friend. 
  • The Doctor’s face is like a mask; that's kind of like a veil. 
  • The alien robots physically steal faces from humans to use as masks. 
  • The robots have replaced their body parts so many times that it’s not clear if there is any of the original left.
  • The Doctor has changed so many times that it isn't clear if the Doctor is still the Doctor. 

It's not un-clever. But I'd rather have a story.

I would say that this is about as successful an episode of New Who — of New New New Who as we had better not start saying — as if I have seen. It may be that Doctor Who ought to be a grown up cartoon, with cliffhangers and silly baddies. In fairness this one did have a giant Victorian dinosaur. But discussions about what Doctor Who ought to be are never worth having. This reboot says that Doctor Who is a serious romantic dramatic comedy in form, but a Moffat non-linear fanboy deconstructionist riff in content.

I can live with that.

(*) Day of the Doctor begins with Wonderful Clara quoting Marcus Auerelius to her school class - "Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." This sort of thing may be clever, but it is not big. 


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Loyal To The Dream

"Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?"
The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
"Do you know who made you?"
"Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "Don't think nobody never made me. I ‘spect I growed"
                      Uncle Tom’s Cabin

There is a very bad issue of Cptain America, probably one with zeros on the end, in which Captain America meets Johnny Appleseed and John Henry and Uncle Sam and says “gee, I guess in a very real sense we’re all American legends”. (He wakes up and discovers it was all a dream...or was it?)

After reading more issues of Captain America than is remotely good for my sanity I have come to the conclusion that Steve Rogers is indeed a folk-hero. No-one created him; but somehow, in 70 years of story telling, he grew.

Spider-Man is also a folk-hero. He's passed through many creative hands and people who've never read a Spider-Man comic know who Spider-Man is. But Spider-Man has, and I think always will have, an ur-text to go back to. One writer may go right back to Steve Ditko for inspiration; another may be looking at last month's episode, which is copies from someone who was copying from someone who was copying Ditko, but however Ultimate or Superior he becomes, Spider-Man is always to some extent an Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #38 tribute band.

Captain America, not so much.

Oh, writers and artists genuflect at the shrine of Simon and Kirby, as well they might. But Simon and Kirby is where we started, not where we ended up. The apple-seed isn't the apple tree. No-one remotely wants this months Captain America to look as if it came from 1942. Those issues are primitive and ground breaking and visceral and ever so slightly racist and probably not canon anymore.

You don't need to go back to Captain America #1 or even Avengers #4 to find out what Captain America is meant to be like. You certainly don't need to read every single issue. That way madness lies. You already know.

One possible definition of "myth" is that it's a story which can be told in a hundred different ways and still be the same story. When Jack Kirby drew that image of the skinny recruit being "inoculated" with the super-soldier serum, he created a genuine myth.  When Stan Lee add the image of the man frozen in a block of ice, slowly melting, he gave that myth a tragic depth. None of the dozens of retelling of it is the real thing. Unless every retelling of it is equally the real thing.

Maybe that's why the Bold New Directions never work. You can’t give Captain America a new girl friend or a new house or a new job any more than you can relocate Father Christmas to the South Pole and decide that he's going to shave off his beard. Oh, you could write a story in which that happened, and it might be a very good story, but 20 years later that story would be forgotten and the myth would have reverted to it's original form. The only way a myth can change is organically, from the inside, so slowly that you didn't notice it happening.

That's also why there is so little distance between movie Captain America and the comic book character. Robert Downey Jnr and Andrew Garfield are playing characters somewhat inspired by Iron Man and Spider-Man. Evans is simply being Steve Rogers. That's all he needs to do. We all know who Captain America is.

And finally; that's why very bad ideas seem to do the character so little damage. Twenty years from now, the weeks when Sam Wilson carried the shield will be a footnote to a footnote in the long, long history of Steve Rogers. Dimension Z will be so much scar-tissue. Captain America is who Captain America is.

You were expecting me to finish by saying something deeply Cambellian, about how the priest embodies the god and the god is literally present every time the priest embodies him; and how Captain America is the story which America tells America about America; or maybe the lens through which America sees America. You are expecting me to say that he's so much a part of the landscape that it takes and Englishman to really see him. You are expecting me to contract American patriotism with English patriotism. (The English don't even have a dream to be loyal to.)

But none of that rings terribly true.

Every frame of the Lone Ranger -- the recent movie version -- creaked with the knowledge that the Lone Ranger is an American Myth (exclamation mark exclamation mark). The Captain America movie hardly seemed to care about that angle. Maybe there's a hint of it in the first Avengers movie, what with Agent Coulson's picture cards. But it avoided the portentous. We didn't feel that Captain America was somehow symbolizing Captain America. We didn't feel that Being Captain America was what the movies were about.

I was left with two overwhelming feeling after coming to the end of my ludicrous Captain America marathon.

One: that Steve Rogers is a person. 

There has been wild talk from quarters about how the huge complexity of the Marvel and DC Universes meaning that they are, or are on the point of, becoming semi-sentient entities. (Philip Sandifier thinks; or finds it interesting to pretend to think; that Doctor Who is a sentient meta-fiction.) That's all a lot of nonsense. But it's true that folk song that's been passed down through many generations of singers takes on a form that any one individual singer finds it very hard to emulate. Improvisational performers sometimes report that personalities can emerge in a group that no one actor could have come up with individually. If one writer writes about a pretend person, and another writer makes a copy and adds a bit and another writer makes a copy and ads a bit; then would it be very surprising if what you ended up with was a character who seemed to exist, not in any one comic book, but somehow out there.

That's the first thing I took away. Steve Rogers isn't a character in a comic, he's a person. And the second thing was this: he's a person I like very much indeed.

Andrew Rilstone here. If you have enjoyed these articles, please consider pledging to pay 50p or £1 each time I write an article in the future. I know I'm asking a lot. But the price of blogging has always been high. If I'm the only person prepared to pay it, so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not. 

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Captain America 2004-2015

Captain America vol 5 #1 (Nov 2004) 
"Out of Time"

In this new First Issue,  Captain America goes after some terrorists, who’ve loaded chemical weapons onto a train and are promising to crash it into Coney Island. 

Cap leaps from a bridge onto the moving train and runs along the carriages. While doing a back-flip he takes out a helicopter (which is shooting at him) with his shield; he punches out two of the terrorists; and intimidates a third into defusing the bomb.

This sequence could have happened in literally any episode of Captain America from 1942 onward. Okay, the terrorists might have had sillier costumers and spikken mit de zillier accent, but it’s still pure Kirby action.

Except it isn’t drawn in the Kirby style: there are no shields bursting out of the frame, no motion lines or sound effects and the backgrounds are as clear and distinct as the heroic figures in the foreground. It’s only one step away from photo realism: a sequence of moments in time frozen on the page. 

This isn’t exactly new. Alex Ross has been plowing the photo-realistic furrow for two decades. But no one has ever really worked out what Alex Ross is for, except really beautiful covers. But something very new is being done to Captain America.

The terrorist plot isn’t where the story starts or ends. It starts with a former soviet general meeting up with the Red Skull to sell him weapons. (The gun which sends people to the Negative Zone turns out to be important later on.) They talk for six pages. Then we flash forward to the present. The Red Skull is in New York, gloating over the Cosmic Cube (which is now “one of the cubes”). This is not a “re-imagining” of the Skull. It’s clearly the same Skull who died in issue #300 (”that’s our destiny after all: the two of us locked in eternal conflict down through the years”). But it's like all the previous artists showed us a a cartoon approximation of the Skull and Steve Epting is finally letting us see the real thing.

We also have Sharon Carter counselling Cap, who has gone all soliloquy because his buddy Hawkeye from the Avengers is currently dead. So in one issue, that’s the Skull, the Cube, Carter, SHIELD, the Avengers, and, in a flashback, Bucky. Oh, and a minor supervillain called the Red Guardian who expires on the first page. Over the next few issues we'll also get Union Jack, Hydra, AIM and the Invaders. We'll get Cap visiting the graves of Spirit of '76 and the Patriot. All done in the same slow-paced, photo-realistic, present-tense style. Every single line of every single incredibly silly episode of Captain America -- everything in the Marvel Universe, if it comes to it -- is taken seriously. As if it really happened. In real life. 

In Stan Lee's day, being a superhero was like a series of sporting fixtures; specifically, like a series of wrestling matches. THIS WEEK see Captain America vs the Red Skull (to the death! the battle of the century!) NEXT WEEK, when the we've put the Red Skull back in his box, see Captain America vs The Winter Soldier (the battle of the century! to the death!) This isn't like that. This is a world where the Red Skull and Doctor Faustus and SHIELD are permanent, fixed power blocks, doing stuff whether Captain America is there or not; where Cap's old supporting cast like Bernie Rosenthal and the Falcon keep on keeping on even when they've been written out of the comic book.

Which is, of course, what it must always have been like. This is not so much a deconstruction of the Marvel Universe as a reconstruction. 

I first read these comics because the press was making a big deal out of the Death of Captain America. I thought I'd better take a look and find out what was going on. I was not expecting to like it: I hadn't liked any mainstream Marvel comic for years. "Quite interesting in places" I was expecting to say "but no substitute for the real thing." Instead, it felt like coming home. 

The episode ends with a mysterious assassin killing the Red Skull to death. A few issues later, the same assassin takes out 1950s psycho Bucky (reformed) as well. This was a very strong hint as to what was coming next.

Captain America 5 #12 (Nov 2005)
"The Winter Soldier"

In the end the identity of the Winter Soldier wasn't that big a shock. The damage had been done in issue #5. 

Bucky. It seems he was never just Captain America’s little friend. We can still believe in Super Soldiers and Mental Organisms Designed Only For Killing and Nazi sleeper robots, but we can't believe in eight year old kid sidekicks any more. Bucky was really a symbol intended to counter the rise of Hitler Youth. And he was also a highly trained assassin. While Captain America concentrated on being red white and blue and inspiring the troops, Bucky snuck off behind enemy lines and garroted Nazi snipers.

Brubaker pulls it off. This Bucky is not the Bucky of folk memory and he's certainly not the Bucky of the 1940s comic books, but we totally accept that he's Bucky. (By now, some readers probably believe that this is how Bucky always was, in the same way the probably believe that Zemo was a golden age character.) 

And then in issue #12, quite casually, as if he wasn’t wiping out 60 years worth of continuity, he tells us Bucky's origin. No, obviously, he didn’t sneak into Steve’s tent and blackmail the Sentinel of Liberty into making him his kid sidekick. And he wasn’t a little boy. He was 16. Steve Rogers was only 20. The top brass spotted what a brilliant fighter he was, sent him off to train with the SAS and then introduced him to Rogers. The whole “you’ve got to let me share your little mission” thing was only ever a cover story.

Comic book continuity is a strange thing. Kirby showed Steve Rogers being injected with the super soldier serum; Lee showed him drinking from a test tube; so John Byrne showed him being injected and then drinking it. Everything is literally true; all contradictions can be harmonized. There is only one creation story in the book of Genesis. But the more desperately you try to make Captain America real the more inexorably he becomes a comic book character. Steve Engelhart physically pasted pages from Captain America Commie Smasher into Captain America #155 to show that he wasn’t changing anything: just providing a wider context in which both stories make sense. Hell, he even had Captain America wandering around Europe for months after the death of Bucky because Stan Lee had said he was frozen near Newfoundland. Brubaker makes sure that the seminal 1942 - 1945 Captain America stories are real and part of the continuity: by ensuring that they are not real and not part of the continuity.

He's slipped a camera behind Jack Kirby's artwork. The classic comics are shadows; these new episodes are the Platonic forms.  

It turns out that the assassin who killed the Red Skull and Jack Munroe is William Buchanan Barnes, known to his friends as Bucky, the one character who can never come back from the dead. He also survived the plane crash, but was brainwashed and trained as a cold war assassin named The Winter Soldier.

And Sharon Carter kills Captain America. (He gets better.) 

Captain America vol 6 #19 - (Oct 2012)
"A Goodbye to Cap"

Brubaker’s final episode has Steve Rogers visiting William Burnside (50s psycho-Cap) in hospital. Turns out his most recent death was only faked. There’s been a funeral and everything; but the government is going to provide him with a new identity and try to give him his life back. 

It’s a nice story; a story which stands on it’s own feet; a story which allows Brubaker to take a gentle stroll through Captain America history and revisit some of the themes he's developed over an eight year run.

But it also illustrates what a gordian knot Captain America has become.

Burnside became Captain America because he was Captain America’s biggest fan. But we now know that what he was a fan of was the comic book Captain America, the one where Cap punches Hitler in the face: which we now know never happened. (In this issue, we actually see the real 1940s Cap and Bucky reading the comic. "Oh c’mon, they made me some stupid kid sidekick” says the stupid kid sidekick.) Psycho-50s Cap, created in order to make the 1950s comics part of "continuity" has completely over written anything that actually appeared in those obscure issues of Young Men. The whole reason for Steve Rogers getting frozen in ice was to allow Stan Lee to pretend the the Captain America of the 1940s was the same person as the Captain America of the 1960s. But the Captain America of the 1940s never happened. In the 60s and 70s and 80s, Captain America frequently remembers how Bucky blundered into his tent in the autumn of 41. Is he remembering comic books that never happened? Or is the Captain America of the 60s and 70s and 80s "only a comic book character" as well? Will some future episode reveal that he never did wander the streets soliloquizing about being part of the establishment? Will, indeed, we one day see a flashback revealing what "really happened" during his big allegorical fight with 1950s Cap and relegate Englehart's issues to being "only comic books"?

We're looking at a copy of a copy of a copy and there's no original.

And yet when Captain America, our Captain America, the real Captain America says goodbye to Burnside and motorcycles off  (past a bar selling "American spirit"), it really doesn't seem to matter.

"Tomorrow you'll go to another hospital, for more healing...And they're going to do their best to restore you mind. To give you a new life to go with your new name. Because you don't have to be Captain America anymore, William. You have my eternal gratitude. But someone else will carry that burden from now on. For as long as I can."

Captain America vol 7 #1 (Nov 2012)
“Castaway in Dimension Z”

Rick Remender decides the best way of following up the superlative Brubaker era is to give up on Captain America altogether and start up a new comic about a guy in a Captain America suit who gets dumped on Apokalips (or somewhere of that sort) and has to inspire the natives to take a stand against Darkseid (or someone of that sort.)

He says he wanted to pay tribute to the 1976 Kirby issues; and in so far as he uses Cap as a generic superhero and throws miscellaneous weirdness at him, he somewhat succeeds. 

All this, and unresolved Daddy issues too. It turns out that Captain America has spent his whole life running away from his father's shadow. And now he adopts a little boy in the alien dimension and has to learn how to be a father himself. Please, please, make it go away.

Captain America is now explicitly Irish. (All the other superheroes are more or less explicitly Jewish.) He grew up in one of the New York immigrant quarters, like his creator. Indeed the flashback sequences draw heavily on Kirby's autobiographical Street Code. All superheroes have to have miserable childhoods, so I suppose that Captain America might just as well have had a miserable Irish childhood; and even a miserable Irish Catholic childhood. But couldn’t we maybe just once, just once, have a character who was hit by his perfectly sober father? Or by his drunken mother? Or by a wicked uncle or something? Or perhaps we could lose the violence and Larkin him up in some other way? Maybe his parents were home schoolers, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or naturists, or something?

Captain America spends ten years in the the Alien Dimension; but when he comes back through the wardrobe, it turns out that only a few minutes have passed on earth. But those ten years were real to him, so he feels that Dimension Z is more his home than 21st century earth. [*] Now, more than ever, he is a man out of time.

Oh, is there never to be an end of it?

[*] If you believe in Marvel Time, then it is always a bit less than 10 years since Captain America was defrosted. Which is why you really, really shouldn't.

Captain America vol 7 #25 (Oct 2014)
"Who Is The New Captain America?"

Captain America has had the Super Soldier Serum sucked out of him and has aged into a very sprightly 90 year old. 

He announces that he is handing the shield over to his old friend Sam Wilson. The Falcon. 

Since there have been at least four Captains America apart from Steve Rogers [*] since 1942 the cries of “it’s political correctness gone mad” are more than usually stupid. Indeed, the really surprising thing is that the Falcon has never had a shot at being Captain America before. 

The obviousness of the development is lamp shaded in the comic itself. 

"You guys all knew, didn’t you" says Sam "There’s literally no drama in this reveal.”

The Avengers are trying very hard to be the movie Avengers, to the extent that Nick Fury has turned into a black guy while I wasn’t looking. Writer Remender tries to give them Joss Whedon dialogue; demonstrating that the only person who can write Joss Whedon dialogue is Joss Whedon. 

There was a great deal of fuss in the secular press when Captain America “died” in 2007. He remained dead for an unusually long 3 years. (Superman had barely managed three months.) Does anyone think Sam will manage as much as 12 months as shield-bearer?

The new costume looks exceptionally stupid.

[*] Steve Rogers; William Naslund (Spirit of ‘76); Jeffery Mace (The Patriot); William Burnside (1950s Captain America); John Walker (Super Patriot / U.S Agent); Sam Wilson (The Falcon)

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