Thursday, June 29, 2017

10.11 World Enough and Time

During the wilderness years, the faithful would sometimes sit round their great log fires and wonder what a 21st century version of Doctor Who might look like. 

“Maybe not 25 minute episodes” we said “Maybe short seasons of 100 minute movies, like Inspector Morse.” 

I think this episode proves that we were right. Pacing has been the ruin of many a good story; this story is superior to pretty much everything else in the season because it gets the pacing right. I don’t think Eastern European Guy (”very fast bottom”) would have worked if we had been trying to gallop to the climax in 45 minutes. I don’t think the idea of the different sections of the ship running at different speeds would have nearly so interesting if we hadn’t had to wait around to find out what was going on. And obviously the cliffhanger ending had to be a cliffhanger ending; it would have been a bit ho-hum as a premise. If I had one thing to say to incoming producer Chris Chibnall, it would be “More two part stories.” 

Even that’s a bit retro, of course. We are now in the era of 10 hours boxed sets and binge watching. 

OK, we’ve seen most of it before. Moffat really does only have a very limited number of ideas, which he shakes up and assembles in different orders. The Doctor and his companion caught in different time streams - check; a spaceship comprising different time-zones - check; characters watching other characters on TV screens - check; giant spaceship with retro city in the hold - check; nasty surgeons turning people into [SPOILERS} Cybermen - check; companion turned into Cyberman - check; Cyberman weeping beneath the mask - check. I think we are beyond saying “We have seen some of this before.” It’s more a case of saying “This is what Doctor Who is now comprised of”. Some TV shows go on for decades with only one or two ideas, in fairness. 

I don’t know if a Black Hole would really behave like it does in the episode. I thought that the point of them was that nothing, not even really really really big spaceships — and this was Doctor Who outdoing Red Dwarf outdoing Star Wars outdoing 2001 big — could escape their gravity well? But it doesn’t matter — a Black Hole is allowed to do whatever the writer says it does, provided it carries on doing it consistently. (”For the present purposes, your honour, a Black Hole is that astronomical phenomenon that can trap, but not consume, a really, really, really big spaceship and which causes time to pass at a faster speed on the lower levels than on the bridge.) I will only start to complain if it turns out that the Black Hole’s gravity can be reversed by the power of love, or is caused my midichlorians, or something. 

I do not think that the Cybermen, in this context, were either fanwankery or pornographic. A person who has seen clunky new Who CGI Cyberman will be able to look at this one and immediately say “Ah — an old fashioned, primitive, retro Cyberman.” That the old fashioned, primitive, retro Cyberman happens to be what the Cybermen looked like in 1966 is a little nod of the hat to the fans, and why not. I don’t know how you reconcile the Cybermen who evolved on Mondas and flew the planet around the universe sucking other planets energy with the Cybermen who were created by the Master on a colony ship on its way to Mondas. I don’t particularly care. I expect there will be a sort of an answer next week. If it is a sufficiently good answer then no-one will ever have watch Attack of the Cybermen again. 

It is a pity that the story was spoiled by, well, spoilers. The episode released the information about what was going on on the colony ship and Razor’s true identity rather subtly: we didn’t definitely know that the patients were being turned into Cybermen until the surgeon shows Bill the headpiece, about 35 minutes into the story. This should have been a really good surprise. Unfortunately, the BBC had been circulating publicity pictures of Peter Capaldi facing off against Hartnell era Cybermen since last year. And John Simm had appeared in two different trailers. The appearance of Missy’s previous incarnation is obviously intended to fall like a bolt from the blue and obviously doesn’t. 

The question about how much to reveal in the trailer or the blurb or the Radio Times listing is not unique to Doctor Who. Some people think that it would not have mattered if a certain 90s suspense movie had gone out under the title of “The One In Which Bruce Willis Turns Out To Have Been Dead All Along”; other people objected to “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” because it gave away the ending. Somewhere in between is a sensible middle ground. I am happy not to trust the mysterious count in a movie called “Guest of the Vampire”; but I’d just as soon not know exactly who committed the “Murder at the Vicarage” until the detective works it out. 

It’s a particular problem for Doctor Who, because Doctor Who is so insistently non linear. We see Missy pretending to be the Doctor, and then we see the Doctor explaining to Bill and Nardole his plan to allow Missy to pretend to be him for a while. We see Bill getting killed, and then we see Bill making the Doctor promise not to get her killed. And the very first thing we see in the episode is the Doctor regenerating which we assume must be flashing forward to the end of the story. So Moffat wants us to watch World Enough and Time in the knowledge that it ends with a Regeneration just as much as Thomas Hardy wants use to read “The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge” with a pretty good idea about who won’t make it to the end of the final chapter. But then we get a post-cred trailer that (we assume) zooms forward to the end of the story, and again shows us the Doctor (apparently) regenerating. But the pre-cred is “part of the story” and the post-cred isn’t. And we’ve already once this season been “shown the Doctor regenerating”, only to have both the characters and the cast saying “Ha ha! We fooled you!” 

This can’t possibly be a proper review, because we only have the first half of the story to talk about. I liked nearly everything about it: the ship, the atmosphere, the pseudo-science, the relationship between Bill and Razor and Missy and everyone, the scenes of the dying city. The whole thing. And if these really are the Cybermen and that really is the Master and Bill really has been Cyberized and the Doctor really is going to regenerate — or if none of these things are true and the explanation is more exciting and brilliant and surprising than the set up — then I’ll call this the best story ever. The best Peter Capaldi story ever, at any rate. 

But if the Doctor turns Bill back into a human with magic love rays from his sonic screwdriver, and if these aren’t the real Cybermen at all but just trick Harold Saxon is playing, or if, perchance, none of this has happened and we’re all still in a simulation being run by the meddling Monks — then I reserve the right to call “foul” and give up watching Doctor Who. 

Until Christmas, at any rate.



Moffat is going to pull another War Doctor stunt. The Doctor is indeed regenerating, but the person he is regenerating into isn’t the person who’ll be in the role in 2018, because that is for the incoming producer to decide. We’ll get a very short lived interim Doctor and the Christmas one will have both her and Capaldi in it. 

But there really will be a magical power of friendship reset button which will make Bill didn’t become a Cyberman at all. Because Moffat loves tears, but he really doesn’t like killing off characters, specially not pretty lady ones.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

10.10 Eaters of Light

Eaters of Light was an episode of Doctor Who. It passed the time amiably. There was nothing particularly wrong with it.

10.9 The Empress of Mars

Some Victorians find a crashed flying saucer. In it is a little green man; who says that if they help him, he will fly them back to Mars and let them mine for infinite wealth. He will even build them a mining machine. But he is tricking them; he really wants to defrost the Little Green Queen who is in suspended animation. This leads to a shooting war between the Martians and the Victorians. When it looks like the two groups are going to wipe each other out, one of the soldiers, who was once sentenced to death for desertion, surrenders to the Queen and invites her to kill him. This proves that huh mans are honourable (or something) and she calls the war off and sets about rebuilding her civilization. Almost immediately she gets a message from a far-away star system, saying that a fleet of interstellar space ships are coming to help them.

I wish I had come in in the middle of Empress of Mars. In fact, I wish in fact that I was a Doctor Who fan from the 1980s, coming out of suspended animation at about the half way point. Ice Warriors and Red Coats in a cave, mutually besieging each other’s base; guns going off and indistinguishable men with pith hats and mustaches crying “I am assuming command” at each other, while an Ice Queen rants things like “Sleep no more!” and “Rise my ice warriors.” No idea at all what's going on, but this is what I always hoped Doctor Who would -- just like it was before but ever so much more so. I am sure if I watch the whole episode and catch up with the last 30 years of Ice Warrior continuity it will all make perfect sense. 

But I would be working on a false assumption. I would be assuming that Doctor Who was like other TV: that scenes make sense in context; that scenes, indeed, have a context to make sense in. 


Battlestar Galactica created a new thing out of the wreckage of its source material. Star Wars continues to lovingly illuminate the margins of its holy texts. Cinema Star Trek is currently desecrating the corpse of its TV predecessor, but at least it’s doing so consciously and deliberately, out of some perverse parricidal hatred. The Clangers — and I will fight to the death anyone who says that the Clangers isn’t as venerable and worthy of respect as any of the above-named Big Geek Franchises — simply resumed after a pause of 43 years as if nothing had happened. I suppose you could say that it was redundant: you can’t add to perfection. On the other hand, the characters can now blink. 

What, after ten years, is Doctor Who's relationship to the series which from 1963 to 1989? What is Doctor Who for? A dozen years in, I still have no answer. I suppose "Doctor Who is a series set in a magical universe where, each week, someone has to volunteer to commit suicide in order to generate the Peace Rays necessary to defeat the baddies" might do for a definition. But it still seems paralyzed by the anxiety of influence.

I have committed myself to writing something about every week’s episode of Doctor Who, and that means that I have to think of something interesting to say each week. No one would be very pleased if I said “It was another episode of Doctor Who. It passed the time amiably. There was nothing particularly wrong with it.” 

Empress of Mars is a very good piece of Saturday night television: light, fun, stupid, entertaining. If Doctor Who were like this every week, I would be pretty happy with it; although, if Doctor Who were like this, I would probably not bother to write about it, particularly. I was perfectly happy with, say, Merlin, but I didn’t dedicate a whole lot of thinking time to it. Perhaps I am just overthinking Doctor Who. But that raises the question: what is the correct amount of thought to apply to it. Or, put another: what is the right amount of stupor in which to watch it? 


Metro Magazine ran a headline “Doctor Who fans delighted by classic cameo in Empress of Mars.” Maybe some of them were. But I would have gone with: "Doctor Who fans bewildered by pointless cameo in Empress of Mars.” 

There are two Patrick Troughton stories, one set in the Very Far Future, in which human scientists accidentally defrost some Ice Warriors during an Ice Age; and another one set in the Much Nearer Future where some Ice Warriors try to turn the Earth’s atmosphere into Martian atmosphere using bubble bath. There is also a Jon Pertwee story in which a group of alien ambassadors have a conference to see if a retro-medieval planet can join the Galactic Free Trade Zone. The latter story pulls off a quite nice little trick: the Doctor assumes that the Ice Warriors are militaristic fascists who have come to the conference in order to disrupt it; in fact, they have long since renounced war and want the conference to succeed. Why they do not call themselves Ice Pacifists is not explored. One of the other alien ambassadors has claws and a single gigantic eye. (It came a close second in the Doctor Who Alien That Looks Most Like A Man's Willy awards.) It is this Alpha Centuri who appears on the communication screen at the end of Empress of Mars to say “welcome to the universe” to the Ice Warriors. The voice was provided by one Ysanne Churchman who provided the voice in the original story nearly 50 years ago. She was also the voice of Grace Archer who was famously burned at the stake as a punishment for inventing commercial television. (Check this - Ed.)  This makes her, at 92, the oldest person ever to appear in Doctor Who. Like you, I said "But what about the lady who had a non-speaking part as the frozen queen in the Pirate Planet but wouldn't take her false teeth out", but she was only 76.

But why? Surely the point of the story is that the nice cowardly guy with the pith helmet has volunteered to stay behind and help the Green Martians rebuild their civilization. If a fleet of highly advanced aliens are going to come along and do it all for them, doesn't that rather takes the point away from his sacrifice? That is to say, if the message had come from Just Some Alien it would have been at best pointless and at worst detrimental to the story. But if the message comes from yer actual Alpha Centuri from Curse of Peladon, then I feel entitled to ask what follows: that the Ice Warriors in Curse of Peladon were a newly defrosted race who had more or less always been pacifists, and whose civilization had been rebuilt by the Galactic Federation? That there was a civilization on Mars, in contact with interstellar races, all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? That the Alpha Centuri of the Pertwee era is at least hundreds of years hold and has a special relationship with the Ice Warriors since their inception?

This is not a continuity gripe. I am quite happy with the invention of new continuity or the contradiction of old continuity. By all means, please, shake up the etch-a-sketch and give us a completely new Ice Warrior continuity. I am not one of those who takes personal offense when it turns out that some beloved old Star Wars comics are no longer “canon”. 

But I do want characters and scenes and alien races to have contexts. I don't think "we thought it would be cool to have three lines spoken by someone from the 1970s" is a good reason for a thing to happen in a story.

Of course, if you doing a reboot of a beloved old franchise, you are going to drop in little tips of the hat to revered previous iterations. Getting Kirk Alyn to do a cameo in the very first Superman movie, say, or wheeling on Leonard Nimoy in the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Star Trek remake. We sometimes call them Easter Eggs, little shiny things you can look for if you want to. 

The whole of this episode feels like one long Easter Egg. 

But perhaps it only feels like that to me. Perhaps this story is intended for people who have never heard of the Ice Warriors or Peladon or Alpha Centuri, or, for that matter Queen Victoria. Perhaps Doctor Who is now entirely opaque to Doctor Who fans, because all we see are allusions and references; it's position within the now ludicrously entangled web of Doctor Who. Perhaps we are supposed to be looking at the story (the story of how the man who somehow survived being hanged volunteered to commit suicide and magically melted the evil Ice Queen's heart) and hardly even noticing the Ice Warriors. You see Green Martians, I see Ice Warriors. You see a random alien whose presence makes no sense, I see Alpha Centuri from a story which went out when I was seven years old. Mark Gatiss said to himself  “Let’s do a reverse alien invasion story — where humans invade Mars. Let’s make the invaders comedy Victorians who say ‘by gum’ and ‘top hole’. And let’s have the Doctor broker some kind of peace.” And then, very much as an after thought said “I wonder if there have ever been warlike Green Martians in Doctor Who before? There have? Well, we might as well re-use those. No point in inventing new monsters for the sake of it."

Because the alternative is much more distressing. The alternative is that everyone is a Doctor Who fan now; and everyone is just excited because there are Ice Warriors and that the lady who voice Alpha Centuri is still alive. Being a Doctor Who fan is not about feeling attached to a character, or a setting, or a style of story, but to a collection of contextless, free floating symbols. 

This is a story folded in on itself; a mobius story; a story made up of allusions to other stories (which were themselves made up of allusions to other stories.) It Tomb of the Cybermen and the Hungry Earth and the Silurians and the Curse of the Mummy and pages and page of Mark Gatiss's doubtless meticulous research into Victorian cockney rhyming slang ("what a load of gammon"). It feels to much like an exercise in lining up all your Green Martian soldiers on one side of the table, and your Victorian toy soldiers on the other side of the table and playing at war, until one of the toy soldiers zaps the queen of Martians with Peace Rays and everyone makes friends. 

I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Irrelevant Return of -- Captain Non Sequitur

All those do-gooders who want to change the name of Colston Hall should be more concerned what is happening in Bristol and other cities regarding girls that are groomed for prostitution. Come on do-gooders - get this sorted out and not think about something that happened years ago.
            Wendy Fryer

See also: 

All those do-gooders who want children to look both ways before crossing the road should be more concerned about what is happening in the Bering Sea regarding the near extinction of the pacific walrus.

I realize that this is  all completely meaningless to Americans and anyone under the age of 45.

Before we had DVDs, the BBC sometimes put out sound recordings of TV shows on "records" -- vinyl LPs. I owned a vinyl LP which contained the sound track of two episodes of "Camberwick Green". Peter the Postman (who was a very busy man) on the A side, and the Window Cleaner on the B side. I can't remember what the Window Cleaner's catch phrase was, or whether he had a song, because frankly I didn't like the B side. People climbing up ladders (and I think falling off) was way beyond my comfort zone for Mild Peril. But I played Peter the Postman (who gathers up all the letters as quickly as he can) incessantly. On one of those old-fashioned record players that were still referred to as "gramophones"; with a sort of brown leatherish case so it looked like a very small suitcase with a loudspeaker, and settings that ran to 33, 45 and 78.

My mother tells me that the midwife or district nurse who came to check up on her just after my baby sister had been born used to moan that whenever she came to the house, "Peter the Postman is a very busy man..." was always playing in the background. I am two years older than my sister, so I must have been two years old.

That's all I wanted to say. Literally my earliest memory is of Brian Cant's voice.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

10.8 The Lie of the Land

There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You've probably heard about his odd complex
He got an entry in Freud's index
Cos he loved his mother....

I am a couple of weeks behind with my Who reviews. So I was very tempted to just write:

10:8 The Lie of the Land

Oh, for fucks sake!

…and go on and do the Space 1889 with Ice Warriors one.

But Lie of the Land deserves a little more attention than that. It is a truly terrible story. But never has such a terrible story been constructed of such promising components. The good bits were so good, and the bad bits so appalling that I find myself wondering if there is a very clever point which I am completely missing. 

The first eleven minutes are very good indeed. It seems that, as a result of Bill’s ill-judged capitulation, the Monks now rule the earth  and everyone believes that they have always done so. This is mostly achieved through Evil Alien Mind Control Rays; but there is also a daily propaganda broadcast, presented by the Doctor, reminding everyone that the Monks are their friends. Even Bill is starting to doubt the facts of history when Nardole turns up, and they go off together to find out what the Doctor’s real motivations are.

Earth-under-the-martians stories have acquired their own grammar in Doctor Who: London always seems to revert to some combination of the blitz and the Cold  War. Everyone starts wearing knitwear. There is a Cyberman ghost in every front room or a statue of a Monk on every street corner. The bits which are not Wellsian are Orwellian, right down to vans marked “memory police” and people being arrested for “memory crimes.” The Doctor himself, when he is doing his broadcasts, is obviously intended to evoke Big Brother. 

Its all very intense and dramatic and Pearl Mackie pretty much carries it by herself. Dark, fascist future versions of England, grim prison ships, military policemen demanding to see paper, the aliens mostly in the background working through their agents: this is what Doctor Who does best. Oh, it carries me back to that glorious morning in 1972 when the cricket got rained off and they showed Dalek Invasion Earth instead. 

The confrontation between Bill and the Doctor is astonishingly good. It seems like poor Bill is having every possible rug pulled out from under every one of her feet. She gave everything to save the Doctor and now he’s become a baddie. He honestly believes that the earth is in need of a jolly good conquering. Capaldi can act a bit and Whithouse can write a bit so he makes out a good case. We honestly believe that Bill honestly believes that the Doctor honestly believes what he's saying.

So she shoots him.

And he regenerates.


This is a proper dramatic moment. This is what New Who was invented for. This feels so much like Doctor Who and is so clearly not the kind of thing that could have ever happened in the 70s. I forgive Moffat everything. 

What do you do if your friend turns against everything he believes in? Is it like “You may be a Jihadi, and I may hate that, but you are still my son” or is it more like “If you are now a communist you are no longer the person I fell in love with." It happens in smaller ways, too. “Football is what our friendship was about. If you no longer want to go come to matches with me, I don't know in what sense we can be friends." 

Bill concludes that a Doctor who doesn’t believe what the Doctor believes is not the Doctor and executes him, which is pretty high-handed but understandable. This moment has been trailed twice before. The regeneration scene was in the “next season” teaser after the Christmas Special; and the “Bill shooting the Doctor” scene was the last thing in the “Next Time” trailer after last week's episode. 

And the solution is...

There is an episode of my beloved Superman Radio Serial (brought to you by the makers of Kellogs Pep) in which a whole series of completely inexplicable events seem to occur. Clark Kent sees Lois Lane on the other side of Metropolis even though she's been at a her desk at the Planet all day;  Perry White gives Clark a thousand dollar cheque and then denies all knowledge of it. The solution, in the final episode, is that the whole thing was a prank that Lois and Perry and Jimmy and the police were in on from the beginning. They thought they'd drive Clark to the point of insanity to celebrate his second year working at the Daily Planet. The same kind of thing used to happen quite regularly in Legion of Superheroes: people would pretend to be dead or to have become super-villains in order to give their friend challenging puzzles to solve. It happens quite often in folk tales. "I am not really dead, and I didn't really murder our entire family: it was just a test to see if you truly loved me." "Oh, well, that's all right then." Sherlock Holmes famously allowed Watson to believe he was dead so that Watson would be able to report it convincingly in the Strand Magazine; but Holmes is supposed to be a nasty misanthropic bully. (Most of the time.) The Doctor is meant to be a good guy. Never cruel and never cowardly. 

The Doctor has been pretending to go over to the dark side specifically in order to find out if Bill is under the control of the Monks' evil alien mind control rays or not. (The fact that she shoots him proves pretty definitely that she isn't.) Nardole was in on it from the beginning. All the soldiers were in on it. I think even the scary patrol who demanded to see their papers were in on it. 

And the whole thing is treated, quite explicitly, as a joke. The Very Dramatic Music which plays when the regeneration nearly happens is replaced by plinky plonky “we’ve just told a joke” music. The Doctor laughs. Nardole laughs. When it turns out that one of the soldiers accidentally loaded his gun with real bullets, rather than blanks, the Doctor treats it as a funny joke at his own expense. 

Peter can read out any old shit and make it sound convincing. Pearl can look as if here heart is breaking more or less to order. That's what they teach you at acting school. I dare say either one of them could read out a recipe for scones as if it was a letter describing the death of a loved one. Nardole is completely convincing when he tells Bill that they are going to go looking for the Doctor together, even though he knows it is only a ruse. He says it just as if would have done if it had not been a ruse. Of course he does. Because in both cases, what we had was Matt Lucas, saying the words, as well as he could.

If the script calls on the actors to follow up a really, really dramatic scene with a "ha ha we were only fooling" scene, the actors are going to work just as hard on making us believe it was all a jape as they did on making us believe it was all deadly real.

But its still a horrible trick for a writer to play on an audience. It isn't just this big dramatic scene he's undercut for the sake of a cheap gag: it's every other big dramatic scene he ever writes.


Doctor Who always was a little bit too geeky. Science and boffinary saved the world just a little bit too regularly. Doctor Jon spent just slightly too many episodes locked away in his lab playing with his test tubes.  It is a good idea to have told the writers of New Who that it isn't only the power of science which can save the world. Sometimes it is the power of love which does the trick. 

But this can be done in two ways: a hard way, and an easy way. The hard way is to come up with a compelling sequence of events in which the characters’ loyalty and commitment to each other is instrumental in foiling the baddies master plan. Think of that episode of Sarah-Jane when Clyde had no idea what Luke was doing, but went along with it anyway because he trusted Luke and knew he would never turn against his mates. Think of every other episode of Sarah-Jane, actually. 

The easy way is to write whatever story you were going to write anyway, but have the hero zap the villain with a Love Ray (instead of a Gamma Ray or Kryptonite Ray) in the final scene. I believe that Jack Kirby was once commissioned to draw a soft-porn comic, and came up with a story in which alien women in only slightly more revealing than usual costumes rendered male superheroes helpless by zapping them with their Sex Rays.

I do not say that a story in which you zapped Torybots with Love Beams couldn’t be made to work. Anything could be made to work. Stories in which Noble Sir Jeremy slew the Mighty Brexit Slug with the magical sword of Coalition were once relatively popular. I do say that the winding up the Monk "trilogy" with Little Billy Potts zapping Wicked McWicked the Pyramid Fairy with the Charming Charm of Motherly Love feels more like My Little Pony than Doctor Who. 

I honestly wanted to chuck things at the television.

The Monks can only invade planets they have been wholeheartedly and sincerely invited to invade. Last week, Bill wholeheartedly and sincerely asked them to invade earth. It turns out that this set up a psychic link between Bill and the Monks turning her brain into the transmitter for the evil alien mind control rays that have made everybody in the whole wide world believe that the Monks are benevolent rulers. 

This crucial piece of information is imparted by Euros Holmes -- I am sorry, by Missy -- half way through the episode. This is an astonishingly slipshod piece of plotting. Surely "This is how you defeat the Monks" should have been the piece of information which Matrix-Doctor sacrificed his existence to transmit to Real-Doctor in In Extremis? 

On the other hand, the scenes with Missy are extremely well done. Michel Gomez gets better and better the less she acts; even the camp thing (”awk…ward”) which was so irritating in Death in Heaven is now convincing and disturbing. The philosophical sparring between her and the Doctor is genuinely impressive: the idea that a reformed, benevolent Missy would still not be "good" by the Doctor's standards is worth much exploring. But in a sense, these scene are not really part of the episode we are watching; they are just "seeding" the return of Missy in the season climax.

So: the first plan is to simply kill Bill (which would make a good title for a movie). This won’t work because all the mind controlled people will only gradually realize that the propaganda they heard through the mind control rays wasn’t true.

The second plan is to leave Bill alive but brain dead, because then she’d be transmitting nothing to the other humans, rather than Monkish propaganda. The Doctor is not crazy about this plan. Neither is Bill. 

This third Plan is for the Doctor to plug his own superior mind into the Monk’s transmitter, and replace the Ministry of Truth's made up history with his own, honest version. This doesn’t work because the transmitter is too powerful even for the Doctor’s brain.

So the final plan is that Bill plugs herself into the transmitter she is already plugged into in the expectation that it will free the world but render her brain dead except that, quite unexpectedly, her love for her mother gets transmitted to everyone in the entire universe and world, overwriting the Monks’ propaganda.

The on-screen explanation goes like this:

“Oh, you clever, brilliant, ridiculous girl.”

Impossible. You forgot to say impossible.

“Look at that! All the pictures I gave you. I thought I was just being kind, but I was saving the world.”

This is not the kind of blog which generally says things like “Even when the young gay black girl sacrifices her life to save the universe, the old straight white guy will always claim the credit.” It is not even the kind of blog which says “The Doctor always has to be represented as primary world-saver, even when it makes no sense for him to be so.” It’s more the kind of blog which wonders why Bill’s love is specially pure because she has only recently found a box of pictures — why “having a visual image of a dead parent” has world-saving potential, but “cherishing a memory of dead parent without knowing what they looked like” does not.

“Bill, if there's any of you left in there, listen. You have to keep thinking about your mum, the memory you created. Her voice. Her smile.”

It’s the fact that Bill's Mum is an imaginary person which saves the world? The smile being from the photos, the voice being something she only has very distant memories of? Would the voice without the smile not have worked as well? How about the smile without the voice? 

“The Monks can't get near it. Fill your mind with it! Push it into every corner. She's filling its mind with one pure, uncorrupted, irresistible image. And it's broadcasting it to the world, because it can't help it. All those years you kept her alive inside you, an isolated subroutine in a living mind.”

A “sub-routine” is one part of a computer program. I suppose an “isolated sub-routine” is part of a computer program which can function without the rest. I suppose the idea is that a mini-program can be copied from one computer to another and that Bill’s idea of her mother is being copied from her mind to everyone else’s mind. We are simultaneously dealing with extreme reductionism (a human mind is a complex computer program and nothing more) and extreme mystical essentialism (you can literally fill your mind/soul with love for just one object.) I also fear that there is a false analogy being drawn between "uncorrupted" (as in, a computer file) and "incorruptible" (as in "the dead shall be raised").

“Perfect, untouchable.”

Is the point here that because because Bill never knew her mother, she has made up a mother more perfect than any actual woman could ever be -- that it's "the idea of a perfect mother" that the Monks can't cope with? (A bit like Descartes saying that because I can imagine a perfect God, then the perfect God must exist:? Or possibly nothing like that?) 

“She's a window on the world without the Monks. Absolutely loved, absolutely trusted. And that window is opening everywhere. A glimpse of freedom. But a glimpse is all you need. The lie is breaking. Bill's mum just went viral.”

no but no but no but no but this has nothing to do with sub routines or computer or brains its just about how much billie loves her mother and billie presumably loves her mother just as much as practically almost if not everyone than nearly everyone loves their mothers and daddies and absolute best friend evers and puppy dogs and we have seen from the family at the beginning and the man whose son is in the prison camp that people still love their families in this world so how is billie loving her mummy a window into anything at all no no no

Friday, June 16, 2017

10.7 The Pyramid at the End of the World

I think we now know what is wrong with Moffat-Who. I think we always did know what was wrong with Moffat-Who, but we can now sum it up in two words.

Magic Clocks. 

I am familiar with the idea of the Doomsday Clock, if only because of Watchmen. Some scientist dudes got together in the Cold War and conceived a conceptual clock which shows how close we are to blowing ourselves up. (It’s currently set at 2 minutes to midnight.)

And I suppose that a group of Space Monks — who know absolutely everything that there is to know about the earth — would also be familiar with the clock, and might use it to threaten the human race. 

But (obviously) the scientists who run the imaginary clock only move the little hand backwards and forwards based on stuff they know. The clock can’t take into account a hungover scientist accidentally releasing a killer virus. But I suppose, just possibly, the Space Monks might use the concept of the conceptual clock to threaten the earth with. So the humans would see the clock move forward and say “The Space Monks have told us we are one second closer to Armageddon than we were at the beginning of the episode; they must know something we don’t.” But everyone in the episode acts if the doomsday clock is some neutral arbiter which literally knows how close we are to the literal end of the world…

And here comes the good bit. The Space Monks make everyone's phone and computer show the Doomsday Clock time as opposed to the actual time. (The implications of that aren’t explored. Considering how worried we were about the year 2000 date problem, I can’t help thinking that if every clock in the world stopped telling the time, there be some major logistical problems. With airline timetables, if nothing else.) But get this. We are very clearly shown the time changing on people’s analogue wrist watches. How does that work? Watches like that aren’t connected to any interwebs. Some Magic Force must be physically turning the mechanism backwards on every wristwatch in the world simultaneously.  

The Not-We won’t understand why this is an issue. You have a magic telephone box that can take you back to 17th Century London, they will say; why can’t you have a magic space monk who can turn millions of individual wrist watches backwards? 

Part of the answer is that you are allowed to use something completely mad as a premise for your story, but not as a little device within it. “Once upon a time a fairy waved her little screwdriver and all the clocks in the world stopped…” might be a good starting point for a story. (We don’t ask the mechanism by which Midas transformed everything he touched to gold: we are too interested in following through the tragic consequences of his reckless wish.) But it’s not something you can drop in and not discuss any further. There were a hundred more believable ways the Space Monks could have told everyone that the world was about to end. 

The other part of the answer is that the difference between magic and science is a very subtle, but very important, part of the internal ambiance of Doctor Who. Completely mad things happen but they are completely mad things which feel as if they might possibly have a logical explanation, even if we aren't quite sure what it is. I don’t know if I could perfectly define the line, but I can pretty accurately tell you when a thing is on the wrong side of it. A scientist inadvertently releasing a bacteria that can destroy all life on earth: OK. A Space Monk curing the Doctor’s blindness, instantly and perfectly, by remote control, with a wave of the hand: not OK. Using the fabulous technology of the TARDIS to make the computer link to 428 CCTVs go down simultaneously: OK. Using the undefined power of the Space Monks to change the time on every wrist watch in the whole wide world: not OK.

One definition of the line might be that a silly, cartoon-strip, Saturday night, good guys vs monsters space opera TV serial story allows and include technology which is sufficiently advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic, but forbids and excludes actual miracles. 

Some of these problems may possibly be resolved in next week's episode, or in the Season Climax. It may turn out that we are playing a game of nested realities, and the Monks' miraculous ability to levitate nuclear submarines should be taken evidence that the Doctor and Bill are still inside a computer game. But I have an overwhelming sense that Moffat knew which pictures he wanted to draw and which synthetic moral dilemmas he wanted characters to fudge their way out of, and glued everything together with whatever gobbledegook was lying around at the time.

And, in fairness, the pictures are absolutely lovely. The Doctor walking across the desert to the pyramid; the Space Gods confronting him at the door. The Doctor playing guitar in the TARDIS. The bottle and the glasses breaking. Bill and Penny walking through late night streets. The Monk's nerve center, with the glowing strings of cause and effect (although Doctor Who rather stole that from Harry Potter and Harry Potter rather stole it from the Ring Cycle).

And I like the structure very much indeed. The Alien Gods have come to declare the End of the World and the earth’s military is gathered around the Mother Ship — but we keep flashing back to a very ordinary day in the office for two very ordinary scientist and instantly see that the End of the World isn’t happening where everyone thinks it is happening. I just wish that this beautiful structure had an equally beautiful story hanging off it.


I buy the idea of the Doctor as scientific adviser of UNIT. I don’t actually know how all the nations of the world world could arrange an extra-national force for dealing with aliens, given that all the nations of Europe can’t even arrange a free trade zone without arguing about it; but I feel that it is the kind of thing which all the nations of the world might have a god at doing. I don’t buy the idea that the Doctor can become the President of Earth at the drop of a jelly baby. Being President, as opposed to advising Presidents, is obviously not the Doctor’s modus operandi.(He actively ran away from being President of Gallifrey.) Why would anyone who knew the Doctor well enough to want his help suppose for one moment that that was the kind of help he would be willing to give? No-one treat him like President, and he doesn’t seem to exercise Presidential powers, although he does get to fly around in a big plane. The soldiers and the UN guy treat him as a super knowledgeable person whose advise they ought to pay a heckuva lot of attention to. Like everyone always treats the Doctor, in fact. 

We keep being told that when weird stuff happens on earth, everyone immediately forgets about it. Bill has never heard of the Daleks, even though the Daleks have invaded the earth at least several times in her lifetime. But for there to be some procedure by which Theresa May can snap her fingers and say “All of the UKs financial, military and intelligence resources are controlled by the Doctor, without parliamentary scrutiny or the Queen signing off on them” an awful lot of MPs and civil servants would have to remember the Daleks and the Cybermen and the giant haddock in the Thames. 

Never mention Torchwood. (Seriously. Never mention it.)

I don’t think that the Winston Churchill of Victory of the Daleks or the Van Gogh of Vincent and the Doctor are accurately historical representations of those particular persons. But they are presented to us as if they were real and as if we are meant to treat them as real. That's the whole fun of those kinds of episodes: well, of course Doctor Who and our greatest ever Prime Minister would be old mates. But the minute the "President of Earth" thing is invoked, everything in the episode becomes consciously less realistic, consciously more one dimensional, consciously more like a child's game of soldiers. I assume that Moffat means it to have exactly the opposite effect. 


How was the Space Monks' simulation supposed to have worked? Are we supposed to imagine that, by running simulations of human history, the Space Monks can find out that a particular human scientist will break her glasses on a particular day of the week? I can see how they can determine that the human race will definitely wipe itself out with a virus at some point between 2015 and 2020; but that a silly accident will cause it to happen on a particular day… not so much. Are we subject to that level of predestination? (Was it not Stephen Hawking who remarked that even if you had a perfect theory of everything, you still wouldn't be able to extrapolate from physical laws what was going to be on the cover of Vogue magazine next March.)

Come to think of it, their simulation includes the Doctor, and includes the fact that he’s been on the mining station and lost his sight, and includes the fact that he is hanging out with Bill Potts and not some other human lady companion....which means that they must also know that he’s temporarily exiled to earth as Missy’s Guardian… they must, in short, have been running a simulation of the whole universe.

Which seems like a lot of trouble to have gone to.


The Space Monks want to invade the Earth. But they can only invade planets which they have been invited to invade. The leader of the United Nations and the leaders of the various armies surrender: but their motives are not pure — they are surrendering out of fear, or tactically. So the Space Monks turn them into pillars of salt. But when Bill realizes that if she doesn’t surrender, the Doctor will die, she hands Earth over to them. Willingly. I was rather reminded of Curse of Fenric, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor nearly allows the Haemovores to conquer the Earth. Dr Sylvester saves the day by being really horrible to Ace so she loses her faith in him. I rather wish that Dr Peter had given Bill the same treatment.

I get that some Doctor Who aliens are fairy tale buggaboos with magic shticks, I really do. The Weeping Angels can only move when no-one is looking at them. Everyone forgets the Silence a few seconds after they have seen them, unless they make marks on their bodies, and possibly even then. If there were a well established or well foreshadowed Monster called The Gift Bringer who could only invade planets that he’d been invited to invade (and tricked planets into inviting him in a different ingenious way each time we met him, like Mr Mxyzptlk) I would be quite able to accept it. 

But the Space Monk's “You have to consent” power is too nebulous. I don’t understand what it means. There is talk about establishing “a link”; there is talk that the aliens understand that they have to rule through love, not through fear. It seems like everything is being made up on the spot to force Billie to the moment where she has to choose between the Earth and the Doctor. 

Bill chooses [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Doctor over the earth. "You're an idiot" she explains "You are the stupidest idiot ever. But I'm not going to let you die. This planet needs you. So I'm making an executive decision. I'm keeping you alive", which is as much as to say, being interpreted "You can't die. You're too nice, too brave, too kind and far, far too silly." Bill has turned, within six weeks, from a not particularly well educated young woman who knew her sci-fi tropes to a generic new who girl, Rose V, entirely defined by her love for the Doctor. 

The Doctor’s side of the equation is even more contrived. We have to accept that two scientists could inadvertently create a virus that would destroy all life on earth; and we have to accept that the Doctor can’t stop an earthling lab from venting the death virus into the air because “it’s on automatic” and we have to accept that the Doctor’s sonic glasses can do anything except read text. But the drama has some pace and some bite. And the Doctor’s relationship with the sober scientist is actually fun to work. Character chemistry covers a multitude of plot holes.

Plot holes I can live with. It's plot ladders I object to. Plot glue. The sense that we are clambering from scene to scene over improvised scaffolding; the sense that bit of the story are being arbitrarily glues together simply in order to give Bill her Big Companion Moment.  

So. We have spent one whole episode finding out that the Space Mummies have simulated the whole history of earth to plan for an invasion. And we have spent another whole episode finding out that what they learned from the simulation was that Bill’s love for the Doctor was the only thing pure enough to allow them to conquer the earth. Next week we will have one of those Earth Under the Martian stories, where the earth has already been conquered and the humans have got to figure out how to rebel, like Dalek Invasion of Earth and the Tripods. Everything depends on that being big enough and convincing enough to make the last two episodes seem worth the effort.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A discourse upon the sapir-whorf hypothesis, with particular reference to nineteenth century slave trade nostalgia in the west of England. Together with a logical exegesis of blog commentators. (Possibly too long and boring for anyone to actually read.)

The story so far:

Andrew doesn’t see any problem with changing the name of a concert hall.

The green inkers in the Bristol Post think that only True Bristolians get to decide what their concert hall is called.

Andrew isn’t at all sure he knows what a True Bristolian is.

Simon writes in the comments on this page:

So, and by way of addressing the relevant part of your earlier post also, let's take "born and bred Bristolian". The meaning of that is clear enough, as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there. Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of, and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.

Mike writes, also in the comments:

There seems to be something about people like this that makes them write sentences like "Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot." You can see the same tendency in Five times Hugo award loser John C. Wright: "having the form of C. S. Lewis, but denying its power".

Simon says put your hands on your head:

Mike, whatever "people like this" is supposed to mean, I write the best I can, and generally express myself fairly well I think. I don't set out to imitate anyone, least of all CSL.I could easily poke fun at your own style too Mike, but it would seem a cheap and nasty substitute for argument.
Now read on.

I agree with Mike.

People of particular political or religious persuasions often write in the same style as one another. People of a right-leaning, conservative, Christian persuasion — the kinds of people who are inclined to think that changing the name of a concert hall is a silly idea — adopt a wordy, flowery, archaic style, full of “qua” and “to boot” and “methinks”. Left leaning writers equally fill their texts with buzzwords and -isms. The reason isn’t particularly obscure: the conservatives think of themselves as speaking olde worlde common sense, a bit detached from the barbaric modern world every one else inhabits. The Left want to appear clever and technical and scientific and modern. 

I realize I am offering myself as a hostage to fortune here. I look forward to some wag demonstrating the unspoken assumptions in my writing style. I would say in my defense that I have already done it to myself far more viciously than you are likely to be able to.

I called my first essay on John C Wright “Pastiche” because I found the fact that he was trying to look and sound like G.K Chesterton more significant than the content of his essays. Someone has made out a very good case that Wright tries to make his prose sound as if it has been very literally translated out of Latin  — because that’s what the most important and authoritative books in a Catholic seminary sound like.

The other day, Wright pretended to be incandescent with rage because a journalist had said that “there was some confusion” as to why Donald Trump’s female entourage had covered their heads while meeting the Pope, but had not done while meeting the King of Saudi Arabia. 

“Please note the careful use of language. ‘There was some confusion’ is a phrase in the passive voice that nicely avoids stating who was confused, or when, or on what grounds It also avoids stating whether such confusion took place inside or outside the confines of a padded cell in a madhouse. I suppose that a raving lunatic in a straitjacket, who cannot distinguish between the traditions of Christendom and the traditions of Dar-al-Islam, might be confused. I suppose someone who cannot distinguish friends from enemies might be confused. Someone who thinks the earth is hollow, the sun is a fried egg, his dog is Satan, the CIA are beaming messages into his molars from mind-control satellites, and who thinks his left foot is an outerspace enemy cunningly disguised as a body part but that must be chopped off with a fire ax might likewise be confused.”

A hundred and fifty words to express what could have been said in seven. (“I do not think it is confusing at all.”)  Why does the Greatest Science Fiction Writer Of This Or Any Other Age choose to render “outer space” as “outerspace”, incidentally? 

Grud knows, my own writing sometimes runs away with itself — I find myself typing “The overweight lady hasn’t belted out the last few bars of Tannhauser yet” to avoid the cliche “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”. But I hope I never give the impression that I am saying the same thing over and over again to make myself seem clever. I am sanguine about conveying the outward appearance of cultivating a repetitious ambiance to aggrandize my own persona. And I hold fast to the faith position than the face I present to the world is not that of one who recapitulates, reiterates and echos identical texts like some Hindu pundit intoning a mantra in order to raise my status above that of mere mortals.

For the avoidance of doubt: I am not equating “Simon” with Wright politically. But like Mike, I find his use of language a bit odd. 

Let us try C.S Lewis’s experiment of translating the offending paragraph back into everyday English. 

To make the experiment work, I found I had to start at the conclusion and work backwards.

“Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.”

This could be paraphrased as:

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes:

A: Being a pretender
B: Presumption
C: Dogmatism
D: Being an ideologue”

We’ll come back to what [X] is in a minute. 

A pretender means someone who falsely claims to be King or Queen or otherwise aspires to some role they do not have. Presumption is the quality of being over-confident to the point of rudeness; or of doing something that you have no right to do. So “being a pretender” and “being presumptuous” amount to the same thing.

An ideologue is someone who uncritically follows an ideology; an ideology means something like “a systematic collection of theories and beliefs.” Dogma means “one of the official teachings of the Catholic church”, a “dogmatic” person is one who behaves as if all his beliefs have that kind of authority. Colloquially, ideologues and dogmatists are both people who insist on their own point of view much too strongly. 

This gets us to: 

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes: he claims rights which he has no right to claim; and he believes things without question.” 

I think we can simplify that further, to something like:

“The person who does [X] is aggressively claiming a right he does not in fact have.” 

So, what is the “X” that the dogmatic stands accused of? Going back a sentence, we find this: 

“....and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do so because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... “

It is fairly self-conscious, not to say presumptuous, to use the word “qua” in an informal discussion: it almost makes you sound like a parody of a philosopher. (Remember poor Lucky in Godot: "given the existence as uttered forth in the public words of puncher and wattman of a personal god quaquaqua".) But I think we all understand what is meant. If someone said “I am going to consider the story of Noah’s Ark qua story” they would mean “I am going to consider only its narrative qualities and disregard any liturgical, moral, historical and theological qualities it may also have. So "rights qua resident" are rights that you acquire simply by virtue of living in place. You have the right to vote for who should be Mayor of London simply by living in the city: you only have the right to drive sheep across Tower Bridge if the Mayor has made you a freeman.

But we are not talking about legal rights here. We are talking about moral rights. I suppose that a legal right is granted by the government, but a moral right is granted by God — one of those pesky inalienable rights which Americans think that even kings can't interfere with. For example, I might think that a woman had a moral right to have an abortion, even though in some jurisdictions she does not have the legal right to one. 

So: a person with a quality called "Bristolianness" (which we will come back to) has the moral right to do [Y] (which we will also come back to) while a person who is merely resident in the city does not. The exclamation mark seems to signify that the idea of residency and Bristolianness being equivilent is so silly that no-one would seriously put it forward. ("My friend asked me if I had seen any Dodos during my visit to Mauritius.(!)”)


X = "The belief that all people living in a town have the same moral rights to do [Y]”

So if we combine that with the proposition we reached above, we come down to:

“The person who believes that all people living in a town have an equal moral right to do [Y] would be aggressively claiming a right that he does not in fact have.” 

We could simply it a bit further: 

“All people living in a town do not have an equal moral right to do [Y]”

So finally we have to define [Y].

Simon writes: 

“Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of...”

This seems to involve some deliberately exaggerated language. A person who had just moved into town might, indeed demand that the road sign pointing to Cuntgrope Lane be taken down; he might on the other hand simply express the opinion that the sign is a bit rude. He might be one of a number of people who signed a petition to change the street name. Perhaps he would only be pretentious and doctrinaire in the extreme “demanding” case, not the more moderate “asking nicely” one?

The request might, in itself, be reasonable or unreasonable; sensible or silly, but we aren't interested in that here: we are only interested in whether the resident-qua-resident has the moral right to make it. I grant that the long-term resident might well have knowledge which the recent arrival does not, and this might affect the validity of the short-term resident's complaint. We can easily imagine a situation where he honestly misunderstands what is going on. “Oo-ar, every fellow does think that, sire, when they first moves here, but that thar name “Spankers Lane” be having something to do with the rigging on a ship in olden times, and nothing to do with smacking a wench’s bottom, indeed no, sire.”

There are some things which it would be more reasonable to complain about than others. I would be on stronger grounds complaining about your black-face Morris dance (because it is racist and racism is a moral evil) than I would be asking you to ban Morris dancing in general (because I think Morris dancing is silly.) And I would have not only a moral right but a moral obligation to prevent you putting a Scottish policeman into a giant wicker man and setting fire to it, even if human sacrifice really is a long established tradition round these parts. Perhaps the newcomer is only being presumptuous and doctrinaire if he makes his demands based on personal whim rather than serous moral indignation. 

So we can say: 

Y= “The moral right to insist that any aspect of a city be changed based on private whim”

Putting it all together, we end up with: 

“All people living in a town do not, in fact, have an equal moral right to demand that any aspect of the city be changed based on private whim".

I think we could simplify this as:

“Some people living in a town have the moral right to ask that some aspect of that town be changed, while others do not.” 

Going back yet another sentence, it turns out that the difference between a Bristolian and a resident qua resident is that the former was “born and bred” in the city and the latter was not. “Born and bred” is defined as 

“as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there.” 

Now, the length of time you have lived somewhere is a variable — a sliding scale or a continuum. But being “born and bred” in a place is very much an either/or: you either were born in Bristol or you weren’t. 

So while:

“The longer you have lived in a town the greater your moral right to ask that some aspect of it be changed” 

might be quite a mild claim, 

“A person who was born in Bristol and spent the major part of their formative years there has a moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed, while other people do not.”

would be a much stronger one. It could be simplified to: 

“Only a person born and brought up in Bristol has the moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed” 

Or, more generally

“Natives have more moral rights than incomers.”

This is why I characterized Simon's viewpoint as “nativist”. Because it is. 

I grant that Simon says that his example is “admittedly extreme”. And the admitted extremeness of it may be part of the point. I have said that I think that a committee of people, appointed by the council, have as much right to change the name of a building as anyone else, regardless of where they were born and how long they have lived in a particular place. It may be that Simon's point is point is “Okay. You are talking about people who have lived in town for some years, quite tentatively making a very small change for quite a good reason. But let’s go the extreme: suppose someone who has lived in town for one day were very forcefully asking for a very big change for a very poor reason. You would certainly agree that he had less right to do this than a person who had lived in the city all his life. If the incomer has considerably less rights than the native in this extreme scenario, then it follows that he has slightly less rights than the native in the more nuanced case.” (This is a bit like me and C.S Lewis saying that if a galaxy is infinitely more significant than a human being because of its size, then a tall man must be very, very slightly more significant than a short one.)

The argument fails because I wouldn’t acknowledge a difference in moral rights even in the extreme case. The case for removing the Myra Hindley pub sign from Manchester stands or falls on its merits, regardless of who is making it. 

I think it is most unlikely that Simon, or anyone else who contributes to this forum, is consciously trying to obfuscate or pull the wool over our eyes, much less befuddle us or throw sand in our face. But I do think that all his words create the impression of arguing with me; where all he has actually done is re-stated the contrary position. "I think that natives have more moral rights than incomers" is not a response to "I think that incomers have the same moral rights as natives." 

I think that everyone has the same moral rights as everyone else, unless you can show a good reason why they haven't. (Everyone has the right to keep a dog, except you, because you have been convicted of cruelty to animals in the past.) I think that the burden of proof is on the person who rejects my position. I need to be shown reasons why the opinion of a person who was born in Bristol 50 years ago counts for more than the opinion of a person who moved here 20 years ago, or indeed, yesterday.

And yes: “Natives have the moral right to talk about Bristol’s heritage. Incomers do not” does sound oddly reminiscent of the passage I quoted before: 

" For the state must make a sharp distinction between those who, as national comrades, are the cause and bearer of its existence and its greatness and those who only take up residence within a state, as 'earning' elements."

You can see how I might find that a bit worrying.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unelectable Man (Nearly) Elected

It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.
                                      Tony Benn

I would like to apologize to Jeremy Corbyn. I was swept up in a populist tide of anti-Corbyn rhetoric. I have spent the last 18 months feeling vaguely ashamed of being a new member of the Labour Party. I have spent the last 18 months making excuses for my initial enthusiasm for the leader of the opposition. I even wrote an essay entitled “Why despite it all supporting Jeremy Corbyn still makes a surprising amount of emotional sense.” I know all about Jeremy’s faults, I said, but… I quite see Thangam’s point, I wrote, but… Better a rather dithering socialist, I said, than a highly efficient fascist. 

Yes, I was also caught up in the mood that said that Theresa May was evil but competent, which turned out to only be half right. 

I should have stuck to my guns. The first time I heard Jeremy make a proper speech; the first Andrew Marr interview; the JC4PM rally; the Remain meeting and the rally on College Green: I could see was something pretty special was happening in British politics — something I had never experienced before. My first impressions of people are invariably right. 

I never at any time believed that Jeremy Corbyn was the Socialist Messiah. I always thought he seemed sincere and sensible and honest and authentic. This should be the bare minimum that we expect from all our politicians, but we had reached the point (thanks, Tony) where it seemed like a major novelty. The received wisdom was that a politician's job was to find out what the editor of the Daily Mail — I’m sorry, what “the people” — believed was right, and to then pretend that he thought it was right, too. (Advanced practitioners were able to actually change their sincerely held beliefs on the whim of a focus group.) Here was a man who was in politics to do what he believed to be right, and was prepared to explain, calmly and sensibly (if sometimes a little boringly) why everyone else should believe it too. 

Yes, there was a certain amount of hero-worship and some of those rallies, but it was hero worship with a massively ironic tinge. It was fun to have placards with Corbyn’s face on them and to chant his name because he was such a massively unlikely figurehead, and was so clearly so bemused by it. I recall Jeremy Hardy  (a comedian) saying that Corbyn is the ideal candidate for anyone who thinks that people who want to be prime minister shouldn’t be allowed to be; and Grace Petrie (a singer) riffing affectionately about his cardigans. Yes, I wanted to have my photograph taken with him, but that’s a symptom of celebrity culture and the fact that everyone has a camera with them all the time. 

Like some of my socialist friends, I wish he had played his European hand differently; but unlike them, I never saw this as a deal-breaker. The damage was done as soon as Farage (previous holder of the Most Influential Politician Who Isn’t Actually In Power award) tricked David Cameron (previous holder of the Most Useless Prime Minister We Ever Had award) into holding a referendum. I heard Jeremy speak at a “Remain” rally, and he was anything but lukewarm. He was actually rather brilliant. But “We acknowledge Europe’s faults but ought to reform them” was never going to be as easy a sell as “We hate the Belgians.”

So before election night was over Dimbleby was talking about “this massive personal victory for the much maligned Jeremy Corbyn”. Andrew Marr was telling us that no-one realized what a cracking campaigner he was going to be (which makes one think he hadn’t been near a rally.) By the next morning, it was all “whatever the result, this is Corbyn’s night” “Corbyn is now the most influential politician in the country” “Labour belongs to Corbyn.” My very own mother, who voted Anyone But Corbyn twice over because of her memories of the dark days of Militant texted me. “So glad to be alive. We almost won here [Barnet] - only lost by three hundred. Unheard of. All credit to Jeremy.” 

I am sorry that I lowered my expectations. Sorry I allowed people to talk about my giving Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. Sorry I started to use metaphors about going down fighting for the right side. Sorry I stopped believing we could win. 

We did win, as the cliche goes. We just happened to run out of road. 


This has been the first election that I’ve actually campaigned in. Not a lot, admittedly, and mostly so I could say “So there” to those people — let’s call them “mum”, for the sake of argument — who think that Corbynites carry a party membership card but don’t actually do any work for the party. But I did spend ten hours on election day knocking on doors. 

I don’t know how it works in Abroad, but round these parts elections are mostly won or lost by identifying supporters in the weeks before the election, and spending election day nagging them individually to go and and vote. (This is why there can never be voting reform in this country: all three parties have spent more than a hundred years becoming very, very good at playing the game, and therefore have a vested interest in no-one changing the rules.) While Labour doesn’t have any money, because of Corbyn it now has shed-loads of members. And let the record show that a goodly number of us newbies joined the poster-sticking leaflet-delivering door-knocking operation in Bristol press, regardless of the fact that Thangam Debonaire was an outspoken critic of our man. Because I joined a party, not a fan club, and fair’s fair. 

We can at least be thankful that Theresa May’s snap election enabled us to dodge the reselection bullet. 


One of my Labour friends has a doctored image on his facebook page of Bart Simpson writing out “You can’t truly help people unless you win an election” a hundred times. And this is obviously a very good point. You can’t change the status quo in opposition. There is only so much time you can spend chaining yourself to railings; until the Suffragist Party forms a government, nothing will change. There is no point in wiffling about abortion rights from the opposition benches: only when David Steel became prime minister did women start to get control over their own bodies. Leftie teachers could fill the newspapers with horror stories about cruelty to kids as much as they wanted, but it took a committed humanitarian like Mrs Thatcher to actually ban corporal punishment. We might still be putting gay people in jail if Harold Wilson hadn’t been so famously radical on sexual issues. Sydney Silverman famously kept quiet about the death penalty until Labour won the 1959 election with a manifesto commitment to abolish it. And fortunately Nigel Farage stood no chance of getting Britian to leave the European Union before there was a UKIP prime-minister.

[That's enough bad examples. Ed.]

“Jeremy Corbyn had a good election, if you disregard the fact that he lost, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm had a good First World War if you disregard the fact that he lost” quipped Archie the Inventor on the News Quiz. And obviously, what we wanted was for Labour to win, As it is, none of the excellent and popular ideas in the manifesto are going to be put into practice: young people are still going to have to pay to go to college, the utilities are still going to be run for the benefit of foreign shareholders, and a very big question mark hangs over the future of the health service. I don’t go as far as Andrew Hickey, who thinks that the UK will be executing people again by 2022, but I do fear any leader who talks blithely of tearing up the human rights act. (Why, asked a wag, does Theresa May hate human rights? Is it rights she hates? Or humans?) 

This is all very bad indeed. 

On the other hand, I have never been one of those who is happy to be hit over the head with a big stick provided it is clearly labeled as a Labour stick. I give no credence to the those people (now rather quiet) who say “Well, if we don’t win an election we can’t abolish tuition fees, so in order to win the election, we’ll not abolish tuition fees.” The newspapers, who speak on behalf of the fairly narrow “people who own newspapers” demographic, shouted that Corbyn offered only “more spending, more taxation and more borrowing”. Well, yes: and May offered “less spending, less taxation and less borrowing.” That’s very much the difference between the two parties. If it didn't exist it wold not have been necessary to invent elections. 

The Labour manifesto was fairly specific about what its various plans would cost and where the money was going to come from. (Making the ridiculously rich pay slightly more; chasing big companies who don’t pay anything at all.) Theresa May and her surrogates largely ignored these figures and repeated “there is no magic money tree, there's no magic money tree” over and over again. "It’s as though he thinks it’s some sort of game, a game of Monopoly perhaps. Where you ask the Banker for the red money to buy the electrics, the green money to buy the railways, and the yellow money to buy the gas works." This makes me think that the figures themselves must have been basically sound, and that Amber Rudd has never played Monopoly.

An election is not a coin flip with two outcomes, Labour Wins / Labour Loses. Politics isn't like that; which is why simple Yes/No referendums are such a bad idea.  Law isn’t made by a single dictatorial president, but by parliament; by a government (which might be conservative or liberal, strong or weak, sensible or stupid) and an opposition (which might also be conservative, liberal, strong, weak, sensible or stupid.) A very strong government and a very weak opposition is not likely to be in the best interests of the country, even if the strong government happens to agree with me on most things. I have always thought that Her Majesty the Queen Mother, may she rest in peace, was on to something when she told A.N Wilson off-record that “What this country needs is a good old fashioned Tory government with a good strong Labour opposition.” 

So during the Blair years, we largely had:

Strong, Center Right Government / Weak Center Right Opposition 

To me, this was the worst of all possible worlds, and yes, I know that you are going to be able to come up with examples of Blair doing things which weren’t completely mad. 

What we actually voted for in 2015 was broadly

Weak, Centrist Government (Cameron) / Weak, Centrist Opposition (Miliband)

But within months, and without anyone particularly asking the electorate, this changed to: 

Weak, Right-of-Center Government (May) / Very Weak, Left Wing Opposition (Corbyn)

May acknowledged her own weakness by calling The Election That Should Never Have Been (to go down in history alongside Gordon Brown’s Election That Never Was.) We were told repeatedly, by party tribalists who were happy with any kind of government provided it wore a Labour rosette, and by former Blairites who honestly and frankly preferred Theresa May’s right of center policies to Corbyn’s left wing ones, that this was an election which Labour could not possibly win. We were told that Labour would be annihilated; that there was a real chance that the Liberal Democrats could form the Official Opposition; that we were experiencing the Strange Death of Labour England. (When political parties die in England, it is always said to be Strange. I do not know why.) 

What May wanted, and what everyone told us we would get, would have been: 

Monolithically Strong Right Wing Government / No effective Opposition at all. 

It is pretty scary that she thought this would have been a good thing, and the papers largely went along with her. The best outcome that anyone could have realistically hoped for would have been 

Weak, Left Wing Government / Strong Right Wing Opposition 

Yet what we seem to have ended up with is: 

Very weak Right Wing Government / Very strong Left Wing opposition. 

This is not the best outcome possible: but it is very much better than the outcome everyone predicted. It really is no good saying “You can’t possibly win this one; it’s going to be a disaster” and then, when we come within a hairs-breadth of winning, saying “You are pathetic. You ought to have won this easily.” 


Our election system is fucked, but we knew that already. 

If seats in parliament reflected votes cast we would be looking at the Tories with  15 seats more than Labour, but Labour easily forming a government with some limited support from the Liberals, Scottish Nationalists or Greens. As it is, the Tories have 60 seats more than Labour, and are looking to form a government with the support of the Ulster Lunatics. (On paper, you need 326 seats to form a government: a joint Tory/Lunatic government would have 328, but this doesn't take into account the 8 Irish republicans who stand for parliament in order to boycott it.) I am not necessarily saying that seats in parliament should precisely reflect the number of votes cast: there is something to be said for our system of small constituencies, where people can feel a close personal connection to their MP. (It’s a bit silly to say that a Labour Vote is worth less in Bristol, where Thangam romped in with a 40,000 majority, than in Kensington, where Emma Code scraped in with 20.) 

But we can surely think up something better than the present nonsense. 

We get one vote, every five years. We also get to vote at local elections and European elections and the occasional fatuous referendum, but we only get one vote for our national government. The Scots get to vote for the Scottish Parliament; Wales and Northern Ireland for their respective National Assemblies and Bristolians get to vote directly for two of our three Mayors. But one single vote, every five years, to say who should actually run the country. 

By contrast, the Americans get to vote three times for their Federal government. Once for President, once for Senator and once for the house of Representatives. The French system is much the same. I can’t even begin to understand the Germans one. It as if we were Americans and our Congressman was also our Senator and our Electoral College delegate. (People are appointed to the House of Lords for life, by the Prime Minister. I suppose that makes it a little like the American Supreme Court. The House of Lords used actually to be the supreme court, until Tony Blair invented the supreme court. I wish hadn’t started this.)

Theresa May ran the election as if it was a Presidential campaign — vote for me, me, me! Half the Labour candidates pretended their leader didn't even exist. "I know Jezza will make a shit prime minister, but I’ll make a damn fine local representative” the said, sometimes in very nearly those words. It is now highly probable that the Conservative Party will appoint a new leader, meaning that May's “me, me, me” campaign has resulted in the election of someone other than me. Which is, I don’t know, like the Electoral College being allowed to re-run the primaries? Meanwhile, Corbyn would romp home in any new Presidential contest. 

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: we can’t go on like this. We’ll go on like this. 


Labour Party membership cards used to have an unashamedly Marxist slogan printed on them. “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry the sturdy German chants its phrase the rotund Frenchmen sings its’ praise.” Tony Blair, on becoming party leader, changed the slogan to … to something so vacuous that I can’t be bothered to reach for my wallet and look it up, frankly. But this change came to be known as “the Clause 4 moment”: the symbolic action that proved Blair was serious and Labour was no longer a socialist party.

I joined the Labour Party before I really knew anything about Jeremy Corbyn. His election as leader was my Clause Four Moment. It was a symbolic break with all the nonsense about New Labour and the Third Way and George Bush and imaginary weapons of mass destruction and yes, I know that he also made the trains run on time. That I have liked literally everything I have seen of Corbyn since that point is in some respects a very wonderful added bonus.

New Labour is dead and no-one is going to mourn it. Well, one person is, but he's very rich and will get over it. It is not just that particular cluster of statist and authoritarian ideas which has been laid to rest, nor Blair's own mad-eyed messiah complex. It's the whole idea of triangulation which is over. The whole concept that the way you sell Chocolate is by making it as unlike Chocolate as possible — because people who like Chocolate will buy it anyway, and you need to appeal to the non-chocolate eaters. The concept that if the nasty party keeps winning elections, it is the duty of the nice party to become nastier. The idea that nationalising the railways and giving kids something to eat at lunchtime is revolutionary Fenian subversion, and The People will laugh in your face. All that is dead and buried. Corbyn offered the people chocolate that tasted of chocolate again and by god they bought it. The next election, be that as early as September or as late as February, will be between a frankly socialist Labour Party and a frankly Tory Tory party. Bring it on. 

A decade ago, Tony Blair declared socialism finished. As recently as last Wednesday, the Labour Party was about to be annihilated. There are still a few minutes left before the overweight lady belts out the last few bars of Tanhauser. But at worst what we have ended up with is a Tory Party who are the laughing stock of the whole world, propped up by a group of lunatics who won’t go to football practice on Sundays, and a (I can’t literally believe I am typing this) socialist opposition with genuine moral authority.  

There is no point in wasting time in “what ifs”. But what if there had been, in the Labour Party, some older, experienced voices who were incredibly skilled at media presentation and campaign management? The kind of people who, for the sake of argument, nearly turned Kinnock’s campaign around in 1987. And suppose they had, since 2015, spent every day trying to shore up Corbyn’s leadership, rather than (for the sake of argument) trying to undermine it.