Monday, December 31, 2018

A right gude-willie waught

How many words did you write in 2018?

Well, I published 115,632 on this blog.

Ah yes. Mainly about religion and folk music, I shouldn't wonder.

Actually it came out looking like this: 

COMICS : 42,332 words
DOCTOR WHO: 31,563 words
STAR WARS: 18,560 words
POLITICS: 14,479 words
BOOKS: 4,255  words



How long did that take you?

547 hours, apparently. 

And how much money did you make out of Patreon and booksales?

Around £2587.84

Are you any good at doing sums in your head?

That comes out at £4.73 and hour or £22.38 per thousand words.

It's a good job you don't do it for the money, isn't it.

Indeed.

Are you going to be writing about folk music in 2019?

Maybe.

Are you going to be writing about the Bible in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about the Wombles in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about Spider-Man in 2019?

I really intended to have it finished in 2018, but I have essays on #37. #38 and the Very Complicated Green Goblin Question to roll out in January. Then I'm done. 

Are you going to be writing about role-playing games in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about Brexit in 2019?

No. It would only upset you. 

Are you going to be writing about Doctor Who in 2019?

I still want to do the Capaldi mini-book when the Patreon reaches 50. 

Wouldn't it be great if you had some extra money coming in while you are working on all those projects?

Yes. 







 



Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Kolston Kult Komes Klean

During my visits to the Deep South I visited the old Colonial Mansions in Greenville, Savanna and Charleston also Georgia. 

Not all the so-called slaves had a rough time. They had a roof over their head and were fed. 

During the war we lost our house in the blitz. We lived in a village hall sleeping on the floor and in air raid shelters up to our knees in water. We would have swapped these conditions for what I saw of the conditions of the so-called slaves in the Deep South. 

My advise to those of you who are trying to get rid of the name Colston: if you do not like it, move home. 

Edward Colston's contribution to Bristol was immense.

Letter, Bristol Evening Post, 18/11/2018

Friday, December 14, 2018

STAN LEE 1922-2018

Stan Lee is the most important cultural figure in my life. More important than Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; more important than George Lucas; far more important than John Lennon or Bob Dylan.

I do not remotely claim that Stan Lee is the literary equal of any of those figures, although some sort of comparison with his Bobness could probably be made. I do say that encountering Stan Lee at the age of eight was like getting drunk or taking drugs or discovering sex. Things which, admittedly, I shouldn't have been doing at that age.

More specifically it was like a conversion; like encountering God.

In the days and weeks since he died, comic book fans and movie fans have been queuing up to say the same thing. Stan Lee changed my life. Stan Lee changed the comic book industry. Stan Lee changed movies. Stan Lee changed popular culture. Stan Lee changed the world.

Everyone loves Stan Lee

Everyone loves Stan Lee so much that if anyone had whispered "Jack" or "Steve" or "co-creator" or "original art" or "royalty payment", we would have fallen on them, as if they had insulted our favorite uncle or made a coarse remark about the Virgin Mary.

We may not read so many Marvel Comics nowadays. Our tastes are broader and wider and deeper than they were when we were eight years old, as well they should be. But loving Stan Lee—having once loved Stan Lee—is part of our identity. Going to see the Marvel Movies is, I am sorry, a sacramental act. When we were very young, Grandad brought us a comic from the newsagent each week; and there on the middle pages was a letter from Stan Lee; Stan Lee, speaking to us, and us alone, directly. I am glad to say that I had never seen a soapbox. I certainly had no idea why anyone would use a soapbox to write a letter. I thought it was the box in which Stan stored his pens and notebooks. I understood less that a quarter of what he said. Excelsior! Hang loose! Bullpen! Irving Forbush! But still, it was Stan, talking to little Andy and to no-one else. And now we are fifty we go and see those very same characters having those very same adventures in 3D at the shopping mall multiplex and always, always, always, there is a moment when Stan Lee appears and does something slightly whacky and we know that we never really got old and everything is going to be the same for ever and ever and ever.

And yet, the question hovers, in the background. It scarcely seems decent to ask it.

For what, apart from being Stan Lee, is Stan Lee famous?

What, if it isn't a rude or silly question, did he do?

Stan Lee ceased to be a comic book creator more than 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he held the titles of Publisher and President of Marvel Comics, and he continued to act as a kind of brand-ambassador or company mascot right up until his death. But his last issues of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were published in 1972.

Some of the people eulogizing Stan Lee are baby boomers in their seventh decade: people who actually bought Spider-Man #33 and Fantastic Four #48 off the news-stands; people for whom The Coming of Galactus and If This Be My Destiny are as emblematic of the summer of '66 as Revolver and Blonde on Blonde. The younger ones, like me, may have been lucky enough to have lived in England in the years before 2000AD swept all before it: when Lee-era Marvel comics were being reprinted in black and white 5p editions, in roughly chronological order, surrounded by all the obsolescent paraphernalia of the Marvel Age. And, of course, it is easier to read old comics than it has ever been. Some of the supplicants at the shrine of Stan have presumably worked their way through his oeuvre via Essentials and Omnibuses and Masterworks and Marvel Unlimited and Comixology. I myself have listened to the records of popular 1960s guitar bands like the Beatles. I even had a youthful infatuation with Flash Gordon.

But I do wonder.

How many of the people filing past Stan Lee's coffin are fans of his actual work? And how many of them love Dan Slott's Spider-Man or Greg Pak's Hulk and have some unexamined faith that everything which carries the Marvel trademark proceeds from the heart of Stan? How many of them buy into the corporate myth that Stan Lee is the indirect creator of Moon Girl and Jessica Jones just as surely as Uncle Walt is the presiding spirit which gives life to Frozen and Pirates of The Caribbean IV?

Is Stan Lee a man who worked on comic books? Or is he the symbol of our loyalty to a particular brand?

Is he Carlos Ezquerra—or the Mighty Tharg?

Is he Ray Kroc—or Ronald McDonald?

Theologians distinguish the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. There are facts about an ancient Jewish holy man which could in principal be known and proven and agreed; but there are beliefs and credal confessions which no amount of historical research could ever verify or debunk.

Or, in another sphere altogether: is it permissible to feel nostalgic affection for Uncle Walt and the Mickey Mouse club while admitting that, as a film-maker and a businessman, Walter Elias Disney was actually a bit of a shit?

There are facts.

In 1939, at the age of 17, one Stanley Martin Lieber took a job as an office boy at what was then called Timely Comics. His cousin was married to the publisher; but that's just how kids from immigrant families found work during the depression. The years passed. Timely became Marvel: Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee.

He later claimed, with a flippant wink, that he wanted to save his real name for when he wrote the Great American Novel. But his greatest collaborator, Jacob Kurtzburg, is known to the world as Jack Kirby. If you were doing stories about square jawed American heroes in '40s it was probably a good idea not to sound too Jewish. In latter years, Kirby pointedly referred to Lee as "Stanley". It was a very long time ago.

With a brief break for military service, "Lee" continued to work for "Marvel" for half a century, ending up with a million-dollar salary and the title of Chairman Emeritus. During that half-century, he was credited as "writer" on many thousands of individual comic books. Marvel Unlimited throws up 1575 hits if you search for his name. That's a respectable body of work; a fine career; an all-American success story. But it is not what we remember him for.

It is indubitably a fact that in November 1961 "Stan Lee" was credited as "writer" of the first issue of The Fantastic Four. It is indubitably a fact that he continued to be titular writer of that comic, and dozens of others, until March 1972, when he effectively retired from active comic-wrangling.

Some of us may have taken the trouble to read endless 1950s twist-in-the-backside monster stories with titles like Monstro: the Menace From the Murky Depths! But Stan Lee's reputation rests entirely on those final 11 years; the culmination of forty years in the funny book trade.

So. In those crucial years, what did Stan Lee actually do?

"Surely everyone knows the answer to that question. Stan Lee wrote comic books, hundreds of them: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men."

Well, yes. But when we say that Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman, we mean that he developed the characters, worked out the plot, wrote the dialogue, and then handed a very detailed typescript to an artist. Lee wrote no such typescripts, and rarely worked out plots in any detail. By his own account creating a story often meant pitching a one sentence idea, like "Maybe in the next issue Doctor Octopus kidnaps Mary Jane": the sort of thing which any fan fiction writer can come up with in their sleep. Plot, subplot, structure, character, supporting cast—everything that would normally come under the heading of "writing"—all that was down to the artists, who didn't necessarily stick at all closely even to these minimal briefs.

"OK: so Stan Lee didn't write most of the stories he is credited with. But the artists wouldn't have had stories to tell if he hadn't come up with all those great characters to begin with. Anyone can make up a Spider-Man story: the genius is in thinking up Spider-Man in the first place."

The idea of Stan Lee as the Creator of the Marvel Universe dies very hard. The cover of his 1974 book, The Origins of Marvel Comics, shows Thor, the Human Torch, the Submariner, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and the Thing leaping from Lee's typewriter, as if he is calling them into being. Yet by Lee's own account, the idea for Doctor Strange came from artist Steve Ditko; Lee did not write the first episodes of Thor; and the Human Torch and the Submariner were created by Carl Burgoss and Bill Everett, respectively, years before Stan got that first job filling Jack Kirby's inkwell. 

For Lee, creation is a singular mental act in which a person conceives—"dreams up"—the germ of an idea. That is the hard part: everything else is leg-work. The historical Stan Lee "created" Spider-Man only in so far as he thought "I would like to do a comic about a teenager who can stick to walls like a spider". The iconic costume; the web-shooters; the radioactive spider; and very many of the stories came from Steve Ditko.

Of course Lee was not being serious when he compared himself with God. But he did honestly believe in Spider-Man as a pre-existent logos; and that once he had said "Let there be Spider-Man" his work was essentially done.

"Okay: so he was an ideas man, coming up with high concepts that artists worked up into full characters, and then full stories, which later became the basis for successful movies."

After Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics he worked for animation studios and toy manufacturers. He could sit at an art table and sketch characters and hardware that could be turned into exciting product. Super Powers and Thundarr the Barbarian and Captain Victory are not his greatest works; but they exist; they are out there; people remember them. And they are undeniably Kirbyesque.

There are undoubtedly such things as "ideas men". Modern screen-writing, we are told, relies on the "elevator pitch": if you can't tell the studio what's great about your movie in two minutes, it isn't a great idea. Terry Nation, who "created" the Daleks for Doctor Who, seems to have had a knack for coming up with one-line pitches for successful formats off the top of his head. Say what you like about Blakes' Seven and Survivors, they are great ideas for TV shows.

In the years after his collaboration with Ditko and Kirby, Lee spent decades "dreaming up" new characters and pitching them for films and TV series. Not one of them got picked up. The supposed creator of the Marvel Universe was being sold to the studios as an endless source of sure-fire ideas. In fact, he didn't offer them anything a competent amateur couldn't have done.
So what is left?

Stan Lee wrote the words which appeared in the speech bubbles and in the captions. Very frequently—in some of the best issues of the Fantastic Four, all of the good issues of Spider-Man—he wrote those words for stories into the creation of which he had had no input whatsoever. Where the artists were storytellers like Ditko and Kirby, it worked great. When they got replaced by Buscema and Romita—fine illustrators but not storytellers—then the stories slowed down and the imagination drained away.

But still, Stan Lee put the words into the speech bubbles and the text into the captions.

But that doesn't put it nearly strongly enough. We should rather say: for that defining decade, Stan lee provided Marvel Comics with its voice. 

Here is the full text of one of Stan Lee's fondly remembered "Soap Box" columns, from the 1980s:



Any decent copywriter could have conveyed this snippet of information in 25 words:

"Michael Levine, vice President of New World Television, today revealed that a new episode of the Incredible Hulk, provisionally entitled "The Death of the Incredible Hulk" will be released in 1990"

If we wanted to translate Stan Lee's text into plain English, we would come up with something like this: 
  • The point of this column is to bring you news.
  • I have some news.
  • Do not tell anyone this news.
  • This news was told me by a TV executive.
  • There is going to be a new episode of the Hulk TV show.
  • He also told me the title
  • You will be surprised when I tell you the title.
  • The title is The Death of the Incredible Hulk.
  • Although it may not be.
  • That is my news.
  • You should tell everyone my news.
Into this structure he chucks every literary device in the book. He uses hyperbole as an ironic cover for self-deprecation. The news that the Hulk TV series has run its course and the main character is going to be killed off is hardly "top priority" and no-one's senses are likely to be shattered by it.

"What's the point of having me at your beck and call with these sense-shattering Soapboxes if they don't give you some top priority news"

is a purely ironic piece of writing. What he is actually saying is: "I know these columns are increasingly trivial and I have nothing much to report again this month."

He uses suspense to build up to the non-announcement. Having told us that he has an interesting tidbit to pass on, he makes us wait for it for ten lines, while he raps out some nonsense about us not being allowed to tell anyone. Again; there is an obvious inversion hereif the news really were secret, then obviously, he wouldn't print it in every copy of every Marvel magazine. But it also plays into the conceit that he is speaking to each reader individually. "I, Stan the Man, am prepared to confide in you, Andrew Rilstone from London, England, but not with anyone else."

When he comes to share the actual news, he doesn't just tell us: he embeds it in a narrative. The historical Stan Lee, as president of Marvel comics, presumably had short and well-planned business meetings with the staff of film companies who held licences to the company's characters. But in his story, he just happened to be in a TV studio, he just happened to have lost his way, and he just happened to bump into one of the VPs who just happened to have just had a phone call telling him that a new episode of the Hulk was in the pipe line.

It would hardly be worth calling this "a lie": no-one could remotely suppose it to be true. It's a jazzy way of passing on a snippet. But much of Stan Lee's life takes the form of neat little stories which are almost certainly not true. Perhaps in 25 years time "The tale of Stan Lee getting lost in the TV studio" will be as established an historical fact as "The tale of how Joan Lee persuaded Stan not to quit the comic business."

But he is still not done. Having started the letter by warning us that we are not allowed to share what he is about to tell us, he winds it up by telling us to spread the news:

"Think of how you'll impress your friends and confound your foes with this priceless piece of tantalizing trivia".

Hype and self deprecation in the same breath. Of course the information isn't priceless: everybody now knows about it. And how can it be trivial when a few minutes ago it was top-priority and sense-shattering?

This is banter: this is riffing. This is a 25 word press release spread out to a 350 word column. This is a man who loves the sound of his own voice and will fill empty air and blank spaces with pages of it. 

This is, in fact, genius.

Here is the complete text of a soliloquy from a 1967 Silver Surfer comic ("perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time.")

"Amongst the mightiest—the most supposedly savage of all earth's creatures—I sit in peace—I dwell in safety!

For food has been plentiful—and no longer do they hunger!

Unlike the humans—who call you beast—there is no violence in your heart!

No hint of avarice—no smouldering hate!

Yet man who has won dominion over all this world...is a stranger to peace—a prisoner caught in the web of his own nameless fears!

And here stand I—hopelessly trapped in a world of madness!

Where reason is shunned while violence prevails!

But no longer shall the Silver Surfer be a part of man's insanity!

Let humanity do what it willas for me, I shall dwell among the beasts!"

This monologue has no particular bearing on the story. On one page, the Silver Surfer is alone in the jungle; on the next page, Loki comes along to engineer a big set-piece fight with Thor. There could have been a story about Norrin Radd making friends with the jungle beasts, but this isn't it. Like the infinitely extended news item, it feels like a Beckettian game to fill blank space with words.

Elevated, godly beings have to talk in elevated godly language; and for Stan Lee, this means they have to talk Old Fashioned. Unlike Thor and Loki, the Silver Surfer never lapses into full scale cod archaisms ("Thou does behold Loki...whom fate hath decreed thou shalt serve.") But he talks about himself in the third person, and reverses the natural word-order. ("No longer shall the Surfer be a part of man's insanity.") He seems to consciously echo Biblical phraseology ("Let man do what he will, as for me, I shall dwell among the beasts") And he cannot resist repeating himself; he feels a strong need to say the same thing twice. "I sit in peace/ I dwell in safety" "Food as been plentiful/ no longer do they hunger."  This technique is taken directly from the book of Psalms. The sounds, as we were taught in Sunday School, do not rhyme: but the meanings do.

Stan Lee cares about what his characters sound like. His first thought on seeing Kirby's pictures of the Silver Surfer was "what would that character sound like: how should he talk." But he also cares about words themselves; their sounds, their rhythms; their allusiveness: the way they can just sit on the page, talking to each other, not quite making sense. He doesn't always get it right. He was as capable as anyone of saying "pedagogue" when he meant "demagogue" or thinking that "enfant terrible" literally meant "terrible child". And he never sorted out the difference between "thou art" and "you are". But he had spent 20 years hammering away at an essentially low-brow medium, and came out the other side with a patois all of his own. (That is the analogy I would draw between him and Bob Dylan.)

C.S Lewis said (admittedly not entirely seriously) that a good reader is one who will read the same book ten or twenty times and would know and care if a single word were altered; and that a good book is one that can sustain a good reading. Stan Lee was, in that sense, the first good writer I ever encountered. I was a bookish child: but the idea that anyone could love the words of Willard Price or Hugh Lofting in the way that one loved the words of Stan Lee was obviously absurd. Without Stan Lee, I would never have known that it was possible to love writing, as such, for its own sake.

I wonder if it was from Stan Lee that I picked up the idea that creative writing was something that I could be good at myself? You pick up more grown-up words from the Fantastic Four than you do from the Famous Five and it isn't too hard to copy his style when you are told to walk round the field and write a description of what you see. ("Autumn trees! Standing sentry-like over the grass. And their leaves, like copper, like red metal—what a mighty shape do they carve"!) And once you have committed The Silver Surfer to memory, it is relatively easy to transition to the classics. My first reaction on seeing a Shakespeare play or being taken to the opera was "Oh, I get it: this is like a Marvel Comic".

I have been writing for the last two and a half years about my deep love for Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33: comics which I read in reprint between my eighth and tenth birthdays. I can still recite large chunks of The Menace of Mysterio, the first comic I ever read, by heart:

" 'I never thought this would happen. I'm afraid to shut my eyes and go to sleep.' But eventually, sleep does come to the stricken Peter Parker, and when he awakes....!"

When Peter Parker puts on that red and black mask he speaks with Stan Lee's voice. And it was that voice which we loved; that voice which defined Spider-Man. A deep, New York Jewish, Groucho Marx twang, every-other line a wise-crack.

"Spider-Man! I might have known!"

"No you mightn't! You're not smart enough!"

These are not comics which I once read and fondly remember. They are comics which I have read and reread and will never stop rereading; stories and characters who have accompanied me through my whole life. If anything, their impact was greater, coming back to them at the age of 50, than when I first read them at the age of eight.

"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail you."

There was also Thor. Thor was the back up strip in Spider-Man's British comic. (The letters page was called "The Web and the Hammer": how cool is that?) Thor was a bit of a bore to start with, but it gradually became less and less about gangsters and commie dictators and more and more about space gods and sentient planets and the Colonisers of Rigel and Mangog, who had the strength of a Billion Billion Beings. Thor stopped talking like Superman and beganst to speaketh as doth befitteth the only begatten son of Odin. Lee made no bones about Thor's daddy being a thinly veiled stand-in for Jehovah.

"Yea, beyond description...even as he who rules the fabled land is beyond description...for he doth surpass all understanding! Let it suffice to know that he be Odin...the all-wise...the truly omnipotent!! Odin...maker of the law...speaker of the word...keeper of the faith!! Odin! The lasting power...the lightning wrath...the living judgement!! Verily he be Asgard incarnate!! And to the God of Thunder he be one thing more—he be flesh of my flesh...blood of my blood...for Him, do I call..FATHER."

This is heady stuff when you are a Methodist Sunday School boy and the closest you have come to a spiritual experience is making a doll out of pipe cleaners and a house out of a shoe-box to represent the father of the prodigal son. It would be an interesting exercise to try to identify all the Biblical and hymnal allusions in that one paragraph.

Then there was the "Avengers" comic. I never liked the Avengers all that much, particularly when it became mostly about Hawkeye and Quicksilver quarrelling and Captain America trying to keep them in order. But the second feature in the British Avengers comic was Doctor Strange, with his distinct vocabulary of spells and incantations and general weirdness. 

"You don't know me, but..." 

"DOCTOR STRANGE KNOWS ALL. Enter."

I rapidly came to understand that real magicians said "By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth", while pretend magicians said "Abracadabra." I assumed that Ali Bongo and David Nixen would know this, and was annoyed when they seemed not to.

I came late to the Fantastic Four. There was a little digest comic, published in the Summer of '78 off the back of Star Wars, which reprinted hundreds of pages of late '60s FF, starting with the wedding of Sue and Reed and ploughing on through the Kree and the Inhumans and the one where Doctor Doom steals the Silver Surfer's Power Cosmic. The original Galactus Trilogy (which introduces the Surfer) is more famous; but Doom Stealing The Surfer's Power is bigger, sillier, more over the top and much more like the Fantastic Four. And it contains the best caption that Stan Lee ever wrote:

"Like some predatory winged monster from another age...another universe...the incredible arch-fiend zooms westward...at a speed which virtually defies belief...!

DOOM: "Nothing can stop me now!"

FOOTNOTE: Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of cliches?- Shamefaced Stan."

And there, in a panel, is everything you need to know about Stan Lee. He turns the volume up to 11. He allows the most evil villain to steal the power of the most powerful superhero. He allows the villain to rant and rave like villains do. And then he inserts himself in to the comic, in his own voice, the voice of the soapboxes and the letter columns, and admits that the whole thing is a bit of a cliche. He isn't really ashamed of what he has written, not even a little bit. He is loving it, and so are we. But there is a half wink. "The Marvel Age of cliches." He knows perfectly well what he is doing, and so do we. 

People have called it "camp". Camp means different things to different people; but this isn't the camp of the De Laurentiis Flash Gordon movie or the Adam West Batman TV show-—the camp of positioning yourself as superior to the material. It is much more like the reassuring voice of Grandpa. "She does not get eaten by the eels at this time." It gives you permission to love the story, by reminding you that it is only a story.

I could go on. The death of Gwen Stacy's father, in Spider-Man's arms.

"It's Gwen. After I'm gone, they'll be no-one to look after her. No-one, Peter, except you. Be good to her, son. She loves you so very, very much."

Captain America's spirited defence of his generation, Stan's generation, the generation of his readers' parents and increasingly grandparents:

"So I belong to the establishment! I'm not going to knock it! It was that same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther King—a Tolkien—A McLuhan  and a couple of brothers—named Kennedy!”

And the scene that Lee himself would single out as his favourite, a few issues later, when the Silver Surfer, bruised from his encounter with Doctor Doom, decides he is going to try out being evil, The Watcher, a supporting deity who lives on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs fudges his cosmic non intervention policy to warn Mr Fantastic about the situation.

"What can he do against the all powerful Silver Surfer!?" whines the Invisible Girl.

"All-powerful?" replies the Watcher "There is only one who deserves that name! And His only weapon is love."

Irony; religious allusions; meta-textuality; lyricism; the love of language for its own sake.

And if you insist, superheroes with acne who spoke like neurotic, down-to-earth people, but truly, if that's all you see when you look at the Stan Lee age of comics, you are reading them wrong.

And yes. More than half of what I loved about Spider-Man—the ludicrous webby waistcoat, the aerial ballet, the web shooters, the whacky villains, and the farcical soap opera came from Steve Ditko. And more than half of what I loved about Doctor Strange—the strange, non-euclidean alien dimensions, the psychedelic clashes between Eternity and Dormamu—that all came from Ditko as well. And more than half of what made the Fantastic Four truly the world's greatest comic magazine came from Jack Kirby. The page on which Doom steals the Silver Surfer's powers may be the most impressive panel of any comic book ever. If we had not got that image in our heads, then Lee's wise-crack would have fallen flat.

Sometimes embellishing the pictures, sometimes drowning them out, sometimes providing a secondary theme. Stan Lee's voice was what all the comics I loved and all the comics I still love had in common.

Stan Lee did not create Spider-Man in a single divine act. He did not come up with the idea of realistic dialogue in a unique light bulb moment. 

Stan Lee was a word-smith. Stan Lee slogged away at a typewriter, bashing out text, for thirty years. He took the characters of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and he gave them voices. Or if we want to be melodramatic about it: he gave them souls. And he left us perhaps 10,000 pages of comic books to read. 

It is time we abandoned the myth, snuffed out the incense, and started to read them.

The Marvel Age of Comics.

1961-1973.

With words by Stan Lee.





Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Going, Going, Gondolin

The Fall of Gondolin
by J.R.R. Tolkien
edited by Christopher Tolkien


Some people are very cross about this book. Some of them don't think that the unpublished notes of dead authors should ever see the light of day. Some of them think that literary estates should make posthumous material available for free (and that editors and printers should chip in their time gratis). Quite a lot of people think that Tolkien's history's of the First and Second Ages are just incoherent doodling without any kind of literary value. Some even believe that The Fall of Gondolin is a Brian Herbert style continuation of Tolkien that Christopher Tolkien is passing off as his own work. (I got sworn at quite loudly on Facebook when I pointed out this wasn't the case.) And the mainstream press have completely ignored it.

Assuming you are not one of those people, what is the book about?

Way, way back many ages ago, not long after the Silmarillion began, an Elf named Turgon discovered a Secret Valley, and decided that this would be an absolutely spiffing place to construct a Hidden City. He named it Gondolin, the hidden rock. 

Many years later, a pair of humans, Huor and Hurin were taken to Gondolin by The Eagles (it's always The Eagles) on condition they swore to keep the location of the Hidden City hidden. Hurin became the father of the spectacularly ill-fated Turin. Huor's son, on the other hand, is called Tuor and he is the subject of the present book. 

Turin son of Hurin, Tuor son of Huor, Andrew son of Mandrew. I don't know if there is any reason behind all these rhyming names. The Dwarves in the Hobbit went in for it in a big way. although Tolkien blames that on the translator. 

So. 

Ulmo, the God of the Sea, tells Tuor Son of Huor to go to the Hidden City and warn Turgon Son of Fingolfin that he needs to throw open the gates of the Gondolin and attack Morgoth the Dark Lord. After a very great deal of waffle, Tuor delivers the message, but Turgon has absolutely no intention of de-cloking his city. The trip isn't entirely wasted because Tuor falls in love with Turgon's daughter, Idril, and eventually marries her. If it is 1917 and Beren is still elvish, then this is the first time human and elf have ever intermarried. If it is after 1920 and Beren is a human, then it's the second time. If you don't know who the third interracial pair were then you probably aren't going to enjoy the rest of this essay very much. 

Due to some treachery we probably don't need to go into, Morgoth the Dark Lord finds out where the city is and attacks it with dragons and balrogs and orcs (oh my!). After much derring do, the city is wiped out. However, Tuor and Idril's son Eärendil is smuggled out of the city. Eärendil, you will recall, was a mariner who tarried in Arvernien and built a boat of timber felled in Nimbrethil to journey in. The whole of Tolkien's vast story world--his legendarium, if you absolutely insist -- was dreamt up in order to provide a context for the story of Eärendil. Because of his mixed parentage, he is Elvish down to his waist, but his legs are human. [Check this. Ed.]This makes it his job to sail to Valinor, the Undying Lands and ask the High Elves and the Gods to come back to Middle-earth and defeat Morgoth once and for all. 

Eärendil may be an Anglo-Saxon name for the planet Venus; and some Anglo-Saxon poets may have thought that Venus represented Jesus Christ. The Very Early Tolkien thought that he was at some level recovering lost mythic material that was inferable only from linguistic hints; that he wasn't making up a story about Eärendil, but rediscovering it. Eärendil is quite a major background figure in Lord of the Rings: he was the father of Elrond and the ancestor of Aragorn. The star glass which Galadriel gives Frodo contains some of the light from the Silmaril on Eärendil's forehead; and when Frodo cries out "Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!" he is indirectly quoting the old English couplet which kicked off Tolkien's whole creative process. 

But here is the thing. Tolkien never wrote the story of Eärendil, or even attempted it. The long poem which Bilbo recites in the Fellowship of the Ring is about as close as we get to it. I suppose Tollers couldn't embark on the final story on which all others depended until the rest of the history and the languages were completed to his satisfaction: and he was never satisfied with anything. 

I think that this fundamental interconnectivity is probably the most important part of Tolkien's literary achievement. If we can hold all these stories in our head they form a single immense pattern. Elrond tells Gandalf that the swords which Bilbo and the dwarves found in the trolls' lair were forged in Gondolin. Gandalf's sword Glamdring may have been wielded by Turgon himself. If you can get right through the Silmarillion there is a wonderful sense of seeing history laid out before you: Gondolin is a great city that will be built at some point in the future; then it is the Hidden City that few people know about; then it is the fallen city that is remembered only in legend. 

Doubtless everything is connected to everything else in real life as well. But real life is too vast and too complex and too arbitrary for us to grasp. Tolkien's made-up mythology and his made up history (and, I very much suspect, his made up grammar) is more shapely and balanced and pleasing than real history, mythology and grammar ever manage to be. In his creation story, the gods first perceive the shape of history, from the outside, as a single artistic whole—specifically a symphony—and then enter into the world and experience it sequentially as a series of events. 

But here's the other thing. The romance of Beren and Luthien, and the tragedy of Turin stand up pretty well as heroic sagas in their own right. The story of Gondolin really doesn't. It's a pivotal moment in Tolkien's symphony, and we Tolkien-heads want to know about it, but it isn't particularly interesting out of context. And, inevitably, Tolkien never finished the story.

Tuor and the Exiles of Gondolin Which Bringeth in The Great Tale of Eaerendel was one of the original Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien's first draft of what became the Silmarillion, written off the top of his head in or about 1917. Parts of it are quite dramatic, but it is bloody hard work, written in that extreme cod-archaic diction that the Very Early Tolkien loved so much:

The ardour of Glorfindel drove that Balrog from point to point, and his mail fended him from its whip and claw. Now had he beaten a heavy swinge upon its iron helm, now hewn off the creature’s whip-arm at the elbow. Then sprang the Balrog in the torment of his pain and fear full at Glorfindel, who stabbed like a dart of a snake; but he found only a shoulder, and was grappled, and they swayed to a fall upon the crag-top. Then Glorfindel’s left hand sought a dirk, and this he thrust up that it pierced the Balrog’s belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature); and it shrieked, and fell backward from the rock, and falling clutched Glorfindel’s yellow locks beneath his cap, and those twain fell into the abyss. 

The version of the story in the "synthetic" Silmarillion—the book compiled from Tolkien's notes by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay in 1977—reads very much like a summary:

Along that narrow way their march was strung, when they were ambushed by Orcs, for Morgoth had set watchers all about the encircling hills; and a Balrog was with them. Then dreadful was their plight, and hardly would they have been saved by the valour of yellow-haired Glorfindel, chief of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, had not Thorondor come timely to their aid. Many are the songs that have been sung of the duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place; and both fell to ruin in the abyss. 

This text is not strictly written by Tolkien: it is a very lightly edited version of Quenta Noldorinwa, the history of the Noldor. written in 1930: 

Along that narrow way their march was strung when it was ambushed by an outpost of Morgoth’s power; and a Balrog was their leader. Then dreadful was their plight, and hardly would it have been saved by the deathless valour of yellow-haired Glorfindel, chief of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, had not Thorondor come timely to their aid. Songs have been sung of the duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place; and both fell to ruin in the abyss. 

Quenta Noldorinwa was, indeed, intended to be a synopsis of Tolkien's mythology. He did, in fact, write a much more expansive version in 1937, after the Hobbit but before Lord of the Rings. This was called Quenta Silmarillion, the history of the Silmarils, and it's where most of the book-we-now-call-the-Silmarillion comes from. 

The story of the fall of Gondolin in the 1977 Silmarillion runs to barely ten pages, where the story of Beren and Luthien run to over fifty. Why do Christopher and Guy run with this rather cursory version? Simply because Tolkien (of course) never got to the end of Quenta Silmarillion: the Gondolin tale is not in it. The very primitive and very archaic Lost Tales version and the very brief Quenta Noldorinwa summary was all they had to work with. 

Tolkien did embark on a full dress novelistic retelling of the story in the early 1950s (post Lord of the Rings) but he gives up shortly after Tuor arrives in the city. The fragment runs to some 40 pages so the full version would have been vast. When Christopher Tolkien published the fragment as part of the Unfinished Tales, he named it "Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin". I loyally ploughed through it when it came out in 1980, but I am afraid my reaction was "Of Whom And His Coming To Where?"

So: what is the point of the present volume? 

The 1917 version of the story has already been published in the Book of Lost Tales and the long 1954 version in the Unfinished Tales. I suppose these books aren't that east to come by—the History of Middle Earth is only gettable at in relatively expensive print on demand editions—and printing the same material twice in thirty years is hardly saturating the market. The justification for the Children of Hurin  (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017) was that they made worthwhile literary texts available to the general reader, substantially stripped of their critical apparatus. Many people might want to know more of the story which Aragorn told Frodo and Sam on Weathertop without caring a great deal about how Tolkien's various notebooks are related. 

But the sad truth is, there is no version of the fall of Gondolin which is going to be much use to the kind of person who has read the Lord of the Rings twice and the Silmarillion once. The very archaic version of the fall of the city; the first few pages of a novel that was started but not completed; nothing else but notes and synopses. And Christopher's voice chiming in every few pages:


Towards the end of the Quenta my father expanded and retyped portions of the text (while preserving the discarded pages); the text as it stood before this rewriting I will call ‘Q I’. Near the end of the narrative Q I gives out, and only the rewritten version (‘Q II’) continues to the end. It seems clear from this that the rewriting (which concerns Gondolin and its destruction) belongs to the same time, and I have given the Q II text throughout, from the point where the tale of Gondolin begins. The name of the King of Eagles, Thorndor, was changed throughout the text to Thorondor. 


In 2003, in his important Tolkien and the Great War, journalist-historian John Garth made a substantial attempt to rehabilitate the original Lost Tales Fall of Gondolin as a work of literature in its own right: not as a back story to Lord of the Rings, not as a first draft of the Silmarillion, but as a bona fide war poem. Christopher just doesn't think in that way: he is a textual critic. The relationships between the texts is all he is interested in. 

It is a Gordian knot; a riddle which cant be solved. The facts are the facts. Tolkien's mythos exists, frozen at different points in time, in different contradictory manuscripts. What most serious but non-scholarly Tolkien fans want is the story of Middle-earth; the tale of the Fall of Gondolin, fixed and final. Christopher is being honest in telling us that we can never have that.

If you have read Lord of the Rings and want to know the mythos, then read the Silmarillion and worry not about its textual sources. If you have read the Silmarillion and want to know about the tangles of texts Tolkien actually left, then by all means ask Mr Unwin to print you out a p.o.d History of Middle Earth (a snip at five hundred quid for the twelve volume set). But it is not clear to me which middle group this book is intended for.





Monday, November 12, 2018

Stand tall!
Thou hath reached the peak and plucked the proudest prize!
Hang loose! Thou shalt flee from fear no longer, nor suffer pangs of doubt!
Face front! The past doth lie behind thee. The beckoning future now is thine!
‘Tis true! ‘Tis true! How proudly we proclaim: thou hath joined Marveldom assembled!
Thy name hath been inscribed, now and evermore, in the blessed book of FOOM!
Come take thy place, believer, within the hallowed ranks.
The eyes of FOOM are upon thee.
They behold thee with fondness and favor.
The heart of FOOM embraces thee.
The hands of FOOM clasp thine.
For FOOM hath summoned thee, and claimed thee for its own!
Thou hath chosen a creed, a code, a way of life, and by thy choice, and by thy faith, the legends ne’er shall perish!
Excelsior!

The Last Doctor Who Review (For The Time Being)

We keep getting exterior long shots of a Cyberman in a cave. (Actually, we keep getting the same long shot of Cyberman in a cave.) In the darkness, lit up by some kind of spotlight, it looks very silver, very shiny, very real

It is eight years since the Cybermen last appeared on TV: an eternity in TV years. They are part of the past of the series; something our elder brothers remember; as irretrievable and canonical as shillings, and food-rationing. Yet here they are: on the screen, looking just as they did on the Weetabix picture cards and the Target book covers, silver suits and eye holes and handlebar ears.

Genesis of the Daleks was about the Daleks. It may have deconstructed their origin but it was interested in what a Dalek was and why. Revenge of the Cybermen is not remotely interested in the Cybermen: they exist only because they are icons. Like the Daleks they are "utterly ruthless", "total machine creatures", who think they are "destined to be rulers of all the cosmos." Sometimes, they remember that they are evil science fiction robots and say things like "maximum urgency imperative." But a lot of the time, they just sneer like any other super-bad-guy. 

"You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system. It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it." 

The sheer creepiness of the creatures who rose from their tombs on Telos, humans who have let themselves become machines, is long forgotten. The eerie, barely audible high pitched mechanical voices ("You will become like us") have been replaced by actors shouting from under masks. Even the Doctor finds them more ridiculous than threatening. The previous story repositioned the Daleks as emotionless creatures of pure evil. A good title for this one might have been Redundancy of the Cybermen.

A large amount of Episode Three is taken up with a battle between the Cybermen and the gold-mining-dwarves who inhabit the caves. It is not choreographed: it is a montage of guns going off and dwarves falling over. But it is very dramatic: a little like the legendary Dalek vs Mechanoid battle at the end of The Chase.

It looks real because it is real. Some actors dressed up as Cybermen and some other actors dressed up as dwarves and they went down Wooky Hole. (This was before Chewbacca). They pretended to have a fight and Elisabeth Sladen fell in the water and for a few seconds she was in serious danger. Old Doctor Who is doubtless very silly and very tacky and very amateurish; but the word that keeps occurring to me in these scenes is documentary.

*

We are back on the Ark, retrospectively re-purposed as a sort of space-light-house preventing people crashing into Jupiter's new satellite. It is the Very Far Future: but it is the sort of Very Far Future where people still wear patent leather shoes and keep box-files on their book shelves. At first it looks like everyone on the Beacon is being wiped out by a plague; but then it turns out that they are being poisoned by more than usually unconvincing Cybermats. It is quite hard to keep track of which human is which, but one of them is in charge and one of them is a scientist and one of them is a traitor. It feels like the kind of thing Patrick Troughton would have got involved with: boring scientists, gleaming monochrome corridors, a base, as it were, under siege.

But then we shift to the planet Voga, Jupiter's new satellite. A younger, militaristic dwarf wants to emerge from the caves and fire missiles at the Cybermen. An older, more sensible dwarf, wants to stay underground where it is safe. This all feels like the kind of theatrical costume drama we used to get when the Doctor was still known as Grandfather. The older dwarf literally hobbles around the stage with a long white beard and a walking stick. The masks and the make-up put one in mind of Peter Hall's legendary Orestia. (This was before Peter Hall's legendary Orestia.) If you don't have a problem with high artifice and theatricality, its really nicely done:

--You made clandestine contact with aliens, and you beamed radio transmissions out into space. There are no greater crimes in our calendar.

--In your calendar, Tyram! Your cowering, furtive, underworld life. If we survive, I will face trial gladly. I will give the people my reasons. I wanted to free them from this tyranny of dark, living rock.

--Living the way we had for generations, at least we were safe, Vorus. Safe from the genocidal threat of the Cybermen.

--I had a dream.

--A folly, conceived out of arrogance through overweening ambition.

And so on, for weeks at a time.

*

I will defend Revenge of the Cybermen to anybody.

It has one very big logical flaw. The dwarves -- oh, all right, if you insist, the Vogans -- live on a planet made entirely of gold. This makes them the implacable enemies of the Cybermen: Gold is to Cybermen as Kryptonite is to Vampires.

The Gold thing is presented as if it were a fact which everyone already knows. Indeed the Doctor tells us that the Cybermen were defeated at the end of the Last Great Cyber War as a result of Humans armed with Glitter Guns with such confidence that diligent Who fans go scuttling off to their episode guides to check which story this happened in. It didn't happen in any story. The idea that the Cyberpeople die if you wave a lump of gold in their general direction was made up for this story. (It spoiled the Cybermen for years to come.)

But in Episode Three the Cybermen attack the Vogan's planet; and the Vogans despair that their weapons are useless. But the entire planet is made of the Anti-Cyberman Metal.

This is clearly a plot hole. But it is not the kind of plot hole that obliterates the story, or even really impacts on it. It doesn't make sense, but it doesn't matter.

It has been my argument that Doctor Who while it is sometimes other things as well is primarily and irreducibly a children's tea time adventure serial. Specific details may change -- from space fascists to space robots to space dwarves. But you aren't expected to necessarily keep up with the plot, or even remember which story you are in. No-one can be expected to catch every single episode, but every episode is recognizably an episode of Doctor Who,

This is a story in which gold mining dwarves and silver robots kill each other in location shots in caves. A story which ends with the dwarves aiming a missile at the Ark while the Cybermen plan to crash the Ark, loaded with bombs, onto the planet Voga. (The Doctor is on the Ark; Sarah-Jane and Harry are on the planet.) Sarah-Jane falls sick with a space plague that makes the veins on her face glow red; the Doctor has a planet busting bomb strapped to his shoulders and is forced to go down to the very centre of the planet Voga. In order, apparently, to fragmentize it. The Doctor has to talk the rather dense people on the planet's surface through the process of directing the missile away from the Ark and into the Cybermen's spaceship; and then personally steer the bomb-loaded space station away from the planet, in a scene that is part roller-coaster ride and part computer game. (This was before computer games.)

As a children's tea-time adventure serials go, it doesn't get much better than this. If you are over-worried that the Vogans didn't think to use their gold against the Cybermen you are probably not the target audience.

*

Imagine Tom Baker without a scarf.

Or, imagine Tom Baker, as originally imagined, with a sensible, normal length, collegiate scarf.

The rest of his costume is smart: stylish, even. The velvet jacket; the elbow pads; the cravat; the watch-chain. The hat is a little over-large, but it matches. Take away the scarf, and you have an English professor, or maybe an espresso guzzling perpetual student.

But the scarf: less an item of clothing, more a trademark. He wears it all the time, regardless of the weather. (Who on earth keeps a scarf on indoors?)

Tom Baker talks about Homo Sapiens. Tom Baker worries about destroying sentient life-forms and murdering infants in their cradles. And yes, there is a childish insolence about him. When Sarah-Jane says "It's good to see you?" he says "Is it?" which is the sort of thing schoolboys get slapped for. His pockets contain jelly babies, an apple core, and a yo-yo: we only need some conkers to complete the set. And there are a couple of daft ad libs. Having knocked a Cyberman out by putting gold dust in its respirator, and with only seven minutes to save the universe, he pauses to quote five words of Macbeth. ("Dusty death, out out, brief...") It isn't clear who in the audience is meant to pick up on this.  But the Scarf marks him off as strange, eccentric, silly; and as the years roll on, the scarf will come to dominate his characterization.

Tom Baker will not be remembered as the Shakespearean One, the Philosophical One, the Melancholic One—even the Annoying One. History will remember him only as the One With The Scarf.







Friends, Romans country men: lend me your ears.
The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Fourth Doctor Who Review


"Strange!’ said Oyarsa. ‘You do not love any one of your race — you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.’
             Out of the Silent Planet

I: Absence of the Daleks 

Soldiers in gas masks; trenches; barbed wire. And then Doctor Tom emerges from the smoke. 

In 1963, the Daleks had been a product of the Cold War; what would be left after the nuclear holocaust which we all feared and expected. But it is now 1975 and 1914-18 is the trauma we never got over.

Two races: the Kaleds and the Thals; they have been at war for over a thousand years. Some of the Kaleds have been turned into mutants—muttos—due to the use of chemical weapons. They are thrown out of the Kaled city into the wilderness to maintain the purity of the race. (This was before Judge Dredd.) 

Genesis of the Daleks may be the greatest Doctor Who story, but it is still, at heart, a Doctor Who story: a series of chases, captures, and escapes. But the guns are louder, the peril more perilous and the space fascists more fascistic. Ravon rants and shouts and punches the Doctor in the guts; Nyder, channeling Peter Cushing, is terrifyingly patronising. (This was before Star Wars.) 

Once again, we are in what is clearly an English wilderness. We explore it for a bit. The Doctor and Harry are captured; and escape; and are captured again. Sarah-Jane continues to explore the wilderness by herself, menaced from a distance by shambling zombies.

The Sontaran Experiment sometimes felt as if someone had pointed a video camera in the rough direction of the action; here, the direction is tight, even inventive. When the Doctor arrives in the barren quarry, the camera pans over the nothingness—then suddenly sweeps back when the Time Lord appears. Nyder is discovered looking through the Doctor's magnifying glass, a single big eye dominating the screen. (What else has a single big eye?) 

It stands up as well as any piece of vintage television could possibly stand up. Only the habit of shifting from exterior shots (on cine-film) to interior shots (on video) seems dated. It takes an effort of will to believe that the interior stage set of a trench is part of the same exterior world as the quarry where the action begins. 

The Doctor puts his foot on a land mine. If he moves, it will go off. Harry, very carefully, puts stones of the right shape underneath to make it stable, and tells the Doctor to move his foot gently. He does so. Nothing explodes. Harry sighs silently, and the Doctor grins. Up to now, the Doctor has not tried to conceal his contempt for Harry: now he accepts him as part of the crew. For a while, indeed, the Doctor and Harry are lost boys on an awfully big adventure leaving Sarah-Jane trying very hard to be their Wendy. 

This is Episode One. We know that the Daleks must appear in the final scene, because the story is called Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor knows that the Daleks must appear in the final scene because a Time Lord has told him. But we do not feel the absence of the Daleks. Nyder and Ravon are compelling villains in their own right and someone called "Davros" is given a big build up. 

It feels like a surprise when Sarah-Jane, fleeing from what must be muttos, comes to a place which must be the bunker and sees a being who must be Davros testing a machine that we know is a Dalek. 

"Now, we can begin." 

2: Exposition of the Daleks 

Sarah-Jane is captured by muttos. Sarah-Jane and the muttos are captured by Thals. The Doctor and Harry escape from Davros's bunker along, of course, a ventilation shaft. The ventilation shaft leads into a cave where Davros keeps failed experiments in monster-breeding. Sarah-Jane, in the Thal dome, is set to work loading "distronic explosives" into a Great Big Bomb which the Thals plan to use against the Kaleds. Sarah-Jane tries to escape by climbing the scaffolding around the Great Big Bomb onto the roof of the Thal Dome. Harry gets his foot trapped in a giant clam, and then frees it. It is Sarah-Jane's predicament which terrifies us, because Elisabeth Sladen seems genuinely terrified. 

The cave of mutations belongs to an earlier world; a world of mercury lakes and slythers; a world now known only from maps and diagrams in holiday annuals. It has no place in this world of black uniformed fascists who hang prisoners to preserve ammunition. 

Davros is a scientist. Sometimes he speaks softly and reasonably; sometimes he shouts like a Dalek. His top half is human but he is a Dalek from the waist down. He is more like a Dalek than the Daleks: a shriveled, weakened, brilliant, evil body, being kept alive by an artificial, inefficient, transport machine. 

It falls to someone called Ronson to explain the backstory. 

"Our chemical weapons had already started to produce genetic mutations, and the mutations were banished out into the wastelands. Davros believed that there was no way to reverse this trend and so he started experiments to establish our final mutational form. He took living cells, treated them with chemicals and produced the ultimate creature." 

In a sentence, a decade of Who-lore is over-written. No longer are the Daleks the product of a nuclear nightmare; now they are the result of chemical warfare and genetic tampering. No longer the survivors of a war, kept alive in creepy but immobile transport machines: now they are creations with a definite creator. 

"The all powerful Davros" wrote Terry Nation in a 1976 children's book. "Reincarnated in the form of the terrible Daleks." 

III: Longueurs of the Daleks 

Davros betrays his own people. I had forgotten that. 

If we are not very careful, we can forget that Classic Who was a series of 100 and 150 minute serials, and remember it only as a fragmentary collection of Great Moments. (The Cybermen wake up. Sutekh needs no other servant. The Dalek rises up from the Thames.)

We know Genesis of the Daleks well, too well; to the point of cliche. The Doctor holding the two wires. Davros imagining the doomsday virus. The Dalek ranting into the monitor. Yet which of us remembers the story on which it all hung? Who remembers the Episode Three cliff hanger? 

Genesis of the Daleks is not a collection of set pieces, strung out on a disposable plot thread. Genesis of the Daleks is a miracle of pacing and story telling. There is a grand narrative; Davros vs the good Kaleds; the Kaleds vs the Thals; the Doctor vs the Daleks. Each week there is a revelation or development about that grand theme. Yet always, the drum beat narrative rhythm which makes it a Doctor Who story. Sarah-Jane nearly escapes from the Great Big Bomb, but is recaptured. The Doctor and Harry escape from the Kaled bunker. The Doctor warns the Kaleds that Davros is evil. 

Running around; getting captured; escaping.

It rushes forwards. It is never boring. Each episode seems to take less than it's twenty five minutes. Relatively little happens, but it never feels padded. 

My favourite moment, the moment that we talked about on Monday in school, the moment that appealed to nasty, cheeky boys and made them nastier and cheekier is when the Doctor gets past two Thal guards by walking up to them with a broad grin on his face and saying "I wonder if you could help me? I'm a spy." 

Ironically, the one problem with this story is its handling of time and space. There is a bunker where Davros and his Elite are making Daleks. There is the main Kaled city, under a dome. There is the main Thal city, also under a dome. And despite the preliminary talk about wastelands and muttos and caves of mutations, everyone seems very free to jump between them via access panels and ventilation shafts. The Bunker, the Kaled City, and the Thal City are indistinguishable, and the Thals seem very little different from the Kaleds. (They set slaves to work loading dangerous material onto their Great Big Bomb, which is a very Dalek thing to do.) It becomes hard to keep track of where we are. 

Davros positively wants the Thals to destroy the Kaleds so that his Daleks will be all that is left. So he, Davros, gives the Thals a Secret Formula that will enable their Great Big Bomb to get through the shielding on the Kaled Dome. The Doctor tries to prevent the Thals from launching the Great Big Bomb; he gets caught on an electric fence and shocked with electricity. 

That is the cliffhanger. I am sure you had forgotten it. I certainly had. 

IV:  Apocalypse of the Daleks 

The Thals nuke the Kaled dome. The Doctor thinks Harry and Sarah-Jane were inside, but they weren't. They all head back to Davros's Bunker through the mutations cave but Davros is waiting for them at the other end. Some of Davros's scientists are plotting against him; but he is counter plotting. 

And so we build towards the first Set Piece. Davros and the Doctor come face to face. The Doctor speaks of a future where the Daleks are a force and an empire; sometimes defeated but never utterly wiped out. Davros demands to know what caused all these Dalek defeats. The Doctor refuses to tell him. It is another moment which evokes a much bigger universe: Genesis of the Daleks has six Daleks and some corridors and a quarry, but outside is the TV Century 21 Dalekverse and the Dalek Master Plan; Dalek Empires and Dalek Emperors and Anti Dalek Forces and Space Special Agents and chocolate and mint ice cream lollies. 

None of this ever appears on the screen. And because of this story, arguably, none of it ever will. 

Abolition of the Kaleds 

If I say that something is Evil I might just mean that it is very bad indeed. On the other hand, I might be saying that a person or thing contains an immutable, metaphysical, evil essence. 

If someone is Evil I have permission to hate them; shoot them; gas them; exterminate them. If someone has merely done some very, very, very bad things I am allowed to ask why. 

If I say "I don't think that Hitler was Evil; I think he was a human being; a product of a political ideology and a set of historical and biographical circumstances", someone is bound to say "What? You don't regard the killing of six million Jews as evil?" 

It is more fun if the pirates and space Nazis and outer space robot people in children's TV are Evil, because then we can blow their space ships up and not feel bad about it. But people who blow up space ships and don't feel bad about it are very much the kinds of people we are tempted to call Evil. 

It is profoundly unhelpful to think that the darkest creatures human nature can produce, serial killers and pedophiles and people who shoot old ladies in synagogues are in anyway similar to cartoon bad guys. 

St Paul believed, not in evil, but in hamartia which the English translators of the Bible rendered as synne. It is a flaw or a crack or a fault: there is no self-existent Dark Side, no option to write Lawful Evil on your character sheet. But certainly it is synne which makes us want to hate and kill and exterminate. Francis Spufford glossed synne as UHPTFTU: the universal human propensity to fuck things up. 

If you have children, it is natural to want to protect them. And it is probably natural to want to protect your grandchildren and your great grandchildren as well. If we are strict Dawkinsians then what we mistake for the love of our children is simply our DNA trying to copy and preserve itself. The selfish gene has no conscience or moral sense, but it is not evil. It is programmed simply to survive. 

The human instinct to protect your children is tempered by human empathy. My child is precious to me; therefore your child is precious to you; therefore all children are precious. The idea that my child is to be protected at the expense of yours is at best an ideology of the very far right, and at worst, another way of spelling "evil". You start by saying that not one penny which could have gone into a trust fund for my child should be spent on a state school for yours; you move into the realm of the anti-vaxxers; and you end up affecting to actively take pleasure when the children of refugees are exteminated. 

If you could somehow travel forwards in time and see the Last Men, the descendants of the human race, ten million years in the future, you would not feel any more responsibility for the individuals who carried some of your DNA over the individuals who were not related to you. They would all just be people. 

The strangest perversion of the paternal instinct is the one which looks at two children and feels empathy for one and hatred for the other, because Child A has certain physical characteristics—light coloured skin and straight hair, for example—whereas Child B has dark skin and curly hair. Doubtless the same Darwinian urge that we mistake for parental love can get translated into a natural dislike for the unlike. But only for the terminally evil does that gut feeling ever become a theory or an ideology. 

How stupid would you need to be to be willing to fight and die for something called The White Race over and against something called The Black Race? 

But what of the Human Race?

If what I mistake for the paternal instinct is simply a biological urge to preserve the Human Race, does it follow that I have an instinct to preserve The Human Race at the expense of all other races? If push came to shove, should I wipe out the dolphins and the elephants and the octopuses to preserve the humans?

If you took me to a planet ten thousand light years away and ten thousand years in the future and said look—this child is genetically similar to you, because its remote ancestors came from Earth; but this child is genetically different from you because its remote ancestors came from Skaro would my biological urges tell me to love one and hate the other? 

And if they did, would I listen to them. Or would I say "Shut up, biological urges and Darwinian programming! You're not the boss of me!" 

5: Apology of the Daleks 

Finally, the leader of the good Kaleds confronts Davros. 

"The initial concept of the Dalek was to build a life support system and a travel machine for the creature that we know our race will ultimately evolve into....We believe that concept has been perverted. You have tampered with the genetic structuring of the creature to create a ruthless power for evil. We cannot permit this to continue." 

"The initial concept of the Dalek." 

But this, of course, is Terry Nation's initial concept: it is what the Daleks were in the first and best Dalek story, which I will persist in referring to as The Dead Planet. The Daleks and the Thals were both survivors of a hideous nuclear war. The Thals had evolved into pure, Aryan humanoids; the Daleks so mutated that they were stuck in their machines, powered by static electricity, unable to leave their city. They were horrible and scary and baddies but they weren't in any absolute sense Evil. They were pitiful and to some extent, they were victims. The Thals had hurt them and they wanted to hurt the Thals back. 

Genesis of the Daleks is about an attempt to change history. But it is not the Doctor doing the changing. It is Davros. 

Davros, who has no origin. Davros, who has never been mentioned before. Davros, an entirely new factor is dropped into the Dalek timeline. Davros, the creator of the Daleks, whose existence changes everything. 

In the old comic strips, the Daleks certainly had a creator, one Yarvelling, who made the machines which allowed the mutant Daleks to survive. But Davros is not just the creator of a clever voice controlled tank. He is also the creator of the actual Daleks. 

"It's not the machines" says the Doctor. "It's the minds of the creatures inside them. Minds that you created. They are totally evil." 

If the good Kaleds had persuaded Davros to make the Daleks simply life support machines for whatever the Kaleds eventually became, then history would have continued along its expected pathway; and Genesis of the Daleks would simply be a prequel to the Dead Planet. But if Davros succeeds then that version of history is wiped out and the Daleks become creatures of pure evil, an eternal extension of their creator's ego. 

The Time Lords are not using the Doctor to massively alter history. They are using the Doctor to try to ensure that history stays the same. Which is a much more Time Lordy thing to do. 

Davros threatens to torture Sarah-Jane and Harry if the Doctor will not tell him how and why the Daleks were defeated throughout their history. Sarah-Jame and Harry keep nobly shouting "Don't tell him!" as loved ones being tortured in Saturday evening tea time serials are wont to do. But the Doctor tells Davros everything. 

This is clearly not the rational thing to do: it may not even be the morally right thing to do. But it is the human thing. And Davros is quite clear what that means.  

"You will tell me because you have a weakness that I have totally eliminated from the minds of the Daleks so they will always be superior. A weakness that will make you give me the knowledge to change the future." 

In Episode Three, the Doctor told the Kaled leaders that Davros had created "a machine creature...without conscience, without soul, without pity." In Episode Four, Davros "outlines chromosomal variations to be introduced into the embryo Daleks" turning them into "creatures without conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no pity...without feeling or emotion." In Episode Five, Ghorman says that the scientists will only continue to work on the Daleks if Davros restores "a conscience; a moral sense; a judgement of right and wrong." 

Moral sense; judgement of right and wrong; conscience: this is the weakness which Davros tells the Doctor he suffers from. 

Conscience is a great big word; but there's a general consensus that its something humans have and machines do not. It's not a belief or a theory; it's a gut feeling. It is a cliche of children's literature that if you feel bad after you have been naughty, then your conscience is punishing you—and you can hopefully be excused from whatever penalty your parents or your teacher had in mind. Little wooden boys lack this faculty for self-punishment and need to be provided with anthropomorphic crickets to tell them when they have done something wrong. 

Over and over again, we are asked to believe that the Daleks are evil by virtue of the fact that they have had their consciences surgically removed. But why would a conscienceless automaton be any more evil than, say, a toaster?



This is the point of Davros, and this is the point of Davros's Very Famous Speech. As long as he is talking about programming the Daleks to survive, he can make out some kind of case. His theory that existence is pain and that the universe will only have peace when the Daleks have annihilated everything else might resonate with those of a particularly Nietzschean bent. Even his fascists' plea—"achievement comes through absolute power, and power through strength"— might appeal to a certain kind of puppy. It is only when the Doctor presents Davros with the thought experiment of the ultimately destructive virus that the mask falls away. 

Davros is creating the Daleks because they are destructive. He is creating the Daleks because he likes the sensation of power. He is creating the Daleks in order to make himself the master being, the one who determines what the universe itself will be from now on. And yes; this takes us back to the Christian story about the origin of synne. It's the story of a man who wanted to set himself up above the gods. It is to be found in a book called Genesis. 

Maybe Davros believed his own propaganda. Maybe he honestly believed that he was working for the survival of the Kaleds and for universal peace. But now he knows, and we know, and the Doctor knows. 

Ah. You are completely mad. I just wanted to make sure.

VI: The Doctor's Dilemma 



Why, at this final, pivotal moment, does the Doctor hesitate? 

He escapes from Davros. He finds—providentially—a wardrobe containing explosives and detonators. He puts the explosives in the incubator room, where Davros's genetically engineered Dalek creatures are growing. One of them tries to strangle him; but it's a minor distraction, to see us through the gap between Episode Five and Episode Six. 

And then, as everyone knows, just when he is about to set the explosives off, he hesitates. 

"Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right?" 

The Doctor hates killing, and rarely carries a weapon, but he is no pacifist. He has killed before. Minutes ago, he was prepared to allow Davros to give the order to destroy the Dalek incubators. He told Davros that he would kill him if he refused, and we believed him. So why the sudden qualm? 

You might suppose that the Doctor would have a problem with the altering of history. If the Daleks are really going to be a force for evil on a galactic scale for thousands of years, touching the wires would not so much change history as erase it altogether. But it isn't this that worries him. He is happy to endorse Ronson's bloodless coup which would have overwritten the future on an almost equally dramatic scale. 

The Doctor perceives a difference between wanting the Daleks to be dead, and killing them himself. It is a classic liberal scruple: not wanting blood on my own hands, because that blood would make my own soul more ugly. You might think that the world would be better off if some murderers were dead: but would you be prepared to look them in the eye and strangle them? You might think Nazis are evil; but could you blow out the brains of a teenaged German squaddie, if you knew his name, and the name of his parents, and the name of his sweetheart? If you must strike a child, take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven. 

What Davros calls conscience amounts, I think, to squeamishness. It is not rational or moral for the Doctor to tell Davros the secret of making the Daleks invincible, because Harry and Sarah-Jane are only two people and his betrayal will result in the death of billions. But the billions are not in the room with him now: Harry and Sarah-Jane are. 

It isn't that a machine necessarily lacks the capacity to make a complex moral judgement. It could be programmed to do so. But it isn't a complex moral judgement that would make us hesitate before killing Baby Hitler in his cradle. It is, quite simply, the "yuck" factor. 

Davros, faced with the concept of destroying all life in the universe was delighted, transfigured, aroused by it; but the Doctor, faced with power on an only slightly smaller scale, is repelled. Davros is asked to imagine that the tiny pressure of his thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything, and he ecstatically says he would do it. The Doctor, asked to actually touch two tiny wires together, cannot. 

There is the difference. There is the story. 

*

The Doctor fails. The Dalek incubator is destroyed; but the conscienceless Daleks survive. The Doctor's final hand-wave, that the universe is somehow better with the Daleks than without them, convinces no-one. 

Has history been changed? In fact, in every Dalek story except the very first, the Daleks were already the living embodiment of evil. It was never very easy to believe that the creatures who flew around the universe in a flying saucer, conquering planets and sucking out their magnetic cores, were the same creatures who cowered like dodgem cars in their metal floored city, planning to irradiate the world because they liked it better that way. Genesis of the Daleks is an acknowledgement of what we already knew: that Dead Planet, for all its brilliance, is an anomaly; an unsatisfactory origin for the outer-space robot people who once terrorized the universe. When the Doctor reviews the history of the Daleks with Davros, he starts, not with The Dead Planet, but with The Dalek Invasion of Earth 

*

The words "computer virus" and "meme" were not quite current in 1975, but that is clearly what Davros is talking about. An idea or a collection of code has no conscience. It never says "yuck". It exists only to make copies of itself.

But without conscience or the yuck factor or the gods isn't that what we all are? 

Douglas Adams famously summed up Darwinism in the four words "That which survives, survives."


Next week: Cybermen.