Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Last Jedi: Tertiary Thoughts

People who don’t like Star Wars seem to have mostly liked the Last Jedi; it is Star Wars fans who seem to have had misgivings about it.

This is doubtless why the vibe on the opening night was so negative. The five hundred people who had sat through the Force Awakens/Last Jedi double bill were, by definition, the five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks in Bristol.

The five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks who could afford to go to bed at 4AM on a school night, at any rate.

The media still talks as if Star Wars fans are some obscure cult, like collectors of 78rpm vinyl or Juliet Bravo enthusiasts. But even in 1977, when Star Wars was new and strange, it was also the most popular film of all time. Not a movie, more of an industry, said Barry Norman, before it had even opened in the UK. In the ensuing 40 years it has only grown bigger. It is strange to look at Star Wars Lego and Star Wars computer games and Star Wars Lego computer games and realize that millions of kids who have never seen a Star Wars movie know the identity of Luke Skywalker's father.

There is a show on Radio 4 in which guests are challenged to try things they have never tried before. So the notoriously well-dressed journalist is asked to buy a pair of jeans; the serious food writer is asked to go to McDonalds; someone who claims never to have eaten cheese is presented with a vast tasting palette of the stuff. The title of the show is I’ve Never Seen Star Wars.

We are all Star Wars fans now. 


Richard Dawkins famously said that if atheism is a religion, then not playing chess is a hobby. Garrison Keeler, almost as famously, said that in Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutherans: it is the Lutheran God they didn't believe in. 

Everyone has seen Star Wars. Nearly everyone likes Star Wars. But if you are reading this you are part of a tiny minority who have seen all the films an average of 16 times each; and have spent time thinking about them — as history, as mythology, as drama, as the possible subject matter for role-playing games.

It may be hard for you and I to believe, but the overwhelming majority of people who saw the Last Jedi didn’t have any strong feelings about it either way. They honestly haven’t given it a second thought since they left the cinema. They are, however, enormously looking forward to the Black Panther. Trust me, if you think the Phantom Menace retrospectively ruined your childhood, or even if you take the contrarian view that A New Hope is boring and dated and the sequels are where it's at, then you care infinitely more about these movies than nearly anyone else in the world.

Any schism between people who hated The Last Jedi and people who quite liked it is a schism within that tiny minority. It is not an argument between people who like Star Wars and people who do not. It is an argument between Star Wars geeks who like Star Wars and Star Wars geeks who don't. People who are geeky about liking Star Wars and people who are just as geeky about not liking it. There are, in fact, a fair number of people in the world whose hobby is telling other people to stop playing chess.

In this corner a group saying it is just so great that this film annoyed Star Wars fans because we fucking hate Star Wars fans, us, and want to see them getting annoyed. And in that corner a group saying we, the fans have ownership over this material; we, the fans get to decide how this material is used; and no-one else has any say.

And in the middle, an overwhelming majority whose review of the Last Jedi is the same as my mother’s review of A New Hope when she took me to see it at Barnet Odeon in 1978. “Yes, that was an enjoyable film. Now can I please forget about it?”

Is it possible to find balance between the two sides?

Who is Star Wars for?




We are all Star Wars fans now.

The Last Jedi cost literally $200,000,000 to make. It is on show in every multiplex cinema in the world. It is the literal definition of mainstream. It’s target audience is everybody.

But "everybody" isn’t invested in Star Wars in the way that you and I are. Everybody will not feel that their whole day is ruined if someone uses the Force in a way that no-one has ever used the Force before. Everyone doesn’t care if the film’s very existence does spoil Return of the Jedi. Everyone doesn't think very hard at all about what the film means. Everyone is probably not even giving the film their full attention while they actually watching it. 

When I am in a cynical mood, I say: “Oh: I suppose that means that everybody but me just gazes zombie-like at the big coloured lights and listens to the loud bangs?”

When I am being less cynical, I say that if you watch the movie for the landscape and the battles and the shape of the story without engaging with it at a cerebral level you are watching it in exactly the way it is supposed to be watched.

I once speculated that Star Wars could best be understood as a succession of images held weakly in place by a plot — that the emotional power of the first movie comes from seeing a little spaceship and a big spaceship and a scary man in a black cloak and a golden robot and a squeaky little robot even if you aren't quite sure exactly what a "consular ship" is. George Lucas considered dubbing the film into Japanese, or into some entirely made up language, to force audiences to attend to the imagery. Mark Hamill told Leslie Judd that the story of Star Wars is “only so much non sense to hang a great visual spectacle onto.” 

The plot of Star Wars is a little long a song lyric. Not a song by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, just a pop song. We understand them perfectly well. They go:

La-la-la 
the sort of thing that people say in love songs 
la-la-la 
the kind of thing a young lad might say to a girl at a party
La-la-la
The kind of thing which people say in songs like this
La-la-la
Sex

The person who asks exactly where the strings of one's heart are located, and what exactly it would feel like if one of them went "zing" has clearly not quite got the idea of songs yet.

We are all Star Wars fans now.

I am a big fan of The Godfather Part II, although I always get lost during the Cuban sequences. Most people agree with me that it is a fine movie. Some people say that it is one of only two sequels which is actually superior to the original. (I forget the name of the other example.) 

But The Godfather Part II doesn’t stand alone. Al Pacino Robert De Niro is not merely portraying Vito Corleone; he is quite specifically portraying Marlon Brando portraying Vito Corleone. It is a fabulous performance precisely because we can so easily believe that Pacino De Niro is the young Brando. You wouldn’t think me a pathetic gangster geek if I said that you really won’t get very much out of The Godfather Part II unless you have seen The Godfather. The Godfather is one of the things which the Godfather Part II is about. The main thing, even. 

Yes, Mr Exception, I know you saw Part II before you saw Part I and enjoyed it very much. Please say so in the comments below: I am sure we will all find it fascinating. 

People sometimes propose the experiment of finding someone, maybe a child, who really has never seen Star Wars and showing them Episodes I - VI, in that order, in George Lucas’s preferred, redacted form. Would they understand them? Would they even be watching the same movies which we love so much? Would Darth Vader's dramatic entrance in Episode IV be even more dramatic if you immediately thought “It’s Anakin! And the lady in the white dress must be the girl baby all grown up! And he doesn’t even know!” Would it be more fun to see Old Ben drive the Sand People away if your immediate thought was "Golly gosh! Ewan McGregor has sure let himself go!” And would the climax of Empire Strikes Back be even more climactic if all the way through it you were thinking "Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know! Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know. Is he going to tell him? Is he going to tell him?"

Once we have done that experiment, we could try to imagine what it would be like to watch The Last Jedi without having seen the Force Awakens; nay, without even having seen A New Hope. 

“The old guy has gone into some sort of space ship. Is it the ship the younger woman came in? I suppose the thing that looks like a dustbin is a robot of some kind, a much more primitive version of the one we saw the guy in that little red and white space ship talking to earlier? The way he’s touching it, I suppose he must think of it as a friend. Maybe he used to own it? It is showing a very old film of a girl. Who is she? Sounds like she’s in some kind of trouble. I suppose the robot is reminding him of some time long ago when he helped a person in trouble. Maybe it’s a reference to some previous film.”

It is possible to watch a film like that. It can be quite fun. I have occasionally enjoyed watching a detached episode of a soap opera, where all the characters present themselves as “that-kid-who-has-to-admit-to-his-dad-he’s-done-a-bad-thing-I-have-no-idea-what” and “that-woman-who-is-meeting-someone-she-shouldn’t-be-meeting-I-have-no-idea-who”. Back when I only read Marvel Comics (on religious grounds) I used to positively enjoy it when someone else’s DC title fell into my hands. The Teen Titans felt so much more superheroey than the X-Men because I hadn’t got the faintest idea who any of them were. Because I didn't know the backstory I could actually attend to the surfaces. It used to be quite normal for films to be playing on endless loops and for audiences to catch the second half, of one and the first half of the other. You'd get to see some car chases and some kissing; you could tell if it was a police movie or a romance. Only some kind of weird movie geek actually care about the plot. 

But these are accidental pleasures. When we saw Star Wars for the first time there was indeed a kind of joy in hearing people talk about the Clone Wars and the Jedi Knights and having no idea what they were. But George Lucas intended us to have no idea; very probably he had no idea himself. Rian Johnson knows perfectly well what Artoo Deetoo is and why the hologram is important. He expects us to know as well. If Mr Exception goes to see the movie and enjoys the confusion of not knowing, then he is finding something in the film which the director didn’t put there.

But it's a silly question. there is no way of carrying out the experiment. Everyone knows who Luke Skywalker and Artoo Detoo and Princess Leia are. We are all Star Wars fans now. 



Who is Star Wars for?

At the very end of the movie, we see Luke Skywalker meditating, floating above a rock, looking into the sunset. It is a double sunset; Ach-Tu is a binary system. After a moment, we see his empty robes fall away: he has vanished.

It is theoretically possible that John Williams thought “I suppose I had better play some sad music at this point. I can’t be bothered to write a new tune, so I will bung in one I’ve used before. It’s not like anyone will notice!” It is possible that he said “This scene needs a bittersweet sound track with an element of triumph and an element of sehnsucht” and just happened to compose a tune that was very similar to the tune he composed the last time he wanted to signify sadness and happiness and triumph and nostalgic longing. And certainly, if you have Never Seen Star Wars you would not sit through that scene thinking “I am baffled! What is this music and why is he playing it now? I feel confused and excluded!” 

But everybody has heard this music before; during the iconic Binary Sunset scene in the first act of A New Hope, when Luke was looking out to the horizon wishing for adventure; and again in the final seconds of Revenge of the Sith, when the infant Luke first arrives on Tatooine. The meaning of the scene depends on our familiarity with the score. The music, far more than the pictures, is saying: “Luke is setting off on a big adventure” and “Luke has come home”. 

In fact, if you could translate what the music and the pictures were saying into words, it would come out much more like “LUKE SKYWALKER!!!!!” or possibly even “THE SUMMER OF NINETEEN SEVENTY BLOODY SEVEN!!!”

The man who has Never Seen Star Wars might look at the scene and say “What just happened? Has Luke been beamed up to the Starship Enterprise? Has someone done a conjuring trick? This crazy science fiction stuff is impossible to understand!” You and I are remembering that moment when Darth Vader struck Ben Kenobi down his cloak fell to the ground in two parts, but Ben's body was not in it. And that moment on Dagobah, when Yoda's body vanished, leaving only his robes behind. We may not even be thinking of those specific scenes: but everybody knows that when good Jedi go to be with the Force, their bodies vanish.

You may think that this is all so obvious that it is hardly worth saying. But it would not be obvious to your Mum, to Mr Exception, or to the man who has Never Seen Star Wars.


Who is Star Wars for? I do not have an answer. I am minded to accept the theory that I have spoiled the Last Jedi for myself by over-thinking it. There is a strong case for saying that when I ask myself whether Luke's grounds for rejecting the Jedi order are fair I am making a category mistake. It isn't exactly that I am the only person who is listening. Everybody is listening. But everybody else hears  Luke's speech as a song lyric. 

La-la-la, mystical nonsense,
la-la-la, the kind of thing old mentors say in this kind of movie,
la-la gub-gub hey nonny no. 


Everyone may even think that the Ach-Tu sequences are just the boring bits they always put in between fight scenes so you have a chance to go to the toilet and get some more pop corn.

And yet the film seems to demand a fairly high level of engagement. It seems to think that we can identify musical themes and recurrent motifs. It seems to be about Star Wars in just the same way that the Godfather Part II seems to be about the Godfather. The film's entire punch comes from the fact that this is not just some guy saying that it is time for the Jedi to end (and then sacrificing his life to keep them going) this is Luke Skywalker. The kid who wanted to pick up the power converters at Toshe station; the kid who flew down the trench; the hero with a thousand faces who tried to save his father and found he already had. Luke Skywalker.

**********L*U*K*E  B*L*O*O*D*Y S*K*Y*W*A*L*K*E*R **********

Only Star Wars can possibly be expected care about this stuff.. But we are all Star Wars fans now.

For whom is Star Wars?


Monday, February 19, 2018

The Last Jedi: Second Thoughts

The controversy over The Last Jedi has become so incendiary that one hesitates to rejoin the fray. I thought I was going to be one of a small minority of purists who wasn’t happy with the film. In fact my review turns out to have been one of the moderate ones. 

The debate has reached Colstonian levels of absurdity. If I continue to not like the Last Jedi very much, I am aligning myself with dangerous nutters who think that the very existence of Daisy Ridley is part of a Cultural Marxist plot to emasculate young men. But if I decide I quite liked it after all I am taking the side of people who think that Star Wars fans are contemptible and that any film which irritates them is a good film.

I largely stand by the criticisms I made after my first viewing. I still think that the Last Jedi is muddled. I still think that it uses humour inappropriately. I still think it includes imagery which is incompatible with the established look and feel of Star Wars. I still think that there is evidence of multiple rewrites and poor editing. I still don’t know how Rey goes from having an emotional climax in the Supreme Leader’s throne room to being all “yee-har!” on the Millennium Falcon five minutes later. I still think that several plot threads fizzle out without pay-offs. I am still concerned about the direction it seems to be taking the saga. 

However.

I think that the film is far smarter and far more interesting than I initially gave it credit for.

Star Wars is all about landscape and scenery and imagery; about kids with binoculars looking at binary sunsets and small moons turning out not to be. The Last Jedi is full of genuinely beautiful moments. Luke Skywalker and Kylo Renn facing each other, samurai style, from opposite ends of the letter box screen. Holdo crashing the Rebel capital ship into the Imperial dreadnought. The whacky beauty of Luke's Craggy Island retreat.

The whole thing — I don’t know how better to phrase this — is shaped like a space opera: the clash of mighty dreadnoughts forming a background against which knights battle with laser swords; soldiers mutiny against their leaders and traitors face execution. I adore the way that Finn's big confrontation with Captain Phasma takes place on a ship which has already been wrecked and is going to break up at any moment.  Phasma has no particular importance to the plot, but she looks utterly fabulous. The scene put me in mind of Captain Victory and the Hunger Dogs. Star Wars was always more Kirbyesque than we cared to admit.

Star Wars is a movie serial and fairy tale and a Wagnerian saga, but the and biggest yellowest letters are the ones which tell us that it is about a series of WARS fought out among the STARS. The Last Jedi follows Rogue One in actually feeling like a war movie. We’ve always had Mon Mothas and General Dodonnas telling the galactic Few what target to aim at; but never before has the Rebellion felt so much like a military operation. Never before has so much of the plot taken place on board a Rebel command ship. 

And yet, I was disappointed. Why?

If you are not very careful “that was not at all what I expected” can turn into “that was bad”. I honestly can’t remember whether my first (and therefore truest) reaction to the Empire Strikes Back was that the surprise ending was gobsmackingly cool or that it was a bit of a cheat because it totally changed everything about Star Wars.

This is a big problem with blockbuster culture. You live for three years on speculation and hints and leaks about what is going to be in a movie, and then spend two hours thinking “oh…so that rumor was true and that rumor was false and why wasn’t that bit in the trailer?” rather than actually watching the film. I can very clearly remember my first (and therefore truest) reaction to Rogue One. It was “How the hell did they keep that ending a secret?” We can only experience a film once we have already seen it. Where that leaves the question of spoilers I really couldn't say.

So my first (and truest) reaction to the Last Jedi was disappointment. "After 30 years, is this really all the Luke Skywalker we are going to get?" One of the lovely things about the Force Awakens was that we got a big, meaty chunk of Harrison Ford playing at being Han Solo before his Proper Major Plot Arc started to kick in. I suppose I wanted to see Luke Skywalker the swashbuckling hero swing across one last chasm or fly one last X-Wing down one last trench. Or at least walk into a bar and chop a walrus man's arm off. He may be getting too old for that kind of thing, but he’s not as old as all that. Canon says he was 19 in Star Wars so he is barely 50 in Last Jedi. Star Wars never did handle time very consistently.

That would have pleased me, pleased the crowds, pleased the fans. It is doubtless to Rian Johnson’s credit that this isn't where he went. 

Back in '77 we expected to get a Star War every couple of years. We assumed we’d eventually get to Star Wars Part XVII in which Very Old Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker rattles around the galaxy in a rickety old starship, dispensing fortune cookie wisdom to the new generation of hot young turks and probably cutting down a few Bad Jedi along the way. By '83, we were imagining a film about the early days of the New Republic in which Luke sets up a new Jedi Academy while Mr and Mrs Solo play politics in the reconstituted Senate.


And, from a certain point of view, this is exactly what does happen. All the obligatory plot developments have, in fact, developed. Han and Leia did marry and have a son. Luke did set up Jedi Camp for younglings. But Mr Johnson and Mr Abrams have correctly spotted that people living happily ever after is not what Episode VIII of a space opera saga should be about. (What were you going to call it? Star Peace?) The various comic books and novels told us that our heroes hardly had time to do the washing up after the Ewok party before, whoosh, they were off on another adventure. The new movies tell us that their happy ending lasted for a quarter of a century. But we don't rejoin the action until everything has gone horribly wrong. The story resumes in the immediate aftermath of the apparent triumph of evil; when the surviving Jedi are all hiding out in swamps and in deserts and on islands and some people are holding out for a new hope. 

Exactly where we came in during Episode IV.

I expected Old Luke to be kind of a strange old hermit; or maybe even a wise Councillor to Leia or Mon Motha. (Obi Wan always seemed more Merlin than Lancelot.) Maybe he could have been one of those old alien duffers who sit in the Jedi Temple being serene and insufferable. But in retrospect, he was always going to become Yoda; hiding away on an uninhabited planet, cooking soup, milking cows, refusing to train obviously talented students who come looking for him, not taking the film quite seriously. It's easy to forget how comedic Yoda was when he first appeared. That was everyone's second reaction as the lights came up at the end of Empire Strikes Back. “Alec Guiness’s mentor was a muppet? Are you kidding me?” Luke’s rejection of Rey’s precious lightsaber is an important plot-point. Luke chucking the thing over his shoulder as if it was a piece of junk is not a misstep (as I first thought) but a perfectly judged piece of characterization. It’s just the kind of thing which Yoda would have done.

From the fannish point of view, it seems a great shame to have put Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher into the same studio and only given them 30 seconds of screen time together. And we all wanted Luke and Artoo to take one last trip in an X-Wing, or at least on the Millennium Falcon, with Threepio making annoying comments in the background. But that would have just been a tribute act: getting the band back together to sing all the old hits. That kind of thing never works. And anyway, it would have gone against the whole idea of the saga. Heroes get old. They pass the torch, or at any rate the lightsaber, to the younger ones. Po and Beebee fly the X-Wings nowadays. Luke is a supporting character in their movie, just as Alec Guinness was a supporting character in his. That is the way of things. The way of the Force. That was the life lesson that Joseph Campbell thought that the Journey of the Hero taught us. Life is a journey; everyone has a character; one man in his time plays many parts. (And women too, but not so much.) You've had your go at the Reckless Young Hero template. Now it's time to have a go at the Mysterious Old Mentor.

The few seconds which Luke spends with each of Leia and Chewie and the two robots will prove more memorable than any anticipated reunion scene could have done. The wink at Threepio is just perfect.

But still. Doesn't this failed Luke, this defeated Luke, this Luke who came to Ach-To in order to die, undermine the ending of the Return of the Jedi -- and therefore of the original Star Wars saga.

Yes. Yes, it does. Of course it does.

Return of the Jedi ended with a resounding full-stop. Granted, some people looked at the fireworks and listened to the gub-gub song and said “Well, okay, they’ve destroyed a really, really big battle station…but is that really the end of the Empire?” But the prequels answered that question. The Empire turned out to be the final gambit in a centuries long struggle between the Jedi (hooray!) and the Sith (boo!) George Lucas had originally conceived Star Wars as a multi-generational saga about the Skywalker clan, but the death of the Emperor and the redemption of Vader had such finality that for years he said that there couldn’t be any more episodes. I agreed with him:

The cycle, which has been more like a spiral, is completed. Lucas is absolutely correct to rule out making Episodes VII, VIII and IX: there is absolutely nowhere left for the sequels to go. Hochsten Heiles Wunder! Erlosung dem Erloser!

(That's your actual Wagner, that is.)

So where does that leave the Last Jedi? Is it a story set after the end of the story; a new cycle which begins after the final notes of Gotterdamerung have faded away? Or is it merely a new chapter in which it turns out that the story wasn’t quite so over as we thought it was?

Perhaps Star Wars is like Lenseman where behind each ultimate evil there lurks an evil even more ultimate? Or is it more like Middle-earth, where each iteration of evil becomes pettier but more insidious? 

It is quite late in the day to start complaining about spoiling happy endings. Star Wars -- Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope -- is a perfectly framed fairy tale, with a satisfying happy ending. It has always seemed rather vulgar to imagine more adventures after the medal ceremony. Luke is a Jedi the moment he switches off his targeting computer: it is almost sacrilege to think that he has to go to a swamp and take extra P.E lessons from a frog.

But it makes no sense to be a Star Wars fan and wish that there were no Star Wars movies.

The ending of Star Wars was spoiled the moment someone said “We could do Star Wars 2”. The ending of Return of the Jedi was spoiled the moment George said “Okay, let’s do a third trilogy after all.” But that, I suspect, is also the way of the Force.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Last Best Hopes

Definition of Fan

A fan is one who regards, or affects to regard, a book, comic or TV series as a record or description of a real person or real historical events.

A fan is one who sees individual episodes or comic books primarily as sources of pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical information.

A fan is one who is more interested in whether a text is consistent from a pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical point of view than in any literary, aesthetic or artistic merits that text might have.


You're Just Not the Man I Fell In Love With

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
The Silmarillion

It could so easily have made sense.

We could have decided from the outset that Time Lords were incorporeal intelligences. We could have said that they take on physical bodies when they need to interact with mortals; and that the form they take resembles the race they are interacting with: a human when talking to humans; a Silurian when talking to Silurians. We could have said that most Time Lords can put these bodies on and off at a whim but a few — especially the renegades — become attached to them. Of course these temporary bodies eventually wear out and need to be replaced.

This would have explained, at a stroke, why an ancient being from a fantastically sophisticated alien civilization is also a dotty English prof who likes cricket and jelly babies. It would be consistent with the First Doctor referring to his body as if it were a possession (”this old body of mine”); with the Fourth Doctor talking about “settling in” to his new body as if it were a new house; and with Romana talking about “trying on” and “wearing” new bodies as if they were clothes. It would explain why the Time Lords allowed the Second Doctor to choose his new appearance, and why the Watcher was really the Doctor all the time.

And it would deal nicely with the issue of gender. We don't know what Time Lords have in their pants, but they have the same secondary sexual characteristics as humans — breasts and beards and hips oh my. And they seem to have a very human attitude to gender presentation. The Doctor may be a bohemian and a dandy, but he wears neck-ties and shirts and cravats — never a skirt. Unless he’s in Scotland, obviously. Romana is ostentatiously feminine and Missy is positively camp. This makes quite a lot of sense if bodies have nothing to do with Time Lord's essential nature, but are merely things they choose to take on. An incorporeal intelligence isn’t masculine or feminine, any more than it is Northern or Scottish, but a particular body may happen to be one or the other. Missy’s exaggeratedly feminine clothes and the Doctor’s liking for cricket are examples of the same phenomenon: taking on a form which is more girly than a girl and more British than a Brit.

But this is not how we decided to do things. We decided that the Time Lords would be advanced human beings, with court rooms and affairs of state and harps and extremely silly hats.

My way would have made sense, and been consistent. But consistency is a straitjacket for writers. Not making sense turned out to be much more fun.


An Unwanted Opinion

My beloved Doctor Who shone on Christmas Day with an official figure of eight million viewers. I could cry that it's the end of a wonderful era, and political correctness has now ruined it forever after such a glorious swan song. No unwanted opinions please. 
Ian Levine

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the fifteenth incarnation of the Doctor. By which I mean, as the fourteenth Doctor. By which I mean, obviously, the sixteenth actor to play the Doctor on TV. Unless you count Comic Relief, in which case I mean the twenty-first.

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth actor to be regularly billed as the eponymous character in the canonical TV series. Let’s not worry too much about the word “eponymous”.

Some of these former Doctor Who fans are are just nasty little boys who don’t want gurls in their treehouse. Some of them have a much wilder, political objection. The idiot who got up an actual petition against Jodie Whittaker's casting uses a lot of easily identifiable far-right code-words: the idea of a female Doctor was forced on the BBC by the “SJW community”; the idea that the Doctor has to be male is “common sense”. He mentions in passing that there are “only two genders” suggesting that he failed his German ‘O’ Level. And he thinks the series started in 1957. He isn’t actually concerned about Doctor Who as such: he objects to the idea that the Doctor could change gender because he objects to the idea that anyone could change gender. His distaste for Jodie Whittaker is simply a distaste for trans people. He sees the casting of a female Doctor is part of a wider PC/SJW plot to destroy civilization. He is a very silly man and I don’t know why I am paying any attention to him.

However, quite a number of the Jodie denialist community are worried about something much more serious than the end of civilization. They are worried about Doctor Who continuity. 

Here is one Tony Ingham on Twitter:

It doesn't make sense. It would make the Doctor leaving Susan on Earth to be with David criminally irresponsible if the poor guy was likely to wake up one day and find she'd become a bloke! And what about Leela and Andred? How could family relationships on Gallifrey even work?

I think “How might family relationships on Gallifrey work?” is a perfectly good question. In the same way that I think “What happened to Doctor Watson’s dog?” and “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” and “Was Mary Magdalene the beloved disciple?” are perfectly good questions. It is the kind of perfectly good question that can’t possibly have an answer, but that doesn't stop someone writing a really interesting essay or a really terrible short story about it.

But what state of mind would you have to be in to start from the premise that family relationships could never work if Time Lords are gender-fluid, that no solution is possible, and that a male-female regeneration is a good and adequate reason to give up watching Doctor Who forever? The casting of Jodie Whittaker breaks the entire text: a male Fourteenth Doctor won’t repair the damage. Once we have admitted that the Doctor can be a woman, the show called Doctor Who no longer exists.

First, you have to take the decision to treat seven hundred and something episodes of a TV show as if it was a single text: to treat Dalek Invasion of Earth and Twice Upon a Time as somehow part of the same story. This kind of fan often talks as if there was a single divinely inspired text of Doctor Who in heaven, and that the script writers merely channel that text. They don’t say “In Spearhead from Space, some jobbing writer made some shit up, partly as a joke and partly as a plot device, and over the years some other jobbing writers have kept the same joke going.” They say “In Spearhead from Space it was revealed that the Doctor had two hearts.” Revealed is an interestingly religious choice of words. 

Second, you have to be more interested in the one great story made up of every single episode of Doctor Who even the ones which haven’t been written yet than in the actual episode that we are watching right now. If a 2018 story says something that makes it impossible to believe in that one great story then you either have to pretend that the new story never happened, or else you have to admit that the one big story never actually existed in the first place and quit watching Doctor Who altogether.

I grant that some texts are meant to be read that way. It’s fair to assume that something which is true in Season 1 of Game of Thrones is still true in Season 7. It is perfectly sensible to rewatch the early episodes of The Good Place in the light of what you have learned from the later ones. Stan and Jack may have been stuffing their comics full of whatever nonsense seemed fun at the time, but various Thomas’s and Gruenwald’s worked fairly hard in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the whole thing into a halfway consistent shared universe. Anyone might read Spider-Man and wonder if Uncle Ben ever met Captain America during World War 2. But it's a deeply odd way of watching Doctor Who.

Next, you have to come up with a series of answers to which there are no sensible questions, and convince yourself that they represent some kind of absolute truth. Yes, indeed, the First Doctor had a companion called Susan Foreman and yes she did indeed call the Doctor “Grandfather”. And in one particular story the Doctor left her on earth because she wanted to marry David Cameron. Years after Susan had left the series, the idea that the Doctor sometimes physically changes from an older man into a younger man was plucked out of thin air. Years after that, someone else made the idea that he was a Time Lord up out of their heads. 

I was about to type “No canonical origin for Susan has ever been established.” But I don’t really mean that. What I mean is “No-one involved in the actual TV program either knew or cared how the idea of the Time Lords, or the Time War, or Regeneration would affect Susan Foreman, because she was a minor supporting character who no longer had any relevance to Doctor Who.

The more you think about it, the odder it becomes. The invention of regeneration in 1966 retrospectively gives Susan the power to regenerate (even though she is no longer in the series); the invention of the Time Lords in 1969 retrospectively turns her into a Time Lord (even though she is no longer in the series); the casting of Jodie Whittaker in 2018 retrospectively gives her the power to regenerate as a man (even though she is no longer in the series). And this is so axiomatic that it is now impossible to continue to watch Doctor Who.

Even on its own terms, the argument is pretty feeble. Despite canonical statements to the contrary, the First Doctor is now firmly established to have literally been the first Doctor: there were no previous versions of him which we haven’t seen. It has been firmly established that he was at one time a baby, then a boy and an adolescent and then an undergraduate. When we first meet him he's an old man of 60 or 70. Susan is physically and psychologically a teenager, and will presumably become a middle aged woman and an old lady before her current body wears out. The Doctor eventually gives his age as 450, so unless some centuries have passed between Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen he is much older than he looks, in which case Susan’s present incarnation will outlive David by centuries. 

So the problem isn’t “Susan might turn into a man”; the problem is “Susan is immortal and David is mortal.” If this is an irresolvable problem then the Who-text was broken when Leela married Andred; when the Doctor revealed himself to have mixed parentage; or when he first had a dalliance with Madam de Pompadour.  Human / Time Lord pairings are what should be utterly verboten.

If nothing else, it’s a weird view of human relationships. We can somehow accept that David Cameron might see a very elderly Susan morph into a much younger person (with a radically different personality) and be completely okay with that provided she retains the same physiological sex. But if she changed into a similar person, but with a flat chest and man's Thingie rather than a lady's Etcetera than his marriage would be over. And the fact that this is a conceptual possibility means that you can't ever watch Doctor Who again. 

You don’t think its possible that a married Time Lord might have some kind of choice about their gender, do you?

This question was directly addressed in the very first thing Steven Moffat ever wrote for Doctor Who. You will recall that the the Doctor carelessly regenerates into Joanna Lumley while he is engaged to marry his companion, Emma. The Doctor is fine with the wedding going ahead, but Emma isn't; so the Doctor is equally fine with them just being friends.

"Well, never mind. We can still rattle around the universe, fighting monsters and saving planets. What could be more fun? My best friend by my side, my trusty old TARDIS and, of course, my sonic screwdriver."

And that would strike me a being the answer that any non-crazy person would come up with. Granted that Time Lords marry and are given in marriage and granted that Time Lords sometimes regenerate and granted that regeneration sometimes involves a change of twiddly bits it is perfectly obvious that a Gallifreyan marriage is “til regeneration do we part”. If Andred regenerates while Leela is still alive, or if Susan regenerates when David is still alive, then the marriage is over. Sad, of course, for the survivor, but every marriage includes the possibility that one partner might die while the other is still young.

That explains why the Doctor never talks about his own wife and children. After his first regeneration he is literally dead to them. There is probably a taboo against meeting your previous incarnation’s lover. Remember the symbiots on Deep Space Nine?.


The Third Age of Fan

I must tell you all that, rewatching Babylon 5, it touches depths that Dr Who could never come close to approaching. The fact that no new B5 is being made is the greatest crime to television drama. JM Straczynski is the greatest writer of intelligent science fantasy in history 
Ian Levine

Perhaps the most prominent Jodie denialist is semi-professional Doctor Who fan Ian Levine. Mr Levine has a complicated position in Who history. For being one of those who, in the 1980s, prevented BBC archivists from destroying the surviving black and white episodes of Doctor Who, he deserves our thanks and respect. For having been fan-adviser on Attack of the Cybermen, not so much. 

He is so cross that the next Doctor is going to be a lady that he has announced through the medium of Twitter that he is never going to watch Doctor Who again, ever, ever, ever, and that in any case Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who and in fact the best science fiction story and the best TV series that there ever was or ever could be. "Unsuppassable" was the word he used.

It isn’t quite clear whether his objection to a female Doctor is political or canonical: he says that he has no problem with strong female characters, but that the Doctors themselves can only be men; but he also describes the casting as “politically correct”. But his sudden epiphany that Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who, and his embracing of it as a Who substitute is both wonderfully ironic and historically inevitable. A very, very long time ago — at the time of the Paul McGann movie, I wrote:

“The post-fan aspires to the condition where the person who has read the episode guides, memorized the synopsis, and learned the character stats for the role-playing game is at no disadvantage to the person who has actually watched the programme. Content is all, execution and artistic merit is nothing. Babylon 5 is the consummation of this approach.”

If I were writing the same essay now, I would have said that the Harry Potter books do the same thing even more successfully. Doctor Who fans have to struggle to make the Who-text make sense. For many of us, the absurdity of that struggle is precisely what makes it fun. Harry Potter and Babylon 5 come with their geek-potential pre-loaded. There are no silly questions: any continuity problem which occurs to you has almost certainly occurred to J.K Rowling and J. Michael Straczynski.

Doctor Who was never a very good match to Ian Levine’s approach. Babylon 5 will suit him much better. He has his reward. And I remain thankful that he stopped that archivist from wiping the Dead Planet.




Monday, February 05, 2018

I Might Be In The Swamp

"What are your politics?"
"Well, I am afraid really I have none. I am a Liberal."
"Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate."
The Importance of Being Earnest


An American once asked me if Tony Benn was a liberal.

“On the contrary," I replied  "He was on the left of the Labour party.”

To which the American riposted  “Oh, I thought he supported high taxation, socialized medicine, trade unions and fairly generous welfare spending and opposed the death penalty and nuclear weapons.”

“Yes,” said I “That’s what I mean by ‘on the the left of the Labour Party’”.

“Oh,” the fictitious American retorted “But that’s what I mean by ‘liberal.”



On November 18th, the Guardian published a short essay by the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, under the headline “Liberalism has eaten itself — it isn’t very liberal any more.” 


Any fool can type “Christ was not a Christian” or “Marx was no Marxist”. It’s just a smart-arse way of saying “I don’t think that Jesus would have agreed with some of the doctrines which the Christian church now subscribes to” or “Present day leftists haven’t properly understood Karl Marx’s political ideas.” If Tim Farron had said that the Green party was no longer green, the Conservative Party was not interested in conserving things or that the Worker’s Revolutionary Party was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire, we would all have understood perfectly well what he meant. 

But when Tim Farron types that liberalism is no longer “very” liberal he doesn’t mean that his party, the Liberal Democrats, has drifted away from the political ideas which it was founded to promote. What he appears to be saying is that there is a thing called liberalism, which is distinct from the liberal party. When this thing called liberalism exists in conjunction with Christianity it has a desirable quality which he calls…liberalism. But when Christianity is removed from that thing called liberalism, that quality called liberalism is lost. However, Christianity and liberalism are not the same thing.

The Athanasian Creed seems positively straightforward by comparison. 

Let us try to unpack the argument as best we can.



I: The Liberal party was founded by Christians - it grew out of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Protestant Non-Conformist movement

"British liberalism is founded in the battle for religious liberty. The nonconformist, evangelical Christian groups that were persecuted by a society that favoured adherence only to the established church built a liberal movement that championed much wider liberty, for women, for other religious minorities, nonreligious minorities, for cultural and regional minorities, for the poor and vulnerable."

A lot of the great liberals of the past were definitely Church of Wales, Unitarian or Methodist. And so were a lot of the great socialists and the great Tories. Tony Benn was fond of saying that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx; Mrs Thatcher’s dad was a Methodist local preacher. Was there a special link between the liberals and the Non-Conformists? Or would it be more accurate to say that the Non-Conformists were more inclined than the Established Church to think it their Christian duty to change the world through secular, political action?

Tim is trying to make the point that there is no necessary contradiction between being an evangelical Christian and being a liberal. I am not sure how far claiming that the movement's origins were Christian (even if that is true) supports his case. Most people have a perception that evangelical Christians want laws against blasphemy and obscenity, whereas liberals are against censorship. They think that evangelicals want abortion and euthanasia to be against the law, but that liberals think that people should be free to make their own choices. They think that evangelicals believe that God gave men and women different roles whereas the liberals support the equality of the sexes. This is why they are “surprised and confused” when a liberal such as Tim Farron says that he is also an evangelical Christian. If this is a misconception, Tim could very easily have typed “That may have been true at one time, but evangelicalism has moved on: most of us are much more progressive on those kinds of issues than we used to be.”

But he doesn’t

II: Although the Liberal Party has lost the election, a separate thing called liberalism has “comprehensively triumphed” everywhere else. 

"Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the rightwing press are in truth liberals."

"Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won. But irrespective of my efforts, liberalism has." 

Is it true that we are all liberals now? Many people would agree with Tim that you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Many people would agree that liberals run even the so-called right-wing press. And many people do indeed believe in something they call the Liberal Elite.

But the people who talk about the liberal elite aren’t talking about an elite made up of members of the Liberal Democrats. They certainly aren’t saying that in order to work at the Daily Telegraph you have to believe in 200% council tax surcharges on second homes. Liberal, in this sense, simply means “of the left”. And it is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Indeed, most people who think that you have to be a liberal to work in the media (hello, Richard Littlejohn! can you hear me, Kathy Hopkins?) subscribe to a conspiracy theory in which the media is controlled by a secret society known as the SJW or the Cultural Marxists.

Liberal, in this pejorative, American sense doesn’t imply beliefs which are particularly left-wing by British standards. A liberal, in this sense, believes that women should be paid the same as men, that evolution and climate change are real things, and that everyone should be allowed to go to the doctor if they get sick. The far right call this “leftie” or “PC” or “liberal” or “SJW”. The rest of us call it "what everyone believes in nowadays."

If Tim wants to adopt this usage, then he is free to do so. If we define “liberalism” as “views which are not on the extreme right” then it is certainly true that everyone except the extreme right is now a liberal. 

3: However, there is some analogy between this triumph of liberalism and the conversion of Rome to Christianity in 313 AD, which Tim takes for granted was a Bad Thing.

“Yet its triumph is hollow, just as Christianity’s apparent triumph was hollow when it became the state religion of the Roman empire.”

“My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process.”

This is a very odd thing for a self-proclaimed Bible believing Christian to say. I understand why a conspiracy theorist like Dan Brown might think that Jesus was just a new age hippy mystic until Nasty Constantine deified him in order to sell his new faith to the pagans. I understand why a, er, liberal theologian like Giles Fraser would think that the historical Jesus was basically a Corbynite social reformer and that the doctrines of the Atonement and the Resurrection are part of a vicious death-cult invented by Wicked Constantine in 325. But why should an evangelical think that the conversion of Rome was a disaster? Surely it was the post 313 Church that established the text and canon of the Bible they hold so dear? And surely it was the post 313 church that formalized the doctrines and creeds that they are so committed to?

Would Tim Farron rather we were all Arians?

I fear that there is a very dodgy sectarian undercurrent to this. I am very much afraid that evangelicals identify the ancient Roman church with the present day Roman Catholic church, and believe that Roman Catholics are “not Christian” or at any rate “not very Christian”. I fear that they believe that the Protestant Reformation — specifically, whatever sect they happen to belong to — restored the primitive apostolic faith. And I suppose that Tim Farron wants to wrest primitive liberalism back from these nasty fake liberals with their newspapers and their temples and their idolatry. 

IV: Because many liberals are not Christians, liberalism has lost a quality which it once had. This quality Tim calls "liberalism". 

"In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal."


"My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process. It isn’t very liberal any more."


I am pretty sure what Tim Farron is not saying here. He is not saying that the liberals (in the first sense, the Liberal Democrat Party) have ceased to believe in raising income tax by 1p to pay for the health service. He is not even saying that liberalism (in the second sense, the near universal progressive consensus) has ceased to believe in progressive values. He is claiming that liberalism has lost one specific defining liberal characteristic. The salt has lost its savour and Tim Farron knoweth wherewith it can be salted. 


I will accept for the sake of argument that liberalism emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth century Non-Conformist movement; I will allow him to conflate Non-Conformism with evangelicalism, and I will even swallow the implication that the fourth century Roman Church and the nineteenth century Church of England are "establishment" Churches in a somehow analogous way. 


What I will not accept is that because liberalism was originally Christian, it follows that liberalism is irreducibly Christian. It certainly doesn’t follow that if you “discard” Christianity -- if some liberals are also catholics or atheists -- that you “kick away the foundations” of liberalism. You might as well say that because the Freemasons were originally a guild who built Cathedrals then building Cathedrals is what Freemasonry is all about and your local lodge is no longer very masonic. 


I think that what is happening here is simple metaphor-abuse. I am reminded of the pundits who argued that since marriage is the foundation of our society, allowing lesbians to get married will cause society to fall down. 


It might be that liberalism has some hidden premise that only works if you believe in sola scripture and baptism by total immersion. But Tim would need to demonstrate this. He isn't allowed to take it for granted.


So what is this quality called liberalism which is present when Christianity is present, but absent when Christianity is absent?

Ladies and gentlemen, the true definition of liberalism is…

(loud fanfare and drum roll) 

….freedom of speech. 

“What is at the heart of a liberal society? It is to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offense. George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.””

Is that truly what he believes? Is that the one quality which makes liberalism liberal, which modern liberalism has lost? Is that the quality which disappears from liberalism when the majority of liberals stop being Methodists? And indeed, is there the slightest evidence that evangelical Christians are any more inclined than anyone else to say that they don’t agree with Jerry Springer the Opera or Monty Python’s Life of Brian but they will defend to the death those works right to be heard?

Oh, and did you spot the way that when George Orwell said "liberty" Tim Farron heard "liberalism"?

I don’t know if freedom of speech is at the heart of a liberal society, because I don’t really know what “at the heart of...” means. It is a classic preacher’s cliche. Clergymen are always telling us that improved street lighting on the Putney High Street should be right at the heart of our Christmas celebrations and that the problem of drug misuse in the under twelves is at the very heart of our Christian witness.

If free speech is at the heart of a liberal society, does that mean that it is the most important thing: that we should be prepared to sacrifice other things in order to secure it? Or does it mean that free speech is the good thing on which all other good things depend — that unless you secure free speech you will never secure any other reform?

I think that freedom of speech is one of a number of Good Things which need to be balanced against each other. I don’t think that freedom of speech is more important than universal enfranchisement. I would never have said “Well, it’s a shame that women are still not allowed to vote, but at least they are allowed to say offensively nasty things about men.” I don’t think that freedom of speech is the freedom from which all other freedoms derive. I don’t think that you have to fight for the right of offensively bigoted people to say offensively bigoted things before you can start to work towards racial equality.

Both ideas sound like nonsense to me. But perhaps they don’t sound like nonsense to Tim Farron. Perhaps that is why I am a Corbyn-supporting reformist and he is a Liberal Democrat. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are and always have been the Freedom Of Speech Party.


In what way has this freedom to be offensive, this right to tell people things they do not want to hear, been withdrawn?

Tim cites two pieces of evidence.

First, social media. "Liberalism has eaten itself" turns out to mean “some people on Twitter can sometimes be a bit awful.”

“Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society that condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, the right condemning liberals as fragile snowflakes.”

I invite the reader to examine this claim very closely indeed. Note that Tim again adopts the American usage where liberal is the opposite of the right and the right is the opposite of liberal. Even granted this usage, you would expect him to say "the right condemns liberals and liberals condemn the right”. Instead, while we are all looking the other way, he performs his rhetorical masterstroke.  “The right condemns liberals and liberals condemn those who don’t conform.

Those who don’t conform.

It isn’t that liberals say that white supremacists and rape apologists and people who think that wheelchair users should be barred from going to school are nasty and hateful because nasty and hateful is what they in fact are. Liberals are calling them bad names because liberals don’t like people who won’t conform.

Note the subtle way he brings everything back to non-conformism, which is where we started. The true liberals, refusing to conform to the liberal consensus on the internet, are like the Anabaptists, refusing to conform to the protestant consensus in the Church of England. The liberals on the internet, shocked when someone says that secondary modern students are little different from cavemen, are like the fake Christians who made a pact with Caesar. Any one who deviates from received opinion is a non-conformist, and every non-conformist is a liberal. So the brave soul who is prepared to come right out and call a spade a nigg-nogg is the true liberal and the person who tells him that we don’t want that kind of language round here is not a liberal at all.

(There is also a sort of a pun going on around the dual meaning of "non-conformist". Non-Conformist has a specific religious meaning; but it can also just mean "anyone who won't fit in".  Not all non-conformists are Non-Conformists. And most Non-Conformists were rather conventional folk.)

Then we get an odd digression on “shared values”. 

“People talk about shared values today – I’ve done it myself. But when they do, what they mean is: “These are my values – and I am going to act as though they are also yours, and will demonstrate contempt for you if you depart from them"…..The cultural leaders of our day have made the arrogant and fatal assumption that we have these shared liberal values, and have sought to enforce them via John Stuart Mill’s hated tyranny of opinion.”

Is this true? Is this what people mean when they say “shared values”? Is this what Tim meant? Did he truthfully declare some idiosyncratic private belief of his own  to be a value that everyone shared and then try to enforce it? Are consensus progressive values merely the personal whims of a handful of individuals which have been forced on the majority by the minority? Is it really so arrogant of me to assume that everyone round the table agrees that black people and white people should have the same civil rights? Wouldn’t showing my contempt be the very mildest possible reaction if it turned out that someone at the table supported slavery or didn't think that Muslims should have freedom of worship?

But this is the claim. The people in charge -- the Establishment, the Emperor, Twitter -- have a set of rules, and if you deviate from those rules you risk of.....being disapproved of and called bad names.

And the people at risk from this terrible fate are....people who aren’t sufficiently liberal.

Don’t believe anything you may have read about Gamergate and the Puppies issuing rape and death threats to what-they-call SJWs and what-they-call feminazis. What we need to fear is the baying mob of consensus progressives.



And that, of course, is what this is all about.

There was once a  politician -- let's call him "Tim" -- who was also, confusingly and surprisingly, an evangelical Christian. And he dissented from the consensus by saying that he thought that it was a sin to be gay. And everyone in the liberal media judged the poor politician. They condemned him and demonstrated contempt for him. He was despised and rejected of Twitter, a man of sorrow and acquainted with John Humphries.

So he went home, and tried to come up with a way of defining the word liberal such that the people who said that gay sex was forbidden by God were the liberal ones, and the people who said that it was fine to be gay were not true liberals.

So he decided that judge not lest thee be judged was the whole of the law. And so it turned out if the liberals had really been liberals they would have tolerated his intolerance and not said that he was hateful and nasty for thinking that a whole section of the population were going to hell.

Because if liberalism doesn’t mean the right to call one lot of people sinners without another lot of people looking down on you then it doesn’t mean anything at all.