Friday, February 19, 2021



We left the Doctor and Sarah at the South Pole. They had just spent six weeks running around one of the Stately Homes of England, trying very hard not to get eaten by a gigantic plant. When we rejoin them they are having a stroll through the corridors of the TARDIS and chatting about infinity.

Last season, the Doctor was still working for UNIT—complaining about working for UNIT; threatening to resign from UNIT, but nevertheless calling in UNIT when he wanted to nuke the giant carnivorous daffodil from orbit. But as this season opens, he is a free agent with no particular place to go. The idea that the Doctor had a job title and a boss and a home-base was one that the series seemed reluctant to let go: but now the apron strings have been well and truly cut. It will be six years before we hear from the Brigadier.

Seasons 12 and 13 had a very loose narrative arc. Robot followed on from Planet of the Spiders; Revenge of the Cybermen led directly into Terror of the Zygons. Season 14 begins in media res. The Doctor and Sarah are not coming from anywhere or going anywhere. They are wandering in space and time. That’s what they do. That’s who they are.

It is jarring to see the Doctor and Sarah, casually taking a walk, inside, as it were, the spaceship. With a single black and white exception “TARDIS interior” has always meant “a white room containing a cybernetic mushroom control tower which goes up and down”. And yet here we are, talking about boot-rooms and finding Wellsian control rooms we had forgotten all about. (Discovering a room in your house that you didn’t know was there is a pretty common anxiety dream, right up there with turning up to work with no clothes on.)

“You humans have got such limited little minds” says the Doctor. “I don’t know why I like you so much.”

“Because you have such good taste.” replies Sarah-Jane.

“That’s true, that’s very true” says the Doctor. The Doctor’s alien-ness, his otherness, is being foregrounded as never before. But he remains avuncular. Everyone’s favourite alien.

Change is incremental: but Doctor Who is becoming a new and different thing. We could say that the original series is dying. We could say that the Doctor Who we know and love is finally coming into being. We could say that Doctor Who has always been in a perpetual state of re-invention. Nearly twenty stories will have come and gone before one of the Classic Monsters makes re-appearance.

There is a threat: a threat that the Doctor understands and never quite gets around to explaining to us. He calls it the Helix, although I think he really means Vortex. For a force of ultimate evil it sure does look a lot like an extreme close up of milk being poured into black coffee. It is a great big red glowing lump of Plot.

There are some woods. There are some baddies. They are chasing some peasants. It is the olden days. We could easily imagine that we were in Sherwood Forest, but we turn out to be in Italy.

There are some characters, and a plot. The Duke has died. The Wicked Uncle is going to take the Dukedom from the Duke’s Good Son, with the help of a Fraudulent and Wicked Astrologer. It’s like Hamlet, or at any rate the Lion King. No-one has told the thespians that they are in Doctor Who. They think they are in a BBC costume drama. They do cod Shakespearean readings of cod Shakespearean lines. Giuliano (the nice prince) thinks that astrology is bunkum, writes letters to Galileo and wonders if perchance the earth goes round the sun. Hieronymus (the nasty astrologer) uses the stars to exert power over the credulous. Marco, Giuliano’s wet friend, is inclined to believe in astrology. Very possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.

It feels like we have switched channels: from a space-opera, full of black voids and corridors and evil helixes to one of those classic historical dramas that the BBC still showed on Sunday night. If we hadn’t started with the Doctor and Sarah and the crazy sci-fi stuff, we might not have recognized this as Doctor Who and switched channels for real. (Although since BBC2 was showing cricket and ITV was showing an hour long Guys n’Dolls special, probably not.) The Doctor hasn’t been anywhere near an historical story in six seasons.

Five minutes after our heroes arrive in the Olden Days, Sarah is kidnapped by sinister Men in Cowls. They seem to have wandered in from a Dennis Wheatley adaptation, or more specifically, from the Daemons. They are going to sacrifice Sarah to someone called Demnos because she is a lady, and pretty, and because she is a heroine, and they are the baddies.

To have two plots may be regarded as dramatic: to have three seems like overkill. Some of the blurry red Plot Energy from the science fiction story hitched a lift on the TARDIS, and it is now going to use the Men in Cowls to do Very Bad Things to the inhabitants of the costume drama.

But instead of letting him help, Hieronymus sends the Doctor to the headmaster’s office for a jolly good beheading.


Episode 2

“With one leap, our hero was free...”

We all knew that the Doctor wasn’t really going to have his head chopped off. He was only sentenced to death because we were coming to the end of an episode, and the Doctor has to be in terrible danger before the credits are allowed to roll. And because kids enjoy nothing better than some light capital punishment with their marmite crumpets.

The Doctor knows it too. He politely says “excuse me” to the man with the axe, lassos him with the end of his scarf, jumps on a horse and over a bridge and rides away. He jumps into the tunnel which leads to the underground temple where Sarah is having an interesting meeting with an evil monk and a pointy sword. She lies on the alter in her night dress while a man in a mask he presumably borrowed from the National Theatre’s Orestia holds a dagger above her chest...and somehow the Doctor tiptoes in and pulls her out of the way before anyone notices.

The Doctor is the Doctor. The rules don’t apply to him. The danger is the point. How he escaped from the danger, not so much.

Demnos bathes the chief of the Men in Cowls in a golden  god light and says he is going to give him  POWERS UNDREAMED OF in order to make him SUPREME RULER OF THE EARTH. And when he takes his mask of he turns out to be...

...Hieronymus the Evil Astronomer!!!

Pretty good plot devising, I call that. Giuliano (the nice prince) is a big fan of science. Hieronymus believes that Demnos is magic; but the Doctor can see it is really just the swirly red helix vortex. But when the Doctor talks about balls of alien fire, the olden days people naturally assume that he is talking about magic. Federico (the evil duke) doesn’t believe in astrology any more than Giuliano does, but is happy to use Hieronymus to further his own political ambitions.

We critics love to stalk sub-texts. But the story is not really very much concerned with philosophical questions about magic and science and superstition and the Enlightenment. It is much more interested in the conflict between good guys and bad guys and how many times our heroes can get captured and escape in one twenty five minute segment.

There are some Very Good Moments. The Doctor and Sarah are sitting in the tunnels explaining the plot to each other. (“Sub-thermal recombination of ionised plasma”. “Oh, simple. I should have thought of that.”) Two men with pikes creep up behind them. But it turns out that they are being rescued, not captured, and the pikeman deliver them to Giuliano and Marcos. Giuliano identifies the Doctor as a fellow scientist (“oh, I dabble”) and explains to Sarah his wacky theory that the earth is a sphere. Federico and Hieronymus leave no piece of scenery unchewed.

When we first met the Fourth Doctor, he was the Shakespearian One, the one who made speeches about how Homo Sapiens are indomitable and how he doesn't want to commit genocide if he can possibly help it. But he has become the Grim, Arrogant, mostly Dislikable One. He asks Hieronymus if the moon is made of cheese; he pretends to Giuliano that he is going to move on without helping him. He talks technobabble and refuses to explain things: only Sarah can sometimes prick his pomposity. Serious, grim and knowledgeable: he is not afraid of the Helix (in the way that he was arguably afraid of Sutekh) nor does he respect it (in the way that he probably respected Davros). But he treats it as a serious threat. He is not playing games. Hiding from Federico’s men in the market place, he bites into an orange and grins: the pre-Whovian face of Baker lights up the room. He is a benevolent alien: very benevolent, and very, very alien. Any eccentricity come from the mis-match between his personality and his appearance.

Remember the quote—attributed to Mae West—about the prisoner who is asked by the judge if she is trying to show her contempt for the court? “On the contrary, your honour” she replies “I am doing my very best to conceal it.” That’s the Doctor’s attitude to the whole universe. I am afraid that a lot of naughty boys in nasty schools thought that this was a cool way of dealing with authority, with people who are not as clever as you, and indeed with your friends and your family. Probably, Doctor Who was a not unhealthy fantasy safety valve for us: one day we too would deliver the perfect put-down to that P.E teacher who threatened to chop our head off if we forgot our kit. But it also made many of us bigger outsiders than we needed to be. The stereotype of the Doctor Who nerd is tiresome. But was Doctor Who popular with social pariahs because it validated their nerdish behaviour? Or were they pariahs because they kept on trying to be as arrogant as their hero?

Sarcasm. Yeah. That’s a really high form of wit.

The Doctor goes back into the tunnels to work out what Hieronymus and the Red Energy can possibly be up to. Sarah Jane gets captured again and led off to be a human sacrifice. We end the episode on the same cliff we were hanging off at the beginning.

Episode 3

Cliches 

Last year we ran through all the cliches that could possibly arise from alien invaders in Scotland: bagpipes, oil-rigs, haggis, lake-monsters. This time, we go through everything that could possibly happen in olden days Italy. Torture, sword fights, beheadings, sorcery, catacombs, astrology, science... 

Why is Marco being tortured and what does it matter to the plot? I am not entirely sure. But I am sure that Marco is noble and blonde and brave and that Federico is filthy and disgusting and sadistic and above all foreign and you totally need a scene in a dungeon in this kind of adventure.

Metalanguage

Hieronymus hypnotises Sarah and sends her to murder the Doctor. The Doctor realizes that Sarah has been hypnotized because she starts to question the basic premises of the programme. How, she wonders, can she understand what Giuliano is saying, given that she doesn’t speak Italian? “Because them’s the rules of the show” explains the Doctor “If my companions couldn’t communicate with cave men and Daleks and Romans and Aztecs it would all become very boring very quickly.” (Well: what he actually says is “I’ll explain later” and “It’s a Time Lord gift, I share it with you”, which comes to much the same thing.) But he knows that the real Sarah would never have asked such a sensible question.

Very boringly indeed, the “Time Lord Gift” became an actual plot-point, as opposed to a plot device, in the rebooted series.

Scarf Ace

The Doctor wears his scarf at all times. He no longer bothers to tie it round his neck: it just hangs there, like a sash. (Sashes will shortly become very important.) Do you have any idea how hot he must have been in Italy? (The episode was actually filmed in Portmerion. Everything is filmed in Portmerion.)

Swashbuckling

Giuliano takes on Federico’s men. He parries four swords at once and pushes them away.

“You craven gutted curs” says Federico to his goons “He is but one man”. And then Doctor Tom appears, sword in hand, and says “You can’t count, Count.” (There is a nice little fanfare in the incidental music, just to underline the point.) It is the kind of thing that might have been said in any Wurwitanian Womance.

We are sometimes told that in Old Who, the Doctor was a man of science, not a man of action: that David Tennant, in particular, turned him into a British Indiana Jones. And yet, here he is, buckling every swash in Errol Flynn's Book. He holds a sword to a bad-guy’s throat and pushes him away. Several times he jumps in the air as a bad guy goes for his legs. He grins right through the fight, and at one point licks his lips with enjoyment. Spoilsport grown ups may notice that the Doctor’s hair gets longer in fight scenes (at any rate, when filmed from behind). The same thing happens when he jumps on a horse. But the director manages to disguise this pretty successfully: back shots of stunt men are inter-cut very swiftly with close ups of the Doctor’s face.

Toilets

Don’t you think that, by the standards of 1970s children’s TV, there are a rather a lot of lavatorial references in this episode? Which is fine: kids like toilet jokes almost as much as they like executions. The Captain Of The Guard tells Federico that there are places in the Catacombs where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man: Federico calls the Captain of the Guard a shit-head. (Well, dung-head.) He also calls his nephew a sewer rat and says that Hieronymus can no more read the stars than he can read “my chamberpot”. If you discard one very prominent and unfortunately unremovable bit of signage in the Faceless Ones, I think this is the first suggestion that anyone in the Doctor Who universe ever needs to go.

Torture

We have had a beheading and a human sacrifice, so of course we have to have a nice bit of torture. It is the most conventional, archetypal torture scene you ever saw. Federico wants Marco to say that Giuliano is part of the Cult of Demnos. Which he isn’t, obviously. Marco whispers “Never!” Evil Duke says that the torturer can be over-zealous and that “not everyone survives his attentions”. Marco snarls “You devils!” Federico appeals to his intelligence and leans in close for his answer. Marco spits in his face. One half-expects him to say “No, no, not the comfy chair” while Federico blows up the planet Alderaan.


Episode 4

The Doctor works out what the audience has already guessed: the Mandragora Helix hijacked the TARDIS to bring it to this specific point in history because there was already an appropriately Helix worshiping body available for it to snatch.

The Doctor makes a temporary pact with Federico and gate-crashes the Demnos worshipers revival meeting in the catacombs.

Federico rips the mask off the leader of the cult and reveals...nothing underneath. Whereupon the cult leader unceremoniously disintegrates Federico. It recalls the iconic ending of Pyramids of Mars Episode 1. Federico is great fun as a pantomime villain, but he has to be eliminated before the big finish.

The final episode is Quintessentially Splendid. Once Federico is dead everyone agrees to accept that Giuliano is boss and not chop Sarah and Marcus’s heads off after all. Giuliano holds a big party—indeed, a Masque—to which Leonardo and all the other Turtles are invited. If the Helix kills everyone at the party, the Renaissance will not happen in Italy. (Or if it does, it will have no importance.) This will in turn prevent the human race establishing a galactic empire in the far future. There is a brief hand-wave about how if Mandragora conquers the earth it will kind of make astrology true because it will take away human free will.

The Doctor spends some time cobbling together a Plot Device: a suit of armour with wire in it which will enable him to drain the Mandragora Energy from Hieronymus when he tries to zap him. In New Who, he would presumably have discovered some Anti-Mandragora spray in his pocket; or made all the people hold hands and think beautiful lovely thoughts. I grant that defeating an ancient cosmic evil with some cleverly wired fifteenth century armour is not a lot more logical; but it is a good deal more narratively satisfying. It says “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he is clever and brave and ingenious” not “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he’s the Doctor”

There is a sense of gathering doom. The Doctor admits to Sarah that everything is going very badly: but he continues to joke about it. The masque itself looks sumptuous, but it is Tom and Liz who carry the day. Sarah does not get quite as far as breaking the fourth wall: but she is so aware of the Doctor’s quirks and mannerisms that she effectively lampshades the excesses of Tom Baker’s performance. She tells the Doctor off for being flippant. She tells him off for being obscure. The Doctor admits that if he has guessed wrongly, he will be killed, but asks “When have my guesses ever been wrong?” leaving Sarah to say “Lots of times...” to the audience. You couldn’t imagine Sarah undercutting the Third Doctor in quite that way: come to that you couldn’t imagine Elisabeth Sladen taking the wind out Jon Pertwee’s grand old sails. Sarah wasn’t the first companion to answer the Doctor back. Jamie and to an extent Steven could see right through him. That kind of thing can easily degenerate into series undermining camp. But Sarah challenges the Doctor, not because she wants to undermine him, but because she cares about him. She is the perfect dramatic foil. Oh, where will we find another?

The Doctor confronts Hieronymus and is suitably flippant and sarcastic to him. He claims that it is part of “a Time Lord’s job” to insist on justice for all species, which is a far cry from “I renounced the society of Time Lords” and indeed from “We pride ourselves that we seldom interfere with the affairs of others”.

The plan works. Everyone thinks it has failed, and a lot of minor guests at the Masque gets zapped; but in a way I can’t quite follow the Doctor has swapped places with Hieronymus. So when the Mandragora energy is ready to flood the earth (which has to be during an eclipse, obviously) it floods the Doctor instead and is reflected back on itself. Because it isn’t bright enough to know that the man in the mask isn’t Hieronymus, because the Doctor is doing a jolly good impersonation of his voice.

The Doctor grandstands. Having saved the universe, with a silly grin on his face, he demands a round of applause and a salami sandwich. He does, in fact, leave with large sausage under his arm, a farewell gift from Giuliano. (Salami making, like the cult of Demnos, can be traced back to ancient Rome. I looked it up.)

Not a jelly baby. A salami sandwich. This is not an ad lib; this is not a serious line said in a silly voice (or even a silly line said in a serious voice.) It’s just a very silly line which must have been in the script.

The Shakespearean Doctor has gone. The Arrogant Doctor is going. Soon, the Silly Doctor will have taken over.



Tuesday, February 16, 2021

When I wrote this weeks piece, I wasn't aware that there was a Kickstarter project going on to support Mr Katz in his old age and get some of his lessor known artwork into print. I just ordered a print to go on the wall of my new flat, and it would be cool is some of you nice people backed it as well. 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sharpy/the-unseen-jack-katz?ref=discovery&term=jack%20katz

Friday, February 12, 2021

The First Kingdom



Before Christmas I read Jack Katz's The First Kingdom right the way through. 

I didn't really understand it, so I read it again. 

Wow. 

Or at any rate "a qualified wow". 

I re-read most things, but I don't generally read then twice in a row. I tackled Mr James Joyce during Lockdown I, and understood enough of him that I am going to re-read him at the end of 2021. The First Kingdom was fascinating enough, and baffling enough, that I read it, and then read it again, and am going to pencil in reading it a third time while I still have some of the details in my head. 

I have been aware of The First Kingdom for as long as I have been a comic book guy. When I first started to look away from the Marvel shelves in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, there it was, sharing space with Heavy Metal and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. 

I was old enough to know that sex and drugs existed. D.T.W.A.G.E displayed fliers for the Legalize Cannabis Picnic and shared Soho frontage with a cinema which promised Actual Copulation. But forbidden fruit made me feel uncomfortable: I certainly had no wish to taste it at that point. A glance inside The First Kingdom made me think that it was a dirty book and not suitable for me. There were copies of Elfquest on the same stand: quite different in style, but identical in presentation: thin, flimsy, magazine style booklets; colour covers and 30 pages of cheaply printed black and white artwork; a single storyline that unrolled over many years. One issue of Elfquest had an orgy in it, although only from the waist up.

C.S. Lewis talked about falling in love with the title of The Well at the World's End before he knew anything about the story. I think The First Kingdom stayed in my mind because of that title. It was clear from the covers that it was about space gods and swords and sorcery. I think it merged in my head with a totally forgotten Marvel comic called Space Gods From Beyond the Stars. These were the years when Jack Kirby was disrupting the Marvel Universe with his Celestials and totally misunderstanding 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

So now I have read it. Twenty four issues, reprinted in four volumes, the lettering redone so you have some chance of actually deciphering it: plus two stand alone sequels. A final, seventh volume is on the way, inshallah. Jack Katz is 93. 

In 1974 the Fantastic Four had already been and gone, and the Fourth World was nearly over. The First Kingdom must already have looked terribly old-fashioned. It feels like a newspaper strip from an era before anyone had quite worked out how newspaper strips were supposed to work. 

There is a lot of third person narration: one sometimes feels one is reading a lavishly illustrated novel; or else a series of pictures with a commentary, rather than a comic book. Speech is printed in captions (like Prince Valiant) not as balloons. Characters talk a lot -- a lot! -- but you have to work out what is speech and what is narration from context. (Everyone talks in the same way: there is nothing that you could call dialogue.) There is no guttering between panels. Some issues consist almost entirely of full page illustrations. 

It feels like Flash Gordon: or perhaps more like the yarns of Barsoom and Pellucidar that Alex Raymond was drawing on. Impossibly handsome men and impossibly beautiful women strike impossibly heroic poses. They are cast into arenas to battle beasts which are part dragon and part dinosaur. But the action and the drama is held at arms length: you feel you are looking at a series of pulp magazine covers depicting hunts, battles and space wars, but you are never inside the action, experiencing the fight or wondering about an outcome.

No-one wears any clothes. Even the futuristic characters keep their chests and bottoms proudly on display, although they usually -- but by no-means always -- keep their willies in uncomfortable looking pouches. The women are less modest than the men and the kids are less modest than the grown ups. There is some sex; or at any rate, some scenes of beautiful ladies and beautiful men entwined in diaphanous daybeds on idyllic islands. I don't think it is especially pornographic; and I don't think Katz is pushing a naturist philosophy. He's an artist; artists paint nudes. If Stan Lee wanted to be Shakespeare, Jack Katz wanted to be Michelangelo. He taught anatomy at art college. Maybe he just wasn't very good at doing clothes. 

But this isn't swords and sorcery. This isn't even really deep, adult swords and sorcery with politics and philosophy and penises. This is an epic. The original series ran to exactly 24 books. 

Star Wars has been called a comic strip which thinks it's an opera. Mostly by me, admittedly. Lucas's early scripts seemed to be struggling towards a world where characters who looked liked they came from Mongo engaged in strategy, intrigue and councils of war. Like Dune, but with swashbuckling. The First Kingdom is Conan the Barbarian on the outside, but under the bonnet it's two fifths Game of Thrones and three fifths the Silmarillion. What it felt most like to me is that Indian language Maharbarat which we all watched on late night BBC2 in the 80s: strange language; complicated dynasties; portentous narration; mysticism that you can't understand and more characters than you could possibly keep track of; but a sense that at any given moment you have walked in in the middle of something monumental and heartbreaking and evocative. Maharbarat was a TV version of a sacred text of one of the great world religion; Jack Katz is having a damn good shot at faking it.  

There has been a nuclear war. The human race has relapsed to the stone age. There are mutants and monsters. People are forming war-bands and hunting tribes. One guy, Darkenmoor, founds a kingdom and raises mighty cities and palaces and temples. The story is called The First Kingdom, but it's the kind of book in which kings are referred to as "Kenmores" and kingdoms are called "Gans". After 750 pages, this gets a little tiresome. 

Darkenmoor marries Nedlaya, and they have a baby boy, Tundran. But Nedlaya's evil brother kills them and seizes the throne. Baby Tundran is taken away to an island, ignorant of his heritage, while priests train him to reclaim his father's kingdom. Sixteen or so books later, he is on the point of doing so, but at the last moment, some aliens appear and suggest that he would be much better off going with them and learning the secrets of the universe. (They are particularly interested in finding out why human beings spend so much of their time and effort killing each other.) So he does. 

So far so mainstream. Katz draws beautifully; huge full page illustrations chocked to the brim with human figures and impressive architecture, far more than you can take in at a glance. It isn't always clear how you are supposed to read it: the full page pictures demand to be lingered over like a portfolio of art; but that removes any sense of narrative flow. He has a marked tendency to show and tell simultaneously: a caption which tells us that Tundra and his lover Fara have been imprisoned on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea is illustrated by a beautiful line drawing of Tundra and Fara standing on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea. There are moments where the static, arms-length, distanced narrative comes within striking distance of Wagnerian intensity. Towards the end of the first volume the goddess Selowan comes to Darkenmoor in his chamber, while he is thinking kingly thoughts about politics. "Can you look into my eyes and tell me you don't love me?" she asks. Apparently he can't; and while they are in each other's arms, his wife, Nedlaya, enters stage right. Thinking that he no longer loves her, she does the descent thing and throws herself off a cliff, leaving Darkenmoor howling "I love you, no, gods of Helea Voran, no!" in a suitably statuesque pose. Selowan asks him to "come into my arms and fill my body with happiness", and just as he is about to do so, she vanishes. She has been taken back to the realm of the gods where her father, top-god Dranok, is most put-out. "The taking of the life of a mortal by the direct intervention of a goddess for the sole purpose of possessing the love of another mortal" is punishable by extinction, apparently. 

Nedlaya survives the fall and the lovers are back together within a few pages.

Yes, there are gods in the First Kingdom as well. They don't wear many clothes either. They make their first appearance on page 3 of the very first episode, and everyone takes them for granted, although they seem and odd fit for the post-holocaust backstory. 

It isn't until the end of the first volume that Katz starts to explain what is going on. Darkenmoor has two councillors, Terrog and Hiemmet. They appear to be dwarves or goblins: mutants, at any rate. On page 110, Terrog catches a glimpse of his reflection in a pool, remembers the days before he was mutated, and breaks out in an extended flashback. It seems that he and Hiemmet are not natives of Earth: they were part of the crew of a Galactic Hunter, a vast star ship from a very high-tech space civilisation: more Doc Smith than Star Trek. They travelled around the universe trying to stop other planets destroying themselves in nuclear wars: their mission to earth wasn't one of the more successful ones. 

This brings on the structural device which makes the First Kingdom so impressive and so very nearly impenetrable. We leap into Hiemmet and Terrog's narrative: about the mission of the Galactic Hunter, and how it failed, and how they came to be mutants. This is interleaved with the doings of several different sets of humans and several different factions of gods. Not infrequently, characters in the flashback narrative narrate their own back stories; several times we find ourselves three levels deep, a story teller telling a story in which someone tells a story about how someone once told them a story. It transpires that Galactic Hunters are partially crewed by very advanced automatons. Katz refers to them as Cyborgs, but I think they are what would more normally be called Androids: synthetic life forms, not augmented humans. And -- are you ready for this? -- when it became clear that the Galactic Hunter's mission to save the earth was going to fail, some of the Cyborgs were reprogrammed so that they believed themselves to be gods. Except that one of the gods, Aquare, has retained his memories and is aware of the ruse, and spends a very large number of episodes trying to decide whether to reveal the secret or not. 

There is also Ceer, an oracle, who lives on the tops of mountains and prophecies Darkenmoor and Tundran's destiny in the first issue. He turns out to be from another hugely advanced alien civilisation where no-one bothers with clothes, and to have had all the knowledge in the universe downloaded into him. And towards the end of the saga, it turns out that there are survivors of the Galactic Hunter's original mission, running around the swords and sorcery mileu with ray guns. They get an embedded backstory as well. 

And I haven't even got to the weird part yet. In nearly every panel featuring the human cast, we can see tiny, elfin figures -- often winged, sometimes interacting with tiny dinosaurs or hunting tiny animals. No-one talks to them or interacts with them; they don't affect the story in any way. They are just there: like grotesques in the margin of a medieval Bible. Eventually, two thirds of the way through the narrative, we are told that when the Galactic Hunter crashed on earth, the serum which contains the androids memories got out into the ecosystem, and along with the space fuel and other Science Stuff it brought these new creatures into being. 

The best way of conveying the density and complexity of the comic is to try to summarise a single issue. I picked book 16, at random. Tundran and his lover Fara (who is actually the goddess Selowan in mortal form) have been enslaved and held in an arena. He has won his freedom by defeating the local King's son in a battle. He sails off in a boat, with the prince as hostage, but being a decent chap sets him free when they are out of range of their pursuers.

Meanwhile, Alandon and Dami, friends of Tundran and Fara, who have also recently been freed from slavery, bump into a pirate, who comes originally from their homeland, Mooregan. When they mention Tundran, the pirate asks if by any chance he had a luminous wrist band, and when they admit that he does, the pirate reveals that this identifies him as the true king. 

Meanwhile, Aquare -- the god who knows he is really a Cyborg -- comes across the camp of the survivors from the original Galactic Hunter spaceship, and destroys their salvaged high-tech supplies. 

This naturally upsets Tarvu, one of the survivors, so she decides to explain to her boyfriend how she came to join the mission in the first place. She tells him what her grandfather told her about her heritage. (This takes fifteen pages.) It seems that many thousands of years ago, there was a terrible war between a stupendously advanced civilisation which built galaxies (this was during the fifth regeneration of the universe, obviously) and the Anti-Life-Legions who are compelled by their deviant perspective to wreak incredible destruction on all life and space plasma. (I am not making this up.) Her ancestor, Volrood, had had a nice idea about declaring one particular area of space a conservation zone which they wouldn't interfere with, but this annoyed the merchant class, who had to take the long way round. This results in a thousand years of civil war: only at the end of it does it turn out that the Merchants are being manipulated by the Anti-Life-Legions who are planning to take over the universe after the war has devastated it. It's too late to prevent the destruction, but some of the goodies sign up to the caucus of Volrood and disperse through the universe in search of places where humans are prepared to fight against oppression. As a descendent of Volrood, Tarvu is part of this noble calling. 

Meanwhile, back in Mooregan the priests, who are loyal to Tundran, plan to assassinate the usurper Vargran. There is an annual solemn ceremony in which he has to drink from the "bowl of supplication": the Priests are going to poison it. But Vargran is warned in advance by Tedra (Tedra? who the hell is Tedra?) and, at the last moment, he forces the high priest to drink from the bowl, revealing the conspiracy. 

Meanwhile Tundran and Fara harbour their ship on an island, where they take off all their clothes and snog for a bit. They go hunting, and meet up with Alandon and the pirate, who immediately kneel to him and announce that he is Thane of Cawdor Kenmoor of Mooregan. Tundran wanders off into the forest and bumps into the Oracle, who tells him not to be too single-minded in his revenge. Fara says that now Tundran is a king he probably won't want to marry a mere huntress like herself, but Tundran says his parents were hunters before they were kings and queens. They snog a bit more, and everyone salute Tundran and Fara and Kenmoor as Kenmar of Mooregan. To be continued.

I often use Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld as my touchstone for peculiar comic book experiences. It's a comic book which operates according to its own rules; which releases those rules to your gradually and acclimatises you to them: it starts to make intuitive sense that something bad is going to happen if you put a mystery pod next to a twink. When you put the comic down, you feel as if you were emerging from one of those dreams in which Miss Bell who taught you French at lower school is part of the text of the Anglo Irish Agreement. There was a point, about twenty books into the First Kingdom, where I felt that I had all the trans-gods and cyborgs and mortalised gods straight in my head. I think there was a baroque beauty to it. Elisabath Sandifer, who writes so brilliantly about Doctor Who, shows signs of knowing what William Blake's mythological poems are all about. I've never been able to make head nor tail of them myself. People have compared the First Kingdom with William Blake. Blake imagined Newton thrashing out the laws of motion with no clothes on. 

Jack Kirby says that Jack Katz is doing the kind of thing he wanted to do with New Gods. It's an interesting point of comparison. Both are trying very hard to be cosmic; with talk of the forces of life and anti-life and the infiniverse and the beyond and beyond the beyond. But Kirby's gods seem godlike. Those of us who grew up in Stan Lee's head expect gods to be blonde and muscular and clad in primary coloured spandex. The First Kingdom is heroic as hell, and conceived of on a massive scale, but it never really achieves a sense of wonder. However high up the chain of the cosmos you go, the hierophants and the guardians always seem to be just like folks: playing catch, eating picnics, frolicking in various states of undress in the grounds of citadels that looks suspiciously like mid-western campus universities. 

First Kingdom can't really be said to have had any influence or impact. Admired by all the right people, but hardly ever read. The last hurrah of a style of illustration which was obsolescent before it started. A magnificent folly; a testimony to a bizarrely individualistic vision; impossible to grasp, but cumulatively breathtaking; and with an awful lot of boobies.





Friday, February 05, 2021

Not As Good As It Used To Be


"Oh, go back and watch Rose again" they said "I am sure that all the things you so dislike about Chris Chibnall were just as much problems in the Russell T. Davies era: you were just so excited about having Doctor Who back that you couldn't see them." You happened to be in the mood to like Doctor Who then and not in the mood to like it now. 

I remember watching Rose for the first time. Due to a catastrophic error of judgement I was living in Macclesfield. It seemed like a big deal: an event. Midnight showings of Star Wars movies were not yet an institution. Geek culture was not quite so mainstream. A company called Netflix sent me an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer each week in a cardboard envelope. 

We tend to see Shakespeare as a point of origin: we see the way he affected every writer who came after him, T.S Eliot and Ibsen and Bernard Shaw and Stan Lee. But we could also see him as an end point: we could read the Canterbury Tales and the York Mystery Play and the Castle of Perseverance and see how Shakespeare was the culmination of of everything which came before him. 

In 2005, Rose was a revival of the Old Series; interestingly distinct from the abortive American pilot; influenced by, without being a continuation of, the Virgin Books and the Big Finish CDs. (Big Finish became unwieldy and fan fictional and predictable and overwhelming but for six years it was all there was.) But now it is the origin of what Doctor Who became: it is primarily interesting because it prefigures Tennant and Capaldi and Moffat and Chibnall. 

So, I watched Rose again. 

The main thing which strikes me about it, compared with the new series, is its exuberance: Russell T Davies' sheer joy in invention, in creating fun stuff and putting it on the screen, of having more ideas than he can squeeze into 45 minutes. From one point of view, there isn't that much to it. A big plastic amoeba is living under the London Eye; it brings plastic dummies and a wheelie bin to life with its big plastic amoeba rays and the Doctor destroys it with his big-plastic-amoeba-destroying potion. But from another point of view, it is bursting at the seams: the introduction of Rose and Mickey as ordinary people; the montage of Rose's day at work; the tiny little character cameos with her mum; Rose stuck in the basement with the zombie dummies; Rose meeting the crazy mystery man; Rose meeting up with a crazy conspiracy theorist off the internet.... There is something extravagant about the way R.T.D introduces a funny character called Clive and kills him off before the end of the episode. 

The things which annoyed me at the time now seem to be part and parcel of this narrative profligacy. In 2005 I believe I said that the animated wheelie bin indicated that the series was not taking itself seriously. There cannot possibly be any story internal reason for it to belch; and the idea that Rose can't spot that Mickey is a replicant undermines her whole character. And I still don't really know, narratively, what is supposed to have happened. Mickey falls into a plastic bin, and is next seen semi-conscious in the aliens' base. Did the wheelie bin trundle home with Noel Clarke inside it? And where did Auton-Mickey come from. Has the Nestene Consciousness been reimagined as a plastic Mysteron, possessing the ability to recreate the exact likeness of an object or person, providing they have destroyed it first? 

But in retrospect, this is all part of the fun. The opening scene, in which the auton dummies come to life in the basement of the shop where Rose works, is genuinely scary. (I think the trick is that Davis first makes us think about how frightening it would be to be accidentally stuck in a shop basement overnight, before adding the fantasy element of the plastic zombies.) But the scene in which Rose eats pizza with the evil robot Mickey -- and Mickey starts to glitch, and his hands turn into shovels and the Doctor rips his head off -- has shifted to something much closer to Scooby Doo. 

"Why does the Consciousness's ability to animate plastic also give it the ability to remould it like silly putty?"

"Because I say so." 

This lack of world building -- this lack of interest in world building -- will come to undermine the New Who project. But for now, the idea that one forty five minute story can modulate between soap opera (Rose and Mickey), horror (the auton scenes), slapstick (the pizza), science fiction (the TARDIS scenes) and Indiana Jones action (the climax) is exhilarating. 

And it's a very good way of selling Doctor Who to millennial audiences. Remember that TV series your granddad used to like in the 1980s? The one with the impenetrable sci fi jargon, the thirty year back story, the theatrical overacting and the primitive special effects? Well, it's nothing like that. 

It doesn't rely on Whovian iconography. The TARDIS interior doesn't look like the TARDIS interior; the title sequence doesn't look like the Doctor Who title sequence, and the theme tune doesn't sound like the Doctor Who theme tune. Only the 1950s phone box gives us a hint that we have come to the right place. We fans know that the scene in the shopping centre is a riff on Spearhead From Space, but no-one else does. How very tempting it must have been to drop a Dalek into that very first episode, and how very sensible it was not to do so. 

Davies proceeds on the assumption that we don't know who the Doctor is: everything is resolutely presented from Rose's point of view. And he doesn't give any pat, elevator pitch explanations -- "I'm a Time Lord"; "I travel in Time and Space"; "I travel around the universe fighting monsters." Instead we get an exposition of the Doctor's alien consciousness."We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go we die. That's who I am. " (Eccleston had previously played Steve Baxter, a very ordinary man who happened to be carrying God in his head, in Davies' 2003 series The Second Coming.) This could have been irritating: "Yes Russell: we know who the Doctor is already; can we please cut to the chase." But the script's refusal to take anything for granted means we fall in love with the idea of Doctor Who all over again. 

Of course, we can't possibly do a "cold reading" of Rose: Chistopher Eccleston's picture was on the cover of the Radio Times, on the side of busses, on every poster-hoarding in London. But the episode is directed at an imaginary viewer who might be surprised when the youngish brash Northern guy in the leather jacket says "I'm the Doctor, by the way", in the same way someone in 1966 might theoretically have been unable to accept that Patrick Troughton was now playing William Hartnell. 

How can you be the Doctor? I know what a Doctor looks like, and you aren't it?

Rose's question about the Doctor's accent doesn't really admit of a good answer: other planets may have a North, but presumably relatively few of them have a Salford. (We readily accept a Lancastrian Doctor, a Scottish Doctor and a Received Pronunciation Doctor but some of us apparently still find a Black Doctor too much of a stretch.) 

"Bigger on the inside than the outside" is somewhere between a catch phrase and a cliche: but RTD holds off showing us the TARDIS interior for as long as possible. We get a reaction shot from Rose before we see the control room for ourselves. The theoretically ignorant viewer would be thinking "What has she seen? What is so surprising about that phone box?" even though the answer has been spoiled by thirty years of history and a three page fold out in the Radio Times. 

Rose is surprised when the TARDIS moves. She is surprised when the Doctor says that it can go anywhere in the universe. And brilliantly, the one thing which everyone knows, the unique selling point of Doctor Who, is held back and delivered as a punch line. "Did I mention it also travels in Time?" 

This is a sales pitch: the idea of Doctor Who, shorn of its baggage, presented to people who didn't know they cared. 

It doesn't feel like a reboot. The McGann cul de sac downloaded a lot of post Deadly Assassin backstory, giving the impression that a fan had explained Doctor Who to an American executive who wasn't fully paying attention. We now know that they had built a backstory out of the wreckage of the original series, a Journey of the Hero in which Rassilon's half human son tries to stop his evil brother from changing history. 

Rose gives the impression, not that we are starting over, but that we are resuming after an interruption. The Doctor has spent seventeen years doing stuff we don't know about, and we have now crossed over with him and are going to have to pick up the threads. That's how everyone else interacts with the Doctor. Rose and Mickey and as it will eventually turn out Sarah-Jane see fragments of his life, non-sequentially. Clive the conspiracy theorist is trying to put the fragments together; to see the Doctor as we viewers, on the outside, see him. By the end of the episode, Rose knows what we know, or think we do: he's an alien, he travels in Time and Space, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside. But we have discovered there is another layer to be unpicked: stuff about the Doctor which nobody knows. It turns out that references to "the war" are foreshadowing a multi-season story arc, whereas "the shadow proclamation" is pure lore-babble. But it hardly matters: we know stuff about the Doctor that Rose doesn't know; but the Doctor knows stuff about himself that no-one knows. "I was there. I fought in the war. It wasn't my fault. I couldn't save your world! I couldn't save any of them!" This counts for more than twenty volumes of Looms and Dark Times and Others. 

I suppose that if Mickey were introduced to the series today, the alt-right orthodoxy would condemn him as "woke". And I imagine that R.T.D made a positive decision that the pretty white lady would have a nice black boyfriend: a conscious piece of diversity in what had previously been a rather aggressively caucasian show. This was before racists had developed a vocabulary (cancel/ woke / identity politics) which allowed them to say that black people shouldn't appear on TV without actually saying that black people shouldn't appear on TV. I don't say that the UK was less racist in 2005 than it is in 2021; but I do say that racists had not yet infiltrated Doctor Who fandom. 

It was said at the time that a similar American series would probably not have featured a white heroine with a black boyfriend; but that if it had done so, it would certainly not have depicted the boyfriend as such an unmitigated idiot. Noel Clark is a fine actor and Mickey is a funny character and I think I preferred him as a comedic foil than as a Cyberman slaying hero. But I do feel uncomfortable with the final scenes. It is completely appropriate for Mickey to be traumatized by what has happened: it needs to be made clear to the audience that the Autons have manifested in the normal world; a world where aliens and robots and replicants are completely not normal. It is completely appropriate and in character for Rose to have to support him -- to affectionately refer to him as a useless lump. But there is something unfortunately simian about the way he clings to her leg. I am sure it wasn't intentional. I take it that the actor didn't mind. But I do think it's a glitch. 

Rose was the first Doctor Who in 16 years (or 12, or 9, or 6 depending on how strict you are about canon.) It was our last chance of Doctor Who continuing into the future. Now it is one of 147 episodes of a series which is almost certain to stretch on to the crack of doom. Rose was a pitch and a promise: if it had failed Doctor Who would have receded into the same limbo as Star Cops and the Tomorrow People. Revolution of the Daleks was a more or less workmanlike attempt to carry the baton for a few hundred yards without tripping up or dropping it. If we like it, fair enough. If we don't, then they'll be another one along in a minute. But we can no more be excited about Revolution of the Daleks than about digestive biscuits or PG Tips tea. Perpetual revolution is neither possible nor desirable. But TV shows die when they become complacent.

"Oh, go back and watch some Tom Baker stories" they said "I am sure that all the things which annoy you about New Who were just as much problems in the Classic Era. I shouldn't think Phillip Hinchcliffe could sustain the level of scrutiny you are directing at Russel T Davies." 

Hindsight isn't as good as it used to be. Nostalgia is always 2020. 







The Viewer's Complete Tale

Monday, February 01, 2021

 


do you know what I sometimes think would be nice?

I sometime think that it would be nice if people who had enjoyed my witterings tweeted the link to all of their friends, so they can enjoy it too 

just push the little T or F button at the bottom of the post and I might pick up some more readers

you know it makes sense 


http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2020/12/blog-post.html