Thursday, March 30, 2023

Micronauts #1 (continued)


Princess Marie is in hiding. Prince Argon is a prisoner. (“Take him to the body banks” says Karza. We're not quite sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound like anything good.) And the action cuts to a new character.

Commander Arcturus Rann. He’s an astronaut (“micronaut”) returning to earth (“homeworld”) after a voyage to the edge of the universe (“fringe of the microverse”). We see him heavily shaded in purple, alongside a robot. Then we see him heavily silhouetted in the door of his space ship, almost like the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Finally we get a good look at him, and (like Argon) he's a caricature, a cartoon: a space-hero with a jaw so square you could use it in a woodwork class.

Lucas, of course, pulled a similar structural manoeuvre. Start with a secondary character (Leia) running away from the main villain (Vader). Leave her in peril: and shift everyone's attention to the main hero (I forget his name.) Let us get to know him for a bit, and then show us how his story overlaps with hers. 

“I am glad you woke me for this” says Arcturus.

“I knew you’d enjoy seeing the real thing rather than a telepathic image” replies his robot. “You’ve waited a long time for this.”

And a narrative voice kicks in: “A long time? Yes a thousand years is a very long time to be away from one’s world, with only your ship and a roboid companion for company” [5]

And the crib sheet, if we can be bothered with the very small type, repeats the information again: Rann is “one of the first of the space-gliding Micronauts to be dispatched in suspended animation 1,000 years ago to the farthest reaches of the Microverse.”

George Lucas pruned a very complex back-story down to a very small number of upper case captions: BRAVE REBELS; EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE; ULTIMATE WEAPON. Mantlo's story is an overgrown forest that we get lost in. But he resists the full-on info dump. He disperses information through the story, expecting the reader to connect the dots. It's a little like the rhetorical technique sometimes employed by political speech-writers. "What was it Ghandi once said...?" or "As that great champion of passive resistance put it..." go down better than "To quote a speech M.K Ghandi made in August 1942..." Let the audience finish your sentences; let them fill in the spaces you have left blank. It get's them on-side; makes them feel part of the in-crowd. 

What was it the author of Zot! told us in his seminal book on comic criticism? Comics are an invisible art; all the action comes in the space between the panels. The reader is an active participant in the creation of the story. 

So: Rann is not merely a space-explorer. He's also, at some level, a messiah. ("His return was clearly foretold on the ancient mission charts.") He has spent a thousand years in suspended animation, during which time he remained telepathically linked with Biotron, his robot companion.

It's a rather splendid science fiction idea. It could have formed the basis for an entire comic book series. An explorer whose body is frozen but whose mind is free to explore the universe, using a robot as his eyes and ears. As if that isn't enough, in the very next panel Mantlo brings in another huge space operatic concept. Rann’s spaceship was travelling at “faster than light speeds” but while he was gone, his people discovered warp drive. Aliens he made first-contact with during his millennium long voyage have obtained this faster-than-faster-than light travel and arrived home before him. [6]
Karza fears Rann because he is an "x-factor", not taken into account in any of his schemes; and there is going to be a Very Big Revelation in issue #11 concerning something which happened on his thousand year mission. But most of the time, he is merely the heroic Captain Kirk /  Buzz Lightyear figure, who falls in love with Princesses and saves the day. Rann's cosmic history has very little impact on the narrative: but the fact that he bursts into the comic trailing clouds of backstory is a very big part of what made the comic so mesmerising. 

Fans like complexity. Comics like Green Lantern and Legion of Superheroes with long, long histories and huge intricate casts are the ones which attract cult followings. Fan fiction was less ubiquitous in the 1970s; but the impulse to take possession of a text, to simultaneously dominate it and be dominated by it has always been there. I want to be X-Wing Blue Five flying down the Death Star Trench with Luke Skywalker; but I want to have a collection of model X-Wings and look down on the saga from above. 

Was Mantlo angling for cult status? Were his endless allusions to past histories and off-stage events a means of creating a synthetic continuity? Or did his conceptual stream outrun his ability to make up stories, so ideas just tumbled into the narrative because he couldn't keep them out? 

That would, indeed, make Micronauts a close relative of New Gods. 


Relentless peril; the endless serial cycle of threat and escape. Each cliffhanger pushes us deeper into the backstory. It is hard not to be engaged. 

Rann expects to be greeted as a hero: but what he thinks is the honour guard are actually Karza’s Dog-Soldiers. He is captured. He is imprisoned. He is attacked by alien prisoners who, er, want to eat him. Two more aliens drop into the frame, from nowhere, to rescue him. 

Rann's rescuers are fairly incongruous. One is a knightly figure in red and white armour; the other is a green-skinned alien. I don’t think we immediately connect the knight with the silver and black figure we saw alongside Karza -- he's only been in the comic for one frame. But we probably grok that the knight's name, Acroyear, is the same as that of the robots who were chasing Marie and Argon on page 2. Bug, who is going to emerge as a comedic “artful dodger” figure in later issues is on this first appearance, a completely generic Little Green man: the kind of human-in-make-up you’d have met in Season Two of Star Trek.

Was this slightly unlikely friendship between a giant space-knight and a little-space thief suggested by the (at the time) equally unlikely friendship between the cowboy space pirate and the giant chess playing gorilla? Or does Mantlo just need to squeeze two more action figures into the story? Acroyear looks quite a lot like his model: we would not know that Bug was Galactic Warrior unless Mantlo had told us so. The Galactic Warrior figure did come with a curious bucket-shaped helmet like the one Bug wears (very valuable to collectors as they most often got lost). Some iterations of the figurine were green.

Rann is surprised that there are Bugs and Acroyears on Homeworld, because he thinks he discovered them during his infinitely extended space sojourn. But his surprise is almost immediately undercut with a revelation. We readers already know that Baron Karza is the bad-guy. He’s been mentioned, oh, three or four times already. But when Bug mentions his name, Mantlo hits us with another Hand of Kwll moment

“Baron Karza? Doctor Karza of the science academy? But he was my professor, 1,000 years ago.”

But he was my professor. 

It is not quite up there with no-Luke-I-am-you-father. But it did come two years earlier.


Princess Marie and Commander Rann both have mechanical companions. Rann's companion, the one he mind-linked with during his voyage, is called Biotron. He is quite tall and has human features. Marie's is shorter and less anthropomorphic and is called Microtron. [7] The crib sheet says that he is her “jester, servant, tutor and guardian” although he does very little in this first issue. Both of them are modelled very closely on the original action-figures, and there is very little that Golden can do to prevent them looking like oversized toys. They will inevitably form a friendship, and it is impossible not too look at the double-act without thinking of Artoo Detoo and See Threepio. However, Biotron is not particularly pompous and Microtron is not especially flighty. 

Artoo and Threepio were referred to as "droids" which is presumably an abbreviation of "android".  Android literally means "man-shaped", in the way that "ovoid" means "egg-shaped", but science fiction fans would naturally take it to mean "a human shaped robot". See Threepio is arguably an android: Artoo Deetoo decidedly isn't. [8] 

Microtron and Biotron are referred to as "roboids". Mantlo says in passing that "roboids" have "become a synthesis of man and machine" -- or, in other words, cyborgs. [9] I suppose that "roboid" must mean "shaped like a robot", which they unquestionably are. C.P Scott would presumably have said that no good can come of a word which is half Latin and half Czech. 

On page 10 Microtron is seen operating Marie as if she were a puppet. I had to read this section several times to work out what was supposed to be going on. It appears that Karza uses "show dolls"  — humanoid robots operated by other robots -- as a form of entertainment. By pretending to be a show-doll, Marie hopes to gain access to the arena and rescue Argon. It seems a lot of trouble to go to to establish the Marie/Marionette pun. 

But that is how Rann first sees Marie: a figure being manipulated by a roboid. And this is surely rather reminiscent of Artoo Deetoo projecting the image of Princess Leia for the benefit of Luke Skywalker. 

“She must be real” says Commander Rann when he sees her.  “She’s beautiful.”


Steve Gerber complained that Marvel comics had to include one actual fight scene: not an action sequence or a confrontation, a fight. The fights in Howard the Duck became intentionally silly and gratuitous, both as an in-joke and as a protest. Stan Lee himself affected to regard “plot” as the annoying preliminary you had to rush through in order to get to the punch-up.

In one sense, Micronauts # 1 has been nothing but a sequence of confrontations and chases and escapes. But pages 12-17 are a relatively by-numbers comic book action sequence. Karza puts all the prisoners in the arena and releases a giant “death tank” that they are supposed to fight. The Time Traveller — the glowy angel that Argon summonsed by unspecified means — materialises again and somehow causes an explosion, giving all the good guys a chance to get back to Rann’s spaceship. The aliens who wanted Rann for lunch are killed, unmourned, by the robot. The flying Acroyears come down from the sky, and we finally get a good look at them: their heads are the same shape as the wings on Acroyear’s helmet, but otherwise they look like completely different toys. Everyone runs away, back to Rann’s space ship, where Biotron is waiting for them. They escape, and make for “the fringe”. 

Rann has already talked, several pages earlier, about having reached "the fringe" on his first voyage. A writer would probably not use jargon so consistently if he were making it up as he went along. Consecutive captions say that the Endeavour is slower than its pursuers, and that it is travelling faster than the speed of light: "faster than light" having been established as meaning "relatively slow". I remain in awe of Mantlo's world-building.  

There is one more twist. Karza reveals that he never intended his ships to catch our heroes. Because Rann is the x-factor that could mess up his plans, he needs to know what he is going to do next. “There is an unknown at work here and that we cannot fathom must sometimes be made to reveal itself.”

He let them go. It’s the only explanation for the ease of their escape. Bill Mantlo had never seen Star Wars.


If your first encounter with Star Wars was through a computer game or a guidebook or the prequels, then you have never seen Star Wars. If you went into Episodefouranewhope knowing in advance that Star Destroyers are bigger than Rebel Blockade Runners then you have never seen Star Wars. If when Darth Vader walked down the corridor you knew he was a Sith Lord named Anakin, you have never seen Star Wars. 

This is not gate-keeping. You can perfectly well be a fan of the Star Wars Saga without having seen Star Wars. English Literature survives quite happily even though most of us have never read Macbeth for the first time. But the aesthetic of Star Wars, and therefore the aesthetic of the Micronauts depends on there being oceans and continents of stuff about which the audience doesn't have the faintest idea.

You can't enjoy a puzzle if you already know the solution. 

This is not, incidentally, true of every movie and every book. The first Batman movie, and arguably the first Superman movie, rather strongly assumed that you knew the basic facts about the characters in advance. Sophocles would have written Oedipus Rex different if he thought there would one day be people who didn't know who the king murdered and who the king married. I appear to have just compared a bad Tim Burton movie with arguably the most significant secular text in the western canon. 

On page 16 of Mirconauts # 1, Acroyear gets to deliver arguably the best line in the whole comic. 

“I have a message for that traitor prince you serve" he says "Tell him there is a blood feud between us, and I will have his head.”

This is the culmination of a series of references to Acroyears that run laterally through the comic. Once you know what you are looking for, it is perfectly coherent and relatively easy to unpick.

Page 2: The good guys are are chased by flying acroyears.

Page 5: We meet Karza’s armoured councillor, Prince Shaitan.

Page 9: We meet an armoured knight, simply named Acroyear.

Page 14: As Acroyear starts to fight the death robot, Karza says to Shaitan “Your estranged brother, is he not?”

Page 15: We finally get a good look at the flying acroyears, who Shaitan describes as "my people".

Page 16, Acroyear delivers the line about the traitor prince. (It isn't clear if the message is going to be delivered or not, since Acroyear appears to have smashed the acroyear into little tiny pieces: a textbook example of shooting first and asking questions later.) 

None of this is particularly baffling or hard to follow: and the crib sheet sums it up admirably. Acroyear is the prince of the acroyears, his throne has been taken by Shaitan who has allowed Karza to use his people as shock troops.

But this summary falsifies the actual experience of reading the comic. The information doesn't come in exposition or flashback: it comes as six dots of information; one thread of a back-story; a sub-plot in a sub-plot, part of the rhubarb-rhubarb background noise while in the foreground luminous Time Traveller's explode gigantic killer robots in toy arenas.

The story of how Prince Space Knight regained the throne from Evil Turncoat Brother could easily have sustained a five act tragedy or a three volume epic. (And we haven't even got to the part about exile and migration and making friends with a talking planet.) But the specific power of Micronauts # 1 is that a whole Arthurian/Shakespearean space-saga takes place in parenthesis. Acroyear is simply the action figure to the left of the Space Glider action figure in the toy space ship; best mates with the Galactic Warrior action figure. And yet he drags behind him a whole separate mythology. Mantlo intends, I think, to do the same thing with Bug, but Planet of The Insect Theives never quite becomes interesting enough.

The Acroyears are not Jedi Knights. They might possibly be Mandalorians. John Favereu must have read Micronauts. He’s a Star Wars fan, he’s our age, and it was all there was. But the feud between Acroyear and Shaitan functions in a similar way to the feud between old Ben and Darth Vader in that first movie. It's the centre of its own plot, but on the margins of this one; the protrusion into this story of one that seems older and bigger and part of a different world. 

Micronauts # 1, like Star Wars, has a clear, linear narrative arc. People are captured and escape and recaptured and escape again. It begins with separate characters fleeing the bad guy; and ends with all the characters fleeing the bad guy together. But it is driven by social and chronological connections; which are revealed and created as the chase rushes on. The characters are introduced to us through their relationships; they form new relationships across the groups as the story develops and we gradually learn about the way they are related through their histories: 
Marie and Argon: siblings. 
Acroyear and Shaitan: siblings.
Acroyear and Bug: friends. 
Microtron: Marie's roboid.
Biotron: Rann's robot. 

Microtron and Biotron: Make friends because they are both robots. 
Rann and Acroyear and Bug: Make friends because they in prison together
Marie and Rann: Make friends because she's a lady and he's a man. 

Rann turns out to be Karza's pupil.
Rann turns out to be the child of Marie's gods. 
Shaitan turns out to have betrayed the Acroyears to Karza.
Time Traveller turns out to have a mysterious connection with Argon and Rann.

English teachers sometimes draw diagrams to explain Shakespeare's plots: who kills who and who falls in love with who and who is related to who. We feel we should be able to step back from Micronauts and see the whole pattern; but the pattern keeps shifting. It isn't that it feels real. It's that we feel it would feel real if we could only get under the surface and work out what was going on. But Mantlo won't let us. The story is too big.

What have I said? Have I said anything at all? Perhaps Micronauts reminds me of Star Wars because I read them at the same age. Perhaps Star Wars reminds me of Micronauts because they are both space operas and all space opera is pretty much the same? But then I read Doc Smith and liked Doc Smith and Doc Smith pretty much defined space opera and anyone who thinks that Doc Smith is anything like Star Wars hasn’t learned to read. Am I really just saying that George Lucas and Bill Mantlo both overwhelmed us by the sheer quantity of derivative fantasy ideas they lazily stuffed into one book?  But that gets us into the Campbell question: are some ideas powerful because they have been used before; or do ideas get reused because they are powerful? There was a point in my life when I would squee for any vaguely mythological scene involving wizards and swords and magic: Trebor refreshers, Thundercats, T.H White, Richard Wagner, it made no odds. Robots and horses generate a certain fizz; however little you like power-politics, it's hard not to love it when Frank Herbert gives you a vast galactic empire where they still use swords. We have seen that in Britain, at any rate, Micronauts shared space with Starlord and Thanos and the Sword in the Star. Swords-and-science wasn't invented in 1977: Michael Moorcock did it before George Lucas and Edgar Rice Borroughs did it before Moorcock. But we didn't talk about Space Fantasy before Star Wars. 

Could Mantlo keep it up? Yes, and no. The next few issues will be superhero comics, set on earth, with the Microverse itself reduced to marginal background information. But around issue 8 earth and the Microverse will come together with the arrival and immediate departure of an absurd, brilliant, irrelevant superhero. And then we will return to the Microverse; actually visit the Acroyear homeworld; and reach a conclusion which not only knocks the first issue into a micrococked hat, but (there are days of the week when I am tempted to say) out-Lucases Lucas and even out-Kirbys Kirby, 

[5] Stan Lee, famously, affected the voice of an avuncular huckster in his captions, addressing the readers as "gang" or "true believers" and treating the story as a thing he was making up. Mantlo's voice is more like Lee's hipper acolytes, writing captions which muse to themselves or address the reader.“A long time? Yes, a thousand years...” “Rebellion; it is not a very lovely word...” It seems to be the wrong voice: this is a story which needs to be declaimed in Star Wars crawl, or maybe the breathless wonder of a story-so-far radio introduction. But it is the voice of 1970s Marvel Comic; quiet; mature; serious. We are a long way from the days when peerless pilgrims proclaimed ever page a pulse pounding battle of the century. Micronauts is not camp; or at any rate, it is camp in a completely different way.

[6] Mantlo seems to have pinched the idea from the 1969 version of Guardians of the Galaxy, which has almost nothing to do with the movie version. Vance Astro was supposed to be travelling to Alpha Centauri in cold storage, but finds that faster-than-light humans have already colonised the place before he gets there. 

[7] Everyone knows that they are inhabitants of the Microverse; Rann calls himself a Micronaut; and Marie's robot is called Microtron. I suppose we have to regard "micro" as a word like "smurf" which means something untranslatable in the source-language. 

[8] In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Dekker refers to the replicants as "andys" which I have always taken rather personally. 

[9] Did anyone ever find out what Threepio meant by 'human/cyborg relations'?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Monday, March 27, 2023

Micronauts # 1


Two nobles are fleeing an insurgency.

They are captured and imprisoned by a black-armoured villain.

A space-traveller returns from a long voyage.

Instead of being welcomed as a hero, he is arrested and thrown into prison.

The space-traveller is menaced by other prisoners: but two inmates come to his aid.

The space traveller, the two friendly prisoners and one of the nobles are thrown into a gladiatorial arena.

They escape, and flee in the space-traveller's ship, pursued by the dark lord's minions.

That, in essence, is the plot of Micronauts #1. 

Comic books have been built on flimsier first issues.

I said that I had thought of calling this essay “What did Star Wars look like in 1978?” But it should really be called “How does Micronauts make me feel.” Or, more expansively: “How Micronauts made me feel in 1978; how it makes me feel now; how that feeling reminds me of how Star Wars made me feel in 1977 and what that tells us about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon and the extent to which Bill Mantlo, and, for that matter, George Lucas, had the faintest idea about what they were doing." 

Which is why I have gone with a briefer and more descriptive title.


"For the love of Dallan!" "Burn the elitist swine!" Telepathic horses. The Enigma Force. Body banks. A black armoured villain who can make his followers immortal and has ruled the universe for a thousand years. Everyone is running away from everyone else, shouting fragments of a backstory at each other. Each piece of action is interrupted by a different piece of action.  Every piece of exposition is cut short. The setting is taken for granted; alluded to; only partially explained. Genres clash. The nobles are riding horses and wearing Napoleonic uniforms; but they are chased by cyberpunk stormtroopers (“Dog Soldiers”) and flying robots (“Acroyears”). 

How does Micronauts #1 make me feel?

Exhilarated. Confused. Dizzy and cross and intoxicated at the same time.

Stan Lee reportedly found it baffling and asked Mantlo to add a crib sheet. This actually makes matters worse: it references characters who barely feature in the first issue and foreshadows events which won't come into the story for months. But the added confusion adds to the compelling fascination. T.S Eliot's explanatory notes notoriously failed to explain the Wasteland: but smart critics see that failure as part of the poem's impact. 

"Did you really just compare Bill Mantlo's Micronauts to T.S Eliot's Wasteland, Andrew?"

"Yes. Yes, I suppose I did."

"Might you argue that there is something post-modern about the way Micronauts and Star Wars appropriate images from widely different narrative sources and allow the juxtaposed cultural symbols to generate new levels of meaning?"

"Yes. I suppose that is the kind of thing I might well argue."


On page 2, one of the horse-riding royals — Princess Marie, she is called — exclaims "For the love of Dallan!”

On page 3 her brother exclaims "By Dallan!"

On page 5, discovering that her family have been murdered, Marie says "Sepsis have mercy!"

Again, on page 16: "For Sepsis sake!" and "Dallan and Sepsis!"

I don’t think we pay much attention to this kind of thing. Superman occasionally says by rao because he isn’t allowed to say damn. Judge Dredd says drokk and grud and the crew of the Red Dwarf say smeg. It’s part of the texture of the comic, a linguistic tick, like a Dalek saying rels instead of "hours" or a Smurf smurfing smurf when he smurfs to smurf. [1]

But on page 27, while everyone is running from the gladiatorial arena to a waiting escape starship, Commander Arcturus Rann — the returning space traveller — suddenly asks Princess Marie who Dallan and Sepsis were.

It falls to Time Traveller, a luminous science genie who Prince Argon summonsed up on page 5 and who hasn't done anything useful since to explain that Dallan and Sepsis were the first to defy Baron Karza (the dark lord) a thousand years ago, and that they have since been deified. 

"By all that's holy", exclaims Arcturus, who is also not allowed to say swears "They were my parents!"

Michael Moorcock’s Corum spends an entire trilogy wielding a magic item called the Hand of Kwll. [2] In the final chapter of the third volume, a one-handed god named Kwll shows up. I distinctly remember reading this chapter: I was in the waiting room on Oakleigh Park station, very probably on my way to Wood Green to exchange a book token for volumes four, five and six. My jaw dropped in a way that it hadn't since Cloud City and almost never since. It didn't particularly occur to me that Moorcock was making it up as he went along.

Neil Gaiman has rather based a career on showing readers' a funeral in issue ten and making them wait until issue twenty before letting them know who died; or alluding to a messy break up this year but not dramatising the actual love affair until the year after next. Dave Sim made us wait ten years to find out why Cerebus wasn’t allowed to look at the President’s ankle. It took George Lucas thirty-five years to attach any concrete concepts to words like Clone Wars and Kessel Run. [3] 

Some writers create whole worlds of facts and gradually uncover them in a kind of narrative striptease. Say what you like about J.K Rowling's prose style and her sexual politics, but you can't fault her card-index system. Other writers consciously throw out evocative words because they sound good without having any clear sense of what they mean. Two thirds of what we laughingly call the Cthulhu mythos started out as random collections of evocative syllables. And some writers doodle out lore-babble and think up reference points later on. “By the dread Dormammu!” was a cool thing for Doctor Strange to say. After few months Stan Lee decided it could also be the name of an actual bad-guy. Judge Dredd's universe eventually acquired a church of Grud for him to blaspheme against.

But there is something unusually breathless about the speed with which the set-ups and pay-offs pour off the pages of Micronauts #1. The casual decoding of lore is an architectural principle across a whole comic-book, as if decades of continuity were being retconned into twenty pages. It’s thrillingly frustrating and frustratingly thrilling.

My father fought in the Clone Wars. Gil Galad was an elven King. May Dallan preserve us. By all that's holy; they were my parents.


Fleeing from the flying robots and stormtroopers, our heroes find their way to some kind of refuge or safe house.

“Shelter” says Argon “I gave Oberon free rein, and he led us here straightway.”

“It was the telepath training he received in father’s stables, Argon” exposits Marie.

We are only on page 4. We haven’t really worked out who the goodies and the baddies are. But we spend a whole panel finding out the name of Argon’s horse.

And the fact that he is a telepathic horse.

Which is important because….


At the bottom of page 6, we meet Baron Karza, the Big Bad, for the first time. He’s the guy in the Darth Vader armour off the cover. He’s squished into a single, tall panel, his left arm cut off by the frame. Behind, partially obscured, is a figure in black and silver armour who calls him Your Eminence. [4]

We’ve had a chase; the goodies have been captured; and the bad-guy’s leader has walked on stage. That’s very much how first acts are supposed to work. But Karza's first appearance has no visual punch. It’s almost like artist Michael Golden is giving all the characters equal prominence, because he doesn’t know who is going to be important as the story develops. Howard Chaykin, who had to illustrate Star Wars without having seen the movie, had a similar problem. Lucas gives Vader one of the all-tine classic entrances: but in the comic book adaptation he is just suddenly there.

Karza, what we see of him, looks pretty impressive. Black armour; off-set by big red circles on his chest. Golden is following the design of the action figure: I think the red dots were actually connection points for accessories. The chrome shorts look odd: but better heroes and better villains have been undermined by their choice of underwear. 

But there is something wrong with his legs. They are thin. They bend the wrong way. And there are at least three of them. 

Realisation dawns. He has hooves instead of feet. He may be this comic's Darth Vader analogue; but he’s a Darth Vader analogue who is also a centaur.

And why not?

The next time he appears, on page 11, Karza is slouching on a throne; the other armoured figure (“Shaitan”) is next to him; and a green monk (“Shadow Priest”) sits in between them. 

But hang on. Doesn’t he now have…ordinary human legs?

So: let's get this straight. In this world, Darth Vader is sometimes a centaur.

And sometimes not a centaur.

Because… Because…

You could buy an accessory for the Karza action figure: a black horse called Andromeda. And you could buy a very similar white horse called Oberon who went with Force Commander. (Force Commander is what the toy was called: Prince Argon is Mantlo’s coinage.) You can take the legs off Karza and Force Commander and the heads off the two horses and recombine them into Centaurs. The figures, unlike the vehicles, were held together by magnets: I don't think you could put Karza's head on one of the robots even if you wanted to. 

So: are we assumed to be so conversant with the toys that "the bad guy is sometimes a horse" can be taken for granted? Is Mantlo foreshadowing? (Argon will be forcibly turned into a centaur in issue 5.) Or maybe he is deliberately trying to give the comic a dream-like quality?

But it’s still an odd decision. The villain is a centaur. The hero has a magic telepathic pony. We start with a chase scene. But the horsy villain leaves it to his Dog Solidiers and Acroyears to do the actual pursuit.

The Acroyears are shown in extreme long-shot. They are not much more than doodles; tiny birds with v-shaped heads and frisbees on their arms. The Dogs Soldiers and insurgents are inked in solid black (silhouettes) or heavily coloured in yellow and blue. In many panels they are so distant that they appear as tiny figures; we might even say, as toys. We do get a look at a Dog Soldier on page 3: he turns out to be a very unmemorable cyberpunk riot policeman; but we don't properly see the Acroyears until page 15. 

Michael Golden is a well respected artist; but he seems overwhelmed by the material. The comic feels blurred; schematic; it only gradually and partially comes into focus. When we get headshots of the main characters, they are exaggerated, caricatured, cartoon-like. Prince Argon on page 3 is a generic olden days character, somewhere between a toy soldier and a French Legionaire out of Carry On, Follow That Camel. Hardware and aliens come at us with joyful abandon, but we can't latch onto any of them. 

What does Micronauts #1 feel like? Like a kid who has been let loose in a toyshop, desperately trying to push all the buttons before closing time. 


[1] Karza says that it is twenty four xats since his insurrection. This refers either to his coming to power a thousand years ago, or his uprising on Homeworld the previous afternoon, so we can categorically say that one xat represents a period between one hour and four hundred and sixteen years.

[2] Corum presumably doesn't use Latin orthography, so it is hard to know what the lack of a vowel represents -- even if it was written Kw'll we'd still have to say "Kwill" or "Kwell". I think I pronounce apostrophes and blank spaces "uh". Or maybe Corum is Jewish and writes the divine name Kw--ll?

[3] For two movies and six years, Jabba the Hutt was just a name. Spoiling the big reveal in Return of the Jedi is not the worst sin of the special editions. 

[4] Which is an Ecclesiastical form of address. It’s what you call a Cardinal. The proper address for a Baron is “Your Lordship”.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Saturday, March 25, 2023

More Spider-Puzzles

 How old is Betty Brant? 

Does Aunt May allow Peter Parker to skip school in order to fight the lizard?

Two small pieces of Wastsonian problem solving on my Patreon page for anyone who finds that kind of thing entertaining.

Monday, March 06, 2023

The Problem of Susan (2)

Last week, or possibly the week before last, the Twittersphere became concerned about a scene in the 1964 Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth which is alluded to in Peter Capaldi's 2017 swan song, Twice Upon a Time. 

In the old, black and white story, the First Doctor becomes exasperated with his teenaged granddaughter Susan. She's recklessly climbed on a derelict wall, causing a bridge to collapse and cutting our heroes off from the TARDIS. He tells her that she's "far too curious" and "always rushing about" and when she protests that there's "no real harm done" and that she "didn't pull down the bridge on purpose" he stomps off, adding, preposterously, "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom." There is a general consensus that William Hartnell ad libbed the line, or at any rate suggested it during rehearsals. Nothing analogous appears in either the Peter Cushing movie or the Terrence Dicks novelisation.

If we are treating the Dalek Invasion of Earth as an old, 1960s television programme, the scene requires no explanation. Terry Nation was born in 1930, William Hartnell in 1908: naturally the script contains out-dated and old-fashioned attitudes. The Doctor is an elderly man, maybe 70 years old, with the attitudes of someone born towards the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Susan is a sixteen or seventeen year old girl who he has been bringing up since she was a child. He is making an inappropriate and embarrassing threat, but it's the kind of embarrassing threat that any old-fashioned father might have made in 1964. It may be that the Doctor -- who is definitely absent-minded and possibly senile -- has temporarily forgotten Susan's age and is talking to her as he might have done when she was eight. This is the man who forgets his companions' names and confuses drugs with gloves. More likely, he is genuinely cross, but at the same time, consciously making a joke against himself. He's not saying "I would seriously like to hit you"; it's more like "I am as cross with you as I would have been when you were a naughty toddler." It's pretty much the same joke that Jackie Tyler made when she told the adult Rose that she was not too big for a slap. At the end of the story, the Doctor starts to scold Susan as if she were a little girl; and it is entirely clear that he doesn't mean it at all. 

"You little monkey. You know, since you've been away from that school, you seem to have got yourself thoroughly disorganised, haven't you? Yes, you need taking in hand."

If this were a comic book; that would pretty much be the end of the conversation. If Sue Richards had threatened to spank Franklin in an 1960s Fantastic Four story (which I don't think she would have done) we would be happy to say that she was saying what any 1960s Mum might have said to a 1960s child. Insofar as the story was still canon, the floating time line would have overwritten the bad word, and we would "deem" that she had threatened to take away the lad's IPad or ground him on movie night.

But there is no floating time-line in Doctor Who. It's a revealed text. If the Doctor said it, the Doctor said it.  

People sometimes say "You can't judge the past by the standards of the present." To which I reply "In fact, you can only judge the past by the standards of the present, because you live in the present and standards are what you judge things by." (People also sometimes say "I saw it with my own eyes" which always makes me wonder who else's eyes they suppose I thought they might have seen it with.) But it is probably true to say that you shouldn't judge the popular culture of the past entirely by the standards of the popular culture of the present. 

By the standards of 2023, the Doctor's attitude to Susan is, at best, sexist and patronising, and at worst, border-line abusive. By the standards of 1964, it is an innocuous piece of father-daughter banter. We don't imagine that the Doctor actually beats Susan: but we have to assume that he thought that smacking was perfectly normal and the kind of thing it was okay to make lighthearted remarks about. And everyone agreed with him. Ian would be a very unusual chemistry teacher if he has never sent a pupil to the headmaster for corporal punishment. As late as 1972, Doctor Who was preceded on BBC 1 by a sit-com about a boy's boarding school entitled Whacko! 

But for us to maintain a Watsonian faith in Doctor Who as a revealed text we have to find a way to convince ourselves that this patronising, sexist, borderline abusive old man is the same person as the good looking young guy in the Fez who can't bear to see children crying and respects the lifestyle choices of transgender horses.

And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the same story the Doctor sees that Susan is in love with the rebel leader, David Cameron, and -- believing that she'll be happier marrying her boyfriend than spending eternity in a blue box with Grandpa -- locks her out and leaves. It is a scene I like very much. It's moving and in-character and a little bit funny and leads into one of the all time great lines in Who history.

"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."

He never did come back.

It would be fair to say that you wouldn't write a scene like that today. It's going a little over the top to talk in terms of forced marriage. I am not even quite sure I would describe it as "fridging" (the phenomenon when the death, or in this case departure, of a female character matters only in terms of how it makes the male character feel.) But it is another incredibly sexist and patronising scene. 

Four years later (in a story called Fury From The Deep) the Doctor's belief in personal freedom is said to be a core part of who he is. His incumbent companion Victoria is obviously completely unsuited to the adventurous life; but the Doctor gives her as much time as she needs to decide whether to stay on the TARDIS or to make a new life with some nice humans in a conflict-free period of Earth history. Victoria specifically says that the Doctor thinks it's important for people to make their own minds up; the Doctor himself later tells Jamie not to be sad because leaving was Victoria's own decision. How is this the same person who denied Susan agency -- kicking her out and double locking the TARDIS doors? Does regeneration change your core values to that extent? If so, does it mean anything to say that the First and the Second Doctors are the same person? And if they aren't, is there even a character called the Doctor to be having this conversation about?

And we can't really say that the Doctor is behaving like an elderly man from the 1960s because that's how elderly men from the 1960s behaved. Because the Doctor is not an elderly man; and Susan is not a teenager. We are told from the outset that they are aliens, or, possibly, human beings from Earth's very remote future. Maybe we are supposed to take it for granted that dotty old scientists from the 49th century had the same mannerisms and social attitudes as dotty old scientists from the 19th. But that's a pretty problematic assumption in itself. Cavemen and Crusaders and Aztecs all sound like white middle class English people from the 1950s because God is an Englishman and the Universe is English. 

In 1966 it was REVEALED that the Doctor could change his physical appearance, and in 1967 it was REVEALED that the Doctor was actually four hundred and fifty years old and in 1969 it was REVEALED that he was a member of a godlike species called the (checks notes) Time Lords and in 1974 it was REVEALED that his planet is called (checks notes again) Gallifrey and in 1979 it was REVEALED that Time Lords can swap bodies like clothes and in 2018 it was REVEALED that they can change gender during the regeneration process in in 2020 it was REVEALED...I don't think I want to talk about what was revealed in 2020. 

But all these things have always been true. It was a 450 year old gender-swapping Time Lord from Gallifrey who abandoned Susan on earth with her nice but dim human boyfriend. 

It has never been definitively REVEALED who Susan was. For years I adhered to a piece of fanfic by Jeremy Bentham which identified her as a human foundling adopted by the Doctor. This seemed to admirably save the appearances: it allowed Susan to be Susan but eliminated the need for a Mrs Who. I never took to Eric Saward's story (published in the Radio Times) which identified her with Lady Larn, a descendent of Rassilon and the opponent of a corrupt Time Lord regime, who happened to be hiding in the same TARDIS that the Doctor stole. The Cartmell Masterplan would have REVEALED that she was cloned from The Other. (If you don't know who The Other is you don't particularly need to.) But the Fan Consensus remains that she was simply a Time Lady, the Doctor's literal grand-daughter. Post-reboot, we are less squeamish about the idea of the Doctor having done sex than we used to be.

In 1964, it was just about possible to defend the end of Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan has directly said that she is in love with David; she has told him that she wants to belong in one place and have an identity of her own; and wants to help rebuild the Dalek ravaged earth. But she feels a responsibility to her grandfather. The Doctor isn't forcing his preferred outcome on her, but facilitating the choice she's already made. Back in Unearthly Child, she begged to be allowed to stay on 20th century earth, even if it meant leaving the TARDIS; which the Doctor dismissed as foolish sentimentality. If anything, he has become more respectful of her own choices. 

In 2023, that doesn't work: there is no way that the Doctor leaving Susan with David can be a valid decision. One immortal Time Lord is marooning another immortal Time Lord on a primitive planet, knowing full well that her mortal lover will expire like a mayfly. Terrence Dicks' novelisation of the Five Doctors showed us a glimpse of a relatively content Susan living on the reconstructed post-Dalek earth; but his original Eight Doctors novel showed David being relieved to die first because Susan has told him that she will live forever and he will get old. I** L*****'s objection to Jodie Whitaker depended on this point: the Doctor would not have left Susan with David knowing that she might someday regenerate into a boy; ergo, trans-gender regeneration is non-canonical, ergo, hashtag not my Doctor and I always liked Babylon 5 better in any case.

In the 2017 story Twice Upon a Time, the Twelfth Doctor's companion Bill uses the words "bloody" and "arse" in front of the third First Doctor (now played by David Bradley) and the third First Doctor responds using the same threat he made to Susan some half century ago. This closes off the possibility that the remark about smacking was an innocuous joke. And it makes it impossible to pretend that the Doctor never said it. The First Doctor apparently goes around making wildly inappropriate remarks to anyone and everyone. A Victorian grandpa would distinctly not have said the b-t-m word in front of a lady (particularly one he had just told off for using a stronger word for derrière). Are we supposed to think that the old boy has gone completely doolally and regards all human beings as naughty toddlers? Or is he perfectly well aware that he is making a sexual remark (which is how Bill takes it) in which case we have to reframe the First Doctor as a Benny Hill level dirty old man, with no filter at all.

I can think of one possible solution: it may be the one Moffat is nudging us towards. The Doctor is hyper-correcting. He hasn't been away from Gallifrey that long: he doesn't understand these funny human creatures very well, although he rather likes some of them. He's an alien trying to fit in, and he sometimes says inappropriate things because he doesn't fully understand the culture he has appropriated. Susan herself does a very good job of pretending to be a 1960s student, although her slang is a bit self-conscious. ("Aren't they fabulous?") But if Susan thinks that England went over to decimal currency in 1962, then the Doctor might well misunderstand the nuances of what Captain Kirk once called "this human custom called spanking". He's in a similar boat to that alien who wanted a very common human first name and inadvertently adopted the name of a very common car as his alias. 

And this is probably the only Watsonian way of reading Doctor Who. Every jelly baby, every crumpet, every game of cricket -- every moral principle -- is a bit of play-acting, an ineffable being doing the kinds of things he thinks humans do, not always very well. The Doctor plays with yo-yos, not because he is an overgrown schoolboy who thinks playing with yo-yos is fun but because that's what he thinks is expected of humans. It's a kind of reverse cargo cult: he once saw a human being doing this strange thing called cricket and has decided that doing cricket will make him seem human. The more cricket he does, the more human he will seem. Which saves the appearances and allows us to believe that there is some continuity of identity between Jon Pertwee and Jodie Whitaker. But it rather spoils Doctor Who.

It's a fact that there are old Doctor Who stories in which Asian characters are played by white actors with silly yellow make up. The pure Watsonian has to argue that Doctor Who takes place in an alternate reality where that is what Chinese people really look like. Or perhaps that Greel hired a white henchmen and asked him to pretend to be Chinese, providing him with only a pile of Penny Dreadfuls as research material. But in that case why why didn't Litefoot or someone say "Hang on you bally blighter I've been to the Far East and the native johnnies don't look a bit like you?" So maybe they are on an alien planet where the telepathic natives have somehow morphed into simulacra of Victorian stereotypes? Captain Kirk was always finding himself on planets where everyone thought they were in a James Cagney gangster movie, or a Kirk Douglas Roman epic or a John Wayne cowboy movie. 

Maybe it is simpler to just expunge this material from the Canon. Cancel culture, I think they call it. Today we tell New Fans to skip Talons of Weng Chiang because it is Racist; tomorrow we will tell them to fast forward through William Hartnell's cheeky ad lib because it is Sexist; next week we will tell them that the entirety of Old Who is not worth bothering with. That's one way through the thicket. The stories we like are Revealed. The ones we don't are just stories. It's common enough for liberal clergymen to say that the bits of the Bible which agree with their politics are the literal true facts about the Historical Jesus, but that the parts of the Bible they don't agree with were daubed in after the event by some evil Roman emperor or American evangelist.

This is where Watsonianism leads us. We want to believe that Holmes and Watson are real, so we pretend that the Holmes stories were really written by Dr Watson. But to iron out the inconsistencies, we have to say that this paragraph isn't true (because Watson misunderstood what was going on) and that paragraph isn't true (because Watson lied to make Holmes look good) and that whole story isn't true (because Watson was being discrete) and that other whole story isn't true (because it was inserted into the canon by Moriarty to test our faith.) We end up saying that none of it is true: Watson created a fictional character called Sherlock Holmes as a cover for his own amateur sleuthing. Or maybe Watson was mad and made up stories about an impossibly clever imaginary friend. 

Treating fiction as if it was true ends up making it less true. Next time you are at a fashionable wine and cheese party and someone asks you what is meant by Deconstruction, you can have that. 

So. Susan Foreman is a Time Lady. Of course she is. She used to wear funny raised collars and cardinal's skullcaps and participate in arcane ceremonies in the Panopticon. She backed her Grandpa up when he moaned to the Council about minoscopes. She knew multiple Doctors before he regenerated into the one we erroneous call the First: she watched that dashing young chap with the beret and the moustache renew himself into the crotchety old man. Perhaps when they first left Gallifrey she was still a boy. Perhaps she went into the TARDIS wardrobe and tried on new bodies, settling on a cool earth teenager. When no humans are around, she and the Doctor compare notes about how well their deception is playing out. 

Your mileage may vary. Doctor Who survives as a text; but Dalek Invasion Earth is sucked dry and we are left with a narrative husk.

There is no solution to the problem of Susan. There is a fundamental hole in Doctor Who, and there always was. Doctor Who is an Englishman who likes cricket and tea-cakes and an alien Time Lord, and he blatantly can't be both. Doctor Who is a set of stories made up by writers reflecting the attitudes of their times, and it is a single text about a singular character called the Doctor, and it blatantly can't be both. Like Christian theology, it makes most sense when it is allowed to be most nonsensical. The central conceit is a box which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Which is a nonsensical combination of words that doesn't really mean anything at all.

When Russel T Davies revived the series in 2005, he eschewed reboots. The Doctor who saved Rose from the Autons was the same Doctor who was rude to Ian in I.M Foreman's junkyard and the same Doctor who Grace kissed in Los Angeles on New Years Day, 2000. But he hung a huge lampshade on the problem. 

Dalek Invasion of Earth is a fun dark slow moving dated classic black and white story. I laughed at the silly old Doctor's silly old remarks in the spirit in which they were intended. I wiped away a tear at the noble old Doctor's awkward kind well meaning cruel farewell to his semi-grand-daughter in the spirit they were intended. 

If you're a Time Lord, how can you also be a crotchety old man with sexist attitudes? 

Lots of planets have a north.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, March 03, 2023

The Problem Of Susan

In 1963, the other kids at Midtown High took the mickey out of Peter Parker because he didn't know the difference between a fashionable cha-cha and an old-fashioned waltz.

In 1969, his friend, Flash Thompson was off fighting in Viet Nam.

In 2001, he sits with Captain America and looks at the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Peter Parker can't have been younger than 16 in in 1963. He could have been as old as 22 in 1969 (he didn't graduate college until 1978) but he clearly wasn't 56 in 2001. And he definitely isn't 80 right now. He's usually represented as in his early 20s, which means he wasn't even born at the time of the September 11th attacks. Even if he was 15 in 2001 he'd now be well in sight of his 40th birthday.

Dragons last for ever, but not so little boys. In the 1970s, when Roy Thomas was Stan Lee's representative on earth, they used to talk about something called Marvel Time. Spider-Man was 20, and always had been. He had become a superhero when he was 15, and always had done. So the Origin of Spider-Man was always 5 years ago. The story about the spider, the burglar, and the uncle was first told in 1962: but in 1980, you had to imagine it having happened in 1975. "Wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz" gets overwritten as "Wouldn't a waltz". I suppose from the 2023 perspective they said "Doesn't know Kanya West from the cha-cha."

The stories in which Flash Thompson is drafted to Viet Nam still kind of happened, but he was actually fighting in Iran. Did I say Iran? I meant Afghanistan. In fact, I meant "an unspecified US war." (I don't know what they did with his very specifically and not at all stereotypically Vietnamese girlfriend.) Roy Thomas actually inserted new text into reprint editions warning us that when Mr Fantastic talks about helping the French resistance in World War II, he was actually talking about helping the French resistance in Korea.

This has the great advantage of broadly reflecting how everyone has always read stories, particularly comic strips. Charlie Brown is every kid's contemporary; but he was also their Dad's and very probably their Grandpa's contemporary. Lucy pulled the football away from him at the beginning of forty consecutive football seasons. Charlie may have aged slightly since 1948, but he sure wasn't 60 in 2001: but equally, the ball gag never happens for the first time. Batman has foiled the Joker before; Batman has foiled the Joker many times before, but Batman has not foiled the Joker on a thousand previous occasions.

William Brown (usually known as just William) pointedly remained eleven years old for half a century, doing his bit against Hitler in the 30s, playing at moon rockets in the 50s and trying to become a pop star in the 60s. His mother mutates from a 1920s village lady with a small staff to a 1960s house wife with a washing machine. This fits in with the ethos of the stories: when you are 11, summer holidays really do seem to last for half a century. That sense of time having stopped may have suggested the idea of William the Antichrist to Pratchett and Gaiman, although that idea became rather submerged in the over-egged Good Omens pudding. One of the reasons Bill Waterson terminated Calvin and Hobbes seems to have been that he found the idea of Calvin remaining permanently six years old and the idea of Calvin growing up equally unpalatable.

Jake Dudley's justly forgotten Daily Mirror comic strip The Larks did show characters aging more or less in real time during its thirty year run. 80s yuppie Alex is now late middle-aged with a grown up son.

The floating time line and the eternally extended adolescence works well for characters like Calvin and Orphan Annie: for a more realistic figure like Peter Parker it doesn't make sense. A kid who was born to Jewish immigrants in 1945, grew up in the fifties and hit college when the sixties were in full swing can't possibly be the same character who was born to an American couple in 2003 and grew up with the internet.

The best solution to the problem is to just ignore it. They are only comic book characters, after all. If you want to pretend that the Spider-Man who visited that cancer patient in 1984 is the same guy who is working for Norman Osborn in 2023 you are quite free to do so. If you come across an old comic book in which the Beatles are a bit new-fangled and Peter Sellers is still making movies, you are welcome to ignore it. The same applies to cars, hemlines, haircuts and, in particular, black people.

"They are only comic book characters, after all." It all comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. (*) Everything always comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. How many of the great questions in literary criticism, art theory, philosophy, Biblical scholarship and nuclear physics could be solved if everyone would just figure out what side of the line they stand on?

The question becomes more and more pressing as time passes. The popular culture of the past used to be inaccessible. Peanuts didn't exist beyond the back pages of the Daily Express. Once you'd read it, you put it in the dustbin, or on the end of a piece of string in the outside privy. Yes, there were paperback reprints with panels printed horizontally down the page, but they were this year's paperback reprints, unless you frequented second hand shops and jumble sales. Stan Lee used to pretend that everyone kept their Marvel Comics in a neat pile and could refer back to them; but very few of us had complete runs and there was no reliable source of back issues. Popular culture existed in the present; and in our collective memories.

Star Trek, admittedly, existed on an endless cycle of reruns. But most Doctor Who fans had never seen most of Doctor Who. Soon after I encountered the One With The Old Yellow Car and The One With The Long Scarf I became aware of the existence of the Crotchety Old One and the One Who Looked Like A Hobo. (I didn't know what a hobo was: we don't use that word in this country.) But I had never actually seen any of the characters. This was a big part of the mystique. Tomb of the Masterplan and the Daleks Toymaker weren't just stories you hadn't seen, they were stories you could never possibly see. When the BBC showed a very weak black and white Second Doctor story called the Krotons as part of a retrospective, an unimaginably old fan of twenty something said in a fanzine that it was strange to think that younger viewers were seeing, for the first time, Doctors and companions that they had only read about. It was stranger to me that there still existed in this present world people who had seen them; who preserved the memory of a time when Patrick Troughton was just someone wot came on the telly on a Saturday night.

But the wheels spun round and along came Betamax and VHS and DVD and Netfux and Britbox. Fans got older and didn't grow out of being fans. Branches of Forbidden Planet popped up in ordinary shopping malls and big huge books called The Complete Judge Dredd and the Complete Peanuts and The Complete Golden Age of Superman appeared on the shelves. In the 2016 Marvel movie Civil War, a 15 year old Peter Parker describes the Empire Strikes Back as "a really old movie". But that's not how it works. Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Groucho Marx's Night at the Opera are very old movies. The Star Wars trilogy are just movies.

I wonder if this is why fandom became toxic? It lost its original purpose as the repository of a tradition, and become focussed on dissecting presently available texts. Its function was nostalgia, and nostalgia is, really and truly, not as good as it used to be.

That is part of the fear and the promise of CGI and deepfake. If we can summons a young Mark Hamill and a young Harrison Ford from Lucasfilms vaults, there is no reason not to carry on making New Star Wars films, with simulacra of the original cast, even though the original cast are old or dead or bored. Never mind guest appearances by Luke Skywalker in the Disney+ TV shows: the time is not remote when Young Luke, Young Han, and Still Alive Princess Leia might change out of their medal ceremony uniforms, hop into the Millennium Falcon and embark on magical adventures more wonderful than any George Lucas told us about. Which is not, truthfully, that much different from endless Star Wars comics and endless Star Wars cartoons filling the interstices between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Big Finish have been creating pastiche First Doctor stories with sound-a-like actors for decades: there is no reason why William Hartnell and Carol Anne Ford might not soon be starring in brand new 1960s black and white stories filmed in colour.

Old people have always thought that the popular culture of their youth will go on and on forever. Our generation is the generation for which that might turn out to be true. The summer of 1977 is a story which will go on and on forever, and every chapter will be exactly the same as the last.

As everyone knows, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Superman of the 1940s and 1950s was shunted off into an alternate reality called Earth-2, which was then abolished, reconstituted, merged with Earth-1, abolished again, reconstituted again, and finally rediscovered in the Lost Property office at Paddington Station. Marvel Comics asks us to believe that the gung-ho biff-the-bosh Captain America stories of the 1940s were in-universe propaganda strips, not accounts of what "really" happened to the "real" Capt & Bucky. (The gung smash the commies Captain America stories of the 1950s stories really happened, but not to the real Captain America. It's complicated.) 

Doctor Who fans have never played these metatextual games. You can't rewrite history: not one single line. What happened, happened.

We aren't bonkers. We don't think Doctor Who is true. A lot of us are very interested in the ins and outs of how it got made, which script editor rowed with which producer over which story and what Michael Grade said to Mary Whitehouse and precisely which brand of sticky-back plastic the Emperor Dalek was constructed from. But that's not how we watch it. Yes, we know that in 1965 William Hartnell was too poorly and too annoying to carry on starring in a TV show, and Sydney Newman and Kit Pedlar between them came up with a silly plot device that meant that -- instead of just recasting the actor -- the Doctor could turn into a completely different character, who was still exactly the same character, which made no sense, but was true, because they said so. But we also say that in 1965 it was revealed that the Doctor could change his physical form, and always had been able to. Once it was revealed; it became true retrospectively.

Things are always being Revealed in Doctor Who. The Doctor is REVEALED to be a Time Lord in a 1969 story; but the name of the Time Lord's planet is not REVEALED until 1973. The Daleks are introduced in the 1960s, but their true origin and the name of their creator is not REVEALED until 1974.

It's an interesting word. Christians and especially Muslims think of Scripture as not having been composed by human writers, but Revealed to prophets and holy men by God. The last book of the Christian Bible is called the Apocalypse, which literally means thing-which-has-been-revealed:  Revelation. The opposite of Apocalypse is "Aprocrypha" which means "thing which has been concealed." Over the years, "Apocryphal" has come to be synonymous with "non-canonical".


(*) The original Sherlock Holmes stories are presented as memoirs of Holmes' boyfriend Dr Watson. Some Sherlock Holmes fans play a game of pretending that the stories really are Watson's accounts of the adventures of a person he knew. As long as you are playing the game, inconsistencies can be explained as errors or misrepresentations by Watson -- who is conveniently, not very bright -- but not as plot devices or errors on the part of a writer of fiction. When Tolkien made it a plot-point that Bilbo had lied about his encounter with Gollum or when serious scholars invent previous husbands or miscarriages for Lady Macbeth, they are more-or-less playing a Watsonian game. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.