Friday, April 26, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet -- Afterthought

I've never seen Aida, but I've known the music since I was a small boy: and how good it is. It's rather the fashion over here now amongst the musical snobs to look down their noses when Verdi is mentioned and talk about the "cheapness of his thematic material."  What they really mean is that Verdi could write tunes and they can't!

C.S Lewis

I watched the Pirate Planet, from beginning to end, twice, with a great big grin on my face. I watched the Church on Ruby Lane with a sinking feeling; it did what (I assume) it set out to do: but what it set out to do is of no interest to me.

And as surely as Basil Brush follows Grandstand, someone is already typing that this is the voice of Nostalgia talking; that fans have always said that Doctor Who isn't as good as it used to be; and that what I mistake for "good writing" is simply the air that kills blowing at me from some blue remembered madeleines.

It would even be possible to blame it on political reaction. I say that things from the 1970s are better than things from the 2020s because I secretly yearn for Mrs Thatcher, Clause 29, and the National Front. Or, more plausibly, if you know me, for the Winter of Discontent, Tony Benn, and British Leyland.

When a Western opera aficionado hears Chinese classical music for the first time, she may not understand what is going on. And if she's a certain kind of person, she may say that it's a cacophonous racket because Asia hasn't worked out how to write proper tunes yet. Nothing against Johnny Chinaman of course. He thought up fireworks and printing. But we thought up melody and cutlery.

A very stupid man once said that Roman letters were proper writing and Arabic letters were merely scribble (and therefore government bodies ought not to provide translations).  A very clever one once said that English church bells were intrinsically more beautiful than the Muslim call to prayer and this proved that white people's non-existent imaginary friend was better than brown people's non-existent imaginary friend. I assume that everyone reading this would agree that these were examples of what a very wise man once described as "a simple case of dislike for the unlike".

But styles and fashions do change. In his lifetime, William Ainsworth was more popular than Dickens. Young people nowadays find even Dickens a little hard to take.

I recently decided I ought to have a glance at Isaac Asimov, having muchly enjoyed Apple TV's 22 part dramatisation of the first three pages of the Foundation Trilogy. I had it my head that I was letting myself in for a kind of nerdy pulp; Robert E Howard but with equations rather than boobies. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself thinking "Gosh: this is actually rather decently done." Asimov is no prose-stylist, and there are no characters to speak of, but the long short stories ask questions and provide answers, offer setups and present pay-offs, and cleverly imply an interesting future-history with a minimum of exposition.

So. Should we say "nowadays writers don't know how to tell stories"?

Or indeed "these darn millennials don't know how to listen to stories"?

Or, even "the Deep State has BANNED proper stories"? 

Or would it be better to say: "Ho, and indeed, hum. The style of storytelling which was in vogue forty five years ago is out of vogue now. By 2069 the fashion will probably have shifted the other way"?

"But Andrew -- set up and pay off, foreshadowing and consistency, tension and jeopardy -- this isn't some fashionable narrative vogue, limited to a particular time and place like inter-titles, grease paint and masks. That is in fact what 'story' means: if you are correct that Douglas Adams can do it [or chooses to] and Russell T Davies can't [or chooses not to] then Douglas Adams is, in fact, the better storyteller."

No: I'm sorry; I can't be having that.

It would be on the exact level of the people in 1964 (and there were many) who said that since She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) didn't follow the expected canons of song-writing at the time, what the Beatles were writing was not music. And that it followed that they were a threat to civilisation, corrupting the youth of Athens. And, presumably, woke. 

And She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) was, as a matter of fact, radically different to everything which had come before it. And if you define "what came before" as "music" then She Loves You is, indeed "not music". And the fact that the song doesn't sound particularly strange to contemporary ears proves just how talented and influential the Beatles were. Not that that particularly needs to be proved.

"But Andrew: what you mean by 'story' is roughly what Aristotle meant by 'story'. If some people really prefer The Church on Ruby Lane to The Pirate Planet then that's a very temporary and silly blip in the grand scheme of history. "

I am reluctant to go very far down that path. Yes, some very great people with very strange middle names [Note 1] have talked about The Great Tradition and Great Western Man. But statements like "Aristotle had it right and any deviation from the Poetics is a temporary western decadence" are now the province of far-right thinkers with Greek statues in their avatars. Go very far down that path and you'll find yourself wearing a "Make English Literature Great Again"  cricket cap. 

It isn't true that How Much Is That Doggie In The Window is proper music and Hound Dog is just noise. But it is true that performers have occasionally created shows in which they hit instruments, scream, and generate feedback. Perhaps those performances could be described as "just noise".  In which case we would have to say "Ho, and indeed, hum: some people apparently find people standing on a stage making noise sufficiently interesting that they will pay money to listen to it." Artists have occasionally thrown paint randomly at canvasses and displayed the resultant mess in an art gallery. You can define art in such a way that random craft-less work is Not Art. But it can clearly be interesting, or interesting to some people. It can be quite bracing to go a gallery in the expectation of seeing a room full of pretty water-colours of flowers, and find that what you are actually looking at is a man with a blue face screaming at you. I believe that there is an exhibition in London right now where you have to squeeze between two naked people to get into the gallery. 

The Avant Garde is a thing. But if generating feedback and taking your clothes off completely replaced learning the chord shapes and mastering perspective, I might say that the world had gone a bit peculiar.

Should a person of my age be trying to understand this newfangled modern story-thing? 

And equally should a younger person be trying to get their head round older television? 

Should we cling to the idea that Jack Kirby was quite good at drawing comics and wave him under the noses on the faces of the young people; or should we just accept that our taste for the Galactus Trilogy and the New Gods saga is a preference for the disposable populist entertainment of one era over the disposable populist entertainment of another era? 

And if we can say that about Kirby (or Douglas Adams, or the Beatles) why can we not say it about Shakespeare or Milton or Jane Austen or any other sacred literary cow? 

A few weeks ago I sang (to use the term very loosely indeed) "Bold Sir John..." [Note 2] at a Bristol folk sing-a-round I attend,  and was surprised that most of the younger contingent had never heard of the Two Ronnies. But honestly, why should they have done?

Virtually the whole of Old Who recently became available on I-Player, meaning a lot of Very Young People are seeing it for the first time. I have been uncomfortable with the way in which even some Old Fans have taken for granted that the pacing of the older stories is an objective flaw: that the first black and white Dalek story would be materially improved if the chasm-jumping sequence were removed.

I entirely agree that the sequence takes a long time to get where it is going. I also agree that the dialogue in Intolerance is inaudible and that Twelve Angry Men does not contain any memorable show-tunes. But you can't cut the scene without cutting the characters of Antadus and Ganatus (and therefore Barbara's relationship with Ganatus). The fact that the Thals have names and up to a point personalities is a big part of the ambience of the story. It's what makes them different from the Daleks.

There is now a colorized, shortened version of the story. Some people think it is an improvement. To me, it feels like a montage;  a series of fragments of a longer whole strung together without transitions. The silly incidental music adds to the sense that we are watching a trailer or a highlights reel. The actual colorization is by no means unconvincing.

Messing with the past? Rewriting history? Cancel culture and Nineteen Eighty-Four? I could see the point of remounting Terry Nation's original script, with modern special effects and a contemporary cast. I could see the point of a modern writer creating a completely new script based on Nation's story line. But the 1963 Dead Planet is the 1963 Dead Planet and it should be allowed to stand, or fall, as such. 

And no: this is not all the same argument as the one about bleeping the N-word from Celestial Toyroom.

"But Andrew: aren't you in effect immunising all old television from criticism? 'This is old' is not a response to 'this is boring' any more than it is a response to 'this is racist'. Isn't it entirely possible that some Olden Days television was slow and brilliant; and some Olden Days television was slow and terrible? And can't we have a critical discussion about which sides of the line cherished chunks of Who-lore fall on?"

Yes: yes we can. There are classic silent movies and dreadful silent movies and an awful lot of mediocre silent movies. But I suspect that the only way of telling one from the other is learning the language, figuring out how they work -- which is to say: by watching a lot of silent movies. And of course, the passage of time and the volatility of celluloid has destroyed many of the sibylline books, meaning that even the worst of the silent era is of some interest and value. But "This is silent" is not a critical judgement. 

We don't object to English versions of the Aeneid or the Divine Comedy. It is possible to imagine a prose retelling of Paradise Lost. Shakespeare-in-modern-English is of use to some students, however silly it sounds to those of us who know the plays well. "Is it more noble to suffer through all the terrible things fate throws at you, or to fight off your troubles, and in doing so, end them completely?" It is an old joke that the definition of poetry is "that which is lost in translation".

The person who can read poetry in three languages is better off than the person who can only read it in one. I don't know if the English person with a superficial knowledge of German, Latin and Norwegian is better off than the native English speaker who has lived in China for a decade and knows all the nuances and colloquialisms. Differently off, I suppose. If you just don't grok silent cinema and can't be bothered to get the hang of it, there are quite a number of excellent talkies for you to enjoy.

My quarrel is with the person who doubts that silent movies can contain any artistry at all: who thinks that colourising the Marx Brothers and dubbing Metropolis necessarily makes them "better". 

And that person may not even exist. 

Lewis said that no-one should attempt to write English criticism until they have a fluency in Anglo-Saxon. Probably someone who refused to watch anything in black and white or with subtitles wouldn't be a great guide to the history of cinema. You may recall me sneering audibly at people who thought that prior to Frank Miller all American superhero comics were precisely like the Adam West TV Batman. 

Some of us do conceptualise Doctor Who as a Great Tradition. We came into fandom at the time when documenting and summarising the great old stories was the main activity, and it is hard for us to believe that anyone could call themselves a Doctor Who fan and not treat The Tomb of the Cybermen with deep respect and even reverence. 

But that's just another form of gatekeeping. If you haven't sat through Rosenkavalier at Le Scala, you simply have no right to enjoy a CD of arias and waltz music. 

Say you like football? Then name them all.

The Pirate Planet is joyous; funny and clever and well crafted. Perhaps the stories from 2018 onwards had a different kind of joy and a different kind of craft, a craft that I can't perceive, in the same way that (I fully believe) jazz obeys musical principles that I don't understand. Or perhaps my liking for craftspersonship is itself old fashioned. Perhaps, as Prof Richard Dawkins says about absolutely everything, it's exactly like the Emperor's New Clothes.

"This young's folks music has no tune". 

"Oh, get with the hip random vibe grandad. It's not meant to."

Or, if you like, deploy the nuclear option.

"It's all just a matter of taste. When you say that Douglas Adams is a good writer, you are just making meaningless noises. The only definitely true thing is that you happen to like him." 

What was it Hamlet said? "Nothing is inherently good or bad: it's what you think about it that makes it so."

NOTE 1: Staples, Stearns

NOTE 2: The twit, the twit, the twit, the twit/the twittering of the birds all day/ The bum, the bum, the bum, the bum/ The bumblebees at play. 

Serious face.

I currently have 62 Patreon followers, paying me very roughly £80 dollars per article.

Every single follow is a huge vote of confidence and massively appreciated; as, indeed, is every comment and every reader. (I am reminded of aline by favourite singer/songwriter: “It still blows my mind each time they let me play to anyone.”)

However, it remains true that I lost about five followers during March, on top of the ones I have lost since the beginning of the year, and any further drop in followers would be A Little Alarming.

I reduced the amount of hours I work on my day-job in 2022 specifically to spend more time writing; and Patreon remains my primary income stream.

I am only semi-serious when I say that I think my political writing drives people away. Certainly people have walked away (and in some cases stopped talking to me altogether) because of my shockingly right wing / shockingly left wing views. But I am sure it’s mostly because Times Are Hard and setting up monthly payments is a certain amount of hassle.

I also have to consider that I have over the last twenty years said absolutely everything I have to say on absolutely every subject, and that it is time to start looking for another hobby. I turn out to be quite good at singing sea shanties, for certain values of "singing". And obviously the Trolls said a long time ago that I had simply lost my marbles.

It’s definitely the case that if I find my Patreon followers go UP this month when I start writing about Doctor Who again, I am more likely to write about Doctor Who (or start some other Great Big Geek project). I set up a little Readers Poll for Patreon Supporters, which seems to show that the engaged followers are basically fine with me going off on one about Woke from time to time.

Coming this month:

I am writing my way around the 1978 Doctor Who story Stones of Blood, including a wild digression about Ley-lines, stone-circles and evangelicalism. I am hoping to do another Video Diary before too long. 

If this is even slightly interesting, do please consider clicking on the little button and pushing my follower back up to a healthy 70 or so. 


Russ L said...

We may be missing and endnote or two.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Whoops, fixed. And well worth waiting for, I'm sure.

Gavin Burrows said...

I wonder if this has come out a bit more strongly worded than you intended. Yes, you can say that to some the past is a foreign country. And it thereby follows that for others its the present that’s foreign, and you can guess who I am thinking is in each group there. But people do actually go abroad from time to time without their brains exploding at the incomprehensibility of it all. (Except Reform party members, of course.)

If I can’t get my head around listening to Grime, that’s not all that surprising. I’d suspect it was never really intended for me. But a Saturday night TV show like Dr. Who? Less the case.

What may be missing from this is that styles of writing don’t change because of abstract forces called Styles and Fashions, but by viewing habits changing. Our habits were… well, habitual. We watched our favourite show every Saturday night, and there was always another episode to come, so it didn’t seem to matter much if it went the slow way about things. Mostly, what we wanted was it to be there. (Inevitably, even when I re-watch them, I don’t watch them like that.)

Davies is writing in an era of Event TV. Now, when you switch on the box rather than catch up on catch-up sometime, there has to be a reason to do so. There has to be an Event which happened, that you want to be there for. His precedent isn’t so much the first ever episode of Dr. Who, it’s more the Kennedy assassination. And so an episode like ‘The Giggle’ is really just a series of Events strung together. This thing happened, then that thing, then another thing, and you saw it all.

Tho’ the episode before that was a perfect example of set-up and pay-off that made actual narrative sense, so perhaps he’s more in the interchange of the two.

PS It was actually Clause 28, but you are probably suggesting it was Clause 29 in the parallel Earth from ‘Inferno’. Now I get a no-prize, right?

Andrew Ducker said...

I watched The Church on Ruby Road, and although I kinda enjoyed it, it really didn't feel like "Science Fiction". Wild Blue Yonder did. The Giggle did. The Star Beast did. Knowing, silly, over-the-top, kids science fiction, sure. But science-fiction nevertheless.

The Church on Ruby Road felt like it just wasn't interested in any of that stuff. Which is what I generally expect from the Christmas episodes, which have tended to be the flimsiest of them all. Interested in the characters, sure. But not in the world it was building feeling anything other than paper-thin. The goblins felt very much like a "Well, we have to get the characters together, so we'll throw in some action sequences" and then "Well, we need an ending, so we'll staple one on".

I at least somewhat enjoyed the three Tennant episodes, and thought that Gatwa was good, so I'm happy enough to give the new season a go.