Monday, May 13, 2024

Culture Club

What do you mean "we" kemo sabe

Can you like Christian art without being a Christian?

It depends what you mean by "Christian Art".

You might like stories. You might think that the Christian stories are good stories even though they aren't true. You might think that Christian art is good art because of the way it tells those stories.

On the other hand, you might believe in art for arts sake. You might admire the formal beauty and technical skill in a painting, and not really care whether it depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus or a bowl of bananas.

So the question is "Can you enjoy the Christianity in Christian art without being a Christian?" Or, put another way, "Did you enjoy that painting of the Crucifixion because of the subject matter or in spite of it?"

I think that a Merchant of Venice is quite a good play and Siegfried is a very good opera. There is no doubt whatsoever that Shylock and Mime are appalling caricatures of Jewish people. [Note 1] But I don't think that liking them makes me a Cultural Anti-Semite. I like Talons of Weng-Chiang, but I am definitely not a Cultural Racist. [Note 2]

Some people think it is okay to like works which contain bad ideas. Others not so much. They say that if you like the work you are colluding with the ideas in it. Or else they say that the bad idea poisons whatever good qualities the work might have had. Or that any painting of a bad thing is a bad painting by definition.

Can you like Christian ethics and not be a Christian?

It depends what you mean by Christian ethics.

Do you mean specifically Christian ethics -- things which Christians approve of but which the rest of the world doesn't?

Or do you just mean ethics, the things which pretty much everyone in the human race would sign up to? Love and kindness and sunshine and fluffy animals?

Is there even such a thing as a specifically Christian virtue? I suppose you could say "forgiveness". Someone like, say, Lord Longford, who visited prisoners and made friends with even the very worst serial killers because he thought God loves everybody was practicing a very specifically Christian form of goodness. Not everyone thought it was admirable.  A lot of people thought that if he visited murderers in prison he must be in favour of murder. 

I don't think only Christians can forgive. I don't think only hippies can be peaceful and only punks can be anarchists and only Romans think that suicide can be honourable. But I'd get what you were saying if you said that someone had "hippy morals" or "punk politics". If I said that Richard Moore -- the Irish guy who reached out to the British soldier who blinded him with a rubber bullet -- was following "Christian principles" you'd know what I meant. (I have no idea if Moore is a Christian.)

Last Easter, the caretaker Prime Minister -- a practicing Hindu -- said that Jesus embodied "compassion, charity and selflessness" and that these values "are at the heart of British values" and that they inspire us to "build a society based on respect, tolerance and dignity for all."

Jesus was definitely compassionate and one definition of "charity" is "love in the Christian sense" -- "love for the unlovable".  Another definition of charity is "giving money to good causes" and not everyone in Sunak's party is in favour of that, particularly if the good cause involves, say, life-boats. In the past, Sunak's party has been less about selflessness and more about how greed is good. And some of his supporters might say that compassion was weak, soft, and indeed woke.

I personally don't have any objection to tolerance and dignity. Respect I'm a bit vaguer on: it depends on who you are respecting. But I don't think that they are particularly British values. I don't think that if you asked a French person or a Chinese person what they thought of when they thought of English people they would say "Well, they are very tolerant of gypsies and drag-queens and they are especially concerned about the dignity of refugees and homeless people, even smelly ones." They would be more likely to say that the English are particularly keen on good manners, apologising, queueing, and not cheating at cricket.

It could be that we British wait our turn and don't argue with umpires because King Charles is head of state and also head of the Church and because in the olden days most people went to Church on Sundays. I don't know if that's actually true, but it sounds like the sort of thing that might be.

Can you be a Christian and not believe in Christianity?

It depends what you mean by Christianity.

It also depends a good deal on what you mean by "believe". I think even that little word, "be" may give us some trouble.

Does Christianity mean "the kind of thing we find in the Gospels" -- the stories about Jesus being born in a stable and feeding the five thousand and walking on the water?

Or does Christianity mean "all of the many and various and very complicated doctrines and dogmas that the various Churches have wanted you to sign up to?"

Does saying "Yeah, that story, I like it, and I think some of it is true, probably" make you a Christian?

Does saying "I reject the idea that Jesus is coequal with the Father and assert that he is a subordinate divine being begotten in time?" make you not a Christian?

What do you call someone who thinks that Christianity is a lot of ethical platitudes but doesn't particularly think about miracles and theology and scripture? 

"A member of the Church of England".

What do you call someone who thinks about miracles and theology and scripture literally all the time, but doesn't believe in any of them? 

"A Church of England Bishop".

Okay, that's quite cynical. But the truth is that churches have always admitted people with quite a wide range and degree of beliefs. The Church of England is intensely relaxed about people who assert their belief in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of the Body in church on Sunday morning but say that it's a bit more complicated than that in a television studio on Monday afternoon.

There was a moment in the 1990s when all the evangelicals were going on and on about meta-narratives. It was just about the same moment when all the university English departments were giving up on structuralism. (I don't know if this is true but it sounds as if it ought to be.) The argument runs roughly like this:

"The Bible tells the story of the history of the world: Creation, Fall, Flood, Exodus, foundation of Israel, deportation to Babylon, building of the temple, coming of Jesus, foundation of the Church, destruction of the temple, large blank space, Second Coming. But the majority of people in the West -- including some who were Christian enough to put themselves in physical danger in order to tell other people about Jesus -- never truly thought of themselves as part of that story.  The story they thought they were a part of was the one that was told at English public schools: Cavemen, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Ancient Britons, Normans, Tudors, Reformation, Spanish Armada, Christopher Columbus, Glorious Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria, British Empire, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill, VE Day, Winston Churchill, BBC. Christians ought to believe that the story of the West is a minor sub-plot in the story that runs from Eden to Armageddon; where in practice they believe that Christianity is a fairly significant sub-plot in the story of the British Empire and the United States."

Is there some way of saying "I think of myself as part of the Christian meta-narrative, but I don't think it's literally true?" Liberal Jews have a lot of practice in this kind of thing.

Can you be an atheist and a Christian? 

Should we be surprised that the World's Most Famous atheist is a Cultural Christian?

It depends what you mean by "culture".

I suppose that most of us would take "culture" to mean either "books and arts and literature" or else "the customs and traditions and manners that a particular group of people have in common". New plays are reviewed in the culture section of the newspaper. English culture expects you to use knives and forks rather than chopsticks, and says that black ties are appropriate at funerals. So being a Cultural Christian probably just means watching Carols From Kings and picking Bach's St Matthew Passion when you're on Desert Island Discs. Or else it means eating turkey on 25th December and giving the grandkids chocolate eggs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. "I'm not a Christian myself, but of course, my background and traditions are Christian" is an astonishingly uncontroversial thing to say.

Rachel Johnson (who has a brother called Boris) is a very much better interviewer than James O'Brien. O'Brien's technique is to repeatedly harangue his subjects, asking them the same question over and over again regardless of whether or not they've answered it, and to pretend to be cross regardless of what answer they try and give. Rachel Johnson's technique is to fein naivety (or possibly to be really genuinely naive) and ask the interrogatee politely to please explain what he means. Had O'Brien been set on Dawkins, YouTube would today be full of thirty second clips saying DAWKINS TOTALLY OWNED BY GENIUS DISC JOCKEY and WOKE CREEP CANCELS HEROIC SCIENTIST.  Which would have been more entertaining, I admit. As it was, we sat in on two people having a polite conversation. I don't think it will ever catch on.

And in fairness, real life Richard Dawkins seems a lot more pleasant, urbane, and willing to have a conversation than the Richard Dawkins who wrote the God Delusion or the Richard Dawkins who dog-whistles on Twitter.

So, what does this new, more pleasant Richard Dawkins mean when he says he is a Cultural Christian?

He means a cultural Christian as opposed to a believing Christian, or simply a 'believer'.

When Rachel Johnson says that her own non-belief sometimes wavers, Dawkins asks her directly if she believes that Jesus' mother was a virgin and if he rose from the dead, adding "I don't think you do". She says that the former is a biological impossibility but that she would like to believe in the latter. She thinks Jesus was real, felt The Force very strongly when she visited the holy sites in Jerusalem, and has heard, but misunderstood, the theory that the "Virgin birth"  was a mistranslation. Dawkins thinks that both the resurrection and the virgin birth are simply nonsense.

So: the thing which distinguishes Cultural Christians from Believing Christians is the miracles. But aren't some actual Christians also skeptical about those points? Didn't David Jenkins famously think that the virgin birth and the resurrection were not literally true? Was he a Cultural Christian? Does that mean the New Atheists and the Sea of Faith group are going to get together and split the difference? If I wanted to be very cynical indeed, could I say "There you are: Catholic Modernism and Liberal Anglicanism and the German Demythologisers were always just basically Atheists: Richard Dawkins says so"?

So: how do these Cultural Christians differ from common-or-garden atheists?

1: They like hymns

They also like Christmas Carols, parish churches and cathedrals. Dawkins says that he would be sad if we lost the old churches. It isn't exactly clear if he means "lost them as living places of worship" or "lost them as preserved relics of a by-gone age". I myself think it would be a shame if we bulldozed Stonehenge, but that doesn't make me a Cultural Druid.

Tim Minchin, in his very good song White Wine In the Sun says "I get freaked out by churches; some of the hymns they sing have nice chords, but the lyrics are dodgy". He also says that he has "all the usual objections" to Christian education but that he "quite likes the songs". 

I think that the Younger Richard Dawkins would have said that there were really no such thing as Christian songs. I think he would have said that Olden Days writers and musicians just happened to have been Christians -- or just happened to have had Christian patrons -- and just happened to put Christian words to their tunes. If atheists had been paying their wages they might equally have just happened to write atheist songs. I joked at the time that he seemed to think that you could take "Oh Sacred Head Sore Wounded, With Grief and Pain Weighed Down" and replace it with "Nucleotides Only Vary Slightly And Only In The Nitrogenous Base" and it wouldn't make that much difference. But the Older, Mellower Richard Dawkins seems to acknowledge that Christianity is a component of Christian culture. At any rate, he doesn't get freaked out by churches.

2: They feel comfortable with the Christian ethos.

"Ethos" is a bit of a slippery word. It is etymologically related to "ethics". When I Googled it I found a private school saying that it wanted all the kids to flourish and fulfil their potential; and a software company saying that it liked to solve clients' problems and allow employees to explore innovative approaches. Liking the Christian "ethos" might mean feeling at home with stained glass windows, crib-scenes and robed choirs, and feeling less at home with shrines to Ganesh or statues of the Buddha. Or it might mean that you are used to living in the kind of country where most people are, or used to be, Christians. A country where we still say "god bless you!" and "goodness gracious!" and have silly traditions connected with Patrick and Valentine. That's not the same as being a Christian, but it's quite a long distance from finding Christians creepy and dodgy (like Tim Minchin) or saying that they are poisonous, violent, irrational, ignorant and hostile to free enquiry (like Christopher Hitchens).

3: They see a sharp distinction between English Christianity and American Christianity.

I don't think that the Younger Richard Dawkins ever thought that the average Anglican Vicar, conscientiously dispensing moral guidance and spiritual comfort to his flock, was poisonous or violent or ignorant. But I think he would have said that this made it worse: the nice moderate Christians provide cover and credibility for the gun-touting child-beating abortion-banning evolution-denying Trump-voting hellfire-and-brimstone American preachers. But the Older Richard Dawkins sees them as two quite separate things. Sure, he thinks the Virgin Birth is a silly idea. But he thinks Creationism is pernicious nonsense. And he thinks that Creationism is a specifically American problem. 

It's almost like English Christianity doesn't quite count as a religion. It's almost as if what he wants is the Church of England, but without the God part.

"We are actually a Christian country", says the World's Leading Atheist.

"We are a Christian country in that sense...."

"It would matter if we lost our beautiful cathedrals or parish churches"

We. We. We.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to Believing Christian.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to American Fundamentalist Christian.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to someone who is creeped out by Christianity and thinks religion fucks everything up.

But mostly, "Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to Muslim.

And that, of course, is the point.

Asked if he thinks that it is a bad thing that fewer and fewer people are going to church at Easter, Dawkins says that he is "horrified that Ramadan is being promoted instead."

"Being promoted." He's not horrified that Muslims celebrate Islamic festivals. He's not horrified that Christians are becoming less and less observant but Muslims are still showing up to Friday prayers. He's not even horrified that some Muslim Billy Graham is trying to persuade Christians to get up out of their seats and give their lives to Allah.

Do Muslims proselytise? I've been approached by Christians who think that the world is going to end almost immediately, Christians who think it's important to go to Church on a Saturday instead of a Sunday, smiley American Christians who think that Jesus was a Red Indian, but never by someone trying to persuade me that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.

By whom is Ramadan being promoted so horrifyingly? 

Last month, on the date of Islamic Eid, someone put a quote from the Hadith on the departure board at Kings Cross Station. Not instead of the train times, you understand: in that little space where news headlines or messages of support for the King or the England Women's Football Team are sometimes displayed. This got conflated with Lee Anderson's nasty rhetoric about London's mayor being secretly controlled by sinister Islamist forces, and with wilder conspiracy theories about London being a no-go zone operating under sharia law.

Richard Dawkins doesn't say anything like that. But he does say that he prefers Christianity to Islam. 

And it's not just a mild cultural preference, like preferring mince pies and Easter eggs to chumchums and globjamons because that's what he grew up with. Christianity, Christianity itself, is a Good Thing because it provides a "bulwark against Islam". Christianity is a "fundamentally decent" religion while Islam is not.

What's the difference? Islam, he says, is "fundamentally hostile to women and gays". But he has to go back and qualify this. Christians have also had problems with women ("female vicars and bishops"). But the misogyny and homophobia of Islam is written into its holy books. He has to go back and qualify this again: he's talking about the religion -- the Koran and the Hadith. He isn't talking about individual Muslims.

My understanding is that the Koran specifically states that the Sin of Sodom was homosexuality; where the Bible doesn't say what it was. On the other hand the Koran doesn't specify any punishment for homosexuals, but the Bible mandates the death penalty. True, the unequivocal Christian prohibitions form part of (what Christians call) the Old Testament. The Younger Richard Dawkins would not have thought this made much difference. The Younger Richard Dawkins used to cite nasty passages of Scripture -- a verse in Deuteronomy about executing insolent children -- as evidence that Christians in particular and religion in general, was horrid. 

Both sides of the argument are prone to cheat on this point. You don't have to be Christopher Hitchens to see a problem with Christians who assert that the Bible is the absolute and infallible word of God, and in the next breath saying that none of the problem passages apply any more. But it's not very helpful for a smart atheist to pull an obscure passage out of Deuteronomy and say "if you are a Christian, you must, by definition, agree with this verse, and if you don't agree with this verse you obviously aren't a Christian". A certain kind of annoying atheist likes to quote that scene in West Wing when the President challenges a Christian who hates gays "because the Bible tells him so". If you follow the Bible so closely, he asks, can you tell me what would be a good price for my daughter when I sell her as a slave? And should I personally execute the intern who came into work on a Sunday or merely report him to the religious police? It's quite funny, but it doesn't really prove very much. 

If you pointed out to the Younger Richard Dawkins that both Christians and Jews have a fairly complex and critical relationship with the text of their respective scriptures he would probably have accused you of obfuscation or blamed you for committing theology. It has even been suggested that his quip about not needing to know how St Paul interpreted the Old Testament to be certain that God doesn't exist implies that he read my book, although unlike Dave Sim, he never sent me a postcard.

But here is the older Richard Dawkins, looking at actual Christians and declaring them to be mostly harmless, despite what their holy books say; but looking at the holy books of Islam and declaring Islam to be malignant, despite the fact that most actual Muslims are perfectly innocuous. If we are allowed to draw a distinction between English Christianity (benign) and American Christianity (malevolent) why aren't we also allowed to distinguish between the good Muslims in this country and the bad ones in, say, Saudi Arabia?

There is a case to be made that Christianity has proved culturally more adaptable than Islam. Most Christians regard their texts as foundational documents, whereas many Muslims regard theirs as the irreducible truth. There is a case to be made that the literalist interpretations of Islam happen to be the ones currently making the biggest noise on the world stage. Not even the most conservative Christians advocate the imposition of Mosaic law in a modern judicial setting. (Nor, indeed, do the most conservative Jews.) But there definitely are powerful Muslim nations which operate a sharia code based directly on the Koran. Ergo, right here, right now, Islam is more scary than Christianity.

But if that's your case, you could have expressed it more straightforwardly: "Religion is harmless, although in my opinion silly. Fundamentalism is very dangerous." You could even say "Muslims are more inclined than Christians to be fundamentalists" or "Islam is prone to fundentalism because it believes it's scriptures were directly dictated by God." It's not that hard. 

Clever sixth formers, and, in fairness, stupid R.E teachers, used to say that Religion is bad because Religion causes wars. One of the wars they used to say that religion caused was the civil war in Northern Ireland.

The Younger Richard Dawkins made a very fair point about sectarianism. No, he said, the thugs in the IRA and the thugs in the UDA were not actually fighting about faith. No-one has ever put a bomb under a police car because of a difference of opinion about the immaculate conception or the ontological status of the Eucharist. The Irish were killing each other over nationhood and traditions and community and very possibly because Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. But (the Younger Dawkins said) religion was the vector along which that hatred was transmitted: it ensured that people went to different schools and different churches and had different holidays and ate different food and supported different football teams. There is a very old joke about an atheist Jew who visits Belfast, and is asked if he is a Catholic Jewish atheist or a Protestant Jewish atheist. [Note 3] I think the Younger Dawkins made a very valid point. But the Older Dawkins seems to think that it makes a big difference whether you are a Church of England Atheist or a Muslim Atheist.

The person who says that Christian values are values that "we" all share sounds more liberal than the one who says that his God is the best God and anyone with a different God is going to hell. But in fact, the English have generally been quite cool with religious pluralism. I am church and you are chapel and she is synagogue and they are something really quite peculiar -- but we're all British and can play in the park together.  Yes, the guy who thinks he's found the only true God, or the only true God has found him, may spend his spare time knocking on people's doors and standing on street corners and putting tracts through strangers' letterboxes, but he's still British, even if he is a bit annoying.

But once you start to talk about "our" Christian values, you imply that "they" have different, non-Christian values.  And it's only a hop, skip and jump from saying that Christian values are British values to talking about "true Britons" and "real Americans" and saying that the Other Lot don't count.

There was some enjoyable comedy on the Interwebs the other week because a right wing lunatic had asked an AI bot to sum up Britishness, and the AI bot had come up with a picture of Jesus in a nightshirt leading a cohort of crusader knights through a landscape with St Pauls Cathedral and the London Eye clearly visible, along with (for some reason) some muppets and some pterodactyls. For the headbanging right, Christianity is not so much a faith as an identity card. 

I wish Rishi Sunak had had the courage to say "I'm a Hindu and I don't have any idea what your lot are doing with the eggs and the bunnies and the dead guy and the cross -- but you probably don't have much idea what my lot do at Diwali.  And that's what's so great about this country! We're all perfectly free to do our own thing, or nothing at all. Happy whatever!"

"My religion" can be a very good thing. "Our religion" is very dangerous indeed. Cultural Christianity can easily become a badge which says "One of us: not one of them".

We love the merry organ and the bells across the snow
We love the Church of England, although we never go
And we love the dear old Bible, with "Jehovah" and "begat
It's not that we believe in it or anything like that.
          Sydney Carter

[1] I have recently learned that it is NOT anti-semitic to write stories featuring hook nosed goblins who love gold and control the banks, because in real life Jewish people are not in fact goblins and don't control the banks.

[2] "As a matter of fact, Andrew, the fact that you like Talons of Weng-Chiang means that you quite definitely are a cultural racist. And the fact that you have read Those Shitty Wizard books makes you a cultural TERF:"

[3] I am also fond of the one about the Englishman who, threatened by a paramilitary of uncertain denomination, decides it is safest to claim to be Jewish. "Gosh" says the man in the balaclava "I must be the luckiest Arab in Belfast."

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Conscious Uncoupling

I like to spend some time every day reading. I am currently working my way through the complete poems of Alan Ginsburg, reading The First Kingdom for the fifth time and reading a book about television by that guy who wrote the good book about folk music. 

I like to spend some time every day writing: that's the only way I can justify not working full time, and indeed, continuing to exist at all. I am not a very quick writer: I generally have to free-write at random; select the sensible bits; edit them into a pattern, and then revise three or four times. 

I have a couple of schemes to promote books about my better chunks of writing (Jesus and Spider-Man) in various ways. Editing a podcast takes much longer than you would think, even when you take into a count that editing a podcast takes much longer than you would think.

I hold a season ticket for the Everyman cinema and like to see as many movies as possible: big geeky ones and proper serious grown up ones. Last week we saw Ralph Fiennes pretending to be Macbeth; next week we will finally get around to seeing Jim Moriarty pretending to be all the parts in Uncle Vanya. For a long time I thought that Waiting For Godot and Hamlet between them said everything that there was to say about anything, but I have more and more added Uncle Vanya to the list. I want to see Civil War at some point.

Bristol and Bath are very well supplied with live theatre: in the next ten days I am hoping to see a rap musical about the American constitution and a play about everyone being very repressed and hot in the Deep South. I forget if it's the one about the cat or the one about the tram. There is also a one man show re-imagining Lear's fool as a VR influencer, or something. 

I like to go t o live folk music  -- there was a Bristol Folk Festival last weekend and a Bristol Sea Shanty festival next weekend  and a gig I really ought to go to on Thursday. (The Buffalo Skinners, since you ask, with a local trad fiddle outfit called Freedom For Travelling People and another local punky folk outfit called Poor Old Dogs.) And to my utter and complete astonishment, I have actually started to sing myself, for certain values of singing, at pub sing-arounds and shanty sessions, and the applause seems in some cases to have gone from "polite" to "enthusiastic" although there may also be some element of "ironic". But that involves spending evenings in pubs drinking beer. One suffers for one's art. 

I also like to watch television programmes. I finally got to the end of The Bad Batch this week. I was kind of hoping there would be a Big Reveal and that everyone would die. Neither of those things happened, but it was very exciting: the action scenes are as good as anything in the movies. The is now a new thing called Tales of the Empire. Tales of the Jedi was very good indeed, although probably aimed a little too firmly at people who care about the lore, such as myself. I can't see that I will have a slot to sit down and watch any of that until this time next week. I am very keen to find out if The Three Body Problem is any good; and would ideally like to catch up with the last two iterations of Star Trek (Discovery and Strange New Worlds). The cartoon I watched a couple of episodes of and didn't find that funny. 

I occasionally like to drink coffee and even beer with human beings as well. 

I think I have currently got about as close to a lifestyle that works for me as I ever have. But like Christopher Robin, I don't do as much Nothing as I used to. Unless sitting in my chair reading 1960s beat poets and obscure graphic novels counts as Nothing, which I think it does. 

I have said several times that it is a Bad Idea to read a book or watch a movie simply in order to make snarky remarks about it on a blog; although in fairness I have a morbid fascination with Rings of Power and will probably not be able to look away from the next series. (It's so bad it's bad, as they say.) But I never went to see the second and third editions of the Abomination (i.e Abrams' Trek parody) and have avoided various evangelical Jesus TV shows that "everyone" is talking about. 

To come to the point: I am not saying that I will never watch the new Disney time travel show. Almost certainly, sometime in the next three to four years, I will. 

But it is very unlikely to be the next thing I watch.

And the fact that I feel the need to tell everyone this rather proves that the whole thing as got a bit out of hand. 

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. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet (4)

A cave. A group of mysterious cultists with silly make up and saffron robes. They chant about the Life Force and talk Old Fashioned. ("The time of knowing shall be soon and fast upon that shall follow the time of vengeance.") They make telepathic contact with a young man with 1970s hair. The camera filter goes funny and they declare that they have "found another" and that he must be "harvested". We've all seen the Tomorrow People: it is clear that he is about to Break Out. The robed Telepaths come and take the young man away from his family. His grandfather fears and hates the Telepaths; but his sister and her boyfriend think that the Evil Dictator who rules the planet and has banned telepathy and freedom of thought is far worse. It turns out that the Telepaths are the last remnant of the original inhabitants of the planet; before it was conquered by the Evil Leader and his Evil Stormtroopers. The Doctor makes friends with them. Together they break into the Evil Leader's strong hold, shut down his Anti-Telepath ray, sabotage his power generator and blow up his base. The planet is now free and everyone lives happily ever after. Hooray!

This is not the plot of the Pirate Planet.

At any rate, not the whole plot, nor the interesting part of the plot, nor the part of the plot which anyone remembers. When I sat down to re-watch the serial, I was quite surprised that almost the first thing that we see are the Mentiads, standing in a circle and chanting. They seem to have come in from a different story, the Daemons, say, or Fendahl. 

Robed mystics with telepathy, telekinesis, plugged into the very essence of creation, who overthrow an evil cyborg technocrat. They could have wandered in from an entirely different franchise. They don't say "May the life-force be with you" but one fears that they might.

Now, it would be quite tempting to attribute the Mentiad sub-plot and it's rather lacklustre dialogue to script editor Anthony Read, and to say that the highly imaginative and witty piratical material came from the genius of Douglas Adams. Next season, we'll be praising script editor Douglas Adams for all the funny lines and blaming Terry Nation and David Fisher for all the boring ones. And certainly, the serio-comic Adamsian space-opera is set alongside the most generic of generic Doctor Who storylines. Cultists who stand in a circle and chant. Natives who think that being oppressed is "just the way things are"; while other natives half-heartedly say "we have been quiet for too long." They could just as well be Thals or Xenons or Two-Legs on Metabelis 3. David Warwick (Kimus) works quite hard to deliver heroic lines with a pantomime seriousness, but even a very good actor couldn't do much to salvage "Bandraginus Five, by every last breath in my body, you'll be avenged." [NOTE 1]

But what if the bifurcation of the story were intentional -- or at any rate, a happy accident? What if the corridors, the caves, the pathetic rebels and the Tomorrow Zombies are what Doctor Who looked like before 1977, and Captains and Queens and shrunken planets are what it will look like from here on in? In this corridor, the dying embers of Sydney Newman and monochrome tea-times: in this one, George Lucas and punk-rock filtered through the prophetic mind of Douglas Adams before Apple Macs even existed.  

Forward or backwards? Old Old Who or New Old Who? Can the two visions ever come into balance? At the exact centre of the story is a queen who literally wants to hold back time, abort change, and return everything to how it was in the good old days. 

In Episode One, Kimus asks the Doctor what he does for a living. "I save planets, mostly" replies the Doctor.

In the very next scene (the next line, in fact) the Captain asks Romana to define her "function". "Well, as a Time Lord I can travel about in space, and of course time" she replies. [NOTE 2]

Romana's answer is the one that the Doctor himself might have given at any time over the last fifteen years. She's actually an agent of the Time Lord Council and the White Guardian: she could very well have said "I am a student" or "I am seeking for the Key to Time." But she prefers to just say that she is a traveller. The Doctor, on the other hand, now defines himself by his function in the story. It's the same definition Tom Baker himself used: the role of the Doctor is simply that of a "benevolent alien".

"I travel in time and space". A glance back to the black and white era. A citizen of the universe; and a lady, to boot. 

"I save planets, mostly." A superhero who saves the universe on a monthly basis; one who knows the rules and can even wink at the audience. 

What the show used to be; what the show is now. 

Can the Doctor Who accommodate both visions? 

Or must the Doctor bi-generate?

There is very little world-building in classic Who. Season Sixteen may consist of six linked stories; but there is nothing but the recurrent Key to suggest that the segments are taking place in a shared universe. You might suppose that Queen Xanxia -- who in her day staged galactic wars -- would have known, or been known by the "Greater Cyrrhenic Empire" or to have interacted with "Pontonese Ships". The Ribos Operation was about a con-man trying to sell a valueless mineral mine to a mark; this one is about a villain who strip mines planets for their mineral wealth. Might Garron not have been aware of Bandraginus Five? Might the Captain not have been aware of the Mining Conglomerate? Might the precious mineral discovered lying in the street not have been Jethric? Kimus doesn't know of the existence of planets other than Zanak: when his world teleports to other locations he thinks that the patterns of the "points of light in the sky" change. By the end of the story he knows they are other suns, and that the planet itself moves. Which is very like what Binro went through in the previous story. But nothing whatsoever is made of this connection. Doctor Who, prior to the wilderness years simply never worked like that. Cameos and Easter Eggs, possibly: consistent setting and backstory, never, never, never. The Whoniverse is a fan mirage.

So it is not surprising that there is so little development in the relationship between the Doctor and Romana. Doctor Who isn't, and can't ever be a soap opera. The writers have presumably been briefed that the Doctor has a new assistant, and that she is clever, but not quite as clever as she thinks she is; that she is a recent graduate; and slightly disdainful of the Doctor. But each of them seems free to re-invent their relationship within the brief.  A few years later, Matthew Waterhouse would complain that he was playing a completely different Adric in each story. [NOTE 3]

In the Ribos Operation, there was tension between the Doctor, who has experience and street smarts, and Romana, who has up-to-date scientific expertise. She keeps being annoyingly right; but he keeps smugly saving the day. She hugs him when he saves her from the monster, but she doesn't back down over his egotism or his lack of academic status. This added up to some passable comedy drama, but it tended to reduce the Doctor to a stooge in his own show.

The opening scenes of Pirate Planet have some of the same dynamic: although it is now Romana who is being petulant and sniping, and the Doctor who is relatively unfazed by it. Her crack about not understanding the TARDIS because she skipped the class on antiques (and preferred "the lifecycle of the Gallifreyan flutter-wing") is pretty childish. But there is a glint in both her's and the Doctor's eyes which suggests that they are just going through the motions.

The Doctor flies the TARDIS intuitively; Romana wants to do it by the book. The manual -- which is, rather delightfully, a huge leather Bible on a lectern -- says that you should check the "synchronic feedback circuit" and activate the "multi-loop synthesiser" before landing. The Doctor says he never bothers, offers to demonstrate a "really smooth materialisation" and (of course) crashes the ship. Romana, following the correct procedure, brings them in safely. 

Pompous people slipping on banana skins will always be funny, but if the point of your hero is that he is clever then "clever people are not as clever as they think they are" is not a card you want to play too often. (If, on the other hand your here were very, very strong, it would not be a particularly good idea to play up to the stereotype that strong people are stupid. Comic book and movie versions of Conan too often turn Bob Howard's intelligent barbarian into a brainless brick.)

As it turns out, it isn't quite the Doctor's fault. The crash happened because something else -- the planet Zanak -- was trying to materialise in the same place at the same time.

Once the Doctor and Romana are on the surface of Zanak, the relationship seems to reconfigure. The script recognises that if you have two characters, both Time Peers, both more or less immortal, and both with infinite reserves of pseudo-science and pseudo-history to draw on, what you have got is not the Doctor and his Assistant, but two versions of the Doctor. Look at the way Romana interacts with the Captain's guard in Episode Two ("Thank you; will you drive, I assume you know where you are going?") and the contempt she shows for the Captain and his Nurse ("I was never any good at antiques"). Either line could have just as easily have been delivered by the Doctor.

Now, "Two Doctors", as opposed to "the Doctor and his Beautiful Assistant" has some narrative advantages. It means that the Doctor can be learning about the Mentiads while Romana is being interviewed by the Captain; and the Doctor can be talking to the Captain while Romana and the Mentiads are trying to find another way into the hyperdrive engine room. And a bright, independent companion is a good deal less irritating -- and less sexist -- than one whose main role is to scream and ask the Doctor to explain how brilliant he is.

But equally,  "Two Doctors" create narrative problems which didn't exist before. Writers have generally resisted multi-Doctor crossovers for exactly that reason: but it's hard to write convincing dialogue for three (or five) competing egos. Robert Holmes' pitch for the Five Doctors and the Terrance Dicks script that was actually filmed, both went to some lengths to keep Pertwee, Troughton and Davison apart for most of the tale. Baker, of course, declined to be involved.

So: Episode Three of the Pirate Planet begins with a colossal expository dollop: we find out what the Captain is doing (materialising his hollow planet around other planets and stripmining them) and what this has to do with the Mentiads (killing planets releases the Life Force, which causes latent telepaths to Break Out). The Doctor and Romana both contribute to the explanations, talking over each other in a not particularly funny way.

DOCTOR: At almost the same moment it vanishes, it rematerialises in another part of the galaxy around another, slightly smaller, planet.

ROMANA: In this case, a planet called Calufrax.

DOCTOR: Yes. So your planet...

ROMANA: ....Zanak....

DOCTOR: [Glares]

ROMANA: Just helping you along, Doctor.

Adams does his best (did I mention he's quite good at dialogue?) but it quickly becomes annoying.

There are moments when the old patriarchal patronisation kicks in. The Doctor reveals very obvious plot points which the audience have already got to, and Romana exclaims "of course!" as if he is a genius. When it transpires that the Queen is behind the whole evil enterprise, and the Captain was only pretending to be a pantomime pirate, the Doctor becomes more school-teachery than Jon Pertwee ever was. "Let that be a lesson to you, my girl".  He really does call her "my girl".

At the end of the story they go back to the TARDIS together. It's a rare instance in the classic era of the TARDIS itself being used to solve a problem; and of the Ship itself being put at risk. 

And, if we are paying attention, there is a massive call back to Episode One. 

To prevent Zanak materialising around the Earth, the Doctor decides to deliberately materialise the TARDIS in the same place at the same time. If he gets it wrong, TARDIS and planet are both going to come to an explosive end. 

And sure enough, as he is going through this incredibly difficult operation we hear him say "Multi-loop stabiliser; synchronic feedback." He's doing it by the book: as Romana advised him in Episode One. In the end, the scheme is only partly successful and he has to invoke his own telepathy, the Mentiads, and a convenient spanner to damage the hyperdrive engines. So once again, they were both right: book learning and seat of the pants intuition together saves the day. And the Doctor and Romana stop scoring points off each other. "It was nice working with you" says the Doctor, when it looks as if they are going to die. "You too" replies the Doctor. The Doctor and Romana -- the Boy Doctor and the Girl Doctor -- have achieved a kind of balance.

In order to get a degree in English Literature, you have to have a good answer to the question "Why does Hamlet delay?" Why doesn't he just kill the King as soon as the Ghost has set him the quest? There are lots of possible answers: because he doubts the Ghost's veracity; because he doesn't have the opportunity; because he has studied Freud's Introductory Lectures; because he's a Calvinist; because he's not a Calvinist.

But the truthful answer is always: because if Hamlet killed Claudius in Act II Scene 1 the play would be very short.

Put more simply: Hamlet procrastinates because Hamlet is a play about procrastination. 

In Episode Three of the Pirate Planet, the Doctor tells Romana that the Captain wants to find out why they have come to Zanak.

"The reason we've come here is to find the second segment of the key" replies Romana "In case you'd forgotten". And, in fact, we had. Zanak and the Captain were quite exciting enough without worrying about the Guardian's cosmic jigsaw. Romana is about to claim that getting involved in what's happening on the planet is a distraction, but the Doctor interrupts her: "Getting involved in all this is the only way to find it."

It's either an admission of defeat, or Douglas Adams bragging that he has done something immensely clever. The only way in which the Doctor can find the second segment is for him to do exactly what he would have done in any case.

The Key to Time Saga is an argument about the essence of Doctor Who. The aimless wanderer now has a device which sends him to very specific times and places. The curious fellow who always gets involved is now under a divine mandate to turn up, grab the quest-objective, and leave.

Except that the Doctor's wanderings were never aimless. The Tracer has not changed the format: it has simply made explicit what has always been the case. The Doctor always ended up exactly where the Plot required him to be -- exactly where the writer decided to send him. The Plot has been made manifest; but it was never not there. Perhaps in this Season the Doctor can see it a little more clearly.  

Up to now every Doctor Who story has always begun with the question "Why doesn't the Doctor just leave?" And the answer, give or take a fluid link and a dematerialisation circuit, has always been: "Because he's the Doctor, that's why. 

But in Season Sixteen, that answer doesn't apply. Once the Doctor finds the Segment -- and he has an Anti-Plot device which infallibly points him to it -- he has no reason to stay and every reason to leave. The forces of Plot have to come up with strategies to keep him on Calufrax or Ribos . Otherwise, the Season would be very short indeed.

The First Segment was the intersection of a series of intrigues which would have carried on whether the Doctor had shown up or not. It kept him on the periphery of the action; reducing him to a supporting character on his own show. 

The Second Segment, as the Doctor directly acknowledges, is The Plot itself. For the first half of the story, the Tracer appears to be malfunctioning. It appears to have taken the Doctor to the wrong planet -- Zanak instead of Calufrax -- and it doesn't direct him to any single location. Viewers realise, a shade before the Doctor does, that it is behaving like a compass at the South Pole -- trying to point in all directions at once because everywhere is North.

The Doctor has to work out what is going on before he can put his hands on the Key and end the narrative. Once the puzzle is solved, the Plot focuses down on a single location: Calufrax ceases to be the narrative environment, and becomes an object within it, a tiny shrunken head in the Captain's trophy room. But the Doctor can't remove it until he understands the Captain's grand scheme. When everything falls into place, twenty two minutes into Episode Four, the story dutifully comes to an end.

If the Doctor had arrived on Calufrax / Zanak through the random wanderings of the TARDIS he would undoubtedly have been fascinated by the missing planet, and by the precious stones lying in the street. He would certainly have been horrified by what the Captain was doing, and he would definitely have sided with the Mentiads once he understood who they were. And there is no doubt that he would have tried to overthrow the Queen and save the Earth from being smothered. The Key to Time has negligible effect on the story we have just watched. 

People writing about the Key to Time often point to balance as a unifying theme. The meta-plot is about finding a mid-point between the Black and White Guardians; and the individual stories keep referencing the idea of balance: the unending war between heat and ice in Ribos mythology; the Captain's collection of dead planets held in perfect gravitational balance. Could we not also say that the Pirate Planet strives to find a balancing point between Plot and Anti-Plot?

Or would it be better simply to say that the Plot is in this case so huge and the Captain's power so evil, that the Doctor can't possibly ignore it, Black Guardian or no Black Guardian?

Or should we merely say that Adams made the not unsensible decision to pretty much ignore the overarching theme and wrote a damn fine space opera instead?

[NOTE 1] It is possible that Adams is consciously parodying or exaggerating some of the cliches of Doctor Who. The air-cars and the inertia corridor could be read as reaction against the preponderance of corridors. Villains honestly, no-kidding say things like "Guards, seize them!" "Die, you fool, die" "You shall die for your insolence" and "You dare to mock me." When the Doctor literally says "Take me to your leader" he must surely be doing it deliberately.

[NOTE 2] Romana definitely says "Time Lord", as opposed to "Time Lady". When they first met, she told the Doctor that she would be happy with the male sobriquet Fred. Despite her elegant dresses, gender is not, at this point, that big a deal in Time Lord society.

[NOTE 3] There is a fan tradition that "Time Lord" refers to an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, and that there are a number of artisans and technicians who are not in that illustrious caste. Romana is young by Time Lord standards but she appears to have already reached that exalted status: unless, perchance "Time Lord" is the title automatically bestowed on one on graduation. Terrance Dicks once joked that the existence of The Doctor and The Master rather implied that somewhere in space and time there must be a traveller called The Bachelor. The Doctor and Romana seem to treat "Time Lord" as synonymous with "Gallifreyan".

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.