Saturday, March 26, 2005


1: Have you noticed how everytime there's a first espisode of Doctor Who, a world leader dies? Well, in this case, an ex-world leader, but still.

2: Friends started ringing within three minutes of the closing credits, and I said "go away", let me get my thoughts on-line first.

3: Nick is staying with me. .There were no crumpets to be had in Tescos, not ever for ready money. To get the full experience, I even laid on a DVD of Basil Brush. (It was crap.)

And the verdict is.

Stunned. Desperate wish to see it again. Desperate wish to see next week's immediately. Strange interstitial territory between a completely new series that I think I would be very interested in from cold, and odd sense of familiarity.

Sense of entering story "in media res." The Doctor is already involved in an adventure. Rose blunders into it. We see "The Dcotor" from the outside. "The Doctor" is portrayed as mysterious and Other. Ecclestone is very Bakerish, going from impishness to occassional moments of seroiusness. (Not enough of the latter, I felt, maybe too much sense that he (the Doctor) ) was treated what was going on as a game.) I loved the way he seemed to have contempt for these stupid humans, except that he was risking his life to save them. Maybe too frenetic, too much rushing between scenes, not enough pausing to take in the atmosphere.

Rose very believable as a character. Felt to me a bit "like something out of Eastenders", but that's probably good short hand for "ordinary mortal." No attempt to make her an old school "screaming girl menaced by baddies", of course, but still very recognisable as a Who companion.

Had some doubt about re-design of TARDIS interior, although the set itself was very impressive.
Like the fact that the Doctor was "an alien" with no backstory. Liked the conspiracy theorist hunting him on the net. Liked all the London landmarks. Me and Nick laughed out loud at the London Eye gag.

Thought the CGI looked a little phony; and had a tendency to make the aliens look like cartoon characters. When one of the Autons "morphs" its plastic hand into an axe to attack the Doctor with, I thought of Bugs Bunny.

Opening sequence and theme music very dynamic. As one final nod of the head to nostalgia junkies, the announcer made innane comments over the clsoing credits, so we couldn't hear the new theme tune.

Paul McGann was a character who was definitely the Doctor in something which definitely wasn't Doctor Who. Chris Eccleston is a character who is probably the Doctor in something which is definitely Doctor Who.

Again again. Again again. Again, again.


You're going.

You're gone for ages,
Already gone.

You're still here,
Just arrived,
We haven't even met yet.

Every great decision creates ripples
Like a huge boulder dropped in a lake.
The ripples merge,
Rebound off the banks in unforseeable ways.
The heavier the decision,
The larger the waves,
The more uncertain the consequences.

Life's like that.
Best thing
Is just to get on with it.

My voyage dissects the course of time
"Who knows?" you say
But are you right?
Who searches deep to find the light
That glows so darkly in the night?
Towards that point I guide my flight.

Do you know what he pointed at?
A flower.
One of those little weeds.
Just like a daisy it was.
Suddenly I saw it through his eyes.
It was simply glowing with life
Like a perfectly cut jewel.
And the colors were deeper and richer
Than anything you could possibly imagine.
It was the daisyest daisy I had ever seen.

I'm very fond of bumblebees

There are worlds out there
Where the sky is burning,
And the rivers dream;
People made of smoke
And cities made of song.
Somewhere there's danger,
Somewhere there's injustice,
Somewhere else the tea's getting cold
Come with me and I will show you all this
And it will be, I promise you,
Be the dullest part of it all.
Or stay behind
And regret your staying
Until the day you die.

He's been to the past and future,
But whatever he may do.
He'll always be a friend of mine.

The Doctor
Told me the wisest thing to do
Would be to open my mind
And accept what had happened.

I did.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


The strangest thing about the Paul McGann TV Movie was not the line "I am half human on my mother's side." Nor was it the kiss. Nor was it gratuitous off-screen Dalek. The strangest thing about the Paul McGann TV movie was the fact that it had Sylvester McCoy in it.

Sylvester once compared the Doctor with Jesus.

It's that classic tale of the little man against great odds. That, and the other classic story of someone from outside our world coming down to help us. That makes it very attractive to human beings. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but Jesus came down from outside the world to save us and it's that kind of area. Science fiction has a quasi-religious quality to it. People who are attracted to sci-fi are often not religious in other ways but are attracted to this idea of hope for the future, so it's a kind of religion in that way.'

He's not the first person to have spotted that fans can treat the object of their love with a devotion that borders on the religious. When Michael Grade was preparing to kill-off Doctor Who he remarked that the only people who cared about it were the fans, who treated watching it as something akin to "attending High Mass."

"Fandom" is a group of people who are bound together by their love for a particular story, which they have imbued with a special significance. That could be one working definition of "religion". They hold festivals in which they re-tell and celebrate that story in various ways. They dress in peculiar clothes and wear badges with symbols and insignia on them. They venerate holy relics. They have schisms and excommunications. We have got used to people describing Doctor Who and Star Trek as examples of "cult" TV.

Above all, fans have a body of holy texts which they revere. These texts are often discussed in language which is borrowed from religion. Sherlock Holmes fans describe the forty or fifty stories which Conan-Doyle wrote as "the canon". Holmes fiction by other hands is therefore reduced to the status of "apocrypha". Star Trek fans similarly distinguish between canonical and non-canonical stories. In that case, the limits of the canon is slightly more contentious. I believe that canonicity is generally resolved by an appeal to apostolic authority. If an episode of Star Trek was written by, or under direct inspiration from, Gene Roddenbury, then it is canon. If not, then it is blotted from the book of life, or at any rate, erased from the Captain's log.(I think this means that some of Season 3 of the original series, all of the cartoons, and one of the films is excluded.) To push the analogy slightly too hard, there is a large body of Star Trek and Star Wars apocrypha – novels and comic strips and what-not – that fans regard as worth reading, but insufficient to establish any doctrine. For Star Wars fans the Clone Wars TV series is deutero-canoncial: outside the canon, but not contradicting it; the Star Wars Christmas Special is both apocryphal and heretical.

I have on at least one occasion heard this analogy used the other way round. A discussion broke out on an RPG newsgroup about the status of "Apocryphal" New Testament – the stories of Jesus' boyhood and life of Mary Magdalene. (And why not?) "Oh, they are basically just second century fan-fiction," said someone. Which is precisely what they are.

When Doctor Who was on TV, there was very little substantive extra-canonical material. There were children's "annuals" with short-stories, a Doctor Who comic strip, and a separate strip featuring the Daleks without the Doctor. If anyone ever asked what relationship this stuff had to the TV series, the answer was obviously "none at all". The comic strip featured a character called Doctor Who, for goodness sake, and his companions were a nephew and niece called something like "Topsy and Tim". The Dalek stuff was more interesting and much better drawn; it illustrated how Terry Nation envisaged his creations, and what he would have liked to have done with them if special effects budgets had allowed. But there was no sense that they shared a universe with the TV series. The comic strip had a character called the Dalek Emperor; but when the Dalek Emperor eventually appeared on the TV, he looked nothing like the comic-stip version. The comic strip said the Daleks were created by someone called Yarvelling; but when the Daleks' origins were shown on the TV, their creator turned out to be Davros. Everyone knew we were dealing with separate fictional worlds which happened to have been based on a TV show. They were not part of the canon, and they had no pretensions to be. (In fact, the "nephew" and "niece" in the comic strip might have been put in with the express purpose of signaling to the reader "This is NOT the TV Doctor, but a different one.")

But since the Gradian axe fell, there have been several bodies of work which have tried very hard to present themselves as continuations of the TV series. Virgin Books "New Adventures of Doctor Who" sequence began publication within months of the series coming to an end. For many years, Doctor Who TV stories had been written-up as novellas, at first by "Target Books", and then by Virgin. So the "New Adventures" were in effect saying "Doctor Who hasn't come to an end at all. All that has happened is that where stories used to exist in two forms, book and TV, they now exist as books alone." Given that some of the novels were being written by active Who script-writers, probably based on stories that they might have tried to get produced had the series continued, the "New Adventures" claim to be a continuation of Doctor Who was actually quite strong. They went out of their way to be consistent with the TV series, and with each other. In that sense, "canon" is less a fan's list of approved texts, more an attitude which a particular book has to itself. It was possible to read a "New Adventure" and ask "Is this real? Is this canon?" without being thought totally mad. You could hardly have asked the same question about the 1975 Doctor Who Annual.

Inevitably, because novels have more story-space than 100 minute TV shows, and because the books were catering primarily to adult "Doctor Who" enthusiasts, the character of the Doctor and the Doctor Who universe began to develop in ways that were quite unlike the TV show. A recognisable "New Adventure" genre emerged. The Doctor became darker, more meddlesome, more morally ambiguous. Ace became increasingly psychotic. Some fans bought into it in a big way. Others didn't, either because they felt that what was being established had very little to do with the TV show they loved; or simply because they didn't have time to read two 75,000 word novels a month. (The books became increasingly unintelligible as stand-alones.)

Later on the, the license reverted to the BBC themselves, and they started a series of Eighth Doctor novels. The process repeated itself. The first book was intended to be thought of as a direct sequel to the McGann TV movie: an attempt to show what would have happened in the next episode, had they made it. Scores of "BBC eighth Doctor" novels followed, with the same faith in themselves as part of the canon. The novels were consistent with each other, but also with what had gone before. But this raised the question in some fans minds: what had gone before? Did the "BBC Eighth Doctor" novels regard themselves as continuing a TV series that ended in 1987, or as following on from a long series of "New Adventure" novels. The BBC books had to decide whether the Virgin books would be regarded as "canon" or not. (The answer, as I understand it, was "maybe.")

To further complicated matters, a group calling itself "Big Finish" arrived on the scene with a license from the BBC to make "new" Doctor Who stories, featuring the original cast. This started off very much in the realms of pastiche, wheeling on, say, Peter Davison and Mark Strickson to do a Fifth Doctor / Turlough story pretty much in the style of that TV era. But then they also persuaded Paul McGann to come into the recording studio and create, to date, three "seasons" in which he plays "his" eighth Doctor character. And, of course, in the audio stories, his character develops in a way which is different again from the BBC stories. The last time I looked, the Doctor had been permenantly exiled from our universe into a "divergent" world where no-one knows what "time" means. And he's lost the TARDIS. Again, these stories go to great length to present themselves as "canon" with respect to the TV show. But how does the "Big Finish canon" regard the "BBC novels canon". Did the BBC novels "really" happen? (The answer seems to be: "our stories take place straight after the TV movie, and are continuous with each other, so from our point of view the BBC novels haven't happened. But that only means they haven't happened yet. If you want them to be "true", then you just need to have faith that the eighth Doctor evenutally returned from the divergant universe, and then had all those decades of adventures documented in the BBC books, before eventually turning into Christopher Eccleston.")

Concern about canon can get carried to insane levels. Jean-Marc Lofficier's book The Nth Doctor documents various script treatments that were rejected before the Paul McGann movie finally got made. After each section, he lovingly demonstrates how this un-made story could have been treated as consistent with the canonical stories and with the other stories which were never made! But there are reasonably good, non-fanish reasons to be at least slightly worried about "canonicity" and "continuity". If you are writing a script for a new Star Trek TV show, you presumably want to stay reasonably consistent with previous stories, and therefore, to know which previous stories to be consistent with.

But for some fans, "canon" becomes an over-riding concern. When they hear that RTD is remaking the series, their first question is not "Will it be any good?" but "Will it be canon?" with the subsidiary questions "Will we see a Paul McGann turn into Christopher Eccleston" and "When the Master appears, will they refer to all the "Master" adventures that there have been in the New Adventures, the BBC Novels and the Big Finish Audios." When they get the obvious reply "No, of course they won't, you twit; it's unlikely that RTD has heard of them, and his target audience certainly haven't", some go as far as to respon "Well, in that case, it won't be Doctor Who."

One even comes across a few extremists who think that anything released with the words "Doctor Who" on it must be regarded as having "really happened". This group got very angry about the Comic Relief skit featuring Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor. Since the comic climax to the sketch had the Doctor running through five regenerations in as many minutes, and since he is limited to twelve bodies, the skit was a revealed as an evil plot by the BBC to prevent the programme ever coming back. Once you have said something about Doctor Who, or even thought it, it becomes true.

And let's be honest. The reason that I am very excited about the new series, but can't quite be bothered to read any of the novels is that I believe that something which goes out on Saturday nights, with a theme tune and opening credits, is "real" in a way that no book (however good) can possibly be.

No new series can possibly introduce an inconsistency so extreme that fan ingenuity will not be able to explain it away. You can bet that, in a year or so, there will be a CD or a novel or a comic strip that bridge the gap between one of the Paul McGann canons, and the new Eccleston texts. Almost any explanation will do. You can say "The Peter Cushing movie took place on a parallel earth where Doctor Who was a human inventor who built a TARDIS in his back garden." You can even (I imagine someone already has)
write a piece of fan-fiction in which it turns out that the Time Lords were deleted from existence by an evil deleting-time-lords-from-existence-ray, and that nature, abhorring a vacuum, caused a human Doctor to come into being because the universe needed a champion to defeat the Daleks and the Cyberman. (Eventually, the human Doctor Who confronts the War-Lord and, in the course of the struggle, discover an device that will un-delete the Time Lords. His purpose having been fulfilled, he is returned to his house a few moments before Roy Castle turns up with a box of soft-centers. You see how easy it is?) But what you can't, on the whole, do is say "Oh, the Paul McGann audio epsidoes / the Richard E Grant Cartoon / the Peter Cushing Movie ....were all just stories that some guy made up and we're going to ignore them." "Stories that some guy made up" is the one thing which Doctor Who can never be allowed to be. The basic object of faith in the fan religion is that these stories really happened.

And this is what was so weird about the presence of Sylvester McCoy in the TV movie. The movie contradicted established continuity in every way possible. It was unlike Doctor Who in detail, in spirit, in letter. It's one and only redeeming feature was Paul McGann's luminous performance. But it had Sylvester McCoy in it. We saw the Old Doctor turning into the New Doctor. And that said to us fans: this is not a new series based on Doctor Who, or a remake of Doctor Who. This is a continuation of the old series. This really happened.

That Phillip Siegal felt the need to include a regeneration scene in his Doctor Who re-launch shows that he was thinking like a fan. That RTD doesn't shows that he isn't. And that's several points in the new series favor.


Once upon a time there was a clever young writer. His job was to write funny jokes for a famous comedian.

But one day, the famous comedian fired him.

(People say that the famous comedian fired all his cleverest colleagues, because he wanted everyone to see that he could be funny all by himself without any help from anyone else. When he died, a few years later, some people feared that he might have taken his own life.)

The clever young writer phoned his agent, to see if he could find him a new job. And the agent said "Would you like to write stories for children's TV?" At first, the clever young writer thought that this was a bit beneath him, but then he decided that any work is better than no work at all. So he agreed. But he asked for a clause in his contract that said that he would own all his stories forever and ever and ever. And the children's TV people agreed.

So the clever young writer hammered out a TV script. It wasn't very original. It was a fairy tale about land populated by beautiful people who were good but had once been bad; and ugly people who were bad but had once been good. But it was quite a good story. And the children's TV people liked it.

They gave the script to a clever young designer, and told him to make costumes for the evil ugly monsters to wear. But he said "I am sorry, I am much too busy today." He got on a boat to a place called Hollywood where he made movies and lived happily ever after. (Years later, he made a movie about a monster with acid for blood that popped out of people's chests and said "boo". It was very, very evil and very, very ugly.)

So they gave the script to a different clever young designer. And he went away, and read the clever young writer's descriptions, and used some imagination, and made some costumes.

And they were very good. Children all over the country loved the evil ugly monsters and ran up and down the playground saying "We are evil ugly monsters! We are evil ugly monsters!" So the children's TV people went back to the clever young writer and said "Write us some more stories about the evil ugly monsters." And at first he said "That's a bit of problem, because they all died at the end of the story" and then he said "Oh, what the heck," and he wrote a new evil ugly monster story, that wasn't as good as the first one, and third one which wasn't as good as that, and then some more which were really very bad indeed. But provided they had evil ugly monsters in them, the kids didn't mind, so the clever young writer kept himself in work for the rest of his life.

One day, a toymaker, who may or may not have been celestial, came to the children's TV people and said: if I made toys that looked like the evil ugly monsters, I am sure that all the children in the world would by them, and play with them, and be happy, except for the ones who leave them in their original packaging and sell them on ebay at a fat profit in twenty years time. So the children's TV people signed a contract with the Toymaker, and he kept himself in work for the rest of his life making evil ugly monster toys. And because the clever young writer had a piece of paper that said he owned all his stories for ever and ever, every time the Toymaker sold an evil ugly monster toy, a shiny sixpence magically dropped into the clever young writer's piggy bank.

The years rolled on, and the clever young writer died of old age, and the children’s TV people stopped making the children’s TV programme. And the years rolled on some more, and the children’s TV people decided to start making it again. And they decided that the evil ugly monsters should be even eviller, and even uglier and even more monstrous than before. But the family of the clever dead writer waved their magic piece of paper at them and said "You can't redesign the ugly monsters without our permission. And if you don't let us approve the new designs, we won't let you use the ugly monsters at all." And the children's TV people thought about it, and said "Get stuffed." And then they thought about it some more and said "Oh, all right then." And a funny newspaper that was full of pictures of naked ladies claimed the credit for this, which no-one quite understood.

So the family of the the clever young writer got a say in what the evil ugly monsters looked like; and every time the Toymaker sold a toy, a shiny new sixpence dropped in their piggy banks, which were by now very fat indeed. And the clever young designer, who had decided what the evil ugly monsters looked like, sometimes wondered why silver pennies never dropped into his piggy bank. And they all lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


For me, William Hartnell, Tom Baker and (I know I am going to get yelled at for this) Sylvester McCoy are "The Doctor". The others are just actors playing the Doctor.

I still can't bring myself to watch "Carry on Sergeant" or "Brighton Rock". Seeing "grandfather" in a different role would be too much like finding out that Father Christmas doesn't exist.

Nothing against Jon Pertwee. Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor I met. For a couple of years, he was just "the Doctor." When you said "Doctor Who", you meant "suave space traveling buccaneer with a slight undercurrent of buffoonery." It took me a while to get used to the guy in the scarf. But Pertwee, with his flashy cars and gadgets, with girls who were referred to as "assistants" (rather than "companions") and a chorus of square jawed soldier-boys... If this was "the Doctor" then none of the others were. Much as I like the UNIT episodes as episodes -- the sparring between the Doctor and the Brigadier, the wierdly respectful relationship between him and the Master -- I tend to think of it as part of a different series.

And nothing against Patrick Troughton. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have both said they think he was the greatest, and considered as a performance, I think it was. Where Tom Baker waves his hands around a declaims, Patrick Troughton under-acts. You spend the first half of an episode thinking "what is supposed to be so great about this guy: all he is doing is reading out the lines". And then you suddenly realise that you believe, totally, and without question, everything this funny little man tells you. He's 400 years old, and there are Yetis in the tube. Fair enough. If you say so. But the one thing I didn't believe was that he was the same person as the white haired old buffer who kidnapped Ian and Barbara in episode one.

Maybe he wasn't. The metaphysics of regeneration have never quite been sorted out. Are we supposed to think that it's the same person, but with re-jigged cells and a slightly scrambled personality? Or has the Doctor mind slinked off into a different host body, like those slug-things in Star Trek? There is a strange undercurrent in some versions which suggest that the different Doctors are actually different people. The novelisation of "Tenth Planet" has our hero announce "I am the new Doctor" as if we were talking about someone taking over a role or position. The novel of "Five Doctors" seems to envisage the First Doctor "living out his days" in a restful garden, even though we know that he "died" at the south pole. And while it is not exactly canonical, "Dimensions in Time" has the Fourth Doctor sending out a message beginning "calling all Doctors", and thinking of his previous incarnations as other people -- "thank you, my dears."

It is harder to defend Colin Baker and Peter Davison. I rather liked what JNT was trying to do with the Davison era: three companions, instead of just one; expanding the TARDIS itself beyond a single control room; one companion in league with the bad guys; another one killed off; breaking some of the rules. But casting a young, good looking, heroic type, already know from many other roles as the Doctor was fundamentally misguided. Davison didn't stick in the role for long enough for us to get used to him. As for Colin Baker, the most that one can say is that he could deliver lines with great gusto, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with a decent script.

And then there was Sylvester. Sylvester McCoy started his tenure as Doctor Silly. He spent his first season being suspended over vats of boiling sugar by Bertie Bassett, and threatened by evil caretakers and their killer cleaning machines. He was stuck in an identikit "Doctor Who" costume, and JNT was still convinced that it was cute to use question marks as a motif on the Doctor's clothes. (It is regarded as an awful faux pas to refer to the Doctor as "Doctor Who", but evidently, it's okay for him have question mark umbrellas in the TARDIS wardrobe.) Yet somehow he struggled against this nonsense, and gave us a Doctor who was interestingly different from what had gone before. Darker; more manipulative; traveling the universe according to some purpose which he knew and we didn't. ("Ace tells the Doctor about her worst nightmare. So he takes her there" has got to be one of the the great Radio Time blurbs of all time.) Fans now know that the script editor, Andrew Cartmell, was engaged in the first stages of a "masterplan" which would have emerged over several seasons and put a new spin on the characters of the Doctor and the Time Lords. Some of these ideas were subsequently incorporated into the first cycle of post-TV novelisations, ("The Virgin New Adventures") and they seem pretty ghastly to me; another boring re-working of the very boring back-story to the very boring Time Lords. But what emerged in the transmitted episodes was rather wonderful; the hint that underneath the clownish exterior was Doctor as cosmic-entity who could stare down a villain by force of will. When you looked into eyes, you half-believed that he really was far more than a time-lord; that there really was a big dark secret just wating to be revealed.

The character of the Doctor is weirdly flexible; but not infinitely so. We can't define it, but we know it when we see it.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Before slipping out of negative mode.

RTD has also said that he wants the stories to be about "human beings" because no-one cares what happens on the planet Zog.

This strikes me as an odd thing to say about a series originally promoted as "an Adventure in Time and Space." The whole point about the series is that there is a magic box that can take you anywhere in the universe. If you aren't going to step through your magic wardrobe and come out on strange, alien planets, then I'm not sure that there is any point in having one. The original creators of the show interpreted "anywhere in Time and Space" quite broadly: pure fantasy as well as space-opera and historical time travel. Whatever else you can say about "The Celestial Toymaker" (*) and "The Mind Robber", you couldn't really have imagine them being done in any format apart from Doctor Who.

People who write about the origins of the show often imagine a split between, say, Sidney Newman, who wanted a very historically based children's drama series, and, say, Verity Lambert who admitted bug-eyed monsters and b-movie science into it. But you could just as well see it as a tension between, say, Terry Nation, who thought in terms of alien jack-booted Nazis and scientific holocausts, and, say, David Whitiker, who saw it all as a rather wonderful fairy tale.

The question of earth-bound horror vs alien worlds is as old as the programme. The original premise precluded any stories set in the present day: Ian and Barbara are as much exiles from 1963 as the Doctor is an exile from his mysterious home planet. I rather liked that. It was easier to believe that Ian and Barbara were wandering the universe but very much hoping to get home one day, than that Sarah-Jane was hanging out with the Doctor for want of anything better to do with her time. The first adventure which actually occurred in the present-day was William Hartnell's penultimate outing. There is, on the one hand, something very scary about the moment when Susan to run an errand for the Daleks on the planet Skaro: one human, all alone on a hostile alien world. But there is also something to be said for Jon Pertwee's famous dictum that there is nothing very surprising or scary about meeting a Yeti in Tibet, but they become very alarming if you encounter one in your bathroom in Tooting. (Having lived in Tooting, I can confirm this.) Scary aliens in a normal human environment, or normal humans in a scary alien environment.

If RTD means that he wants all the stories to have human interest, then of course he is right. Which begs the question, when didn't they. I think that there were two stories which had primarily alien supporting casts: "The Sensorites" and "The Web Planet". I agree that men in giant ant suits is not the way to go for the new series. If he means Pertwee style earthboundedness, the Doctor as Agent Mulder foiling this months alien invasion, then I think he is making a great mistake. ("Wanderer" or "traveller" are two irreducible components of the Doctor's character.)

"Planet Zog" is a media code-word for "science fiction is impenetrable". When someone refers to "the planet Zog", you know that references to anoraks cannot be far away. RTD knows very well that the series, in its heyday -- the duration of the first four Doctors -- was totally mainstream: not "cult TV" but "a children's programme" or "that thing that nearly everyone watches on a Saturday night." I don't know when it got the reputation for being watched mainly by a freemasonry of dedicated fans; I don't know when, if ever, that actually became true. Perhaps it suited Michael Grade to say that Doctor Who should be cancelled because it was only watched by the kinds of people who watch Doctor Who, in the same way that Panorama should be cancelled because it is only watched by the kinds of people who watched Panorama. He wanted, after all, a BBC that was mainly watched by the kinds of people who watched Eastenders, and he largely got his way. But I think that the fanboy reputation mainly came along when the programme went off-air -- when, by definition, the Faithful were the only ones keeping its memory alive. So RTD wants to tell the audience that his new series is for everyone, not just "fans" and "anoraks". (I think that the terms "anorak" was first used in clip compilation in 1992.) If he does this by using language which panders to negative stereotypes about science fiction and its enthusiasts, then I can't say I blame him. But I very much hope that he doesn't believe it himself.

Meanwhile, Mr Ecclestone has been quoted as saying that he didn't like the programme when he was a kid because all the Doctors had posh accents, and that this implied that he, a northern lad, couldn't be a hero. This seems to be an example of two things.

1: The airbrushing of Sylvestor McCoy out of Doctor Who history. (I am sort of assuming that the Daleks-can't-go-up-stairs-meme is so prevalent, and RTD so wants to be the person who abolished this cliche, that he has wished "Remembrance of the Daleks" out of existence, and the whole of seasons 25 and 26 with it, which is a shame, because on the whole they were rather good.)

2: An absurd inverted snobbery. (I was about to write "political correctness" but that phrase can only be used in conjunction with the expression "gone mad, I tell you.") It does, I suppose, say something about British society circa 1963 - 87 that the Doctor, being a scientist, was conceived of as male and speaking with "received pronunciation". It certainly says something about our attitude to "science". You only needed to give William Hartnell a white coat to turn him into the personification of the "boffin". Scientists. Blokes. Old, white haired. Mad as coots. Very clever, of course, but you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. One of the ways in which, I think, the show gradually lost its way is that, having invented the ludicrous and brilliant idea of "re-generation", they nevertheless created an established "type" for the main character. Doctor Bill, Doctor Pat and Doctor Jon were totally unlike each other. Doctors Peter, Colin, Sly and Paul were all pretty much variations on Doctor Tom. So, by all means, let's have northern Doctors. Let's have women Doctors and black Doctors. (Patrick Troughton very nearly was the first black Doctor.) But spare us this class-warrior nonsense. If Tom Baker's Shakespearian tones imply that little boys from Yorkshire can't be heroes, then Doctor Chris's dialect implies that I can't be a hero. Which is rubbish. Doctor Who is the patron saint of the middle-class, spotty-kid with specs at the back of the classroom, who'd rather play with a chemistry set or read a book than play football or have fights.

Then God, stand up for nerds!

(*) For example "The BBC wiped the tapes, so I've never seen it."

Sunday, March 20, 2005


Russel T Davies has been quoted as saying that he is irritated when people complain that Disney changed the ending of The Little Mermaid. What does that matter when the cartoon made the story available to millions who hadn't read the book. He says that great characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan can and should be re-invented in each generation.

Up to a point. I am one who is very keen to defend the weirder adaptations of classic fiction, and if Jonathon Miller and Svankmeyer are allowed to re-interpret Alice in Wonderland in surreal and post-modern ways, I can't really complain if Walt Disney does so in a crassly populist way. I think the work of art stands on its own terms Ultimately, I disapprove of Jackson's Gimli because he is crass and unfunny, not because he has nothing to do with Tolkien's Gimli.

People say that a re-working of a book can't violate the original, because the original still exists. This is only partly true. I think that Disney's Snow White did, as Tolkien says, vulgarise the Dwarves, to the extent that any fairy tale involving Dwarves struggles against the image of cute people singing "Hi-ho!" with American accents. If you liked the original mythology, that harmed it in some way. There's an old joke about an intellectual being a person who hears Rossini's William Tell Overture and doesn't immediately think of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Is there a person on earth who can read Mary Shelly's romantic masterpiece and not see a little picture of Boris Karloff in their head every time the name Frankenstien is mentioned? At some level, then, Karloff has violated Shelly.

I don't believe that there is such a thing as the essence of Story: that, somehow, by re-telling Tarzan or Frankenstien I am "passing on" or "evolving" a bigger entity called The Story. I don't think that a story exists over-and-above any individual version of that story. Johnny Weissmuller's jungle movies were terrific fun; I loved them as a kid; I still quite enjoy them now. But they were not "making Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan available to people who would not otherwise have known about him." They had almost no point of connection with ERB.

Certainly, an adaptation, done in a careful way, can hold a light up to the original. I adored Jeremy Brett's version of Sherlock Holmes: for the first time, I was seeing the character that I thought I remembered from the books coming to life on the screen. But, in truth, his portrayal was just as partial as anyone else's, taking the maniacal eccentricity (which I think is mainly present in the earliest stories) and making that the controlling feature of the character. If I take Conan Doyle off the shelf nowadays, I can read it as if played by Jeremy Brett and equally as if player by Basil Rathbone. But here, we are talking about people interpreting an existing story, not making up new ones. Brett took words which the author wrote and acting them, changing some emphasis, inventing details that the author left out (when did Holmes give up taking drugs? Doyle doesn't tell us; Jeremy Brett invented an answer.) But this is based on the assumption that the text say-what-they-say; and that a future actor or interpretor will be free to come and re-interpret them. That is a very different proposition to creating a new stories that will have the stamp of "canonicity" -- new adventures that aficionados will pretend "really" happened.

I agree with RTD the characters need to be re-invented, and a new version of Doctor Who that was simply a pastiche of someone's favourite period of the original show would be a catastrophe. Bringing back something which is nearly 20 years old implies a very substantial amount of re-invention and re-imagining. But if you re-invent Magic Roundabout as a quest narrative with villains and pop-culture references, then what you have isn't Magic Roundabout, even if the the thing is quite interesting in its own right, which, by all accounts, it isn't. There is a fine line between re-invention and starting again from scratch, between Ultimate Doctor Who and "this is just a totally new series which happens to have a time-traveler in it", at which point I lose interest.

I'm hoping that Davies faith in the mystical integrity of Story doesn't mean that he thinks he has crossed it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

There's an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman...

My MP sent me a card to tell me that she was proud of Britain.

Which is nice.

It has a picture of a row of seven kids, in those absurd blazers that the headmasters of comprehensives still think make their schools look posh. Five out of the seven are statistically white, but it is a statistically correct black girl who is at the center of the picture, looking into camera. She is both literally and metaphorically waving a Union Jack. At risk of over-interpreting, the black girl with the flag has what looks like a prefect’s badge, but the white girl just behind her has a prefect’s badge and a head girl badge. I think the message is. “Ethnic Britons. In the minority, but at the center. Successful, but not too succesful.”

There is logo in the top right hand corner, depicting half a Union Jack, with the words “Proud of Britain” underneath it. What this means, who can say. Half the country is proud of Britain all the time; or all the country is proud of Britain half the time; or all the country is proud of Britain but only as far down as Newcastle.

This drivel was sent out, not by the BNP or even the Tories, but by the "Labour" party. On the reverse is a little questionnaire asking “Why are you proud of Britain?” and allowing space for three lines of very small handwriting. You can go to a website and read some of the answers that other punters have sent in. It’s an absolute hoot. It turns out that I should be proud of Britain because "Bus drivers are far more considerate than in other areas" and "Independent research shows that the tax burden in Britain is lower than France, Germany and Italy." ‘Mary from Lancashire’ explains that she is a pensioner and "this winter I am going to be warmer than before", before concluding "I'm proud to be British under Labour." Note how imperceptibly we slide from “Proud of Britain” to “Proud to be British”. I imagine the perpetrators of the leaflet were fully aware of this sinister double meaning. (See under “pigs, flying” and “plausible denial.”)

Why am I proud of Britain? I don’t understand the question, any more than if you had asked me why I am proud of my street, or my borough, or my city. I’m not particularly “proud”, it’s just where I happen to live. Now, if you had asked me “Why do you like being English,” I could have come up with some possible answers.

I like being English because the world's best playwright wrote in English.

I like being English because we invented a game with such complicated rules as cricket, taught it to everyone else in the world, and still can’t beat them at it.

I like being English because our national dishes are stodgy comfort foods like Yorkshire Pud and fish and chips.

I like being English because of Morcombe and Wise, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

And the Beatles, obviously.

Oh, and Radio 4.

I like being English because of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I like being English because there are still a few real ale pubs

I like being English because there is a street in York called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate.

I am certainly not in any sense proud of England. I don’t think that we are better than the Scots because we brew the best beer and they brew the best whiskey. But it probably isn’t a coincidence that I’m a real-ale man. There is a sort of agreed symbolism around “Englishness” and “Ale”. I bet if I’d grown up in Dublin, I’d prefer Guinness.

I don’t know how I would go about being proud of Britain. I mean, what would I be proud of? I’m not proud of the geographical feature called “the British Isles”. I am hardly going to feel proud because Ben Nevis is, in real terms, taller than any French mountains of similar height. I’m not proud of British culture. There isn’t any. There’s English culture and Scots culture and the cultures of the various immigrant communities. When politicians try to talk about the subject, they often find themselves saying that the essence of Britishness is multi-culturalism and diversity. Which is, being interpreted, “We don’t have a culture of our own, but we are very good at putting up with other peoples.” And (it goes without saying) I am not proud of the fact that I am descended from one of the original, native inhabitants of these islands, because that is (a): Utter cods-wallop and (b): racist.

The only thing which I can understand “Britain” to mean is “The British State” or “The British Constitution” or “The British System of Law” -- the collection of civil servants, rules, flags and aging aristocrats which act as a sort of administrative umbrella over the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland. The wages of politicians and civil servants are paid by the British State, so it is not very surprising that they, unlike normal people, think a lot about British-ness and would like everybody to be Proud of Britain. In a similar way, the only person who believes in the existence of the Commonwealth is the Queen, who owns it; and the only people who thought that the Student Union had the slightest significance were the six hacks who ran it.

I am not proud of the British state or the British constitution, because I had very little input in setting it up. (I would have helped if I’d been asked, but I must have been out when William and Mary phoned.) And I am not a politician, a soldier, a civil servant or a police officer, so I can’t even claim any credit for its day to day running. But I do, on the whole, think that the British State is quite a good thing. I’m quite glad that its rules and regulations are the ones under which I live.

Maybe “proud” just means “respect, admire and approve of” or “feel cool about”. In which case, there isn’t space on the back of my little card to enumerate all the ways in which I am “proud” of Britain. A short-list might run:

I’m proud of Britain because we don’t have oaths of allegiance or citizenship ceremonies.

I’m proud of Britain because the police don’t routinely carry guns.

I'm proud of Britain because we have a system of law where every man is assumed innocent until he is proven guilty.

I’m proud of Britain because everyone has the right to a trial by jury.

I'm proud of Britain because politicians can’t interfere with the decisions of judges.

I'm proud of Britain because when the police arrest someone, they have to either charge him or release him within a very short space of time.

I'm proud of Britain because the police can't stop me unless they have good reason to believe that I am doing something wrong. They can’t, for example, stop me to make sure I am carrying my identity card.

I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be imprisoned (or put under house arrest) without a fair trial.

I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be accused of a serious crime, like, say, terrorism, without seeing the evidence and having a chance to answer it.

I'm proud of Britain because it does not torture or execute anyone.

I’m proud of Britain because if someone has been tortured in a foreign country any confessions or evidence obtained can’t be used in a British court.

I’m proud of Britain because we don’t deport people to nations where they might be executed or tortured.

The other day I heard a "Labour" spokes-person on the radio explaining that the British People could vote out the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at a general election. But the British People can’t vote out judges. So politicians are more accountable than the judiciary. So it is a good thing that the new anti-terrorism laws will be administered by politicians rather than judges.

I am less and less proud of Britain every day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Problem of Evil: redux

The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed--might grow tired of his vile sport--might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary for no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren't.

Lewis "Grief Observed"

Kathy (a little girl): You know how he used to cure people? Jesus, I mean. He cured a blind man once, didn’t he.

Vicar: That’s right.

Kathy: And he could bring people back from dead, too.

Vicar: Mm Hmm. Lazarus.

Kathy: Only he must have let some people die, mustn’t he. Why did he let those people die?

Vicar: Well, see, uh, people...babies are being born all the time...and, uh...those of us who are here already have got to make room for them, haven’t we.

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. That’s what the Bible says, isn’t it?

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: I mean, God has got more than us to think about. Not only people dying, it’s what we’re doing to the world, that’s what worries Him. You see, we hurt God much more than He hurts us. You don’t have to go very far to see people offending God. What about when you’ve got children taking guttering and lettering and I don’t know what from the church. It’s not only the value, it’s God’s house.

Kathy: But that’s nothing to do with Jesus.

Vicar: Well, it’s going to stop. I’m going to stamp this vandalism out, I’m not having it. I’m going to take very strong measures in the future.

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: So, you pass it around.

Charlie (Kathy's younger brother): He doesn’t know, does he?

"Whistle Down the Wind"

Thursday, March 03, 2005

These people are silly, I don't want to live on the same planet as them any more

Some of us thought that the "islamic headwear in school" thing was about where you choose to position the slider on the "individual freedom" vs "secular state" continuum. Or possibly "freedom to worship" vs "multi-culturalism". At any rate, we thought it was to do with the kind of massive and complicated grey area which we liberal types find it very difficult to sort out.

So thank the divine entity of your choice that we have the Daily Mail to guide us through this maze of moral ambgiuity. Apparently, the current ruling (which says that girls DO have the right to wear Islamic clothes to schools) is a very bad thing because.... might mean the end of school uniform.

And Tony and Dave pay attention to what these people say.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Next Issue: More Theology

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

The Guardian has taken to printing articles by the Vicar of Putney.

Don’t worry: it gets more interesting. Well, slightly more interesting.

Last month he, like every other pundit in the country, wrote a piece about the tsunami disaster. It turns out that a lot of people have spotted that this was a very terrible event, and concluded that therefore God doesn’t exist.

So far as I can tell, it is only the people who already thought that God doesn’t exist who reached this conclusion. If some journalist had managed to track down a Bishop who was also a Christian, and who had looked at the big wave and said “Well, what do you know? Materialism was right all along!” that would have been interesting. It would also have been interesting if you could have found a Dawkinsite who had looked at all the people being compassionate and said “Good God! Human life does have some purpose after all.” But no-one has managed to produce a single such person on either side. Just a lot of morgue-chasing essays by people saying “Hey! You see this big earthquake thing in all the papers. Well, guess what. It proves that I was right all along.” Major international event confirms people's philosophical prejudices, shock.

It is always thus. If a child is murdered, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or an old lady of sixty six has a baby, it is always excuse for people to say “I told you so.” Never for them to say “Gosh. I shall have to revise my whole theory of crime and punishment, or medical ethics”

(Come to think of it, there were a few pundits who said “We support the war on Iraq because of the Weapons of Mass Destruction” who subsequently said “Since there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, we were wrong to support the war. Sorry.” I wonder if any of the pacifist types would have changed their mind and said “mea culpa” if the bombs had been found?)

The Rev Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and professor of something or other, approached the tsunami, reasonably enough, as an instance of the general question of divine goodnesses and human suffering. He starts with a painful story about the first time he, as a young clergyman, had to conduct the funeral of a baby and how this almost made him lose his vocation. However, even in the face of this awful event, he somehow carried on believing in God. The article then jump cuts to the “endless under-graduate tutorials” he has attended on the “so-called problem of evil.”

He says

“The essays that are the hardest to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubics cube....Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi”.
He waffles for a bit longer, and then asks us to think about the infant Christ.
“What is terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of a omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat out enemies turns out to be a part of the great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognize that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love...”
There is quite a lot that can be said about this drivel.

First, Fraser has decided that he is free to be as selective as he wishes about which Biblical stories and Christian doctrines he will believe in. He approves of “the Christmas story”, which is told in different forms, by St Matthew and St Luke; but disapproves of the story about Christ calming the seas, which is told (in very similar forms) by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The four Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus is a figure of power (“what manner of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”) If, when Matthew and Luke report stories of Jesus working miracles, they had been "seduced by a fantasy of power" which is not merely irrelevant to Christianity, but actually antithetical to it, why trust them when they talk about the Bethlehem baby? Why trust anything they say about Jesus? Why read the New Testement at all?

(On Christmas Eve, Fraser got very angry, albeit about seventeen hundred years too late, about the emperor Constantine because the Creed of Nicea mentions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, and that he Died, but misses out everything that happens in between. The in-between bit is, apparently, the important bit, because the true message of Christianity is that the adult Jesus preached that we should all be pacifists. Or something. But now he wants us to concentrate on the baby-in-a-manger bit, and ignore all the adult-jesus-does-miracles stuff. )

Second, it is very hard to find anything in his religion which is recognisable as “Christiantiy”. He tells us that Christains “cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done” (even though Jesus is reported as having told his disciples that they would get anything they prayed for.). He rejects the idea of devils as risible (even though the gospels report Jesus as functioning as, among other things, an exorcist). And as noted, he rejects the idea of Jesus as a miracle-worker.

One slightly wonders what they do in churches in Putney. If you can't use passages from the Bible which refer to miracles, Satan, or an omnipotent God, and if you don't believe in prayer, then what do you find to do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning?

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

I am reminded of a lecture given by Don Cupitt while I was at York University. A guy I knew from the anarchist club stuck up his hand and said “I agree with nearly everything you are saying, but I don’t understand why you put it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit.” I’ve always thought he had a very good point. Fraser gives very cogent reasons for rejecting the religion which has always been referred to as Christianity; having done so, I can’t see why he wants to carry on referring to himself as a Christian.

Third, his doctrine of the incarnation is distinctly wobbly. He says that God “is” a pathetic baby, and that the divine essence “is” compassion and love. I actually don’t know what “is” means, here. Christians say that the God who made the universe was in some way was transformed into a baby. (Subject to a thousand years of hair splitting about what you mean by “God”, “baby” and “transformed”, obviously.) They see this as a paradox. (“Our god contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”...another hymn they presumably can’t sing in Putney.) Fraser appears to be saying that “helplessness” and “babyness” is in some way what God has always been like. Those silly, silly Jews made another mistake which the Christian story corrects.

He has a nice line in sending barbed nasties at people he doesn’t quite agree with. “Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/of holynesse, to semen hooly and trewe” as the fellow said. It isn’t sufficient for Fraser to say that the standard theological answers to the problem of evil are inadequate. The people who put them forward have to be bad people. (“and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern...”) Is it really likely that those who he has heard propose solutions to the problem of evil are doing so because they have no other concerns? Isn’t it more likely that they are undergraduates attempting to answer a question that has been set them? And are they really trying to “find God an alibi” or “let him off the hook”? Isn’t it more likely that they are asking whether it is intellectually or morally possible to believe that there is any such being as God in the first place? Fraser doesn’t seem to mind us asking these question: but if you try to answer them, you aren’t merely foolish -- you are morally sick.

I also like the bit about the “ ‘so-called’ problem of evil”. Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers reference to a war-time leading article which referred to Hitler and his dupes as “these so-called Germans.”

Fraser appears to be saying that knowing the answer to the Problem of Evil would be of no help in councelling a bereaved mother. He’s probably right. He concludes that it is silly, or futile, or pointless or actually bad to ask the question, which seems to me to be a non sequitur. The “problem of evil” is a logical problem. So it is not very surprising that people try to come up with logical answers to it. And it is not very surprising that answering a logical problem doesn’t help you solve a pastoral one.

The"problem" of evil itself is actually very simple. It’s a bit like the old business proverb: “You can have it cheap. You can have it quick. You can have it good. Pick any two.”

Similarly, you are welcome to pick any 4 statments off the following list:

1: God exists
2 God is good
3: God knows everything.
4: God can do anything.
5: Bad things happen.

But you can’t logically believe in all 5.

If God doesn’t exist, then there is no problem. Bad things happen: they just do. (It’s probably even a fallacy to call them bad. One baby dying, or a lot of people dying in a natural disaster, is not “bad” in any cosmological sense. We just happen not to like it very much. It would be better to just say “stuff happens” and leave it at that.) But if you were prepared to say “God doesn’t exist”, then you wouldn’t be a vicar, even a Church of England vicar. If you want God to carry on existing, you have to chose one of the remaining four lines to delete.

So: cross out line 2, and there is no problem. God exists, and knows about all the bad things which are happening, and could stop them if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to, because he isn’t good, not in the sense that we usually mean. Maybe we are so Totally Depraved that we couldn’t possibly know the difference between Goodness and Badness, and all our arguments are therefore invalidated. Maybe God is like Galactus or the Force, totally above “good” and “evil”. Maybe the God who is running this universe is actually a Baddy. There have been wacky forms of Christianity which say that an evil demiurge created the universe against God’s will; or that for the time being, God has delegated the running of this world to Satan.

Not happy with an evil or amoral God? Then cross out line 3. The reason that so many bad things happen in the world is because God doesn't know about them. Either he created the universe and then left it running like a clockwork thing, with a view to coming back and checking up on it in a few billion years, or else he just happens to be looking the other way at the moment. Maybe it's our job to draw his attention to the problems down here, and the reason bad things happen is that we aren't all praying hard enough. This was the line taken by the Diests and some Country and Western singers.

You’d rather God was omniscient? All right then, dispense with line 5, and say that in actual fact, bad things don’t happen in the world, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that God doesn’t stop them. If you go down this path, you’ve got lots and lots of options. You can either say that, in actual fact, things like earthquakes and AIDS don’t happen at all: that they only figments of our imagination. Or you can say that they certainly happen, but they aren’t actually bad. Maybe they are a divine punishment, and therefore a good thing. Or maybe they are less bad than the alternatives, because we live in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe living in a place where bad things happen is a necessary part of the process whereby we grow into sons of god. Or maybe dying isn’t actually an evil, because you go to heaven (or hell, if you deserve it, which is still good in the long run). Maybe dying in a disaster is actually an advantage, because it concentrates your mind wonderfully so you have got more chance of making a good end, getting saved, and going to heaven.

Does this sound callous to you? Then reject point 4. Bad things are bad, and God knows they are bad, and God wants to help...but he can’t. Because he isn’t omnipotent. This one is harder work, but you could say that God is one of two or more forces in the universe, and right now, the Devil has the upper hand. Or you could say that it just so happens that God is powerful enough to bring the universe into being, but not powerful enough to control everything in it on a day to day basis. Or that God’s omnipotence doesn’t stretch to doing things which are literally impossible (like making four sided triangles, or two hills without a valley between them) and “a world in which nothing bad ever happens” is one of those literally impossible things. Or that when he created the universe he said “I am going to waive my omnipotence: there will be lots of things in this creation that I can’t influence.” ("Human free will" is often invoked in this context, although I have never been quite sure how it helps.) Or maybe, in some complicated way, God just happens not to be omnipotent. Maybe he is more like a vulnerable baby in a manger. Maybe the essence of the divine is not power but love. Maybe...

You will, of course, have spotted, that this is precisely the line taken by the Vicar of Putney. Granted, he wraps it up in a lot of thought-for-the-day-Latin which, frankly, has no meaning that I can discern. (“Far from being a reason for people to to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief” ... what?), but what he actually does is deny, at length and repeatedly, God’s omnipotence. Which is, as long as we are talking about the problem of pain, is perfectly good answer. His theory of a God who never answers prayers or does miracles or so so far as I can tell, does anything at all just as much a logical solution to the logical problem of pain as any other. “How can an omnipotent God let bad things happen.” “Because he is not omnipotent.” (And, I suspect, just as un-helpful in an actual pastoral situation. "Why did God let my baby die?" "Because he's a helpless baby in a manger and can't do anything about it.")

It seems that Giles Fraser is just as much of a moral sicko as the rest of us.

How movies work

"I'm sure Tolkien might have probably turned in his grave, but it was in keeping with the vision that Pete had for Legolas and stuff which, you know, was very important."

Orlando Bloom

Monday, February 14, 2005

British Constitution Explained

The Church doesn't approve of re-marriage, and doesn't really like the idea of civil marriages very much, however, they are quite happy to "bless" the civil marriage of their divorced future defender of the faith to his divorced spouse, because, er...

I mean, really, Bish. Either take the Catholic line and say no re-marriage at all ever, which puts you on the moral high ground but loses you some compassion points, or do what every other religious denomination has done and accept that life and marriage is messy and divorce happens sometimes. But don’t try to have it both ways.

Journalists please note

1: The Queen is not the head of the Church. Jesus is.

2: If I hear one more person say “ I thought that the whole reason the Church of England got started was so the king could get divorced and remarry" I shall cut off their heads, or nail some theses to their door, or annul them, or something.


The fact that he may have been a bit of a cad to Lady Di doesn't effect whether Charlie-boy is worthy to be king one way or the other. The minute you start talking about "worthy" or "qualified" you've pretty much given up on the idea of monarchy. Well, unless you live on Naboo, where they apparently elect young girls on the basis of their hair styles. What makes you worthy to be king is being the next in line to the throne. That's what "monarchy" means. Charlie doesn't seem to be as worthy, as, say, Elizabeth the First, (third greatest Englishman after Winston Churchill and Lady Di), but he's a good deal worthier than Mad King George or Bad King Richard.

He might just as well be seen as the victim of this little tragi-comedy as the villain. Unable to marry his true love because she wouldn't be appropriate for a man in his position; bounced into a marriage with a flighty wench far to young for him... There's even something quite noble in being married to England's Rose and dreaming of your (let's be honest, here) rather plain true love.

But that's neither here nor there. Unless he becomes a catholic or we become a republic, Charles is going to be King. That's what it says in our constitution, ancient and unchanged since, oh, since the last time we changed it.

Call me old fashioned if you like, but if it is true that Charlie married Di out of a sense of duty rather than for love, I find it hard to regard that as very wicked. Up to a point, I regard it as quite admirable.


We should abolish the royal family because everyone is totally obsessed with it, and a royal wedding like this fills the papers up with stories about wedding dresses and palace gossip when they should be worrying about the great issues of the day, like hare coursing and who Ken Livingstone was rude to. If we abolished the royals, no-one would pay any attention to the doings of the rich and famous ever again, as evidenced by the fact that, once she was kicked out of the royal family, the papers stopped printing stories about Princess Di.

Furthermore we should abolish the royal family because it is an archaic and remote institution, and no-one is interested in it any more.

How many people in the Church of England actually believe in the apostolic succession (the theory which states that Jesus chose Peter, Peter chose Cardinal Woolsey, Cardinal Woolsey chose Henry VIII, Henry VIII chose the Queen?)
Do they actually believe that if the monarchy were abolished and the line of succession from Jesus to Rowan Williams broken, the C of E would cease to be a church? Is this a problem only for the very highest Anglo Catholics, or would it worry some low church happy clappy types as well? Is the Establishment of the C of E simply a matter of tradition, we've alway done it this way so we'd just as soon carry on, or does it actually effect something central in some people's religion?

If so, is there a human rights issue regarding the right of indigenous Anglicans to continue to practice their traditional native religion without interference?

At moments like this, I always take the opportunity to say "antidisestablishmentarianism".


I admit it, so long as the monarchy isn't doing any harm, and of all the silly things there are in the British constitution (first past the post elections, the house of Lords, no bill of rights, Tony Blair, etc) the monarchy seems to be one of the most harmless, I like the absurdity of it all.

I like the fact that we have had it for at least several hundred years and arguably at least a thousand.

I like the fact that parliament is formally opened by a queen with a real crown and a real golden coach.

I'd much, much rather that all the bowing and scraping and ritual of state were directed at a rather horsy upper crust old lady who sometimes seems rather bemused by the whole thing than at a politician. Can you imagine them playing "Hail to the Chief" at Tony? At Maggie, even? (And yes, I'd still, on balance, take that view if some horrible outbreak of food poisoning at Windsor castle meant that parliament was going to be opened by, say, an oafish teenager who doesn't know what fancy dress outfits are in good taste and which aren't.)

And now, of all times, is not the time to talk about abolishing the monarchy. It would move us another step toward a Blairite Year Zero. Can you imagine a Blairite republic? A sort of constitutional millennium dome, in which the president swears allegiance to three different religions and none, and promises that he will do his best to be a good a citizen and recycle most of his household waste and keep the boy scout law.

The British empire may not have been anything to be particularly proud of, but I'd sooner be giving out medals called "order of the British Empire" that acknowledge that that part of our history existed than come up with some bland squeaky clean politically correct blank slate which fits in with that weeks politically trendy cause and pretends, that we don't actually have any history

Imagine if Thatcher had set up a Republic. We'd all be awarding each other the Order of Winston Churchill and Christmas would have been replaced with Trafalgar Day. Imagine if Harold Wilson had set up a Republic. "All You Need is Love" would probably be the National Anthem.

O gracious Prince, we thee implore
To go away and sin no more
Or, if the effort is to great
To go away, at any rate.

Congratulations, your Royal Highness and your soon to be Semi Royal Highness-ess. I wish you joy and gladness. May you rule wisely, or at any rate, slightly more wisely than your Home Secretary. May you continue to mean well, and occassionally make a bit of a fool of yourself. May you concentrate on organic gardening, which you know about, and keep your gob shut about medicine, which you don't. May your sons eventually come to their senses, and, if they don't, may you remember that it is part of the job of heirs to the throne to behave awfully. May slightly muted crowds line the streets of Windsor, and shout "God Save the Princess Consort Elect" with only a slight tinge of irony. May your mother live a long and happy life, but may she pop her clogs or abdicate while you are still young enough to open parliament without a zimmer frame. Speaking for myself, I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand 'til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

I may even buy a mug. Although, come to think of it, I don't think I bought a Golden Jubilee Mug, so the continuity of the Rilstone mug collection may be irrevocably broken.

Monday, February 07, 2005

I just realised that I haven’t written a review of Lord of the Rings in over a fortnight....

I learned one thing from watching the extended cut of Return of the King. Whatever else Peter Jackson may be, he is a very good editor. When he decides to consign something to the cutting room floor, the rest of the world should have the sense to leave it there.

The extended Fellowship of the Ring felt very much like, well, an extended Fellowship of the Ring. The same film, with a couple of new bits added. The opening “Bilbo does exposition” passage was a self-indulgent error, as was Sam’s recitation of his verse from “When evening in the shire was grey...”. But it was nice to get some back story about Aragorn’s mother, Beren and Luthien, and Elves going to the Grey Havens. The additional scenes also sorted out several point of internal continuity, such as “Why is everyone wearing elvish broaches in the second half?”

The extended Two Towers, on the other hand, was a very different film compared with the un-extended version. While most of my first order questions (e.g. “What the heck happened to Tolkien’s book?”) were left un-answered, most of my second-order questions, such as “What’s the deal with the horse?” were sorted out. The extended movie may not have had a great deal to do with the second volume of Lord of the Rings, but it did make sense on its own terms.


One of the best bits of the extended Two Towers (hereafter X-TTT) is the flashback to Faramir and Boromir at the battle of Osgilliath. It is a very Good Thing to see Faramir and Boromir together as two brothers. (If they weren’t going to do a scene together, why not get Mr Bean to be do both roles?) It’s nice to see Denethor in a Daddy role to both of them. It established all the things we needed to know about the characters – Denethor is barking, Faramir and Boromir really love each other although they see each other’s faults; Denethor, quite unfairly, prefers Boromir. And it explains why Faramir speaks the line “A chance for Faramir son of Denethor Captain of Gondor to show his quality” as if it has some significance. (In the book, he’s quoting a remark made by Sam. In the theatrical Two Towers (T-TTT?) the line comes from nowhere and is pretty meaningless. But in X-TTT it turns out that he is remembering something his father said. Cool.) Of course, no such scene exists in the book, and arguably Denethor was never at Osgilliath. But that only demonstrates that you can be Very Faithful to Tolkien and still Make Stuff Up.

The X-TTT flashback shows Denethor sending Boromir to the Council of Elrond. This is also Good Thing. One of my complaints about FOTR was that none of the subsidiary members of the Fellowship are properly introduced. Legolas gets no back-story beyond “he’s an elf.” (Aragorn subsequently reveals that he comes “from the woodland realm” and Gimli calls him “a princling”, but that’s it.) So by all means, tell us how Boromir came to be at the Council. And ever skip over the “Seek ye the sword that was broken, at Imladris it dwells” part, if you like.

But, but, but, but, but.

In the flashback, Denethor already knows that Isildur’s Bane is a the One Ring; and he is specifically sending Boromir to Rivendell so he can bring it back to Gondor. This retrospectively changes Boromir’s character. The implication of the first film, as with the book, is that Boromir has major misgivings about the idea of destroying the Ring; but that he sincerely, albeit reluctantly, promises to fulfill the will of the Council, and in the end is tempted by the Ring and attacks Frodo. This new flashback implies that he was Denethor’s spy the whole time, under orders from Dad to pinch the Ring. When he promises that he will help Frodo go to Mordor; either he has his fingers crossed behind his back; or else he is consciously reneging on the promise he made to his father. This puts a whole different slant on the “Boromir picks up the ring in the snow” scene. He’s not a good man being tempted by the Ring’s intrinsic evil: he’s a hypocrite thinking “Should I obey Dad, or obey Elrond.” It means that Sam is largely mistaken when he tells Faramir that “He tried to take the ring from Frodo after he had sworn an oath to protect him.” It would have been more accurate if he had said “He tried to take the Ring from Frodo, because he had sworn an oath to his father to do so.” (Did Sean Bean know that this was his character’s motivation when he played out those scenes?)

Various people have compared Denethor with King Lear: both are old; both of them go mad; neither of them are blind; and both of them are Kings, except Denethor. But it occurs to me that the “mad-old-king who stupidly sends his good son away and puts his faith in his bad son” does have some resonance with the story of Lear and his daughters: more so with the Gloucester sub-plot. Is it possible that Tolkien had read Shakespeare?

End of digression. Back to Return of the King.

Nothing in X-ROTK radically changes the structure of the film. I was hoping that the extended version might clarify some of the grosser absurdities of the theatrical version, but I was mainly disappointed. The bit about “Arwen’s fate being tied to the ring” was gibberish in T-ROTK, and remains gibberish in X-ROTK. The new version adds a pointless scene in which Aragorn looks into the palantir and sees, first Sauron’s eye, and then Arwen lying mostly dead on the ground. I have no idea what this scene means. Neither, I imagine, does Peter Jackson. Some explanation must exist, because there is a bit in the trailer where Elrond says “You gave away your life’s grace...”, which was presumably going to tie Arwen’s illness back to her rescue of Frodo in FOTOR. But this doesn’t make it to either version of the movie. (Merry and or Pippin doesn’t ever get to say “We will see the Shire again!”, either.)

A couple of plot-lines are slightly fleshed out. There is an extra scene of Aragorn talking to Eowyn, which tends to confirm my impression that film-Aragorn is a bit of a cad. Book-Eowyn is basically living out an inverted courtly love story. She falls in love with someone far above her station; who is in any case promised to another: he does nothing to encourage her, but she pines and is devoted to him, until she finally transfers her love to someone else. Movie-Aragorn’s one true love has told him that she is sailing to the Undying Lands; and so he flirts with Eowyn on the rebound. He hears that Arwen has not left Middle-Earth after all and dumps Eowyn two minutes later. At least Faramir and Eowyn actually get to meet before falling in love, but the scenes are pretty perfunctory. It turns out that the wise women in the houses of healing like to have crap pop music playing in the background while they work.

Positively good scenes included a meeting between Faramir and Pippin; and a couple of scenes of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, including a quite affecting shot of them throwing their un-necessary gear into a crevasse. I was pleased to see Gandalf confront the witch-king, although I thought it was rather pathetic that they had to come up with an “action movie” motivation for it. (No scene can appear in a movie unless it represents an obstacle which the hero has to overcome. In the book, Gandalf blocks the Witch Kings way at the gate of the city. No obstacle for the hero. Bad. In the film, the Witch King blocks Gandalf’s way to Denethor’s funeral pyre. Obstacle for hero. Good. Is our view of story really so mindlessly simplistic?)

Tolkien-geek-Andrew was pleased to see Jackson’s miniatures team having a shot at visualising the broken statue of the king which Frodo and Sam see at the cross-roads. But movie-fan Andrew honestly wonder’s what it was there for. Frodo’s line about the king’s crown of flowers showing that the orcs cannot conquer forever is deleted, which, typically, seemed to remove the main point of the scene. Sam still gets to say “Look, the king has a crown again”, which begs the response “We can see that you fool.”

But an awful lot of the “new” scenes served only to slow down an already top-heavy film. I am really, really, sorry, Christopher: I know that you are fine actor, and that you speak fluent elvish, and might have been an opera singer if you’d had the Latin; I know that you once met the Professor personally and that Attack of the Clones wasn’t your fault -- but truly, Mr Jackson was quite right to cut your big moment. To begin Part 3 with death of the villain who was defeated in Part 2 does indeed feel tedious. Saruman’s death has no dramatic tension. In the book, the main point of Saruman is that his voice can bewitch people, so during the parley in the tower there is a real danger that he will corrupt the party – for a moment, those present think that Gandalf is going to go over to his side. This aspect of Saruman has almost vanished from the movie; so there is very little drama or threat in the scene. Nothing comes of it except that Saruman throws down the Palantir.

While Theoden and Saruman were shouting at each other, I half expected Saruman to reply “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.” But the confrontation between Gandalf and the Mouth of Sauron was even more pythonesque. I take it that by “mouth”, Tolkien simply means “herald” or “spokesman”. Jackson decides, as ever, to take the text as literally as physically possible. Having interpreted “the eye of Sauron” as a huge glowy thing on top of the tower, he decide it would be a good thing to spend most of his time in extreme close up of the Mouth’s mouth, presumably so we can consider the results of failing to brush our teeth regularly with fluoride. The Mouth has a funny accent and a silly hat. It felt like a horrible hybrid of the Trade Federation from Phantom Menace, and Samuel Becket’s Not I. Of course, the parley with the herald at the gates of Mordor violates Jackson’s Second Rule: several seconds pass without anyone thumping anyone else. But Jackson has an ingenious solution to this problem. When the Mouth shows them Frodo’s mithril coat, Aragorn does what any chivalrous future-king would do under the circumstances, and chops his head off on the spot. Why oh why couldn’t the Mouth have said “Tis but a flesh wound, I’ve had worse” at this point? It would have been so much funnier than Gimli saying “Guess that concludes negotiations.” And humour is what you need at the climax of a twelve hour epic.

Ah, Gimli, Gimli, Gimli: a filmic catastrophe of Binksian proportions, undermining every, single scene he appears in. (Why the hell is he sitting in the stewards chair? Has he no respect for Faramir? Has Gandalf? Has Aragorn?) Yes, Peter Jackson, you were so, so right to cut out the “drinking competition” between Gimli and Legolas from T-ROK. What on earth possessed you to put it back in? When someone is drunk in a movie, why does it invariably happens that they say “I am perfectly sober” and then fall over backwards? Have you ever seen a real drunk behave like this? So why put it in your movie? It’s not big. It’s not clever. It sure as heck isn’t funny. Exactly the same cliché turned up in this years Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special, a programme which provided the final clinching argument for abolishing both the BBC license fee and the ordination of women.

Gimli is there, too in the extended build-up to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence. Spooky tendrils of mist form in the air and reach out to him, he blows very hard to disperse them, and they form again. He says “Ya-ya-ya-yoiks”, and Legolas throws him a Scooby Snack. He’s even there in the ruddy closing credits, making an anachronistic, vernacular “okay” sign. Showing his contempt for us all. Mocking us.

One could also mention the structural cock-up of showing us Aragorn boarding the Corsair’s ships, which served little purpose except to make his arrival at Minas Tirith a soupcon less dramatic. When he threatens to board them the pirate king says “You and whose army?” and Aragorn says “This army!” Making ancient world characters use modern turns of phrase is very funny in Carry on Cleo, here, it just gives the impression that you don’t give a shit.

Similarly, when Frodo tells Gollum that he swore on the Ring to obey him, the CGI sprite replies “Smeagol lied!” Does anyone want to enumerate how many movie-villains have made this joke over the last 20 years. (“But you promised.” “I lied”) If an oath taken on the Precious doesn’t mean anything to Smeagol, then a large chunk of the last 6 hours is rendered meaningless – Frodo wasn’t showing mercy to a pathetic character who was, at some level, trying “to be very good”, but being naively taken in by a conniving little liar. Which means that Frodo was wrong, straightforwardly, from the beginning, and Sam was right. Which totally undermines their characters. But who cares; it was a funny one liner. And funny one liners is what you need on Mount Doom.

Another thing which both increased and decreased my respect for Peter Jackson were the documentaries on the DVDs. I confess to only having ploughed through X-FOTOR so far. In the positive column, I was fascinated to learn about the massive amount of really thoughtful detail that had gone into the movies, asking questions like “What would Dwarfish weapons be like” and getting Tolkien experts and historians in to come up with good answers. But on the other – a slapdash disrespect for the world he is working with. Apparently, Alan Lee spent some weeks making sketches and models of what Moria ought to look like. But one of his sketches showed a hole in one of the stair-wells. Upon this hint, Jackson decided that there should be collapsing stairs, chasm leaps and, yes, dwarf tossing. None of which was in the original script.

“Make me the most detailed simulation of Moria you possibly can – and I’ll turn it into a sodding fairground ride, see if I don’t.”

People sometimes ask me why, if I feel this way about the movies, I watch them so carefully, so critically, and so, er, frequently.

The answer is rather obvious. Because of the good bits.

Has the idea of a camp parody of Lord of the Rings featuring Gandalf the Gay already been thought of? Is there at least a nightclub somewhere called the Gay Havens?
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.


As ever, remember that YHWH is the female demiurge (a baddie) and that she is literally present at the center of the earth somewhere.

Of course in the largest sense, I wouldn't rule out that it //the tsunami// was a reaction to the Year The Comic Book That Outed YHWH Came To An End. Many of the news stories about the tsunami made a great point of the fact that the earth -- that is to say YHWH in my construct which no one believes in but myself -- was still shuddering, still wobbling in its orbit, long after the fact, the day is now officially a millionth of a second shorter, etc. etc. Whereas I passed a quiet Christmas on my own, reading A Christmas Carol and John's Gospel aloud, completely at peace with the fact that I think I did with my book what I was intended by God to do with it and completely at peace with the fact that my twenty-six years of effort was as completely ignored by the Marxist media at the end of the year as it had been in March when it actually came to an end.

As I see it, at Christmastime 2004, YHWH and I were eyeball-to-ball.

And YHWH blinked.

Someone on the Yahoo group got in with the quote I wished I had thought of:

"The phrase 'paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur' is not in the aardvark's vocabulary, so, in his mind, he substitutes 'crazy as a panrovian monk' . . . " (Cerebus #5 p 13)

Yahoo! Groups : cerebus Messages : Message 58941 of 58997

Thursday, February 03, 2005

News of momentous importance

I finished Knights of the Old Republic. In scarcely more than a year. I shall gradually be re-integrating myself into human society. Who knows, I may even review it.