Saturday, August 05, 2006


What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.

So, Tony Blair has gone mad. This is no great surprise. Politicians go mad during their third term in office. The United States constitution recognises as much. Blair's recent speech to his bosses at News International provides us with a depressing insight into his current state of mind.

Blair says–stop me if you've heard this before–that the old political dichotomy between Left and Right no longer applies.

Most confusingly for modern politicians, many of the policy prescriptions, cross traditional Left/Right lines. Basic values, attitudes to the positive role of Government, social objectives - these still do divide along familiar Party lines. But on policy the cross-dressing is rampant and is a feature of modern politics that will stay. The era of tribal political leadership is over. But across a range of issues, there is no longer a neat filing of policy to the Left or the Right.

This is not exactly news: it's the theory on which New Labour was founded. Although Blair has stopped using the phrase, the concept of the Third Way is central to his thinking. It's the nearest thing he has to a political philosophy. Whatever he is talking about–foreign policy, education, law and order–he invariably says that in the Olden Days there was a debate between two opposing viewpoints; but that he, Tony Blair, discovered that this polarity was redundant, and everybody now agrees with him. In his recent speech in Bristol, Blair claimed that there used to be a difference of opinion between those who thought that you should deal with the social causes of crime and those who thought that you should simply punish criminals.

In retrospect, the argument looks sterile, silly even. New Labour finally arrived at what has now become the conventional position, summed up in the phrase: 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

The Third Way isn't moderation–navigating a mid-point between too-far-to-the-Right and too-far-to-the-Left. New Labour is supposed to be a new thing: neither Left, nor Right but somehow a synthesis of both.

Of course, this is nonsense: there is no such thing as a synthesis between two mutually exclusive actions. Blair's Third Way turns out to be a re-packaging of bog-standard centre-right ideology. The synthesis between punishing criminals and dealing with the social causes of crime turns out to be building more prisons and sending more people to jail; the synthesis between nationalisation and privatisation turns out to be, er, privatisation.

So, take a look at Blair's plans to abolish–I'm sorry, did I say abolish? I meant 'reform'–the welfare state. Blair says that 'old fashioned' welfare systems and public services can't bring about social justice.

Today's world means that social justice can only be achieved through education, not regulation; through enterprise flourishing and creating wealth, not being constrained.

But this has nothing to do with 'today's world'. In yesterday's world, there were people who thought that you should deal with poverty by redistributing wealth–taxing the rich and using the money to pay for social security cheques and public services. And people will doubtless continue to believe this in tomorrow's world, and in any parallel worlds Tony Blair chooses to visit. People who believe in this are called 'The Left'. And there always have been, and always will be, people who think that if governments would only stop taking money away from the rich then the rich would build factories, open shops, hire servants and thus create wealth and give jobs to the poor. People who think this are called 'The Right'. Blair thinks that the Right are right and the Left are wrong. You may very well agree with him. But it's nonsense to pretend that something in the Modern Age has changed the nature of the debate. This is the old, old clash between socialists and capitalists, and Blair knows very well which side he's on.

Oh: and he also says that 'fairness, equality, opportunity for all' are 'good progressive values' but that although 'the values are constant, their application has to be dynamic.' But hang on -- aren't 'values' supposed to be the one area where people are still divided along traditional party lines? So if, as a loyal Labour party supporter, Tony believes in the socialist Values of Fairness, Equality and Opportunity, does that mean that he thinks that they are the kind of values which the Conservative Party rejects?

Proclaiming a consensus where none actually exists is a classic tactic to disenfranchise the opposition. If 'everyone agrees' that the argument between the Left and the Right is over, then it follows that anyone putting forward a Left-wing position can be ignored. They're not exactly wrong; they're merely camped out in the jungle fighting enemies who don't exist any more. Tony Benn, George Galloway, about two-thirds of the Labour Party and myself are thus discovered to be un-persons. When Blair says that politics is no longer divided between the Left and the Right, he means that the Left, in the person of the Honourable Member for Sedgefield, has rolled over and died. Which is presumably why he has travelled all the way to California in order to ritually kiss the bottom of the most Right-wing newspaper magnate the world has ever known.

The argument between the Left and the Right was an argument between two intellectually plausible positions. People became Socialists or Conservatives as a result of an intellectual process. Michael Foot used to meet up with Barbara Castle and other friends in order to study the writings of Karl Marx together–not something which you can really imagine Gordon Brown and John Prescott doing. It was therefore possible for both sides to engage in an intellectual debate; and even for a genuine consensus to emerge. If we both want a socialist utopia, then we can discuss whether this would be better achieved by incrementally increasing workers rights, or by storming the gates of Buckingham Palace. And you can challenge us about whether the workers would be happier under Socialism than under a prosperous Capitalist system. In the meantime, we can work together to provide free health care for poor people.

But according to Blair, this Left versus Right debate has been superseded by–I promise I'm not making this up–a debate between Open and Closed. The three most important debates in European politics are about protectionism, isolationism and 'nativism', which Blair defines as 'relating to immigration and national identity.'

In each case the issue is: 'Open or Closed'. The response to globalisation can be free trade, open markets, investment in the means of competition: education, science, technology. Or it can be protectionism, tariffs, tight labour market regulation, resistance to foreign takeovers.

Countries can choose foreign policies that are engaged and activist, seeking to sort out the world's problems; or try to avoid their problems; refrain from controversy or picking sides, isolating a nation from the pain of the hurly-burly of the world's challenges, but also from the opportunity to shape their outcome.

And not a major country anywhere is not riven by the debate on migration: do we welcome it as infusing new blood and ideas; or do we fear it as undermining our identity?

It isn't immediately obvious what the views which Blair has labelled as Open and those he has labelled as Closed have in common. Surely you could support a non-interventionist ('Closed') foreign policy, but a liberal ('Open') immigration policy? And what would inform your decision about whether to be Open or Closed in a particular instance? Not, says Blair any kind of political theory or ideology:

Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the Left or the Right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world.

But in Blairspeak 'modern' means good and 'traditional' means bad, so to say that 'traditional' people support the Closed position is simply to say that the Closed position is wrong. Closed people are against education, science and technology; they don't want to sort out the world's problems; they don't like new ideas. Left vs Right was a debate between two credible positions. Open vs Closed is a row between the obviously right and the obviously wrong. It's an argument between nice and nasty, sensible and silly, modern and old fashioned–which, by a staggering coincidence, turns out to mean 'between those who agree with Tony Blair, and everyone else.'

Blair is absolutely explicit here: the Closed half of the debate has absolutely no merit and nothing to offer:

In this battle - 'Open versus Closed' - those on the 'Open' side of the argument will meet fierce opposition. Yet the 'Closed' side of the argument in truth has nothing to offer a nation except the delusion that the tide of change can be turned back; or alternatively a weaker version of the same delusion, namely that hard choices can just be evaded.

He references his 1999 conference speech, in which he labelled his enemies 'the forces of conservatism'. This was, he says, widely misunderstood: he wasn't attacking the Conservative party, but small-c conservatives who opposed change. Of course, anything a government does involves changing something. If you oppose a particular change, you are, by definition, a conservative. To say that the 'forces of conservatism' are the baddies is perilously close to saying 'change is always good; to oppose change is always bad'. But how is this different from saying 'whatever the government does–whatever I, Tony Blair do–is right'?

If you opposed the war in Iraq, it follows that you support isolationism and that you don't want to sort out the worlds problems. You feel this way because you are Closed; which means that, as the result of a delusion, you hold 'traditional' views of the world. You are part of the forces of conservatism; a baddy. It follows that we don't have to listen to anything you say: indeed, as Leaders, our job is not to engage in a debate with Closed people, but to simply press on, resolutely, with what we know is right.

But how do we leaders know what is right? Not through conventional religion or morality. Both Tony Blair and George Bush have drawn some fire for saying that they think that God influences their decisions. It is slightly too easy to lampoon Bush's folksy religious language: when someone from the evangelical tradition says 'I feel that God told me to do this' they probably only mean 'I feel that I did what was right'. Whatever you may have read in the Guardian, neither Blair nor Bush have ever suggested that a supernatural being appeared unto them and said 'Invade Iraq!' or 'Expand the provision of nursery school places for the under-3s!'

However, if you suggest to Tony that he acted reprehensibly in the run-up to the Iraq war, his response is to assert that he sincerely believes that what he did was right; although he accepts that other people believe, equally sincerely, that he was wrong. 'Beliefs' seem to be something like birthmarks or allergies; you have them, you're stuck with them; but you certainly can't change them through rational discourse. When asked about how the Iraq war related to his religious faith, Blair didn't try to prove that what he did was correct according to the precepts of the Bible or the writings of Christian holy men. He certainly didn't pay much attention to what the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope thought. He simply said that he believed his actions would some day be judged by God.

Some people might think that the way to find out if an action is 'good' or 'bad' is to see if it follows some agreed set of rules: the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the Boy Scout Law. But Blair thinks that his actions were good because he was experiencing a subjective emotional state called 'sincerity' at the time. And he trusts that in the future they will be declared to have been good according to a set of ineffable divine criteria. Only Tony Blair knows whether he really was sincere or not; only God knows what will happen on Judgement Day. So if you aren't Tony Blair or God, you had better shut up.

The present speech doesn't mention God, thank God. But it does say that Tony Blair's foreign policy is right because Tony Blair feels that it is right:

My anxiety over foreign policy is not in relation to the debate about terrorism or security. I have many opponents on the subject: but complete inner-confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face.

And what to do when those pesky Closed people suggest that it's possible that, even if you are very, very confident indeed, you might still be wrong?

The world changes fast; the policy changes necessary to cope are hugely challenging; opposition from traditionalists is immense. In these conditions, political leaders have to back their instinct and lead.

'Back your instinct.' Well of course. With ideology abolished, and with 'God' appearing to be synonymous with 'my own conscience' all you can do is follow your instinct; your gut feeling. And gut-feeling, unlike Das Kapital, isn't something that you can argue with. I like Marmite. Look, you know, I just happen to sincerely believe that Marmite is delicious. I have an inner-confidence about that. I accept that you sincerely believe that Marmite is disgusting. But there is no way that I can prove to you that you are wrong. We'll just have to wait until the Day of Judgement and let God sort it out.

In the meantime, if you are a leader, just do whatever comes into your head. In fact, do the first thing which comes into your head, because 'caution is error, to hesitate is to lose'. It doesn't necessarily matter what you do, provided you do something. 'Back you instincts, and lead.' Being a leader is an end in itself–not necessarily a leader of anything; not the spokesman of a party or the representative of an electorate, but just a leader.

For a leader, don't let your ego be carried away by the praise or your spirit diminished by the criticism and look on each with a very searching eye. But for heaven's sake, above all else, lead.

'For heaven's sake, lead.' The real distinction is not between Open and Closed. It's between Us, the Leaders, and you, the Led. Our function is to follow our gut-instinct; you're function is to follow us. The direction doesn't particularly matter.

So. For the next few months, we are going to being ruled by a raving lunatic who thinks that the basis of political decision making is 'whatever Tony feels like at the time.' But this is not the problem. The problem is that after a brief interregnum, David Cameron is going to be exactly the same.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Asexual Pride

"....and I think in the same way there are things that men can read which can send out signals, I think, which are deeply unattractive to women."

"Such as?"

"Well, sci-fi and fantasy. I think if you're the sort of man who's reading one of those lurid books with sort of triple breasted amazonian women on the front cover and inside it's all about swords and sorcery and so on then I think what you're communicating to any woman is that you're still an adolescent"

"Unless the woman is into that kind of thing, of course, I mean, it's possible"

"It is, it is, but I have friends who love that sort of stuff and many of them are still looking for women who are also similarly interested in that particular subculture. "

"Stick your nose in a book and you could find love. How the right book can find you the right partner." Today, BBC Radio 4, August 1st

Monday, July 24, 2006

Superman Returns

In 1977, Ma and Pa Kent were dead but Krypto the superdog was still alive. Jor-El looked like an extra from Buck Rogers and no-one had heard of John Byrne. Since then, the D.C Universe has been wiped out and reconstituted (twice). Superman has been portrayed as a yuppie by Byrne and as a fascist by Frank Miller. On the TV he's been one half of a romantic comedy and the lead in Little House on the Huge Pile of Kryptonite. But Bryan Singer's Superman Returns manages to ignore these developments, as if the Superman mythos was fossilized at the end of Superman II.(We're intended to pretend that Superman III and Superman IV didn't happen, instead of simply wishing that they didn't. The only difference this makes is that Martha Kent's death is reported in Superman III whereas in Superman Returns she is rather gratuitously alive.) From the opening bars of John Williams second most famous theme tune to the final image of Superman cavorting among the clouds, Singer seems obsessively unwilling to bring anything to this film which wasn't implicit in the first two movies. This is neither a sequel nor a remake: it's a collection of very reverent annotations.

Christopher Reeve is both brilliant and dead, so he is treated with the most reverence. The film is, of course, dedicated to his memory. Brandon Routh doesn't so much play Superman as play Christopher Reeve playing Superman. He doesn't look or sound very much like Reeve, but his acting style is eerily similar – especially in the Clerk persona, of which we see too little. Kevin Spacey doesn't attempt to turn in an impersonation of Gene Hackman, but he follows the zany megalomaniac persona to the letter. It's long enough since I saw the old films that I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't the same actor. (The most obvious difference is that Hackman mostly wore a wig, but Spacey is mostly bald.) Only Kate Bosworth is incongruously playing a completely different character from Margot Kidder, who admittedly never had a great deal to do with Comic Book Lois. Kidder was a career woman who had seen it all before; Bosworth seems almost to be an innocent caught up in events slightly too big for her. Jimmy Olsen and Lois seem to have aged in opposite directions.

There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate the cast list of a well-loved classic. But the characters seem fixed in pre-ordained roles; as if the earlier script circumscribes their range of actions. Not only is Lex carrying out a ridiculous real-estate scam that will kill billions of people; not only does he have a comedy moll who has a fit of conscience at the last moment; but he even reprises his "What my father told me about land" speech from Superman I. Perry repeats the "give me every possible angle on the Superman story" pep-talk. When Superman has saved the lives of the passengers on an experimental space shuttle he feels obliged to encore the old joke abut flying being statistically the safest form of transport. Is Superman a sufficiently iconic movie that today's teen audience can be assumed to have this level of familiarity with it? Over and over again, lines are given special significances because people had said them before – Superman not only greets Lois with the words "You really shouldn't smoke", but keeps blowing her cigarette out as a sort of symbolic romantic gesture. Would you automatically have remembered that that was the first thing he said to her in the old movie? And if you haven't seen Superman I in any recent decade you might very well not understand why everyone keeps quoting the speech about the father becoming the son and the son becoming the father.

The films structure also seems straitjacketed to that of the original. We get a ten minute sequence of Superman visiting his mother in the old homestead, which seems to contribute nothing to the narrative, but conforms to some rule that says that the story arc must go from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis. At the half-way-point Superman shows off his special effects by flying Lois around the city – although, mercifully, she doesn't feel the need to recite any poetry. We get a montage of him zooming round the world doing a sequence of low-level good turns; followed by a build up to Luthor's mad scheme, and then a huge apocalyptic battle against disaster, climaxing with him turning the world backwards in the old film and bench-pressing a continent in this one.

Most curiously, every major plot event is directly extrapolated from Superman I and II – as if Singer thinks it would be blasphemy to bring anything new to the mix. In Superman I Luthor likes to make money out of real-estate; and the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude are shown to be able to grow and reproduce; so here, Luthor steals kryptonian crystals and tries to grow himself a whole new continent. (He gets into the Fortress of Solitude without much trouble. In the comic book, the door is locked with a very large key that only Superman can lift.) Even the Big Reveal -- which genuinely took me by surprise -- is a very natural development of something which happened in Superman II.

Cinematic vocabulary has moved on, and there are some very creative depictions of Superman's powers. The slowed-down-bullets thing, a monumental bore in every film since The Matrix was put to excellent use here: Superman bouncing machine gun bullets off his chest, and finally off his eyeball may have been the best scene in the whole movie. On-screen action is more frenetic compared with the old days: when Superman rescues the crashing jet, we keep cutting to very disorientating scenes inside the plane.

The film was oddly coy about iconography. The first time Clerk pulls his shirt off, we only see it for a split second; and during the first action sequence, we are not allowed many clear views of Superman. It was almost as if Singer was specifically trying to avoid a Big Moment in which Clerk reveals the "S" on his chest and launches himself into action. However, when someone snaps a photograph which looks oddly like the cover of Action Comics #1, Perry White helpfully tells us that the picture is iconic.

But the iconography of Superman isn't just lifting cars and rescuing aircraft: it's also about the Daily Planet; about Superman's double-life and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, and above all the Cyrano-like love triangle between Lois, Clerk and Superman. We see very little of this in Superman Returns. Perhaps if he'd had more screen time, we would have been unable to avoid asking how even Lois could have failed to notice that Clerk had been away for five years, and, er, Superman had also been away for five years.

At the beginning of the film, Superman stops a plane from crashing into a city. That is also now an iconic image. The posters advertising the film showed Superman swooping in front of a stricken jet over a landscape full of skyscrapers. Is the message that, if only Superman had been here, September 11th would have turned out differently: the world really does need a saviour. As with its overblown use of religious symbolism, the film is using highly charged icons to evoke emotions that it hasn't earned.

This is the heart of the problem. Singer thinks that he's allowed to use sacred images because he is approaching the character of Superman, the performance of Christopher Reeve, and the whole of the 1977 movie as something like holy writ. You can reverently illuminate it, but you can't alter it, much less have any fun with it. Superman Returns is at a very deep level, pretentious: a great deal of awe, but very little heart.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Superman: the Second Coming

Superman is not Jesus. The Old Superman is a boy-scout who regarded rescuing sinking ocean liners and saving the earth from asteroid collisions as 'super-chores.' The Very Old Superman was a tough-guy who socked wife-beaters on the jaw and said 'you aren't fighting a woman now, coward.' The Superman of the radio serials and the Fliescher cartoons 'came to Earth as champion of the weak and the oppressed.' Truth, Justice and the American Way came later.

But he isn't Jesus. The names of Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster appear on every comic featuring the Man of Steel – which is greatly to the credit of D.C Comics: Marvel are still reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any creator other than Stan Lee. According to one reckoning, Siegel and Shuster are jointly the 100th most influential Jews in history: Superman being the foundation stone on which the comic-book industry and therefore much of the movie industry was constructed. More people have heard of Superman than have heard of Hamlet. In 1938 it was understandable that a pair of young Jewish artists might have wanted to imagine a champion. A Messiah, even.

So there is no way that Superman can be Jesus. (His adversary is called Luthor, for goodness sake.) Would it be going too far to suggest that there is a racial motive in the incremental appropriation of Jerry and Joey's character as Christian symbol? Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a tragic riding accident; George Reeves, the first TV Superman, committed suicide. And since it is always possible to construct a straight line between two points, some people believe in a Curse of Superman which anyone who dons the red underpants will be touched by. At first, Siegel and Shuster, who sold the rights to Superman for a few a hundred dollars and died in relative penury, were imagined as victims of this jinx. But the latest iteration of the myth has Jerry Siegel, shortly before the release of the 1977 movie, calling down a curse on all those who have made money out of his character. To re-imagine Superman as a Christian saviour, maybe we had to turn his creator into an old, blind, bitter, Shylock, cursing his treasure.

The Very Old Superman leapt tall buildings in a single bound. Christopher Reeve flew. Bryan Singer's re-invention of Superman floats. Not to put to fine a point on it, he Ascends. He looks down on the earth from above, and says that he can hear everything anyone is saying. 'You say that the world doesn't need a Saviour, but I hear people crying out for one.' And sure enough, he ends up carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders: first, lifting the gigantic globe from the top of the Daily Planet building; then carrying Lex Luther's re-created Kryptonian continent into space. (Luther sees himself as Prometheus, and Superman as a selfish god from whom he is going to steal fire.) Having saved the world but exposed himself to Kryptonite, Superman takes on a cruciform pose and falls to earth. At great length. But of course, he's only Mostly Dead, and when the hospital staff go to check on him, they find the place empty where they had laid him.

No one tried to crucify the man of steel in the 1993 'Death of Superman' comic. He was just beaten to death by a big strong alien. He got better.

Mario Puzo's script for the 1978 Superman movie had Marlon Brando drawing fairly explicit parallels between the origin of Superman and the birth of Jesus, even though it is blindingly obvious even in Puzo's own script that the real parallel is with Moses. But the 70s Superman never became Christic other than in the Kryptonian prologue. Considering that he defies his Father's will to turn back time in order to save Lois's life, and subsequently relinquishes his powers in order to fuck her on his fathers shrine, you could argue that there was something Luciferian about him. Bryan Singer references Marlon Brando's speech no less than three times.

'You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your own eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son....They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.'

In Puzo's script, this lends some cheesy gravitas to the proceedings. Here, it is merely pretentious.

Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins, Neo, Leo DeCaprio, Indiana Jones – Hollywood turns all its heroes into Christian symbols. (All except Aslan, obviously.) But do the symbols actually symbolize anything? It's hard to see how the story of Superman would help Christian viewers understand the story of Jesus; but neither does it seem to be critiquing or commenting on that story. When Bryan Singer has Magneto use the words 'By any means necessary' at the end of the X-Men, he is asking us to look for connections between his mutant fantasy and the civil rights movement. When Superman thrusts out his arms and falls to earth, he is simply borrowing significance from a bigger story: pretending to be far more important than he has any right to be.

Superman is a friendly alien. He was born on a planet with atomic cities, art-deco architecture, and Flash Gordon fashions. He grew up in Anytown and went to the Big City. Oh, all right, Smallville and Metropolis. Lex Luthor is a mad scientist. Luthor has outrageous schemes; Superman cleverly defeats them. His other enemies include a mad scientist with green skin who steals cities and keeps them in bottles; and a mischievous sprite in a derby hat. He started life in Action Comics and on a radio series presented by the makers of Kellogs Pep, (the super-delicious breakfast cereal). Superman may be able to lift whole continents on his shoulders, but he isn't substantial enough to carry such weighty symbolism.

Superman isn't Jesus. He's a comic-book character.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Doctor Who -- Notes

1: 'Camp'
The word 'camp' means 'a gay man affecting effeminate mannerisms' and 'ironic self-awareness; enjoying a dramatic work because of its faults.' Not sure if the two meanings are linked: is there a lot of effeminacy in camp drama, or do effeminate men have a tendency to send themselves up?

Doctor Who has sometimes been 'camp': a lot of fans enjoy watching the bad old stories just because they are so bad; and in the later Tom Baker stories you sometimes feel that the cast are deliberately camping it up. And at least since John Nathan-Turner, there has been no shortage of Doctor Who fans who are themselves camp. Before it was discovered that they were all asexual, fandom accepted and even embraced the stereotype of the gay Doctor Who fan. And the stereotype was sufficiently recognisable in the gay community that it was used in Queer as Folk. (Can't remember who wrote that.)

I am not completely sure where the link comes from. I wonder if it started out as pure theatrical camp: most luvvies sometimes 'did' Doctor Who, just like they 'did' panto? Or is it just that the dandyish / bohemian clothes fit in with a certain kind of gay aesthetic?

There's never really been a tradition of Doctor Who slash. There are very few successful parodies of Doctor Who either. Star Trek is so po-faced that imagining Kirk slipping on a banana skin or giving Spock a good rogering presents a challenge. Who porn and Who slash could be quite hard to distinguish from actual Who. 'Curse of the Fatal Death', which largely consisted of fart jokes, might be considered slash since it ended up with the Doctor going off arm-in-arm with the Master. How did fans react to it? By arguing about whether or not it was canon.

If you insist on sexualising the Doctor, then it makes sense to think of him as a rather repressed gay man: a succession of close friendships with much younger women would seem rather sordid, not to say paedophilic, if he was straight. Maybe we are now supposed to believe that all of his previous 'companions' were more or less girl-friends; but frankly, if you can ret-con it so that Doctor Patrick was screwing Zoe, then you can ret-con anything, and there is no real point in pretending that the programme we're discussing has anything to do with Doctor Who.

So I wonder if the gay sub-text in the new series is another example of RTDs self-consciousness? Fans have sometimes speculated that the Doctor might be gay so the idea that the Doctor might be gay has to be alluded to within the series itself. If this is right, then the series has become camp because it has become camp...

2: Sci-fi

Doctor Who
has in the past done a lot of pretty straight sci-fi – galactic empires and ray guns ('Frontier in Space') generation starships ('The Ark', 'The Ark in Space') and more flying saucers and aliens invading the earth then you can shake a magnetic core at. It has also done a lot of gothic with a paper-thin sci-fi gloss ('Daemons', 'Horror of Fang Rock'); not to mention swashbuckling with a science fiction gloss ('Androids of Tara') and fantasy with a science fiction gloss ('Keeper of Traken'). And it has also done straight, unapologetic fantasy ('Celestial Toymaker' or 'Mind Robber'.) There have been attempts to do Proper Science Fiction – in their different ways 'The Space Pirates', 'Logopolis' and 'Kinda' might all have been in that category. But they were atypical and not necessarily successful.

I very much take the point that the alien-which-sucks-you-in-to-the-TV-screen and the alien-which-sucks-you-into-the-child's-paintings are demons, working according to a metaphorical logic. This kind of monster has only rarely appeared in Doctor Who in the past: it's more what I associate with Sapphire and Steel. But there is no mismatch between 'magical' creatures of this kind and the concept of Doctor Who.

My problem isn't that they are demons; nor that the sci-fi justification for them is weak. It's that the script writers can't be bothered to set the ground rules. I don't need the television monster to be explained with scientific accuracy: I would quite like to know what its powers and weaknesses are supposed to be.

Remember 'Curse of Fenric'? The monsters were mutants from the future that drunk human blood. In case you missed the point, they landed at Whitby. At some point, Ace says 'Can you really use a cross to repel a vampire?' and the Doctor says 'It's not the cross which bothers them: but human faith sets up a psychic barrier they can't get past.' Pure gobbledegook, but it established a rule, and they stuck to the rule for the rest of the story. The communist repels the vampire with his hammer and sickle; the wet vicar fails to repel one with a cross; and Ace nearly spoils the Doctor's plan because the psychic barrier created by her faith in him is so strong.

Internal logic. Is it too much to ask?

3: Race
Micky is a person with dark coloured skin who lives in a part of London where lots of people with dark coloured skin live. His accent is also the kind of accent which dark skinned people from that part of London sometimes have. It would have been quite silly if Rose didn't have any black neighbours. The fact that, in episode 1, he is a bit of an idiot; and the fact that he is dating Rose, who happens to have light coloured skin, is neither here nor there. They were just two characters. I don't think any element of any story would have been any different if Mickey had been white and Rose had been black, or if they had both been black, or if they had both been white. That is why diversity quotas for dramas are a silly idea.

Maybe a hypersensitive person could have said that it was a mistake that at the end of the first episode, Mickey was (arguably) represented as ape-like. But I'm inclined to say that we've been through racism and come out the other side and that although this is the kind of joke which could have been made in such a way as to be very offensive indeed, it wasn't meant in that way, so no-one took it in that way.

Is it true that people only enjoy TV shows if some of the main characters look like them? Will a person with dark coloured skin be unable to enjoy 'Robin Hood' unless someone invents an Afro-Saxon outlaw?

I thought that the President of England was a bit of a cliché – the wise, patrician statesman with just a trace of his Jamaican accent. I can't think of another example off hand, but I still think it's a bit of a cliché. Captain Zac, (not to be confused with Captain Jack or indeed Captain Jack) on the other hand, was a character who I really liked and believed in for the whole story. I'd like to see more of him. But it was still striking that someone had said in both stories 'The highest status character ought to be the one with dark coloured skin, so that no-one can accuse us of being patronising.'

I have no doubt whatsoever that when Tennant decides he has had enough, the TARDIS will be occupied by a Doctor of colour. By itself, a second regeneration won't be very exciting: there's a danger that the show-biz pages will just say 'They are changing the lead actor yet again in a last ditch attempt to save that series which isn't as good as it used to be.' To get the tabloids onside, Davies will have to do something unexpected -- and that means either a female Doctor or a black Doctor. But the Daviesite dynamic wouldn't survive a gender reversal; the audience understands that Doctor Who is about an Unattainable Hero and Ordinary Girl. Unattainable Heroine and Ordinary Boy would appeal to a quite different audience. So the headline grabber has to be 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GOES MAD IN THE TARDIS: NOW DOCTOR WHO IS BLACK.'

I don't actually think the situation will arise. I imagine the BBC will renew the series as far as the fifth season, but not for a sixth; and that Tennant will stick around for the duration. But I've been wrong before. Frequently.

Did you know that when the series was first on the rocks, JNT had a meeting with Sydney Newman (please don't anybody say 'Who's Sydney Newman?') to talk about how he would revitalise the series. Newman said
1: Less sci-fi
2: Do a story in which everyone gets shrunk down really, really small
3: Turn the Doctor into a woman.


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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Doctor Who Series 2: Episodes 12 & 13

So; that's that then. All over for another 39 weeks.

And this time it really is 'all over'. First, they sold us 'The Doctor and Rose Show', and then Chris went, and now Billie's gone and we're back in uncharted water. Next Christmas will be the third re-launch in two years.

In March 2005, Rose's alarm clock went off and since then we've seen everything from her point of view. When the Doctor tried to dump Rose in 'Parting of the Ways', we went back to earth and sat with her in the chip shop and wondered what he was up to. But this time we stayed with the Doctor, alone again, fiddling with the TARDIS controls. We see the mysterious bride through his eyes, and like him we wonder who the hell she can be. Eighteen months ago, RTD made a Copernican shift in the focus of the show: from Doctor, to companion. Well, now we've shifted back.

And it really, really is all over, because once the Doctor has stood in the TARDIS and tried to say 'I love you' then the programme that used to be called Doctor Who has been gently, lovingly, painlessly put to sleep. It will probably now go to interesting places; and we can decide to go with it or we can decide to stay behind and regret that staying until the day we die. But we can never change things back to how they were before: if we did, the Reapers would come and get us.

And that's okay. It's not the first time the series has committed euthanasia. The T.V series that had been called Doctor Who came to an end in 1976, when the Master held Tom Baker's head under water. It probably finished the first time someone used the word 'Time Lord' or when the unearthly child was booted out of the TARDIS.

There was a story. There was Mickey, and his appearance in a Torchwood lab coat would have been a really good surprise, if it wasn't that the BBC is obliged to protect us from unexpected plot twists, because of the special way it's funded. There were Ma and Pa Tyler and they were done really rather well. Jackie got a go at being a companion, and the nice thing was that she'd changed since episode 1, but not changed beyond recognition. The look on Mickey's face when Jackie tells Pete 'There's never been anyone else' was priceless. Good call to play the scene as comedy; that made it quite touching; if it had been played as a tearjerker, it would have just been annoying. It's nice to occasionally be reminded that the reason RTD has a reputation for being a good scriptwriter is that he can, when he tries, write good scripts.

There were Daleks. And Cybermen. And I don't know what the Daleks were for. Beyond opening the rift for the Cyberpeople to come through, they had no role in the story. Billions of Daleks appear; they swap taunts with the Cybermen; the Doctor waves his magic wand; billions of Daleks disappear. But they did get Doctor Who an unprecedented third Radio Times cover, so I guess they served their purpose.

It was cute to have Daleks and the Cybermen standing around saying 'Identify yourself' 'No, you identify yourself'. I am glad this stopped before one or other of them claimed to be a lighthouse. I quite enjoyed 'Daleks have no concept of elegance'/'This is obvious'. But 'In one thing only are you our superiors: you are better at dying' is just not the kind of thing that a hate filled cybernetic alien would say. Is there no-one who can restrain RTD from this kind of meta-textual silliness? The channel hopping gags are getting boring, too. If weird aliens had invaded earth disguised as ghosts, then they wouldn't be appearing on daytime TV. It would have made more sense to show Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury arguing on Newsnight about whether ghosts existed or not. My mother tells me that there was an in-joke in the Eastenders clip which I didn't spot; which makes up for the occasional Doctor Who in-jokes that she doesn't spot.

But the story wasn't really about Daleks, Cybermen, aliens, ghosts or Torchwood. Those things are just there to keep the asexuals happy. (Did you notice that in the Episode 1 trailer, a human gets zapped by something which we regulars could easily identify as a Dalek death-ray. A gun, I mean, not an ice-cream. Take that, you asexuals: we'll put in spoilers that will spoil it for you, but not for anyone else – if that doesn't drive Doctor Who fans away from Doctor Who I don't know what will.) The real subject of Doctor Who – indeed, the real subject of everything, all that matters in life, is dating. It's a subject which is especially close to the heart of the pre-adolescent target audience, which is why the old series was so silly to base itself around Old Labour ideas like friendship. The chemistry between Eccleston and Piper was enough to sustain a series. The chemistry between Tennant and Piper decidedly isn't. You could have got some plot mileage out of 'Rose loved Doctor Chris, but she doesn't love Doctor David, Doctor David is hurt, because so far as he's concerned, he's still the same person.' But we didn't try: after 45 minutes of post-regeneration angst, we've just had to assume that the Doc and Rose's relationship has re-set to whatever it was before 'Bad Wolf'.

So the only question about 'Army of Ghosts'/'Doomsday' is 'Does Rose die?' And given quite how much foreshadowing there had been, it's no great surprise that the surprising answer was (look away now) 'No, course she bloody doesn't.' Which raises the question of what Satan thought he was doing making portentous predictions, and why anyone would describe 'the circumstances under which my name was erroneously added to the list of casualties of a disaster I escaped from' as 'This is the story of how I died.'

If she is really going to work for the Torchwood of Earth-2, then it probably won't be the last story she ever tells.

So the only tension was meta-textual: we kept thinking 'Is this the bit when Rose dies' because we'd been told in advance that Rose was going to die. When Rose goes back to Earth-2 with Mickey and Jackie, we all think 'Ah, perhaps this is how it ends'; and then when she is nearly pulled into the void, we think 'Aha, this is how it ends', which makes the final appearance of Pa Tyler almost unexpected. The Doctor and Rose trying to touch each other through the now-closed-off rift in space was almost as moving as in Phillip Pullman, although without the under-age shagging.

I'm usually a sucker for sentimental stuff. I was quite touched by 'Father's Day'. But RTD was trying so hard to make me cry that I didn't feel remotely like crying: although goodness gracious me isn't Billie Piper a remarkably remarkable actress; totally convincing us that her whole life has fallen apart, without going remotely over any kind of top. There are still people who say that they can't watch Doctor Who because of Billie, which I can only interpret as class-snobbery or pure straightforward misogyny: we don't want smart, competent women in our sci-fi – or at any rate, not smart, pretty competent women who speak with lower class accents and failed their A levels. I know that Tennant's Doctor is supposed to slightly aloof; I know that he is supposed to be wacky; I know that the slight woodenness is part of the characterisation. I like him as much as I've liked any Doctor since Tom Baker. But I still couldn't quite stop myself from thinking 'What could Christopher Eccleston have done with this material?'

Some people have noted some rather gratuitous religious imagery in this series; I must say I was relieved that, when the holographic Doctor meets Rose on a beach, and Rose says 'You look like a ghost' the Doctor resists the temptation to say 'Do not cling to me.' Not in so many words, at any rate.

I watched the episode with a group of Whovian friends. Everyone liked it and we laughed in all the right places. I think the last scene was meant to be tragi-comic rather than sad, so when Rose says 'I love you' and the Doctor says 'Quite right too,' we all think the line is almost as funny as it was when Harrison Ford first ad libbed it a quarter of a century ago; and when the Doctor tries to say 'I love you' but dematerialises mid-sentence, we all laughed -- laughed with it rather than at it I mean; and of course, it should have ended there, where it started, with Rose and Mickey and Jackie; not back on the TARDIS with the Doctor; because now we've seen him cry, and like the first time you see your parents cry, it's all over and nothing can ever, ever, ever be the same again.

When Rose mentions 'the baby', the Doctor automatically assumes that it is hers and is pleased. Does the Doctor think that when he dumped her, Rose immediately started sleeping with Mickey? Or is it possible that, just for a moment he thought...

No. That way, madness lies.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Page 1

The ultimate outrage by a British Government.


Sinister new powers allowing the State to confiscate family homes were unveiled by ministers yesterday as Labour's socialist instincts came to the fore.

The government abandoned any pretence of being reconciled to private property or the rights of individuals to run their own affairs. New Whitehall guidelines set out powers for town hall officials to seize homes for seven years if they are left empty for just six months.

Furniture and heirlooms will be grabbed as well under plans drawn up by shamed Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Today the Daily Express begins a new crusade to defend householders rights by demanding: "Hands off our homes."

Page 5

Terrorists kill 163 in train bomb massacre

Monday, July 03, 2006

Oh, for goodness sake...

The word which Jonathan Ross said to David Cameron was not especially rude, certainly not by the standards of anyone under 35. The activity represented by that word is not "lewd and obscene" by the standards of anyone at all. Most people would regard it at the same level as the other shocking and obscene word beginning with the letter W that Ross used in the same interview: "having a wee". A perfectly ordinary word to refer to a perfectly ordinary thing. Of course you'd be embarrassed to be caught doing it in public. (In that respect it's a lot like reading the Daily Mail.) But it doesn't make you short-sighted or drive you mad. (In that respect, it isn't.)

Satirists, like court jesters deflate pompous people. That's their job. One way of doing that is to imagine them performing private bodily functions. Didn't Winston Churchill overcome stage fright by imagining that his audience were all sitting on the lavatory? But mixed in with the anglo-saxon language, Mr. Ross was actually making two quite good political jokes. First, he insinuated that Mrs Thatcher was popular because Conservative men found her sexy. This isn't true, any more than it is true that John Major wore his underpants outside his trousers. But it's funny because we feel that Mrs Thatcher's huge popularity requires some kind of explanation; and because we can imagine that middle-class ex-public school men liked to be ordered around by a deep-voiced woman who thumped them with her handbag. You can't watch that footage of William Hague making his first political speech at the age of 14 without thinking that something weird is going on. But the joke is that Ross asks the question directly – were you ever sexually interested in Mrs Thatcher? Having embarrassed his victim by saying out loud what everyone has sometimes thought; Ross asked an unrelated question and received an evasive answer. So he repeated the previous question using much ruder language, adding "See, I'm just like Jeremy Paxman." Any fool could see that he was now making a joke against himself ("I'm the sort of person who would ask a rude question like that?") and against political interviewers" ("I'm going to repeat the same silly question over and over again.")

So how is it that when the Daily Mail affects to be very, very shocked by this lewd and obscene language both the Tory party and the BBC nod their heads sagely and pretend that it is a very serious matter. Should politicians go on programmes where they might be asked lewd and obscene questions? Should the BBC pay nineteen million pounds a year to someone who asks such lewd and obscene questions? Or are the BBC perfectly free to transmit lewd and obscene programmes -- even though of course I myself didn't watch it. Why did they not have the guts to say "Oh, shut up you stupid, humourless, holier-than-thou, frigid, late-Victorian, prudish, priggish, puritan."

The answer to the question "Why did a serious politician appear on this man's show" is presumably the same as the answer to the question "Why do the BBC pay this man £19,000,000?" -- because his viewing figures are nothing short of obscene.

Were we really so innocent that we missed the main point? The Mail, by pretending that it didn't know what masturbation was, managed to get us to file the programme under "The interview where Jonathan Ross made a rude suggestion to an M.P." This cleverly deflected attention from the fact that Ross also asked a perfectly serious question about Conservative drug policy. By responding weakly and evasively to Ross's perfectly valid points, David Cameron came across on prime time TV as a complete wanker.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.

I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.

I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")

And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.

The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)

These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.

There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.

It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.

The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.

Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.

It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.

"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Doctor Who Series 2 Episode 11

I think that may have been the worst episode of Doctor Who I have ever seen.

Doctor Who Series 2 Episodes 4-10

The writer promises plenty of special effects and something very action film-y, but won't say where the action is set. "Even answering that is giving too much away", he says.
Radio Times 13-19 May, p 14

7.00 Doctor Who - Rise of the Cybermen: The Tardis is trapped on a parallel Earth.
Radio Times 13-19 May p 68.

Doctor Who continues to exhaust superlatives.

I can't quite decide whether the one with Satan and the black hole is the best Doctor Who story of all time, or merely the best since the departure Tom Baker. Certainly, it was the first since the re-launch to genuinely feel like an episode of Doctor Who. It stuck very closely to the classic formula; trapping a small group of named characters in some remote location and then having it infiltrated by monsters. And even more importantly, someone got to run down a corridor!

This story put right a lot of what I said was wrong with episodes 1 – 3. The pacing was greatly improved. We were introduced to the crew of the sanctuary base in their ordinary situation – dealing with routine emergencies, eating at their canteen. We paused for breath long enough to find out their names and jobs. So when the horror started, we were able to give a damn. When Scooti fell into the black hole, I felt sad. (When Sir Robert got eaten by the werewolf, I said "Wait a minute, which one was he again?")

The story contained some genuinely scary ideas -- and gave us time to be scared of them. I'm not primarily thinking of Satan himself. The idea of an ancient-evil imprisoned by a long-dead-race is a bit of a cliché even by Doctor Who standards, although the production team milked it for all it was worth. For once, the monster was big enough, both literally and metaphorically, to live up to the build-up. But poor Toby with the alien writing over his face was much more unnerving than the big red horned roary thing. But the psychological stuff was much more genuinely scary: lowering the Doctor into a dark, bottomless pit; making him leap into the darkness; leaving Rose at the top of the shaft, linked to him only by a crackly radio. The pacing is perfect: a five minute scene of the Doctor dangling ten miles underground in the pitch dark, idly discussing the nature of "evil" with Ida gives us time to imagine ourselves in that vertiginous darkness. Would we have had the guts to jump? Any self-respecting kid ought to be having nightmares about this for weeks to come.

The Buffyfication of the story was kept within reasonable limits. Too often, RTD's soap operatics are unrelated to the story in which they are embedded. Here, the Doctor\Rose scenes emerge naturally from the situation. With the TARDIS gone forever (yeah, right) the two of them do have to think about what they are going to do from now on.

Perhaps the ending was a little rushed; perhaps we could have done with two lines of explanation about why the lettering was appearing on people's faces, and why the Ood's communication device suddenly turned into a weapon. Perhaps there is a problem with the Doctor now having complete control over the TARDIS: where he used to be an aimless wanderer, he's now a tourist. But that means he's now sitting on a gigantic plot device: the whole story would have been undermined if he could have used the TARDIS to beam down to the bottom of the hole and then beam up again. So the first ten minutes of the episode had to involve the TARDIS being lost (forever) when only two weeks ago we had it breaking down (forever) – both plot devices shored up by over-the-top dramatic scenes in which the Doctor agonizes about spending eternity as a TARDISless Time Lord.

Oh....and just in case you think that RTD is neglecting the needs of asexual fanboys. In episode two, the Doctor refers to a number of planets where the myth of the horned beast exists. One of the planets he mentions is called Daemos – which is, of course, the home of the eponymous Daemons

But at the other extreme was the one with the Coronation, which could stand as a capsule history of how RTD has buggered up the show. The story had a certain amount of potential. The idea of an ordinary domestic appliance becoming threatening has the right mix of horror and surrealism. The idea of a TV which talks back to you is intriguingly spooky. It was smart to set the thing in the 1950s when TV was a new technology. (Black-and-white BBC accents being beamed out of Ally Pally is very much the milieu in which Doctor Who first emerged.) The pre-cred sequence was distinctly good: the man working late in his TV repair shop; the aerial being struck by lightning; the face on the TV screen coming to life and talking to him; the strange light sucking the man into the screen. It was quite cool to make "Are you sitting comfortably...then I'll begin" into a sinister line, if only because Americans won't get the reference. However nothing in the episode made sense of this prologue; and nothing interesting seemed to follow from it.

The story made no kind of sense to me. The alien is made from radio waves, and therefore can inhabit people's TVs: fine. But were we supposed to think that she was inhabiting individual sets and jumping between them; or that she was somehow being transmitted to every TV in the country simultaneously? The ending, in which she is “trapped” on a video tape seemed to imply the former: but in which case why was it particularly significant that on coronation day, lots of people would be watching TV at the same time? And why did it suddenly become so urgent to stop her getting to the transmitter? The alien in some way feeds on people's brain energy; fine, that's the kind of thing which aliens do. So why did the faces of her victims suddenly start appearing on TVs? And why does having your brain eaten make your face go blank? And why isn't Mr Magpie the shop owner, who's eaten in the pre-cred, one of the faceless people?

If you are prepared to disengage your brain then the story does include some passable swashbuckling – the sequence where the Doctor has to climb the mast of Alexander Palace is quite exciting, although not nearly as good as the previous week's equally vertical Zeppelin sequence. But we never really find out who the alien is or what is motivating her and since we don't know how she works, we can't feel impressed or satisfied by the Doctor's scheme to defeat her. Or even understand what he's meant to have done.

The actual narrative comes in the completely inept Buffy section, which appears to have been the result of ten minutes of brainstorming. What can we remember about the 1950s? Er...Men tended to be quite sexist in those days. And everyone lived in extended families. OK, so we'll have a sub-plot about a family of stereotypes -- smart nerdy young boy, sexist overbearing dad, weak mum, granny living upstairs. This did yield one reasonably funny scene, where Rose tells off Overbearing Father for hanging the Union Flag upside down. Every week, David Tennant gets to do either an Angry speech or else an It's-little-people-who-save-the-world" speech. This week, he pretended to be very, very angry because Rose's brain had been sucked into the alien TV screen – a slight over-reaction I felt – it's not like this is the first time he's ever had to rescue a companion. So his little-people-save-the-world-speech got passed to the Smart Nerdy Young Boy. It seems that when Maureen Lipman ate Granny's face, Overbearing Dad grassed her up to the police, because having a faceless granny in the attic would damage his social position. Or something. When Smart Young Boy finds this out he explains, at some length that he (Dad) had fought the Nazis in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening. The most one can say is that I didn't physically throw up.

The Radio Times, which exists to puff BBC programmes said that episode contained "longueurs". So there you have it: even the most incredibly rushed stories are not fast moving enough for the target audience. Presumably, if you are one of the faceless people who forgot to switch off after having your brain sucked out by Graham Norton, you don't need or expect Doctor Who to make sense. All you want are monsters and chase scenes to distract you while you stare at the big flickery light in the corner. It's only nerdy, studious boys in grey jumpers who think stories ought to have some underlying logic to them. But they're asexual mummy's boys. Maybe we can beat it out of them.

The one with the Cybermen was quite the best TV Cyberman story since "Silver Nemesis". It was derivative, had no real flair, and contained possibly the worst resolution to any cliffhanger ever. On the other hand, it had a nice flamboyant climax, with the Doctor and the Cybercontroller dangling off a Zeppelin (The Doctor has been doing a lot of dangling this year.) There were some tense scenes with Rose infiltrating the Cyberman base; and some well-done suspense as the Doctor and "Mrs. Moore" sneak past the row of inert Cybermen, who are obviously about to come to life. Solid, entertaining, and well-mounted: if we could have this kind of thing every week, I'd stop moaning.

Last season's Daleks are pretty much the Daleks of old with some added chrome – a lot of the energy of the three Dalek episodes depended on the fact that the Doctor had a history with these creatures. This time around, RTD has cleared the decks and re-started from the original premise as if there had never been a Cyberman story before. These are emphatically not the Cybermen of old. Some kind of re-imagining was certainly necessary. Kit Pedler created a rather spooky story about some humans who'd replaced their whole bodies with prostheses; but decades of stories had reduced them into one more race of space faring megalomaniacs -- not something which the Doctor Who universe has ever been particularly short of. The new Cybermen are precisely, word-for-word, the creatures who we were introduced to in 1966. To quote from the novelization of the first Cyberstory:

"Mondas...isn't that one of the ancient names for Earth.”

Yes. Aeons ago the planets were twins. Then we drifted away from you to the very edge of space. Now we have returned... We are called Cybermen. We were exactly like you once. Then our Cybernetic scientists realised that our race was our scientists and doctors invented spare parts for our bodies until we could be almost completely replaced.”

But that means you're not like us. You're not people at all, you're...robots.”

That is not so. Our brains are just like yours except that certain...weaknesses have been removed.”....

Weaknesses? What weaknesses?”

You call them emotions, do you not?"

The only thing which has changed is that the new Cybermen come from a parallel earth, as opposed to earth's twin planet : a distinction that would presumably be lost on the Graham Norton audience.

The, for want of a better word, genesis of the Cybermen has not been shown on screen before; although it was covered in a rather good Big Finish audio by Marc Platt. For some reason, RTD gave Platt a credit at the end, which only served to underline how pedestrian writer Tom MacRae's high-tech future earth was by comparison with Platt's claustrophobic Orwellian Telos. And making the Cyberman the creation of an hubristic nutter in a wheel chair inevitably made us think "Son, you're no Michael Wisher".

As a piece of design, the Cybermen were rather brilliant. Only the handlebars and the funny shaped eyes made them recognisable as Cybermen; but they brilliantly avoided any sense of being "actors in metal suits." I don't really believe that such a high tech world would have to make do with robots which were so literally clunky, but belief could be suspended because they looked so cool.

Do you know what's really cute? The writers of Doctor Who still sometimes try to write, like, stories, with, like, twists and surprising revelations and everything, even though they know that every single member of the audience will have been told the whole plot in advance. Anything the BBC doesn't give away in the trailer will be in Radio Times, and anything Radio Times misses out will be splashed on the tabloids. MacRae constructed his story as if there was a mystery associated with what Lumic was trying to create, even though this was given away in the actual title; and he tried to create a tense build-up to the moment when we first saw the monsters, even though there were detailed schematics in Radio Times and a close up of the face on the cover.

I can't imagine why anyone thought it was a good idea to put Pete Tyler in the story. The Mickey of Earth-2 and his rebels were a promising supporting cast, but their screen time got squeezed out by this very inferior retread of the one with Rose's father in season 1. Again, one can't help thinking that RTD put something cool into the trailer and the pre-cred, but couldn't think of anything to do with it in the actual story.

I don't want to come over all Daily Express here, but did you notice that consecutive episodes offered us

a) the President of an alternative Britain who just happened to be black

b) the only street in the whole of 1950s London where stereotyped black families are fully integrated with the stereotyped white people and

c) the captain of a spaceship in the Far Future (TM) who just happened to be black.

The BBCs diversity policy is doubtless a good thing, but I am afraid I hear the sound of boxes being ticked. Would anyone take a bet that companion number 2 will be a black girl with a white boyfriend?

Which brings us to the French one and the one with Peter Kay. These are essentially two different versions of the same story. It feels as if this weeks exercise in the Doctor Who writer's workshop was "Write a story in which the Doctor meets the same character at several different times during their lives." Stephen Moffat came up with a tragedy; Russell Davies himself came up with a comedy.

I am rather ambivalent about these stories. There is one part of me which says "These are not Doctor Who stories, but stories which happen to have Doctor Who in them. This is exactly the kind of thing which needs to be done if Doctor Who is going to have any kind of future on TV." The other part of me says "These kinds of stories are a great mistake: they indicate that the new series is on the point of vanishing up its own backside, or more precisely, up the old series' backside." But I don't think I'm nearly as ambivalent about the episodes as they are about themselves.

Both stories ruthlessly break away from the series conventions, which can only be a good thing. The one with Peter Kay is practically the first story since 1963 which takes someone outside of the TARDIS crew as viewpoint character. The idea that the Doctor has left traces during his many travels, and that he could therefore be the subject of study by people who have never met him is very interesting. I almost felt that it was a cop out for the Doctor and Rose to appear in the story at all: couldn't Elton and his friends have defeated the monster all by themselves – say by using a Doctorish stratagem that they'd learned in their studies? I also felt that it was a mistake for the monster to be so obviously ludicrous: given the tongue-in-cheek storyline, it would have been better for the antagonist to have been genuinely menacing.

The French one is slightly more conventional: it has monsters, it begins with the TARDIS materialising on board a rickety old space-ship which may even contain the odd corridor. However, its central theme – of the Doctor making repeated visits to an historical person, so we see them in childhood, youth and middle-age – hasn't really been touched on before. While the story wasn't told from her point of view, we were repeatedly asked to look at the Doctor through Reinette's eyes. And of course, the idea of the Doctor having a romantic relationship with this weeks guest-star is a major breach of taboo.

So: both writers were trying pretty hard not to produce Doctor Who stories. But, with an almost Oedipal ambivalence, both of them were writing quite explicitly and deliberately about Doctor Who: how we remember Doctor Who, our nostalgia for Doctor Who; our 'love' of Doctor Who, the way in which some of us have made a hobby out of studying and analysing Doctor Who; the way in which we associate Doctor Who with our childhood dreams and our childhood nightmares.

This is, in my view, a pretty risky strategy. Yes, for many people who grew up in the 60s or 70s, Doctor Who is charged with the kind of importance we just don't give to any other TV show: more, in fact, than it ever objectively deserved. Yes Doctor Who is a magical character. But for the TV series itself to acknowledge this is tantamount to scrumping from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You lose your innocence and replace it with ironic self-awareness. I don't think Doctor Who can afford that.

The French story was about the Doctor as a character. The brilliant opening scenes, in which the clockwork man menaced the child Reinette in her bedroom was very aware fact that children traditionally watch Doctor Who from "behind the sofa"; that many people's childhood bogeymen were Dalek-shaped. There is literally a monster under Reinette 's bed which the Doctor appears and saves her from it. (Have you noticed, by the way, how few actual children there were in the original series, and how many there have been in the new one?) The Doctor's line about everyone having nightmares about monsters under the bed but the monsters having nightmares about him is a very good, but very self-conscious line. When the Doctor returns, years later Reinette specifically compares him with an imaginary childhood friend. Towards the end, she tells Rose that "the Doctor is worth the monsters". "Monster" is not a phrase which has often been used on-screen before. The Doctor talks about creatures or alien life-forms: it's children watching the programme, and journalists writing about it, who talk about Doctor-Who-Monsters. The fact that Reinette thinks of the Doctor as a childhood dream come to save her from her childhood nightmares indicates that we have, in a complicated way, stepped out of the frame and started commenting on the series itself.

(A very similar thing was done a few years ago in a spoof episode starring Rowan Atkinson, also scripted by Stephen Moffatt. The Doctor is apparently dying, and "Emma's " eulogy is perhaps the best summing up of the magic of Doctor Who that anyone has ever written -- as will as a not very thinly veiled plea to the BBC to bring the show back. "Doctor, listen to me. You can't die, you're too nice. Too brave, too kind and far, far too silly. You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!...He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it'll never be safe to be scared again. " You may however, think that a Comic Relief sketch is a better vehicle for this kind of thing than a canonical TV episode.)

The Peter Kay story, on the other hand, was primarily interested in the ways in which people are affected by Doctor Who the TV show. The social inadequates who made a hobby out of studying the actually-existing "Doctor" represented Doctor Who fandom. The characters were very likeable; and the plot gently amusing despite the extreme unsubtlesness of the symbolism. It's true that fandom often goes off at strange tangents, so that a member of a Sherlock Holmes society might well be more interested in recreating Victorian menus than re-reading the works of Conan Doyle. However, the idea of a Doctor Who club suddenly listening to member's unrelated amateur fiction or forming an unrelated pop-group isn't really plausible: that's not how hobby based societies tend to work. (Read Dork Tower for an accurate portrayal of the foibles of geek culture.) Still, we get the point: a group of nerdy people get together to talk about the Doctor (bad); but as a result of this common interest they make friends and start having sex (good); but then a bad person comes along and tries to make them study the Doctor more seriously (bad); but as a result, our hero learns that life apart from Doctor Who can still be fun, and ends up with a disembodied girlfriend who gives him blowjobs and lives happily ever after. "I used to be a Doctor Who fan, but I'm all right now": the most extreme example so far as RTDs need to very affectionately stab his core constituency in the back. If I am right in drawing an analogy between RTD's approach to Doctor Who and Blair's approach to the labour party, then this was the Clause 4 moment.

There is a long-standing legend among asexual fans that certain very bad aliens from the black and white era – the Krotons are popular candidates, as are the Quarks – were the results of a Blue Peter Design-a-Monster competition. Blue Peter did indeed run such a competition; and the lucky winner did indeed see his monster brought to "life" by the BBC special effects department; but the monster never appeared in Doctor Who itself. RTD obviously thought that it would be a wheeze to make this fan-legend come true, so the absorbatron really was designed by an artistically inclined kiddie. There is something deeply ironic about having embedded a fan in-joke in a story which is a rather cruel satire about Doctor Who fandom.

Going back to France for a moment: listen very carefully, I shall say this only once. I think that the relationship between the Doctor and Madame De Pompadour was believable and well-handled. However, the point at which romantic encounters between the Doctor and his supporting cast become a regular fixture of the programme is the point at which I will lose all interest in it. Stephen Moffat appears to think that Doctor\Companion relationships have always been based on eros rather than philia, and that I somehow invented the idea that the Doctor and Sarah were mates rather than lovers out of my own asexual head. He is, of course, free to tell whatever revisionists fibs he wants to. He obviously has a bit of thing about the Doctor's sex-life: the aforementioned very good Moffat scripted Rowan Atkinson spoof began with the premise that the Doctor was going to retire and get married, and ended up with the revelation that the sonic screwdriver had a vibrator attachment. But even the highly oversexed Mr Moffat ought to have spotted that, from 1963-2006, the Doctor has been mysterious, distant, alien, elevated, unattainable, awesome, numinous, mercurial and above all, other. This mystique would disperse if he were to transform into a Captain Kirkalike with a girl in every time-port. Once you have removed the Doctor's mystique, what you are left with is a lot of sci-fi cliches and bit part actors in rubber costumes. Note that Moffat doesn't even ask why the Doctor shouldn't fall in love; he asks why, he shouldn't date. For the same reason that Gandalf can't "date".

So, over all, I am quite a happy asexual fanboy. Taken as a whole, episodes 4-10 have been pretty good: four excellent episodes; two interestingly experimental ones; and only one stinker. But still – I can't get rid of the sense that there is something missing.

Series 1, whatever its faults, kept on surprising me. Davies kept wrong-footing us about where he was going. We didn't expect Rose to keep going home and visiting her Mum; we didn't expect Mickey to become an ongoing character; and we didn't expect the series to end on a regeneration – or at any rate, we wouldn't have done if the Sun hadn't told us. We only gradually realized that there was a plot arc going on, and that the drip-drip-drip revelations about Gallifrey and the Time War were much more important than any individuall story. We started out complaining that people other than the Doctor kept on saving the day – and gradually realized that the Doctor's loss of self-confidence is one of the things the season was about.

The relationship between the Doctor and Rose was one of the really good things about Series 1. We had a companion who appeared to be a living human being who was growing and changing as a result of her experiences on the TARDIS. (One of the worst results of RTD's prejudice against the asexual community is that we never got to see Rose's reaction the first time she visited an alien planet.) The Rose who almost stayed behind with Mickey in the one with the autons is a very different woman from the one who decides that "someone has to be the Doctor" in the Christmas episode. The Rose who the Doctor kisses at the end of the one with the Daleks has grown up a great deal compared with the Rose who bought the Doctor a bag of chips on their first "date". But sadly, the first series now looks like a completed story-arc, which resolved Rose's story as far as it can be resolved; leaving series 2 feeling awfully like an un-necessary sequel. Rose is a character out of a soap opera, not a novel. She fancies the Doctor, she is breaking up with Mickey, she misses her Mum, she never knew her Dad. Having used up all her plot hooks in season 1, she seems to spend season 2 flailing around looking for something to do. The only sense of forward motion came in the one with Sarah Jane, where the Doctor appeared to acknowledge that he was having a romantic relationship with Rose, but admitted that it couldn't go any further. The one with Queen Victoria hinted that they might settle into the role of two students, romping through space being vaguely naughty but nothing further came of this.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how Christopher Eccleston was squirming every time an interviewer asked him how long he hoped to play the Doctor for. He gave evasive answers like "We'll have to see" and "Well, I've already made the equivalent of two seasons", which we now realize meant "I've already turned into David Tennant, but I'm not allowed to tell you because Russell is still innocent enough to think that he might take you by surprise." In the Season 2 Radio Times special, Billie Piper is asked whether she is going to do Season 3. She responds:

"If I tell you about my future than I'll completely ruin the ending of Episode 13. It's so brilliant, so worth waiting for. Watch and see."

and David Tennant says

"We've just about finished this series and I'm fairly certain I'll do the next one...Although we've yet to record the closing seconds of Episode 13 – literally anything could happen. Who knows who's coming back."

Ah. Well that's pretty clear then; particularly with Satan prophesying that Rose will fall in battle and the tabloids telling us that Billie has quit the show. I have some slight hope that RTD is engaged in a complex double bluff, and he's telling us that Rose is going to be killed off so we'll all be really surprised when she survives. But despite the fact that he can write very funny dialogue, I somehow doubt if he's that clever.

Mickey has suffered rather worse. There was was less to him to begin with so his growth, from pure comic relief to actual subordinate hero was more dramatic. In truth all his plot threads were neatly tied up during the one where Downing Street explodes. The Doctor no longer thought he was an idiot; but Mickey himself knew he wasn't hero material. All of his subsequent appearances put him though the same process of "realising" that he could never compete with the Doctor, and that whatever he and Rose had had was basically over. Somewhere between Season 1 and Season 2, someone pressed the "reset" button; and the Doctor – who had wanted him on the TARDIS in Season 1 – started going over the same "Mickey the Idiot" material again. The promising notion of giving him a stint as a TARDIS companion was basically wasted: his only function in the French story was to give Rose someone to talk to while the Doctor was off flirting with Madame De Pompadour. He had more to do the one with the Cybermen, but it turns out that he was only there in order to be written out. It would have been more interesting to have killed off Earth-1 Mickey and taken on Earth-2 Mickey as a companion. But in narrative terms, we have to remain basically sympathetic to the Doctor; and the motr often we saw him flirting with Rose in front of Mickey, the more likely we were to see him as a cad.

The most surprising thing in Season 1 – the thing which makes even the weakest stories worth repeated viewings – was the ninth Doctor. Resolutely un-Doctorish, he kept on surprising us about how much like the Doctor he really was. The tenth Doctor is a perfectly adequate characterization: mixing the zaniness of Tom Baker with the occasional callousness of, er, Tom Baker. He has a very nice line in comic asides; and I really like the way his joie de vivre seems to have been restored. "Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, two Mickeys" is probably the best one liner of the series so far. It would be nice if he could master more than three different emotions; and it would be nice if he could deliver his "big speeches" without making a funny face with his upper lip and shouting. I like him; I believe in him; I could imagine him running down a 1970s wobbly corridor. But he doesn't appear to have any surprising secrets left to reveal. He never does anything unexpected. There is nothing dangerous about his characterization.

When all is said and done, the thing which is missing from Series 2 is, in fact, Christopher Eccleston.