Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Rich Puchalasky wrote:

"Some day someone will be able to explain to me how a long-running parody strip, full of tired misogynist cliches from day one, drawn in cramped little panels, makes someone an enfant terrible whose crazy missives have to be head-banged over."

Dear Rich:

I take it that, in your universe, "long-running-parody-strip-drawn-in-cramped-panels" translates as "not especially good comic-book", so your question comes out "Since Cerebus was not an especially good comic book; your should not pay attention to Dave Sim's letters."

Presumably, in your universe, the converse holds true: "If Cerebus were an especially good comic book, then perhaps you should pay attention to Dave Sim's letters." Since I do regard Cerebus as an especially good comic, it should be clear why I pay attention to Sim's letters, at any rate when someone takes the trouble to point one out to me.

You state that "Cerebus is a long running parody strip." I take it that you do not mean "If Cerebus had only run for a short time, Sim's letters would be worth paying attention to." You must be saying "Cerebus is a parody strip whose only virtue is that it ran for a long time."

This contains two assumptions:

1: Cerebus is a parody strip.

2: A parody can't have a great deal of virtue.

Point 2 can be easily disposed of. Wasn't Hamlet a parody of the Revenger's Tragedy? Isn't Northanger Abbey a parody of a the Mystery of Odolpho? Weren't Tom Jones, Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso originally parodies of works which only scholars could now tell you names of? But we don't really need to bother with this, because Point 1 is manifestly absurd.

The first issues of Cerebus the Aadvark is modelled very closely on Barry Smith's art style. If this amounts to parody, then we would have to say that the whole of the American comic book industry since 1960 has been a parody of Jack Kirby (and therefore that there are no significant comics at all.) Of course, Cerebus contains elements of parody: very funny and clever parody, the kind of parody that other people steal and turn into reasonably successful comic books and cartoon series of their own. The Cockroach is a very funny and clever parody of the 1980s incarnation of Therbatman. The Tick, not so much.

I have in front of me a copy of Swords of Cerebus vol 6, which includes the last 3 issues of the "early, funny" issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. In issue 22, Cerebus, injured in the foot ("The Earth Pig mutters grimly about civilians who wear chain mail under their clothes") takes refuge in a deserted house. It turns out that this is a girls' boarding school, run by the mysterious Madame Dupont who agrees to take care of him until he has recovered. Cerebus expects to protect the girls against militia who are active in the area, but in fact, the girls are more than able to defend themselves. The title of the piece is "The Beguiling", acknowledging the debt to Clint Eastwood 's move The Beguiled, in which a Civil War soldier similarly takes refuge in a girls' school.

Certain scenes in the comic gain an added significance if you are familiar with the filum: on page 3 Dupont makes a veiled threat, saying that she will not charge Cerebus extra rent if she has to amputate his limb. In the movie, one of Clint Eastwood's legs is indeed removed. However, it is hard to see that this story is a "parody" of the movie. Only the basic situations are similar.

On page 15 of issue # 23, it transpires that Madame Dupont is, in fact, the alias for a male alchemist named "Professor Charles X Claremont". Claremont requires the schoolgirls as a focus for a magic spell to resurrect "the apocalypse beast." Anyone who has ever read a comic book will instantly know that Charles Xavier is the leader of the X-Men and that Chris Claremont was the long running writer of that comic. Prof. X's team of teenage superheroes is also based in a private school. But anyone who has NOT read a comic book would miss very little of what's going on in the rest of the story. Some of Claremont's speech mannerisms, and some of the poses he is drawn in, are a little like those of Prof. X; and, his physical appearance (bald, aquiline features) are indeed a caricature of the Marvel hero.

At the end of the episode it turns out that the Apocalypse Beast is a female, because Claremont has used girls, rather than boys, as a focus for his spell. He calls the beast "Woman-Thing." This is indeed only funny if you've heard of the Marvel character "Man Thing", and if you know that Chris Claremont had a policy of writing against gender stereotypes. In the the following issue, it transpires that a wizard named Sump has also created a monster, named "Sump Thing". Again, comic book readers will instantly spot that this is a reference to DC's "Swamp Thing." Again, I am not sure how relevant this is to the rest of the comic, which is mainly concerned with a ludicrous artist who paints topless women but claims that their breasts represent "the conflict between short term profit gouging and nest-egg mercantile capitalism."

These issues certainly have a lot of intertextual references: to Clint Eastwood, The X-Men, Swamp Thing, Man Thing, possibly to Frank Frazetta. But the humour comes mainly from the social comedy of Cerebus' interaction with the schoolgirls, and the very broad farce of the two monsters having noisy, messy sex. Is this parody? Among other things. Is this only parody? Certainly not. And in the next episode, we embark on "High Society" which is a compelling political novel set in a believable (if absurd) imaginary world. The best issue ("The Night Before",) is a character piece with no external reference at all.

I suspect that the only people who write Cerebus off as a parody comic are the ones who didn't get past issue 6.

The "little-cramped-panels" bit bemuses me. Presumably, crazy letters from George Perez (who thinks nothing of putting 100 panels on one page) are more reprehensible than ones from John Byrne (who loves big panels and double page spreads) -- with Sim somewhere in between?

Since "misogynist" is precisely the contested word, I think we should be careful of how we use it Early Cerebus sometimes used stock situations -- the nymphomaniac woman with the husband who really isn't interested; the fierce mother in law; the prissy school girls -- to comedy effect. Some of those situations could be said to be "sexist". To infer "misogynist" from that seems to take us back to the world of the 1980's when the Greater London Council were banning pantomimes because Widow Twanky said "Silly old cow!" to her, er, cow. You can think that the interplay between Cerebus and Red Sophia is very funny without Hating Women.

(To digress. Dave Sim seems to have lucid periods and less lucid periods. Most of Following Cerebus is perfectly coherent. I agree that, even in his lucid state Dave has a set of socially conservative beliefs -- extreme, but rational. For example, Lucid-Dave says that it doesn't make sense for a woman to go to work, on very low wages, while another woman is paid very low wages to take care of her child, and for a third woman to pay tax to pay the second woman. Unfortunately, when he's Off On One, Mad-Dave is just as likely to add that wife beating is not merely permissible, but actually a duty, and that women are certainly not rational and may not even be sentient, and 1960s pop music was a gnostic allegory. I suspect that Lucid-Dave does not clearly remember some of the things which Mad-Dave has written, which is why you get remarks like ""I simply say that state funded day-care is a lousy way to bring up kids and everyone calls me a misogynist." )

It seems to me that the question that Rich actually meant to ask me was: "Can someone explain why being either the greatest cartoonist whoever lived or else merely the greatest since Wil Eisner means that even Dave Sim's crazy faxes have to be agonized over."

This is a very good question.

The answer is, of course, biographical. I am the kind of person who thinks that the the mere existence of John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band is sufficient reason to listen to Two Virgins, although not often. I think that Parsifal is the single greatest work of art ever produced by a human being: to me, that confers some interest on Rienzi. I don't say that this is the best way to be; I don't say that this is the only way to be; but it happens to be the way I am. If I had to explain it, I would say that I have a scholarly interest in certain subjects: it isn't enough for me to say that I like a particular writer or composer; I want to understand them, which may involve finding out where they came from and where they went to. But it also comes from a collectors mentality; a desire to "complete the set" – something which is, I admit, almost unprecedented among comic-book enthusiasts.

So, yes: it is of interest to me that the-creator-of-one-of-only-two-funny-books-that-deserve-the-name-graphic-novel has done something crazy. Again.

And it is of very great interest to me that the greatest-cartoonist-of-all-time-or-possibly-merely-the-greatest-since-Wil-Eisner has produced not one, but two, new comic books.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I piss on the evil of that film. He's raped my childhood

Anonymous Star Wars fan .

There is a theory, held by some ancient Greeks and the majority of modern geeks, which says that there is no difference between aesthetic and moral judgment. If a work of art is aesthetically bad; then it is also immoral by definition. And if a work of art is immoral then it is necessarily an aesthetically and creatively poor piece of work. The Phantom Menace is a Bad Film; therefore George Lucas is a Bad Man because he made the Bad Film. It follows that if I go and see the Bad Man's Film, I will be a Bad Man too. This is a very good theory because it allows us to make critical judgements about films, books and comics without actually going to the bother of reading them.

"Our aspirations, cunt? Folk on t'fucking dole

Have got about as much scope to aspire

Above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal

"Aspires" to be thrown on t'fucking fire."

Tony Harrison

In 1987, one Mary Whitehouse wrote to the Independent to complain about the publication of V, a poem by Tony Harrison, which the author had also read out loud on Channel 4. The poem (an imaginary dialogue between the poet and a skinhead who had vandalized his parents' gravestone) contained an unusually large number of very rude words.

The sainted Mrs Whitehouse wrote:

"It seems to me a matter more of aesthetics than morality, except in so far as an unsolicited affront can always raise moral issues. The four letter word, referring as it does to sexual intercourse, has with in its very sound, let alone context, a harshness, even brutality, that negates and destroys the nature of the love, sensitivity and commitment which is or should be its very essence."

Her first point – that printing the word fuck over and over again in a national newspaper is bad manners, is debatable. But her second point -- that fuck is a Bad Word and that just saying it (in any context) "negates" human sexuality -- borders on the pathological. If she is correct, you don't need to think about what the poem says, or the way in which it says it. Once you know that it contains the Bad Word, you know that it is a Bad Poem, that it was written by a Bad Man, and that reading it will make you Bad. (See Note 1)

And there are lots of other Magic Words apart from fuck.

When, long ago, the gods created Earth

In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.

The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;

Yet were they too remote from humankind.

To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,

The Olympian host conceived a clever plan.

A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,

Filled it with vice, and called the thing a nigger.

H.P Lovecraft

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of the finest works of gothic horror ever written. (The Call of Cthulhu is more famous and more influential, but The Shadow Over Innsmouth is better written.) The theme – that there are some questions that it would be better not to ask – is as old as Oedipus Rex. The hero investigates strange goings on in an isolated town and spots that many of the inhabitants have strange heads and funny eyes. By degrees, he learns that this is because there has been intermarriage between humans and sea monsters called "deep ones". The fish-faced people are the off-spring of these unions, and they will eventually lose their humanity altogether. Inevitably, on the final page the narrator learns that his own family have links with Innsmouth, and that he himself will one day turn into a fish-man.

On a first reading of the story, it's possible to ignore or glide over its unpleasant sub-text: the fear of outsiders, the revulsion towards those who look different from you and above all the terror of miscegenation, of learning that you have impure blood. (People who believe in the Unity of the Literary Virtues often also suffer from Sub-Text Blindness, also known by the technical term " Oh stop reading things into it it's only a bloody horror story.") But once you know that the author of The Shadow Over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, the sub-text pretty much jumps out and hits you in the face. What follows?

1: The Creation of Niggers is a Bad Poem. Therefore Lovecraft was a Bad Man. Therefore, Shadow Over Innsmouth is a Bad Story. If you read Shadow over Innsmouth, it will make you Bad.

2: Since Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story, Lovecraft must have been a good man, so The Creation of Niggers must be a good poem. Therefore, I must give at least some degree of consideration to the idea that people with dark skin are sub-human.

3: Since the author of Shadow over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, it is irrelevant whether or not Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story. Lovecraft is a Bad Man and you shouldn't read the Bad Man's work, even when it is good.

Knowing that Lovecraft wrote the racist poem unquestionably affects how your read his horror stories. Does it necessarily determine whether you read them? (See NOTE 2)

"Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions."


Some theorists see the Unity of the Literary Virtues in economic terms. "If I read the Bad Book, I will be giving the Bad Man some of my money," they say. "Since giving money to Bad Men makes you Bad, I will not read the Bad Book even if I'm actually quite interested in it." Some people qualify this and say that reading Bad Books only makes you Bad while the author is still alive. It's okay to read Shadow Over Innsmouth now Lovecraft is dead and can't profit by it; if he were alive, it wouldn't be. I don't know whether the fact that he was on a page rate rather than a royalty scheme affects his badness one way or the other.

I have no particular problem with consumer boycotts – refusing to buy a particular product in order to make a particular political point. But you should be very careful not to confuse the political with the aesthetic. I might very well say "I will not buy a Marvel Comic until the company credits Jack Kirby as creator of the Fantastic Four". But I would not add "Since Kirby deserves to be credited, 1602 is badly written" or "Since you think that 1602 is well-written, you obviously think Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four."

Ideological boycotts are much more slippery. It sounds fine and dandy to say "Insulting the Prophet Mohammed is Very Bad. The man who wrote the book insulting the Prophet Mohammed is therefore a Very Bad Man. Therefore no one should buy, read, display, publish, print or distribute the Very Bad Man's book. But obviously, that isn't the same as censorship." After all, if Islam is true, then insulting the Prophet is very bad: much worse than saying that women shouldn't have the vote. If Christianity is true, then denying that Jesus is God is very bad, maybe as bad as denying the Holocaust. If God is a delusion, than promoting Catholicism is (I read in an impeccable source) even worse than sexually molesting children. So it follows that Muslims should abstain from reading anti-Muslim books; Christians from anti-Christian books; and atheists from...well, from practically everything. No-one should read anything except things they already agree with.

When I refuse to read books which I don't agree with, I am exercising reasonable choice as a consumer. But of course, when you do it, you are being narrow minded and bigoted.

There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written . That is all.

Oscar Wilde

Works of art contain ideas.

Those ideas are part of the work. "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" is a true fact, as true as "Siegfried contains a French Horn solo."

But we cannot easily go from "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" to "Siegfried is an anti-Semitic work". The ideology of a work doesn't reside in a single image, a single scene, or a single word. Mrs. Whitehouse thought that counting the number of "fucks" was a good gauge of whether or not a poem was obscene. (If the number was greater than zero, it was.) Dr Wertham said, in so many words, that if a comic book depicted a crime being committed, then it was a "crime comic", and that "crime comics" made kids criminals. In fact, if an opera or a comic book has an ideology, it must be contained in the whole work. Many of the Batman comics that Wertham wanted to protect us from were actually highly moralistic. The views about language expressed in V were actually not a million miles from Mrs. Whitehouse's own. The only way you can find out what a book "says" is by, er, actually reading it.

In fact, I am very doubtful whether any artistic work can ever be said to "say" something in such a narrow sense. Does Macbeth say "Political violence is sometimes a necessary evil" (which would make it a Bad Play) or "Your crimes will always catch up with you in the end" (which makes it a Good Play)? Or does it say "Don't trust your wife", "Don't try to force your spineless husband to get on," "Beware of soothsayers" or "I think James will be an excellent King so could I have a job please?"I don't think that you can say what Macbeth says in less words than the actual text of Macbeth.

But even if you can extract "The Meaning of the Work" from the Work Itself, I doubt whether agreement or disagreement with that Meaning is particularly relevant to your appreciation of the The Work. The Taming of the Shrew says "Strong women are ridiculous". Does it follow that those of us who do not think that strong women are particularly ridiculous cannot find the play funny? Does our approval or disapproval of political assassination determine in advance whether or not we will think that Julius Caesar is a good play. Can members of Amnesty International watch 24?

Writing about music, as the fellow said, is like dancing about architecture.


One the nasty things about grown ups is that they can't believe that children have any sense of justice; indeed any opinions of any kind. If Jimmy complains that he had been queuing politely for 20 minutes and then Joey came along and pushed to the front of the line, grown-ups are inclined to say "Oh, you kids, always finding something to quarrel about. Put a sock in it or you'll both get a slap."

The BBC's recent docu-drama about Mary Whitehouse seemed to treat everyone involved as quarreling children. What occurred during the 1960s was an argument about ideas. One side thought that the state funded public service broadcasting company in a Christian country should broadly reflect Christian value -- or at any rate the consensus values of the people who paid for it. The other side thought that it was the BBC's duty to produce high-quality, cutting edge artistic work, which (by definition) would sometimes offend people. The play chose to represent the argument as a private spat between the head of the BBC (a comedy dirty old man) and a "clean up TV" represented by a dotty old biddy. Whatever the argument was about, it wasn't about that.

Oh: and she was quite right about "Tomb of the Cybermen."


It is a truism of the Unity of the Virtues theory that once we know that a work is morally bad, we can assume that it is aesthetically bad. So it's probably worth saying that "The Creation of Niggers" is, in its lavatory-wall kind of way, not a bad piece of work. The rhymes (birth/earth designed/humankind) trip of the tongue reasonably well and the scansion doesn't feel too forced. Lovecraft cleverly uses strong rhymes to make us anticipate the end of the sentence before we get to it, and saves the Bad Word to the very end of the poem. We hear "semi-human figure" and think "oh...he can't be going to...he did." (A reasonable amount of music hall comedy involves using rhyme to make us expect a rude word, and then not actually saying it.)

A great deal of Lovecraft's work is about language -- over and over again, a complete collapse of syntax signifies that the the heroes of his stories have learned something that it would have been better never to have found out. And of course, his demons have weird names that are all but unpronounceable. When people see the Great Old Ones they often announce that they are unspeakable, ineffable, "unnameable." It is rather interesting that, when deliberately trying to be offensive, Lovecraft should structure a short poem around a word which is "unspeakable" in a different way.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

So: the 2009 season of Torchwood will have only 5 episodes, and RTD gets an OBE.

If he'd canceled it altogether, would he have got a knighthood?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I am resigning from the opposition because I oppose the policy of the government.

Er...I haven't thought this through properly, have I?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Head. Wall. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Been trying to think of some witty and ironic comment to make about this. But words really, really fail me.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

4.8 Silence in the Library

"Silence in the Library" was a nice episode of
Doctor Who. I enjoyed it very much indeed.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

O would some power the giftie gie us...

"The man who resurrected the nation's favorite timelord
(sic), reinvented him and bequeathed him to future generations of slightly inadequate men and women to obsess over once again, has stepped down...."

The Grauniad

Saturday, May 24, 2008

4.71: The Eurovision Song Contest

A strange, disconnected world in which vaguely camp characters, indistinguishable and without backstories, come in and go off without being properly developed, and periodically burst into song: I suppose, given that RTD's first love is Buffy, it was inevitable that sooner or later he would attempt to make an episode of Torchwood in the style of "Once More With Feeling."

Davies also has a bad habit of taking Very Good "Big Finish" stories -- "Jubilee", "Fires of Vulcan", "Spare Parts" and turning them into Not Quite So Good TV episodes -- "Dalek", "Fires of Pompeii", "Rise of the Cybermen." Gareth Roberts classic "Bang-Bang-A-Boom" is set on a space craft ("Dark Space 5") during an intergalactic song contest: transferring the action to Belgrade and making all the contestants human seems to remove the episode's central point.

The extremely tight filming schedules required by new Doctor Who has required that Season 2 and Season 3 both included episodes in which the Doctor played a relatively minor role. And of course, in the Very Old Days, actors had to occasionally have time off: Bill Hartnell missed part 4 of "Dalek Invasion Earth"; and during "The Mind Robber", Fraser Hines famously mislaid his face causing Jamie to go down with chickenpox, or possibly vice versa. But tonight's episode cleverly references "Mission to the Unknown" in that none of the regular characters appear. Presumably, the Irish Space Agent who is the only recurrent character has sent an SOS message that will be picked up by the TARDIS in the next story but one...


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

4:7 The Unicorn and the Wasp

And the award for "Silliest episode of Doctor Who excluding those in which the villain is made of Liquorice Allsorts" goes to...

The Doctor goes back to the 1920s and meets Agatha Christie. Fine.

The Doctor finds that Agatha Christie is embroiled in an Agatha Christie mystery. OK: roughly what we'd expect.

The Agatha Christie story in which Agatha Christie is embroiled isn't an actual Agatha Christie story: it's a BBC adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, full of televisual devices like flashbacks and scenes from the P.O.V of the murderer.

I'm a Holmes man, myself, but didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on? And weren't her actual characters rather less generic than Nervous Country Clergyman and Stiff Lipped Anglo Indian? Isn't this, in fact, Agatha Christie as imagined by people who haven't actually read many many Agatha Christie stories, pretty much as last week was Doctor Who as remembered by people who haven't actually seen many Doctor Who stories? I mean, the opening scene: Prof. Peach is murdered in the library with the lead piping. That's not from Christie; that's from a board game that was a parody of Agatha Christie. First published 1949.

But this isn't even Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel: this is Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel in which an evil shape shifting alien is deliberately and consciously acting out an Agatha Christie story. But it's more complicated than that: this fictitious alien-organized murder-mystery party is the explanation of the real mystery of why Agatha Christie disappeared for a fortnight in 1926. And it also turns out that's the place where she got the ideas for many of her best stories.

In short: what we have here is yet another example of Doctor Who chasing it's tail round and round in ever decreasing circles and eventually disappearing up its own eye of harmony.

There's no mystery about Agatha Christie's disappearance. She ran away because she was distressed after learning that her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although, in his defense, he always claimed that it was the policeman who did it.

We all miss you, Humph.

I found the solution to the metafictional mystery, which involved an evil shape shifting alien insect, only slightly more unsatisfactory than one of Christie's own. But that may very well have been the point.

No West End Theater manager today would consider staging a three act whodunit; such things are purely the province of church hall amateur theatrical societies. The Mouse Trap is not even especially good of it's kind: I'm told by people who know that Ten Little Wassissnames is a much better example of the genre. Yet The Mouse Trap limps on for forty, fifty, sixty years, famous for being famous, a mummified relic of the way theater used to be half a century ago. Christie's stories are not rooted in police procedure, or forensics, or logical deduction, or a particularly subtle understanding of character. Her twists endings surprise us; not because of what they say about the real world or her imagined world, but because they break the rules of the detective genre. The corpse dunit. The first person narrator dunit. The detective dunit. Everybody dunit. No-body dunit.

The analogy between Agatha Christie and Doctor Who is left as an exercise for the reader.


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4.6 The Doctor's Daughter

This Saturday's 6.45 slot was given over to a publicity video for a proposed new sci-fi series Jenny: Defender of the Universe.

This isn't the first time RTD has tried to launch such a spin-off series. There's been Rose Tyler: Defender of the Earth which sadly never made it to the screen and Torchwood which sadly did.

The "Doctor's Daughter" didn't give us much of a clue as to what Jenny is going to be about but then "The Doctor Dances" and "Bad Wolf" didn't give us many clues about the dreadful Torchwood. The whole point of the episode is to introduce Jenny and persuade us to like her.

It's a clever publicity stunt. The title of the episode is a blatant lie and the secular press fell for it hook, line and sinker. Davies said that the story would "do exactly what it said on the tin", and everyone bought into the idea that a story called "The Doctor's Daughter" would be about a girl who was, er, the daughter of the Doctor. Now, I'm no fan of big revelations about the Doctor's past. Second-rate writers may get a brief buzz if they think that, with a stroke of the pen, they can change the nature of a long-established character and constrain what writers yet unborn will be able to do with them, but it's usually a bad idea. It usually leaves the Great Character less interesting than he was before you started fiddling. However, I cannot deny that a revelation that the Doctor has living relatives would have been interesting. But we haven't got to the end of the pre-cred before we've been told that absolutely nothing interesting has happened at all. Jenny is simply a clone, the Doctor's daughter in exactly the same way that Evil Sontaran Replicant was Martha's Daughter. (Less so, actually, because E.S.R shared some of Martha's memories.)

By lying about the basic set-up, Davies has made everyone in the whole wide world switch on. He is clearly hoping that Georgia Mofett's winning smile will prevent some of them from turning off when they find they've been hoaxed. We're supposed to love Jenny, not because she's the Doctor's Daughter, but just because she's Jenny. She is not bad looking. She smiles a lot. She has that tomboyish eagerness that you usually find in people who are about to dress up as a boy and disappear to another part of the forest (pursued by a bear.) She refrains from slapping her thighs. She does acrobatics. She isn't as pretty as Sarah Michelle Geller. She clearly expects words like "fiesty", "spunky" and "vaguely irritating" to be applied to her. But I'm afraid I don't instantly love her. (The thing which really worked about Season 1 is that, regardless of what you may personally think about Rose Tyler you could absolutely see what the Doctor saw in her. In this case, I can't.)

But, very, very cleverly, we are manipulated into liking Jenny more than she deserves. First of all, every other character in the story is fantastically dull. Martha spends most of the story having one sided conversations with a fish; and the rest of the supporting cast are the kind of plucky but misguided warriors who've been running up and down corridors since 1963. Despite having made such a song and dance about the TARDIS translation circuits in "Fires of Pompeii", the fish-people can only communicate with Martha in gurgles. If they'd have been given any actual dialogue, they might have become interesting and distracted our attention away from Jenny.

Secondly, the foreground plot is the most generically old-style Who story since the series returned. If "Sontaran Stratagem" (*) is a 1972 story, "The Doctor's Daughter" is in all respects a Graham Williams era run-around. Human and alien colonists locked in a genocidal war; aliens that look like refugees from the Muppet Show; a brief expedition across a quarry; a surprise revelation that no-one really believes a word of. Maroon Romana with the Hath and let K-9 spot the significance of the writing on the wall and the story would fit neatly between "Creature from the Pit" and "Nightmare of Eden". So, of course, the casual viewer – Donna's Mum, say, -- filters it out. Oh yes, Doctor Who was that programme in which spacemen and aliens ran up and down corridors for reasons which I didn't understand. Let's ignore them and concentrate on Wonderful Jenny.

And for those of us who are paying attention, the foreground story is really, really dull. Donna solves a number code which doesn't actually make much difference. The Doctor goes on and on about how war is good for absolutely nothing. Martha bonds with a kipper. RTD has previously served up stories which are silly, impenetrable, corny, campy and vulgar: this is the first time he's actively bored me. Again, I assume that this is intentional. The story is so un-interesting that it appears to brighten up every time Little Miss Sunshine hoves into view.

The real story is another take on last week's "family good, soldiers bad" routine, with another dollop of "express your emotions." The Doctor denies the importance of family because he doesn't think that mere genetics creates any special bond between him and Jenny; Donna, who knows that family is all shows him that he is Wrong. She does this by demonstrating that Jenny, like the Doctor, has two hearts: this physiological similarity trumps the Doctor's perfectly reasonable claim that it's shared knowledge, history and culture that makes someone a Time Lord. Donna is proved right. Jenny, even though she was not raised by the Doctor and has no background in common with him, turns out to share a number of his characteristics. Genetic determinism; nature over nurture; blood will out.

"How can you call me English? I don't speak English, I don't know English history, I've never lived in England, I've never eaten a crumpet and I don't like tea."

"But dammit man, you've got a genetically inborn sense of fair play and mores the point white skin."

The Doctor also denies his own emotions claiming that since his own family were killed in the Time War, his capacity to bond emotionally has been shut down. Donna, again, tells him directly that he is wrong, and she is proved to be correct. When Jenny dies (having been offered a place on the TARDIS and thus become subject to The Curse of Kylie) the Doctor weeps – showing that is still capable of being Time Daddy after all.

When the Fish – who Martha has known for about three quarters of an hour – drowns, Martha doesn't have a sniffle, she has a bloody good cry. A person who was that emotionally incontinent would not be able to function as a soldier or a medic, any more than a person who was squicked by poo and vomit could function as a hospital janitor. But to be a hero or heroine, histrionic emotional displays are mandatory. It's worth comparing this post-Diana bullshit with the genuinely moving scene from "Tomb of the Cybermen", in which Doctor Pat helped Victoria deal with the death of her parents. He can still remember his family, he says but he has to really want to before he can bring them back in front of his eyes. "The rest of the time, they sleep in my mind and I forget." How very mature. How very British. We'd better cure you of that.

We are, clearly, supposed to share the Doctor's grief when Jenny is killed, and, in a sort of E.T moment, will her to come back to life. (She's a Time Lord, sort of, so we hope that she can regenerate.) We are supposed to be overjoyed when she wakes up. The final scene in which she flies off into space is meant to be so joyous as to get her first series commissioned by the sheer "Last of the Time Lords" power of feel-good energy alone. I didn't.

Still, it could have been worse. After we found out that the war had been going on for a week (seven days) and after we found the Sauce (a big globule of terraformy stuff) in a temple that was full of plants and trees like, you know, a garden, I had this terrible premonition that Jenny was going to announce that her real name was Eve.

Had it not been quite so obvious, this ending would have felt like another big cheat. Granted the existence of green goo that turns barren planets into a populable ones, why does inhaling green goo necessarily repair a gunshot wounds? Who cares? I don't. Russell Davies doesn't. Move on.

"It can be terrifying, brilliant and funny, sometimes all at the same time", Yeah. I remember when Doctor Who used to be like that, too.

(*) Do two parters have their own titles, or should we refer to them by the title of the first episode, like "The Dead Planet" and "The Nightmare Begins"?


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Modified rapture!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

4:5 The Poison Sky

Militaristic aliens in flying saucers invading earth using a plan that's five times more complicated that it needs to be; the Doctor and UNIT rubbing each other the wrong way, but eventually pulling together to save the day; a quizzling turncoat who sells out Planet Earth to alien invaders who double-cross him at the last minute; the Doctor using deus ex machina technology to save the Earth with mere seconds to spare... If you'd asked me, in 2004, to imagine what a 21st century regeneration of Doctor Who would look like, this is more or less what I'd have come up with.

The story has had more money thrown at it than it would have done in the Olden Days. The budget runs to hiring halfway decent actors for even minor roles, so Ross-the-squaddie-who's-obviously-going-to-die and radio-operator-lady-who-kisses-the-Colonel-at-the-end come across as characters rather than ballast. And there are lots and lots and lots and lots of extras: the big battle at the end between UNIT and the Sontarans looks like, well, a big battle. Not one of those skirmishes where three Daleks represented an invasion force. And - if you really have so little imagination that this kind of thing bothers you - the "special effects" are "better" than in the old days. But in other respects, this feels a lot like a 2008 take on a 1971 story. If you told me it was based on the long lost Season 9 script, "Terror of the Sontarans", I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Granted, a real 1970s story wouldn't have contained such big dollops of Archers style touchy feely emoting. But the domestic stuff actually works rather well: because we see her family, Donna remains rooted in her back-story. She's an actual person, albeit one who doesn't act nearly as well as The Mysterious Disembodied Face Who Appears On The TARDIS Monitor To Foreshadow Something Really Big At The End of the Season. (Martha's family never really came properly on-stage which encouraged her to slip into the role of Generic Doctor Who Girl just as much as Peri or Bonni did.) Juxtaposing scenes in the Sontaran space ship with scenes in Donna's Mum's Kitchen makes the space opera stuff seem bigger and more dramatic. I can't think of another example of a TV show which has interleaved Soap Opera and Space Opera in quite this way.

It has faults. I still don't understand what the Doctor was signalling Donna to do with the telephone. David Tennant still garbles important exposition far too quickly - and usually while something is exploding. Unless you are the sort of sad geek who videos the story and re-watches it, you have precious little chance of ever finding out why the Sontaran needed a clone of Martha in the first place.

Like too many Doctor Who stories, old and new, it shows signs of being a not completely viable hybrid. There's a perfectly good story about a group of super-intelligent teenagers who plan to wipe out all life on earth and then decamp to a new planet. And there's a perfectly good story about Sontarans planning to re-model the Earth as a factory for breeding baby Sontarans on. (Very much like the Adipose. And the Pyroviles. Hmm...) But the two halves don't entirely fit together. It isn't clear why the Sontarans need to put gas generating devices into people's cars rather than, say, just dumping them into the atmosphere. It isn't clear why they need something quite so elaborate as Luke Rattigan's genius school to facilitate this. And as ever, the resolution was plucked out of thin, if slightly polluted, air. Of course Rattigan had a Big Red Button which cleanses the earth of all the nasty gas that the evil alien sat navs had pumped into it lying about his lab. Of course you could set fire to the earth's entire atmosphere in a matter of seconds, rather than, say, weeks.

Oh - contrary to what I said in our last thrilling instalment, Luke's academy is co-educational, and the combination of geeky toys and Army Training Corps P.E lessons makes sense once his Evil Masterplan has been revealed. Astonishingly, the real life United Nations seems to have requested that UNIT be renamed the Unified Intelligence Task Force. Figures: the BBC are the only people on earth who pay the slightest attention to the U.N and so far as I know, there wasn't even a special resolution.

But I don't really think any of these details matter. This two part story conveyed the sense that we were watching a Big Space Opera in which the earth was in terrible danger. The fact that the story was taking place on multiple levels -- Luke's academy; the space fleet; UNIT H.Q; Donna's kitchen -- made the whole thing feel much bigger than it actually was. The story believed in itself. The ending surprised me, more or less. The space-ships and the Sontaran army were impressive. The jokes were quite funny. The aliens themselves were well characterized. There was a reference to the Brigadier. This is what we want more of.

That's what's so depressing. Who-fans are clicking their heels with joy; talking about Stratagem/Sky as if it were some kind of triumph -- rather than a bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion story with added gloss. I have nothing at all against bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion stories. But they shouldn't feel like series highpoints. They should feel like "The sort of story that the Beeb reliably churns out every week." If I feel inclined to greet bread-and-butter as if it was birthday cake you can bet that something has been allowed to go very, very wrong.


This story is based around a series of structural conflicts. Emotion, represented by families, is regarded as good; the repression of emotion, represented by the military, is regarded as bad. It is also held that intelligence ("cleverness") will lead to the repression of emotion.

Donna finds it reprehensible that the Doctor has turned Martha into a soldier: it is taken for granted that "being a soldier" is a Bad Thing.

Martha appears to concede this point: the Doctor only recognises her as the Old Martha Jones when she says that by working for the military, she might be able to make them "better" – i.e less like the military. The Doctor goes so far as to identify "possessing weapons" with "being the enemy".

Soldiers cannot be bad simply because they kill people. At the end of the story, the Doctor takes on the role of a suicide bomber, purposing to exterminate the entire Sontaran battle fleet. (He would make a good Dalek, as the fellow said.) And they cannot be bad simply because they send people into situations in which they may be killed: the Doctor orders Donna to put her life on the line on the Sontaran spaceship. The difference appears to be that while the Colonel remains detached from the situation, the Doctor emotes about it. He feels guilty about putting Donna at risk; he calls Ross by his name rather than his military call sign; he gives the Sontarans a chance to surrender before wiping them out. Soldiers are bad because they do not express their emotions.

Luke Rattigan is "intelligent". He is also immature (stamping his feet like a toddler when he doesn't get his way), socially inept and physically unattractive. The female girl genius seems more shocked when she hears that Luke wanted to have sex with her than when she found out that he intended to wipe out all life on earth. Luke feels - and the Doctor agrees - that by virtue of his intelligence, he is a natural outsider. He has withdrawn into a commune / school where only other "clever" people are admitted; and hopes to withdraw further onto a completely new planet. Luke's sin, then, is the same as the sin of Colonel Mace: emotional illiteracy. That's why is academy for the super-intelligent is "a bit Hitler Youth" and why he has run into the arms of the super-militaristic Sontarans.

Family is the antithesis of Military. Donna takes time out from saving the earth to visit her family. When Martha indicates that she hasn't bothered to check up on hers, the Doctor knows that she's an evil Sontaran clone. Luke's students walk out on him, not so much because they are shocked by his amorality, as because they want to be with their families during the impending holocaust. Luke's proposed new civilisation won't have any families at all: everything is going to be run according to a breeding programme that he's worked out.

The equation of "intelligence" with "social and sexual inadequacy" and "emotional illiteracy", is very much what lies behind the popular and offensive archetype of the "geek". In order to create his Utopian geek-world of emotion free breeding programmes, Luke has made a pact with the Sontarans. Within the schema of the episode, the Sontarans are the supreme example of the repression of emotion. Having been engaged in a war for 50,000 years, every Sontaran is a soldier, and nothing but a soldier. And, being clones, grown in tanks, they have no familial connections whatsoever. Clearly, this story should have been re-titled "Planet of the Asexuals."


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Thursday, May 01, 2008

4:4 "The Sontaran Stratagem"

-- Girl reporter thrown out of sinister stately home. Ah. Seems we've come in in the middle of episode 2. Again.

-- Boy genius. Haven't we seen this character before? Wasn't he in "Dalek"? (Twice?)

-- Sat-nav drives girl reporter off the bridge. Ooo! A ubiquitous consumer device has turned evil. Again. Like the evil alien diet pills. And the evil alien living in the TVs. And the evil alien mobile phones. (Twice.) Can't we have an evil alien daffodil once in a while?

-- Car actually going into river: nice little action movie scene.

-- Martha calls the Doctor home. Hey! That would have been cool, if you hadn't told us it was going to happen a year in advance. And then a week in advance.

-- Martha looks into camera. Leaves blow up and she looks round at TARDIS. Donna seen inside TARDIS, so Doctor has his back to her as he goes to Martha. Don't think we've scene that before. Bit obvious, but nice.

-- Martha and Donna get on really well. The Sarah-Jane plot in Season 2 has set up the expectation that former companions, like former girlfriends, will always quarrel.

-- Unified Intelligence Task Force? Unified? Why? Why? Why?

-- Martha says they are looking for illegal aliens. One of those "joke" things.

-- The Doctor worked for UNIT in the 70s, or was it the 80s. Ho-ho, ha-ha, he-he.

-- What is the POINT of showing us the Sontaran out of shot, and then from behind when we have already been shown what he looks like in last weeks trailer and on the cover of the Radio Times?

-- Squaddies marching down corridor in factory that builds evil alien sat nav. Could we get on with it? Could we get to the Sontarans, please?

-- Squaddies faff around with coffin full of luminous green glue. COULD WE GET ON WITH IT PLEASE?

-- Doctor mucking around with soldiers...feels a lot like, well, a UNIT story.

-- Ooo, it's a Sontaran! Were Sontaran's always small? (Stop pretending that we don't know what it's face looks like!)

-- Ooo -- he's taken his helmet off. We see the partial close up of his face. Very nice. Except we saw it in the trailer at the end of the last season and we've ALREADY SCENE THE FULL VIEW IN THE SODDING RADIO SODDING TIMES!

-- "I don't like people with guns", "People with guns are usually the enemy": nice.

-- Donna using her brain to spot the the Clue in the personnel records. Nice. (Using HER brain, as opposed to Rose's brian or a generic companion brain.)

-- Donna tells the Doctor she's going home. Could have been very funny, but so desperately over-done as to be embarrassing.

-- Donna goes home; feels a montage coming on. (NOTE: She's seen a lot of weird stuff, but her mother was in a pub where alien jelly babies were breaking out of people's tummies.)

-- Ah: they are treating Donna's family more as a soap opera than a sit com this week. Bernard Cribbens is a lot better than he was in the first episode. Positively good scene.

-- School for geniuses. (Is that the same building as the school in "Human Nature".) Are there any girl geniuses? (Does RTD like stories about boys boarding schools, for some unaccountable reason?) Why is it "a bit Hitler youth" rather than all geeky and nerdy? Lab where everyone is experimenting is awfully old fashioned? Wouldn't boy genii mainly be working on computers?

-- Toys lying around in Rattigan's room, obviously meant to to evoke Google and other laid back IT companies: doesn't fit in very well with Hitler youth and early morning runs.

-- Big reveal moment, the Sontaran unmasks. BUT WE'VE ALREADY SEEN IT.


-- The Sontaran walks through the teleport and into the space-ship followed by the genius kid. This is the first moment this season -- no, the first moment EVER -- when I (almost unconsciously) think "Hey! I'm watching Doctor Who."

-- Martha imprisoned, tub of green goo, oh god, it's going to be a clone. There's nothing more boring than clones, dopplegange's and evil doubles.

-- Sontaran and kid looking out over earth through window of spaceship. Admittedly, the same scene was done in -- "End of the World", other places as well -- but very nice.

-- Would the Sontarans really know the Doctor as a one of their enemies? "Time Warrior" and "Sontaran Experiment" (and "Two Doctors" come to think of it, must have erased that from my memory) must be pretty minor encounters. I suppose they blame him for their invasion of Gallifrey failing. Odd that a race mad enough to invade Gallifrey wasn't involved with the Time War. Sorry. Having a geek moment.

-- Pull back from window to Sontaran fleet. OK, Babylon 5 was proud that it could do this ten years ago, but it still looks cool. Nice spaceships, too.

-- Doctor convinces the alien sat nav not to drive them into the river by ordering it to drive them into the river. A bit like Spock making alien computers blow up by feeding them simple paradoxes! But, quite fun that it stops on the very edge of the river and then fizzles out.

-- The realistic soap opera - Donna, Gramps and her mother - works very well as a brief interlude to off-set the space opera rather than the main event. The whole scene with them round the car is really very nice indeed.

-- I like the Sontaran's little beard. Only just noticed that.

-- Loads of Sontarans and loads of Sontaran spaces ships. I love it.

-- Sontar-ha, Sontar-ha. You see that almost imperceptible dot on the horizon? That's Russell T Davies' sense of good taste, tht is.

-- Apart from the fact that Gramps was stupid enough to jump in the car, that's really a very good cliffhanger.