Thursday, May 05, 2005
I suppose I should say something about the election. I haven't followed it particularly closely. What I've seen has felt like a dark exercise in self-parody. Maybe on Friday morning, I will step out of the shower and find that the last three weeks have been Rory Bremmer sketch and the actual election hasn't started.
I have fantasies of what I might have done if someone had canvassed me.
"Hello. I'm your Conservative Candidate."
"I am amazed you are prepared to show your face in public. Please crawl back into your hole and set a pack of dogs on an asylum seeker, or whatever it is you do. "New" Labour make me angry. I can't be bothered to be angry with you. You are quite literally beneath my contempt."
"Hello. I'm your Liberal Candidate."
"Well, you've got me vote. Don't look so pleased. I couldn't possibly imagine your guy as PM. (Did you see the way he shriveled up on Paxman?) I'm only voting for you because you're what's left after eliminating Big Red Bastard and Little Blue Bastard. Have you thought of changing your name to the "None of the Above" party?"
"Hello. I'm your Labour Candidate."
"Are we going to go through the motions? Where I say "You sold out socialism?" and you say "Yes, but we did re-brand "Job Club" as "the New Deal."? Where I say "Iraq" and you say "I don't think that that is the most important issue facing the electorate? I'm a Guardian-reading metropolitan airy fairly civil liberties supporting elitist. I believe that education for its own sake is the main point of civilisation, as opposed to a dodgy medieval idea. If I'm anything, I'm a socialist. So why don't you just accept that I'm The Enemy and sod off?"
Have you noticed that the political cartoonists are still depicting Michael Howard as Count Dracula? It isn't remotely funny. And it does strike me as a little insensitive to wait until we have a Jew standing for high office and then start making jokes which more or less say that he, er, drinks the blood of infants.
Howard himself started out running rather a good campaign. My first reaction when I saw the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" poster was "That's a very shrewd piece of political advertising. If you are widely regarded as out of date and out of touch, then selling yourself as the party of common sense is a very clever move." (Well, actually that was my second reaction. My first reaction was "I think so, Brain, but where would we get that much chocolate sauce at this time of night?") But then he attempted to reduce the campaign down to five key slogans: Fewer Taxes, Fewer Criminals; Fewer Foreigners; Cleaner Matrons; More Spanking. Regardless of what question he is asked, he reels of this list of five promises.
"Mr Howard, some people would say that you are too old to be Prime Minister."
"I know they do. And let me tell you why we need cleaner hospitals, better school discipline; more police-men...."
Five campaign targets turned out to be too many to keep track of, so, in a very 1984-ish way, the whole Tory campaign got reduced to a single over-arching political doctrine: "Tony Blair is a liar."
Saying "Tony Blair is a liar" had the advantage over the other slogans of being pretty obviously true. And, uniquely for a Tory poster, it makes loony-left peaceniks like myself nod in approval ("If he lied to lead us into a war, he'll lie to win an election.") The effect is rather spoiled by the fact that Howard supported the War against Iraq, and says that he would have done so even had known then everything that he knows now. So: you can't trust Tony because he got us involved in a stupid, expensive, un-necessary, illegal war and lied about it; whereas we would have got you involved in a stupid, un-necessary, illegal war, but we would have told the truth about it. Not the most scintillating message I have ever heard.
You'd have thought that someone would have spotted posters which appeared to have been written by hand were just asking to be scrawled on? The first time I saw the poster which says "It's not racist to want to limit immigration", a helpful graffiti artist had added "Of course it is you ****ing twat" in a similar handwriting. Not subtle, but...
By the way: it's not racist to want to limit immigration. No-one ever said it was. When Michael says he supports "controlled immigration", he's cleverly suggesting that Labour think that there shouldn't be any such controls, which is pretty obviously not true. (Similarly, when he asks "What's wrong with there being some discipline in schools?" he is implying that Labour positively opposes the idea of kids behaving themselves, which is nonsense.) Most racists want to limit immigration, but not all those who want to limit immigration are racists. But Howard's real triumph is that he has succeeded in giving the word "immigration" a negative aura. Just before parliament broke up, he did a knock-about routine in which he listed all the bad things which Tony had done. "Crime – up. School truancy – up. Tax – up. Immigration – up." Once "immigration" has come to mean "bad thing" it is very hard to have a rational discussion about it. If Howard says "Under Labour, the amount of Bad Thing has increased" it's next to impossible for Tony to say "Yes, and Bad Thing is a good!" Instead, he finds himself saying "No, actually, there was less Bad Thing, and if you elect us again, there will be even less!" (A long time ago, probably during John Major's infamous "Labour Tax Bombshell" campaign, Labour accepted the principle that Income Tax was a Bad Thing, and kept assuring us that they had no intention of increasing the amount of this Bad Thing. Once you've accepted this, then it's bye-bye to silly ideas like socialism.)
I blame the journalists for the nightmarish quality of the election campaign. Jon Snow, John Humphreys, the Dimbleby brothers and Darth Paxman all got to do interviews with Michael, Tony and The Other One. In fact, they all got to do exactly the same interview.
What do you think goes on in their little heads before facing the Big Man on live TV? "I know. I'll ask Tony whether he deceived parliament about the reasons for war in Iraq. That's the last thing he'll expect. So maybe I'll catch him off guard, and he'll blurt out the truth ("Of course, I knew that the whole WMD thing was a pack of lies. George told me that if I pretended to believe it, he'd let David Blunkett have a consignment of second hand electric chairs. Gosh, it feels good to have got that off my chest.")
You'd think that one of them could have thought of a slightly off-the-wall question which would get him off his pre-written script and force him to say something slightly interesting.
"Mr Blair, Mr Howard. Supposing you knew that you were going to be in power for another 20 years, what would Britian look like at the end of it?"
"Mr Blair, given that George Bush is a pro-gun pro-hanging anti-abortion anti-gay religious fundamentalist – pretty much the incarnation of every liberals worst nightmare -- what goes through your mind when you shake hands with him? Did you vomit the first time?"
"Mr Howard, what finally convinced you to stop advocating capital punishment?".
In fact, of course, they all ask him the same questions and he responds with the same answers in precisely the same words, and we all start to wonder whether we can actually be bothered to vote for any of them.
"I have an idea, boys and girls. Let's split the audience down the middle, and when Mr Dimbleby says "Mr Blair, are you a fibber" we'll all join in the chorus and see who can shout it the loudest. Let's have a practice: all together now....
I don't dis-respect
those who take a different view
but I became Prime Minister
in order to make difficult decisions
and I happen to think
that the decision I took was the right one
and the attorney general was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
(one last time, let's try to raise the roof:)
he was there in the room"
The Tories say "vote for us, because you can't trust Tony."
The Liberals say "Vote for us, because we actually opposed the war, and have got some nice policies and a very good chance of coming third."
Labour says "Even if you agree with the Liberals, you mustn't vote for them because then the Conservatives might get in."
The main reason for supporting Michael Howard is that Tony Blair is so awful; and the main reason for supporting Tony Blair is that Michael Howard is so awful, so awful, in fact that we mustn't vote Lib Dem even if agree with them.
I would find a Michael Howard government aesthetically displeasing. But I do not accept the theory that a Conservative government would be the Worst Thing Possible. It could hardly come up with Home Secretary more right wing that Blunkett, for example. The "anything but Howard" theory amounts to a blank cheque that excuses all Labour misbehavior. We can do what we like, because the opposition is so dreadful. Vote for the party you hate, because otherwise the party you hate slightly more might get in. That's democracy, folks.
Tony made one rather clever rhetorical breakthrough during the campaign. When asked about Iraq, he effected to be irritated with the issue; to say that it was irrelevant; that it was in the past; that "people really cared" about hospitals, crime, police... As a result of this tactic, it becomes hard to say "To me, the war is the decisive issue" or "It comes down to a question of trust" without appearing to to be repeating a dreadfully hackneyed cliches.
To me, the war is the decisive issue. It comes down to a question of trust.
Howard spoilt things slightly by shouting "liar" a bit too loudly. This enabled Blair to hide behind mock outrage. It was also a mistake to lean so heavily on the dozen or so memos that leaked out in the week before the election. Only a complete political geek can understand them. Did this lawyer change that piece of advice from "maybe" to "probably" before or after this resolution? I, for one, am entirely lost.
What bothers me more is the way in which Blair's reasons for going to war keep shifting. Before the war, it was, as we all know, about weapons of mass destruction: But when it turned out that there had never been any such weapons, Tony, in effect, said "Did I say weapons of mass destruction? Oh. Sorry. What I meant was that Saddam was a wicked dictator, and it was right to liberate his people from him." But during the election, it has changed again, presumably because one of the memos specifically said that a war for "regime change" would have been illegal. So now, it's all about the War on Terror. After September 11th, Tony decided that there were lots of really bad terrorists in the world, and it was tactically necessary to "deal with" all countries that had nuclear-bioligcal-and-chemical-weapons. Saddam happened to be first on the list. In this version, "regime change" was merely a means to an end, the end being removing the weapons which didn't exist but might have done. Liberating the poor suffering Iraqis was simply a pleasant side-effect.
This confirms what everyone who isn't a New Labour partisan believes: Blair decided very early on that he wanted to go to war against Saddam, and started looking for reasons that could justify it. I used to think that the true reason he wanted the war was in order to suck up to the biggest kid in the playground: he would sooner be a junior ally of America than an equal partner in Europe. But his new "September 11th" version of events has a ring of truth to it. It's the way someone with messiah complex might actually think. ("I decided to remove Saddam". By myself. Cabinet? Americans? Generals?) But the reasons given at the time – legal, tactical, moral, intelligence-based – were only pretexts to give support to a course of action he had already decided on. Is this the same as "lying to get us into a war"?
"I am not lost: I just haven't pin-pointed my precise location on the map yet." "I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman."
I think that the fact that Tony led the country into a war without being entirely honest about the true reasons – yes, that's a good way of putting it – is itself, grounds for not voting for him, ever, ever again. Blair says that if I do this I might let Howard in. I don't for one moment believe this to be true. But even if I did, the fact would remain that honour demands that any politician who had been less than 100% honest about a war should be punished by the electorate at the next opportunity. If five years of Howard is the price for that, then we should grit out teeth and put up with it. Perhaps, in opposition, New Labour would evaporate and re-form as something more recognisable as a socialist party. Wouldn't that make the 2009 election more interesting?
Monday, April 18, 2005
Friday, April 15, 2005
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Monday, April 11, 2005
Guardian style guide.
The makers of popular domestic serial stories (or "soap-operas" as I believe they are called) like to fill their narratives with un-expected twists. Marriages, deaths, divorces, revelations, all popping up in that final five seconds before the signature tune. But it very often happens that a tabloid newspaper gets hold of the script in advance, so by the time the Surprise Twist happens, you have already read about it on the front page of the Sun. What is strange to me is that people carry on watching the soaps in any case. If you are following "Eastarchers" then, of course, the sudden return Dirty Dorris who supposedly died in a combine-harvester accident ten years ago is great fun. But how can it be fun when the Daily Lie told you in advance that it was going to happen? Maybe there is something post-modern going on. Maybe part of the pleasure of a soap is that you know what is going to happen to these characters, but they don't. Maybe it gives you a sense that someone, somewhere, might be watching over you. Everyone knew the plot of classical tragedy. The moment Oedipus walked onto the stage, the audience knew that he was going to come to a sticky end. Plays used to be called "The Tragedy of MacBeth" or "The Comedy of Errors" to ensure that the audience knew in advance whether they would have happy endings or sad ones. Perhaps tabloid spoilers, by creating a sense of fate and predestination lend soaps a mythic gravitas.
Or perhaps not.
In retrospect, it is pretty obvious that Christopher Eccleston was never going to stay in "Doctor Who" beyond the first season. I doubt that, 18 months ago, when the Dream Project landed in Russel T Davies lap, he gave much thought to Season 2. I imagine his aim was to make a stonking, self-contained series of 13 episodes. You can imagine the conversation. "Chris, you are the exact actor I want to star in my new, high profile project." "I'd love to do it, Rus, but only for one series." "Tough. If you won't promise to appear in a totally hypothetical second series, you can't play." Yes, I know that fans think that "the return of 'Doctor Who'" means "They'll be a new series every autumn for the next 27 years," but TV doesn't work like that any more.
The final episode of the season is to be called "The Parting of the Ways". The penultimate episode is called "To Be Announced." This rather suggests that R.T.D has a big surprise up his sleeve which he doesn't want to reveal too soon. The missing episode title is probably "The Daleks Murder Rose" or "The Doctor Contracts Incurable Time-lord Flu" or "Rose and the Doctor have passionate sex under the TARDIS console." (I do hope not.) Very likely,"the Parting of the Ways" concludes with an amazingly surprising last minute twist in which Eccleston leaves the series. Maybe the Doctor dies to save Rose. Maybe it was always planned that the season would end with a "re-generation." Perhaps R.T.D always intended "Doctor Who" to be a one-season-wonder with the potential for a sequel.
But of course, after episode 1, everything went completely apple-shaped. The BBC was surprised by the fact that their massively hyped revival of one of the most famous TV shows of all time, er, got very high ratings. They panicked, and announced there and then that they'd commissioned a second series. (Or, as it may turn out, a "sequel".). Whereupon the Sun discovers that Series 2 won't have Eccelston in it, and runs an "exclusive" claiming that Eccelston has "quit" after one episode. And the BBC, foolishly, instead of saying "Just wait and see" confirmed the story.
Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, Chris would have been persuaded to stay on for another season.(Presumably, if had said "Not 2006, but maybe 2007", the beeb could have talked business.) Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, we would have reached the final installment, and found that the "twist" of C..E's departure was a brilliant and appropriate way of ending New "Who" Season 1.
At first, the news depressed me. I felt as if someone had given me a box of pistachio Turkish Delight and then snatched it away before I had a chance to eat one. It felt as if instead of looking at "The New Doctor" I was looking at "The Old Doctor, the Temporary Doctor, the Doctor who Is Not Going To Be Around For Very Long."
But I calmed down, and am watching the series for what it is. Ten hours is a very long time for an actor to play one character. Longer than Mark Hamill played Luke Skywalker. Almost as long as Sean Connery played James Bond. John Clease said that he got 6 hours out of Basil Fawlty, and Shakespeare only got 4 out of Hamlet.
I could do without all the speculation about who the new Doctor should be. You would think they had learned their lesson by now. Everyone and his grand-daughter was reported as being "considered" for the part last time around. The one person whose name was never mentioned was, er, Christopher Eccleston. I fear that the doctrine of regeneration, which was the saving of the series in 1966, could be the thing which strangles it in 2005. The fact that the Doctor regenerates has become the most important thing about him, the one thing which everybody knows. "Doctor Who: oh, its that series where you have to guess who the leading man is going to be that week."
I could really, really do without all the silly discussions about whether there could be a black Doctor or a Lady Doctor, which we have had to listen to every few years since the departure of Tom Baker. Answer: a version of the Doctor based on some supposedly "trendy" version of black-british yoof culture would be too hideous to contemplate: a Doctor who happened to have dark skin ought not even to be worthy of comment. A relatively androgynous female Doctor -- like one of those actresses doing Prospero or Hamlet or Richard II -- would be no problem at all: one who was self-consciously glamorous or feminist would be unendurable. But I hate the fact that the discussion is being framed in this way – which group or category ought to have a chance of being "a" Doctor. The Doctor, for all his multi-facetedness, is a character. He should be played by a person who the director thinks can play him best.
I am trying to decide whether to do the joke about David Tennant becoming pope, or just to claim that white smoke will appear from the chimney of Television Center when the new Doctor is selected.
I said before that Tom Baker was the Doctor, where Patrick Troughton was only someone playing the Doctor. Eccleston is neither. He is a third party who is periodically possessed by the spirit of the Doctor. When he starts bickering with Rose ("You think your're so great", "I am so great") he feels as un-Doctor-ish as Peter Cushing. The character tick of calling everything "fantastic" is already fantastically irritating. But then, suddenly, he will take control of a situation, or make some speech about man's place in the universe, and he is suddenly – well, to coin a phrase, the Doctorest Doctor your ever saw.
I was about to write "As a completely new time travelling hero, I like him very much. But I am not sure if he has anything to do with the Doctor of old." But when tried to define the characteristics of Eccleston -- the glee at traveling through time, the naughtiness, the mood-swings, the occasional arrogance, the underlying Holmsian callousness -- I realised that they were all totally Doctorish characteristics.
R.T.D clearly has a meta-plot brewing. I am worried that this story-arc will become more interesting than the actual episodes. I thought part 2 "The End of the World" was rather weak as space-opera goes: but all the punch came from the slow-burn revelation about the destruction of the Time Lords. (Getting rid of the Time Lords, much the most boring thing in the Who mythos, is a good idea: but making the fact that the Time Lords have been destroyed a central plank of the Doctor's character could be a mistake.) If I said "I bet the Daleks destroyed the Time Lords" would anyone take the bet?
R.T.D said that he wanted "Doctor Who" to be character driven. Or "emotionally literate", if you insist. He is obviously taking a leaf out of the books of U.S TV shows like "Lois and Clerk" and that thing about vampires and school girls that totally passed me by. The main "fantasy" plot can be quite silly, but this doesn't matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. "The End of the World" was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a space ship being menaced by a baddie; it was about the Doctor's relationship with Rose and with the Tree-woman. "The Unquiet Dead" was not really about welsh ghosts, but about the character of Charles Dickens and how meeting the Doctor helps him overcome his general disillusionment with life. So far so good. But the relatively short episodes don't give much space for these characters to develop. The key character in Episode 3, Gwynneth the serving girl really only developed in one 5 minute conversation with Rose. If we were going to care about her, she needed a lot more screen-time.
I have no nostalgic attachment to the format of stories made up of 4 and 6 episodes (or rather, I do, but I don't expect the BBC to pay any attention to me); but the single 45 minute episode seems ill-suited to the type of story R.T.D wants to tell.
The Doctor is making too much use of gadgets. The sonic screwdriver in particular is becoming an all purpose get out of jail free card. Please stop it.
I think that it is a shame that the Doctor has got sufficient control of the TARDIS that Rose can nip home between adventures. I think that the sense of being lost in time and space and not quite knowing when and if the Doctor will get you home was an important part of the show's magic. Have you ever felt what it must be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?
"The End of the World" didn't feel very much like "Doctor Who"...and I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. A lot of aliens gather on a ship to witness a big event, and then one of them starts killing the others: this is more "Trek" than "Who". Some of the jokes felt a little familiar. (The "end of the world as an entertainment spectacle" is right out of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"; the "I-Pod" joke is straight out of "Dancers at the End of Time".)
The moral messages were rammed home with a distinct lack of subtlety. It was one thing for Rose to refer to Cassandra as "Michael Jackson", but not necessary for her to follow this joke with a little speech about plastic surgery. I am not sure that the conclusion, about cherishing the world we live in because it will all be destroyed in only five billion years, really made a great deal of sense. I think that if I had not been sitting there chortelling "It's a new episode of "Doctor Who", it's a new episode of "Doctor Who", and there are eleven more to come", I would not have thought it was a particularly good story.
I guess its main point was structural: to say to the audience -- last week was set in contemporary London: this week we are five billion years in the future, next week we will be in Victorian England.
"The Unquiet Dead", on the other hand, was classic old-school "Doctor Who". I wouldn't go as far as the man in the Grauniad who said it was the best thing the BBC had produced in their entire history, but it was damned good stuff. Two ordinary characters witness a strange supernatural event in the pre-cred sequence; the Doctor turns up "just to have a look around" and gets embroiled in the plot; he takes control of the situation; he meets a historical character; there is a tragic outcome. I do hope, that the idea of a subsidiary character pulling the Doctor's fat out of the fire at the last minute doesn't become a recurrent motif.
It needed to be longer. We'd hardly met the zombies before we found out the explanation; we'd hardly had the explanation before we'd got the solution. Oh, for some old fashioned pacing – an episode of the walking dead; and episode of blue ghosts; an episode of thinking that they are "good" aliens; and a final episode fighting them as "bad aliens". And a whole month to get to know Gwynneth, so we could properly feel her sacrifice.
It wasn't "Talons of Weng Chiang", but then, what is?
The dialogue sparkled, although Mr Davies needs to watch his habit of letting story-external humour work its way into the plot. It was a mistake in episode 1 for the wheely bin to belch, not because there is anything wrong with a belch-joke, but because there was no logical reason for it to do so: it wasn't a creature and it hadn't eaten anything. There was no reason for Charles Dickens to says "What the Shakespeare was that!" because, well, he just wouldn't have. We pardon both jokes for being funny: but too much of this kind of thing and we may stop believing in the show. The Doctor's own wit, and especially, Rose's reaction to it, is much funnier. ("I don't believe you just said that.")
Note: every time I type "Rose", I almost type "Ace". Hmm....
So then. An unquestionably cool stand-alone fantasy TV show, but with enough references and reminiscences of "Doctor Who" to satisfy my inner fanboy. I still don't know where it is going; I still want to find out. I hope that R.T.D doesn't blow the emerging backstory. And I want to see the Daleks. As relatively unequivocal a thumbs up as you could have expected an old anorak like me to give, then.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
New Readers Start Here
1: The Controversial Bit
At the end of "Twilight of the Gods", Brunhilde rides Grane, her long-suffering horse, onto the funeral pyre of her lover, Siegfried. Siegfried's death seems to have restored her divine powers. She invokes Loge, the god of fire, and Wotan's magical ravens. The flames of the bonfire rush up to Valhalla. The Rhine bursts its banks. The gods are wiped out. The magic Ring is returned to its rightful owners. The old order has been swept away. A new era of humanistic love will emerge from the ashes.
Brunhilde's last words are "Siegfried! Here, husband, welcome your wife!" But are these lovers going to be re-united in the Undying Lands? With the gods incinerated and Valhalla destroyed it is doubtful that there is any after-life for them to go to. When they were in love, they kept saying that they wanted to merge together and become one person. ("I'm hardly Siegfried at all, I'm merely Brunhilde's will" "Apart yet still united, divided yet still as one.") But this can't really happen. Human souls can't become united; they can only communicate through symbols. And the same symbols with which we communicate also separate us. The Runes on Wotan's spear are the symbols of his power: but ultimately they render him powerless. The Ring, which Siegfried carelessly gives Brunhilde as a pledge of his love, is what ensures that they will be pulled apart. The only place they can be together is outside of language; outside of symbols; outside of the opera. By destroying themselves, they ensure that the idea-of-Siegfried and the idea-of-Brunhilde will always be united. Brunhilde isn't dying so she can be with Siegfried in heaven: her death, her consumption in the flames, is the consummation of her love. She is literally in love with death. And she dies by her own hand in such a way as to destroy a morally bankrupt social world.
Everyone who reads the arts pages already knows how Phyllida Lloyd interprets this scene at the climax of the English National Opera's brilliant Ring Cycle. Five hours of gripping drama has been summarized in a single phrase. "Oh, this is the one where they turn Brunhilde into a blankety-blank. Apparently, it was very controversial." You could easily think that this one "controversial" image was the most important thing about the opera.
As every review reminds us, Ms Lloyd specializes in modern-dress re-imaginings of Wagner that range from the astonishing to the impenetrable. What is less often said is that her greatest strength as a producer is that she knows when to shut-up. What I took away from Act III of "Twilight" was not any sense of shock about the Controversial Bit. (I didn't realize it was controversial until I read about it in Sunday morning's Observer.) I was far more impressed by the relative lack of stage business and "production ideas". We are, after all, dealing with most emotive music ever composed by a human being. I swear, every time I hear Siegfried's funeral march, I feel as if someone really has just died. It's Wagner at his most sadistic. Siegfried's death would do for the show-stopping final bars of any other opera; but it turns out to only be the lead-in to the funeral music, which, if I have counted correctly, has five separate climaxes. Every time you think the music is going to let you down and release you, it comes back even bigger and louder, and more painful. And when it finally subsides, Wagner starts building up to another, even bigger climax, Brunhilde's death. Very sensibly, Lloyd mainly let's the music speak for itself.
Act III mainly un-folds on an empty stage. I could have done without the Rhine-maidens being represented as pole-dancers, although I take the point that if you look at how they treated Alberich, they are more "lusty nymphs" than "innocent maids". There was no great "controlling idea" informing Siegfried's death. Hagan stabs him with a knife rather than a spear: a slight blunder because the operas have loaded "spears" with a large amount of symbolism which it would have been better not to muck about with. The mortally wounded Siegfried is lying on his back. He is lifted up by two of Hagan's vassals: first to a sitting position (as per Wagner's stage direction) but then onto his feet for his final lines. Once he is dead, the vassals crowd around him, completely hiding his body. The stage is dark. As the march proceeds, a few of the vassals emerge from the crowd with relics: -- his hat, his horn. (I can't help mentioning that I saw this on April 2nd, a little before the news-story from Rome broke...) They take his body back to Gunther's hall. After Gutrune's vigil, they again cluster around Siegfried's body. The quarrel over the Ring starts. And then the group parts as Brunhilde enters. ("I heard your feeble whimpering just like a baby who's lost his mother/ But I heard nothing, nothing befitting a mighty hero's fall"). We're already emotionally shattered by Siegfried's death and the funeral march, but this is another fantastically charged moment. Brunhilde is back in her black costume from Act II of "Valkyrie": no longer a victim of Wotan, Siegfried, Gunther and Hagan -- she's a Valkyrie again, commanding the stage. Brunhilde's simple entrance may have been the most dramatically perfect moment in the whole saga.
It's at this point we deviate slightly from the script. When Brunhilde orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre, Siegfried's body is taken off stage. This is fairly common when director's don't feel they can cope with an on-stage cremation. Brunhilde's eight sisters turn up, dressed as they were in "Valkyrie" Act III. This somewhat contradicts the narrative, states that the Valkyrie are at Wotan's feet, waiting for the world to end. But it makes dramatic sense for the choosers of the slain to be swarming around Siegfried's pyre.
Brunhilde sings her great "immolation" aria: "Send Loge to Valhalla/For the final Twilight now is at hand/So here is the fire/Valhalla, this is the end..." Waltraute, the Valkyrie who visited Brunhilde on her rock in Act II, straps some kind of waist-coat or breast-plate to her sister and hands her an object. The audience does a double-take. It's a hand-grenade. The waist-coat is explosives. Instead of exiting stage-right and throwing herself onto Siegfried's off-stage funeral pyre, as we might have expected, Brunhilde pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws herself into the crowd at the rear of the stage. Everyone mimes being destroyed in an explosion. A combination of lighting and silvery curtains indicates that the Rhine has flooded. We see Hagan and Alberich briefly embrace under the water, before being left with a more-or-less empty stage, representing the Rhine, the return to the purity of nature that existed before the Ring was stolen. The implication is that everything has been wiped out, a rather larger scale of destruction than Wagner envisaged. (His stage direction had "men and women watching the fire in the sky in great agitation" from the the ruins of Gunther's hall. The abbreviated stage direction in this translation simply says "The world is destroyed by fire and water.") But the music and the stage imagery clearly tells us that an old world has passed away and a new one will emerge from this wreak. I have no problem with Gotterdamerung being envisaged as "the end of the world" as opposed to merely "the end of the gods".
So yes. If you insist. Phylida Lloyd "made" Brunhilde into a suicide bomber. Or, rather, Phylida Lloyd observed that the psychology of the religious suicide bomber is very close to that of Brunhilde. I really don't think she is appropriating the "Ring" in order to "say something" about terrorism. But she is very cleverly using the idea of terrorism to illuminate the psychology of a character in the "Ring."
I heard no booing, jeering, cat-calling or anything else. I don't believe that this is something that British opera go-ers do, any more than they throw flowers or shout "bravissimo".
2: The Rest of the Opera
The controlling motif of this "Twilight" is cowboys and America. Siegfried has grown up a little since the last opera. In Act I, Brunhilde unceremoniously takes away his baseball cap and replaces it with a stetson. Brunhilde herself is dressed as a little wifey out of "Little House on the Prairie", all flowery pinafores and aprons. The lovers are discovered sitting at a table with a checked table-cloth and vase of flowers.
Now, backtrack and consider the plot. Wotan sentenced Brunhilde -- who we first encountered as a sort of macho biker-chick -- to be stripped of her immortality. She was to become the wife of any man who came her way. This is intended as a punishment. But it has not turned out that way because the person who found her was Siegfried, with whom she fell in love. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the stage image – Brunhilde pathetically reduced from warrior to "little woman" but happy. It also gives a sense that they have been together for some time. If you aren't careful, the opera can give you the impression that Siegfried met Brunhilde on Tuesday morning and got murdered in time for tea on Wednesday.
A sense of the passage of time was also conveyed by the clever back-projection sequence which accompanied Siegfried's Rhine Journey. While Richard Berkeley-Steele mimes walking and riding, a film of dusty roads, prairies, and rivers is projected on the backdrop. "Wild west", Marlborough country imagery slowly gives way to scenes of the big-city. This gives a good sense that Siegfried has been traveling a long time before he reaches the Gunther's hall; it also nearly sets up the fact that although he is a Great Hero he is out of his depth in Gunther's world.
I thought maybe Gunther's "hall" was over done. Some people thought that it was an executive health spa: I thought perhaps they were meant to be running a pharmaceutical company. It certainly conveyed wealth and sophistication. An anti-septic white room; Gunther and Gutrune in bath robes, on sun-beds, with lap-tops, and a big glass fronted cup-board full of drugs or medicines on the back wall – possibly recalling the Damien Hirst installation. Admittedly, a rather very unsubtle way of introducing the love-potion, but we'll let that pass...
One got a sense from the programme notes that the company was slightly embarrassed by Act II. There is no doubt that it's as close as Wagner ever got to writing straight opera. There is a chorus, who more or less sing a drinking song; there is a rousing three way climax where Gunther, Hagan and Brunhilde swear vengeance, not totally unlike Act II of "Otello". There is the magnificently declamatory section where Siegfried and Brunhilde swear oaths on the point of Hagan's spear. (Or, unfortunately in this case, dagger.) Where Siegfried's death makes me cry, the spear-swearing makes me want to cheer, and shout "encore!". I rather wished I could have watched Act II in a Glastonbury-type situation, where you could respond to the action without fear of everyone behind you going "shush"! Wagner being Wagner, he doesn't give us very much of any one of the "tune": the oath swearing is repeated twice; the vassals celebration is really only sung once. You feel anyone else would have milked them for twenty minutes.
The production pretty much dives in an enjoys itself. Gunther and Gutrune are marrying Brunhilde and Siegfried, respectively, not because they love them, but because they think that marrying a hero and an ex-goddess will confer status on them. They are trophy brides, this is a celebrity marriage. The wedding, done partly as a set-piece for benefit of their subjects falls apart when Brunhilde (Gunther's "wife") announces that she is already married to Siegfried (who, as a result of a plot device, has completely forgotten who she is.) Brunhilde faints. Everyone starts swearing oaths and vengeance. In the aftermath of the disastrous wedding, Brunhilde, Gunther and Hagan plan to murder Siegfried. It has aways seemed to me that this section of "Twilight of the Gods" represents a desecration of the last two operas. How can the dragon-slaying Siegfried have been turned into a puppet by such a silly Shakespeare-comedy device as a love-potion? How after that intense love-duet, can Brunhilde possibly believe that Siegfried has really betrayed her, let alone participate in a plot to kill him? (Why doesn't she say "Siegfried would never betray me. One of you must have enchanted him.") It's part of the genius of the opera that he completely regains his nobility in death. But it is really not very much to the point to say that the production of Act II reduced the characters status, turned them into figures in a melodrama or a soap-opera. That is pretty much what Wagner has already done to them.
After his strange dream-meeting with Alberich, Hagan calls his vassals together to announce the double wedding. It begins with a horn call, and Hagan's very dark theme, as he insinuates that he has called them together to go to war. The chorus appears in black body suits and silver helmets, looking like riot police or stormtroopers. There are even what look like nuclear missiles lined up at the back of the stage. This is slightly corny, almost a parody of modern-dress Wagner. But at the moment when they realize that they have been assembled, not for a war, but for a wedding and the the music changes the chorus all simultaneously rip off their black costumes, and reveal gaudy, modern, pastel colours underneath. The stage has gone from black to colourful in a about three seconds. (This was another moment where I wanted to applaud.) "Hollywood" style lighting and a big silver silver staircase are lowered from the ceiling, and Gunther and Brunhilde enter in a gaudy wedding dresses, followed by Siegfried in a sparkly white cowboy outfit. The whole thing has turned into the most vulgar of Las Vegas show business weddings. As Brunhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery, and the whole things threatens to degenerate into a brawl, the two sides of the "congregation" start waving their programmes and fists, for all the world like a Jerry Springer audience.
I repeat. Phylida Lloyd is not appropriating the "Ring" and using it to "say something about" show business weddings. Neither, I think, is she shoe-horning Wagner's material into inappropriate modern situations. She is asking the question "Who, in the modern world, most resembles these legendary characters". She wants us to approach "Twilight of the Gods" as human drama, not as an argument involving philosophical archetypes. A bride weeping in a dressing room while stripping off her expensive wedding dress has a pathos that is hard to achieve with animal skins and standing stones. A woman being given a hand-grenade by her own sister makes us perceive suicide as something brutal and nihilistic, rather than satisfyingly romantic.
Dramatically and in terms of production, "Twilight of the Gods" was the most successful opera in the E.N.O ring. It wasn't as gut-wrenching as "Valkryie", but that's really Wagner's fault: it only gets onto an emotional plateau in Act III. Act I is longer than most sensible operas, and with its long expository sections from the Norns and Waltraute, is always going to feel like a bit of a test of endurance.
So it's over, and there is now nothing to look forward to unless and until they do all four operas together as a proper cycle in 2006. Obviously, only a complete lunatic would sign up to a complete "Ring". 14 hours, four consecutive nights in the theater, ticket costs of around £300. I'll be right at the front of the queue.
3: By the way....
Ellen Collins e-mailed me to point out that in the E.N.O "Rhinegold" Wotan is discovered surveying Valhalla from his bath-tub. When it is agreed that the ransom for Freya will be enough gold to cover her, they put her in the bath to bury her. So the Fafner's bath, which which perplexed me in "Siegfried" is probably a symbol of the Neiblung hoard.
A letter on the website of the Wagner Society points out that the Woodbird tells Siegfried to go into Fafner's cave to get the Tarnhelm. If the helm is in the cave, Fafner is not wearing it; but if he isn't wearing it, then he isn't transformed into a dragon. So the idea that Siegfried fights and kills a giant is actually faithful to the literal sense of the libretto.
4: And finally....
I have had a number of requests... but I decided to do it anyway:
Monday, April 04, 2005
Monday, March 28, 2005
BAD NEWS. Bryn Teflon, who was supposed to be singing Wotan, lost his voice, so we only got Act I of Valkyrie
EVEN WORSE NEWS: Michael Portillo, who was doing the introductory talks, didn't lose his voice. At least he resisted the temptation to say "and you know, Alberich renouncing love for the ring is very like, when, as a member of John Major's cabinet, I..." which is his normal idiom.
GOOD NEWS: Bryn Teflon, whose Rhinegold was presumably recorded in advance, was as good as everyone says. He managed to put nuance into his singing and his gestures at the same time. (Sieglinde, for example, could only manage one at time. One noticed her hands wandering down to her abdomen on the high notes, and then remembering what they were supposed to be doing and reaching for a goblet.) He made you feel that "acting through music" is a natural, rather than a very strange and artificial, form of expression.
BAD NEWS: Deeply incoherent production of Rhinegold I thought. I am, as you know, very relaxed about radical and weird versions of the Ring. But. When the producer explained that the Gods were going to be Victorian but the Dwarves were going to represent a sort of industrial and scientific revolution, I started to get sinking feelings. When did you last see a production where the gods weren't Victorian? In fact, Valhalla seemed to be a random collection of unrelated items -- a telescope, a sofa -- and the Dwarfs realm was, for no reason that I could understand, a mortuary or vivisection lab. Alberich and Mime spend a lot of time moving dead bodies around the stage. The niebelungs themselves are either victims of lobotomy experiments, or corpses revived a la Doctor Frankenstien. The producer suggested that this was because the Ring represents the misuse of science and genetic modification, which it doesn't. And for some reason Donner and Froh were in dressing gowns or smoking jackets. Donner is the god of thunder. He has a hammer. The one time he is center-stage musically involves him calling the thunder down -- one of the most macho moment in the whole cycle. What is the point of making him a dandy?
GOOD NEWS: Loge was brilliant and stole the show, totally mischievous and understated and enjoying himself the whole time.
ALSO GOOD NEWS: Erda the Earth-Goddess was an old lady in a veil; possibly Queen Victoria herself. She is asleep in an armchair and wakes up for her big moment. Mr Portaloo's comments over the curtain call suggests that she was actually sitting in the armchair for the whole opera. At any rate, nice image, nice characterization.
CATASTROPHICALLY BAD NEWS: One of pundits at the beginning of Valkyrie explained that, in between the two operas, Wotan goes to Erda, learns from her, and as he later admits, seduces or even rapes her. He evidently hadn't seen last nights production. While the other gods were climbing up ladders to Valhalla, Wotan is shagging Erda in her armchair. I am trying to work out what new interpretation of the opera this was pointing us towards. I suspect it was the version which says "Our non-German speaking audience will not be following the sub-titles, so perhaps if we spell everything out in a really, really unsubtle way, they'll be able to follow the plot. (In Valkyrie, Sieglinde's line "I gave him a drug in his drink" is foreshadowed ten minutes in advance by a bit of business in which she opens what appears to be a packet of lemsip.)
GOOD NEWS: I have been told by two people who are not particularly Wagner enthusiasts that they were captivated by the production. So I am probably being over-critical.
GOOD NEWS: There was less rubbish on the stage in Valkyrie, although I still had no-idea what anything meant or was supposed to symbolize. But it gave the performers a fairly empty space to sing and act in. There were some nice little ideas. Siegmund has a big fur coat which is associated with his father, "Wolf." When Sieglinde starts to realize who he is, she unwraps a brown paper packet which contains a similar coat.
GOOD NEWS: Hunding is the unexpected scene stealer in this. Remarkable diction (I don't speak German, but I could pick out words with the sub-titles) and very charismatic action. Too often he is just the cardboard villain from the moment he comes in. Here, there seemed to be a convincing camaradarie with Siegmund in the brief moments before he realizes that they are enemies.
BAD NEWS: But the Nazi imagery of the coat was overdoing it, wasn't it?
BAD NEWS: Why oh why does that sword drive producers crazy? Siegmund is meant to pull the sword from the tree, brandish it aloft, and run into the woods with Sieglinde. As dear sweet Germain said, the symbolism is not exactly rocket science. So what is going on when Sieglinde takes the sword from Siegmund, and they go out into the woods with her holding it in front of herself?
GOOD NEWS: Singing all very good indeed, particular when the duet gets going. (I believe that Placido is going to have a go at Siegmund later in the run, if both he and Bryn can get their throats in working order simultaneously. If you want tickets for that one, Covent Garden will accept the soul of your first born in down payment.)
BAD NEWS: Got to wait til May 7th to see Acts Two and Three, at which point (you can bet) Mr Portillo will not be able to resist some political analogies.
Below my window there’s an apple tree in blossom. It’s white. And looking at it — instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s a nice blossom’ — now, looking at it through the window, I see the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.
Can anyone think of another use of that particular turn of phrase "blossomest blossom" "daisy-est daity"? Or is it possible that Dennis Potter was a closet Doctor Who fan? (His posthumous play was "science fiction", after all, and he did describe the BBC managers as a bunch of croak voiced Daleks.)
Saturday, March 26, 2005
2: Friends started ringing within three minutes of the closing credits, and I said "go away", let me get my thoughts on-line first.
3: Nick is staying with me. .There were no crumpets to be had in Tescos, not ever for ready money. To get the full experience, I even laid on a DVD of Basil Brush. (It was crap.)
And the verdict is.
Stunned. Desperate wish to see it again. Desperate wish to see next week's immediately. Strange interstitial territory between a completely new series that I think I would be very interested in from cold, and odd sense of familiarity.
Sense of entering story "in media res." The Doctor is already involved in an adventure. Rose blunders into it. We see "The Dcotor" from the outside. "The Doctor" is portrayed as mysterious and Other. Ecclestone is very Bakerish, going from impishness to occassional moments of seroiusness. (Not enough of the latter, I felt, maybe too much sense that he (the Doctor) ) was treated what was going on as a game.) I loved the way he seemed to have contempt for these stupid humans, except that he was risking his life to save them. Maybe too frenetic, too much rushing between scenes, not enough pausing to take in the atmosphere.
Rose very believable as a character. Felt to me a bit "like something out of Eastenders", but that's probably good short hand for "ordinary mortal." No attempt to make her an old school "screaming girl menaced by baddies", of course, but still very recognisable as a Who companion.
Had some doubt about re-design of TARDIS interior, although the set itself was very impressive.
Like the fact that the Doctor was "an alien" with no backstory. Liked the conspiracy theorist hunting him on the net. Liked all the London landmarks. Me and Nick laughed out loud at the London Eye gag.
Thought the CGI looked a little phony; and had a tendency to make the aliens look like cartoon characters. When one of the Autons "morphs" its plastic hand into an axe to attack the Doctor with, I thought of Bugs Bunny.
Opening sequence and theme music very dynamic. As one final nod of the head to nostalgia junkies, the announcer made innane comments over the clsoing credits, so we couldn't hear the new theme tune.
Paul McGann was a character who was definitely the Doctor in something which definitely wasn't Doctor Who. Chris Eccleston is a character who is probably the Doctor in something which is definitely Doctor Who.
Again again. Again again. Again, again.
You're gone for ages,
You're still here,
We haven't even met yet.
Every great decision creates ripples
Like a huge boulder dropped in a lake.
The ripples merge,
Rebound off the banks in unforseeable ways.
The heavier the decision,
The larger the waves,
The more uncertain the consequences.
Life's like that.
Is just to get on with it.
My voyage dissects the course of time
"Who knows?" you say
But are you right?
Who searches deep to find the light
That glows so darkly in the night?
Towards that point I guide my flight.
Do you know what he pointed at?
One of those little weeds.
Just like a daisy it was.
Suddenly I saw it through his eyes.
It was simply glowing with life
Like a perfectly cut jewel.
And the colors were deeper and richer
Than anything you could possibly imagine.
It was the daisyest daisy I had ever seen.
I'm very fond of bumblebees
There are worlds out there
Where the sky is burning,
And the rivers dream;
People made of smoke
And cities made of song.
Somewhere there's danger,
Somewhere there's injustice,
Somewhere else the tea's getting cold
Come with me and I will show you all this
And it will be, I promise you,
Be the dullest part of it all.
Or stay behind
And regret your staying
Until the day you die.
He's been to the past and future,
But whatever he may do.
He'll always be a friend of mine.
Told me the wisest thing to do
Would be to open my mind
And accept what had happened.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Sylvester once compared the Doctor with Jesus.
It's that classic tale of the little man against great odds. That, and the other classic story of someone from outside our world coming down to help us. That makes it very attractive to human beings. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but Jesus came down from outside the world to save us and it's that kind of area. Science fiction has a quasi-religious quality to it. People who are attracted to sci-fi are often not religious in other ways but are attracted to this idea of hope for the future, so it's a kind of religion in that way.'
He's not the first person to have spotted that fans can treat the object of their love with a devotion that borders on the religious. When Michael Grade was preparing to kill-off Doctor Who he remarked that the only people who cared about it were the fans, who treated watching it as something akin to "attending High Mass."
"Fandom" is a group of people who are bound together by their love for a particular story, which they have imbued with a special significance. That could be one working definition of "religion". They hold festivals in which they re-tell and celebrate that story in various ways. They dress in peculiar clothes and wear badges with symbols and insignia on them. They venerate holy relics. They have schisms and excommunications. We have got used to people describing Doctor Who and Star Trek as examples of "cult" TV.
Above all, fans have a body of holy texts which they revere. These texts are often discussed in language which is borrowed from religion. Sherlock Holmes fans describe the forty or fifty stories which Conan-Doyle wrote as "the canon". Holmes fiction by other hands is therefore reduced to the status of "apocrypha". Star Trek fans similarly distinguish between canonical and non-canonical stories. In that case, the limits of the canon is slightly more contentious. I believe that canonicity is generally resolved by an appeal to apostolic authority. If an episode of Star Trek was written by, or under direct inspiration from, Gene Roddenbury, then it is canon. If not, then it is blotted from the book of life, or at any rate, erased from the Captain's log.(I think this means that some of Season 3 of the original series, all of the cartoons, and one of the films is excluded.) To push the analogy slightly too hard, there is a large body of Star Trek and Star Wars apocrypha – novels and comic strips and what-not – that fans regard as worth reading, but insufficient to establish any doctrine. For Star Wars fans the Clone Wars TV series is deutero-canoncial: outside the canon, but not contradicting it; the Star Wars Christmas Special is both apocryphal and heretical.
I have on at least one occasion heard this analogy used the other way round. A discussion broke out on an RPG newsgroup about the status of "Apocryphal" New Testament – the stories of Jesus' boyhood and life of Mary Magdalene. (And why not?) "Oh, they are basically just second century fan-fiction," said someone. Which is precisely what they are.
When Doctor Who was on TV, there was very little substantive extra-canonical material. There were children's "annuals" with short-stories, a Doctor Who comic strip, and a separate strip featuring the Daleks without the Doctor. If anyone ever asked what relationship this stuff had to the TV series, the answer was obviously "none at all". The comic strip featured a character called Doctor Who, for goodness sake, and his companions were a nephew and niece called something like "Topsy and Tim". The Dalek stuff was more interesting and much better drawn; it illustrated how Terry Nation envisaged his creations, and what he would have liked to have done with them if special effects budgets had allowed. But there was no sense that they shared a universe with the TV series. The comic strip had a character called the Dalek Emperor; but when the Dalek Emperor eventually appeared on the TV, he looked nothing like the comic-stip version. The comic strip said the Daleks were created by someone called Yarvelling; but when the Daleks' origins were shown on the TV, their creator turned out to be Davros. Everyone knew we were dealing with separate fictional worlds which happened to have been based on a TV show. They were not part of the canon, and they had no pretensions to be. (In fact, the "nephew" and "niece" in the comic strip might have been put in with the express purpose of signaling to the reader "This is NOT the TV Doctor, but a different one.")
But since the Gradian axe fell, there have been several bodies of work which have tried very hard to present themselves as continuations of the TV series. Virgin Books "New Adventures of Doctor Who" sequence began publication within months of the series coming to an end. For many years, Doctor Who TV stories had been written-up as novellas, at first by "Target Books", and then by Virgin. So the "New Adventures" were in effect saying "Doctor Who hasn't come to an end at all. All that has happened is that where stories used to exist in two forms, book and TV, they now exist as books alone." Given that some of the novels were being written by active Who script-writers, probably based on stories that they might have tried to get produced had the series continued, the "New Adventures" claim to be a continuation of Doctor Who was actually quite strong. They went out of their way to be consistent with the TV series, and with each other. In that sense, "canon" is less a fan's list of approved texts, more an attitude which a particular book has to itself. It was possible to read a "New Adventure" and ask "Is this real? Is this canon?" without being thought totally mad. You could hardly have asked the same question about the 1975 Doctor Who Annual.
Inevitably, because novels have more story-space than 100 minute TV shows, and because the books were catering primarily to adult "Doctor Who" enthusiasts, the character of the Doctor and the Doctor Who universe began to develop in ways that were quite unlike the TV show. A recognisable "New Adventure" genre emerged. The Doctor became darker, more meddlesome, more morally ambiguous. Ace became increasingly psychotic. Some fans bought into it in a big way. Others didn't, either because they felt that what was being established had very little to do with the TV show they loved; or simply because they didn't have time to read two 75,000 word novels a month. (The books became increasingly unintelligible as stand-alones.)
Later on the, the license reverted to the BBC themselves, and they started a series of Eighth Doctor novels. The process repeated itself. The first book was intended to be thought of as a direct sequel to the McGann TV movie: an attempt to show what would have happened in the next episode, had they made it. Scores of "BBC eighth Doctor" novels followed, with the same faith in themselves as part of the canon. The novels were consistent with each other, but also with what had gone before. But this raised the question in some fans minds: what had gone before? Did the "BBC Eighth Doctor" novels regard themselves as continuing a TV series that ended in 1987, or as following on from a long series of "New Adventure" novels. The BBC books had to decide whether the Virgin books would be regarded as "canon" or not. (The answer, as I understand it, was "maybe.")
To further complicated matters, a group calling itself "Big Finish" arrived on the scene with a license from the BBC to make "new" Doctor Who stories, featuring the original cast. This started off very much in the realms of pastiche, wheeling on, say, Peter Davison and Mark Strickson to do a Fifth Doctor / Turlough story pretty much in the style of that TV era. But then they also persuaded Paul McGann to come into the recording studio and create, to date, three "seasons" in which he plays "his" eighth Doctor character. And, of course, in the audio stories, his character develops in a way which is different again from the BBC stories. The last time I looked, the Doctor had been permenantly exiled from our universe into a "divergent" world where no-one knows what "time" means. And he's lost the TARDIS. Again, these stories go to great length to present themselves as "canon" with respect to the TV show. But how does the "Big Finish canon" regard the "BBC novels canon". Did the BBC novels "really" happen? (The answer seems to be: "our stories take place straight after the TV movie, and are continuous with each other, so from our point of view the BBC novels haven't happened. But that only means they haven't happened yet. If you want them to be "true", then you just need to have faith that the eighth Doctor evenutally returned from the divergant universe, and then had all those decades of adventures documented in the BBC books, before eventually turning into Christopher Eccleston.")
Concern about canon can get carried to insane levels. Jean-Marc Lofficier's book The Nth Doctor documents various script treatments that were rejected before the Paul McGann movie finally got made. After each section, he lovingly demonstrates how this un-made story could have been treated as consistent with the canonical stories and with the other stories which were never made! But there are reasonably good, non-fanish reasons to be at least slightly worried about "canonicity" and "continuity". If you are writing a script for a new Star Trek TV show, you presumably want to stay reasonably consistent with previous stories, and therefore, to know which previous stories to be consistent with.
But for some fans, "canon" becomes an over-riding concern. When they hear that RTD is remaking the series, their first question is not "Will it be any good?" but "Will it be canon?" with the subsidiary questions "Will we see a Paul McGann turn into Christopher Eccleston" and "When the Master appears, will they refer to all the "Master" adventures that there have been in the New Adventures, the BBC Novels and the Big Finish Audios." When they get the obvious reply "No, of course they won't, you twit; it's unlikely that RTD has heard of them, and his target audience certainly haven't", some go as far as to respon "Well, in that case, it won't be Doctor Who."
One even comes across a few extremists who think that anything released with the words "Doctor Who" on it must be regarded as having "really happened". This group got very angry about the Comic Relief skit featuring Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor. Since the comic climax to the sketch had the Doctor running through five regenerations in as many minutes, and since he is limited to twelve bodies, the skit was a revealed as an evil plot by the BBC to prevent the programme ever coming back. Once you have said something about Doctor Who, or even thought it, it becomes true.
And let's be honest. The reason that I am very excited about the new series, but can't quite be bothered to read any of the novels is that I believe that something which goes out on Saturday nights, with a theme tune and opening credits, is "real" in a way that no book (however good) can possibly be.
No new series can possibly introduce an inconsistency so extreme that fan ingenuity will not be able to explain it away. You can bet that, in a year or so, there will be a CD or a novel or a comic strip that bridge the gap between one of the Paul McGann canons, and the new Eccleston texts. Almost any explanation will do. You can say "The Peter Cushing movie took place on a parallel earth where Doctor Who was a human inventor who built a TARDIS in his back garden." You can even (I imagine someone already has) write a piece of fan-fiction in which it turns out that the Time Lords were deleted from existence by an evil deleting-time-lords-from-existence-ray, and that nature, abhorring a vacuum, caused a human Doctor to come into being because the universe needed a champion to defeat the Daleks and the Cyberman. (Eventually, the human Doctor Who confronts the War-Lord and, in the course of the struggle, discover an device that will un-delete the Time Lords. His purpose having been fulfilled, he is returned to his house a few moments before Roy Castle turns up with a box of soft-centers. You see how easy it is?) But what you can't, on the whole, do is say "Oh, the Paul McGann audio epsidoes / the Richard E Grant Cartoon / the Peter Cushing Movie ....were all just stories that some guy made up and we're going to ignore them." "Stories that some guy made up" is the one thing which Doctor Who can never be allowed to be. The basic object of faith in the fan religion is that these stories really happened.
And this is what was so weird about the presence of Sylvester McCoy in the TV movie. The movie contradicted established continuity in every way possible. It was unlike Doctor Who in detail, in spirit, in letter. It's one and only redeeming feature was Paul McGann's luminous performance. But it had Sylvester McCoy in it. We saw the Old Doctor turning into the New Doctor. And that said to us fans: this is not a new series based on Doctor Who, or a remake of Doctor Who. This is a continuation of the old series. This really happened.
That Phillip Siegal felt the need to include a regeneration scene in his Doctor Who re-launch shows that he was thinking like a fan. That RTD doesn't shows that he isn't. And that's several points in the new series favor.
But one day, the famous comedian fired him.
(People say that the famous comedian fired all his cleverest colleagues, because he wanted everyone to see that he could be funny all by himself without any help from anyone else. When he died, a few years later, some people feared that he might have taken his own life.)
The clever young writer phoned his agent, to see if he could find him a new job. And the agent said "Would you like to write stories for children's TV?" At first, the clever young writer thought that this was a bit beneath him, but then he decided that any work is better than no work at all. So he agreed. But he asked for a clause in his contract that said that he would own all his stories forever and ever and ever. And the children's TV people agreed.
So the clever young writer hammered out a TV script. It wasn't very original. It was a fairy tale about land populated by beautiful people who were good but had once been bad; and ugly people who were bad but had once been good. But it was quite a good story. And the children's TV people liked it.
They gave the script to a clever young designer, and told him to make costumes for the evil ugly monsters to wear. But he said "I am sorry, I am much too busy today." He got on a boat to a place called Hollywood where he made movies and lived happily ever after. (Years later, he made a movie about a monster with acid for blood that popped out of people's chests and said "boo". It was very, very evil and very, very ugly.)
So they gave the script to a different clever young designer. And he went away, and read the clever young writer's descriptions, and used some imagination, and made some costumes.
And they were very good. Children all over the country loved the evil ugly monsters and ran up and down the playground saying "We are evil ugly monsters! We are evil ugly monsters!" So the children's TV people went back to the clever young writer and said "Write us some more stories about the evil ugly monsters." And at first he said "That's a bit of problem, because they all died at the end of the story" and then he said "Oh, what the heck," and he wrote a new evil ugly monster story, that wasn't as good as the first one, and third one which wasn't as good as that, and then some more which were really very bad indeed. But provided they had evil ugly monsters in them, the kids didn't mind, so the clever young writer kept himself in work for the rest of his life.
One day, a toymaker, who may or may not have been celestial, came to the children's TV people and said: if I made toys that looked like the evil ugly monsters, I am sure that all the children in the world would by them, and play with them, and be happy, except for the ones who leave them in their original packaging and sell them on ebay at a fat profit in twenty years time. So the children's TV people signed a contract with the Toymaker, and he kept himself in work for the rest of his life making evil ugly monster toys. And because the clever young writer had a piece of paper that said he owned all his stories for ever and ever, every time the Toymaker sold an evil ugly monster toy, a shiny sixpence magically dropped into the clever young writer's piggy bank.
The years rolled on, and the clever young writer died of old age, and the children’s TV people stopped making the children’s TV programme. And the years rolled on some more, and the children’s TV people decided to start making it again. And they decided that the evil ugly monsters should be even eviller, and even uglier and even more monstrous than before. But the family of the clever dead writer waved their magic piece of paper at them and said "You can't redesign the ugly monsters without our permission. And if you don't let us approve the new designs, we won't let you use the ugly monsters at all." And the children's TV people thought about it, and said "Get stuffed." And then they thought about it some more and said "Oh, all right then." And a funny newspaper that was full of pictures of naked ladies claimed the credit for this, which no-one quite understood.
So the family of the the clever young writer got a say in what the evil ugly monsters looked like; and every time the Toymaker sold a toy, a shiny new sixpence dropped in their piggy banks, which were by now very fat indeed. And the clever young designer, who had decided what the evil ugly monsters looked like, sometimes wondered why silver pennies never dropped into his piggy bank. And they all lived happily ever after.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
I still can't bring myself to watch "Carry on Sergeant" or "Brighton Rock". Seeing "grandfather" in a different role would be too much like finding out that Father Christmas doesn't exist.
Nothing against Jon Pertwee. Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor I met. For a couple of years, he was just "the Doctor." When you said "Doctor Who", you meant "suave space traveling buccaneer with a slight undercurrent of buffoonery." It took me a while to get used to the guy in the scarf. But Pertwee, with his flashy cars and gadgets, with girls who were referred to as "assistants" (rather than "companions") and a chorus of square jawed soldier-boys... If this was "the Doctor" then none of the others were. Much as I like the UNIT episodes as episodes -- the sparring between the Doctor and the Brigadier, the wierdly respectful relationship between him and the Master -- I tend to think of it as part of a different series.
And nothing against Patrick Troughton. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have both said they think he was the greatest, and considered as a performance, I think it was. Where Tom Baker waves his hands around a declaims, Patrick Troughton under-acts. You spend the first half of an episode thinking "what is supposed to be so great about this guy: all he is doing is reading out the lines". And then you suddenly realise that you believe, totally, and without question, everything this funny little man tells you. He's 400 years old, and there are Yetis in the tube. Fair enough. If you say so. But the one thing I didn't believe was that he was the same person as the white haired old buffer who kidnapped Ian and Barbara in episode one.
Maybe he wasn't. The metaphysics of regeneration have never quite been sorted out. Are we supposed to think that it's the same person, but with re-jigged cells and a slightly scrambled personality? Or has the Doctor mind slinked off into a different host body, like those slug-things in Star Trek? There is a strange undercurrent in some versions which suggest that the different Doctors are actually different people. The novelisation of "Tenth Planet" has our hero announce "I am the new Doctor" as if we were talking about someone taking over a role or position. The novel of "Five Doctors" seems to envisage the First Doctor "living out his days" in a restful garden, even though we know that he "died" at the south pole. And while it is not exactly canonical, "Dimensions in Time" has the Fourth Doctor sending out a message beginning "calling all Doctors", and thinking of his previous incarnations as other people -- "thank you, my dears."
It is harder to defend Colin Baker and Peter Davison. I rather liked what JNT was trying to do with the Davison era: three companions, instead of just one; expanding the TARDIS itself beyond a single control room; one companion in league with the bad guys; another one killed off; breaking some of the rules. But casting a young, good looking, heroic type, already know from many other roles as the Doctor was fundamentally misguided. Davison didn't stick in the role for long enough for us to get used to him. As for Colin Baker, the most that one can say is that he could deliver lines with great gusto, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with a decent script.
And then there was Sylvester. Sylvester McCoy started his tenure as Doctor Silly. He spent his first season being suspended over vats of boiling sugar by Bertie Bassett, and threatened by evil caretakers and their killer cleaning machines. He was stuck in an identikit "Doctor Who" costume, and JNT was still convinced that it was cute to use question marks as a motif on the Doctor's clothes. (It is regarded as an awful faux pas to refer to the Doctor as "Doctor Who", but evidently, it's okay for him have question mark umbrellas in the TARDIS wardrobe.) Yet somehow he struggled against this nonsense, and gave us a Doctor who was interestingly different from what had gone before. Darker; more manipulative; traveling the universe according to some purpose which he knew and we didn't. ("Ace tells the Doctor about her worst nightmare. So he takes her there" has got to be one of the the great Radio Time blurbs of all time.) Fans now know that the script editor, Andrew Cartmell, was engaged in the first stages of a "masterplan" which would have emerged over several seasons and put a new spin on the characters of the Doctor and the Time Lords. Some of these ideas were subsequently incorporated into the first cycle of post-TV novelisations, ("The Virgin New Adventures") and they seem pretty ghastly to me; another boring re-working of the very boring back-story to the very boring Time Lords. But what emerged in the transmitted episodes was rather wonderful; the hint that underneath the clownish exterior was Doctor as cosmic-entity who could stare down a villain by force of will. When you looked into eyes, you half-believed that he really was far more than a time-lord; that there really was a big dark secret just wating to be revealed.
The character of the Doctor is weirdly flexible; but not infinitely so. We can't define it, but we know it when we see it.
Monday, March 21, 2005
RTD has also said that he wants the stories to be about "human beings" because no-one cares what happens on the planet Zog.
This strikes me as an odd thing to say about a series originally promoted as "an Adventure in Time and Space." The whole point about the series is that there is a magic box that can take you anywhere in the universe. If you aren't going to step through your magic wardrobe and come out on strange, alien planets, then I'm not sure that there is any point in having one. The original creators of the show interpreted "anywhere in Time and Space" quite broadly: pure fantasy as well as space-opera and historical time travel. Whatever else you can say about "The Celestial Toymaker" (*) and "The Mind Robber", you couldn't really have imagine them being done in any format apart from Doctor Who.
People who write about the origins of the show often imagine a split between, say, Sidney Newman, who wanted a very historically based children's drama series, and, say, Verity Lambert who admitted bug-eyed monsters and b-movie science into it. But you could just as well see it as a tension between, say, Terry Nation, who thought in terms of alien jack-booted Nazis and scientific holocausts, and, say, David Whitiker, who saw it all as a rather wonderful fairy tale.
The question of earth-bound horror vs alien worlds is as old as the programme. The original premise precluded any stories set in the present day: Ian and Barbara are as much exiles from 1963 as the Doctor is an exile from his mysterious home planet. I rather liked that. It was easier to believe that Ian and Barbara were wandering the universe but very much hoping to get home one day, than that Sarah-Jane was hanging out with the Doctor for want of anything better to do with her time. The first adventure which actually occurred in the present-day was William Hartnell's penultimate outing. There is, on the one hand, something very scary about the moment when Susan to run an errand for the Daleks on the planet Skaro: one human, all alone on a hostile alien world. But there is also something to be said for Jon Pertwee's famous dictum that there is nothing very surprising or scary about meeting a Yeti in Tibet, but they become very alarming if you encounter one in your bathroom in Tooting. (Having lived in Tooting, I can confirm this.) Scary aliens in a normal human environment, or normal humans in a scary alien environment.
If RTD means that he wants all the stories to have human interest, then of course he is right. Which begs the question, when didn't they. I think that there were two stories which had primarily alien supporting casts: "The Sensorites" and "The Web Planet". I agree that men in giant ant suits is not the way to go for the new series. If he means Pertwee style earthboundedness, the Doctor as Agent Mulder foiling this months alien invasion, then I think he is making a great mistake. ("Wanderer" or "traveller" are two irreducible components of the Doctor's character.)
"Planet Zog" is a media code-word for "science fiction is impenetrable". When someone refers to "the planet Zog", you know that references to anoraks cannot be far away. RTD knows very well that the series, in its heyday -- the duration of the first four Doctors -- was totally mainstream: not "cult TV" but "a children's programme" or "that thing that nearly everyone watches on a Saturday night." I don't know when it got the reputation for being watched mainly by a freemasonry of dedicated fans; I don't know when, if ever, that actually became true. Perhaps it suited Michael Grade to say that Doctor Who should be cancelled because it was only watched by the kinds of people who watch Doctor Who, in the same way that Panorama should be cancelled because it is only watched by the kinds of people who watched Panorama. He wanted, after all, a BBC that was mainly watched by the kinds of people who watched Eastenders, and he largely got his way. But I think that the fanboy reputation mainly came along when the programme went off-air -- when, by definition, the Faithful were the only ones keeping its memory alive. So RTD wants to tell the audience that his new series is for everyone, not just "fans" and "anoraks". (I think that the terms "anorak" was first used in clip compilation in 1992.) If he does this by using language which panders to negative stereotypes about science fiction and its enthusiasts, then I can't say I blame him. But I very much hope that he doesn't believe it himself.
Meanwhile, Mr Ecclestone has been quoted as saying that he didn't like the programme when he was a kid because all the Doctors had posh accents, and that this implied that he, a northern lad, couldn't be a hero. This seems to be an example of two things.
1: The airbrushing of Sylvestor McCoy out of Doctor Who history. (I am sort of assuming that the Daleks-can't-go-up-stairs-meme is so prevalent, and RTD so wants to be the person who abolished this cliche, that he has wished "Remembrance of the Daleks" out of existence, and the whole of seasons 25 and 26 with it, which is a shame, because on the whole they were rather good.)
2: An absurd inverted snobbery. (I was about to write "political correctness" but that phrase can only be used in conjunction with the expression "gone mad, I tell you.") It does, I suppose, say something about British society circa 1963 - 87 that the Doctor, being a scientist, was conceived of as male and speaking with "received pronunciation". It certainly says something about our attitude to "science". You only needed to give William Hartnell a white coat to turn him into the personification of the "boffin". Scientists. Blokes. Old, white haired. Mad as coots. Very clever, of course, but you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. One of the ways in which, I think, the show gradually lost its way is that, having invented the ludicrous and brilliant idea of "re-generation", they nevertheless created an established "type" for the main character. Doctor Bill, Doctor Pat and Doctor Jon were totally unlike each other. Doctors Peter, Colin, Sly and Paul were all pretty much variations on Doctor Tom. So, by all means, let's have northern Doctors. Let's have women Doctors and black Doctors. (Patrick Troughton very nearly was the first black Doctor.) But spare us this class-warrior nonsense. If Tom Baker's Shakespearian tones imply that little boys from Yorkshire can't be heroes, then Doctor Chris's dialect implies that I can't be a hero. Which is rubbish. Doctor Who is the patron saint of the middle-class, spotty-kid with specs at the back of the classroom, who'd rather play with a chemistry set or read a book than play football or have fights.
Then God, stand up for nerds!
(*) For example "The BBC wiped the tapes, so I've never seen it."
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Up to a point. I am one who is very keen to defend the weirder adaptations of classic fiction, and if Jonathon Miller and Svankmeyer are allowed to re-interpret Alice in Wonderland in surreal and post-modern ways, I can't really complain if Walt Disney does so in a crassly populist way. I think the work of art stands on its own terms Ultimately, I disapprove of Jackson's Gimli because he is crass and unfunny, not because he has nothing to do with Tolkien's Gimli.
People say that a re-working of a book can't violate the original, because the original still exists. This is only partly true. I think that Disney's Snow White did, as Tolkien says, vulgarise the Dwarves, to the extent that any fairy tale involving Dwarves struggles against the image of cute people singing "Hi-ho!" with American accents. If you liked the original mythology, that harmed it in some way. There's an old joke about an intellectual being a person who hears Rossini's William Tell Overture and doesn't immediately think of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Is there a person on earth who can read Mary Shelly's romantic masterpiece and not see a little picture of Boris Karloff in their head every time the name Frankenstien is mentioned? At some level, then, Karloff has violated Shelly.
I don't believe that there is such a thing as the essence of Story: that, somehow, by re-telling Tarzan or Frankenstien I am "passing on" or "evolving" a bigger entity called The Story. I don't think that a story exists over-and-above any individual version of that story. Johnny Weissmuller's jungle movies were terrific fun; I loved them as a kid; I still quite enjoy them now. But they were not "making Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan available to people who would not otherwise have known about him." They had almost no point of connection with ERB.
Certainly, an adaptation, done in a careful way, can hold a light up to the original. I adored Jeremy Brett's version of Sherlock Holmes: for the first time, I was seeing the character that I thought I remembered from the books coming to life on the screen. But, in truth, his portrayal was just as partial as anyone else's, taking the maniacal eccentricity (which I think is mainly present in the earliest stories) and making that the controlling feature of the character. If I take Conan Doyle off the shelf nowadays, I can read it as if played by Jeremy Brett and equally as if player by Basil Rathbone. But here, we are talking about people interpreting an existing story, not making up new ones. Brett took words which the author wrote and acting them, changing some emphasis, inventing details that the author left out (when did Holmes give up taking drugs? Doyle doesn't tell us; Jeremy Brett invented an answer.) But this is based on the assumption that the text say-what-they-say; and that a future actor or interpretor will be free to come and re-interpret them. That is a very different proposition to creating a new stories that will have the stamp of "canonicity" -- new adventures that aficionados will pretend "really" happened.
I agree with RTD the characters need to be re-invented, and a new version of Doctor Who that was simply a pastiche of someone's favourite period of the original show would be a catastrophe. Bringing back something which is nearly 20 years old implies a very substantial amount of re-invention and re-imagining. But if you re-invent Magic Roundabout as a quest narrative with villains and pop-culture references, then what you have isn't Magic Roundabout, even if the the thing is quite interesting in its own right, which, by all accounts, it isn't. There is a fine line between re-invention and starting again from scratch, between Ultimate Doctor Who and "this is just a totally new series which happens to have a time-traveler in it", at which point I lose interest.
I'm hoping that Davies faith in the mystical integrity of Story doesn't mean that he thinks he has crossed it.