Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ce n'est pas une revue

"I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived. "

Helene Hanff

It took the human race several thousand years to come around to the idea of fiction. Medieval writers seemed to not quite get the difference between 'romance' and 'history'. Malory kicks off the Morte by demonstrating that King Arthur really existed, as if that was necessary to establish its credentials. Three hundred years later, the Defoes and your Richardsons still had to half-pretend that Moll and Robinson and Pamela were real people.

But nowadays, we mostly don't notice the huge leap of faith which fiction involves. We read things which never happened to people who never lived and somehow feel worried when they are in danger and sad when they die and really, genuinely pleased, pleased enough to go around smiling for the rest of the day, when their estranged godfathers send them a permission slips to go on the outing to Hogsmead. A story teller asks us to treat his characters as if they were real and we take it for granted that he's going to do so as well. Otherwise, how can we invest this emotional capital in them?

The worse the story, the more investment is required. One might get something out of, say, Virginia Woolfe without 'buying into' it at all. 'I don't care about, or come to that, believe in, these characters', you might say, 'But what beautiful prose! What clever construction! What stunning irony!' No-one ever read, say, Bob Howard for the prose, construction or irony. But lots of people have said 'Yeah, I know the writing sucks, but dammit, I care about what is going to happen to Conan.'

Some people might say that making the reader care about what happens to Conan is just as much a feat of good writing as making some witty comments about Mrs. Dalloway's flower arrangements. I'm not going to stop them.

'Wanting to know what happens' is not the whole story. In series fiction, you know exactly what is going to happen: the hero is going to escape, beat the baddies and live to fight another day. The very first story depicts King Conan nostalgically remembering the days when he was a full time barbarian. This rather rules out the possibility that he really ended his days, say, nailed to a cross in the middle of the desert. Granted, in something like X-Men, there is a larger cast so the characters are more expendable: but then, we have less emotional capital invested in each of them. The trick is to make the reader feel that the hero has something to lose; that something is at stake; that the game is being played for money, not match-sticks. Steve Ditko's Spider-Man mattered much more than Superman ever did because Spidey was capable of being affected by his adventures. He came home with a black eye; he ripped his uniform; he fell out with his friends. Superman lived in a dream world where nothing bad could ever happen. Spider-Man's world felt sort-of kind-of real.

Doubtless, there are variations and nuances to this rule. The Hobbit slides from being a non-threatening fairy tale to a full-dress epic in which people die. Movies like The Sixth Sense sometimes manage to envenom their tails by only revealing that their genre is 'ghost story' rather than 'thriller' in the final frame. But it's a dangerous game to play. Lewis Carol, Geoffrey Chaucer and Neil Gaiman have successfully written stories set inside someone's dream. But the worst ending any story can possibly have is 'He woke up and found it had all been a horrible dream.'

There were these two race horses. The first race-horse said: “I'd never won a single race in my career; but yesterday, my trainer put a tot of whisky in my oats, and I came in first place.”
Funny you should say that,” said the second race horse “They were giving 100-1 against me last week, but my trainer gave me a tot of brandy, and I won the race.”
That's amazing!” remarked a passing greyhound. “My owner's been putting rum in my doggie-biscuits, and I've won five races in a row.”
Good heavens!” said the first horse “A talking dog!”

Like most jokes, this one makes us laugh because it breaks a rule. The opening line implies that we are listening to the kind of story in which any horse, dog or tree is entitled to speak (and where landlords are only mildly surprised when people walk into their pubs with ducks on their head) provided it sets up a bad pun. The final line reveals that we were, after all, in the real world where animals can't talk.

There are a large number of jokes like this. Instead of getting a laugh by breaking the rules of grammar, logic or decorum they actually break the rules of joke-telling. (Many of them are about horses, for some reason. 'Whoever heard of a horse bowling?' 'If I could run I'd be at bloody Ascot'.) The most famous involves a chicken and a road. The joke-teller asks the question in such a way as to make the hearer search for a cleverly illogical reply. He then gives a perfectly common sense answer (implying, I think, that the hearer was rather stupid for not knowing it.) By failing to break any rules, it breaks the rule that a joke should involve the breaking of the rules. It's a self referential paradox. It's a metajoke with 'This is not a joke' printed underneath. And it's not very funny.

When I was growing up, 'knock, knock' jokes were still a pretext to make a weak pun about someone's first name. ('Knock, knock.' 'Who's there.' 'Sam and Janet'. 'Sam and Janet who?' 'Sam'n'Janet evening, you may meet a stranger, across a crowded room'.) The 'Late Arrivals at the Detective's Ball' round in I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue is simply a sophisticated, Radio 4 way of telling knock-knock jokes. ('Will you welcome Mr. and Mrs. Teasefalcon, and their daughter Moll.') But, if my godchildren are any thing to go by, the only 'knock, knock' jokes which survive are the ones where the point is to break the rules of knock-knock jokes. And they aren't very funny, either.

Knock, knock.
Who's there?

'Utopia'; 'The Sound of Drums' and 'Last of the Time Lords' systematically violated the rules of Doctor Who. The overall effect was to squander the emotional capital which I have invested in the characters over three seasons, and to reduce the setting to a Supermanish dream-world. The trilogy left me feeling that I had been the victim of one of my god-daughter's knock-knock jokes.

Over the previous twelve months, the expectation had been created that modern day Cardiff is the location of the dreadful Torchwood; and that stories set in Cardiff are therefore more mature and adult (i.e. contain more occurrence of the word 'fuck') than those set elsewhere. Further, the rules of the dreadful Torchwood seemed to say that the parent series can be alluded to, but not referred to directly. It is therefore mildly disconcerting that in the prologue to 'Utopia', we see the TARDIS appear in Cardiff. We momentarily feel that the rules of the dreadful Torchwood have been broken. They haven't, of course: this is Saturday, not Wednesday, and the Cap'n Jack who ends up on board the TARDIS is a pre-watershed Jack who watches his language and doesn't have sex with Martha, not even once.

In the dreadful Torchwood, Jack is represented as a very dark character with a terrible secret in his past. His transition back to Doctor Who is played for laughs – he runs across Cardiff and hitches a lift by hanging on to the outside of the TARDIS (in itself a minor violation of the programme's rules). The mystery associated with his character in the dreadful Torchwood evaporates in contact with Doctor Who: all those flashbacks where he seems to have been a part of historical events are explained away -- Bad Wolf simply dumped him on earth a century or so too early. His indestructibility is the result of the same plot device. (The first thing which happens in Season 2 of the dreadful Torchwood is that Jack acquires two more Dark Secrets: a long lost brother and a psychotic ex-boyfriend. The Dark Secret which defined his personality in 'The Empty Child' – that he used to be 'A Time Agent' and has lost a portion of his memory – has been largely forgotten.)

Since 1970 the 'Time Lords' have been the controlling idea in Doctor Who : after the TARDIS and the Doctor himself, they are the one central thread which defines the series. Over the course of episodes 1 – 7 of Season 1 of the new series, RTD progressively revealed that the Time Lords no longer existed. This could be seen as a massive re-writing of the rules, although at the same time, it was highly reactionary: RTD s had, after all, re-defined 'The Doctor' as 'a character who is fleeing some kind of disaster or tragedy which we don't know about' – pretty much how he was introduced in 1963.

The revelation at the end of 'Utopia', that Professor Yaffle is a Time Lord is thus a huge violation of the newly established rules of the series (which say 'the Doctor is the last of his people'); but, at the same time, a massive restoration of the status quo. The moment when Derek Jacobi is transformed into John Simm is supposed to be a Sixth Sense moment which says 'Everything you thought you knew is wrong' But (even if the sodding Independent hadn't revealed the twist in advance) it's not really that big a surprise. We've been expecting that the major baddies from the original Who would stage come-backs; we've had Daleks and Cybermen, so who's next on the short list? The regeneration isn't quite what we expected from this story, but it's very much what we expect from Doctor Who. If anything the minor twists – the use of regeneration as an element in a story, not merely a hand-wave to facilitate a staff reshuffle; and the 'bleeding' of the plot of 'Human Nature' into that of 'Utopia' – are more unexpected and disconcerting breaches of the rules.

So: we aren't quite sure if we're in the dreadful Torchwood or in Doctor Who, we aren't quite sure if we're following the rules of the old series or the new series; a large chunk of what we've been told about the setting of the new series turns out to be false; a major actor appears purely in order to be written out. Watching 'Utopia' is a dislocating and disorientating experience.

"Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?"

'Sound of Drums' starts as it means to go on. The apparent cliffhanger (the Master has taken the TARDIS and trapped Our Heroes at the end of time) is resolved practically off-stage: the Doctor had sufficient magic pixie dust in his pocket to get everyone home. However, this small piece of rule-breaking ('the Doctor's in terrible danger, whoops, no, with one leap he's free') plunges him into the middle of a bigger and much more interesting cliff-hanger. Harold Saxon is the Master, which we had seen coming; and he's the Prime Minister of England, which we possibly hadn't.

The rest of the episode involves a whole raft of genre-violations, including.

[a] The Doctor Who theme tune is referenced within the series itself. (It's rhythm represents the drums which the Master hears in his head and which have driven him mad.) This is almost the oddest thing in the whole story: a much bigger piece of taboo breaking than if the main character had actually been referred to as Dr. Who. Having characters in the series humming the theme tune made me feel I was reading TV Comic or looking at the wrapper of a bar of Nestles chocolate.

[b] Throughout RTD's tenure, alien planets have been taboo (because mainstream audiences can't deal with the planet Zog.) For the same reason, the name 'Gallifrey' was avoided until the second Christmas special. So the flashback sequence is quite transgressive. It's odd to see an alien world on the new show; odder to see live Time Lords; and oddest of all that they are dressed in the silly Flash Gordon costumes they were saddled with in 'Deadly Assassin.' (If anything in the show needed re-imagining, that was it.) There is also a bijou jokette for the asexual community: the novice Time Lords are wearing robes a lot like those the Time Lords wore in their first, monochrome appearance. Much more shockingly, this scene actually gives us information about the Doctor's life on Gallifrey before he became a wanderer (an area where even Big Finish and the New Adventures trod carefully) and partly demystifies the Master's origins.

As ever, the Highest Ranking Sympathetic Supporting Character -- the Time Lord who is 'initiating' the novices – has dark coloured skin. You can break all the narrative rules you like, but the BBCs diversity guidelines are sacrosanct.

[c] Martha speculates out loud that 'the Master is the Doctor's secret brother'. This is a long held fan-theory. Colin Baker once said it was the sort of thing one should ponder, but which would be spoilt if it was ever said to be definitely true. It feels very odd that it should cross the third wall into the series itself. The Doctor doesn't directly contradict Martha: he merely says "You've been watching too much TV." Villains turn out to be the hero's sibling in TV shows, not in real life -- says the main character in a long running TV series. If this were played upon the stage, I should dismiss it as improbable fiction. Why did the chicken cross the road?

"You know, Doctor ", said Jo suddenly "I think you've got a sort of a sneaking liking for him."
The Doctor looked indignant. "Like him? I can't stand the fellow. He's ruthless. Depraved. Totally evil. In fact, a thoroughly bad lot. Only..."
"Only what, Doctor."
The Doctor looked a little sheepish. "Well, I do sometimes think the cosmos would be a duller place without him."

"Terror of the Autons"

Harold Saxon is the nexus of this meta-textual dislocation. Casting Sam Tyler from Life on Mars in this role was a deliberate bit of intertextuality. Sam spends his whole life wondering whether he is experiencing real life or a dream. He talks to characters on the TV and hears them answer. He momentarily becomes confused about whether or not Camberwick Green is a real place. The final image of the show implies that Sam has chosen to become a fictional character. So it doesn't seem strange to see him playing the Master, a character who has crossed from the world of Doctor Who annuals and Sugar Smacks packets to that of serious Drama, but who refuses to be tied down to any genre.

At one level, scarily, he's part of the real world -- real London, real parliament, real newscasters, real Anne Widdecombe -- a psychotic lunatic in charge of a realistic near future England. (In another piece of meta-textual irony, 'The Sound of Drums' was transmitted on BBC1 while BBC2 was showing the first part of their grovelling biography of, er, Tony Blair.) On the other hand, the actual Downing Street scenes utterly resist any semblance of realism. feeling more like something out of My Dad's The Prime Minister. As the story goes on, we'll see Saxon portrayed as a genuinely psychotic dictator, and as a peculiar pantomime villain who plays pop-records while he slaughters and tiptoes around in his dressing gown to taunt the Doctor.

In the original series, The Master was a comic-opera villain who literally twirled his moustache; who had no motivation except to spread chaos across the universe and be its emperor, but who was always polite and charming to the people he intended to kill. Simm is as far as way from the old theatrical ham as it is possible to get -- yet we never doubt that we can see Roger Delgado behind his eyes. In this respect, his performance is very similar to that of Christopher Eccleston, who, as older readers will remember, once played the role of the Doctor.

The difference between 'The Sound of Drums' and, say 'The Claws of Axos' lies in the amount of emotional capital we are being asked to invest in the Doctor and the Master. The scene in which the latter gasses the entire cabinet may be slapstick, but the scene in which he and the Doctor confront each other (over a cellphone) demands to be taken seriously as drama. It has long been established that the Doctor and his Moriarty mutually respect – even need – each other; but RTD raises the emotional ante. These are no longer merely contemporaries: these are the only surviving Lords of Time. (The title of episode 13 is deliberately ambiguous.) Earlier in the season, the Doctor was shown to have a similar bond with Sec because he is the last Dalek in the universe, which takes us full circle to the first Dalek story in Season 1. Having refused to confirm or deny that the Doctor and the Master are brothers, RTD comes very close to implying that they are lovers.

This superheated emotional plot is matched in intensity with what is literally the biggest cliffhanger in the series' history. In the past, the rule has been that the Doctor will always save the day. The alien invasion will be averted. If London is over-run with dinosaurs -- or, more probably, glove puppets of dinosaurs -- everyone will have forgotten about it in a week's time. New Who has attempted to fix the series in a consistent, developing near future: if Big Ben is destroyed in 'Aliens of London' then it will have scaffolding around it in 'The Christmas Invasion'; if London is menaced by a giant space ship in 2005 and a giant spider in 2006 then in 2007 everyone will leave the capital. (Granted, the news doesn't get as far as Cardiff, but Cardiff is nearly three hours away by train.) This is the central premise of the dreadful Torchwood: 'the 21st century is when everything changes.'

Hence, the Master's triumph at the end of episode 12 is a violation of the rules of the old series, but completely consistent with what the new series has led us to expect. The Master has finally made himself ruler of the earth; the Doctor is not merely defeated, but humiliatingly transformed, first into an old, old man, then into a grotesque goblin. (The notion that the main character can be played by a special effect for the better part of an episode is another creative violation of the rules of series television.) As if to underline the point, episode 13 begins with the caption '1 year later': this is no cliff-hanger to escape from, but an event in the Doctor Who pseudoverse which has really, irrevocably happened.

Robin: But he knows that we know about his hideout there!
Batman: Correct! However, knowing that, he'd think that we'd think he would not return there, therefore he did and so will we!

When Willliam Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton in 1966, it was an off-the-wall, genre-bending experiment: surely changing the lead actor in an on-going series is the one thing you can never do? (And if you must, surely you wouldn't draw attention to it.) When Christopher Eccleston turned into David Tennant in 2005, it felt almost cosy. We've had Daleks, we've had Autons, now we've had a regeneration, so we know the dear old series has come back to our screens. It's part of the Doctor's job-description to regenerate from time to time. You might say that 'change is the only constant', if that was the sort of thing you felt inclined to say.

What shocked us much more was the departure of Rose at the end of season 2. It seemed impossible to imagine new-Who without Billie Piper: unbelievably, we had a version of Doctor Who in which the companion was more indispensable than the hero. So Martha's whole function in Series 3 was to not be Rose. Almost the first thing the Doctor says to her is that she is not Rose's replacement. She worries that the Doctor is taking her to the same places he took Rose; she is jealous when she finds out that Rose was a blond; she has a crush on the Doctor and is completely overlooked because she is not Rose. But, of course, Rose's replacement is precisely what Martha is: she reads Rose's lines, behaves just as Rose would have done, fills, in short, a Rose shaped hole. A companion is a companion is a companion.

Martha's role in 'Last of the Time Lords' is actually rather clever. Where the function of a companion is to be rescued by the Doctor, Martha has to be the rescuer on rather an large scale -- spending a whole year travelling the earth in order to find the four components of the only gun which is capable of killing the Master. It turns out that this is only a feint – what she's really doing is spreading a secret message to everyone in the whole wide world (a direct lift, by the way, from Big Finish's Dalek Empire.) Martha is betrayed to the Master by a human turn-coat; but it turns out that this is precisely what she wanted to happen: this betrayal brings her close enough to the Master to put the Doctor's plan into operation.

These kinds of stories, which rely on the hero being able to infallibly second guess the villain, are never quite believable. But what struck me more forcefully was that Martha mocks the Master for having believed in something so silly as a gun broken into four parts: that is, for believing in the kind of plot device on which 'The Key to Time'; and 'The Keys of Marinus'; were hung. Martha fools the Master because he thought the story was operating under the rules of Doctor Who where it was actually operating under the rules of the real world. She might almost have said "You watch too much TV." Good Lord! A talking dog!

"English children have 'The Beano' in the same way that they have rickets."

Alan Moore

Newspapers still print lies about the Old Series having had Wobbly Sets. (They still occasionally even say that Daleks can't go up stairs.) But it's perfectly true that there was something amateurish and ramshackle about Doctor Who: it was never a high-budget prestige series; always a slightly cobbled-together, small scale fixture in a peculiar time-slot that was neither quite for kids or quite for adults. Some people will always think a newer, glossier programme is not really Doctor Who.

This is also true of the Doctor himself. In, say, 'The Time Warrior', he cobbled together a device out of spare parts which enabled him to track where Lynx was taking the missing scientists. He repulsed the attack on Wessex's castle by manufacturing scarecrows that resembled knights and cooking up some supercharged stink-bombs; he defeated Irongron by brewing some sleeping draft from herbs in Lady Eleanor's kitchen. He was not God (although, of course, he could supply any number of jury rigged dei ex maxhinae) and he certainly wasn't a superhero. He was a gentleman amateur who travelled the universe and sometimes found himself in a situation where he could lend a helping hand.

At the climax of 'Last of the Time Lords' – the single most embarrassing thing ever to appear on Doctor Who -- the Doctor is transformed into Christ-in-a-Geeky-Suit because everyone in the whole wide world believes in him. It's hard not to read this as a metaphor. Doctor Who has been transformed into an all-conquering Beeb-saving TV success because it is loved, or at any rate, switched on, by practically every UK citizen who owns a TV set. Once, it was a deformed, grotesque caricature, placed in the graveyard slot against Coronation Street, with guest appearances by Ken Dodd, Nicholas Parsons and Bonnie Langford. Now, it's like the Second Coming of Eric and Ernie, the highlight of Christmas, advertised in mainstream movie houses, on the front of every Radio Times. My Doctor defeated the baddies because he had one or two gadgets that possibly they didn't, like a teaspoon and an open mind. This Doctor solves everything with a wave of the sonic screwdriver, or, failing that, by being born aloft by angels, resetting time, bathing the world in heavenly light.
Once a boffin; now a saviour but somehow no longer Doctor Who.

The Marquis De Sade meets Leopold Sacher-Masoch in hell.
"Whip me! Beat me! " says Masoch.
"No." says De Sade.

That the Doctor escapes from his cage because everyone wishes for him to do so is a pretty egregious narrative cop-out. It is followed by a far greater narrative sin -- the violation of a rule which (I believe) the series never once transgressed in 45 years.

Time Travel (specifically the Deactivation of the Paradox Machine, but still, basically, Time Travel) is used to undo events which have previously happened. Time winds back. The Master never conquered the earth, decimated the population, levelled the cities. The narrative promise of Episode 12 is broken. We woke up, and it had all been a horrible dream.

RTD attempts to make up for this betrayal by turning the emotional volume all the way up to 11. The destruction of Earth, Martha's quest for the magic gun, the mutation of the Doctor – all this has in fact been only an external outworking of the Doctor / Master love story. It's on this relationship that all our emotional poker chips should have been wagered. And, I have to say, the pay-off is handled extraordinarily well. In 'Doomsday', when Rose left forever, the Doctor almost cried. When the Master dies, he blubs uncontrollably. Because his love for a member of his own kind, even an enemy, is greater than his love for any human? Because he and the Master were friends long before they were enemies? Because the Master is the last Time Lord and the Doctor is now alone in the universe? Because all their battles through time and space were really part of a big S&M love affair?

The Doctor and Martha second-guessed the Master about the gun; but the Master and the Doctor second guess each other much more efficiently. Each does the one thing which the other wouldn't expect. The Betrayed, Crucified and Risen Again Doctor forgives the evil one, and that pierces him far worse than any mere defeat. The Doctor's old boy-friend humiliates him, not by destroying the world, but by refusing to regenerate. The Doctor beats the Master. The Master beats the Doctor by letting himself be beaten. In any S & M relationship, the apparent victim is really the Master.

So. Having invited us to invest all our emotional capital in this scene, Davies proceeds to throw it back in our faces.

After the Master's funeral -- a scene so jaw droppingly out of keeping with the style of the show as to make me say 'I literally cannot believe I am watching this' -- we see a hand, presumably that of Saxon's wife, remove his ring from the pyre, while the Master's demonic cackling is played in the background. The cremation is a crass, silly quote from Return of the Jedi so we naturally associate the ring with Flash Gordon, in which the removal of the Ming's ring signified that he was still available to menace the hero in a sequel. Demonic laughter has frequently been used in Doctor Who to signify that the apparently defeated Master is still alive.

You thought that the relationship between the Master and the Doctor had been recast in terms of Serious Drama. We invited you to take the characters seriously. But the Master was only a comic-opera villain after all. He'll be back to tie the pretty lady to a trainline again in the next thrilling installment. My word! A talking dog!

Yet the lack of realism lets it down. Lee and Will find themselves filming on a fantastically elaborate and pop-video-looking wasteland, complete with a very unlikely smashed-up jeep upturned on a pile of rubble. The kids later actually succeed in getting the jeep to run. Maybe it's absurd to care about details like this, yet unless we believe in their world, it's difficult to care and difficult to laugh.

Guardian review of 'Son of Rambow'

And, just when I have almost chewed my own fist off in disbelief that the BBC would let RTD get away with anything so dreadful, along comes the news that Captain Jack is the Face of Boe.

I have watched 'Utopia' repeatedly, and when Martha refers to the Face of Boe, there is not one trace of a reaction on Jack's face. He should have done a double take and said 'Hey, that's what they called me when I was a kid.' But he didn't. Of course he didn't. Because RTD just made it up, out of his head, on the spot. Don't ask why Jack would have waited a billion years and then informed the Doctor, in the form of a very oblique acronym, that Prof. Yaffle is a Time Lord, a piece of information which Jack already knows, having been there, will be of no help to the Doctor whatsoever.

It makes no sense. He made it up. Out of his head. On. The. Spot.

Don't tell me that I am being a pedantic little asexual fanboy This sort of thing matters. It matters because it makes it hard for us to emotionally invest in these characters ever again. It matters because it makes the whole imaginary world dissolve into a dream. It matters that a story-teller, at a basic level, doesn't care about his characters. So why should we?

Now all that remains is to hit a couple of reset buttons and restore the status quo. Captain Jack waited a hundred years for the Doctor to come and find him (this was his whole personality), but he decides to go back to his little team after all. Does this happen because it is the kind of thing which Captain Jack would do, or simply because there has to be a second series of the dreadful Torchwood?

Not-Rose realises that the Doctor is never going to be her boyfriend because she's not Rose, so there is no point in hanging around with him any longer. Faced with the choice between 'saving the universe, meeting Shakespeare, visiting alien planets, and being on really quite close and intimate terms with an amazing guy, but accepting that he's never going to fuck you' and 'staying home and finding some boyfriend', well, obviously everyone would choose the latter. Do you think that possibly RTD has Issues about having been some girl's Gay Best Friend until she went off with a straight guy?

So. Jack back in Cardiff, Martha back at the hospital, Doctor back in the TARDIS spluttering setting-up for the Christmas special. Omega's in his black hole and all's right with the world.

They woke up, and it had all been a dream.

"What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?"

In the 72 hours after the this debacle, I learned.

[a] That Martha's exit was, in fact, another feint: we'd get to hear her saying 'fuck' and 'pee' in a few episodes of the dreadful Torchwood but she'll be back in the TARDIS before the end of Season 4. It's pretty hard to emotionally commit to characters as characters when so much of the plot is narrated in advance, when the actors are so much more important than the characters they play.

[b] That temporary companion for the Christmas special would be Kylie Minogue. This elicited the reaction 'Oh well, at least it's not Catherine Tate, the hopelessly miscast, unfunny comedienne whose portrayal of the moronic and unbelievable Donna made the 2006 Christmas special practically unwatchable.'

[c] That the permanent companion for Season 4 would be Catherine Tate.

After this, the news that the series would be rested at the end of Series 4 felt less like a gap year, more like euthanasia.

After watching 'The Daemons' for the first time Louise H. remarked that the much revered older series couldn't sustain the kind of critical analysis which the new one is subjected to.

Of course it couldn't: but neither does the old series invite that kind of analysis. 'The Daemons' presents itself as a mock gothic sub Dennis Wheatley cliff-hanger yarn; therefore, we accept it as a mock gothic sub Dennis Wheatley cliff-hanger yarn. We boo the Master, scream at the monster and wonder why Miss Hawthorne is so underused. But if you announce to the world that Doctor Who is 'not genre but drama' then it is entirely possible that some of us are going to treat it like drama and complain when, as drama, it fails.

It's just conceivable that Alan Moore or someone could re-imagine Tom and Jerry with realistic animals and a socially realistic setting. But it wouldn't be fair to expect us to laugh at the mouse being put through the meat grinder. We'd be more likely to ask 'Why does no one send for the RSPCA.'

So. That is why I didn't review Doctor Who, series 3. Yes, there were good things in it. 'Blink' was genuinely good; 'Human Nature' very nearly worked. It must be said that both stories were really post-modern deconstructions of Doctor Who: when they tried to do actual non-ironic Doctor Who stories like 'The Lazarus Effect' and 'Evolution of the Daleks' one felt that their heart wasn't really in it. No, there wasn't anything as disastrous as 'Fear Her' or 'The Idiot's Lantern.'

But at a fundamental level, 'Last of The Time Lords' has killed my interest in the show. RTD doesn't believe in it any more, so why the hell should I?


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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apple Trees and Honey Bees and Snow White Turtle Doves

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

--There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark, but he's an arrant knave
--There needs no ghost, my Lord, come from the grave to tell us this.

The Church of England has announced the True Meaning of Christianity.


Our old friends the Vicar of Putney and his boss the Archbishop of Canterbury both contributed essays to the Guardian over Easter. Or rather, they both contributed the same essay. It seems that, over the Easter Vacation, they have been studying the works of a French lepracologist named Girard. Girard believes that societies have a tendency to invent enemies, particularly at times of crisis, in order to create a sense of unity. This can be very uncomfortable if you are one of those who gets labeled as an 'enemy'.

Well, golly-gosh. I'm astonished no-one has spotted that before. Giles Fraser gets very excited about this new insight:

At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the 'discovery' of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

In recent years a number of Christian writers – inspired by the French critic and philosopher, Rene Girard - have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.

Williams and Fraser take it for granted that this 'scapegoating' is a Very Bad Thing. They think that the Easter story offers some kind of solution.

Fraser says:

The crucifixion...is the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering.....The new society he called forth - something he dubbed the kingdom of God - was to be a society without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim. The task of all Christians is to further this kingdom, 'on earth as it is in heaven' .

Well. That certainly sounds religious. 'God-identifies-with-the-outcasts' is definitely the kind of thing we'd expect a Vicar to say. And the 'despised and rejected' bit – that comes out of Handel's Messiah, doesn't it? So if we aren't careful, we won't spot that Fraser isn't actually talking about religion at all. For him, Easter isn't about God or Heaven or Jesus risen from the dead or anything like that. Oh dear me no. Jesus died in order to make the point that selecting social or racial enemies is a really, really bad idea and that it would be much better if we didn't.

Clergy are always drawing social messages out of religious stories. There is nothing wrong with saying 'Jesus was an innocent person executed by the state – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if our state stopped executing innocent people?' or 'Babyjesus ran away to a foreign country because Herod wanted to kill him – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if we welcomed foreign people who came to our country instead of, say deporting them to places where they'll probably be hung'. But Fraser appears to be saying that this is the whole point of Easter, not a secondary message that you might want to draw out of it. Why did God 'take the place of the despised and rejected? In order to expose the moral degeneracy of society. The Crucifixion illustrates the point that picking on the fat kid in the playground is a bad idea. The Kingdom of God means 'the kind of playground where the fat kid doesn't get picked on.' For this I got out of bed on Sunday morning?

The Archdruid is marginally more coherent. He's been watching the BBC film version of the Passion and thought it was quite good. He says that, at the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans both hated and feared each other. That hatred and fear had become part of their group-identity. Their leaders tacitly kept it going. But:

Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.

The Jews and the Romans both thought that beating up someone would make them feel good for a bit and picked on Jesus as a likely candidate. For a short while, killing Jesus did indeed make them feel good (Pilate and Herod became friends, didn't they?) But this sort of thing doesn't work for very long.

It's a dubious reading of the Bible (and, indeed, of the BBC film). Far from thinking that a bit of blood-letting would be therapeutic, Pilate bends over backwards to get Jesus off the hook. Far from hating Jesus, Caiphas is a cold-blooded machiavell. He can only maintain his religious authority by appearing to accept the Empire's secular authority. If there is a big religious revival under Jesus, the Romans might see it as a threat and close down the Temple. By presenting Jesus to Pilate as a secular rebel (which he knows to be false) Caiphas can end Jesus' ministry and deprive the Romans of a possible pretext for a crackdown. True, he says that it's sometimes necessary for one man to die for the people; but so far as he knows, he's only talking about political expediency. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

But let's grant the Archdruid's fanciful idea that the Jews and the Romans decided to work out their frustration on Jesus as a kind of primal scream therapy. What follows from this? Williams' explanation lapses into that particular dialect of gobbledegook only spoken by clergymen:

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror....Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem. And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

Following C.S Lewis's advise, I propose translating this into English.

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself.

'When we are very scared of another group of people, we sometimes feel like hurting someone. Sometimes, this seems to help. But a lot of the time, the person we pick to beat up isn't even one of the people who we were originally scared of.'

But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.

'As a matter of fact, Jesus didn't do any of the things he was punished for. God gives us good things regardless of whether we deserve them or not (= 'grace' ) ; and he doesn't do bad things to us even when we do deserve them. (= 'mercy'). Jesus was the best possible example of a person who gave good things to people who don't deserve them, and didn't do bad things to people who did. If we were all like this, then we wouldn't ever be scared of other people or hate them. So we'd never want to hurt or kill them. This would be a good thing.'

Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem.

'Picking on innocent people and hurting them doesn't really help, although it may seem to for a while. That's because the real problem is that we hate people and are scared of them in the first place. Picking on an innocent person doesn't change this.'

And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

'If you want change the fact that there are people who we hate and are scared of, then you should pay attention to what Jesus said -- that we should give nice things even to people who don't deserve to have nice things, and not do nasty things even to people who deserve to have nasty things done to them.'
Even in translation, I don't think this makes a great deal of sense. I don't see how you get from 'Jesus was killed for things he didn't do' to 'We'd all be happier if we stopped hating each other'. I don't see why it has become easier or more practical to stop hating because someone a long time ago was killed for things he didn't do.

He goes on:

The claim of Christianity....

Not 'a claim': the claim.

.... is both that this mechanism is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings, and that it is capable of changing. It changes when we recognise our complicity and when we listen to what the unique divine scapegoat says: that you do not have to see the rival as a threat to everything, that it is possible to believe that certain values will survive whatever happens in this earth's history because they reflect the reality of an eternal God; that letting go of the obsessions of memory and resentment is release, not betrayal.

Which is to say, being interpreted:

'We all have people who we fear and hate; we all think that beating up an innocent person will make us feel better. But we can stop feeling that way if we want to. First, we have to admit that we ourselves have bad feelings. Jesus says: 'It would be a good thing if we admitted that we have no good reason to hate our enemies. Even if lots of bad things happen in the world, it's okay to carry on believing that good things are good and bad things are bad. If we stop hating our enemies, we will feel much happier.' We should pay attention to this because Jesus was a good man who was killed for things he didn't do.'

Or, more simply: 'the solution to hatred is to stop hating people'.

Verily, verily I say unto thee: duh!

There is nothing wrong with the occasional moral platitude. We all need to be reminded of the bleedin' obvious from time to time. But why does the Archbdruid think that bringing Jesus into it helps? How is his argument – essentially 'Hate is bad and love is better' -- made clearer by adding 'Because a good person who was killed by bad people said so'?

Again, in the original gobbledegook:

People may or may not grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers. But at least it is possible that they will see the entire scheme as a structure within which they – we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective. We may acquire a crucial tool for exposing the evasions on which our lives and our political systems are so often built.

By 'the scheme' he means: 'A long time ago, two sides in a conflict both picked a third person, who had no part in the conflict itself, said he was their enemy, and killed him in a horrible way. They thought this would bring their two tribes together. But it didn't do any good.' How is this supposed to help us understand 'what most lethally imprisons us' (presumably 'the need to pick common enemies'?) In what sense is this a 'tool' ?

And, finally:

The point of the Church's presence in our culture....

Not 'one of the points': the point:

Is not to be a decorative annex to the heritage industry, but to help us see certain things we'd rather not about common responsibility - and the costly way to a common hope.

Does he really believe this? Does he really think that the reason we have cathedrals, confirmation classes, creeds, jumble sales, synods, the monarchy, sacraments, archbishops, coffee mornings, Sunday schools, the Old Testament, hymns, Easter eggs, septuagesima and nativity plays is in order to remind everyone that 'Picking on people doesn't really do any good; much better to kiss and make up?'

In modern, informal English 'scapegoat' generally means 'someone wrongly blamed for something they didn't do' or 'someone held completely responsible when they were really only partially responsible.' When the police picked out, more or less at random, some Irish petty criminals and framed them for a series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s, it was said that they had been made 'scapegoats' because the cops couldn't catch the real villains. When the Hutton enquiry showed up all sorts of bad practices at the BBC, only Greg Dyke, the director, lost his job: people said he'd been made a 'scapegoat' for many people's failures.
But this wasn't the original meaning of the term 'scapegoat'. The Archdruid and the Vicar somehow neglect to mention that the idea of the 'goat-that-escapes' originates in, er, the Bible.

According to the book of Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the following ceremony is to be performed:

But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness...Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and and all their transgressions and all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness

Now: Aaron didn't hoodwink the Israelites into thinking that it was really the goat who'd been responsible for the recent outbreak of ox-coveting. And I imagine that relatively few of the BBC staff thought that their sins had been supernaturally transferred onto Greg Dyke. The Biblical 'scapegoat' is a component in a magic spell which is believed to actually make a difference. By performing the ceremony, the consequences of all the bad things which the Israelites had done in the previous year were taken away. This was important to them, because they thought that only pure people were allowed to talk to God. Doing bad things – and also touching yucky things – made you impure. Everybody sometimes does bad things; so without this special ritual, no-one could ever talk to God.

Some of my more astute readers may possibly be able to spot where I am going with this.

The prophecy of Isaiah talks about a human being who takes on the role of scapegoat -- not in the modern sense of 'dude who gets blamed unfairly' (although he's that as well) but in the original sense of 'supernatural cleaner-upper.'

He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief....He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of all.

Christians have always said that Isaiah's human scapegoat is Jesus. (The point is made explicitly several times in the New Testament.) The Vicar of Putney, by quoting the 'despised and rejected' bit, indicates that he agrees with them. But he is only interested in Jesus as 'the person who unfairly got the blame', and not at all in the idea of a 'supernatural cleaner-upper.' Quoth Giles Fraser:

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating.

Christians have always taught that Jesus is like the Old Testament scapegoat -- and also the sacrificial lamb, especially the one killed at Passover. There's really no getting away from this. John introduces him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' and the Bible ends with the whole universe worshipping him under the title of 'the Lamb that was slain'. The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews (or, if Richard Dawkins is still reading this 'St. Paul') goes so far as to say that all the scapegoats and sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were shadows or reflections: the Crucifixion is the Real Thing, the Original.

Granted, there have been lots of theories about how and why this works: some of them quite outlandish. Few modern Christians would find the idea that the incarnation was a clever ruse to fool Satan into exceeding his authority very helpful. I happen to agree with Fraser that evangelicals should be careful of using language which seems to present Jesus as a cosmic Tom Sawyer, volunteering for a beating in order to save Becky Thatcher from getting one. Push that too far, and God becomes a nasty old school teacher who isn't particularly interested in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty provided someone cops it. But all the theories agreed that the point of Easter was that it re-connected human beings with God. Even the weird fringes of Christianity which thought God was evil, Satan was the creator and Jesus was a hologram believed that. It's only this new Anglican version that has discovered that Christianity was never really interested in putting human beings in touch with God. It was only ever about demonstrating some principles about how human beings should interact with other human beings.

Of course, I agree with those principles. I agree that it is silly to pick groups of people as your enemies. I agree that cathartic blood-letting, even if you happen to have arrested the right man, never helps. I agree that it is shameful that some of our allies continue to practice torture and that our own leaders condone this. I think that love is better than hate. I am against wickedness and in favour of happiness. I just don't understand why it helps to use obscure theological language to state and restate the terribly, terribly obvious.

It must be hard to find yourself in charge of a religion that you never actually believed in. It must be horrible to get ordained because you sincerely want to spread the message that love is better than hatred and discover that you've actually committed yourself to a cult about apple-stealing and blood-drinking and persons with two essences but only one substance, or possibly vice versa. It must be awful to have to twist your very clever head so that 'Hallejulah, Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!' really means 'Why can't people just be nice?' I can see how this might drive you to speak gobbledegook. I can see how, in the end, it might actually drive you insane.

But it's no excuse. I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties and the remains of, say, a ten-year old kid in a box at the front. I try to imagine them getting to the bit where they have to say 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord'. What do they do? Cross their fingers behind their backs and say, 'Well, of course, 'resurrection' is gobbledegook for 'the foundation of a different kind of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating'. But next Easter, I shall change my mind and say that's it's gobbledegook for something else entirely.' 

How do they sleep at night?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

...He stretched and drew a deep breath. "Why, what a dream I've had!" he muttered. "I am glad to wake!" He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

Full memory flood back, and Sam cried aloud: "It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?"

And a voice spoke softly behind him. "In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you." With that, Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. "Well, master Samwise, how do you feel?" he said.

But Sam laid back; and stared with open mouth, and for a moment between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thirteen gathered in the upstairs room, as the
High priests plotted for the saviour's doom
Blood and body in the wine and bread, then he
Kissed his enemy in sweet Gethsemane and
Twelve hours later he was dead.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

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

Miss Scarlet is an unmarried cyclist. Every Sunday, she attends Holy Communion at the Parish Church of St Hilda of Walsingham.

Mrs. White lives next door to her. One morning, she remarks “How can you possibly eat a bowl of Kellogs Crunchy Nut Cornflakes on Sunday mornings? I know that they are widely regarded as being very, very tasty, but surely everyone knows that the first food you eat on the Sabbath should be the Blessed Sacrament.”

“That sounds like a lot of High, Popish codswallop and fiddle-faddle” explains Miss Scarlet.

“I shall tell you what we should do,” ripostes Mrs White. “We should go to Rev. Green who has the holy anointing of a Priest, and, what is more, an M.A in Religious Studies from the Open University, and ask him what he thinks.”

Rev. Green thinks very carefully, and says that Mrs. White is quite right. Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things. From that day on, she always skips breakfast on Sunday mornings.

A few weeks later, Col. Mustard visits Miss Scarlet, and asks her to marry him! She is delighted, and asks Rev. Green to conduct the wedding.

But all is not well! Col. Mustard has been married before, and his first wife (Mrs. Col. Mustard, presumably) is still alive. Rev. Green says that he cannot possibly marry a divorced person in church, and Miss Scarlet will have to hold the ceremony in the private function suite of the Fish and Ferret (licensed for the solemnization of marriages.) Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things, but that if she can't be married before God, she doesn't want to be married at all.

Col Mustard is so heartbroken that he kills himself, in the billiard room, with the lead piping, which causes a certain amount of confusion further down the line.

One day, it so happens that Mrs. White's young son, Lilly, crawls through a hole in Miss Scarlet's fence in order to retrieve his football, which he has inadvertently kicked into her garden. During this expedition, he treads on one of Miss. Scarlet's begonias, which she had been intending to enter in the annual village flower show.

When Miss Scarlet hears of this, she waxeth exceeding wrath, and goeth round to Mrs. White's house demanding financial compensation to make up for not winning the flower show, which was, she says, a dead cert.

“Don't be silly,” says Mrs White “This isn't criminal damage, just a case of ordinary child-ish hi-jinks.”

“I shall tell you what we shall do,” says Miss Scarlet. “Although this is not strictly a religious thing, Rev. Green is a sensible fellow. He is disinterested in this case, and we both respect him. Let's ask him what he thinks.”

Rev. Green listens very carefully and says that it is in a very real sense a pity about the begonia, but that he feels that in a very real sense in this case a simple apology should be quite adequate. Miss Scarlet reluctantly agrees to this, since it was her idea to go to Rev. Green in the first place. “A bet's a bet.” she exclaims.

“That went rather well,” thinks Rev. Green. The next Sunday, he preaches a very witty sermon, though he says so himself, in which he suggests that when any of the villagers have a quarrel with their neighbours, they should let him sort it out, in accordance with the sixth chapter of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

So, when Mrs. White's son kicks his football right through Mis Scarlet's window, scattering glass in her aspidistra and knocking one of her china poodles off the mantelpiece, she doesn't even knock her neighbour's front door. She walks straight round to the Vicarage, and, after queuing for several hours, tells Rev. Green exactly what has happened. After giving the matter several minutes of considerable thought, Rev. Green phones Mrs. White and tells her that this time she should give her son a clip-round-the-ear.

But just at the precise moment, the Village Bobby arrives, and explains that we don't do that kind of thing any more, on account of the European Convention on Human Rights and political correctness having gone mad.

The Rev. Green says that it is his unshakable moral conviction that whoever spareth the rod hates his, or in this case her, son, and that since we hall have freedom of conscience, Mrs. White should damn well chasteneth him betimes.

The Village Bobby says that he daresay that's as maybe, Sir, but the law's the law.

The Rev. Green says that he doesn't see why some ridiculous law made by Frenchmen, homosexuals and Scottish people can possibly over-ride the book of Proverbs, the thirteenth chapter, commencing to read at verse twenty four.

Feeling that they've reached a bit of an impasse, they decide to to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury what he thinks. After several seconds of careful thought, it is decided that Rev. Green has a perfect right to run the village in accordance with Christian principles if that's what the villagers want, and that if they don't like it they can jolly well move to the I.T College down the road where fatwahs are being issued according to the terms of reference on of the constitution of the United Federation of Planets (done at the planet Babel, Star Date 0965.)

So everyone had a transformative accommodation and lived happily ever after.

I, of course preferred Jack Kirby's definitive version of 2001.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Surely what matters is the manner of Mehdi Kazemi's execution? We've already established that New Labour has no problem with handing people over to foreign states which are planning to execute them without a proper trial for crimes which would not be capital offenses in the UK, providing they are polite to them on the scaffold.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Who reads this drivel?

The Times yesterday published a minor journalistic coup.

It revealed that the TARDIS which appears in Doctor Who is, in fact, a BBC prop and not a real time machine at all.

"Doctor Who's (sic) time-travelling Tardis (sic) hides a secret which may disillusion his legion of fans -- it is transported not by the intergalactic power of dilithium crystals but like an Ikea wardrobe, flat packed on the back of a lorry."

The idea that a large object might be transported in pieces and assembled in situ comes as a complete, jaw-dropping novelty to the poor hack. He stumbles around for a comparison, and the only one he can find is "Ikea wardrobe". Home assembly furniture is one of those things which the English find intrinsically funny like mothers-in-law and Milton Keynes. He makes this comparison three times in his 150 word piece. I suppose we can just be relieved he used the snappy headline "MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF THE TARDIS IS OUT: IT MATERIALISES LIKE AN IKEA WARDROBE" rather than the more traditional “Look Who's Back” “Look Who's Here” “Look Who's Got A Crap Sub-editor.”

Why do hacks writing about sci-fi adopt this style? No-one, for example, will be able to avoid the expression "Holy there's a new movie about about the long running comic book character Batman, Batman" in their reports about The Dark Knight. Note the word “intergalactic" in line three. It is doing absolutely nothing: you could replace it with "banana" and the sentence would still make as much, or as little sense. The next story on the page is about the launch of an Arabic news service: yet the writers doesn't feel the need to say "No-one had towels on their head, and few camels were in evidence, but desert BBC yesterday palm-trees launched kebabs an arab oil-well news service.” The next one is about the discovery of a possible painting of Catherine Howard, but it doesn't contain phrases like "Off with her head....'enry the 'eighth I am....sucking his fingers after throwing the chicken bones over his shoulders..." Claiming that the TARDIS runs on dilithium crystals is at exactly the same level as thinking that the Rovers Return is in Ambridge or that Dr. Watson is Miss Marples' assistant.

What's particularly galling is that they managed to find some fans who were prepared to roll over and dance for the amusement of the straight folk: "I expected the Tardis (sic) to beam down from some far-off galaxy" says one Sue Bishop. Did you, Sue? Did you really? "But it looked more like some flat-pack furniture from Ikea when it was pulled from the back of the lorry to be screwed together. It's the last of my childhood fantasies shattered." It seems rather suspicious that a journalist who can't tell the difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek should find a fan who thinks that the TARDIS "beams down" rather than "materializes". The two people who provided the quotes both have female names, so we are spared the "Doctor Who fans har har don't have girlfriends must be gay har har" thing. Or is that only the Guardian?

Mr de Bruxelles has quite comprehensively missed the point. When Doctor Who was a 1960s children's programme, there was some attempt to maintain the illusion of reality. When William Hartnell appeared at a carnival, the organisers arranged for a light model police box to be parachuted in from a helicopter to give the impression, sort of, that the TARDIS had landed and the Doctor had emerged from it. Patrick Troughton thought that doing out-of-character interviews was like a conjurer revealing how his tricks are done. When Jon Pertwee appeared on Blue Peter or Junior Choice he did so in character. New-Who, on the other hand, continually draws attention to its illusory nature. The press are primarily interested in the back-stage soap opera: who's in, who's out (oh, god, I'm doing it now) who's staying, who's leaving. A week before each episode, we see a montage that reveals all the twists and surprises in advance. Straight after each episode, the actors take off their masks and explain that they were really only pretending and the techies show how the special effects were done. First, we see, out of context, the clip of the flying saucer destroying Big Ben. Then, we see it again. And again. Then we see photos in Radio Times of a technician making the model. Then, we see the actual episode, in which, sure enough, a flying saucer destroys Big Ben. Then we see the man on Doctor Who Confidential showing how he made the flying saucer destroy Big Ben. Then, on Thursday, the flying saucer man shows the nerdy kids on Totally Doctor Who how to make flying saucers, by when it's only a short wait for the DVD with the voice over by RTD explaining how he came up with the idea for Big Ben, Flying Saucers, and how silly it all is.

This is very much how movies work in the interweb age. The true buff finds the rumours about Indiana Jones, the teasers for Indiana Jones; the trailers for Indiana Jones; the official leaks about Indiana Jones; the supposed copies of the scripts for Indiana Jones -- the endless interviews and pre-release speculation about Indiana Jones extremely interesting. Once the actual film comes out, his interest goes away. The makers of Cloverfield cleverly did the pre-releiase hype but didn't bother to come up with an actual film to go with it.

By the time you see a new episode of Doctor Who, you feel you are watching it for the third time. The Making of Doctor Who is now more important than Doctor Who itself. Interest is focused, not on whether there is going to be a new story involving a fictitious character called Rose, but on whether or not an actress called Billie Piper has been voted back into the Big Brother House.

From a financial point of view it makes sense. If you can increase the value of your advertising space by putting Dalek Sec on the cover of Radio Times, then that's a good use of what's doubtless by Beeb standards a very expensive piece of animatronics: why should they care if it happens to spoil the ending of “Daleks in Manhattan” and therefore render the whole story pointless?

So the Times entirely missed the point. A picture of the TARDIS being assembled is vaguely interesting. But if you'd wanted an iconic image that summed up the modern programme, you'd have photographed the techies taking the TARDIS apart.


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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

there was an Observer colour supplement with a children's section with earnest debates about banning school uniform and old Flash Gordon strips; and there was two column inches about a game where you searched for treasure and a picture of a painted playing piece in the shape of a wizard

there was a pretentious black and white Hulk comic with a small-ads section and the stamped addressed envelope came back with a catalogue and photocopied reviews of games about aliens and red moons and dragons

there was a shop which sold joss-sticks and wooden toys for art-teachers' children and crystal coloured paperweights and unofficial Star Wars toys called force blades which had just stopped being new and a shrink wrapped box with a rule book, a set of dice and the first adventure; and even now the word polyhedral makes the room smell of Micronauts and Elfquest and The Eternals; and even if I had been able to afford it it wouldn't have been a good buy

I never did play Keep on the Boarderlands and never really wanted to

there was a shop in Finchley which sold toy trains and aeroplanes for grown ups and there was just one shelf which had maybe 20 metal models; a knight, a skeleton, a spider, some wizards, they came in small plastic bags with cardboard labels and handwritten descriptions; and next door there was a very small shop that only two or three people could fit in at a time that sold military wargames with hex boards for grown ups and I bought a red twenty sided dice with the numbers 0-9 on it twice and had to paint half the numbers with a dab of silver paint to make it serviceable for rolling 1 - 20

there was the blue book with the dragon on the front

there was me and Shaun and Jeffrey and Roger and Martin and green graph paper from the back of a maths books and a knight and a wizard and some skeletons and a spider and on the lowest level there was a small black dragon and when it finally died they all cheered and I was the referee

there was the temple of Tegas-fer-Rogan which was so epic that it needed three exercise books and ran for an entire weekend

there was Mormegil the Black who had tatoos on his face because of Acroyear in Micronanuts and for many years the only use for the Silmarillion was to pull out names at random for my characters; I read Lord of the Rings over and over but Shaun and Jeffery preferred Conan; I found Conan dull especially when he replaced The Avengers in their own comic but not as dull as Master of Kung Fu

there was Scorpion and the guild of assassins and Mormegil standing on his comrade's coffin fighting off the ninja so he could take it to town and buy a resurrection spell

there was Ken Livingstone and the idea that you should be able to afford to travel by tube which made Mrs Thatcher so angry but for 6 months I traveled from Cockfosters to Hammersmith for 50p every single Saturday and walked down the alley with a fence on either side and walked past the rows and rows of xeroxed pamphlets and said "Is the Dungeonmasters Guide out yet?" and it wasn't

there was a magazine with a yellow cover and line drawings of dwarfs and an article about Diplomacy and pictures of monsters and it was talking about rulebooks I had never heard of, Eldritch Wizards and Blackmoor and Ardiun Grimoire as if I they had been playing them forever and I have never felt so much like an outsider and never wanted more badly to be an insider and I never, ever was

there is a dining room table, and cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, and at lunch time there are tins of Co-Op vegetable soup and fresh rolls from the baker and exercise books and character sheets pulled sparingly off an official pad and coloured cardboard floor plans representing rooms and corridors and miniatures which were never quite painted and never quite matched the adventure and pencils and biros and rubbers and dice which had had all the good numbers rolled out of them and shouting and talking in funny voices

there is the part which says that this world of the lizard men who live in tunnels under the city and orcs who live in the caves and my sword with runes on it is like the trailer for the cartoon said a world more real than any other; and there is the part which says that it is all just dice and all just numbers; and I have read in The Beholder that there are betters ways with stories and cities and characters who make sense

one day, there will be college and Martin and Pod and Varos and Asmee and the special game that went on for years and years and after that there will be Star Wars and Pendragon and Southern Provinces and LARPs and freeforms

today, there 40 kobolds, AC 7 , hit on 11+ on the red dice with silver paint and against them stand Mormegil the fighter and Scorpion the assassin and Medalf the wizard and also an Elf.

"this must be the entrance to the dungeon: we will find what we're looking for here”

so let it be with Ceasar