Friday, April 05, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (5)

So what, in fact, do we like about it? A short list would surely go something like this:

  • We like the Daleks. The Daleks are design classic. Watching the Daleks gliding across the floor and bullying Romana is cool.
  • We like the silliness of it. We like the banter. We like the arbitrary craziness of someone trying on new bodies in the way that they would try on new clothes (and the way that it hardly has anything to do with the story.) Our response to the regeneration scene while we are watching it is surely "Whay! It's silly, and it's not like anything else that there's ever been on TV!" "Hmm, what does that say about Time Lord culture and history, and how can it be reconciled with Brian of Morbius?" comes days or years later, if at all.
  • We like the aesthetics: the safety of a cosmos in which planets look like quarries because that's what planets look like, and where spaceship move in that particular way because that's the way spaceships move.
  • We like the gothic feel; while it is unlikely that the awakening of Davros at the end of episode one ever actually scared us, it has a quality about it which he have learned to think of as "scary."
The list could be extended as far as you like. 
  • The Edwardian costumes.
  • The juxtapositions: the high-tech TARDIS with the old fashioned hat-stand in the corner; the fact that it's not a meta-tricorder-o-gram but a sonic screwdriver. And the fact that the sonic screwdriver is tossed in the pocket with a some string and a bag of marbles. 
  • The lady in the leather bikini talking to the robot dog, or having tea explained to her by a Victorian gentleman. 
  • The jelly baby offered to the gothic skull. 
  • In fact, the whole idea of jelly babies, the idea of a grown man with an old fashioned bag of sweeties in his pocket. I never took to cricket whites and celery as I did to floppy hats, but it was clear that cricket whites were at least trying to fill the same sort of niche that floppy hats filled, and that it was the natural order of things that cricket whites should succeed floppy hats just as floppy hats had succeeded frock coats. 

But more even than that. 
  • The rhythms of the programme. 
  • The twenty five minute episodes.
  • The fact that Doctor Who was almost the last place on earth when an episode might end with a pretty lady tied to a circular saw. 
  • The opening credits: how many of us loved the time tunnel thing long before we really understood the show itself?
  • The slightly amateurish, home made look and feel of the programme; the bad special effects, the quarries, the fact that the sets wobbled (not that they ever did, of course.)

What we like and what we have always liked about Doctor Who is the texture and atmosphere of the programme: the fact that it looks and feels so much like Doctor Who. It's not a window that you look through -- its a stained glass window that you look at. 

Including the imperfections. Especially the imperfections. 

This is why I find the idea of the infinite canon so hard to agree with, even though it is quite obviously right. It's why I'm almost as apathetic towards the idea of a Doctor Who movie as I am towards Before Watchmen and the Bristol Mayoral Elections. I do have a sort of nostalgic attachment for the covers of the original Target novels, but only in the same way that I have a sort of nostalgic attachment to Rentaghost. Yes for many people and for a long time, those novels were the main and most important way of experiencing Doctor Who, and they were much better written than they needed to be: much better than most children's SF that was available at the time. [*] And there were, what, sixteen years when the only copy of Tomb of the Cybermen was sitting in the crypt of a Mormon Tabernacle in Tooting Bec when the novel was all that there was. Unless you include the Doctor Who Appreciation society's photocopied STINFO files, which would take us off in a whole different direction. [**] But I never really cared about that stuff, in the same way that, decades later, I could never really be bothered to read the Virgin or BBC novels, good as though some of them certainly were. Lawrence Burton (different Lawrence), re-reading one of the Virgin Doctor Who says they were "written as science-fiction novels that just happened to borrow from an existing mythos rather than simply trying to recreate a kid's telly show." And he thinks that that is a good thing. Which from one point of view, it might have been. From the point of view of not particularly liking Doctor Who. But it neatly encapsulates why I could never be bothered to read the things. Reading Doctor Who is a bit like stirring your porridge with a fountain pen. Possible, no doubt, but it rather misses the point of fountain pens. And you're likely to get ink in the porridge.

There is an old saying that radio is better than television because the pictures are better on the radio. And yes; the special effects in Doctor Who were much better when we were reading the books, reading Jeremy Bentham's from-memory summaries, or listening to tape recordings of the sound track of lost stories. But we followers of the Fourth Approach are interested in the special effects that we actually saw on the TV. We don't want to hear about what the "real" Dalek cruiser in the "real" Doctor Who universe "really" looked like; or to imagine a better one in our head. Matt Irvine's models are part of texture of Doctor Who. 

"But Andrew: isn't your "phenomenological" approach the most nostalgic of all? Andrew Hickey is openly watching Doctor Who with adult sensibilities; Lawrence Miles is watching it as an adult, remembering the experience of watching it as a child. Aren't you saying that if you just watch it, smiling at the jokes and clapping the good special effect and cringing at the bad ones effects, you can have the 1976 viewing experience all over again, like Holly wiping his memory so he can read Murder on the Orient Express without already knowing whodunnit? And that's patently impossible, because even in 1976 you didn't have a "pure" viewing: you were, by your own admission, viewing it through the lens of the Making of Doctor Who, the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special, Doctor Who Weekly, Jeremy Bentham... Watching something for the first time all over again is logically, and grammatically impossible." 

Yes. Yes. That's where it all breaks down, of course. 

But K-9, and Leela, and the Zygon space ship are like, incredibly cool. 


[*] I found a book called A Life for the Stars by the man who wrote Star Trek in the school library. I found it incredibly boring, but noticed that it was part of a series of grown-up books, and assumed that if I had read them as well, I would have understood it better. Fairly recently, I read the other three volumes. They are, in fact, incredibly boring. See also under "Kilraven".

[**] Mormon Tabernacles do not have crypts, and there isn't one in Tooting Bec. I assume that they do have toilets, but history does not record whether this one had a Yeti in it.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (4)

So, I suppose, we come to my approach, which is really a complete lack of an approach. If the second approach says "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" and the third approach says "What does Doctor Who mean?" I am more inclined to ask "What is Doctor Who like?" Or, more simply,  "What is Doctor Who?"

Anyone who thinks that this approach could be described as "phenomenological" is invited to leave, right now.

Of course, Doctor Who is an historical and biographical phenomenon. It's a TV show that we saw at a particular time and in a particular place and because there is a so much of it those times and places carry on being pretty important to how we think about it. But not the only important thing. 

If you showed me an old episode of Rentaghost (or Basil Brush or Hope & Keen's Crazy Bus -- remember that?) I believe that I could recover the original sitz in lieben without to much difficulty. But it wouldn't be a very interesting thing to do, because Basil Brush and Rentaghost are not very interesting television programmes, unless you have a liking for incredibly contrived puns, which admittedly I do. Once I had said "Oh god, I remember that one! I was in Miss Walker's class! It was the week Graham got spanked for calling the dinner lady a Fat Cow! The joke about Timothy Claypole and the ladder practically made me wet myself" I would have said everything that could be said. [*] They may have great sentimental value, but they have practically no value in themselves. 

On the other hand I have absolutely no idea where I was when I first saw City on the Edge of Forever, and even if I did, it wouldn't matter. If I were to talk about Star Trek, you'd expect me to talk about allegories and moral dilemmas and sexism and the Cold War, but who I was when I first saw it would be irrelevant. The programme is just not entwined in our lives in that way. It's a text; it's only a text; it's always only been a text. It may have considerable intrinsic worth, but it has very little sentimental value. 

And you would think it very odd indeed if I tried to do Shakespearean criticism in terms of first seeing King Lear when I was sixteen and the seats being uncomfortable. I suppose I might possibly say "When I first saw King Lear, I thought it was going to have a happy ending, and was shocked when Lear brought in the dead Cordelia" but that would only be a rather pointed way of saying "The ending really is quite surprising". Some people say "I hate Shakespeare because Miss Muir made me copy out a long passage as a punishment for calling the dinner lady an old cow" but one feels they are mostly missing the point of Shakespeare. 

Doctor Who pretty clearly lies half-way between Star Trek and Rentaghost, and you are cordially invited not to take that remark out of context. I can certainly tell you where and when I was when I first saw Destiny of the Daleks. I can probably reconstruct my original reaction to the Romana Regeneration pretty well. My overwhelming feelings were personal betrayal. It was well known at school that I was a Doctor Who fan, and I knew from the moment it started that this story was going to be silly in a way that would rob me of whatever shred of credibility I might retain in the playground i.e none whatsoever. I also experienced confusion, if not actual cognitive dissonance, which would, if I had put it into words, have come out as: "Oh, does regeneration work like that? I thought it worked like this. I must have missed something. I wish I had been born in 1955. Then I would have understood that scene." But I was delighted with the little Hitchhikers in-joke [**] and loved the fact that the Daleks were in it. I suppose I was already experiencing the programme through the lens of Doctor Who fandom: I liked to see the Daleks on the screen because Daleks had been part of Doctor Who in the olden days so every time I saw the Daleks I felt more like a Wise Old Fan.

But if that was all there was to say about Destiny of the Daleks, there would be hardly any point in saying anything at all. Trying to use fourteen-year-old Me's emotions to limit what it means, or can mean, for thirty-something me is as silly as invoking "canon" to make my version right and your version wrong.

Rentaghost is something which we used to like. Destiny of the Daleks is something which we like.


[*] Mr Claypole: To Majorca? Will that not involve many months at sea?

Mr Mumford: Ah! In the modern era, we have invented a machine that means that human beings are no longer limited to the ground, but can raise themselves high above the earth...

Mr Claypole: Oh, we has such a device in medieval times as well. We called it a ladder. Why are your parents taking a ladder to Majorca?

Mr Mumford: Oh, for pete's sake.

Mr Claypole: Ah. Peter has no ladder of his own...


Mr Claypole: (To Mr and Mrs Mumford) I understand that you are taking a ladder to Majorca? For the sake of Peter?

[**] The Doctor is briefly seen reading a book by Oolon Coloophid. Why do I keep footnoting things you already knew?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (3)

The third approach has a lot in common with the second. It's also inclined to make the concept of "canon" incredibly wobbly, if not actually non-existent. It doesn't feel that party loyalty requires it to pretend that Doctor Who was good even when it quite obviously wasn't. It takes the line that the story on the back of the Nestles Chocolate Bars is as much a part of Doctor Who as anything which ever appeared on TV -- or that it can be if you want it to be. 

But while it is certainly interested in ephemera and memorabilia, it isn't that interested in putting Doctor Who in a particular historical or biographical context. You can read whole articles written from this perspective without finding out how old the writer was when they first saw Genesis of the Daleks, or how much they disliked their P.E teacher. It regards Doctor Who as a text -- but it thinks that that text is potentially very large and (therefore) very contradictory. What you do with the text is "read" it, appreciate it, and, if you wish, interpret it. The Third Approach is interested in seeing how the Lyons Maid Dalek Death Ray Lolly wrappers fit into, or can be fitted into, the Total Text of Doctor Who: it is not particularly interested in how you felt when you first discovered them in the freezer cabinet in the long drought of 1976. The Daleks were created by a crippled fascist called Davros and also by a smurf named Yarvelling [1]: that contradiction is a fact about the text, in the same way that "it used to be in black and white and then it went to colour" are facts about it. What you do with it is up to you. But you shouldn't (according to this theory) use the concept of canon to privilege one over the other or to falsify a unity and consistency which simply isn't there.[2]

The Second Approach asked "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" The Third one asks "What does Doctor Who mean?"  

This is of course the furrow that Andrew Hickey is plowing so cleverly, both in his Mindless Ones columns and his own blog. They are are full of interesting -- if highly tendentious -- ways of reading the actual text of Doctor Who. In his inspired riff on Logopolis he notes that Adric -- greedy for food, awkward around girls, obsessed with maths and computers, far too pleased with himself -- could have been a deliberate parody of a Doctor Who fan, and is, not un-coincidentally, the character Doctor Who fans most universally hate. That never occurred when I first saw the Adric stories; it hadn't occurred to me in the thirty years since; I very much doubt that it was consciously in John Nathan-Turner's mind when he dreamed up Adric; but now the observation has been made, it can't be un-made. It is obviously, compellingly true.

But this approach also has a drawbridge. "Textual interpretation" is arguably quite a strange thing to be doing to what is, when all is said and done, a children's TV adventure serial. When we wonder if "The Watcher" who is watching the Doctor in Logopolis might possibly represent us, the person who is watching the Doctor on the TV (which would mean that we, the viewers, were really the Doctor all the time) we are doing something to Doctor Who which it would never have occurred to us to do to Doctor Who if we had not already put Doctor Who up on the kind of pedestal where that's the kind of thing that it occurs to us to do to it.

And that's what "canonization" means, isn't it? Putting a book, or a person, on a pedestal? It originally referred to the canon of Holy Scripture. [3] No-one would argue about whether the book of Maccabees was, or was not, Scripture if they didn't already think that there was such a thing as Scripture for it to be -- a special kind of book that you treat in a special kind of way. We may admire the Screwtape Letters very much -- more than we admire the Epistle to Jude, if we are perfectly honest. But we don't think that it would be appropriate to pick a particular sentence from Screwtape as Collect of the Day or use it as the starting point of a sermon or set it to music or use it liturgically or swing censers of incense in front of. Neither do we, on the whole, write articles about the internal continuity of Rentaghost. Even though  we loved Rentaghost at exactly the same moment we first loved Doctor Who. 

Some clergymen treat the Bible as (at best) as a collection of raw material to do exegeses of; and at worst, a convenient source of sermon illustrations. Some academics regard novels primarily as things to fall out with other academics over. And if we aren't careful, the whole process of "being Doctor Who fans" can make Doctor Who, the television programme invisible. 

Almost the most interesting thing about Andrew's "Fifty Stories for Fifty Years" series is the way he treated The Iron Legion [4] and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters [5] as part of the Total Thing Which Is Doctor Who. But by opening up the canon in this way, he is acknowledging that there is such a thing as canonicity. He reads The Iron Legion in a way in which it would not occur to us to read Beryl the Peril or Winker Watson [6].

"What if everything is canonical?" is a perfectly good question. But it's a slightly different question to  "What if nothing is?" 

What if the stories on the backs of the Sugar Puffs packets are just as much a part of the Doctor Who canon as the Dalek Masterplan?

What if doing a close analysis of a forty-seven year old television programme (of which no copies exist) is just as silly as doing a close analysis of the backs of old cereal boxes?


[1] In the TV Century 21 Comic Strip...but you knew that.

[2] I think that an explanation along the lines of: "They both happened, but in alternate time lines" is just as much a smoothing over as "Davros rediscovered Yarvelling's long lost blueprints" or "TV Century 21 is NOT CANON and DOESN'T COUNT." My preferred answer (to get ahead of myself) is "It doesn't matter that they contradict each other, because neither of them 'really happened': they are both stories."

[3] Andrew Hickey has helpfully reminded us that we owe the word's application to popular culture to a spoof article in which a clergyman applied the methods of Historical Jesus Scholarship and source criticism to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

[4] A comic strip in "Doctor Who Weekly". You knew that as well.

[5] The novelisation of "The Silurians". 

[6] Comic strips in the Beano. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

[The Bells of St John (7.7)]

Doctor Who's greatest asset is Matt Smith, even if on a bad day, we feel that he could swap places with Sherlock and no-on would really notice. 

The best thing about the Bells of St John was the trailer. The Doctor in the park, on the swing, talking to the little girl, doing the whole child-man thing perfectly. "That's sad"/"It is a bit" gets the cosmic loneliness of the Doctor better than a whole season of angst. 

I suppose the Doctor couldn't really have spent 45 minutes talking to a little girl, although is it too much to hope for that one day we could get a "nothing happens" episode (like that episode of Red Dwarf, or that episode of Porridge, or that episode of Zed-Cars I heard about but never saw) where there was no silly action and we just got the Doctor being the Doctor? I suppose that's why I loved the Lodger so much. 

But obviously, a thing has to happen. 

And the early signs are pretty good. The little girl's suggestion (go to a quiet place and wait until you remember where you lost your friend) leads us straight to the Doctor having gone into retreat in a monastery. That's how the show is now. Everything has already happened. If the Doctor wants it to be breakfast time then he can skip the night and make it breakfast time: he doesn't merely have a time machine, he's outside of time in an Aristotelean way, and that outside time-ness scrambles the linearity of the show. I think that's a good, off-the-wall, left-field-way of ensnaring the Doctorness of the Doctor in a narrative were Things have to keep happening. Both real and a dream, both a child and a man, able to slip from Baron Hardup's Kitchen to Prince Charming's Palace in the blink of an eye because he knows they are both stage sets; and also everybody's best mate, who scoops you up and puts you in bed with rubbish flowers and a plate of jammie dodgers. It's really only the consummation of what the Doctor has been doing since the universe was black and white: talking about the adventures you missed, name dropping the people we never actually saw him meet. Only now we have.

Note For Americans: Jammie Dodgers are the cheapest, least interesting biscuit (i.e cookie) money can buy; the sort of thing Mum gets you if she doesn't feel you've been good enough for Jaffa Cakes. 

So the Monk thing, and the hanging around outside Clara's house thing, and the getting to know Clara thing, and the driving around London on an old motorbike thing, and, in fact, practically all the things work perfectly well. So long as we can accept that the plot-thing is only there as a canvass on which the Doctorness of the Doctor can be drawn and a backdrop against which the Doctor and Clara's relationship can play out, then it it's a perfectly adequate plot thing. It's silly and perfunctory and it makes no sense. But compared with some of the silly and perfunctory plots which make no sense that we've had, it's actually fairly sensible. 

It has been said (possibly by me) that every New Who villain has been, not so much an alien or a monster but more a demon, working according to some sort of magical or metaphorical dream logic. The Doctor doesn't defeat them or outwit them so much as exorcise them, often by the use of sympathetic magic. On those terms, today's story  was perfectly intelligible (they aren't always). There is a magic monster that lives on or possibly in the internet. It sucks people into their computers and eats their souls. The Doctor finds out where it lives and forces it to set all the captive souls free. Easter Saturday isn't a bad day to have a Cyber-Harrowing of Hell, come to think of it. 

Lots of children have a sort of vague belief that TV screens and mirrors might be permeable; that the image on the screen might look back at you; there's another world on the other side of the mirror; that the TV might suck you in. (Very early Who played heavily on that belief.) And everyone talks about cyberspace as if it is a place, so the idea that you might fall through the screen and get trapped there is quite a compelling one. And it's also a metaphor — people talk about getting "sucked into" Twitter or World of Warcraft or Angry Birds. The science fiction scaffolding around that idea is embarrassingly perfunctory: it simply doesn't mean anything at all. People being hacked into the wifi so they are like flies in the world wide web. It's on a level with catching flu over the phone. But this only matters if you still think of Doctor Who as "science fiction." 

(I would like to know what a Young People, who grew up with Computers, think when they hear a person on the telly saying "I’ve hacked their base operating system, but I can’t find their geographic location." Are they embarrassed because way behind the times adults are using computery words even though they obviously don't know what the mean, like the Vicar talking about hippy-hoppy music in his Easter sermon? Or do they just sort of accept that TV gets stuff wrong but watch it anyway, the way we used to put up Fireball XL5 because there wasn't anything else? Or are they so used to computers that they do in fact think of them as magical, in the way that some of us used to think there were little men in our TV set? Or are they just not paying that much attention?)

No, my problem with the plot is that I've seen it fifteen or twenty times before. In the Idiot Box, obviously, where people get trapped in 1950s TVs, and in The Eleventh Hour, where something vaguely internetty is happening while the Doctor gets to know Amy, and in the one with the mobile phones and the one with the sat-navs and the one with the diet pills. And it felt a lot like Rose, of course, because it was introducing a new companion lady, who, in an astonishing twist, is torn between her responsibilities on earth and her desire to travel with the universe and see the Doctor. And like Partners in Crime, because it was the Doctor and a new companion lady running around London, with office buildings and ice-cold lady-baddies.

It's not that Doctor Who is formula ridden. Some of the best TV in the world is formula ridden. One man's cliche is another man's format. But it's like every story takes every other story, tears it to pieces, throws the pieces up in the air and pastes them together in a very slightly different order. 

I could have done without the Doctor riding his motorbike up the side of the skyscraper, but I don't think it mattered. I think that the Doctor who hangs out with little kids on swings is a real person and I don't think real people benefit from being turned into cartoon superheroes. I think that the child man who is outside all categories could have found a cleverer, funnier and more Doctorish way of getting into a skyscraper. I think perhaps he should have gone back in time and bribed the architect. The denouement where he turns up the minions "obedience" slider to maximum actually made me smile; it was clever and it was foreshadowed and it only very slightly reminded me of Robocop. 

The trouble with the made-up villain being The Great Intelligence (from the Christmas show and the 1960s) is that it doesn't make any difference. I suppose it is a foreshadowing of the Big Bad: each threat this season will unconvincingly turn out to be controlled by the Great Intelligence, and the Great Intelligence will then be the villain in in the last story of the season. In the 1960s the Great Intelligence controlled Yeti — Abominable Snowmen — so it was quite funny that at Christmas he was controlling actual Snowman. One of the 1960s stories involved something called the Web of Fear so its quite funny that this one involved the World Wide Web. I don't know who finds its for, though. Not me, particularly. Not young kids. Not ordinary viewers. Not people in the their sixties who've actually seen Web of Fear. I think it's for the kind of fan who has never seen any black and white Doctor Who but has read about it in the their spotters guide to Doctor Who. It's not like the Archers or the Simarillion or to to be fair Harry Potter where the Great Intelligence turns up because someone who cares about building an artificial world has been tracking what he's been doing off stage since his last appearance and knows that this is the point where he would naturally have to turn up. 

Is there a word for overloading things with meaning? "Over-coding", possibly, or "semiotic entanglement"? At one point, Clara is seen reading a book by Amelia Williams. [*] It might turn out that that is really important. Or it might turn out that it's just a thing. Almost everything has a special meaning because it has happened before, but the special meaning doesn't mean anything. I find it quite exhausting. The Doctor makes a big thing of putting on a bow-tie because the Doctor wears bow-ties; we see him wearing a fez a couple of times because he once wore a fez; he quotes some lines from the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, twice. None of it means anything. It's there because it's there because it's there. It makes me dizzy, and leaves me confused about how I am meant to be watching. When we find out that the sinister lady in charge is called Kizlet I immediately think — "Is that important? Have I missed something?" I don't think it is and I don't think I have. 

I am pretty sure that this is because I am looking where I should not look be looking. The plot is noise. I am supposed to be looking at the Eleventh Doctor and Wonderful Clara who is for some reason the most important person in the universe, just like Wonderful Amy, Wonderful Donna and Wonderful Rose. (We have all forgotten Martha.) I could wish for less wonderful companions. I could wish for very ordinary people who just happen to get stuck with the Doctor. (Don't all these Wonderful companions rather spoil the nauseous Sarah-Jane adventures metaphor that contact with the Doctor makes people Wonderful?) 

The set up is intriguing. I don't know why Emma keeps dying in one time and being alive in a different time. She keeps asking "Doctor who?" and the Doctor has noticed that she keeps asking "Doctor who?" and we know from the end of the last season that the Silence is a cult dedicated to finding out the answer to that question, so I suppose it will turn out that she is either an agent of the Silence of else she isn't. [**] I am quite happy to look at the Eleventh Doctor and I am quite happy to watch him hanging out with Wonderful Clara, although, to be honest, I wish she was still the child on the swing. (Doctor meets a wonderful companion as an adult and find out that he first met her when she was a kid. There's a turn up for the books. Surprised they've never done it before.) I think that the funny-silly-actiony version of Doctor Who is a good space for the Eleventh Doctor to inhabit; I think, with reservations, the very silly One With the Dinosaurs was the most successful of the first half of this season's stories. I am quite happy for that to be what the series is for the time being. 

But I am very much afraid that next week the series will decide to be something entirely different. And so far, without a single exception, every single great big soap opera story arc has failed to have a pay-off which delivers on the the set-up. 

Hammer and tongs, by the way. Hammer and tongs. I expect that will turn out to be significant. Or else not. 

[*] You can actually buy the book. Unless it's an April Fool, which would make it worse.

[**] When we first met River Bloody Song, who we know is the most Wonderful of all the Doctor's companions, because she told us so herself, the Doctor knew that she was his wife (the time traveller's wife) because she knew the answer to the question "Doctor who?" The story where we first met her was called "Silence in the Library." Just saying. 

Who Remembered Hills (2)

The second group treats Doctor Who as a kind of private religion: a Proustian umbilical connection to a collective past. You remember that story where the Daleks had to form a temporary alliance with Captain Kirk to prevent Cyborg and Muton blowing up the dining room table? No? But it's just as much a part of the history of Doctor Who and the Daleks as the Chase, which I missed, due to not having been born. (I have seen the DVD, though. It's not very good.) I have a much stronger memory of Doctor Who driving the Whomobile into Gerry Cottle's circus than I do of him driving it around dinosaur infested London. In fact, I rather suspect that the TV set was broken during Invasion of the Dinosaurs.(I have the DVD of that too. It's dreadful.)

The second approach holds that those kinds of memories are all equally part of a big messy wobbly thing called "Doctor Who". Not that it's limited to childhood, necessarily: sitting in a smoky bar watching a snowy VHS tape of the Gunfighters (and naturally singing along with the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon) is just as much a part of Doctor Who as having a break between the twiglets and the jelly at Robert's birthday party in order to watch Genesis of the Daleks, (the DVD of which is bloody brilliant). 

A very wise man once said: "The Gunfighters isn't a TV drama: it's the fossilized remains of a Saturday tea time nearly fifty years ago." 

The astute reader (I know where he lives) will recognize that this is the approach that Lawrence Miles has been taking in his (I hope ongoing) series of essays, which are almost certainly the best things which have ever been written about Doctor Who. His remark about Doctor Who being something like a personal mythology has changed the rules of the game in a way they haven't been changed since, oh, the last five minutes of Curse of Fatal Death. And yes, he can indeed be rather annoying and sarcastic at times. Lots of us can be rather annoying and sarcastic at times, Nick, but not all of invented the Faction Paradox. [*]

The second approach is very close to my heart. It's the kind of thing I tried to do to Watchmen in Who Sent The Sentinels; and it's what I may yet get around to doing to Spider-Man. It's very much the kind of thing which the aforementioned Francis Spufford did in his wonderful Child That Books Built. 

It's also what Proper Literary Critics sometimes invites us to do with Shakespeare. Hamlet isn't just, or even, a text: it's the intersection between every actor who has ever played Hamlet; every academic who has ever lectured on Hamlet, and ever drunk old codger who has ever said "Ah, Yorick, but there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" in the pub.

It has an obvious strength compared with the first approach. It allows you to carry on talking about Doctor Who without needing to pretend that it was ever really very good. If you were terrified by the giant maggots when you were ten, then you were terrified by the giant maggots when you were ten. That's a fact about the giant maggots and there is no need to carry on pretending that the giant maggots (inflated condoms, weren't they?) were actually particularly terrifying.

But it also has an obvious drawback. It's subjective. Carnival of Monsters was the first story I ever saw, but it wasn't the first story you ever saw, so it is naturally special to me in a way that it can never be to you. I first saw Unearthly Child at Panopticon 2, but you didn't. If we aren't careful, we will find out that we aren't talking about the same thing; that we don't know what we are talking about; that we aren't really talking about anything at all. [**]

Oh: and it's almost completely meaningless if you're under thirty five. 

[*] Alan Moore

[**] At the end of his long and difficult book about literary theory, Terry Eagleton comes to the conclusion that there probably isn't any such thing as literature to be having theories about.


Monday, April 01, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (1)

There is a very old joke which says that if you ask three different Christians a sensible question about their faith, you will receive four different answers.

The joke is also told about Jews and Psychiatrists.

I am about to claim that I have spotted three different ways in which people write about Doctor Who.

It would be awfully pretentious to describe them as "schools of criticism"; so instead I shall say that they represent three possible ways of enjoying the programme.

The first way, which should and can be ignored, is to regard Doctor Who as a kind of loyalty pledge. Last week's was the greatest Doctor Who episode of all time; in fact, it was the greatest thing ever to appear on TV -- very probably the single greatest piece of drama since man invented the alphabet. And next week's will be even better. If you say differently you are not a true fan. At the very least you should refrain from saying that David Tennant was incredibly irritating when non-fans might be listening, in the same way that it's obvious evangelistic common sense not to debate the precise job of the Virgin Mary or the finer points of the Holy Communion while there are infidels in the room.

This is the voice of the mercifully defunct Doctor Who Confidential, and, to a great extent, of Doctor Who Monthly. It naturally includes a few people who are working on the series, and an awful lot of people who think they ought to be. 

I don't blame them at all. They have their reward. They get to feel that they are part of an in-group; the gnostics, the knowing-ones who are riding the crest of the zeitgeist like the young folks, not stuck in the past like the fogies who are frankly more excited about the animated reconstruction of Reign of Terror than Season 7b. And it is probably perfectly true that Doctor Who fans appearing on Points of View and saying that Time and the Rani was an embarrassment hastened the cancellation of the original show.

But I have never particularly wanted to be on the crest of anything. What I have wanted, ever since I was buying fanzines which referred to Tom Baker as the New Doctor, is to be one of those wise old fans who has seen every episode of Dalek Masterplan and knows what is wrong with every episode of Season Fourteen (OH-WHAT-HAS-HAPPENED-TO-THE-MAGIC-OF-DOCTOR-WHO). If I had found the proverbial bottle containing the proverbial genius, my proverbial wish would have been to have been born exactly ten years earlier than I actually was. Oh, to have seen Unearthly Child on the day it was first transmitted! To have lived through Dalekmania! To have been a teenager in the UNIT era! 

Doctor Who began in 1963: which was rather too late for me. [*]

Had the proverbial granted my wish, I would also have been exactly the right age for the Marvel Age of Comics although on exactly the wrong continent to have enjoyed it; have had an eight year window to write to C.S Lewis; and a seventeen year window to meet J.R.R Tolkien. I would have been exactly the right age for Sgt. Pepper and exactly the wrong age for Star Wars. I wouldn't have had to do National Service, but I would have had to sit the Eleven Plus, had a much smaller chance of going to University and a much greater risk of getting the cane at school. I'm sorry; what was the question again?

If you make Doctor Who a shibboleth in this way, you will find that you are left with very little head-space in which to actually enjoy it. But that kind of fandom never was very much about enjoying the programme. It was always about being the biggest fish in the pub; having your balsa-wood Daleks feted in the art-room; having that reel-to-reel tape that no-one else had, a complete set of Annuals and the Dalek Outer Space Book. (I still don't have the Dalek Outer Space Book.) If some keen fourteen year old had asked one of those Wise Old Fans "Do you actually like Doctor Who?" he would have got the same reaction as if he had asked the Vicar if he actually believed in God.

Hush, child. That's not the sort of question you are supposed to ask.

(*) You've done that one before. -Ed


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Cheap Shots, Number 23 In A Series

The idea that Peter Jackson could direct an episode of Doctor Who is obviously ridiculous. The Hobbit is a small scale, rather gentle, leisurely paced children's adventure story. Jackson took out all the charm and magic and replaced it with melodrama, appalling sentimentality and ludicrously hyperactive sensationalist action and violence, most of which didn't even make sense on it's own terms.


Thursday, March 28, 2013


1: No. I don't know why it is somewhat okay to say "Mark Twain uses the n-word in Huckleberry Finn" but not okay to say "Mark Twain uses the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn". I suppose that the magic lives in the shape of the letters, in the same way that the magic of the F-word lives in its sound. I believe that both Neil Gaiman and Alan Garner researched the kinds of spells and charms that real magicians used to add authenticity to their fantasy stories, but then deliberately quoted them incorrectly, in case someone tried them out. I can see why you would want to draw attention to the fact that you find the word very offensive each time you quote it, in the same way that some Muslim traditions write "Peace Be Upon Him" each time they mention the name of the Prophet. I think that might be worth trying as an experiment, actually. "Some of the characters in "Scoop" use the word nigger (which is a very offensive word)". "In the course of "v" Tony Harrison says cunt (WIAVOW) seventeen times." 

2: Yes, the use of bloody (WIAMOW) in Pygmalion is a signifier of class, not obsentiy. Other characters use expletives like damn, hell,  filthy, and beastly (WAMOW) : they might be regarded as impolite or unladylike but it doesn't create a sensation. Eliza's sin is that she uses a lower-class word in an upper-class context. (In My Fair Lady, of course she shouts "move yer bleedin' arse (WAMOW)" during a race at Ascot, which makes the point rather nicely. 

3: There were some people on the high street having a campaign to stop the Middle East. They didn't agree with the way that Israel keeps taking more and more territory from Palestine, unlike the rest of you squares. They provided a map to show where the borders were in 1948, and another map to show where the borders were now. What interested me was that the two areas were marked "Palestinian land" and "Jewish land". Not "Palestinian land" and "Israeli land", or "Moslem land" and "Jewish Land." Was there a hidden Dawkins agenda, do you think (that it was Bad Religious People taking land from Nice Non Religious People)? Or did they think that "Jew" still carries negative connotations for many English people, and using the J-word would make us more likely to support the other side (in the way that the Daily Mail used to insist on calling The Labour Party "The Socialist Party" even though that isn't what it's called.) Or was it just that Jew is a short word and Israeli is a long word and there wasn't much space on the map. 

4: It isn't a tax. It's a means test. 

5: If you are reading about some particular theory or interpretation of history, you start to see evidence for it everywhere; very ordinary words start to take on special meanings. I described how this happened during the fortnight when I was reading about the "Paul McCartney is dead" conspiracy theory. Once you have been told that "he blew His mind out in a car" means "Paul died in a road accident" it is very easy to think that any lyric anywhere means the same thing. You think you lost your love -- because he died in a road accident. The long and winding road -- where you crashed your motorbike. On penny lane there is a fireman with an hourglass -- who is about to rush to attend the road accident. I think that, once you have decided that there is quite a lot prejudice around (which there is) you can easily flip into a mindset where every sentence and every word is evidence of prejudice. I think that once you have decided that there are quite a lot of people around who are absolutely paranoid about the PC police, then very ordinary events and words, like teachers noticing that its always the same food that gets used in food fights and taking that food off the menu, is evidence of the sinister hand of the PC police. So I suppose the only thing we can actually do is look charitably at context and intention, accept that language is a wibbly fuzzy thing that doesn't always do what we mean it to do and get on as best we can. Which, I realise, is scary to fundamentalists who think that the word means what the word means and if you say differently you are giving the bad man permission to be bad. There are left wing fundamentalists and feminist fundamentalists as well as religious fundamentalists and Darwinian fundamentalists  and I am perfectly well aware that fundamentalist is one of the magic words and someone will be saying "oh, no, no, no, no, fundamentalist means bad people who believe wrong things without evidence and can't possibly be applied to good Guardian readers who have a perfectly neutral stance on objective reality." 

So. Is there anything good on TV this Saturday?

Anyone who might be interested in "The Physical Impossibility of Debate In The Mind of Someone on the Internet" or "Language, Truth and Bollocks", my two previous extended rants on this subject do please send me an e-mail asking nicely, or make a small donation (£1.20 has been suggested) or buy something off the Amazon list and I'll send both the PDFs.  Many thanks to everyone who has already done so.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Appendix to the Appendix

i wrote a thing as a follow up to the thing that i wrote about the thing that i wrote

sort of about language and bad words in the light of what i said before and poets says "bum" on the radio and amazon selling tee shirts with "bum" on them and all the usual stuff like that

all the nice people who showed an interest in the last one already have it.

everyone else - send me an e-mail saying you are interested, or drop a couple of coins in the tin, or even buy me some comic books and i'll send you this one and the last one and anything else i do in the same vain. (this one is a 16 page A5 pdf at the moment.)

and no i am not going to a mailing list only format for the blog forever and ever and ever. my next essay will be printed on a t-shirt, the one after that will be a pod-cast, and third one will be tattooed on my bottom. i am, how you say, Exploring Alternative Formats.

Send me some money (£1.20 would be nice)

Buy Me Some Comic Books

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Physical Impossibility of Debate In the Mind of Someone On the Internet" is now available in no-frills Epub and Mobi (kindle compatible, I do believe) versions. PDF is still available. Sales are already approaching double figures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I wrote a thing about the thing that I wrote. And then I got someone who admires my writing very much to write some annotations. And then I stuck in some other bits and pieces I had lying around. and I put it together as a PDF. (I will take the arguments about formats for granted, and have a go at making an e-book tomorrow night.) If you are interested, please chuck a few coins in the tip jar and I'll e-mail it to you. Obviously, I don't do it for the money, I do it for the sheer love of people not knowing what the hell I am going on about, but about £1.20 per customer would be nice. It's about 20 page A5, including the original essay; comes in around 8,000 words, I guess. Possibly it will go some way to clearing up the confusion that the original piece generated.

Members of my direct family and people I've insulted in it will probably get one for free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Physical Impossibility Of Debate In The Mind of Someone On The Internet

If you feel that this essay is worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" (PDF, epub, mobi) in return for a small donation.

Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe, or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye, ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence:
That for the tiraunt is of gretter myght,
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal meynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef.
Geoffery Chaucer

Woman is the nigger of the world.
John Lennon

Let us suppose, hypothetically, a country in which there was, and had always been, a link between complexion and seating on public transport.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skinned people have to sit in the rear seats on busses, but light skinned people are allowed to sit in the front seats.

Let’s assume that this has been the case for so long that it’s practically invisible: most of the time, even the dark skinned people take it for granted that that’s the way things have to be.

Let’s also note that in this hypothetical and imaginary country, dark skinned people tend to come from the lower social classes, are less likely to own cars, and therefore have to use the bus service more frequently.

We could conceptualize this unfairness in two ways.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs would be for everyone to sit in the front seats, and that the dark colored people are disadvantaged by having to sit in the ones at the back.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs is for everyone to sit at the back, but the light skinned people have the advantage of being able to sit in the front if they want to.

Or we could say dark and light skinned people are equal (they can all sit down) but different (they have to sit in different areas.) But we probably wouldn’t. The phrase “equal but different” is used almost exclusively by light skinned people who are quite sure that dark skinned people are not their equal. So toxic is the phrase that even if a situation arises where it happened to be true — say, at a school where there were separate boys’ and girls’ soccer teams — you almost certainly wouldn’t use it.

So: either the dark coloured people are disadvantaged — suffering from unfair discrimination — or else the light coloured people have an unfair advantage or privilege. Both descriptions are equally true, or equally untrue: the glass really is both half empty and half full. But if you take the first model, you are apt to think in terms of stroppy black people demanding something extra; if you take the second, you are more likely to think in terms of mean white people refusing to share their treat with anyone else. Taking the second model also makes it harder to be indifferent: supporting the status quo means “supporting the privileged position of the white people.”

(Some parents tell children: “if you are very naughty, you will not get any ice cream.” Other parents tell them “if you are extra good, you will get some ice cream.” American parents, or at any rate, parents in American situation comedies, say “If you are bad, I will take away your ice cream privileges.” Using food as disciplinary tool is a really bad idea because and can result in all sorts of hang-ups and eating disorders.)

However you describe it, the situation is horribly unfair: so if the dark skinned people finally decide that they are going to sit in the front seats regardless of where law and tradition says they should sit, then everybody would support them on general principles.

There are, in fact, two sides two every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.) It might, in fact, be that the fight about bus-seats isn’t worth having; or at any rate, that it isn’t worth having today. Better let the light skinned people keep their symbolic advantage than anger the more extreme elements on both sides and risk riots and reprisals. It is certainly the case that all the seats are much the same and the bus takes you where you are going regardless of where you are sitting. Changing a law, even an obviously unfair law, takes time, and the lawmakers may have more urgent matters they want to deal with first.(Politicians do have to think like that, at any rate so long as we remain a civil society with a constitution, laws and procedures, as opposed to one of those anarchists utopias where you tear up the rule book and everyone starts being spontaneously nice.) It might be that what is in everyone’s best interests is a harmonious society where even the most prejudiced light skinned people put up with even the most prejudiced dark skinned people, and that a gradualist approach to reform is more likely to bring this about than radical reform. Politicians sometimes have to think like that, too.

But I can’t imagine anybody actually arguing any of those points. The situation is so blatantly unfair that we would have a two-horse race: between the small minority of racists who don’t really want coloured folks on their busses in the first place, and an overwhelming majority who think that it is obvious (once the question has been raised) that everyone should be allowed to sit wherever they want to.

Similarly, there could in theory be a disagreement about what kinds of tactics the reformers should adopt. Should they simply disregard the law? (But doesn’t civil society depend on us all obeying laws, even laws we don’t like? If I am free to disregard the bus law, whence cometh my obligation to stick to the law about paying my fare, or the one about not punching the bus driver on the nose? Because it’s my duty is to obey a higher, god-given law of morality? But whose god? And who decides? The stronger side? But isn’t that how we got into this mess to begin with?) Do they have organized protests in which everyone ostentatiously and pointedly breaks the law on a particular day? Or do they start lying down in front of busses and picketing bus stations? Do they politely ask the transport staff to change the rules, or actively intimidate bus drivers until they are too scared to enforce them? What about the fellow who sets fire to himself on the back seat of the Number 9 to make his point? Or sets fire to someone else? Or blows up the whole bloody bus?

Most of us would say that it was our duty to support the dark skinned people regardless of whether or not we happened to like their tactics. Even discussing the tactics is tacitly supporting the injustice. The power imbalance is so obvious and blatant that it's incumbent on you to support the weaker side. You simply have no right to sit in the comfortable seats saying that, although you agree with the point that the people in the uncomfortable seats are making, you wish that they wouldn't make it quite so loudly. 

“But what if the dark skinned people adopt violent tactics: are you obliged to support them even then?” I think you are. Or rather, I think that once you have asked the question “do you agree with violent tactics?” you have put yourself on the wrong side. “Violence” means “use of force by the side we don’t agree with”. It’s a word that the powerful invented by strong people to describe tactics used by weak people. It’s just very odd to look at the entire machinery of a nation state bearing down on the little guy and say “I deplore the fact that the little guy threw a stone at a police officer.” 

“Terrorist” is what the big army calls the little army. It’s only “class war” when the poor fight back.

And this is true of every argument and every disagreement. Every quarrel is, in the end, a quarrel between a person with power, and a person without power. So you only ever have two alternatives: intervene on the side of the guy being beaten up; or intervening on the side of the guy doing the beating. If you do nothing, then you allowing big guy to carry on whacking the small guy, which amount to supporting the bully. If you say "But what if the fight really about? Maybe the little guy antagonized the big guy in some way?" then you are still doing nothing and allowing the victimisation to carry on. 

Of course, you may dress it up in fancy words. "I feel sorry for you" I may say "I genuinely do. I have nothing against dark coloured people. Some of my best friends have dark coloured skin. But philosophically, you will concede that it is part of the Cosmic Essence of buses that the dark coloured people must sit at the back  of them and light coloured people must sit at the front? You wouldn’t want to upset the Balance of the Force, would you? Or if you do not concede that, you must at least concede that that is part of my sincere and devout beliefs, and the since and devout beliefs of many other Jedi? So in order to preserve the Cosmic Balance, or out of respect for other people's faith, I must reluctantly sit in the comfortable seat. But do please understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about the bus.”

If I said this, I think that you might well take the view that I hadn't really said anything at all. All my talk about the Force and Cosmic Essences amount to "Well, I would give up my seat, but I don't feel like it." La la la I'm not listening!

Of course, most people are better at concealing their privilege under a poor mask of logic; but that's all it ever is -- a mask. Suppose I say: “Why does the law ban me from killing foxes for sport, but permit me to keep chickens in horribly inhumane conditions?” Aren't I just invoking concepts like "humane" and "even-handedness" — which are in the long run just as made-up an imaginary as the Cosmic Essence of Busses — to assert the hereditary right of rich people (like me) to own the countryside and do whatever they like it in? 

Or if I say "Is there any statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders in society?", aren't I just invoking mystical concepts like "statistics" and "evidence" to occlude my belief that I'm a rich white guy, want rich white guys to stay in charge, and think that culling a few hundred poor black guys every year to show the who's boss is a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo? My use of terms like "murder" and "capital punishment" show pretty clearly which side I'm on. When a weak person kills a strong person, we call it "murder"; when a strong person kills a weak person, we call it "capital punishment". (C.f The school teacher hitting a little boys backside with a big stick, while chanting "")

It isn't that my arguments are "bad". It's the whole idea of "argument" that's the problem. "Arguments", "logic", "evidence", "proof", "neutrality" are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge. 

How did the light skinned people get to sit at the front of the bus in the first place? Not by winning an argument, that's for sure.

Everything's really all about power. (Unless everything's really all about sex, but that's an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it's always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never "who is right?: it's always "which side are you on?"

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

So far as I can see, everything I've said above is true. But when I'm asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he's wrong why he's wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question.

I have just deleted three separate paragraphs giving examples of questions I may be on the wrong side of. I know how toxic discussions about questions that people are on the wrong side of can become, and how quickly. 

I have also deleted a paragraph about why I think they become toxic. It has been explained to me that when I try to do that kind of thing, I come out, to use the technical jargon, "sounding like a cunt". (I suppose this is why it is called "vulgar Marxism".)

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Lawrence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet. Derrida was right. There isn't any stuff. There's only people talking about stuff. I've never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn't really a space, and isn't really very cyber. It's more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break. 

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. "Right" and "Wrong" aren't qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

And you knew that already. 

So why are you even reading this?

I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you might be mistaken.
Oliver Cromwell

The infidel might have a good point, you know. 
Les Barker

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