Tuesday, August 05, 2008

4:10 "Midnight"

And then, just before Doctor Who finally disappeared up its own arse, we got this tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

"Midnight" has absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who. It doesn't begin with the TARDIS arriving on an alien planet. It doesn't end it with it dematerializing. The Doctor goes off and has an adventure without a companion in tow. We're always being told that the Doctor wants to go and see this or that wonder of the universe; but I can't remember the last time we actually saw him behaving like a tourist (*); booking a trip on a tour bus, chatting away with ordinary people -- or, at rate, RTD placeholders for ordinary people. It suggests to us what the Doctor's life might be like on the days when he isn't saving the cosmos. It suggests that the there might actually be such days.

When the tourist bus gets stuck, an invisible alien wossissname gets on board and starts possessing people, causing everybody else to act in increasingly paranoid ways. We never find out what the wossissname is, or how it works, or what it wants, or what it's called. Of course we don't. Russell T Davies the writer isn't remotely interested in wossissnames. But he finds that wossissnames are very useful for setting up a weird, one-room exercises in dialogue in which one character starts repeating everything the other characters say; and then starts repeating it before they do.There's something genuinely Pinteresque about these scenes. You could imagine something a lot like "Midnight" being done as an afternoon play on Radio 4; or a rather decent entry in a university drama soc experimental one act play competition.

This is surely the kind of thing which Doctor Who ought to be doing. Providing an umbrella under which to erect good little dramas which would still be worth seeing even if the umbrella wasn't there. Forget, for the minute, about venerable traditions and sink plungers and the huge weight of history. There's this guy who travels in time and space. So tell us some stories about him, using the same kinds of dramatic rules you'd use in any other format.

It is very sensible for a writer of drama to be uninterested in wossissnames. His whole attention, and ours too, should be directed at the reactions and interactions of the characters on the tour bus. It is, however, quite a serious handicap when you try to turn your hand towards "science fiction".

Next week, Russell T Davies the writer is going to let Russell T Davies the Doctor Who fan out of the closet, and everything will go to hell. But it's nice to be reminded of what might have been. Of what should have been.

(*) "The Green Death"

Sunday, August 03, 2008

4:8 and 4:9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"


The Doctor confronts a space-suit which contains the skeleton of "Proper Dave" but which also contains a swarm of invisible alien piranhas which ate him but because space suits use telepathic transporter technology in their intercoms there's a sort of print of his mind in the space suit which means that it's still talking with his voice which means that the doctor can theoretically communicate with the swarm of invisible alien piranhas through the suit because did I mention that they're telepathic invisible alien piranhas? We know that Proper Dave is dead because his suit keeps saying "Hey, who turned out the lights?" over and over again. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Steven Moffat has already used the idea of repeating an innocuous phrase over and over until it becomes scary in "The Empty Child.") We gradually realise that "Other Dave", who's also in a space-suit, is repeating "Doctor, I think we should go now" over and over again, which means he's also been eaten by the swarm of invisible alien telepathic piranhas as well. So the Doctor is trapped. Between TWO telepathic alien zombie space suits. So, he starts to talk really, really quickly and then he whips out his magic screwdriver and escapes by dropping through a concealed trap door which had been there all along.

Let's watch that again in slow motion.

Doctor. Trapped between actually genuinely quite spooky monsters.

David Tennant. Talks really, really quickly.

Trap door. Already there.

Hero. One leap. Free.

History will record that this was the exact moment at which Doctor Who jumped the metaphorical shark. The exact point at which the normal rules of narrative - of cause and effect, of simple logic, were abandoned, and everyone sensible switched off and started watching old episodes of Buffy instead. Or The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Or Bagpuss, come to that.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that this should happen while RTDs anointed heir was officiating.

Steven Moffat has penned two very good Doctor Who stories ("Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace") and one very, very good Doctor Who story ("The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances"). The pity of it is that "Silence in the Library" is a very, very good first episode, introducing an unusual environment, an interesting situation, spookily different monsters and a non-obvious mystery to which "Forest of the Dead" palpably fails to provide any interesting resolution. Not that the two episodes aren't still a jolly enough way to pass 90 minutes on a Saturday evening; but it really does surprise me that anyone could call them flawless. "About as good as we can reasonably expect something jammed into the ludicrous formula that RTD has established for Doctor Who to be," is as far as I would go.

"Silence in the Library" consists of 5 disparate plots, any two of which would have been slightly too many for a 90 minute story.

1: The biggest library in the universe which has been left deserted for a century.

2: Invisible telepathic alien piranhas who live in the darkness and indicate who they are about to kill by causing him to grow a second shadow.

3: A little girl who believes that the library is only in her mind; and who can see what is going on inside it on her TV.

4: A mysterious woman who claims that she will be very, very important to the Doctor at some point in his future and her past.

5: Donna experiencing an alternate life in which she is happily married.

None of these plots goes anywhere: there is no sense of forward motion or development in the episode. The narrative is the process by which we gradually work out how the five plots connect up. There is nothing wrong with this. Many good stories present us with a situation and then work backwards to reveal how that situation came about. (One could mention High Noon, Oedipus Rex, Citizen Kane and every detective story ever written.) But the five stories turn out to be connected by, well, by trap doors. Since Doctor Who no longer functions according to any discernible kind of narrative logic, anything can be connected to anything else. So it's very hard to care.

The library, for example. There are any number of stories which might have been told about a library which contains every book that has ever or will ever be written. I mean, if you went to the biggest library in creation, which book would you go looking for? The book that contained the cure for cancer? The book that contained the story of your life? The book that you really loved when you were seven and have never seen a copy of since? And are there closed off sections which contain secrets that man was never meant to know? Vigilante groups that try to stop people going to the corridors that contain dangerous heresies? An erotica section that would make your body explode with pleasures too powerful for the human mind?

But Moffat isn't telling a story in that sense. The library's function is simply to exist: to be a big dumb environment which the Doctor can land in. The story wouldn't have been a whole lot different if the Doctor had landed in the Biggest Public Toilet In The Universe.

Or the piranhas. Why are millions of invisible piranhas haunting a library? Just before dropping through the trapdoor, the Doctor pulls a solution out of thin air. Vashta Nerada live in forests; books are made of paper; you make paper by cutting down trees; so the Vashta Nerada spores were brought to the library in the paper of the books. Q.E.D. But if Moffat had gone with my idea, he could just as well have said that Vashta Nerada are microorganisms that grow in the disgusting sewers of Tersurus and that would have made just as much, or just as little sense. (And loos are spookier than libraries.) This isn't story telling: it's just drawing a wobbly line between two arbitrary points.

Or, indeed, the little girl. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might say that the idea that the Doctor is a figment of a child's imagination has already been used in "The Girl in the Fireplace"; and the idea of the Doctor talking to someone through a TV set has already been used in "Blink.") The idea of a dying child's mind being transferred to a computer which also contains every book in the universe (because she loved reading) is cut-price Phillip K Dick, which is fine: Doctor Who has always been omnivorous about the material it rips off. But the idea of a "a disembodied mind in a virtual world" is not interesting in itself; it's a thing which you may or may not be able to do interesting things with. You can do philosophical things with it. That's what Dick does: what does it mean to be a mind without a body? Can you detach "the mind" from "the brain" any more than you can detach "90 miles per hour" from the car? If your loved-one is dead, does the fact that someone kept a back-up make you feel less bereaved? Or else, you can just do fun things with it. You can say "What would happen in a virtual world made of books? Maybe the Doctor could meet up with famous fictional characters, like, say, Gulliver, Rapunzel and, I don't know, maybe some superhero."

Moffat chooses instead to do nothing with the idea. We see Donna slowly working out that she is in a virtual world; and the Doctor opens a trap door which reveals that the virtual world was created for the dying child and that the missing library users have been saved onto the disc by the teleport, and we move on to the next idea.

And don't anyone dare say "You can't possibly deal with philosophical questions about the mind/body problem on 7PM on BBC 1. The mainstream viewers are too thick to understand that kind of thing." The sub-plot about Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pure P.K.D. If reality takes shape only in our memories, then what happens if someone messes with those memories? If Buffy's memories of her sister are real, then is her sister real, even though in the empirical world, she hasn't actually got a sister? And what's it like to be the non-existent person? This is assimilated so seamlessly into the structure of a high-school soap opera that we don't even notice that it's happening.

Then, of course, there's all the over-wrought nonsense about Mrs. Who. A perfectly good story could be written about two lovers who encounter each other non-sequentially. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme in both "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink.") But this isn't a story. This is, as so often, an idea for a story. All sorts of interesting things could have happened. I mean, what if you married your boyfriend when he was 35, and then suddenly met him when he was 15, and he turned out to be just the sort of nasty teenager you least liked - could your marriage survive that? But no: we're supposed to think that the discovery that Bernice Summerfield sorry, River Song is the Doctor's future wife is interesting in itself, not because of its consequences. This is Doctor Who. Nothing has consequences. The only interesting question is whether the Doctor will trust River, or whether, in fact, she is misleading him in some way. This could have been explored by the use of Character and Motivation, but Moffat prefers to give River a Big Red Button which opens a Trapdoor. She knows the Doctor 's name. So that settles it.

The Doctor's true name has never been revealed. Unless you count The Making of Doctor Who. And The Armageddon Factor. And The War Machines. But anyway... Time Lords are known by titles, rather than names, apart from Morbius, obviously. And Rassilon and Omega. Oh, and Romana. But anyway... It's reasonable to assume that there is something quite special and secret about Time Lord names. But nothing in the previous half-century has remotely implied that Time Lord names are like True Names in Earthsea or Soul Names in Elfquest. Moffat's just made it up. On the spur of the moment. Out of his head. To save him the bother of actually telling a story.

The conclusion of the story, of course, involves David Tennant talking really, really quickly. All the people who disappeared from the library have been backed up to the hard drive, along with the little girl. The computer is failing, and all the people will be lost. But there's a trapdoor: the Doctor can save them all by incorporating his own brain into the machine, only this will kill him. ("And don't think you'll regenerate!" exclaims River Phoenix. Why not? Who cares? Change the rules on the hop, why don't you?) But it's okay because River has a trapdoor of her own: she knocks the Doctor out, ties him up, and incorporates her brain into the machine, killing herself. But that's okay, because the Doctor has yet another trapdoor: in the future, he will/has arranged for River's mind to be backed up onto the sonic screwdriver, so by talking really, really, really quickly and running he can save her to the hard drive where she'll live happily ever after with the little girl and various other people who've been killed and copied during the episode. So this time, everybody lives. Even the least cynical Doctor Who fan knows that "everybody lives" is a direct quote from "The Doctor Dances". The cynical ones are sitting in the corner chewing of their own legs with embarrassment.

The man who saved Doctor Who after the disastrous 17th season – and then managed to kill it all over again during seasons 22, 23 and 24 -- was universally known as "J.N.T". The man who resurrected Doctor Who in 2005 and dealt it a mortal wound in 2008 is known, by me at any rate, as R.T.D. Doctor Who is now becoming painful to watch, but many of us have a strange compulsion to put ourselves through this pain. I therefore insist that the incoming producer be referred to from now on as "S-M".

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

4.8 and 4.9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"

I think that may have been the most flawless piece of genre TV I have ever seen.

...was what I said to myself after watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episodes 16 and 17.

Buffy completely passed me by at the time. I've been working my way through the DVD boxed sets and I have to say that the Great Big Plot Development in Season 5 hit me like a bolt from the blue. Whether this would have been the case if I'd been watching them on the telly, I can't say. I know the Beeb censored the scary and violent bits: maybe they also felt the need to print "JOYCE DIES" on the front of that week's Radio Times?

It probably wouldn't have mattered very much if they had. "A surprising twist" is a twist which has the quality of being surprising – not necessarily one which you didn't know was coming. "Surprise" is a function of how well the writer wrote it, not how much the read knew in advance.

Joss Whedon handles the Great Big Plot Development like a master. Half a dozen episodes back, there'd been a soapy plot in which Buffy's mother had suffered from headaches, gone to hospital, had a brain tumour removed and been given a clean bill of health. Several episodes have been allowed to pass. We have been given time to forget that she ever had an operation. No Chinese mystics from parallel universes have popped up and said "Someone close to you is about to die, and when I say 'die' I mean 'suffer amnesia and be transferred to a parallel world with Zeppelins and Cybermen and stuff which they can't every come back from until they do.' "

In fact, Whedon sets up the tragedy with a rather a clever feint: Joyce (a divorcee) has been on a date with a new boyfriend. The last time she appeared, her daughters had been simultaneously teasing her and encouraging her about it. We probably expected that the boyfriend would turn out to be a robot, demon, vampire, or at the very least, under a gypsy curse. That's the short of thing which happens on Buffy. When she walks in (in the cliff-hanger from ep 15 and the pre-cred recap from ep 16) Buffy's attention is on the flowers that the boyfriend has sent: neither she nor the viewer initially sees that her mother is sprawled out (in plain sight, but out of focus) on the sofa. We're surprised becase Buffy is surprised. Her reaction ("Mum? Mum? Mummy?") may be the best single line of script ever to appear in anything, ever.

If one takes two steps back from "The Body", we can see that Whedon is engaged in some clever structural games. How far can you go in producing an episode in which nothing actually happens? The first "Act" (i.e up to the first advert break) pointedly contains no action : we see Buffy calling an ambulance; trying ineffectually to give her mother mouth-to-mouth; waiting for the paramedics to arrive.."Act" 2 begins with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls' room at her school, which Whedon describes as a "classic misdirect": she hasn't yet heard the news and is crying because another girl has been mean to her. This is pretty much the first time we've seen Dawn as an independent character, among her peers, out of the context of Buffy: it's monumentally cruel of Whedon to show us Dawn as a normal, happy little girl at the exact moment when he's going to emotionally destroy her. The whole of Act 3 – perhaps 12 minutes of screen time - consists of Buffy's friends engaging in pointlessly inconsequential dialogue while preparing to meet her at the hospital.

The answer to the question "Can we have an episode of Buffy in which nothing happens?" turns out to be "No": but the brief intrusion of a supernatural element fits perfectly into the structure of the episode. The set-up is the episode's one weak point: it isn't really believable that an unaccompanied 14 year old could find her way into the hospital morgue. But the scene is absolutely necessary. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been mock-gothic. Coffins, graveyards and dead bodies are part of the paraphernalia of the setting: cool, stylish and spooky if you are a goth of a particular age, but not remotely frightening. But this time, when we see a corpse in the morgue come to life – in the background, with no scary music to signify what's happening – we perceive it as a horrible desecration. Vampirism isn't just a fashion statement but something appalling and blasphemous; a monster stealing the remains of someone's loved one. When Buffy comes along, in the nick of time, to save the day, as she always does, a much more mundane point is made (but not hammered home) about the banality of bereavement: only a few hours after her mother dies, Buffy has had to go back to work.

But however admirable these structural pyrotechnics may be, they aren't what the story is about. It's about characters, a set of well drawn – not necessarily realistic, but eminently believable – people. They've been developed over around a hundred episodes, and now they're given free rein to respond emotionally to this crisis situation. The episode is happy to show us, rather than tell us, at some length, what they are felling. Willow (the nerdy gay witch) fusses about what to wear; Tara (her girlfriend) humours her; Xander (the base-line normal guy) randomly directs his anger at "fricking doctors" and ends up making a fool of himself. Anya, the reformed demon, takes her accustomed role as the group's Spock: she doesn't understand bereavement and asks inappropriate and unanswerable questions about the nature of death. When they reach the hospital she blurts out "I wish your mother didn't die, because she was nice" which is, of course, the kindest and most helpful thing that anyone could possibly have said.

The follow-up episode, "Forever", re-asserts the supernatural element of the series: Spike (an imperfectly and unwillingly reformed vampire) introduces Dawn to a demon who he thinks may be able to bring her mother back from the dead. This is a rather brave attempt to confront head on an important problem in this genre: what does the death of a loved-one mean in a world in which ghosts, vampires, demons and magic are an everyday reality? (It's a question which J.K Rowling completely and repeatedly fudges). Dawn has to steal a magic book from Giles; and there's a rather cute scene in which she and Spike have to steal the egg of a rather unconvincing dragon that just happens to live in a convenient sewer. The monster is pretty un-threatening, but the scene is played with just enough conviction to make the point that "magic is hard: Dawn has to work quite hard to cast the spell." (Had Spike said "Oh, didn't I bloody mention? I have the power to bloody resurrect people using the bloody big red button on my bloody magic screwdriver," the message would have been "resurrection is easy; death is trivial; nothing in this universe really counts for very much.")

We understand, of course, that within the rules of this magical universe, bringing people back from the dead is a very bad idea. The obvious resolution would either be for Joyce to come back as a vampire, or for Dawn and Spike to inadvertently raise some terrible demon who Buffy would defeat in the nick of time. In fact, the episode's climax is another character-piece. Dawn's spell appears to have worked. We hear footsteps coming from the graveyard to Buffy's house: a rare example of a ghost which is genuinely uncanny and therefore frightening. When Buffy realizes what Dawn has done, they have a very realistic sisterly fight – not about the misuse of demonic forces but about how Buffy is so wrapped up in her own grief and responsibilities and the practicalities of funeral arrangement that Dawn feels she's being ignored. When Dawn undoes the spell, it's a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the Monkeys Paw storyline: but it's much more importantly and convincingly "about" the internal development of the character: a young girl accepting the permanence of death and that her mother is gone for good.

And when it happens, we feel it is precisely what Dawn would have done under those circumstances. At no point while watching these episodes did I have any perception of characters being manipulated by the writer; of events occurring because of their impact on the Buffyverse - let alone because of their capacity to generate tabloid copy or sell action figures. I felt that I was observing people who I knew quite well, not watching puppets having their strings yanked. When Buffy hangs up on the paramedics and makes another call, I did not find myself thinking "I wonder what clever point Joss Whedon is going to make here?" I thought "I wonder who Buffy is phoning?" Each event is linked to the next by a believable chain of cause and effect; by characters doing what those characters would, in fact, do, granted what we know about them. Spike liked Joyce; Dawn has a crush on Spike; Spike wants to get off with Buffy; Spike likes being evil; Dawn is slightly irresponsible, so of course Spike and Dawn are the ones who try to make a Faustian pact to raise the dead.

What does Buffy have which Doctor Who lacks? The smart answer would be "good writing". But I think the truth is that Joss Whedon is always, at all times, trying to tell a story about a set of characters. Russell T Davies is only ever seeking to manufacture a product.

Oh, and Firefly rocks. Obviously.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Silent But Deadly: Rhetorical Flatulence in "The Aliens of London"

Gavin wrote:

This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”

As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.

Steve Bell's If... is a satirical cartoon strip which has appeared every day in the liberal Guardian newspaper since the 1980s. Its stock in trade is scabrously exaggerated caricatures of public figures: George Bush is a barely articulate chimp; Tony Blair is a swivel eyed lunatic. John Major, famously, was a hopeless superhero who wore Y-fronts over his grey suit.

The figures in this kind of cartoon strip are not characters, but iconographic representations of an argument. If you see a sketch of Tony Blair with a dog-collar and halo, you understand it to mean "In the opinion of this paper, the Prime Minister is trying to gain spurious moral authority from what we consider to be a rather affected religiosity" and not "Our artist happened to see the Prime Minister in an inappropriate shirt and standing in front of a bright light, and turned in a sketch" One of Bell's single-frame editorial cartoons depicted a snow-flake with Iain Duncan-Smith's face, flanked by bowler-hatted demons with tails and pitchforks. This said pretty much all that needed to be said. You would no more look at Bell cartoon and say "But surely, George Bush is a human being, not a monkey?" than you would look at the photo on the front page and say "But surely, George Bush isn't really three inches tall and monochrome?" The cartoonist is not creating another world, but looking at this one through a distorting lens.

Throughout Blair's premiership, Private Eye ran a text feature called "St Albion's News", in which a young and enthusiastic clergyman named Rev. Tony reported on the weekly goings on in his parish. (He was last seen heading off to the Holy Land to start an ecumenical mission called "Drawing All Faiths Together"[D.A.F.T]). For this kind of thing to be funny you do, I think, have to imagine that Rev. Tony Blair is a person with separate existence from Prime Minister Tony Blair. The joke works best when Rev. Tony does something which makes perfect sense for a Church of England vicar, but which ironically parallels something which has happened to the P.M that week. (An argument with parish treasurer Gordon about what to do with the collection money, say.) Of course Rev. Tony can't ever notice that his parish council have the same names as members of the Cabinet. Of course the P.M can't visit his parish. That's not how the joke works. St Albion's may look a little like a real place, but it's really just England looked at through a slightly different kind of distorting lens.

This sort of satirical roman a clef works a lot like classical allegory. It is obvious that Gloriana is Elizabeth I and Timias is Sir Walter Raleigh, at least, it is if you've read the footnotes. But it wouldn't occur to you to ask "Does Timias know he's Raliegh? What if Raliegh met Timias?" Timias isn't actually a person any more than the world of the Fairy Queen is actually a place. He's just a witty portrait of Raliegh -- made of words.

Yes Minister was also a satire on British politics, but its rules are quite different. It certainly depends on comic exaggeration: civil servants aren't really as Machiavellian as Sir Humphrey and politicians aren't really as spineless as Jim Hacker. But the programme is only funny if, while we are watching, we believe that they are. We have to pretend that what we are watching is what really does go on behind the scenes at Westminster. The show goes to some lengths to maintain this rhetorical verisimilitude. At one point, Sir Humphrey points out that civil servants can't have opinions of their own, and that, in his career, he himself has been both a supporter and an opponent of capital punishment, and a supporter and opponent of the Common Market. That places him very precisely in a specific historical time frame. But Hacker pointedly only ever refers to "The Party", "The PM" or "The Opposition": we never discover whether he's meant to be Labour or Tory. He runs such an insignificant ministry that we can mentally "slot him in" to which ever government happens to be in power when we happen to be watching. We could say that the early episodes take place on a parallel would indistinguishable from our own but for the existence of a Minister for Administrative Affairs and that the later episodes take place on one indistinguishable from our own except that James Hacker, rather than John Major, succeed Mrs. T. But only fans talk like that. Everyone else instantly recognizes it as "fiction".

Ian Hislop's short-lived children's show My Dad's The Prime Minister adopted a quite different strategy. Clearly, Michael Phillips isn't Tony Blair: his children are different ages to Leo and Euan and the little Blairs went to poncey private jesuitical establishments, where the whole joke is that Dillon has been sent to a bog standard state comp. But equally clearly, Phillips isn't any Prime Minister apart from Blair: he's obsessed with image, has a sinister spin doctor, is widely regarded as a bit phony, tries to look cool and comes across as "naff", etc. David Lodge's campus novels are set in "Rummage" – a fictional town that occupies the same place that Birmingham does in the real world. One could say the same about this version of the P.M. Again, the general public wouldn't give this kind of thing a moment's thought. It's just how stories work.

The genre which attaches most importance to "reality" is soap-opera. The whole point is that we're watching the ordinary lives of ordinary people: so if we don't "believe" in it, there's no point. Eastenders takes place in real time, in the real London, but in a fictitious Square in a fictitious borough. We can believe this very easily: unless you happen to be a cabbie, there are thousands of London streets you've never heard of. The programme would, I imagine, work differently if it were said to be taking place in an entirely fictitious city in a slightly different version of modern Britain. The fact that there is no such country as Borchester allows Ambridge to continue to be the kind of village that doesn't quite exist in the 20th Century. English teachers will tell you that Christminster "is" Oxford and The Mayor of Casterbridge could just as well have been called "The Mayor of Dorchester." They are wrong.

It may not bother us very much that Walford East can't actually been found on the London Tube map, but it would bother us a great deal if the regulars at the Queen Vic sat down to watch Eastenders at 7.30 on Friday night. What do they watch? Come to that, which soap-stars do the gossip-columnists go on and on about? Presumably, in the Endersverse, the BBC didn't launch a successful twice-weekly soap in 1985. In which case they didn't need to divert cash from other projects to the new show. Ergo, Season 23 was not postponed, Trial of a Time Lord never happened, Colin Baker was never sacked, Doctor Who was never canceled and someone other than David Tennant is very probably the 17th Doctor in Season 45. And everybody in Ambridge listens to Dick Barton: Special Agent after their tea.

Fiction can't ever perfectly model reality; and all fiction follows its own rules. "Naturalistic" fiction is just as "artificial" as dramas in which people express their emotions by singing or communicate in rhyming couplets. But all fiction signifies to you, very clearly, what rules it wants to play by: what kind of reality it's meant to have. Are we to "pretend" that we are watching real people, or are we to keep it very firmly at the forefront of our minds that these are only actors playing a role? When someone dies, are we supposed to feel sad, or are we supposed to imagine that they will pop up again in the next scene​? Misunderstand the signals, and you end up looking very silly indeed. There was an episode of Spitting Image in which the very masculine Mrs. Thatcher goes to a men's hair-dresser to have her hair cut. "I want you to do something which will be universally popular" she tell the barber....who proceeds to take out his razor and slit her throat. Only the most autistically humourless Daily Telegraph reader could possibly have taken this as an endorsement of or incitement to political assassination. Every one else "gets" that it's funny precisely because it's not real.

Now: when Doctor Who was re-introduced to us in 2005, it was made, very, very clear that we were being asked to treat it as having an Eastenders kind of reality. Maybe no such place as The Powell Estate actually existed, but we were to approach it as if it did. Mickey and Rose were real young people who did or failed to do the washing up, ate hamburgers, watched football, bunked off school and conceivably had sexual intercourse or at any rate thought about it. When trying to gain the confidence of Blonwyn in Victorian Cardiff, Rose even said "bum", the rudest word that most of us had heard uttered since William Hartnell said "bottom" in 1964, obviously softening us up for the moment when the Doctor would say "fart" and the Slitheen would say "bollocks", very nearly.

This isn't the only way it could have been done. It could have been a conscious pastiche of 1970s Doctor Who. It could have been a parody. It could have set up ironic contrasts between styles and attitudes of the 70s and the styles and attitudes of the present day, like the Brady Bunch movie. It could have been a dirty post-modern gay sit-com like the dreadful Torchwood. It could very well have been set in generic sci-fi time in which ordinary people never quite came on stage so we don't find out whether they were the kinds of people who say "bum" or not. But the decision was made – real world, real people, real phones, real internet, real sexuality, real pizzas, real mothers.

The first installment of "Aliens of London" presses this strategy extremely hard. Up to this point, Doctor Who assistants had wandered into the TARDIS, traveled around the universe for a few seasons, been dropped off on alien generation ships or at the siege of Troy and never mentioned again. The opening of "Aliens of London" asks us to take Doctor Who literally: to ask what it's been like for the people that Rose left behind. Mummy Rose has been putting out pre-Madeleine posters to try to track down her missing daughter; Mickey has had "stuff" put through his letter box because people think he might have killed her; the policeman assumes there must be something sexy about the Doctor and Rose's relationship, and some brat vandalizes the TARDIS. This is carried on, mostly, through the beginning of the invasion: people's reaction is part panic, part carnival, and we see plausibly over-wrought TV reports of the events.

However, when Andrew Marr starts talking about and MP with special responsibility for sugar quality in imported confectionery and Harriet Bloody Jones continues to obsess about her cottage hospital, we start to get sinking feelings. Rose and Jackie and Mickey and the Doctor are apparently real people, but the characters inside Downing Street seem to be turning into cartoons. I think that it is funny to think of a back-bencher worrying about local hospitals in the face of an alien invasion on condition that we don't believe she is a real person. If we tried to take her seriously as a person, we'd ask if she was suffering from some kind of mental disorder. It also strikes us as odd that Blue Peter should be making cakes in the shape of alien spaceships: this is a good joke, but about as believable as them making cakes in the shape of jumbo jets on September 13th. I think that this is all quite intentional. I think that Davies is consciously looking out from behind the screen and saying "It's all right kids; we're just play acting; it's only pretend."

Then the aliens start farting, and making jokes about farting, and talking about farting using 1970s playground slang; and removing their human disguises using what appear to be zip fasteners. And then we are listening to slightly caricatured American newscasters telling us that there has to be a special U.N resolution to allow Britain to use nuclear weapons and that the farting green babies have "massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed in 45 seconds." And we think: this is a cartoon strip; this is a portrait of the world through a distorted lens; this is a custard pie routine taking place on a vaudeville stage, quite a funny custard pie routine, possibly, but not something that you actually believe is happening. So we expect Relatively Realistic Girl Who Bunks Off School And Says Bum and Relatively Realistic Boy Who Likes Football And Never Does The Washing Up to say "Hang on. We seem to be in some kind of scatological version of the Muppet Show, written by a sixth former who wants to make very obvious points about the Iraq war. Has someone put something in the water? Have we been knocked down by David Bowie's car and gone into a coma like that guy whose going to become the Master in the series after next?"

I mean, it was crap when Donna and the Doctor found themselves participating in an Agatha Christie mystery at which Agatha Christie was physically present, but at least they had the decency to say "Gosh, isn't it crap that we are appearing in an Agatha Christie story at which Agatha Christie is present: all the fault of the giant shape shifting telepathic wasp, I'll be bound." When Jackie was attacked by a Christmas tree she has the decency to say "Gosh, how ironic, I'm being attacked by a Christmas tree" which isn't great, but at least someone was trying.

But Rosey and Jim actually appear not to notice that the farting green babies have deliberately orchestrated their invasion in such a way as to make an ironic point about the Iraq War. My best guess is that, in the same way Donna didn't know about the Cybermen invasion because she was on holiday, so Rose missed the invasion of Iraq because she was dying her hair that night. After all, the population of Cardiff don't know that the earth was invaded by aliens, and the people in London don't notice that a malfunctioning nuclear power station is being built in the middle of Cardiff, so why should an ordinary person know about a war?

To me, this feels as if I've been watching an episode of...I don't know... 24 in which Steve Bell's monkey version of George Bush is having high level discussions with David Palmer. I'm not saying that something like that couldn't conceivably be done in a cleverly surreal post-modern way, like when Buffy turned into a musical for one week. I suppose we'd all be waiting for the revelation that Bauer was having a trauma-induced dream sequence or was hallucinating. But if it turned out that the writers thought that a cartoon chimpanzee fitted in perfectly well with 24 – which isn't realistic, but has exactly the right degree of realism for a thriller, at least during Season 1, or at any rate the first few episodes of Season 1 – then you'd probably stop watching. Particularly if the director said: "Oh, what does it matter if one character is realistic and the other is a cartoon monkey. It makes for a fun scene. No-one expects this kind of thing to make sense, and the ratings are good. Go away, you mosquito, or I shall swat you from my superior vantage point."

The presence of Rose, Jackie and Mickey doesn't prevent the Slitheen satire from being funny. What stops the Slitheen satire from being funny is that it isn't. But the presence of the Slitheen satire makes it impossible for us to continue to take Rose seriously as a real-world character. It fatally undermines the rhetorical strategies that had been set up over the previous three episodes, and opens up a crack in the programme's foundation which will bring the whole thing crashing down in Season 4. Rose doesn't spoil the Slitheen, but the Slitheen spoil Rose.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Friday, July 25, 2008

If you write "The flashback in the extended Two Towers was ill-judged because it retrospectively changed Boromir's motivation, making him a less interesting and less admirable character, and contradicting what we've already been told about him", a certain proportion of the Interweb will hear "I morally deny this scene's right to exist because it contradicts the footnote to the unpublished appendix on the use of the dative in middle-Quenya."

Similarly, the magic rhetoric fairy will take the words "I don't think you should criticize things without reading them first" out of your mouth and turn them into "You cannot possibly appreciate Glamourpuss unless you have read and memorized the minute details of all 300 issues of Cerebus."

(I'm Andrew Rilstone, and I used to read to RPG.Net, but I've been clean for over a month.)

So, whatever I am about to say, certain segments of my fanbase will interpret it as meaning "I wish that spaceships still looked as if they'd been made out of old hair-driers and I'm still sore at Jon Pertwee for quitting."

But I think it would be really helpful if before going any further, we all sat quietly for a moment, and said in our hearts some of the things that we really like about Doctor Who.

The redesign of the TARDIS interior.

Destroying the Time Lords.

Powerful, scary Daleks.

Daleks with personalities and dialogue; slightly sympathetic Daleks.

The Time War

Billie Piper.

The Doctor as a darker figure.

The Doctor as a lonely figure.

The Doctor as capable of romance.

Showing the creature inside the Dalek.

Re-imagining the programme as taking place in a real world setting.

Recurrent scenes involving the companions' family.

The Ood.

Billie Piper.

The re-design of the Cybermen.

Use of CGI to do stuff that previously only happened in TV Century 21

Billie Piper.

Use of real world cameos to give impression that big stuff is happening.

The re-design of the Sontarans.

Making companions equal partners with the Doctor.

The idea of the Doctor as a tourist.

Sense of a Doctor Who world – Harriet Jones, UNIT, Torchwood, etc...

45 minute episodes


The Satan Pit

The Empty Child

Human Nature


The Girl in the Fireplace

Father's Day

The title sequence

Does anyone else want to share?


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Public Service Announcement

If ever I utter an oath again may my soul be blasted to eternal damnation

In our culture, the strongest swearwords are those with a sexual reference; but words which refer to God and the Devil remain mildly taboo. At any rate, we retain a folk memory of the time when they were taboo.

Superstitious people feel that it is bad luck to use the names of God and Satan frivolously; and nice people think that it's bad manners to do so. So people swear using euphemisms. May God Strike Me Blind is clearly a very offensive thing to say, but Gor-Blimey! is okay; By Our Lady is disrespectful but Bloody isn't. And which of us hasn't said zounds and sblood from time to time?

Even if these examples are apocryphal, it's hard to think that expressions like jeez! jeepers! jeepers creepers! and gee whiz! (assuming anyone ever really said anything so silly) aren't euphemisms for or corruptions of Jesus! or Jesus Christ! It works with the other kind of swearword, too. Civilization would obviously collapse if anyone printed or pronounced the word shit but we are all agreed that shite is perfectly harmless.

Dealing with swearing in stories intended for children is always a bit of a problem. Characters in Grange Hill used to say flippin' heck but we all knew what they meant. J.K Rowling has people say things like Merlin's Underpants!, which corresponds to no sort of expletive that any human being has ever used. Characters in the Beano used to say Crikey! and Crumbs! both of which are presumably divine euphemisms. Great Uncle Bulgaria used to tell young wombles off for saying lummee! although he used it himself when severely provoked. It's obviously very rude indeed, because I have no idea what it means.

American comics sometimes allowed British characters to say bloody -- the Comics Code Authority being, one assumes, unaware of what a relatively rude word the English regard it as. I just came across a 1959 Superman story in which an allegedly English villain says "You haven't got the blimey point!" which is so wrong it's inspired. But native characters didn't get to say anything so filthy. Billy Batson would say Holy Moley! and Batman's special friend Robin would use expressions like Holy Mackerel! (Jimmy Olsen says Super Duper! which makes sense, since Superman is clearly his God.)

You may, if you like, argue that "moley" is a magic herb in Greek mythology, and that mackerel was the fish used by Jesus at the feeding of 5,000 (or the thing that you should eat during Lent) but one assumes that both expressions are really euphemisms for Holy Mary!

This highly stylized form of swearing was one of many aspects of the Batman comic that were affectionately lampooned in the 1966-68 TV series. Robin in particular is given the habit of creating ad hoc swearwords by attaching the word "Holy" to some innocuous noun. "We are going to have to travel to Africa, Robin!", "Holy Travel Agent Batman!"

It seemed funny at the time. Well, actually, no it didn't.

It would be interesting to know when the last time "Holy Mackerel!" was used non-ironically in a comic-book, or, indeed, anywhere else. The Comics Code is long dead and while you probably don't get that many four-letter-words in superhero comics, Frank Miller's current version of Batman swears so much that fans have taken to referring to him as "The God Damn Batman."

So, for frick's sake, guys. I realise that the arrest of an actor after a family fight is far more important than the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. But after 40 years, five movies, and a graphic novel that even the mainstream press thought was quite good, surely you don't have to introduce every freaking item about Christian bally Bale with phrases like "Holy Arrest Warrant Batman!"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One of These Things Is Not Like The Other One

Superman, as originally conceived, as a force for the common man, as an answer to the mindless tyranny with which his name (as a term) had come to be identified, as a foe of corruption and injustice, as the embodiment of FDR-style liberalism and the epitome of the notion that one individual can, should and must, of necessity, make a difference; in all this Superman ... Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman... the only true Superman... stands as a beacon of freedom shining as brightly for an adult who holds the ideals of the character sacred as he does for a child seeing him and learning them for the first time. As a symbol of the nearly limitless power of imagination, he has inspired creators for five decades to take up pen and brush in pursuit of excellence, to weave our tapestry once more. To aspire; that one day we might know a tenth... a hundredth of the greatness implied in knowing you are Jerry Siegel. You are Joe Shuster. You are the creators of Superman. And that no monumental and tragic injustice can strip you of that mantle. As comic book creators, this is our greatest heritage...and our greatest debt.

Dave Sim (1988)

Past the age of ten, I realized that the
comic book medium was my thing. Superman was just something I read as a kid. As I said to Chester Brown, I have a bunch of my old Superman comic books. It's pleasurable to flip through them once in a while. But, Chet, if I ever read the stuff and say, "This is so good!" Please. Shoot me. For Wendy [Pini], it was her friends. The Fantastic Four were her friends. The Silver Surfer was her friend. Batman wasn't her friend. The way she connects with wolves. In her mind, she has more in common with wolves that she has with Richard. The more influence women are given in society the more pecular stuff like that gets moved to the center and the weirder everything starts to get.

Dave Sim (2004)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


If everyone buys two copies of "Sci-Fi Now" and writes to the editor and tells him that you bought it solely to read my piece on Doctor Who monsters, then I might get some more work.

Yes, I do know the difference between a Silurian and a Slitheen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Born: November 23rd, 1963 
Died: July 5th, 2008, after a long sickness.