Friday, August 09, 2013

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.’ Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken. -- The Screwtape Letters

Thursday, August 08, 2013

C.S Lewis or Winnie the Pooh?





Professor of Medieval Literature
Bear of Very Little Brain


The following quotations are widely disseminated on the interwebs.

Some of them are attributed to the Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, where some of them are attributed to a Bear of Very Little Brain.
  
Can you spot which are which?

And for extra points, can you work out their actual sources?


"You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream."

"You're braver than you believe, and stronger then you seem, and smarter than you think."

"Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them."

"Life is too deep for words, so don't try to describe it, just live it."

"The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem."

"Resolutions are real things. They are things that, when you make them, you hope they will make you a better person in the future"

"Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different."

"Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?"

"We are what we believe we are."

"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard!"

"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why we call it the present."

"Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours."
 


I wrote a book about C.S Lewis, you know, although admittedly, so did everybody else. 























Monday, August 05, 2013

Hello I Must Be Going (5)

Go back and watch the final seconds of Name of the Doctor.

It's rather good.

 
We see the Mysterious Figure, from behind.
 
Clara asks who he is.
 
The Doctor says that "he is me"; but then says that although he is me, he is not the Doctor. 

Clara faints.
 
We hear the Mysterious Figure's voice, saying that what he did, he did without choice, in the name of sanity, and that some day soon, you too will have to make a choice, young Warlock. (I may have made some of that up.)
 
The Doctor says "not in the name of the Doctor".
 
The Doctor turns his back on the Mysterious Figure, and (after the Doctor has gone) the Figure turns around, and looks at us.
 
We see his face for a second—old, beardy, rather weather beaten: a hermit, or and old old soldier, possibly from World War I.
 
And at that precise moment an on-screen caption tells us about the actor. "Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor" it says. At the same moment we meet the character we are told about the actor playing the character

We've always had a certain amount of interest in The Making of Doctor Who, haven't we? Geeky men making sound effects involving piano wires and Vaseline; anecdotes involving eye-patches and trousers. But this is the first time the meta-narrative has folded into the main narrative to this extent.


Not "Gosh, there's an extra Doctor" but "Gosh, it's the one from the Elephant Man and Alien."


Shortly after Matt Smith's departure was leaked to the press, Stephen Moffat issued a press release.


"Of course, this isn't the end of the story, because now the search begins. Somewhere out there right now - all unknowing, just going about their business - is someone who's about to become the Doctor. A life is going to change, and Doctor Who will be born all over again! "


A search begins?


A life is going to change?


Is that all it is? Is that really what Doctor Who has become? Another version of the bloody X-Factor?


It isn't about whether a science fictional character with an odd life cycle is going to regenerate into a female form, and what effect that will have on the fictional character's life. It's about whether girls get their fair turn at "being" the Doctor. It isn't about what the personality of the new Doctor will be, it's a back stage soap opera about how joining in the magical special nauseating Doctor Who Family is going to change an actor's life.


And that, in the end, is why I have become disengaged from Doctor Who.

It's not about the stories any more.

It never was.

This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.










Sunday, August 04, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (4)

Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
Misogynist
        Jake Thackray



Actually, the prospect of a lady Doctor doesn't bother me at all. It's the endless discussion about whether or not there should be a lady Doctor that I find so dispiriting.

You might be okay with the idea of the Doctor being a woman; on the other hand you might think that that would be a step too far from the "Edwardian English Gentleman" persona. We could have an civilized chat about that. You might, for all I know, think that the Doctor ought to shed, once and for all, the nerdy image and become a tough edgy gangster who thinks with his fists. We could have a civilized chat about that, as well. But the question is in danger of being co-opted by a quite separate discussion about equality and gender; about rights and morals. The next Doctor ought to be woman; anyone who thinks that the next Doctor shouldn't be a woman obviously hates women. People who ought to know better are saying things like "It is not fair that my young daughter is going to go through life knowing that she can't ever be Doctor Who" or "Saying that girls can't be Doctor Who is like saying that they can't be doctors or engine drivers or in particular Church of England Bishops." Some people even said that it was like saying that gay people couldn't get married, although that was mainly because the Matt Smith story broke on the same day there was a more than usually fatuous debate in the House of Lords. 

No, Mrs Worthington, of course your daughter can't ever "be" the Doctor. The Doctor is a made up character in a story. If you do decide to put your daughter on the stage, then she will not be able to play the role of, for example, Harry Potter, any more than your son will be able to play the role of, for example, Hermione Grainger, because the one is a dude and the other is a dudette. But even supposing that your son does become an actor rather than a nurse or an air-steward, he will still not be able to "be" Harry. When we were very young, many of us imagined that acting was like playing soldiers and Dungeons & Dragons. You pretend to fly the TARDIS, and you pretend so hard that is is almost practically real until you take the costume off and go home for tea. Now we are six we understand that acting is a very skilled and exacting (and often quite boring) trade involving moving your eyebrow at exactly the right time towards exactly the right camera and getting your breathing exactly spot on and then doing it six more times exactly the same. Most of us couldn't do it and wouldn't want to. That is why actors get paid such a lot of money. If your actor becomes a daughter, then of course there are roles that she could play and roles that she could not play. And of course it would be a good thing if there were more and better roles for women actors; and of course it is a good thing that there are, although still not enough. But saying that the roles of Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Superman ought to be taken by women so that little girls who don't yet understand what acting is can aspire to cast magic spells, travel in time and space and break the necks of supervillains is simply nonsensical. I submit that there is ontological conclusion going on between the process of regeneration and the process of auditioning

That's the answer to the Black Spider-Man question, by the way: more black superheroes, better black superheroes. Superheroes whose whole back story is tied up in the their African heritage; superheroes who live in New York and Cardiff and who just happen to have dark skin; everything in between. And then turn some of them into movies.

continues

This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.










Saturday, August 03, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (3)

This particular night, an usher overheard an audience member say: "I'm enjoying it, but I can't work out how a black man could have a white daughter." Funny, that, I remember thinking: they didn't seem worried by the talking polar bear.
                       David Harewood, on playing Lord Asrail in "His Dark Materials."


So: what are we asking when we ask if Doctor Who could be a woman, or black, or a black woman?

We aren't asking whether he could have been a black woman in 1963: obviously, he could not have been. The Original Doctor was an archetype, and the Old Crazy Science Guy Archetype is an old grey haired white male. (Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is.) The BBC could have created a series involving time travel in which the main character wasn't an Old Crazy Science Guy—but that series would have been a different thing from Doctor Who.

We aren't asking whether a black man or a woman could pretend to be one of the white male Doctors: if we could recreate the Fourth Doctor in a flasback, but have Tom Baker played by Lenny Henry; if Dawn French should have been considered for the role of William Hartnell in the forthcoming film about the early days of the series. That would obviously make no sense at all. Don't know why I even mentioned it.

I think the question we are asking is closer to "Could a black man, or a woman, or a black woman do the Doctor's job".

The process of regeneration is pretty vague. Sometimes it seems to be conceived as a very radical form of cosmetic surgery; sometime it seems to be a kind of metamorphosis; sometimes it seems to be more like Hindu reincarnation. When the Time Lords turned Doctor Pat into Doctor Jon, they talked in terms of changing his physical appearance. When Doctor David turned into Doctor Matt, he seemed to be genuinely sadas if he was leaving something behind. When different versions of the Doctor meet up—most recently at the end of Name of the Doctor—they regard themselves as different people, not merely "myself when young". I therefore conclude that, in modern continuity at least, regenerating is more like "a new person taking over a job" than "a new actor playing the same character". "Could there be a black Doctor?" is much more like asking "Could an hispanic boy take over the job of Spider-Man?" than "Could a one-legged man play Tarzan?"


So all bets are off, and anyone can play the Doctor, regardless of age, hair colour or shoe size, right?


If you want to carry on believing in James Bond, you have to pretend that "James Bond" is a nom de guerre which has been used by a number of British spies and assassins over the years. The same individual can hardly have been expelled from Eton in 1932 and have pushed the present Queen out of a helicopter during the 2012 Olympic Games. But it doesn't follow that anyone could do the James Bond role—that it could be a scruffy Welshman who prefers Guinness to Martini or a celibate Frenchman who doesn't approve of gambling, or a wheelchair bound professor of espionagoloy. There's a sort of essence, involving smart suits, baccarat tables, fast cars, beautiful girlfriends and expensive cocktails that makes Bond Bond.

I submit that there has to be some essential quality somewhere that makes the Doctor the Doctor. I submit that that that essence of Doctorness is more important to Doctor Who than the essence of Bondness is to James Bond. Replace Daniel Craig with a Chinese martial artist and you still have fast cars, stunts, scripts and villains with ridiculous plots, clever gadgets, sick jokes. "That was obviously a James Bond film" you might say "Even though it didn't have James Bond in it." But Doctor Who, the character, is literally the only thread connecting all the disparate bits of TV that make up Doctor Who the TV series together. Doctor Who without Doctor Who in it is like Hamlet without the Hamlet; like Garfield without Garfield.

If Peter Davison had been a woman, it would have made very little difference, except possibly to Sandra Dickenson. Tom Baker correctly said that the Doctor didn't have romantic emotions—that was one of the things which made it an interesting role for an actor to play. The Tom Baker Doctor wasn't especially macho, and when he was joined by a Lady Time Lord, she wasn't particularly feminine. There was very little sexuality to the show: a little flirting when Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were romantically involved in real life, but no sense that it could ever go anywhere. If Tom had grinned and passed the torch to, say, Joanna Lumley, I think everything would have carried on as before :a fairly non-gendered character played by a man becoming a fairly non-gendered character played by a woman.

Since then, we have, of course, discovered that Doctor Who is almost entirely about flirting. Tom Baker's remarks about the Doctor being asexual were hallucinated by a sexually dysfunctional fan-base. New Who is about a Doctor who falls in love, gets married, (sort of) and on whom all the female companions have crushes. That's the whole point of the show.

The last time we had this discussion, Russell T Davies remarked that if he cast a lady as the Doctor, parents up and down the land would have to field the question "Mummy, does the new Doctor have a willy?" I think he had a fair point, however badly he may have put it. New Who is adult enough that any Male to Female regeneration would have to be addressed in terms of transexuality and gender reassignment; it is enough of a children's programme that those subjects could probably not be handled, or not handled well. In the old days, we could happily have had a scene in which the Doctor indicated that he now had a female shape and that it made no difference; now we would have to deal with the fact that he is married to River Bloody Song and that Wonderful Clara either does or doesn't have a crush on him. The femininity of the Doctor would become what the series was about.

The race thing, on the other hand, is very nearly a non-issue. When the 1996 American TV reboot was under discussion, there were vague suggestions that the Doctor should be a stereotypical urban American black guy. And that the TARDIS should sing rap music. The name of Eddie Murphy was uttered. This would, of course, have been appalling. The Doctor's Englishness, or at any rate Britishness, is much more part of his essence than the shape of his genitals, which I hope and believe will never appear on screen. But there are plenty of ways, interesting ways, in which a character can be English and Asian or English and African at the same time. Yes, a version of Doctor Who in which every bloody story was about race, racial identity, prejudice and people treating you differently when your skin changes colour would be terribly, terribly, boring, but I think that could probably be avoided. Matt Smith is the youngest actor to play the role, and the whole series hasn't become about his youth.

"Edwardian English Gentleman With Dark Skin", "African English Edwardian Gentleman", "Asian English Edwardian Gentleman" are all perfectly imaginable. "Lady Edwardian English Gentleman" starts to set off warning bells, albeit quite quiet, tinkly ones.

continues...

This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.










Friday, August 02, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (2)

"Now, Mr. Spigott, you, a one-legged man, are applying for the role of Tarzan -- a role which, traditionally, involves the use of a two-legged actor....And yet you, a unidexter, are applying for the role. A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement."
                                        Not Only...But Also
 
Could Spider-Man be black?
 
This is a meaningless question.
 
Spider-Man is a fictional character, with a background and a history. As a matter of fact, that character is a white, teenaged, male New Yorker, born around 1948. (Or "about 25 years ago" if you believe in Marvel Time, or "In 1986" if you prefer the Ultimate version.) I suppose there could be a storyline in which someone injects him with a magic potion and his skin went black. A good writer could write a good story based on that premise, and a bad writer could write a very bad one. 

But that isn't what you are asking, is it? You are asking "Could Spider-Man have been black?"
 
To which the answer is yes, of course he could have been. Steve Ditko and his very talented scripting assistant could perfectly well have told a story about an African American teenager who was bitten by a radioactive Spider and learned that with great power must also come etcetera etcetera etcetera. 


Would that have made a difference to the story? Yes: in the same way that it would have made a difference if Uncle Ben had been Peter Parker's natural father, or if it had been Aunt May who had been shot by the burglar. Change any part of the story and you change the story. I suppose that, in 1963, even in New York, it would have been relatively uncommon for people of colour to get science scholarships to major universities or work in photo-journalism. I imagine that the bullying of Peter Parker by Flash Thompson, or his hounding by J Jonah Jameson would have felt different if it had been white guys picking on a black guy. Could a story have been written along those lines? Yes, emphatically. Would it have been such a good story? Steve Ditko was a genius at the the top of his game working with the best dialogue-writer ever to work in comics, so yes, I imagine he would have produced a good story on any subject he felt like. Would Spider-Man have still been basically the same character? It depends what you mean by "the same". Is any character who can stick to walls and shoot webs essentially Spider-Man, or is it all the little details that made Spider-Man who he is?
 
If you take the former line—if it's the costume and the powers that maketh the hero, as opposed to the specs and the over protective aunty—then being Spider-Man is a job and that job could be done by someone other than Peter Parker—black, female, disabled, gay, a born-again Christian or an alien from the planet Zog. In the Ultimate universe, Peter Parker is currently spending a year dead for tax reasons and the "job" of Spider-Man is being performed by an Hispanic youth. It works fine.
 
But that isn't the question you are asking, either.
 
The question you are asking is "Could a black person pretend to be Spider-Man. In, like a movie or a TV series."
 
And the answer is—well, maybe.
 
Probably.
 
Almost definitely.
 
If we were talking about legitimate theatre we wouldn't even be asking the question. Everyone—everyone except Quentin Letts—accepts colour-blind casting. If the director casts a black man as Macbeth, it wouldn't occur to us to think that Macbeth actually was a black man—that there were African noblemen in tenth century Scotland. Theatre is all about suspension of disbelief. The cut-out tree in the middle of the stage doesn't look like a tree; it's an instruction, saying "please imagine that this scene is taking place in the forest of Arden." Eke out our performance with your mind, as the fellow said. It's fairly common for female actors to play male roles. No-one claims that Richard II really was a woman or Juliet was really a man. We just pretend.
 
Movies are a bit different, because the whole fun of movies is that you don't have to use your imagination. What we see on the screen is what the pretend people on the screen can see. If a character looks black or female or disabled, then we take it for granted that they are black or female or disabled in the story.
 
So, the question you are asking is "Does it matter if the character we see on the screen doesn't look like the character we see on the page of the comic book?" Does it matter if Peter Parker has light skin in the comic and dark skin on the screen? Would it be okay for Mary-Jane, who has long red hair in the comic, to have short black hair on the screen? Can blonde comic-book Gwen become brunette movie Gwen? Does Prof X need to be bald? Could we cope with a ginger Lois Lane? Why do all the good examples I can think of involve hair? 

Ditko's Spider-Man was a science nerd, and "science-nerd" is a much more irreducible part of Spider-Man's fictional DNA than "white New York male". In the original comic, this nerdiness was represented by test tubes, microscopes, museum exhibitions and piles of books. In the movie, and in modern comic book versions, the chemistry equipment is replaced by computers, the internet, the internet and computers. Because that's what 21st century nerds play with. "Changing things" is, in this case, the only reasonable way of leaving them the same. Changing "radioactive Spider" to "genetically modified Spider" for the benefit of modern kids is no different from changing "spider" to "araigne" for the benefit of French kids. 

Peter Parker, as created by Steve Ditko, grew up in the 1950s. He called women "gals" and Russians "commies", wore a waistcoat on informal occasions and thought "I bet you're still wearing a Vote for Dewey badge" was a clever topical reference. Yet many of us seem to be able to accept that the young man who remembers the Beatles and lost friends in the Vietnam war is the "same persion" as the young man who was a teenager when the World Trade Center was destroyed; but somehow think that if his hair or his skin is the wrong colour he is just not Spider-Man. 
 
In 1963, Peter Parker's Aunt May was already a Very Old Lady, prone to have heart-attacks at the drop of a pin -- in her 70s, or even older. A New York lady who was born in the 1890s is very likely to have been an immigrant. I think everyone now agrees that Peter Parker was -- like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and the guy who wrote the words --  a second generation immigrant, say of Austrian or Czech  Jewish heritage. This is why Peter Parker is rejected by his peer group, and bullied by Flash Thompson. He's a foreigner; an outsider. 

It follows that movies which represent him as an all-American white kid are just as false as the ones where he plays with a microscope rather than a computer. If you want to set Spider-Man in the 21st century and remain remotely faithful to the original, you'd have to make him the kid of some refugees who came to America in the 1990s; non-religious himself, but greatly influenced by Uncle Ben's Somali Muslim or Punjabi Sikh heritage.


(I'm serious, by the way.) 
 
(Continues)


This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.








Thursday, August 01, 2013

Hello, I Must Be Going (1)


In the future, everyone will be Doctor Who, but only for fifteen episodes.

I have become disengaged from Doctor Who.
 
Don't worry, this is not going to be one of those "I swear on Uncle Ben's grave, never again shall I watch this travesty" essays. I am sure that fourteen months from now I shall still be going on and on about how Patterson Joseph is not as good as Matt Smith.
 
But right now, I don't care, although I care very much about not caring. It no longer matters, but it matters that it doesn't matter. I imagine that this is what divorce or loss of faith would feel like. It doesn't, I am happy to say, feel anything like grief.
 
Matt Smith was what was keeping me watching; and Matt Smith is going. So we will have months and months of speculation, and two massively over-hyped specials. Then we will have a new series, though not for a year, in which yet another new actor has yet another go at figuring out what the new show is all about, and then quits when we have barely had time to get used to him.

*

When we hear that a comic or a book or a TV show which we quite liked is going to be turned into a movie, we go through three stages.  

Stage 1: Faith
 
The new movie is going to be the Exact Same Thing as the book or comic we loved so much, with the pictures we made up in our head magically translated onto the big screen. "Will Benedict Cumberbatch be playing that extremely obscure character that only fans remember?" we say "I wonder how he will deliver that particularly special line we love so much?" The answer always turns out to be "No, of course he won't" and "They not only cut that line, but cut the whole chapter and replaced it with a fight scene." But we still go through the "Faith" stage next time around.

Stage 2: Revulsion 
This stage is often very brief; no more than a momentary flinch or shudder when we realize that, in fact, the movie is going to take a sledge hammer to the book or comic we love so much. Arwen is going to wield a sword. Lois is going to know Superman's secret identity from the beginning. The Doctor is going to be Rassilon’s illegitimate son and the TARDIS is going to be a rap singer. They are taking out Captain Kirk altogether and replacing him with James Dean. We sometimes get angry at this point and say that no-one should be allowed to touch the icons of our collective past. We used to say that bad remakes and disappointing prequels were like "someone raping our childhood" but in the light of what has happened to the whole of 1970s popular culture, that analogy no longer seems in particularly good taste.

Stage 3: Retrenchment  
Once we reach this stage, we claim it is the only reaction we ever had, or anyone could ever have. We never remotely expected the movie to be anything like the book. Anyone who did expect that is a colossal geek. Just because Tom Baker didn't play the Doctor as a US marine with an assault rifle it doesn't follow that no-one can play the Doctor as a US marine with an assault rifle. You have to put all thoughts of the original book, comic or TV show out of your head and ask "Was it or was it not a good movie?" And if you reply "No" then that also proves you are a colossal geek.
 
And, indeed, there are no hard and fast rules, about turning books into movies or anything else. Maybe you can re-imagine Hamlet as a ninja and make it work. People have successfully turned samurai into cowboys and back again. But if I am excited about the idea of a new Star Wars movie (and, with a hundred yards of reservations, I really am) then I'm excited because I want to see X-Wing Fighters, lightsabers and Luke Skywalker's kids. If I find they've cut out all the space ships and lightsabers and replaced them with bum-jokes and flirting then I have the right to become disengaged. "But was it a good movie in its own right?" is a non sequitur. I wasn't promised a good movie in it's own right. I was promised a sequel to Star Wars.

So.

As we go through the triennial "could the Doctor be black" argument, many of us are getting are our retrenchment in first. Don't ask how an ethnic minority Doctor, or a female Doctor, or a female ethnic minority Doctor might be consistent with or inconsistent with what Doctor Who has been up to now. Ask only if it is a good TV series in it's own right.




continues 



This essay is going to form the epilogue to the next volume of my collected Doctor Who essays, tentatively entitled "The Viewers Tale vol 4." 

The book will also include the long essay on different approaches to Doctor Who, the essays about season 7 that have already appeared here, and the unpublished essays on The One With The Daleks, The One With the Dinosaurs, The One With The Cowboys, The One With The Cubes, The One in New York, and The Christmas One. 

The book will be avaiable, on Lulu and Amazon in due course. 

In the meantime, the complete text of this essay and the unpublished reviews are available as a PDF, Epub and Mobi in return for a suggested donation of £2. Like Kickstarter only without the grief. 

People who have previously sent me money should already have recieved the PDF and are not allowed to donate again.










Monday, June 24, 2013

i have a few more things to say about dr who followed possibly by things about superman movies, naughty 1970s tv personalities, winnie the pooh, spider man, weak internet analogies for communism, god, etc

but in the mean time please listen to me speaking words about music in my voice 




Friday, May 31, 2013

The Name of the Doctor (7.14)

There's something forgotten I want you to know
The freckles of rain are telling me so
Oh it's the old forgotten question
What is that we are part of?
What is it that we are?


The Half Remarkable Question




It didn't have to be like this.

I think that before 2005, most of us imagined that New Who would be Doctor Who: the Next Generation, or Ultimate Doctor Who. We imagined that it would be be like the Paul McGann movie or the infinite number of New Adventure. We expected someone to take all those years and years of disconnected storylines and build a modern TV SF universe out of them. We thought it would be like Firefly, only with jelly babies.

Some fans believe that that is what we got. But then some fans believe that is what we already had. Give a fan three wildly inconsistent dots and he will always be able to draw a line between them; and believe that the line he has drawn was there all along; and that the line is good deal more interesting than the dots themselves.[*] If you are one of those fans -- if you don't quite see why I think Star Trek: The Next Generation and New Who have radically different relationships to their source material (and that Star Trek and Doctor Who were very different beasts to begin with) then you'll probably be happier ignoring what I have to say here and remaining lost in miasma of your self-created universe. 

And I really do mean happier. I really do wish I could take the blue pill, or possibly the red pill, and rejoin you inside the collective hallucination. But I can't. I can only watch what's been put in front of me.


"You could have taken you hand out of the cuff at any time?"
"No, not at any time. Only when it was funny."

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?



I began this series of digressions by claiming that people ask three questions about Doctor Who: "What does this mean to me?" "What does this mean?" and "What is this like?" None of them can ever really be answered. That's why they are such good questions. 

People who ask "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" may very well embrace "The Name of the Doctor" as a validation, as the fulfilment of a promise, as proof that there really is some continuity between this show and the one which their ten or twelve year old self fell in love with. But they may just as well denounce it as a horrible violation of all their childhood memories; a trivial piece of graffiti scrawled across a sacred text. Clara -- Clara, who we only met last Christmas! -- watches the Doctor and Susan -- the Doctor and Susan! -- leave Gallifrey and cracks a joke. What next? Children's entertainers at the Last Supper? Lawrence Miles response to the episode was to post a colour photograph of a man's bottom on his website. You sort of see his point.

People who ask "What does Doctor Who mean?" will certainly be fascinated by "The Name of the Doctor". It's about as meta-textual as you can get, and it gives us dozens of hermeneutic knots to unravel. It reaches back to a point before Doctor Who started and forward to a point after Doctor Who has ended and sideways to a part of Doctor Who we have never seen before. It contains the whole of Doctor Who, including itself. At the same time, it undermines and destabilizes and changes everything which has gone before. God knows how much "canon" is left when you have had a Time War which changed history, a crack in time though which bad ideas like the giant Victorian Cyberman seem to have leaked out, and the literal, story-internal "rebooting" of the entire universe. But whatever canon is left has been overwritten. All the Doctor's victories are retrospectively revealed to have been caused by the self-sacrifice of Wonderful Clara. The Doctor has always had plot immunity -- we know that he can't ever be killed off 'cos he's the good guy and the programme's got his name on it. But that plot immunity is now part of the fictional meta-story: he can't be killed because Wonderful Clara will always and has always been there to save him. (The whole premise of Doctor Who, that the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey in a malfunctioning TARDIS, is revealed to be the result of a last minute whim of Wonderful Clara's.) The last 50 years are now to be understood as a manichean conflict, like Blake's angels struggling over a new-born child, where the Angel of Light is a Victorian baddie in a frock coat, and the Angel of Light is a Victorian nanny with a liking for egg products. 

"I was born to save the Doctor" says the Ultimate Final Archetypal Companion to End All Companions. To save the him? Isn't that getting everything a little bit back to front? 

These are relatively easy questions. It's the third one I have the problems with. "What is the 'Name of the Doctor'? What is it like?"

I think "Name of the Doctor" is like one of those playground puzzles in which the convict rubs his hands together until they are sore; uses the saw to cut the table in half; puts the two halves together to make a whole; jumps through the hole and shouts until he is hoarse and then jumps on the horse and rides away. Like that Salman Rushdie story where the car breaks down and everyone has to stand round it being really really quiet because it goes without saying. It is driven by the logic of language, the logic of puns, the logic of dreams, not the logic of science or the logic of logic. It is a world where things work if they sound as if they ought to work. Clara's Mum's leaf brought Clara into existence, in a manner of speaking, because if not for the leaf her Mum would never have met her Dad. Presumably, the world is full of magic bunches of flowers and magic banana skins and magical delays due to scheduled engineering works outside Didcot. But we are inside a dream and once you have spoken in that manner, it becomes somehow literally true and the Doctor can use that leaf to magically call Clara back from the wibbly wobbly time-world. 

I think that "Name of the Doctor" is like a cubist painting. where you can see the shape of the woman and the colour of her dress, but where any suggestion that a portrait might resemble its subject has been abandoned in favour of a celebration of pure form. There is no cause and effect in "Name of the Doctor", nothing resembling a normal narrative. It's just scenes and images. Condemned men bargain for their lives; there is seance in a dream world; there is a gothic graveyard in no particular place. Richard E Grant is allegedly playing the Great Intelligence, who is tangentially connected to a villain who appeared in two lost, or at any rate mislaid, black and white episodes. But he isn't really playing the Great Intelligence, or Dr Simeon, or anyone else. He stands at the Doctor's grave in his Victorian costume and demands the Doctor tells him his greatest secret. It's not a beat in a story. It's a scene that stands by itself, like a piece of fan art: the Doctor facing down a sort of generic universal spirit of our impression of what a Doctor Who villain should probably be like. The final moments of the episode are pure, abstract mindscape. 

It looks great. Many of us have imagined the Doctor's flight from Gallifrey in our heads, and the little scene looks exactly how we imagined it. If the Doctor has a final resting place then the weird graveyard stretching to infinity is what it ought to be. The Great Big Scene, in which we see the Mysterious Man and a caption confirms his identity, is undeniably powerful. But nothing leads up to it or follows from it. It just is. [**]



"My name is Slartibartfast."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Slartibartfast."
"Slartibartfast?"
"I said it wasn't important."
      The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

"But Andrew," you ask "What about the people who don't ask questions about Doctor Who? What about the ones who, you know, just watch it. What will they have to say about this episode?" 


Well, they are mainly saying that they didn't understand it. But then, that is what they always mainly say about episodes of this kind. I don't understand what they mean when they say they don't understand it.  

Are they complaining that there is too much sci-fi jargon: that when someone says "crossing my own time-line" their brain switches off, in the same way my brain switches off when someone says "but first, sport"?


Are they complaining that too much is left unexplained at the end of the episode? Soap operas have questions in them too, I suppose, but I imagine that the questions are more clearly signposted. When a character you thought was dead walks into the Rovers Return in Ambridge someone says "Oh my god! It is Bruce, former lover of Sheila who we all believed died in a bizarre sheep shearing accident five years ago but who's body was never found! How can he possibly be here?” Mysteries and loose ends and unexpected twists there can certainly be, but they must all come with neat, safe, friendly labels marked "mystery", "loose end" and "unexpected twist". [***] Doctor Who, bless it's hearts, still expects the audience to do some work.

We know -- because Joseph Campbell told us -- that all moviefilms must begin at the very beginning and go though to the very end and leave no unresolved issues. This is the reason that we keep getting reboots and prequels. The Origin of Spider-Man fits, and the Origin of Batman can be made to fit, into the Journey of the Hero. We see Spider-Man before he was a crime fighter, we see the point of crisis which made him decide to become a crime fighter, and then we see him actually fighting some crime. If there was a scene in which he decided that he was finished with crime fighting, we would have the perfect circular narrative. That is why the Spider-Man franchise ended, which is to says started all over again, after only three movies. Spider-Man becomes a crime fighter is a Story. Spider-Man fights some crime is not a story. (The latest Batman series had to be presented as a limited three part trilogy, with instalments that were very nearly called Batman Begins, Batman in the Middle and Batman Ends.) There were, depending on how you count them, twelve Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 1940s. They never "rebooted". Even when Johnny Wiessmuller got too old to swing around the jungle in his knickers, they just wheeled on a younger man whose name escapes me and everyone else and carried on as before. They didn't feel any need to perpetually revisit the shipwreck and that landed little Lord Greystoke in the jungle. A fresh adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs book is on the cards, but a new series is unthinkable. Modern audiences would claim not to understand it. "We don't care about these sinister Nazi ivory hunters who are trying to rob the pretty lady of her inheritance" they would say "We want to know why there is a white man living in the jungle, how he learned to talk to the animals, if he will ever leave, and what it says about the human condition." [****]

But I think it is most likely that when the ordinary viewer complains that he doesn't understand "Name of the Doctor", he is making the same complaint that I am making when I talk about "magical realist" construction. 

Why can some of the Doctor's friends sniff a magic candle and meet up in a dream world; and if they can do this, why have they never mentioned it before? There isn't an answer, of course, any more than there is a physiological or genetic reason why Peter Pan never grows up. I don't think that the ordinary viewer can accept this. I think that the question occurs to him, and he assumes that there must be answer, but that the writer is withholding it from them for some reason. That's what a question without an answer usually means, isn't it? That someone is hiding something from you? 

"Why don't Mummy and Daddy love each other any more?"

"Why does God allow suffering?"

"Why was it necessary to invade Iraq?"  

Hush child. Just because.


"After all, you were with him from the beginning"
"From before the beginning, young fellow. And now, it's after the end."

Citizen Kane



"Just because" is used far too much in New Who, and far, far too much in "The Name of the Doctor". But, compared with the narrative-free "Hide" and "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", "Name of the Doctor" is actually relatively easy to "understand". As a public service, I shall therefore spend a few moments explicating it: 

The Doctor's Enemy knows that the means to destroy the Doctor is hidden in his tomb. 

The Doctor knows this too, but also knows that his own tomb is the one place he must never go.

Why? Well, if the Doctor could keep meeting up with himself then Doctor Who would get very complicated and very silly, so there is a rule that says that the Doctor can never meet himself, except in special anniversary stories. "Crossing my own time line" is a rather more sciencey way of saying "being in two places at once". We've all spent 50 years convincing ourselves that "being in two places at one is taboo" so it makes a kind of sense to say that "being at the place of my own death" is super dooper taboo. 

The Doctor's Enemy kidnaps the Doctor's friends and takes them to the place he mustn't go, so of course he goes there. 

It turns out that the Doctor's tomb is the TARDIS itself, grown to massive size.

Why? Well, the TARDIS has always been the biggest "just because" in the whole programme. 

"Why is it bigger on the inside than the outside." 
"Because it's dimensionally transcendental."
"What does dimensionally transcendental mean?" 
"It means it's bigger on the inside that the outside."

Inside the dream-world, it makes perfect sense that when the TARDIS dies, the magic should leak out and make it bigger on the outside as well. 

It turns out that it -- the tomb, the TARDIS -- can only be opened when someone says the Doctor's name.

Why? Up to now the Doctor has always opened the TARDIS with a yale key, or a strange alien key, or occasionally with a snap of the fingers or a magic ring. Just as the series increasingly fetishizes the Doctor himself, so it is starting to fetishize his name. It isn't just a thing which we don't know, or even a thing that we can't know. It's a thing which no-one knows, the biggest secret in the Universe. When Ace asked the Doctor "who are you" she was presumably asking what is identity was, what is role was in the universe, expecting an answer like "Omega", "The Other", or "Time's Champion". But it isn't the Doctor's identity which we are supposed to be worrying about. The name itself has become a Word of Power. Granted that, it makes dream-sense for it to be the magic word that opens the TARDIS.

Now it gets complicated. Several seasons ago the Doctor met a lady called River Bloody Song, who knew his true name, almost definitely. From this, we were supposed to infer that she was his wife, even more almost definitely. He didn't know her at all: they would meet in his future, but her past. (There is a book called The Time Traveller's Wife, which I have never read.) She apparently died, but the Doctor kept a sort of a copy of her in the computer in the Biggest Library in the Universe. He has met her several more times since then, always in the wrong order, and at the end of the last season, he married her, sort of. She also turns out to be the daughter of one of his companions, but that's not important right now, probably. She is one of the friends who is summonsed to the dream world, and it's the version of her from the after-life in the library computer which has arrived at the Doctor's tomb. At first it seems that only Clara can see her (Why? Because they are "telepathically linked".) Then it turns out that the Doctor can see her as well. (Why? This is a classic example of what I'm calling "magical realism". The Doctor says that "you are always here to me...I can always see you" which is, of course, the sort of thing which lovers say to each other, but it's only true in a manner of speaking. But in the dream world which is Doctor Who "you are always here because I am always thinking of you" becomes literally true..)

In order to save everyone's life, River Bloody Song says that Doctor's name and opens up the TARDIS. However, the Doctor's body is not in the tomb: instead we find a wiggly line representing all his journeys through time and space. But at some level this line actually is the journey itself, or the Doctor himself ("my own personal time tunnel"). So the Doctor's Enemy can physically jump into the line and appear in every place the Doctor has ever been, and either tempt him to do bad things or just interfere so he loses. This changes history (again) so the Doctor never existed (again) and the universe starts changing (again) — planets he would have saved blink out of existence, the good Sontaran turns back into a bad Sontaran, and so on. (Which is, being interpreted "Look after the universe for me, I've put a lot of work into it"; and in another place, it is written "Maybe the universe itself can't bare to be without the Doctor.")

But Clara realizes that she can save the day by throwing herself into the timey wimey line as well, so she will also appear at every place the Doctor has ever been, but to help him, not harm him. Copies of her appear all through history: the original is destroyed. It isn't exactly clear if she counteracts the bad things the Doctor's enemy did and returns things to the status quo, or whether she retrospectively changes things for the better.

So, Clara gives her life to save the Doctor and becomes a sort of a godlike being, the lynchpin of history, in the same way that Rose and Donna and sort of Amy did. (Never mention Martha Jones, who only became the most important person on earth, and an alternate earth, at that.) However, she isn't really dead as long as we remember her, so the Doctor steps into his own Timeline (whatever that means) and uses the magic leaf to stop her from dying (whatever that means.) The timeline now appears as a sort of wibbly wobbly dimension, populated by force-ghosts of all the Doctor's previous selves. Through the magic of TV we see Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Davison, Colin Baker's clothes, a little bit of Eccleston, lots of Tennant, but no McGann. Then we see another person who Amy Clara doesn't recognize. The Doctor says that his name isn't important, because the Doctor is the name he chose, but this is a version of himself who disgraced that name -- the Doctors worst secret. We are left knowing that there is a twelfth version of the Doctor who will someday do a bad thing, but not when or what or why.

This is a cliffhanger, like "Who killed Laura Palmer" or "Will Dick Barton arrive in time to save Jock and Snowy from the bomb."

I honestly don’t see why anyone would find any of that hard to understand. 


Clyde: "Can you change color or are you always white?
The Doctor: "No
Clyde: "And is there a limit? How many times can you change?
The Doctor: "Five hundred and seven"
Clyde: "Oh."


The Sarah-Jane Adventures


Who is the Bad Doctor?

I see three options.

1: He is the 12th Doctor -- Smith's potential replacement.

At some point after he regenerates, the Doctor will do a Terbil Thing. We have been warned many times that the Doctor is only a slither away from turning into his enemy: well, it's finally going to happen. This could provide a recurrent bad guy to replace the Master. More likely, it could provide a running theme for season 8 (particular if Smith expects to have had enough by 2015) — the Eleventh Doctor trying to avoid taking the steps which turned him into the Twelfth. The Evil Twelfth Doctor will not be specifically identified with the Valyard, because only Doctor Who fans remember Trial of a Time Lord, and they think it was shit. On the other hand, and I realize that tenses are vague when you travel in time, the Doctor seemed to be talking about the Terbil Thing as something which he Has Done, not something which he Will Do.

2: He is the 8.5th Doctor — the one in between McGann and Eccleston.

We never saw the regeneration, after all, and we already know that the Doctor did Terbil, Terbil Things during the Time War. The trouble is, we know what he did -- he ended the war by destroying the Daleks and the Time Lords all at once. And although he regrets having dones this, it isn't a secret: he told Rose and Martha (at least) what he did, and and even boasted about it in "The Doctor's Wife."  I can't believe that the Big Secret That The Doctor Will Take To His Grave And It Is Discovered is something we already know.

3: He is the 0th Doctor: the person the Doctor was before we met him in 1963.

In which case the  Terbil Terbil thing he did was done on Gallifrey, and very possibly it was the reason that he ran away to start with. (His explanation "because I was bored" has always lacked a certain...gravitas.) Hints were dropped in the last days of Old Who that the Doctor had a dark secret related to the dark times and ages of chaos on Gallifrey, and indeed from the Baker era onwards the whole point of the Time Lords was that they had closets full of skeletons. I don't know how a Minus Oneth Doctor can be made to fit in with all the other things we have pieced together over the years about his pre-TARDIS life — his mysterious Mentor, his relationship with the Master, his not especially stellar academic career — and with the fact that the Time Lords themselves have referred to "Hartnell" as "the First". I imagine that the answer will be "by cheating". 





"Good. One more thing. Your name."
"What about my name?"
"It's too long. By the time I've called 'Look out...what's your name?'" 
"Romanadvoratnelundar."
"By the time I've called that out, you could be dead. I'll call you Romana." 
"I don't like Romana." 
"It's either Romana or Fred." 
"All right, call me Fred." 
"Good. Come on, Romana."

The Ribos Operation




What would have happened if Doctor Who had not been cancelled in 1989?

Well, it would have been cancelled in 1990 or 1991. 1993 would have been the best time to cancel it, on the 30th anniversary. But if, somehow, it had limped on, as fixed a point on the BBC schedules as The Archers and Blue Peter and very little else, you can be pretty sure that Season 49 would have been as unlike Season 26 as Season 26 was unlike season 2. If Doctor Who had not been cancelled, it is quite likely that we Very Old Fans might be sitting around lamenting those almost forgotten days when the TARDIS was still shaped like a Police Box, and smiling at the young whipper snappers who assume that the Doctor had always been a lady.

I suppose those changes would have been incremental; I suppose that successive producers would have put their stamp on the show, one deciding that it was too scary and the next deciding that it was too silly. We would have been unable to pin-point the moment when it stopped being as good as it used to be. It would -- like Superman or Bond or Catholicism -- have carried on being a process, a tradition, a tree which gives out new shoots from time to time. But the seventeen off-air years gave it a chance to freeze and harden in everybody's memory, to become something more than a television programme. It's a holy icon; the lovingly embalmed body of the Dear Leader. You can genuflect to it; you can get whip up a cheap sensation by desecrating it; but you can't bring it back to life. 

People will pay good money to hear good musicians doing good recreations of Beatles songs. If the musicians look and dress like the Beatles, so much the better. I think that being a tribute act is probably an honourable trade. But it doesn't leave much space for artistic development. I suppose that some clever musicians could try to imagine what John Lennon and George Harrison would look like if they were alive today, and dress like that; try to imagine what a group of elderly Beatles might have sounded like if the were headlining Glastonbury 2013; try to write a pastiche of what the Lennon and McCartney partnership might come up with it if it came back together. It might be an interesting thing to do. It might produce some clever tunes, or an interesting contribution to Beatles scholarship. But it obviously wouldn't be the same thing as a Beatles reunion. It is impossible to step into the same river twice. 

What is Doctor Who like

It isn't a programme in it's own right. It isn't a continuation of Old Who. It isn't a conjecture about what Doctor Who would have been like if it had never been cancelled. It isn't a critical comment on the old show. It isn't even a tribute act. 

What, in the end, is it? 

And why is it so very full of questions which cannot be answered?


[*] Where the dots are Dead Planet and Genesis of the Daleks and the lines are War of the Daleks and Legacy of the Daleks, obviously.

[**] It may very well go somewhere in the anniversary special, of course, and it may even go somewhere as interesting as some of the constructs which fans are building up in their heads. More likely, it will be a huge let down, like that-was-most-definitely-the-Doctor-and-he-is-most-definitlely-dead

[***] I have no idea if this is how soap opera are actually written. It is certainly how Harry Potter is written, and I think it is how Dan Brown writes.

[****] Did I mention Solomon Kane? Good movie, actually, based on a set of Bob Howard pulps that are rather better than Conan, probably because Kane was never as popular as Conan so Howard never had a chance to get bored with him. Like Conan, Kane is something of an existentialist, always look for the heroic acte gratuit, always in media res, always referring to previous, unseen adventures. Where Conan loves fighting for its own sake and is a mercenary, Kane is a Boy Scout, always in the middle of saving a lady he hardly knows from pirates or dusky skinned natives or devil worshippers or indeed dusky skinned devil worshipping pirates. We don't know why; we don't know how he comes to be a Puritan holy man and a magician, but when he claims to have helped Francis Drake sink the Armada and been at Flores in the Azores with  Sir Richard Grenville we are inclined to believe him. (There is a poem in which he quits adventuring and goes home to Devon.) The unique selling point of the character is his mysteriousness. The movie concluded that cinema audience would not understand a character who did not have a motivation or an origin, and gave him one. The whole film was his origin. He only turns into Robert E Howard's Kane in the final frame. Nice movie, actually, if what you felt the world most needed was Pirates of the Caribbean with sex and demons in it. I believe there is an American TV series about what Sinbad was doing before he became a sailor.