Sunday, September 07, 2008

Play Up, Play Up



And all the world over, each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!
Flanders and Swann

If you were to ask 117 people what most summed up the English character, 43 of them would reply "sportsmanship". (SOURCE: Department of Made-up Statistics.) As ideals go, it's not a bad one. When we play games, we try really, really hard to win: but if we lose, we don't mind too much. Or at any rate, we pretend we don't.

We use expressions like "be a good sport", "it's not cricket" and "play the game" without thinking about them; we take it for granted that the ideals of sportsmanship apply to other walks off life. Indeed, the main reason we value sport is that it promotes sportsmanship. I spotted this as a very young child: there wasn't much point in egg-and-spoon races, but grown ups liked them because they illustrated the timeless precept: "For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against you name / He marks - not that you won or lost / But how you played the game." [*]

The idea is burned very deep into our psyche. When King John I of France surrendered to the Black Prince at Poitiers, Edward took him back to his tent, served him tea, and said: "Hard luck, old chap! Actually, I thought you fought far better than I did and deserved to win, but that's the way it goes sometimes." [**] When Winston Churchill said that we should be resolute in war but magnanimous in victory he was basically saying that we should good be sports and not boo the losing side, even when they're Nazis. Our own dear Tony's problem with the execution of Saddam Hussein wasn't so much that they killed a helpless prisoner in cold blood, but that they were insufficiently sportsmanlike about it. It may be that as running people through with lances became a less and less important accomplishment for members of the House of Lords, the ideal of chivalry on the battlefield mutated into that of sportsmanship on the rugby field. Or it may be that chivalry was only ever the application of sportsmanship to mass slaughter.

Now, Mr. Polly Tishon is currently much concerned with the question of what makes the English English, particularly because we are irrevocably committed to running a hugely expensive egg-and-spoon race in London in four year time. It would be very easy to mock our contribution to the close of the recent blow-out in Peking, so that's what I propose to do. England is the country that gave the world, off the top of my head, William Shakespeare, the Bible [Check this], Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the language that most of it speaks, albeit not very well. So when it comes to putting together what is, I grant you, only meant to be an oversized carnival float, all we can think of to crow about is "our capital has a public transport system, and it rains a lot." I mean, couldn't we at least have rubbed Johnny Chinaman's face in the fact that his system of government was invented in the reading room of the British Museum? By a German, I grant you, but the fact that we let him live here was pretty sporting of us.

One understands the problem. We can't talk about English literature (too high brow), English history (too much whopping of European allies), English classical music (too white ), English traditional music (Rowan Atkinson once made a joke about it), the Empire (too much slavery, although I can't help thinking that one or two other things must have been going on as well) or the Church of England (too religious). So you are pretty much stuck with that fairy tale England that only exists in American movies and The Beano: that part of London which Londoners can't find, but which consists of Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben, London Buses and Union Jack underpants.

But you might possibly have thought that the "sportsmanship" thing would have occurred to someone. Particularly as the Olympics are all about, you know, sport.



Before the hymn the Skipper would announce
The latest names of those who'd lost their lives
For King and Country and the Dragon School.
Sometimes his gruff old voice was full of tears
When a particular favourite had been killed.
Then we would hear the nickname of the boy,
‘Pongo' or ‘Podge', and how he'd played 3Q
For Oxford and, if only he had lived,
He might have played for England - which he did
But in a grimmer game against the Hun.
John Betjemen

One thing that does occur to Polly Tishon with some regularity is that people who couldn't tell you date of St. George's Day and think that Gandalf commanded the English Fleet against the Armada genuinely do show signs of getting excited when England score more tries than France at cricket, or when the Scottish rugby team get New Zealand out for a duck at Wimbledon. Aha! They say. We may not read Shakespeare or go to church any more, but here's something which all the English – in fact, all the British - have in common. Sport. It doesn't stand up for five minutes. The English only get really enthusiastic about cricket when they win - something which doesn't happen all that often. They are are quite indifferent to Welsh success at rugby, and indeed, to rugby. The Welsh will cheer for the Dominican Republic or Tonga if they stand a chance of beating England at anything. And, as that nice Mr. Tebbit reminded us all those years ago, it's entirely possibly to hang a Union Jack outside your corner shop, have three children in the Royal Navy and a picture of the Queen over the fireplace and still want Pakistan to win the Test Match.

You might think that Gordon Brown would be more sensitive than most people to the principle that winning and losing don't matter nearly so much as taking part. But he has only become an enthusiastic proponent of the great Olympic sport of bandwagon jumping because "Team GB" won a lot of red ribbons at the big Chinese sports day. It's only when we win at something that we're told that sport is what should make us proud to be English. (When the Scottish win at something, it means we should be proud to British. Obviously.) But nothing could be less British or English than caring whether or not we win.

But:

"Gordon Brown vowed to bring back competitive sport in school today, saying it had been wrong to discourage children from competing against each other."

Jolly good show!

" 'We want to encourage competitive sports in school, not the medals for all culture we have seen in previous years...It was wrong because it doesn't work.' "

Spiffing! Or "hoots mon!" for that matter.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, our heroine watches a strange game called "the caucus race" in which a number of creatures run around aimlessly for several minutes, until the Dodo calls a halt. The Dodo then announces that "Everybody won, so all must have prizes." In 1998, cuddly Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips used All Must Have Prizes as the title of her book about how schools weren't as good as wot they were in the olden days. The title presumably referred to the perception that it is increasingly difficult to fail exams, and possibly to the sense that the system was a chaotic mess with no clear rules. It didn't specifically refer to sport. Brown seems to have half remembered the quote, and used it as portmanteau phrase to stand in for an argument about what is good or bad about the teaching of P.E . "Everybody won, so all must have prizes"; All Must Have Prizes; "the medals for all culture."[***]

What evidence is there for the existence of an "all must have medals" dragon that St. Gordon must slay? When I happen to pass schools whose playing fields have not yet had branches of Tescos built on them, it has certainly appeared that young people are playing footy on them. Glancing at the websites of educational establishments in the Bristol area I note that that Cotham School offers Year 10 boys (fhat's fifth formers, in old money) options including rugby, soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball, as well as more outre pursuits such as climbing and "ufrisbee". Bedminster Down mentions that Master Bobby Medjedoub and Master Rhys Hickery both acquitted themselves admirably in the soccer match against Ashton Park, which is particular impressive since the latter's site boasts of having "five netball courts, a basketball court and extensive pitches for football, rugby, hockey, cricket and an athletics track".

It is, I suppose, within the realms of possibility that the same infant school that mandated the singing of Baa-Baa Green Sheep and the consumption of Halal Hot Cross Buns replaced its egg-and-spoon race, which one kid wins and ten loose, with an obstacle course or a treasure hunt, which everyone can have a go at. I must admit that, speaking as one who was always last at everything, this doesn't strike me as a necessarily terrible idea. If you are teaching kids how to throw javelins – a very useful skill in the event that Bedminster Down is invaded by Spartans – it makes good sense to say "Try to throw the pointy stick further than you did last week," rather than "Try to throw the pointy stick further than the furthest pointy stick thrower in the class." But I submit that the idea that basketball, netball, touch rugby, association football and egg-and-spoon races have disappeared from schools and needs to be brought back by ministerial fiat is a total fantasy. Either Gordon Brown knows that it is a fantasy, in which case he is a liar; or else he doesn't, in which case he is a fool.

People occasionally ask me why I think it matters that newspapers like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail write about an imaginary version of the United Kingdom which has no connection to anything which is happenng on Planet Earth. This is why.

Mr Brown - the same Mr Brown who want more children to dress up as soldiers and play with guns - also wants to encourage them to hit each other.

"Defending the decision to include contact sports such as boxing and martial arts in the list of activities that will be available to children, Brown said: 'I have met quite a lot of amateur boxers. At one of the clubs I said to one of the young guys' "

- oh, please, Gordon, you are better than this; if you start down the path of saying "guy" because some media consultant thinks it sounds kewl then six weeks from now you'll be saying "look, y'know","dudes" and "innit", only it won't matter because David Cameron will be doing press calls with President McCain and you'll be working on your very bitter memoirs -

" '...to one of the young guys there who I'd been told had been in some trouble in the past: "Tell me what's the most important thing you've learned here." His answer was "Discipline." ' "

If you want to be good at something, you need to give some attention to it, spend some time on it, turn up to practice even on the days when you don't feel like it. Almost certainly this is all Guy meant when he said that boxing had taught him discipline. If you are giving your attention to one thing – hitting a punch bag; throwing pointy sticks; putting Spider-Man comics into acid-free bags; painting 25 millimetre lead models of hobbits - you are less likely to be doing some other thing - getting into trouble, for example. Any fool can see what follows from this: if we want to keep kids out of trouble, then we give them time and space to to do things which they are interested in, whether that happens to be tiddlywinks or full contact boxing. But in politician-speak, "discipline" means "doing what you are told". Hearing that one young man has learned "discpline" from being repeatedly hit very hard in the face Brown draws the general conclusion that more young people need to be given the opportunity to be hit in the face more often. When he finds someone doing something they love for the sheer love of doing it, Gordon asks "what is it for? what use is it?". Learn boxing, not because it's a noble, civilized pursuit but for some other reason.

"He gave the example of Shaneze Reade, the British BMX champion..."

You see: C.S Lewis was right; "riding your bike round the playground" now counts as sport.

" 'She was not happy to settle for a silver. She went full throttle...'"

...er...excuse me minister, but I'm not sure if a BMX bike has a throttle....

" '...for gold. I think that's the spirit we want to encourage in our schools.' "

And there you have it. Dividing people into winners and losers. No prizes for second place. It's not the taking part, it's the coming first that counts. Only sing when you're winning. Just slip on the wet floor, did you? Last one back to the changing room gets the slipper. Now that is English.






What the Olympic Closing Ceremony Ought To Have Looked Like


* I had always assumed that this was specifically written for the 'wayside pulpit', perhaps by the same fellow who pertetrated the one about life being mostly froth and bubble. It transpires that it is part of a very much longer and more dreadful poem, full of stanzas at the level of: "Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick / Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick / And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod / The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in the sod" and "But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim / The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him./"Oh Boy," he said, "the main point now before you win your bout /Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn the piker out!" The "Scorer" isn't, as I'd always thought, sedately marking off the overs in a little book for a village cricket match. He's updating the scoreboard for a game of...er...American football.

** "In my opinion, you have good cause to be cheerful, although the battle did not go in your favour, for today you have the highest renown of a warrior, excelling the best of your knights. I do not say this to flatter you, for everyone one our side, having seen how each man fought, unanimously agrees with this and awards you the palm and the crown, if you would consent to wear them." -- Froissart's "Chronicles."

*** Lewis Carrol takes the trouble to include a strange game that it is impossible to lose in his surreal dream vision. In a textually problematic essay called "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" another well known Oxford Lewis complains that "modern" school shave made it impossible for children to fail: if a child is too stupid or lazy to do Latin or Algebra, teachers simply invent something that he is capable of doing and pretend that it's a proper subject. Lewis is referring to Melanie Phillips' beloved Secondary Moderns, not the hated Comprehensive Schools (the widespread implementation of which didn't start until two years after C.S Lewis died.) Could it possibly be that old fogeys have always thought that schools "nowadays" have made it impossible for kids to fail?


Friday, September 05, 2008

"I've witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise - for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist."
Frank Cottrell Boyce


(I watched Mr Boyce's play. It is jolly nice that the BBC is still up for doing serious cerebral theatrical drama from time to time; all the thesps were acting a lot; the theological points on all sides were well made and followed through; but it managed to still be about characters rather than just a debate. But I couldn't shake the sense that this was a
Christian - maybe specifically Catholic - view of the holocaust: every time someone said "It's God who should have been sent to Auschwitz" I could almost hear the Priest adding: "And do you know, in a very real sense, He was." Maybe a Christian writer can't avoid drawing a line between Cavalry and the concentration camps - it's old news that the Suffering Servant is both Jesus and the Jews. But I wonder what Jewish groups and actual holocaust survivors made of the piece?)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Nicholas Parsons: ...the subject is "science fiction". Will you tell us something about that subject, in this game, starting now:

Chris Addison: Science fiction is generally associated with the sorts of boys who generally don't find it easy to get girlfriends and also find it rather difficult to... [FX: BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...you have 53 seconds on "science fiction" starting now:

Sue Perkins: People who like science fiction want to explore brave new worlds whilst failing to understand simultaneously there's one they're living in right here and now. They never seem to be interested in what happens out side their front door instead they like to peruse comics and magazines which splik glibly... [BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...37 seconds available, "science fiction", starting now:

Julian Clary: Science fiction isn't a literary genre I've ever paid much attention to, but I can make some up on the spot for you because it really is that easy: "Mr Gobbledegook walked down the road, and sudd...[BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...you have got "science fiction", the subject, 24 seconds, starting now:

Paul Merton: ...Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wonderful book about...er.... [BUZZ]

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

And Now I Promise To Shut Up About It At Least Until 2010



Control



Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four
Summary



Appendix: Answers to Readers Questions

A: I agree with you that there exists at least one pre 2005 episode of Doctor Who with something wrong with it. I entirely concur that the plot twist in episode 2 of 'Invasion of the Muppets' was rather contrived, and that the Doctor's companion Jerri sometimes fluffed his lines. I agree that the original series frequently spent 100 minutes telling 75 minute stories, although I must confess that I find this preferable to spending 45 minutes telling 90 minute stories, or spending 90 minutes telling no damn story at all. This would be a scintillating riposte to my critique if I had ever argued that the New Series should be more like the Old Series or that NooWoo is not TrooHoo. I've said repeatedly that I like what RTD has done with the setting; like what he has done with the Doctor and especially like the presence of characters like Jackie, Mickey and Wilfy who would have been inconceivable in Old Who. What I don't like is RTD's pisspoor sense of narrative.

B: No, actually, I do not think that I am over-analysing. Being in possession of a brain, I find it difficult to switch it off. You might think that I would be better off directing it Pride and Prejudice or inventing a cure for Cameron, but you're reading this page, so yar-boo-sucks. If I notice that a male character is carrying a pink handbag, wearing a tutu, and obsessively performing his own special round and round dance, I cannot dissuade my brain from saying "I wonder if they are trying to tell kids that gender non-conformist behaviour is OK?" I do, of course, agree that you have to watch a TV show on it's own level, and can't expect Torchwood to be as sophisticated in its treatment of gender issues as Tellytubbies. That's why I am much more forgiving of "The Sontaran's Slightly Convoluted Stratagem" and "The Daleks Take Manhattan" than some mosquitos. If I'm offered "cliff hangery flying saucery earth invasion stories", then I'm inclined to accept them as such. But I don't quite see the argument that says that its okay to respond to a TV series, but only if you do so in a vague, half-arsed, disengaged way. Indeed, I'm not sure if this is even possible. Is the idea that I should hear the Doctor say "We are near the Sensephere" and by some peculiar Zen process lock down that portion of my mind which notices which 1964 story is being referenced? A bit like Holmes' trick of hearing the news that the earth goes round the sun and deleting it from his memory because it isn't relevant to forensics?

C: I take your point. A purely Marxist critic would indeed say that Doctor Who is precisely the kind of thing which the market would inevitably produce at this time, and that to apply aesthetic judgements to it is a category mistake. If Doctor Who is flawed, the solution isn't intelligent criticism, but the overthrow of capitalism. And a purely capitalist account, such as used by Russell T Davies, would hold that the claim "this is badly written" is entirely refuted by the statement "this got extremely high viewing figures" :"this makes money" is synonymous with "this is good". The point isn't whether or not I regard both points of view as being value-free to the point of being sociopathic, which I do. The point is that if we accepted the equation "To be popular is to be good", then criticism of any kind would be impossible, and none of us would ever say anything at all. It is true that 10.5 million people watched "Journey's End"; but it is equally ture that several million more would have watched two hot chicks having lesbian sex on the sofa. Channel 4 have for a number of years based their entire business model on this insight.

D: Yarvelling
E: Yes, I am aware that there currently exists at least one very good cop show, and I admit that I don't watch cop shows. If I had claimed that "The Unicorn and the Wasp" was the single best piece of drama ever to appear on television, then "Have you seen Blue Remembered Hills" might be a reasonable riposte. But I haven't been comparing Doctor Who either favourably or unfavourably with other TV shows. I've merely been saying I think it would be improved better if it had an actual plot. (My specific point of comparison has been Buffy the Vampire Slayer which RTD has explicitly acknowledged as his model.) Is your claim that if I had watched The Wire I would understand that TV has moved into a post-narrative model?

F: Hamish Wilson







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Monday, September 01, 2008

4:12 & 4:13 "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End"



Once upon a time (TM) there was a very clever young composer. He'd been to music college and everything, and had written some sonatas and concertos which had been widely described as 'really not at all bad'.

One day, the very clever classical composer thought he would try his hand at writing jazz. 'After all,' he thought, 'All kinds of music are essentially the same, but where classical music has key progressions and time signatures and unresolved chords and stuff in jazz you just do what you like.'

So he dug up a lot of quite good musical themes which he had lying around, and stuck them together in no particular order, adding a few extra saxophones in the the dull bits. The kinds of people who had said that the very clever young composer's sonatas and concertos were 'really not at all bad' bought his jazz records and said that this cat was laying down some hep boogie woogie, daddy-o. But they got quite cross when jazz fans came to the concerts because they thought they were smelly and smoked too much and talked funny.

When some of the jazz fans said that jazz had it's own rules, different from the rules of classical music but just as complex and sophisticated and that what the clever young composer had produced was neither classical music, nor jazz music, but simply noise, the clever young composer said that they were asexual mosquitoes and swatted them.

So everyone lived happily ever after.

*

I thought that the Doctor would regenerate - into Dawn French or Lenny Henry or Graham Norton - but that it would turn out at the last minute that Donna still had the giant beetle on her shoulder.

Lawrence Miles thought that the Doctor would die, but that Donna would turn out to somehow have been a Time Lord - possibly the Doctor himself - and that she would regenerate into him, thus giving her life to save his.

Louise thought that the Doctor would admit his love for Rose, but that Rose would find that he had changed so much that she no longer loved him.

Jonathan regarded it as a no-brainer that the TARDIS was the Doctor's most faithful companion and that he'd therefore have to sacrifice the Ship to save the universe. During the 'gap year', he'd be stuck on earth, TARDISless.

I thought that despite their protests that they were just good mates, the Doctor and Donna would fall in lurve, precisely two seconds before Rose comes back on stage.

I also noted that there were some very pointed references to Donna's father in 'Turn Left', and that he was going to turn out to be significant in some way. Perhaps he would turn out to be descended from that family Donna saved in Pompeii, creating one of those time loop thingies. Or perhaps it would turn out that she was the Doctor's daughter, if not actually the Doctor's Daughter.

Do you see what was happening? We were all expecting a conclusion which followed on from what had gone before. We were all assuming that we were talking about characters in a drama. We had come to believe sufficiently in the Doctor, Rose and (astonishingly) Donna that we actually wanted their stories to end in a way which made sense. And we assumed that RTD did as well.

Silly, silly us.

*

"There are some sniffy people in the TV industry who have asked, archly, why I'm now writing genre, instead of drama. Obviously they've never watched a single episode of Doctor Who. It's the best drama in the world."
Russell T Davies

I have nothing against hype. If I read that mumble-mumble-mumble is going to be appearing in the new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, then I am as excited as the next geek. It may strike me as a little bit peculiar given that The Sarah Jane Adventures is directed firmly at a congregation who weren't born the last time mumble-mumble appeared in a canonical story. But I'm still excited because mumble-mumble is a character (a pretend person) for whom I feel a certain affection. I imagine that there will be funny scenes between him and Sarah Jane. I imagine that Sarah Jane and mumble-mumble going up against the Sontarans will make a good story. I don't particularly care that mumble-mumble is 'coming back'. Any fan-fiction hack – any eight year old with some action figures – can put two characters alongside each other and say 'Look! I have put two characters alongside each other.' But I will be watching because I hope his appearance will give rise to an entertaining 50 minutes of TV. And that he'll give Clyde a clip round the ear.

7.4 million people watched 'The Stolen Earth': a pretty good audience by modern standards, but nothing like what Who got in the old days. (16 million people watched 'City of Death' part 4. 9.4 million watched the final part of the distinctly mediocre 'Four to Doomsday'.) At the end of the episode the Doctor is exterminated by a Dalek - mere seconds after having been re-united with Rose. Being the Doctor, he starts to regenerate. Considered as an event in a story, this could have been rather interesting. Rose has trekked across several universes to find the Doctor, only for him to change into someone else – someone too old, too black, too gay or or too female for her to love. This would have been interesting because interesting things would have followed from it.

The BBC pointedly refused to send preview DVDs of the next episode to the press – not even to their own house organ, Radio Times. This created unprecedented interest in the national news papers. What was the big twist that the Beeb wanted to keep the lid on? As a result, 9.8 million people tuned in to 'Journey's End' (more than have watched any episode of Doctor Who since, er, 'Time Flight'). So fully 25% of those watching part 2 had not seen part 1. It is a safe bet that those 2,400,000 people were not Doctor Who fans. They are unlikely to have been interested in Dalek Caan or to have had the faintest idea who Mickey Smith was. They turned on because the press had swallowed the hype hook, line and sinker and told them that the BBC had pulled off the biggest coup in TV history, that David Tennant - not, in any sense, a character called the Tenth Doctor but very definitely an actor called David Tennant – was going to be evicted from the Big Brother Police Box.

He wasn't of course. The whole reason for taking Doctor Who off the air until 2010 is to give David Tennant time and space to go back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and do the Dane. Three minutes into episode 13 he pressed the Big Red Reset Button and the story carries impenetrably on.

No-one particularly minds when RTD uses minor pop stars and comediennes to try to dissuade the floating viewer from switching off the TV on Christmas night. But 'the regeneration which never was' was simply a stunt. This is not a story which happened to have been a bit hyped: this is hype as an end in itself, with no story attached to it.

*


"Playing Doctor Who came as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much. All that was required of me was to be able to speak complete gobbledegook with conviction. ...Problem? For me who believed in Guardian Angels and was convinced that pigs were possessed by devils after their New Testament encounter with God's son? It was easy and I loved it."
Tom Baker

In 'The Dead Planet' the Doctor and his friends go to the Dalek city in order to obtain mercury to repair the TARDIS's fluid link.

Since we don't know how time machines work, we can't possibly know what a fluid link is, or why one would require mercury; but we do understand that the TARDIS is a mechanical apparatus and that a mechanical apparatus can't operate when one of its components is broken. So Terry Nation writes 'To fix [some component] requires [some resource] which can be found in [some location]' . This is perfectly intelligible and provides a perfectly convincing reason for our heroes to venture into the alien city. At that time the characters still needed some perfectly convincing reason to go into a threatening alien environment. 'Because they're Doctor Who characters' hadn't been thought of.

The choice of 'mercury' isn't completely arbitrary. In the days before political correctness most children would have handled mercury in their school chemistry lessons; Ian would certainly have had a jar of the stuff locked away in his prep-room at Coal Hill School. But it's also the sort of thing that Merlin or Catweazle might have used in one of their spells. So the message is 'The TARDIS is a bit scientific but also a bit magical.' ('Uranium' and 'dilithium crystals' would have sent out slightly different signals.)

Ian is suspicious when the Doctor says that the TARDIS needs [some resource] which can only be found in the city; and in the next episode, the Doctor admits that he deliberately damaged [some component] to provide a pretext for him to explore Skaro. This shows that the Doctor is driven more by scientific curiosity than personal safety; but that he has sufficient scruples that he'd rather lie and sabotage his own ship than simply force Ian to do things his way: and anyway, he rather fears that Susan would have sided with the humans over this one. But in the end, he admits what he did, and that it was wrong. The techno-babble, meaningless in itself, has brought out some reasonably complex aspects of the characters' relationships.

The idea that the Doctor can change his physical form goes back to the 'Tenth Planet'; but it took a long time for the concept of to be systematized within the show's internal mythos. When Doctor Pat changed to Doctor Jon, there was no suggestion that this was a normal part of the Doctor's life-cycle: the Time Lords announced that they were going to change the Doctor's physical appearance so that he wouldn't be recognized on earth during his exile. One gets the impression that the writers were saying 'We've already used the idea of the Doctor's old body being worn out: we'll have to think of a different excuse for to the actor change this time.' (It will be remembered that Plan A was for The Celestial Toymaker to put a spell on the First Doctor, causing his face to change.) Even when the term 'regeneration' was coined for the Pertwee-Baker change-over, writers carried on having different ideas of how it worked: Terrance Dicks still seemed to think that different Doctors were somehow different individuals; Douglas Adams imagined that Time Lords could change bodies as easily as they could change clothes. Robert Holmes introduced the idea that they could only regenerate twelve times, seemingly unaware that Philip Hinchcliffe had already decided that the Doctor was already on his twelfth regeneration. As long as 'regeneration' is simply a paper-thin device to facilitate a periodic personnel change none of this matters a great deal. In canonical Who, except in a changeover story, or in rare and ill-advised multi-Doctor anniversary stories, 'regeneration' was hardly ever brought on stage

But Davies is obsessed with the concept, referencing it quite un-necessarily and using it, like the TARDIS and the sonic-screwdriver, as a one size fits all deus ex machina. (*) There's at least a suspicion that he had always intended Tennant to play the Doctor, but used Eccleston for a single season because he felt that regeneration is such a central part of the myth that it should be laid before the audience as early as possible. He certainly cast Derek Jacobi as the Master purely in order to change him into John Sims. And he has developed an appalling habit of re-defining how it works on a moment-by-moment basis. When River Song tells the Doctor that he will die if he wires his brain into the Device For Saving The Universe When The Doctor's Brain Is Wired Into It she adds 'And don't think you'll regenerate.' (Why not?) In the ludicrous 'Last of the Time Lords', it's arbitrarily decided that regeneration is an act of will: the Master can 'choose' not to change so as to spite the Doctor. In the rather good 'Turn Left' it turns out that the Doctor has died because he didn't have time to regenerate. And in 'Journey's End', regeneration becomes an all purpose trapdoor, to be used promiscuously to save RTD the bother of actually thinking up a story.

It will be recalled that during 'The Christmas Invasion' a Klingon chopped off the Doctor's hand: but RTD discovered a brand new trap door: for a few hours after regenerating a Time Lord can grow new limbs. In the first season of the dreadful Torchwood, it turned out that Captain Jack had found and preserved the severed hand, and that it functioned as a Doctor Who Detection Device which wriggled and jiggled and wiggled when the TARDIS was nearby. In 'Journey's End' it turns out that:

1: The Doctor can transfer the energy that would have made him regenerate into the spare hand - meaning that his body is healed but that he doesn't change persona. What? One really feels that we're watching that nine-year old boy and his action figures. "Pretend the Daleks deaded the Doctor. No but pretend they didn't deaded him after all because it's Tuesday and eating Cadbuy's Cream Eggs on Tuesday smakes him not deaded."

2: This energy causes a complete new Doctor (with all his memories and personality) to grow from the hand, so now there are two Doctors. Only the second Doctor is human. Obviously.

3: In the process Catherine Tate (not a character called Donna Noble: very definitely Catherine Tate the comedienne) is turned into a Time Lord and starts doing bad impersonations of David Tennant.

3a: But only after she's been zapped by Davros.

3b: Obviously.

4: The human Doctor defeats the Dalek plan to wipe out the entire universe (like the cricket warriors - but they were supposed to be ridiculous) by talking really, really, quickly and pushing a Big Red Button on the TARDIS console which opens the Make Every Dalek Blow Up Trap Door.

5: Having all this Time Lord knowledge is too much for a human brain to cope with; so Donna has to have her memory wiped. If she ever hears of the Doctor again, her head will go explody explody explody.

Every one of these manoeuvres is completely arbitrary: the Doctor says 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she must have her memory wiped and never hear of me again', but if he had said 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she can never go back to earth or see her parents' we would have believed it just as much or just as little.

And yes, of course: every one of these things is no more or less sensible than the idea that a grumpy old man in a grey wig can turn into a smiley young man with a recorder. The whole idea of regeneration is completely silly That is why it should be mentioned only when you need to change the lead actor and at no other time. Not to get the Doctor out of a hole. Not because you can't think of a better way to signal that 'Prof. Yaffle really is the Master.' Not (for the benefit of those of you who think that I only object to crap, incoherent plotting when the new series does it, and yes, I am looking at you, Nick) when you need a completely arbitrary plot twist about the identity of the Time Lord's prosecuting attorney in order to come up with some retrospective justification for a ridiculous trial.

And yes, of course: I am quite sure that fannish explanations about what happened can be downloaded from lots of different websites. That isn't the point.

David Tennant, as they used to say over the closing credits, is currently appearing in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford on Avon. In Hamlet the main character discovers that his father has been murdered, and becomes obsessed with revenge. As a result, he does all sorts of strange things: he pretends to be mad (or maybe he's not pretending), he abuses both his mother and his ex-lover, he kills a harmless old man. While Hamlet's behaviour is perplexing and enigmatic, we feel that it arises organically from the basic premise 'Dad's ghost says Uncle Claud killed him.'

Revenge can be a perfectly good motivation for a character. But we've all read comic books and seen movies where 'revenge' is used instead of character motivation; where 'vengeance' becomes a catch all magic word to permit the main character to do any crazy, pointless thing that a writer happens to feel like. If you ask 'why?' you are just told 'because a baddy killed his daddy.' A baddy killing your daddy justifies anything, up to and including dressing up in a batsuit.

RTD uses technobabble in much the same way. When he wants to bring all the Doctor's former companions together, he simply takes the Harriet Jones Action Figure out of the box and announces that she has a Big Red Button that can track down everyone who has ever known the Doctor. When he wants to delay the Doctor's reunion with Rose till the end of the episode, he simply says 'But 'tend that the Big Red Button doesn't work unless you've got a web cam.' Instead of coming up with a resolution to the Doctor/Rose love story he arbitrarily decides that there are now two Doctors Who but that one of them is a potential baddy and needs to be exiled to Earth-2 with Rose. Instead of coming up with a dramatically believable reason that Donna can't or won't stay with the Doctor he pulls a trapdoor out of his hat and says that if she ever sees him again, her brain will explode.

This is not pseudo-science used to provide character motivation and to drive the plot. This is pseudo-science instead of a plot.

*

"Two comics in one: double the fun."

And finally: I have nothing against cross-overs. I like cross-overs as much as the next geek. That is to say: I like the idea of cross-overs. I think that it is fun to put my

Captain Kirk action figure next to my Spider-Man action figure, and pretend that they are having a fight, or since the invention of the internet, that they are having sex. But in itself, this kind of thing doesn't make a good story.

Superman is strong, but Batman is clever; Superman is good but nice, Batman is good but nasty; Superman obeys the law, Batman does was right according to his private code. The Superman/Batman team lasted for decades because the pairing of those two characters with different points-of-view generated interesting stories. But most 'official' crossovers and all fan-fiction starts from the premise that the meeting of two established characters is intrinsically interesting: that a very run of the mill story about an experienced, adult superhero with relatively weak powers and a less experienced, younger character with potentially vast powers suddenly becomes very interesting indeed if you write 'Spider-Man vs Harry Potter' on the cover.

The idea of bringing together all the characters in the 'Doctor Who' franchise was fun enough. There a pleasant narrative dislocation during the first fifteen minutes as we shift from Sarah Jane's loft to the Torchwood hub and back to the TARDIS. It feels as if we are channel hopping but finding that all your favourite shows are talking about the same subject. Like the Olympic Games, only with sink plungers.

However, once you get over the novelty, the only possible interest is in discovering how established characters are going to interact - using 'The Sarah-Jane/Torchwood Team' to generate new stories which are worth telling. But RTD doesn't actually bother with a story. We get Jack and Sarah in the same room, but nothing follows. Lots of things could have followed. Captain Jack would come on to Sarah as a matter of general principle, I suppose. I don't know whether Sarah would have flirted back or slapped his face but I rather imagine that Luke would have said 'Mum, who is this dreadful man and why is everyone treating him as if he is somehow important?'

When the Jackie Tyler Action Figure turns up, holding the gun that came with the Mickey Smith Action Figure, any sense of narrative goes out of the window. Granted, Jackie now lives on an alternate earth; granted, she's been somewhat changed by her experiences; and granted that the Torchwood of Earth-2 is capable of improvising a getty-between-dimensions machine (which even the TARDIS had trouble with) - but why on earth would Torchwood-2 pick Rose's Mum to go on the mission to Earth-1? And granted that they did, why on either Earth should the Mickey Action Figure and the Jackie Action Figure materialise in exactly the time and place necessary to save the Sarah Jane Action Figure from the Dalek Action Figures?

This isn't a story, it's a game of Pokamon. If Richard Dawkins and Bernard Cribbens had a fight, who would win?

In fact, the hosing down of Mickey Smith's character is the saddest thing about this whole appalling mess. Because Noel Clarke played an ordinary character in an ordinary way and because the role didn't require any big thespian histrionics it was easy not to notice what a damn fine actor he is. The job of a Doctor Who companion, as everybody knows, is to be the ordinary person through whose eyes we see the Doctor. As Rose changed from 'ordinary person' to 'remarkable person' we increasingly needed Mickey to ground us: to be the person through whose eyes we saw Rose seeing the Doctor. For the first season-and-a-half, Mickey grew quite organically: from a positively simian hopeless boyfriend to a very useful and heroic member of the team, but one who is smart enough to recognise that he can only ever be the tin dog. His final appearances in Season 2 tended to become a series of plot devices: his decision to stay on Earth-2 to replace the Heroic Mickey and take care of his Gran was pulled out of thin air - but it was largely carried off because Noel is a good enough actor to deliver contrived lines and make them seem natural and logical. (See also: Sladen, Elizabeth.) So it is really, really, sad for the Mickey Action Figure to wind up all this back story in a single aside. Granny-2 is dead, and Rose is obviously going off with the anti-Doctor, so he may as well come back to Earth-1 and become the token heterosexual in Season 3 of the dreadful Torchwood. Unforgivably, he and Rose don't even get a goodbye scene. He's supposed to love her, for Tom's sake!

When companions were simply bimbos in skirts at whom the Doctor recited gobbledegook, this kind of thing was excusable. Peri may have been cute, but you could hardly mistake her for a human being. (Dodo disappears from the series half way though 'The War Machines' without so much as a 'goodbye': Liz just evaporates between seasons.) But Russell, how dare you allow me to like Mickey and then treat him like this.

It's the face of Boe all over again, I tell you.



There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conception, just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishery with the all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its 'quintaness' and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I am writing for the other sort
C.S Lewis


A cretin writing in the Guardian watched the first part of the fourth and final series of Battlestar Galactica and concluded that the programme was impenetrable:

'I do realise that after one episode I'm not really qualified to judge. And that I don't understand half the complexities. That, incidentally is another problem: it's so bloody complicated. Why is sci-fi like that - a competition for boys to see who's best at working out what the hell is going on?'

A lot of us might think that this was an odd approach. Would you start reading Moby Dick on page 450, notice that you have no idea who 'Starbuck' is or what he means by 'a fast whale' and conclude therefore that 'books' are impossible to understand? On the other hand, when a different cretin in the same paper writes of 'Journey's End' -

'I think we can safely say there was something for everyone in that, can't we?...I can't, to be brutally honest with you, work out exactly what happened. The jargon-heavy mid-section rather did for my chances of keeping a grip on the minutiae, but that's nothing that three days on the internet forums won't sort out.'
- you might wonder why the straights are prepared to cut Doctor Who so much slack. If you watched any other TV drama and found that you couldn't work out exactly what happened, you'd simply decide that it was terribly badly written and give up on it.

I think we asexuals often underestimate how strange 'science fiction' looks to the gendered community. 'How was I supposed to know that that character is an honourable warrior while this one is an emotionally repressed scientist?' they ask. 'It was obvious,' we reply 'The first one had nobbly bits on his forehead, and the second one had pointy ears.' This problem rarely crops up in mainstream fiction. If I accidentally hear half an episode of The Archers, I may not know exactly what's happening: but I know the kinds of things that could be happening. 'The young man with the yokel accent is clearly the former lover of the girl' I say 'She obviously wants him back and he's obviously afraid of being emotionally hurt.' I am unlikely to say 'Wait a minute; what is this 'marriage' which you keep talking about? What is a 'pub'? Are 'farmers' goodies or baddies?' But even fairly basic scientific terms are off-putting if you've spent more time in Borchester than on Betelgeuse. An intelligent mundane is told that something is 'in a different solar system' and asks 'Is that very far?' But then, when I am told that Bertie Wooster is 'three over par' I say 'Wait a minute...is that good or bad?' (There are whole episodes of Deep Space Nine which I can't follow at all because I don't know the rules or vocabulary of baseball.)

When a straight watches science fiction, she doesn't expect it to make sense. All of this whacky sci-fi stuff is meaningless to her. 'Eee equals em see squared' and 'reverse the polarity or the neutron flow' are equally arcane incantations. If you told her that one was a part of real physics and the other is made up, she'd reply 'You have an anorak and no girlfriend and dress up as a wizard in an anorak wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets.'

I suspect that she even quite likes that sense of strangeness and distance that watching something that you don't understand gives rise to. There's a certain joy in looking at Japanese videos without the sub-titles. I recall looking at an issue of New Teen Titans after 15 years of reading nothing but Marvel Comics. The very fact that I didn't recognize the characters and couldn't tell who were the goodies and who were the baddies made the superheroes seem much more, well, superheroey.

A letter appeared in the Radio Times to the effect that the scene in 'Journeys End' where the TARDIS appears to tow the planet Earth through space (and the population get buffeted about, and have to hold onto the furniture to avoid falling off) was the silliest thing ever to appear on Doctor Who. (It probably wouldn't even make the the Top 5. (**) The following week, a cretin responded that it wasn't very reasonable to complain about 'silliness' when you are talking about a man with two hearts who travels through time in a phone box. The message is clear: once you've admitted a fantasy element into your story, all bets are off. Many years ago, I slagged of a film called Photographing Fairies on the grounds that it was philosophically and logically incoherent – it couldn't make up it's mind what 'fairies' were, or what they meant. 'And this from a film about fairies!' exclaimed a link site – as if expecting coherence in a film about a fantastic subject was wildly eccentric of me. The gendered community thinks that admitting the supernatural is like opening the doors of perception and reducing reality to a set of discordant images which aren't supposed to connect together logically.

And so far as I can see, this is how R.T.D thinks, too. He doesn't particularly like 'science fiction' or 'fantasy'. He certainly doesn't like science fiction fans. He thinks that the sci-fi label is an excuse to write discordant, meaningless, un-connected non-narrative; because that's what he thinks other sci-fi is like.

I mean, I am assuming that's the reason. I am assuming that the writer of Queer as Folk and Cassanova and The Second Coming can write. He must have consciously decided not to. 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' are really not at all bad. But 'Journey's End' is not Doctor Who. It is not 'drama' either. It is not narrative. It is not a story. It is simply noise.




(*) The various proposals for what became the Paul McGann telemovie, and the script which was actually filmed, were similarly obsessed with regeneration. The filmed version decided that "a Time Lord has 12 lives" was the very first thing that US viewers needed to know about the character, and introduced Sylvester McCoy simply in order to kill him off. Rejected scripts wanted to start out with several different Doctors specifically so they could meet up and turn into each other. One can understand an American, charged with adapting a foreign TV show that he has never watched, thinking that "a show where the main character keeps changing his face" is the Unique Selling Proposition of Doctor Who. But you would think that Russell Davies, a Brit who has (I assume) actually watched the show would know better.

(**)
1: The Olympic Torch
2: The Adipose
3: Floaty Glowy Jesus Doctor
4: The Kandyman
5: The Pantomime Horse
6: Bonny Langford




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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Normal Service Has Been Resumed

5th -- Madeleine: Police lied to parents over "clues in car boot."
6th -- Madeleine: I saw her in my shop
7th -- Madeleine: She could be alive
8th -- Madeleine: I saw her on a tram
9th -- Madeleine: I saw her on Monday
10th --Is this who took Maddy?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

4:11 "Turn Left"


The dreadful Torchwood keeps telling us that the 21st Century is when everything changes. But the dreadful Torchwood makes it quite clear that, in fact, nothing changes. Ever. The earth gets invaded by cybermen, demons manifest in the center of Cardiff, and the average citizen just sits in the bar saying "Don't be silly, there's no such thing as aliens look you rugger boyo blonwyn isn't it?" Torchwood even have a magic plot device in the form of a drug called "Ret Con" (ho ho) which ensures that nothing changes. The main character is so immortal that even if you drop a thermonuclear plot device on his head, he'll still bounce back for the next episode. Totally unchanged.

The nice thing about "Turn Left" is that everything really does change. It's a quite convincing snapshot of what it would actually be like to live on an Earth which was invaded by aliens ever other Saturday. It's an everyday story of folk whose world has become a permanent warzone. I'd like to see the series take this direction in non-parallel earth stories. I'd like Donna's mum and Donna's Grandpa to be living in a world that had been scarily changed by all the alien stuff. If there is ever an "adult" version of Doctor Who, I'd like it to take this approach: a darkish, humans' eye view of last weeks rip-roaring space yarn.

It's all bollocks, but that hardly matters. If the Doctor died in "Runaway Bride" then he never went to depression-era New York, and if he never went to depression-era New York, he never defeated the Daleks; and if he never defeated the Daleks, Caan never went back in time; and if Caan never went back in time, Davros was never rescued and there was never a second Dalek empire. Ergo: no, the stars aren't going out.

And I don't think that, even if Buckingham Palace had been struck by a full size replica of the Titanic, England would have relapsed to the 1950s quite so quickly. I mean, why is the office clerk rubber stamping papers rather than using one of those newfangled laptop thingys? And isn't it cute that the refugee is the sort of fellow whose a-mother is a-lika the spaghetti, and not, say, a Pole? Most seriously, the Damn Fine Climax (where every piece of text the Doctor can see changes to "Bad Wolf") which had me punching the air and going "Whoo!" turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with this story or next story or any other story or anything else. It's one more example of R.T.D thinking up a scene and dropping it in whether it belong there or not.

Not knowing, at this point, that parts 12 and 13 are going to be the most gratuitously pointless guest star fest ever exhibited on a public stage, it was terrific fun and actually quite moving to hear, second hand and in passing, that Sarah Jane and Martha and Torchwood had given their lives to save the earth. And the angsty stuff, like Donna's Mum looking at the mushroom cloud and realising that everyone she knows is dead, is nicely done. And Catherine Tate continues to be not nearly as shit as we'd expected. Seeing her development from incredibly annoying Donna to not quite so annoying Donna telescoped down to a single episode was really quite impressive.

Every TV show falls back on some version of It's a Wonderful Life sooner or later. Dallas did it. Holby City did it, for goodness sake. And usually, they did it for some reason. In Star Trek , Captain Picard has always been very ashamed of a reckless decision he made as a young man: but he discovers that if he could go back and correct that mistake, he'd prevent himself from becoming a famous starship captain. In Red Dwarf we're led to believe that Rimmer is a loser because he was kicked out school when he was a kid; but the twist is that it was actually the heroic, alternate-world Rimmer who was expelled: our Rimmer had the good fortune, but still became a failure. Lois and Clerk combined with It's a Wonderful Life with Groundhog Day so we can watch the World WIthout A Superman becomign mroe and more depressing. In Star Trek the point is that we should accept who we are, the bad along with the good. In Red Dwarf the point is that we make our own choices and shouldn't blame out shortcomings on others. In Lois and Clerk the point is to tell a cute little seasonal parable about Hope. In Doctor Who the point is..er...well, I'll get back to you.

But no, really. Nice story.






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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"