Tuesday, June 20, 2017

10.8 The Lie of the Land

There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You've probably heard about his odd complex
He got an entry in Freud's index
Cos he loved his mother....

I am a couple of weeks behind with my Who reviews. So I was very tempted to just write:

10:8 The Lie of the Land

Oh, for fucks sake!

…and go on and do the Space 1889 with Ice Warriors one.

But Lie of the Land deserves a little more attention than that. It is a truly terrible story. But never has such a terrible story been constructed of such promising components. The good bits were so good, and the bad bits so appalling that I find myself wondering if there is a very clever point which I am completely missing. 

The first eleven minutes are very good indeed. It seems that, as a result of Bill’s ill-judged capitulation, the Monks now rule the earth  and everyone believes that they have always done so. This is mostly achieved through Evil Alien Mind Control Rays; but there is also a daily propaganda broadcast, presented by the Doctor, reminding everyone that the Monks are their friends. Even Bill is starting to doubt the facts of history when Nardole turns up, and they go off together to find out what the Doctor’s real motivations are.

Earth-under-the-martians stories have acquired their own grammar in Doctor Who: London always seems to revert to some combination of the blitz and the Cold  War. Everyone starts wearing knitwear. There is a Cyberman ghost in every front room or a statue of a Monk on every street corner. The bits which are not Wellsian are Orwellian, right down to vans marked “memory police” and people being arrested for “memory crimes.” The Doctor himself, when he is doing his broadcasts, is obviously intended to evoke Big Brother. 

Its all very intense and dramatic and Pearl Mackie pretty much carries it by herself. Dark, fascist future versions of England, grim prison ships, military policemen demanding to see paper, the aliens mostly in the background working through their agents: this is what Doctor Who does best. Oh, it carries me back to that glorious morning in 1972 when the cricket got rained off and they showed Dalek Invasion Earth instead. 

The confrontation between Bill and the Doctor is astonishingly good. It seems like poor Bill is having every possible rug pulled out from under every one of her feet. She gave everything to save the Doctor and now he’s become a baddie. He honestly believes that the earth is in need of a jolly good conquering. Capaldi can act a bit and Whithouse can write a bit so he makes out a good case. We honestly believe that Bill honestly believes that the Doctor honestly believes what he's saying.

So she shoots him.

And he regenerates.


This is a proper dramatic moment. This is what New Who was invented for. This feels so much like Doctor Who and is so clearly not the kind of thing that could have ever happened in the 70s. I forgive Moffat everything. 

What do you do if your friend turns against everything he believes in? Is it like “You may be a Jihadi, and I may hate that, but you are still my son” or is it more like “If you are now a communist you are no longer the person I fell in love with." It happens in smaller ways, too. “Football is what our friendship was about. If you no longer want to go come to matches with me, I don't know in what sense we can be friends." 

Bill concludes that a Doctor who doesn’t believe what the Doctor believes is not the Doctor and executes him, which is pretty high-handed but understandable. This moment has been trailed twice before. The regeneration scene was in the “next season” teaser after the Christmas Special; and the “Bill shooting the Doctor” scene was the last thing in the “Next Time” trailer after last week's episode. 

And the solution is...

There is an episode of my beloved Superman Radio Serial (brought to you by the makers of Kellogs Pep) in which a whole series of completely inexplicable events seem to occur. Clark Kent sees Lois Lane on the other side of Metropolis even though she's been at a her desk at the Planet all day;  Perry White gives Clark a thousand dollar cheque and then denies all knowledge of it. The solution, in the final episode, is that the whole thing was a prank that Lois and Perry and Jimmy and the police were in on from the beginning. They thought they'd drive Clark to the point of insanity to celebrate his second year working at the Daily Planet. The same kind of thing used to happen quite regularly in Legion of Superheroes: people would pretend to be dead or to have become super-villains in order to give their friend challenging puzzles to solve. It happens quite often in folk tales. "I am not really dead, and I didn't really murder our entire family: it was just a test to see if you truly loved me." "Oh, well, that's all right then." Sherlock Holmes famously allowed Watson to believe he was dead so that Watson would be able to report it convincingly in the Strand Magazine; but Holmes is supposed to be a nasty misanthropic bully. (Most of the time.) The Doctor is meant to be a good guy. Never cruel and never cowardly. 

The Doctor has been pretending to go over to the dark side specifically in order to find out if Bill is under the control of the Monks' evil alien mind control rays or not. (The fact that she shoots him proves pretty definitely that she isn't.) Nardole was in on it from the beginning. All the soldiers were in on it. I think even the scary patrol who demanded to see their papers were in on it. 

And the whole thing is treated, quite explicitly, as a joke. The Very Dramatic Music which plays when the regeneration nearly happens is replaced by plinky plonky “we’ve just told a joke” music. The Doctor laughs. Nardole laughs. When it turns out that one of the soldiers accidentally loaded his gun with real bullets, rather than blanks, the Doctor treats it as a funny joke at his own expense. 

Peter can read out any old shit and make it sound convincing. Pearl can look as if here heart is breaking more or less to order. That's what they teach you at acting school. I dare say either one of them could read out a recipe for scones as if it was a letter describing the death of a loved one. Nardole is completely convincing when he tells Bill that they are going to go looking for the Doctor together, even though he knows it is only a ruse. He says it just as if would have done if it had not been a ruse. Of course he does. Because in both cases, what we had was Matt Lucas, saying the words, as well as he could.

If the script calls on the actors to follow up a really, really dramatic scene with a "ha ha we were only fooling" scene, the actors are going to work just as hard on making us believe it was all a jape as they did on making us believe it was all deadly real.

But its still a horrible trick for a writer to play on an audience. It isn't just this big dramatic scene he's undercut for the sake of a cheap gag: it's every other big dramatic scene he ever writes.


Doctor Who always was a little bit too geeky. Science and boffinary saved the world just a little bit too regularly. Doctor Jon spent just slightly too many episodes locked away in his lab playing with his test tubes.  It is a good idea to have told the writers of New Who that it isn't only the power of science which can save the world. Sometimes it is the power of love which does the trick. 

But this can be done in two ways: a hard way, and an easy way. The hard way is to come up with a compelling sequence of events in which the characters’ loyalty and commitment to each other is instrumental in foiling the baddies master plan. Think of that episode of Sarah-Jane when Clyde had no idea what Luke was doing, but went along with it anyway because he trusted Luke and knew he would never turn against his mates. Think of every other episode of Sarah-Jane, actually. 

The easy way is to write whatever story you were going to write anyway, but have the hero zap the villain with a Love Ray (instead of a Gamma Ray or Kryptonite Ray) in the final scene. I believe that Jack Kirby was once commissioned to draw a soft-porn comic, and came up with a story in which alien women in only slightly more revealing than usual costumes rendered male superheroes helpless by zapping them with their Sex Rays.

I do not say that a story in which you zapped Torybots with Love Beams couldn’t be made to work. Anything could be made to work. Stories in which Noble Sir Jeremy slew the Mighty Brexit Slug with the magical sword of Coalition were once relatively popular. I do say that the winding up the Monk "trilogy" with Little Billy Potts zapping Wicked McWicked the Pyramid Fairy with the Charming Charm of Motherly Love feels more like My Little Pony than Doctor Who. 

I honestly wanted to chuck things at the television.

The Monks can only invade planets they have been wholeheartedly and sincerely invited to invade. Last week, Bill wholeheartedly and sincerely asked them to invade earth. It turns out that this set up a psychic link between Bill and the Monks turning her brain into the transmitter for the evil alien mind control rays that have made everybody in the whole wide world believe that the Monks are benevolent rulers. 

This crucial piece of information is imparted by Euros Holmes -- I am sorry, by Missy -- half way through the episode. This is an astonishingly slipshod piece of plotting. Surely "This is how you defeat the Monks" should have been the piece of information which Matrix-Doctor sacrificed his existence to transmit to Real-Doctor in In Extremis? 

On the other hand, the scenes with Missy are extremely well done. Michel Gomez gets better and better the less she acts; even the camp thing (”awk…ward”) which was so irritating in Death in Heaven is now convincing and disturbing. The philosophical sparring between her and the Doctor is genuinely impressive: the idea that a reformed, benevolent Missy would still not be "good" by the Doctor's standards is worth much exploring. But in a sense, these scene are not really part of the episode we are watching; they are just "seeding" the return of Missy in the season climax.

So: the first plan is to simply kill Bill (which would make a good title for a movie). This won’t work because all the mind controlled people will only gradually realize that the propaganda they heard through the mind control rays wasn’t true.

The second plan is to leave Bill alive but brain dead, because then she’d be transmitting nothing to the other humans, rather than Monkish propaganda. The Doctor is not crazy about this plan. Neither is Bill. 

This third Plan is for the Doctor to plug his own superior mind into the Monk’s transmitter, and replace the Ministry of Truth's made up history with his own, honest version. This doesn’t work because the transmitter is too powerful even for the Doctor’s brain.

So the final plan is that Bill plugs herself into the transmitter she is already plugged into in the expectation that it will free the world but render her brain dead except that, quite unexpectedly, her love for her mother gets transmitted to everyone in the entire universe and world, overwriting the Monks’ propaganda.

The on-screen explanation goes like this:

“Oh, you clever, brilliant, ridiculous girl.”

Impossible. You forgot to say impossible.

“Look at that! All the pictures I gave you. I thought I was just being kind, but I was saving the world.”

This is not the kind of blog which generally says things like “Even when the young gay black girl sacrifices her life to save the universe, the old straight white guy will always claim the credit.” It is not even the kind of blog which says “The Doctor always has to be represented as primary world-saver, even when it makes no sense for him to be so.” It’s more the kind of blog which wonders why Bill’s love is specially pure because she has only recently found a box of pictures — why “having a visual image of a dead parent” has world-saving potential, but “cherishing a memory of dead parent without knowing what they looked like” does not.

“Bill, if there's any of you left in there, listen. You have to keep thinking about your mum, the memory you created. Her voice. Her smile.”

It’s the fact that Bill's Mum is an imaginary person which saves the world? The smile being from the photos, the voice being something she only has very distant memories of? Would the voice without the smile not have worked as well? How about the smile without the voice? 

“The Monks can't get near it. Fill your mind with it! Push it into every corner. She's filling its mind with one pure, uncorrupted, irresistible image. And it's broadcasting it to the world, because it can't help it. All those years you kept her alive inside you, an isolated subroutine in a living mind.”

A “sub-routine” is one part of a computer program. I suppose an “isolated sub-routine” is part of a computer program which can function without the rest. I suppose the idea is that a mini-program can be copied from one computer to another and that Bill’s idea of her mother is being copied from her mind to everyone else’s mind. We are simultaneously dealing with extreme reductionism (a human mind is a complex computer program and nothing more) and extreme mystical essentialism (you can literally fill your mind/soul with love for just one object.) I also fear that there is a false analogy being drawn between "uncorrupted" (as in, a computer file) and "incorruptible" (as in "the dead shall be raised").

“Perfect, untouchable.”

Is the point here that because because Bill never knew her mother, she has made up a mother more perfect than any actual woman could ever be -- that it's "the idea of a perfect mother" that the Monks can't cope with? (A bit like Descartes saying that because I can imagine a perfect God, then the perfect God must exist:? Or possibly nothing like that?) 

“She's a window on the world without the Monks. Absolutely loved, absolutely trusted. And that window is opening everywhere. A glimpse of freedom. But a glimpse is all you need. The lie is breaking. Bill's mum just went viral.”

no but no but no but no but this has nothing to do with sub routines or computer or brains its just about how much billie loves her mother and billie presumably loves her mother just as much as practically almost if not everyone than nearly everyone loves their mothers and daddies and absolute best friend evers and puppy dogs and we have seen from the family at the beginning and the man whose son is in the prison camp that people still love their families in this world so how is billie loving her mummy a window into anything at all no no no


Friday, June 16, 2017

10.7 The Pyramid at the End of the World

I think we now know what is wrong with Moffat-Who. I think we always did know what was wrong with Moffat-Who, but we can now sum it up in two words.

Magic Clocks. 

I am familiar with the idea of the Doomsday Clock, if only because of Watchmen. Some scientist dudes got together in the Cold War and conceived a conceptual clock which shows how close we are to blowing ourselves up. (It’s currently set at 2 minutes to midnight.)

And I suppose that a group of Space Monks — who know absolutely everything that there is to know about the earth — would also be familiar with the clock, and might use it to threaten the human race. 

But (obviously) the scientists who run the imaginary clock only move the little hand backwards and forwards based on stuff they know. The clock can’t take into account a hungover scientist accidentally releasing a killer virus. But I suppose, just possibly, the Space Monks might use the concept of the conceptual clock to threaten the earth with. So the humans would see the clock move forward and say “The Space Monks have told us we are one second closer to Armageddon than we were at the beginning of the episode; they must know something we don’t.” But everyone in the episode acts if the doomsday clock is some neutral arbiter which literally knows how close we are to the literal end of the world…

And here comes the good bit. The Space Monks make everyone's phone and computer show the Doomsday Clock time as opposed to the actual time. (The implications of that aren’t explored. Considering how worried we were about the year 2000 date problem, I can’t help thinking that if every clock in the world stopped telling the time, there be some major logistical problems. With airline timetables, if nothing else.) But get this. We are very clearly shown the time changing on people’s analogue wrist watches. How does that work? Watches like that aren’t connected to any interwebs. Some Magic Force must be physically turning the mechanism backwards on every wristwatch in the world simultaneously.  

The Not-We won’t understand why this is an issue. You have a magic telephone box that can take you back to 17th Century London, they will say; why can’t you have a magic space monk who can turn millions of individual wrist watches backwards? 

Part of the answer is that you are allowed to use something completely mad as a premise for your story, but not as a little device within it. “Once upon a time a fairy waved her little screwdriver and all the clocks in the world stopped…” might be a good starting point for a story. (We don’t ask the mechanism by which Midas transformed everything he touched to gold: we are too interested in following through the tragic consequences of his reckless wish.) But it’s not something you can drop in and not discuss any further. There were a hundred more believable ways the Space Monks could have told everyone that the world was about to end. 

The other part of the answer is that the difference between magic and science is a very subtle, but very important, part of the internal ambiance of Doctor Who. Completely mad things happen but they are completely mad things which feel as if they might possibly have a logical explanation, even if we aren't quite sure what it is. I don’t know if I could perfectly define the line, but I can pretty accurately tell you when a thing is on the wrong side of it. A scientist inadvertently releasing a bacteria that can destroy all life on earth: OK. A Space Monk curing the Doctor’s blindness, instantly and perfectly, by remote control, with a wave of the hand: not OK. Using the fabulous technology of the TARDIS to make the computer link to 428 CCTVs go down simultaneously: OK. Using the undefined power of the Space Monks to change the time on every wrist watch in the whole wide world: not OK.

One definition of the line might be that a silly, cartoon-strip, Saturday night, good guys vs monsters space opera TV serial story allows and include technology which is sufficiently advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic, but forbids and excludes actual miracles. 

Some of these problems may possibly be resolved in next week's episode, or in the Season Climax. It may turn out that we are playing a game of nested realities, and the Monks' miraculous ability to levitate nuclear submarines should be taken evidence that the Doctor and Bill are still inside a computer game. But I have an overwhelming sense that Moffat knew which pictures he wanted to draw and which synthetic moral dilemmas he wanted characters to fudge their way out of, and glued everything together with whatever gobbledegook was lying around at the time.

And, in fairness, the pictures are absolutely lovely. The Doctor walking across the desert to the pyramid; the Space Gods confronting him at the door. The Doctor playing guitar in the TARDIS. The bottle and the glasses breaking. Bill and Penny walking through late night streets. The Monk's nerve center, with the glowing strings of cause and effect (although Doctor Who rather stole that from Harry Potter and Harry Potter rather stole it from the Ring Cycle).

And I like the structure very much indeed. The Alien Gods have come to declare the End of the World and the earth’s military is gathered around the Mother Ship — but we keep flashing back to a very ordinary day in the office for two very ordinary scientist and instantly see that the End of the World isn’t happening where everyone thinks it is happening. I just wish that this beautiful structure had an equally beautiful story hanging off it.


I buy the idea of the Doctor as scientific adviser of UNIT. I don’t actually know how all the nations of the world world could arrange an extra-national force for dealing with aliens, given that all the nations of Europe can’t even arrange a free trade zone without arguing about it; but I feel that it is the kind of thing which all the nations of the world might have a god at doing. I don’t buy the idea that the Doctor can become the President of Earth at the drop of a jelly baby. Being President, as opposed to advising Presidents, is obviously not the Doctor’s modus operandi.(He actively ran away from being President of Gallifrey.) Why would anyone who knew the Doctor well enough to want his help suppose for one moment that that was the kind of help he would be willing to give? No-one treat him like President, and he doesn’t seem to exercise Presidential powers, although he does get to fly around in a big plane. The soldiers and the UN guy treat him as a super knowledgeable person whose advise they ought to pay a heckuva lot of attention to. Like everyone always treats the Doctor, in fact. 

We keep being told that when weird stuff happens on earth, everyone immediately forgets about it. Bill has never heard of the Daleks, even though the Daleks have invaded the earth at least several times in her lifetime. But for there to be some procedure by which Theresa May can snap her fingers and say “All of the UKs financial, military and intelligence resources are controlled by the Doctor, without parliamentary scrutiny or the Queen signing off on them” an awful lot of MPs and civil servants would have to remember the Daleks and the Cybermen and the giant haddock in the Thames. 

Never mention Torchwood. (Seriously. Never mention it.)

I don’t think that the Winston Churchill of Victory of the Daleks or the Van Gogh of Vincent and the Doctor are accurately historical representations of those particular persons. But they are presented to us as if they were real and as if we are meant to treat them as real. That's the whole fun of those kinds of episodes: well, of course Doctor Who and our greatest ever Prime Minister would be old mates. But the minute the "President of Earth" thing is invoked, everything in the episode becomes consciously less realistic, consciously more one dimensional, consciously more like a child's game of soldiers. I assume that Moffat means it to have exactly the opposite effect. 


How was the Space Monks' simulation supposed to have worked? Are we supposed to imagine that, by running simulations of human history, the Space Monks can find out that a particular human scientist will break her glasses on a particular day of the week? I can see how they can determine that the human race will definitely wipe itself out with a virus at some point between 2015 and 2020; but that a silly accident will cause it to happen on a particular day… not so much. Are we subject to that level of predestination? (Was it not Stephen Hawking who remarked that even if you had a perfect theory of everything, you still wouldn't be able to extrapolate from physical laws what was going to be on the cover of Vogue magazine next March.)

Come to think of it, their simulation includes the Doctor, and includes the fact that he’s been on the mining station and lost his sight, and includes the fact that he is hanging out with Bill Potts and not some other human lady companion....which means that they must also know that he’s temporarily exiled to earth as Missy’s Guardian… they must, in short, have been running a simulation of the whole universe.

Which seems like a lot of trouble to have gone to.


The Space Monks want to invade the Earth. But they can only invade planets which they have been invited to invade. The leader of the United Nations and the leaders of the various armies surrender: but their motives are not pure — they are surrendering out of fear, or tactically. So the Space Monks turn them into pillars of salt. But when Bill realizes that if she doesn’t surrender, the Doctor will die, she hands Earth over to them. Willingly. I was rather reminded of Curse of Fenric, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor nearly allows the Haemovores to conquer the Earth. Dr Sylvester saves the day by being really horrible to Ace so she loses her faith in him. I rather wish that Dr Peter had given Bill the same treatment.

I get that some Doctor Who aliens are fairy tale buggaboos with magic shticks, I really do. The Weeping Angels can only move when no-one is looking at them. Everyone forgets the Silence a few seconds after they have seen them, unless they make marks on their bodies, and possibly even then. If there were a well established or well foreshadowed Monster called The Gift Bringer who could only invade planets that he’d been invited to invade (and tricked planets into inviting him in a different ingenious way each time we met him, like Mr Mxyzptlk) I would be quite able to accept it. 

But the Space Monk's “You have to consent” power is too nebulous. I don’t understand what it means. There is talk about establishing “a link”; there is talk that the aliens understand that they have to rule through love, not through fear. It seems like everything is being made up on the spot to force Billie to the moment where she has to choose between the Earth and the Doctor. 

Bill chooses [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Doctor over the earth. "You're an idiot" she explains "You are the stupidest idiot ever. But I'm not going to let you die. This planet needs you. So I'm making an executive decision. I'm keeping you alive", which is as much as to say, being interpreted "You can't die. You're too nice, too brave, too kind and far, far too silly." Bill has turned, within six weeks, from a not particularly well educated young woman who knew her sci-fi tropes to a generic new who girl, Rose V, entirely defined by her love for the Doctor. 

The Doctor’s side of the equation is even more contrived. We have to accept that two scientists could inadvertently create a virus that would destroy all life on earth; and we have to accept that the Doctor can’t stop an earthling lab from venting the death virus into the air because “it’s on automatic” and we have to accept that the Doctor’s sonic glasses can do anything except read text. But the drama has some pace and some bite. And the Doctor’s relationship with the sober scientist is actually fun to work. Character chemistry covers a multitude of plot holes.

Plot holes I can live with. It's plot ladders I object to. Plot glue. The sense that we are clambering from scene to scene over improvised scaffolding; the sense that bit of the story are being arbitrarily glues together simply in order to give Bill her Big Companion Moment.  

So. We have spent one whole episode finding out that the Space Mummies have simulated the whole history of earth to plan for an invasion. And we have spent another whole episode finding out that what they learned from the simulation was that Bill’s love for the Doctor was the only thing pure enough to allow them to conquer the earth. Next week we will have one of those Earth Under the Martian stories, where the earth has already been conquered and the humans have got to figure out how to rebel, like Dalek Invasion of Earth and the Tripods. Everything depends on that being big enough and convincing enough to make the last two episodes seem worth the effort.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

A discourse upon the sapir-whorf hypothesis, with particular reference to nineteenth century slave trade nostalgia in the west of England. Together with a logical exegesis of blog commentators. (Possibly too long and boring for anyone to actually read.)

The story so far:

Andrew doesn’t see any problem with changing the name of a concert hall.

The green inkers in the Bristol Post think that only True Bristolians get to decide what their concert hall is called.

Andrew isn’t at all sure he knows what a True Bristolian is.

Simon writes in the comments on this page:

So, and by way of addressing the relevant part of your earlier post also, let's take "born and bred Bristolian". The meaning of that is clear enough, as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there. Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of, and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.

Mike writes, also in the comments:

There seems to be something about people like this that makes them write sentences like "Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot." You can see the same tendency in Five times Hugo award loser John C. Wright: "having the form of C. S. Lewis, but denying its power".

Simon says put your hands on your head:

Mike, whatever "people like this" is supposed to mean, I write the best I can, and generally express myself fairly well I think. I don't set out to imitate anyone, least of all CSL.I could easily poke fun at your own style too Mike, but it would seem a cheap and nasty substitute for argument.
Now read on.

I agree with Mike.

People of particular political or religious persuasions often write in the same style as one another. People of a right-leaning, conservative, Christian persuasion — the kinds of people who are inclined to think that changing the name of a concert hall is a silly idea — adopt a wordy, flowery, archaic style, full of “qua” and “to boot” and “methinks”. Left leaning writers equally fill their texts with buzzwords and -isms. The reason isn’t particularly obscure: the conservatives think of themselves as speaking olde worlde common sense, a bit detached from the barbaric modern world every one else inhabits. The Left want to appear clever and technical and scientific and modern. 

I realize I am offering myself as a hostage to fortune here. I look forward to some wag demonstrating the unspoken assumptions in my writing style. I would say in my defense that I have already done it to myself far more viciously than you are likely to be able to.

I called my first essay on John C Wright “Pastiche” because I found the fact that he was trying to look and sound like G.K Chesterton more significant than the content of his essays. Someone has made out a very good case that Wright tries to make his prose sound as if it has been very literally translated out of Latin  — because that’s what the most important and authoritative books in a Catholic seminary sound like.

The other day, Wright pretended to be incandescent with rage because a journalist had said that “there was some confusion” as to why Donald Trump’s female entourage had covered their heads while meeting the Pope, but had not done while meeting the King of Saudi Arabia. 

“Please note the careful use of language. ‘There was some confusion’ is a phrase in the passive voice that nicely avoids stating who was confused, or when, or on what grounds It also avoids stating whether such confusion took place inside or outside the confines of a padded cell in a madhouse. I suppose that a raving lunatic in a straitjacket, who cannot distinguish between the traditions of Christendom and the traditions of Dar-al-Islam, might be confused. I suppose someone who cannot distinguish friends from enemies might be confused. Someone who thinks the earth is hollow, the sun is a fried egg, his dog is Satan, the CIA are beaming messages into his molars from mind-control satellites, and who thinks his left foot is an outerspace enemy cunningly disguised as a body part but that must be chopped off with a fire ax might likewise be confused.”

A hundred and fifty words to express what could have been said in seven. (“I do not think it is confusing at all.”)  Why does the Greatest Science Fiction Writer Of This Or Any Other Age choose to render “outer space” as “outerspace”, incidentally? 

Grud knows, my own writing sometimes runs away with itself — I find myself typing “The overweight lady hasn’t belted out the last few bars of Tannhauser yet” to avoid the cliche “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”. But I hope I never give the impression that I am saying the same thing over and over again to make myself seem clever. I am sanguine about conveying the outward appearance of cultivating a repetitious ambiance to aggrandize my own persona. And I hold fast to the faith position than the face I present to the world is not that of one who recapitulates, reiterates and echos identical texts like some Hindu pundit intoning a mantra in order to raise my status above that of mere mortals.

For the avoidance of doubt: I am not equating “Simon” with Wright politically. But like Mike, I find his use of language a bit odd. 

Let us try C.S Lewis’s experiment of translating the offending paragraph back into everyday English. 

To make the experiment work, I found I had to start at the conclusion and work backwards.

“Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.”

This could be paraphrased as:

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes:

A: Being a pretender
B: Presumption
C: Dogmatism
D: Being an ideologue”

We’ll come back to what [X] is in a minute. 

A pretender means someone who falsely claims to be King or Queen or otherwise aspires to some role they do not have. Presumption is the quality of being over-confident to the point of rudeness; or of doing something that you have no right to do. So “being a pretender” and “being presumptuous” amount to the same thing.

An ideologue is someone who uncritically follows an ideology; an ideology means something like “a systematic collection of theories and beliefs.” Dogma means “one of the official teachings of the Catholic church”, a “dogmatic” person is one who behaves as if all his beliefs have that kind of authority. Colloquially, ideologues and dogmatists are both people who insist on their own point of view much too strongly. 

This gets us to: 

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes: he claims rights which he has no right to claim; and he believes things without question.” 

I think we can simplify that further, to something like:

“The person who does [X] is aggressively claiming a right he does not in fact have.” 

So, what is the “X” that the dogmatic stands accused of? Going back a sentence, we find this: 

“....and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do so because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... “

It is fairly self-conscious, not to say presumptuous, to use the word “qua” in an informal discussion: it almost makes you sound like a parody of a philosopher. (Remember poor Lucky in Godot: "given the existence as uttered forth in the public words of puncher and wattman of a personal god quaquaqua".) But I think we all understand what is meant. If someone said “I am going to consider the story of Noah’s Ark qua story” they would mean “I am going to consider only its narrative qualities and disregard any liturgical, moral, historical and theological qualities it may also have. So "rights qua resident" are rights that you acquire simply by virtue of living in place. You have the right to vote for who should be Mayor of London simply by living in the city: you only have the right to drive sheep across Tower Bridge if the Mayor has made you a freeman.

But we are not talking about legal rights here. We are talking about moral rights. I suppose that a legal right is granted by the government, but a moral right is granted by God — one of those pesky inalienable rights which Americans think that even kings can't interfere with. For example, I might think that a woman had a moral right to have an abortion, even though in some jurisdictions she does not have the legal right to one. 

So: a person with a quality called "Bristolianness" (which we will come back to) has the moral right to do [Y] (which we will also come back to) while a person who is merely resident in the city does not. The exclamation mark seems to signify that the idea of residency and Bristolianness being equivilent is so silly that no-one would seriously put it forward. ("My friend asked me if I had seen any Dodos during my visit to Mauritius.(!)”)


X = "The belief that all people living in a town have the same moral rights to do [Y]”

So if we combine that with the proposition we reached above, we come down to:

“The person who believes that all people living in a town have an equal moral right to do [Y] would be aggressively claiming a right that he does not in fact have.” 

We could simply it a bit further: 

“All people living in a town do not have an equal moral right to do [Y]”

So finally we have to define [Y].

Simon writes: 

“Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of...”

This seems to involve some deliberately exaggerated language. A person who had just moved into town might, indeed demand that the road sign pointing to Cuntgrope Lane be taken down; he might on the other hand simply express the opinion that the sign is a bit rude. He might be one of a number of people who signed a petition to change the street name. Perhaps he would only be pretentious and doctrinaire in the extreme “demanding” case, not the more moderate “asking nicely” one?

The request might, in itself, be reasonable or unreasonable; sensible or silly, but we aren't interested in that here: we are only interested in whether the resident-qua-resident has the moral right to make it. I grant that the long-term resident might well have knowledge which the recent arrival does not, and this might affect the validity of the short-term resident's complaint. We can easily imagine a situation where he honestly misunderstands what is going on. “Oo-ar, every fellow does think that, sire, when they first moves here, but that thar name “Spankers Lane” be having something to do with the rigging on a ship in olden times, and nothing to do with smacking a wench’s bottom, indeed no, sire.”

There are some things which it would be more reasonable to complain about than others. I would be on stronger grounds complaining about your black-face Morris dance (because it is racist and racism is a moral evil) than I would be asking you to ban Morris dancing in general (because I think Morris dancing is silly.) And I would have not only a moral right but a moral obligation to prevent you putting a Scottish policeman into a giant wicker man and setting fire to it, even if human sacrifice really is a long established tradition round these parts. Perhaps the newcomer is only being presumptuous and doctrinaire if he makes his demands based on personal whim rather than serous moral indignation. 

So we can say: 

Y= “The moral right to insist that any aspect of a city be changed based on private whim”

Putting it all together, we end up with: 

“All people living in a town do not, in fact, have an equal moral right to demand that any aspect of the city be changed based on private whim".

I think we could simplify this as:

“Some people living in a town have the moral right to ask that some aspect of that town be changed, while others do not.” 

Going back yet another sentence, it turns out that the difference between a Bristolian and a resident qua resident is that the former was “born and bred” in the city and the latter was not. “Born and bred” is defined as 

“as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there.” 

Now, the length of time you have lived somewhere is a variable — a sliding scale or a continuum. But being “born and bred” in a place is very much an either/or: you either were born in Bristol or you weren’t. 

So while:

“The longer you have lived in a town the greater your moral right to ask that some aspect of it be changed” 

might be quite a mild claim, 

“A person who was born in Bristol and spent the major part of their formative years there has a moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed, while other people do not.”

would be a much stronger one. It could be simplified to: 

“Only a person born and brought up in Bristol has the moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed” 

Or, more generally

“Natives have more moral rights than incomers.”

This is why I characterized Simon's viewpoint as “nativist”. Because it is. 

I grant that Simon says that his example is “admittedly extreme”. And the admitted extremeness of it may be part of the point. I have said that I think that a committee of people, appointed by the council, have as much right to change the name of a building as anyone else, regardless of where they were born and how long they have lived in a particular place. It may be that Simon's point is point is “Okay. You are talking about people who have lived in town for some years, quite tentatively making a very small change for quite a good reason. But let’s go the extreme: suppose someone who has lived in town for one day were very forcefully asking for a very big change for a very poor reason. You would certainly agree that he had less right to do this than a person who had lived in the city all his life. If the incomer has considerably less rights than the native in this extreme scenario, then it follows that he has slightly less rights than the native in the more nuanced case.” (This is a bit like me and C.S Lewis saying that if a galaxy is infinitely more significant than a human being because of its size, then a tall man must be very, very slightly more significant than a short one.)

The argument fails because I wouldn’t acknowledge a difference in moral rights even in the extreme case. The case for removing the Myra Hindley pub sign from Manchester stands or falls on its merits, regardless of who is making it. 

I think it is most unlikely that Simon, or anyone else who contributes to this forum, is consciously trying to obfuscate or pull the wool over our eyes, much less befuddle us or throw sand in our face. But I do think that all his words create the impression of arguing with me; where all he has actually done is re-stated the contrary position. "I think that natives have more moral rights than incomers" is not a response to "I think that incomers have the same moral rights as natives." 

I think that everyone has the same moral rights as everyone else, unless you can show a good reason why they haven't. (Everyone has the right to keep a dog, except you, because you have been convicted of cruelty to animals in the past.) I think that the burden of proof is on the person who rejects my position. I need to be shown reasons why the opinion of a person who was born in Bristol 50 years ago counts for more than the opinion of a person who moved here 20 years ago, or indeed, yesterday.

And yes: “Natives have the moral right to talk about Bristol’s heritage. Incomers do not” does sound oddly reminiscent of the passage I quoted before: 

" For the state must make a sharp distinction between those who, as national comrades, are the cause and bearer of its existence and its greatness and those who only take up residence within a state, as 'earning' elements."

You can see how I might find that a bit worrying.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unelectable Man (Nearly) Elected

It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.
                                      Tony Benn

I would like to apologize to Jeremy Corbyn. I was swept up in a populist tide of anti-Corbyn rhetoric. I have spent the last 18 months feeling vaguely ashamed of being a new member of the Labour Party. I have spent the last 18 months making excuses for my initial enthusiasm for the leader of the opposition. I even wrote an essay entitled “Why despite it all supporting Jeremy Corbyn still makes a surprising amount of emotional sense.” I know all about Jeremy’s faults, I said, but… I quite see Thangam’s point, I wrote, but… Better a rather dithering socialist, I said, than a highly efficient fascist. 

Yes, I was also caught up in the mood that said that Theresa May was evil but competent, which turned out to only be half right. 

I should have stuck to my guns. The first time I heard Jeremy make a proper speech; the first Andrew Marr interview; the JC4PM rally; the Remain meeting and the rally on College Green: I could see was something pretty special was happening in British politics — something I had never experienced before. My first impressions of people are invariably right. 

I never at any time believed that Jeremy Corbyn was the Socialist Messiah. I always thought he seemed sincere and sensible and honest and authentic. This should be the bare minimum that we expect from all our politicians, but we had reached the point (thanks, Tony) where it seemed like a major novelty. The received wisdom was that a politician's job was to find out what the editor of the Daily Mail — I’m sorry, what “the people” — believed was right, and to then pretend that he thought it was right, too. (Advanced practitioners were able to actually change their sincerely held beliefs on the whim of a focus group.) Here was a man who was in politics to do what he believed to be right, and was prepared to explain, calmly and sensibly (if sometimes a little boringly) why everyone else should believe it too. 

Yes, there was a certain amount of hero-worship and some of those rallies, but it was hero worship with a massively ironic tinge. It was fun to have placards with Corbyn’s face on them and to chant his name because he was such a massively unlikely figurehead, and was so clearly so bemused by it. I recall Jeremy Hardy  (a comedian) saying that Corbyn is the ideal candidate for anyone who thinks that people who want to be prime minister shouldn’t be allowed to be; and Grace Petrie (a singer) riffing affectionately about his cardigans. Yes, I wanted to have my photograph taken with him, but that’s a symptom of celebrity culture and the fact that everyone has a camera with them all the time. 

Like some of my socialist friends, I wish he had played his European hand differently; but unlike them, I never saw this as a deal-breaker. The damage was done as soon as Farage (previous holder of the Most Influential Politician Who Isn’t Actually In Power award) tricked David Cameron (previous holder of the Most Useless Prime Minister We Ever Had award) into holding a referendum. I heard Jeremy speak at a “Remain” rally, and he was anything but lukewarm. He was actually rather brilliant. But “We acknowledge Europe’s faults but ought to reform them” was never going to be as easy a sell as “We hate the Belgians.”

So before election night was over Dimbleby was talking about “this massive personal victory for the much maligned Jeremy Corbyn”. Andrew Marr was telling us that no-one realized what a cracking campaigner he was going to be (which makes one think he hadn’t been near a rally.) By the next morning, it was all “whatever the result, this is Corbyn’s night” “Corbyn is now the most influential politician in the country” “Labour belongs to Corbyn.” My very own mother, who voted Anyone But Corbyn twice over because of her memories of the dark days of Militant texted me. “So glad to be alive. We almost won here [Barnet] - only lost by three hundred. Unheard of. All credit to Jeremy.” 

I am sorry that I lowered my expectations. Sorry I allowed people to talk about my giving Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. Sorry I started to use metaphors about going down fighting for the right side. Sorry I stopped believing we could win. 

We did win, as the cliche goes. We just happened to run out of road. 


This has been the first election that I’ve actually campaigned in. Not a lot, admittedly, and mostly so I could say “So there” to those people — let’s call them “mum”, for the sake of argument — who think that Corbynites carry a party membership card but don’t actually do any work for the party. But I did spend ten hours on election day knocking on doors. 

I don’t know how it works in Abroad, but round these parts elections are mostly won or lost by identifying supporters in the weeks before the election, and spending election day nagging them individually to go and and vote. (This is why there can never be voting reform in this country: all three parties have spent more than a hundred years becoming very, very good at playing the game, and therefore have a vested interest in no-one changing the rules.) While Labour doesn’t have any money, because of Corbyn it now has shed-loads of members. And let the record show that a goodly number of us newbies joined the poster-sticking leaflet-delivering door-knocking operation in Bristol press, regardless of the fact that Thangam Debonaire was an outspoken critic of our man. Because I joined a party, not a fan club, and fair’s fair. 

We can at least be thankful that Theresa May’s snap election enabled us to dodge the reselection bullet. 


One of my Labour friends has a doctored image on his facebook page of Bart Simpson writing out “You can’t truly help people unless you win an election” a hundred times. And this is obviously a very good point. You can’t change the status quo in opposition. There is only so much time you can spend chaining yourself to railings; until the Suffragist Party forms a government, nothing will change. There is no point in wiffling about abortion rights from the opposition benches: only when David Steel became prime minister did women start to get control over their own bodies. Leftie teachers could fill the newspapers with horror stories about cruelty to kids as much as they wanted, but it took a committed humanitarian like Mrs Thatcher to actually ban corporal punishment. We might still be putting gay people in jail if Harold Wilson hadn’t been so famously radical on sexual issues. Sydney Silverman famously kept quiet about the death penalty until Labour won the 1959 election with a manifesto commitment to abolish it. And fortunately Nigel Farage stood no chance of getting Britian to leave the European Union before there was a UKIP prime-minister.

[That's enough bad examples. Ed.]

“Jeremy Corbyn had a good election, if you disregard the fact that he lost, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm had a good First World War if you disregard the fact that he lost” quipped Archie the Inventor on the News Quiz. And obviously, what we wanted was for Labour to win, As it is, none of the excellent and popular ideas in the manifesto are going to be put into practice: young people are still going to have to pay to go to college, the utilities are still going to be run for the benefit of foreign shareholders, and a very big question mark hangs over the future of the health service. I don’t go as far as Andrew Hickey, who thinks that the UK will be executing people again by 2022, but I do fear any leader who talks blithely of tearing up the human rights act. (Why, asked a wag, does Theresa May hate human rights? Is it rights she hates? Or humans?) 

This is all very bad indeed. 

On the other hand, I have never been one of those who is happy to be hit over the head with a big stick provided it is clearly labeled as a Labour stick. I give no credence to the those people (now rather quiet) who say “Well, if we don’t win an election we can’t abolish tuition fees, so in order to win the election, we’ll not abolish tuition fees.” The newspapers, who speak on behalf of the fairly narrow “people who own newspapers” demographic, shouted that Corbyn offered only “more spending, more taxation and more borrowing”. Well, yes: and May offered “less spending, less taxation and less borrowing.” That’s very much the difference between the two parties. If it didn't exist it wold not have been necessary to invent elections. 

The Labour manifesto was fairly specific about what its various plans would cost and where the money was going to come from. (Making the ridiculously rich pay slightly more; chasing big companies who don’t pay anything at all.) Theresa May and her surrogates largely ignored these figures and repeated “there is no magic money tree, there's no magic money tree” over and over again. "It’s as though he thinks it’s some sort of game, a game of Monopoly perhaps. Where you ask the Banker for the red money to buy the electrics, the green money to buy the railways, and the yellow money to buy the gas works." This makes me think that the figures themselves must have been basically sound, and that Amber Rudd has never played Monopoly.

An election is not a coin flip with two outcomes, Labour Wins / Labour Loses. Politics isn't like that; which is why simple Yes/No referendums are such a bad idea.  Law isn’t made by a single dictatorial president, but by parliament; by a government (which might be conservative or liberal, strong or weak, sensible or stupid) and an opposition (which might also be conservative, liberal, strong, weak, sensible or stupid.) A very strong government and a very weak opposition is not likely to be in the best interests of the country, even if the strong government happens to agree with me on most things. I have always thought that Her Majesty the Queen Mother, may she rest in peace, was on to something when she told A.N Wilson off-record that “What this country needs is a good old fashioned Tory government with a good strong Labour opposition.” 

So during the Blair years, we largely had:

Strong, Center Right Government / Weak Center Right Opposition 

To me, this was the worst of all possible worlds, and yes, I know that you are going to be able to come up with examples of Blair doing things which weren’t completely mad. 

What we actually voted for in 2015 was broadly

Weak, Centrist Government (Cameron) / Weak, Centrist Opposition (Miliband)

But within months, and without anyone particularly asking the electorate, this changed to: 

Weak, Right-of-Center Government (May) / Very Weak, Left Wing Opposition (Corbyn)

May acknowledged her own weakness by calling The Election That Should Never Have Been (to go down in history alongside Gordon Brown’s Election That Never Was.) We were told repeatedly, by party tribalists who were happy with any kind of government provided it wore a Labour rosette, and by former Blairites who honestly and frankly preferred Theresa May’s right of center policies to Corbyn’s left wing ones, that this was an election which Labour could not possibly win. We were told that Labour would be annihilated; that there was a real chance that the Liberal Democrats could form the Official Opposition; that we were experiencing the Strange Death of Labour England. (When political parties die in England, it is always said to be Strange. I do not know why.) 

What May wanted, and what everyone told us we would get, would have been: 

Monolithically Strong Right Wing Government / No effective Opposition at all. 

It is pretty scary that she thought this would have been a good thing, and the papers largely went along with her. The best outcome that anyone could have realistically hoped for would have been 

Weak, Left Wing Government / Strong Right Wing Opposition 

Yet what we seem to have ended up with is: 

Very weak Right Wing Government / Very strong Left Wing opposition. 

This is not the best outcome possible: but it is very much better than the outcome everyone predicted. It really is no good saying “You can’t possibly win this one; it’s going to be a disaster” and then, when we come within a hairs-breadth of winning, saying “You are pathetic. You ought to have won this easily.” 


Our election system is fucked, but we knew that already. 

If seats in parliament reflected votes cast we would be looking at the Tories with  15 seats more than Labour, but Labour easily forming a government with some limited support from the Liberals, Scottish Nationalists or Greens. As it is, the Tories have 60 seats more than Labour, and are looking to form a government with the support of the Ulster Lunatics. (On paper, you need 326 seats to form a government: a joint Tory/Lunatic government would have 328, but this doesn't take into account the 8 Irish republicans who stand for parliament in order to boycott it.) I am not necessarily saying that seats in parliament should precisely reflect the number of votes cast: there is something to be said for our system of small constituencies, where people can feel a close personal connection to their MP. (It’s a bit silly to say that a Labour Vote is worth less in Bristol, where Thangam romped in with a 40,000 majority, than in Kensington, where Emma Code scraped in with 20.) 

But we can surely think up something better than the present nonsense. 

We get one vote, every five years. We also get to vote at local elections and European elections and the occasional fatuous referendum, but we only get one vote for our national government. The Scots get to vote for the Scottish Parliament; Wales and Northern Ireland for their respective National Assemblies and Bristolians get to vote directly for two of our three Mayors. But one single vote, every five years, to say who should actually run the country. 

By contrast, the Americans get to vote three times for their Federal government. Once for President, once for Senator and once for the house of Representatives. The French system is much the same. I can’t even begin to understand the Germans one. It as if we were Americans and our Congressman was also our Senator and our Electoral College delegate. (People are appointed to the House of Lords for life, by the Prime Minister. I suppose that makes it a little like the American Supreme Court. The House of Lords used actually to be the supreme court, until Tony Blair invented the supreme court. I wish hadn’t started this.)

Theresa May ran the election as if it was a Presidential campaign — vote for me, me, me! Half the Labour candidates pretended their leader didn't even exist. "I know Jezza will make a shit prime minister, but I’ll make a damn fine local representative” the said, sometimes in very nearly those words. It is now highly probable that the Conservative Party will appoint a new leader, meaning that May's “me, me, me” campaign has resulted in the election of someone other than me. Which is, I don’t know, like the Electoral College being allowed to re-run the primaries? Meanwhile, Corbyn would romp home in any new Presidential contest. 

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: we can’t go on like this. We’ll go on like this. 


Labour Party membership cards used to have an unashamedly Marxist slogan printed on them. “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry the sturdy German chants its phrase the rotund Frenchmen sings its’ praise.” Tony Blair, on becoming party leader, changed the slogan to … to something so vacuous that I can’t be bothered to reach for my wallet and look it up, frankly. But this change came to be known as “the Clause 4 moment”: the symbolic action that proved Blair was serious and Labour was no longer a socialist party.

I joined the Labour Party before I really knew anything about Jeremy Corbyn. His election as leader was my Clause Four Moment. It was a symbolic break with all the nonsense about New Labour and the Third Way and George Bush and imaginary weapons of mass destruction and yes, I know that he also made the trains run on time. That I have liked literally everything I have seen of Corbyn since that point is in some respects a very wonderful added bonus.

New Labour is dead and no-one is going to mourn it. Well, one person is, but he's very rich and will get over it. It is not just that particular cluster of statist and authoritarian ideas which has been laid to rest, nor Blair's own mad-eyed messiah complex. It's the whole idea of triangulation which is over. The whole concept that the way you sell Chocolate is by making it as unlike Chocolate as possible — because people who like Chocolate will buy it anyway, and you need to appeal to the non-chocolate eaters. The concept that if the nasty party keeps winning elections, it is the duty of the nice party to become nastier. The idea that nationalising the railways and giving kids something to eat at lunchtime is revolutionary Fenian subversion, and The People will laugh in your face. All that is dead and buried. Corbyn offered the people chocolate that tasted of chocolate again and by god they bought it. The next election, be that as early as September or as late as February, will be between a frankly socialist Labour Party and a frankly Tory Tory party. Bring it on. 

A decade ago, Tony Blair declared socialism finished. As recently as last Wednesday, the Labour Party was about to be annihilated. There are still a few minutes left before the overweight lady belts out the last few bars of Tanhauser. But at worst what we have ended up with is a Tory Party who are the laughing stock of the whole world, propped up by a group of lunatics who won’t go to football practice on Sundays, and a (I can’t literally believe I am typing this) socialist opposition with genuine moral authority.  

There is no point in wasting time in “what ifs”. But what if there had been, in the Labour Party, some older, experienced voices who were incredibly skilled at media presentation and campaign management? The kind of people who, for the sake of argument, nearly turned Kinnock’s campaign around in 1987. And suppose they had, since 2015, spent every day trying to shore up Corbyn’s leadership, rather than (for the sake of argument) trying to undermine it. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Full House

The saga of renaming the Colston Hall goes on and on, but as H W White writes, regardless of what people try to rename it true Bristolians will always know it as the Colston Hall
     D Fox

You can change the name in print, on tickets and on advertisements, but still in Bristolians minds it will always be the Colston Hall on Colston Street.
     Mrs A Williams

There is a possible solution a friend of mine came up with, just pull it down...
     D Fox

I wonder if the venue formally known as the Colston Hall will ban acts who are involved in drugs and whitewash them from its history.
     Jeremy Westcott

The Romans who conquered Britain had slaves, and the were the most brutal people, but we still call the famous wall Hadrian's Wall.
     Mrs A Williams

I hate slavery but would Bristol have such a wonderful cultural mix without (Colston)? (*)
     Jeremy Westcott

(*) Almost certainly: Most of the black population of Bristol are descended from the Windrush generation, or are more recent immigrants from Somalia.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

10.6 Extremis

So, it is Missy in the Vault. Well, of course it is. It had been heavily trailed (everything is heavily trailed) that she was appearing in this season. Who else was it going to be?

Do you remember the one with the Sea Devils, where Missy is in prison on an island fort (with crossed dueling swords over the fireplace, just in case) and the Doctor visits her, because she is his best friend, and remarks “there were a lot of people who thought you should be executed.” The Doctor intercedes on his enemy’s behalf, but she gets out, and does terrible things. So by all means lets take that one tiny little line amplify it into a huge set piece with a cast of thousands. Taking small lines and amplifying them is very much what New Who is for.

We’re not quite half way through the season, and it feels like we have already reached the end-of-season cliffhanger. We’re consuming our plot-biscuits faster than we can bake them. In Season 8, it was obvious to most of us who “Missy” had to be; but we still went through the motions of pretending to be surprised when she said “I couldn’t very well carry on calling myself the Master” at the end of episode 11. This time, we’re told before episode 6 is quite over that, yes, the least imaginative fan theory is right and, yes, it really is Missy in the vault. Which means that either Moffat has something very big indeed lined up for episode 12, or else he is is doing something very peculiar with this season’s structure.

Or, of course, that it’s a huge red herring — a gigantic magic haddock — and when the Doctor opens the door in episode 12 it won’t be Michelle Gomez at all but John Simm.

Or Matt Smith.

Or which ever lady the Doctor is going to regenerate into at Christmas. 

“Or John Hurt” is sadly no longer an option.


I wish I had been present at the original meeting; when someone looked up from his paper and said “I have it, Doctor Who does the Da Vinci Code” at the exact same moment when someone else looked up from his notes and said “I have it, Doctor Who does the Matrix” and Moffat looked up from his dark throne and said “Both together.”

Doctor Who does the Da Vinci Code is probably an historical inevitability. Robert Holmes destroyed Doctor Who so comprehensively in the winter of ‘76 that most of us don’t remember anything before that. He consciously re-imagined Gallifrey as the Vatican, full of scrolls and parchments and ornate robes and forbidden documents and forgotten heresies. (I am sure the Vatican isn’t a bit like that in real life. I imagine it's more like the common room of a rather exclusive boys school, or the dusty vestibule of a very old parish church.) The Da Vinci Code always had a whiff of the Deadly Assassin about it, whether Dan Brown had heard of Doctor Who or not. One of Doctor Who’s most renowned supporting characters first appeared in a Patrick Troughton story called The Web of Fear which also featured the iconic Yeti taking over the iconic London Underground. It was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. The crackpot conspiracy theory novel The Da Vinci Code was based on a crackpot conspiracy book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, although not sufficiently closely for a claim of plagiarism to stand up in court. And the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. It follows that Brigadier Alistair Gordan Lethbridge Stewart shares one sixth of his cultural DNA with Robert Landon.

The Web of Fear was suppressed by the BBC, and the story of the rediscovery of the lost text would be worthy of Dan Brown, or at any rate Indiana Jones.

The Deadly Assassin was based on the conspiracy theory thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was based on I Claudius, and so on. It includes one of the most infamous episodes in the entire history of Doctor Who. It seems that when a Time Lord dies, an electrical scan is made of his “brain pattern” and these “millions of impulses” are stored on “electrochemical cells”. The Doctor projects his living mind into the system, to try to find out who has infiltrated it. People trying to summarize the story say that the Doctor interacts with “brain storage system” via virtual reality — but the term “virtual reality” didn’t exist in 1976. They also describe it as a kind of “cyberspace”, but the term cyberspace certainly didn’t exist in 1976. The weird landscape through which Missy and her agents pursue the Doctor is referred to, simply, as the Matrix.

If you are maybe between the age of about 30 and about 35 you probably think that The Matrix is the greatest film ever made. If you are significantly older you probably think that it is pretty good and stylish but that the bullet time thing has been done to death now and you aren’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. Which isn’t really to say anything against The Matrix. We all have to encounter the Cartesian paradox for the first time. Maybe everything, including me, is a dream, or a simulation, or an illusion; and if that were true, how could we possibly tell? And the first time we encounter it, it blows our mind, even if the dusty old Philosophy Prof thinks it’s a silly question. If you bumped into it for the first time in the Matrix, then the Matrix rightly blew your mind; us older dudes came across it first in Ubik, or the Republic, or, if we aren’t lying, Tharg’s Future Shocks.

The Doctor shouts “I deny this reality!”; Neo is given a choice between a red pill and blue pill. We sort of take it for granted that if we found out we were in the Matrix, we’d want to get out of it.

The idea that reality is an illusion, created by a malevolent force, and that knowing that it’s an illusion is the first step to escaping from it is very much the kind of thing that the breakaway Christian sects known as gnostics believed in. The Gnostic Gospels are very much the sorts of things you might find in forbidden corners of forbidden shelves of forbidden sections of the Vatican. Or failing that in a nice one volume Penguin Paperback translation in the R.E section of Waterstones. Every single person who has ever tried to read it falls asleep.


Last time we talked about the kinds of things we wanted from a moderately good Doctor Who episode. This episode is fully of them. The central motif is a library in the form of a maze with a mad man and some zombie monks hiding in it: a house that is actually haunted and properly frightening, containing a secret worth the effort of revealing. I like the idea that the Catholic Church, being even older and even more significant than Torchwood, automatically knows who the Doctor is. Sort of like Winston Churchill having a direct line toe the TARDIS and the Doctor being mates with Father Christmas. I like the idea that the Pope has to ask for an audience with the Doctor. I like it that the Pope and the Cardinals are played entirely straight and completely sincere and not at all corrupt and even (shades of Godfather III) offer to hear the Doctor’s confession. I like it that the episode still embraces the absurdity of the situation, with Bill finding her first date with Penny being gatecrashed by the Pontiff. I like the broadness of it; that a secret library in the Vatican is not sufficiently cool, and we also have to have scenes in the Pentagon and CERN and that the final scene takes place in the Oval Office because it can. 

I like it that Bill is familiar, but not very familiar with science fiction ideas. Familiar enough to understand the idea of simulated reality when Nardole tells her it is like the holodeck on Star Trek; not familiar enough to say “Oh, what, you mean like Valis by Philip K Dick” when things get really strange. After all, the audience is divided pretty evenly into those who already know and those who don’t want to know, so either way long expositions are a waste of time. Doctor Who is (and has probably always been) a collection of science fiction tropes -- spaceships and ray-guns and robots and virtual realities -- which work in the way everyone expects them to work. So I don’t know in what way the projectors in the big white room were meant to projecting a simulated universe on the walls; and I don’t know in what way Nardole putting his hand behind the projector makes him dissolve into computer artwork, or in what sense blowing yourself up with dynamite frees you from the simulation. (Would Super-Mario kill himself is he suddenly became sentient? Wouldn’t he be just as likely to become obsessed with preventing you from turning the game off?) But it sort of fits into a science fictional consensus of how virtual reality and cyberspace ought to function. We don't ask too many questions. We are really just running headlong to the denouement in the Oval Office where Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie get to do a lot of acting.

H.P Lovecraft once remarked that if we knew what we really were we would all do as someone called Sir Arthur Jermyn did and goes on to explain that Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night. (His family apparently do not even admit that Sir Arthur ever existed.) Which is certainly a jolly good opening paragraph; but when we read on it turns out that Arthur Jermyn had discovered that one of his ancestors was married to a black person alien ape goddess. Which, you know, must have been a bit of blow to him, but still feels like a bit of a let down for the reader. The punchline of the Da Vinci code is a real shock if you are a cultural Christian and haven’t read Holy Blood and Holy Grail. The idea that everyone who has read a certain document commits suicide is bit creepy and a bit silly and certainly had me breathless to know what the big secret was, so it couldn't afford to be a let-down or a cop-out. I think I was expecting a big big revelation about the Doctor Who universe: the Doctor was half human on his mother’s side; the Daleks are descendants of the human race; Curse of Fatal Death is canon. The actual twist is really clever: it really is the biggest secret in the universe, but it’s only the biggest secret in the universe in which the story is happening, which isn’t our universe. Role credits.


Is Doctor Who a series of relatively sensible adventures about ghosts and robots and Roman emperors which could have happened to practically anybody, but all of which happen to have happened to one guy during his infinite wanderings? Or is there something about the format which permits and indeed requires you to tell completely mad stories that couldn’t possibly have happened to anyone else? Moffat’s Who has been at its best when being completely mad: the Wedding of River Song and a Good Man Goes to War and The Big Bang are what we’ll remember his era for. Extremis is certainly one of his "mad" offerings.

There’s a certain familiarity to it; the vault is more than a little bit like the Pandorica, the space monks have a touch of the Silence about them. And the resolution, that a simulation of the Doctor inside the Matrix is still the Doctor because what makes the Doctor the Doctor is the idea of the Doctor, is another take on the one single idea which he has been hammering away at since 2010. The Doctor is kind of like an imaginary friend come to life. The Doctor can’t die because he’s a story. The Doctor will have to think of a new name for himself because if he does a bad thing he won’t really be the Doctor any more. The War Doctor isn’t the Doctor because he betrayed the idea of the Doctor. I'll be a story in your head. But that's OK: we're all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one. Maybe the universe itself can’t bear to be without the Doctor.

But I think back to mediocre space cities and risible haunted houses and think "Why on earth doesn't Moffat let rip and be a complete lunatic every week?"


If Extremis is a stand alone episode, we can lie back and enjoy the Pope and the zombie monks and the library and the drunk particle physicists blowing themselves up. We can even say that “the whole universe is a computer game” is a decent punchline and carry on as normal next week. But if we think of it as a component in a longer story then all the suicidal gnostic platonism is just there to signal that next week's alien invasion is a much bigger and more important alien invasion than all the other alien invasions there have been over the years. (Telling us how big and bad it is; not showing us it being large and awful.)  And maybe next weeks story will be big enough and grand enough to have been worth the curtain raiser. Because if it isn’t, we are all going to feel very shortchanged. Stories like this run the risk of writing cheques that the rest of the series can't cash.