Wednesday, April 24, 2013

If you have not read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably not make much sense to you

Furthermore, if you have read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably still not make very much sense to you.


Is the problem that we are using "empirical" and "rational" as if they were the same when actually they are very nearly opposites? 

(Rational: Only what a man in dark room with no knowledge of the world could work out from first principles is really real; Empirical: Only what you can see and touch and weigh and measure is really real.) 


I think that the existence of this question is more interesting than which side is right. 

Remember C.S Lewis's use of Haldane’s paradox. (My reason tells me that my brain is composed of atoms; if my brain is composed of atoms than my thoughts are the result of non rational chemical atomic and subatomic processes, if my thoughts are the product of non rational processes then I have no reason to believe what they tell me, therefore I have no reason to think my brain is composed of atoms.) One side thought that the problem was unresolvable, the other side couldn't see what the problem was. 

(We all know the story about how the philosophix pulled this argument apart when Lewis tried to use it to disprove the non-existence of miracles; what's often missed is that she thought that it was a proper grown up philosophical argument and that his second version was a great improvement. A.N Wilson delivers an impressive punch to Lewis when he points out that Lewis only became convinced by this argument after he became a Christian.) 


Some people say that there is nothing apart from what can be weighed and measure and expressed to four significant figures, or proved logically from first principles. 

Those people often say that beliefs about how you should live and how you should act (in particular the ones they don’t agree with) are superstitious or literally meaningless...something we should all have grown out of, like the belief that bears will eat you if you stand on the cracks in the pavement. 

So if I say that it should not be permissible for a physician to kill a patient (even if that patient is very sick and wants to be killed) (which I wouldn’t necessarily say, i incidentally) they say that i only think this because I believe in various entities who’s existence cannot be proved from first principles or weighed and measured and expressed to for significant figures -- the soul, angels, god, morals. The nice ones say that its quite okay for me to believe in such things in the privacy of my own homes, laws should only be based on things which you can weigh and measure and prove. What some of us sometimes find confusing is that it often turns out that those very same people have very strong beliefs that are very important to who they are -- that hurting people is wrong even when it is useful; that men and women should be treated the same; that you shouldn't eat horses or show your willy to strangers; that Wagner and Dylan and Picasso have a sort of floaty goldy magic regeneration stuff in them that One Direction basically don’t. When you say “but hang on a minute, you didn't find those things out by weighing and measuring or by working it out from first principles “ they often literally don’t understand the question and say “Oh, i suppose you think that only people who believe in the tooth fairy can be good, do you?”

When Mr Spock talks about logic, he is sometimes actually talking about logic, in the sense of deriving conclusions from premises. He would have no problem with saying that if I believe in such and such a thing, I would also have to believe in such and such another thing and behave in such and such a way, without committing himself on whether it was right of me to believe in the original thing or not. Vulcans are often portrayed as having very strong mystical beliefs and a very strong sense or personal honour (they are, after all, mutant Romulans, or possibly vice versa.) But they follow through on the implications of those beliefs, like an orthodox Rabbi who regards the Torah as non-negotiable but will take on all-comers in a rational debate on what it means and how you apply it. Nimoy was Jewish. 

But very often, "Logical" just means "sensible", or "scientific" or simply alien. (If Spock describes some aspect of human behaviour as illogical, he often just means "I don't understand this" or "I don't approve of this". Nimoy recorded a song, god help us, in which he argued that it was highly illogical that 

a: if a lot of people own cars and use them for short trips, they sometimes find it hard to find a place to park them and 

b: however much two people love each other, when they have lived together for a long time, each of them can start to find the other irritating. 

Terry Nation (or was it Terrence Dicks, or even Douglas Adams) thought that being logical meant being stupid. Davros, like a very primitive computer, could draw conclusions from premises but could not conceive that those premises were false. Which is true as far as it goes: I can't find out from a maths book how much money is left in my current account. But I imagine that a brilliant scientist, however mad, might have spotted that you need accurate data to work from. 

The Doctor's collywobbles about wiping out the Daleks is a bit mixed up, of course. Partly, he's worried about interfering in history at all: he doesn't really know what a history of the universe rewritten without the Daleks in it would be better or worse. Partly, it's based on the idea of absolute values -- you don't kill children or commit genocide no matter what. Partly, I suppose, it is about empathy: Sarah thinks of the Daleks as being like a deadly virus; the Doctor at some level thinks of them as people. At the beginning he accepts the Time Lord's judgement that the Daleks will eventually wipe out everything else in the universe and that this would be a bad thing. But how is that any more than an aesthetic judgement? -- it would be bad because variety is more pleasing than uniformity, it would be bad because humming birds are prettier than Daleks. If Darwinian logic says that eventually the race most perfectly adapted to survive is the only race which survives, how is that different from Newtonian logic telling us that eventually the the universe will run out of energy and there will be nothing at all? 

Forty years of fandom has inscribed Genesis of the Daleks with a meaning that Terry Nation never really intended it to have. It's all about Time Lord self interest. A Dalek dominated universe would be bad for the Time Lords so they used the Doctor as their pawn to strike the first blow in the great time war. 

When I said that I might have been happier if Clara's leaf had been defined as a "magic" leaf I think I was thinking of Tolkien and or Lewis's definition of magic as "objective efficacy which cannot be further analysed". The Key to Time is clearly magical: rules established early on state that "if you put these six bits of crystal together and make a cube, time will stop. It just will." I don't think anything would have been gained by expanding on that and saying that its made of Timestopanium which will cause the the higgs boson wifi quantum to atrophy... 

I think that the difference here is between those of us who think that if you believe in morals at all, you must believe that morals are magical, like the Key to Time: things which are there because they are there and can't be further analysed; and those who think that people worked them out or divided them or constructed them based on something else. Do you say that you should follow the Golden Rule because you should follow the Golden Rule because it is a good rule and you should follow good rules because it is good to follow good rules; or do you say that the Golden Rule is a sort of approximation, based on trial and error, of the kind of behaviour which will, all things being equal, make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time, probably. As a matter of fact following traditional morality probably will make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time; but if a moral rule is a moral rule and not a sort of actuarial utilitarian estimate then you have to apply it even on days of the week when it is going to make you and those around you miserable. That's why magistrates always asked pacifists whether they would stand aside if a German officer was about to kill their children: they were prepared to excuse him from military service if he really believed "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was a rule -- not if he turned out to actually think it was more of a guideline. 

The great theologian Johnny Cash said that he hoped that his preference for dark coloured clothes would draw attention to those people who didn't know about Jesus "path to happiness through love and charity". The idea that Jesus offered agape as a sort of self help system, on the lines of "a path to weight loss through yoga and cabbages" is completely off the wall: only one step up from the fellow who says "become a Christian so that your business will prosper." (Terrific song, though.) 

So the problem is not that there is an opposition between "rationality" and "morality." The problem is with people who say. "There are no magical things. Everything can either be worked out from empirical observation or derived from first principles -- oh, apart from that thing over there. That's a magical thing, obviously." 

Sadists and racists often tell the following story. 

A dusky skinned foreigner from a non-specific middle-eastern country has planted an atomic bomb under a skyscraper. He is now in the custody of a special agent who has only (for the sake of argument) twenty four hours to find the bomb. The dastardly terrorists, while brilliant in many ways, were not clever enough to train their guy hold out under torture for a short period of time, or to move the bomb to a new location should their operative be captured. So: is our special agent (lets call him "Jack" to simplify things) entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb? Is he, entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner's five year old son (who is conveniently also in his custody) in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb. And if the suspect were to say "Actually, I can deal with torture, but like all dusky skinned followers of queer native religions I am a colossal paedophile, so if you will allow me to brutally molest your five year old son for an hour or two, I will happily tell you the location of the bomb" is Jack morally obliged to hand the little boy over. (The third example, you will note, is exactly the same as the first two, unless you have smuggled in the idea that the terrorist suspect deserves to be hurt for being a terrorist suspect and the terrorist subjects son deserves to be hurt for being the son of a terrorist suspect -- or, indeed, that white kids matter more than dusky skinned foriegn kids.) Logically, one screaming child is preferable to six thousand screaming children. But when people talk about "morals" they generally mean "I don't care if it useful or not. Torturing children is off the agenda."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Rings of Akhaten (7.8)

Here's the problem. If the Rings of Akhaten had been a Tom Baker four-parter, we would have quite liked it at the time and now think that it was about due for a thorough critical reappraisal. It would have been the weird, sentimental month of the six months of Doctor Who we were allowed each year — in between the funny month, the gothic month, the UNIT month and the genuinely not very good month. Some of the subordinate characters would have been better developed, and some of the more obvious wrinkles in the plot would have been straightened out. This would have militated against doing such a heavily symbolic story to begin with. 

But nowadays, when we are only allowed nine episodes of Doctor Who a year, every one of them has got to be sensational, particularly when Steve Moffat spends quite so much time telling us that every one of them is going to be sensational. And it's all over and done with too quickly to be sensational. It feels...there is no other way of saying this...slight. If you are doing a story about some Victorians on a lighthouse, you can afford to feel slight. If you are doing a big epic about gods and time and religion and the nature of memory and the soul and grief, you probably can't.

Yes, I know that we are all supposed to close our eyes and pretend very hard that we are still watching Season 7. You can say that the six stories we got in 2012 and the nine stories we're getting in 2013 are all part of the same season all you like, and it will remain true that the BBC is making less Who than it used to. It will also remain true that this block of stories, while not, definitely not, being a new season, does have a new theme tune, a new title sequence, a new TARDIS design, a new costume for the Doctor and introduce a new plot "arc.". (When Hislopp printed the story about the BBC cutting back on Who, Moffat went all flouncy. It turned out to be largely true.)

And here's the problem. There is the character Matt Smith is actually actually playing, the young old schoolboy, owing almost as much to Peter Davison as William Hartnell, thrilled by the universe, but out of his depth in it, who knows he is the Doctor and knows that he can't ever quite live up to being the Doctor, always thinking that the next threat is the one he can't actually cope with. Of course he can never really be out of his depth: it will always turn out that he has a thing and that thing is the exact thing he needs to save the day. In fairness, this was also true in the olden days when the world was black and white, but the writers used to take slightly more trouble to cover their tracks. Increasingly, the Doctor has not even needed to produce a canister of Antiplastic from his Doctor Utility Belt when he is fighting the Plastic Monster. Increasingly, what he pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy. (Like everything else in New Who, this can be traced back to Curse of Fatal Death: the Doctor is finally and irrevocably dead, but rises again because the universe itself can't bear to be without him.) The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina. But Matt Smith is so much more luminous and entertaining when he's being the bumbling uberboffin than when he's trying to be the messianic god-brat. 

And that's a shame, because otherwise I rather liked the story. 


Last week we had the the silly one where the Doctor tries on new clothes, meets a new companion and defeats an alien invasion by typing really, really quickly. This week we had the sensible one set in the not very well lit metaphor, where there is a huge monster-shaped plot device intended to reveal the Doctorness of the Doctor. (It all turns on compassion, especially compassion to children.) I wouldn't be surprised if next week we had the one that put an iconic monster in the middle of an historical war.

I think that this kind of metaphorical fantasy is very much the thing that Doctor Who should be doing because it is very much the kind of thing that only Doctor Who does. 

I think that Doctor Who started out as a costume drama and should go back to being a costume drama from time to time. 

I think that its nice that the Doctor is actually going to wondrous alien planets instead of just talking about them. 

I liked the final cut from the defeat of the big alien monster thing to Clara's front door, without any wrap up or exposition. 

I quite liked the use of music, although honestly an alien lullaby that's been going on for a million years ought to sound more like Gregorian chant or the Muslim call to prayer and less like something that that Andrew Lloyd Weber put in the shredder in 1986. 

I even quite liked the metaphysics although I do think that allowing someone called Cross to write about the Magical Power of Stories when the week after next you've got Neil Gaiman is a little like buying a humanoid alien dog creature called Doreen and then barking yourself. 

I did not like the pre-cred about the Leaf. The idea that this leaf is the most important leaf in the universe because it caused Clara's parents to meet is quite a nice one, and sort of kind of made sense at the denouement of the story, but the idea that Clara's father should actually say "This is the most important leaf in the universe" to Clara's Mum seemed a little bit completely impossible to swallow and not at all the kind of thing people actually say, ever. I wasn't completely convinced by the "every individual human being is unique and therefore miraculous and this refutes the idea that a purely materialistic world view is ultimately value-free" when it was put forward by a giant with a big blue willy; I wasn't any more convinced when we reprised it twice in one episode of Who.

I liked the idea that the soul is made of stories, but this only works if you equivocate shamefully about what you means by "soul" and, indeed, "story". "Soul" is a sort of a metaphor — a tool of thought — for whatever makes you "you". [*] When we talk about "souls" we mostly mean "how we think about human beings when we think of them holistically, rather than as collections of atoms and organs". So when the Doctor says that the soul is made of stories he is saying that what makes you you is the sum total of your memories and experiences. But the episode only makes sense because the word "soul" can also do service as meaning "a sort of invisible ghost that hides in your body somewhere but is separate from it". Golden glowy regeneratey stuff that vampire monsters can suck out of you and feed on, in other words. 

Nothing wrong with having a religious view of the soul hanging around in scientific universe. Nothing wrong with the Doctor respecting both ways of looking at things. But no-one had thought it through. At the start, he seems to be respectful of the aliens' religious beliefs: when Clara asks him whether all life in the universe really originated on Akhaten he replies "Well, it's a nice story." But five minutes later he is proposing wobbly scientific rationalism to the girl as a better story. Which it isn't. We don't value scientific rationalism because it's a more aesthetically pleasing narrative (which is what "good story" means) but because it is truer and more useful, for certain values of truth and usefulness. People without no imagination might say that the very quality of being true make it a better story by definition, but only because they don't understand what "story" means. And that doesn't fit in with the Doctor liking alien religions because of their aesthetic beauty and any way, I don't see how Merry being unique in a Dr Manhattan sense (unrepeatable specific arrangement of atoms and chemicals) confers on her the sort of glowy floaty soul that  aliens can eat. 

It's the same cop out as in Daemons where the Doctor debunks all kinds of faith — Jo's Aquarianism, Mrs Hawthorn's wiccanism, both the Satanism and the Anglicanism of the villagers — and then says at the end, when everyone starts Morris Dancing and drinking beer, that it's okay, there is still magic in the world after all. To which the answer is "only because you've decided to use 'magic' in two different senses, you over-dressed old phony". 

I think that this contradiction in the Doctor's personality — how the ultra-scientific, ultra-rationalist is combined with the ultra-romantic and ultra-moralistic is worth thinking about. But I am not sure that "each individual leaf, each individual little girl, each individual stereotyped welsh coal miner, each individual snow flake and presumably each individual cancer cell and each individual turd is unique, unrepeatable and infinitely valuable" actually gets us very far. 

The twists are clever, but they are arbitrarily clever. They sit there being clever twists. Clara meets a little girl who is afraid: we assume that she is afraid of baddies who want to hurt her but she is actually afraid of officials who want her to give a public performance. The Doctor says "we never walk away from trouble" but it turns out that he means that sometimes they have to run. We are led to believe that the alien mummy is the god; but it's actually the whole planet that they are in orbit around. I am told that anyone with a basic knowledge of musical theory can be taught how to write a catchy tune; I suspect that if you went to a creative writing course to learn how to write a TV script, this the kind of TV script they could teach you to write. 

The solution was rather clever, sort of, a little like one of those folk tales where the only thing bigger than the very big thing turns out to be the very small thing. (Like the one about the two cafes in the bidding war: the first one puts up a notice saying "Best coffee on this street" and the second one says "Best coffee in this town" and it escalates ... the best in the state, the best in the USA, the best on earth, the best in the galaxy, the best in the Universe. The first one thinks for a bit and realise he can still win by going back to "The best coffee on this street.") It was playing off our expectations of how Doctor Who stories work nowadays. The Doctor goes from being out of his depth, having no idea how to solve the problem, but thinking he'd better have a go because he's the Doctor, to suddenly going into one of his "I am the oncoming storm, I killed the time Lords, I have a big pointy hat and I'm not afraid to use it" speeches. I cannot help feeling we have seen this once too often. In the one with the weeing angels, and the one with the big metal cube and in the one where he first met Amy. More problematically, we've seen it parodied in the Lodger. ("No violence, not while I'm around, not today, not ever. I'm the Doctor, the oncoming storm... and you just meant beat them in a football match, didn't you?") When a series starts parodying its own cliches, it needs to find another set of cliches. Unless it can come out the other side and be post-modern about it, which it appears that it can't. 

Structurally, I liked it: the soul-eating monster wakes up and wants to feed; the little girl, who knows all the stories and histories of the planet, wants to sacrifice herself, but the Doctor won't let her; he tries to sacrifice himself (with all his infinite knowledge of the whole universe) but this doesn't satiate the Monster, so instead Clara offers her mother's pressed leaf, which we have already established is the most important leaf in the universe. The trouble is that the leaf is only the most important leaf in the universe because he father once said so; and this being Doctor Who and at least nominally science fiction, we have to at least have a stab at a better explanation than that. So we claim that while the Doctor may have memories of practically everything which ever happened in the universe, which is vast, the leaf contains all the things which were lost when Clara's mother died, which is infinite. 

I get the idea that when people invest an object with significance, they somehow invest them with Psychic Energy. I get that people have Psychic Energy inside them, and people with more memories (the Doctor, the little girl) have more of the stuff than people who have led sheltered lived. I get that the leaf could be exceptionally potent because it is exceptionally important to Clara. But I don't buy that because it is of infinite importance to Clara it actually contains an infinite amount of energy. Obviously Clara's parents are the more important to her than the whole universe but only is so far as everybody's loved ones are more important to everybody than the whole universe, in which case there is so much psychic energy available that the big monster thing would have died of indigestion a long time ago. 

"But Andrew: if, as you say, the story is based on a metaphor, isn't it unfair to be complaining that it didn't make logical sense."

Well, yes and no. I would have been relatively happy if we had said that it was a magic leaf and left it at that. But the Matt Smith has to talk for several minutes on why the leaf is more powerful than his memories, or indeed the memories of an entire civilisation, and the more he talks, the more obvious it is that he is talking rubbish and the whole episode is predicated on a metaphysical cheat. 


Clara brings nothing to the table which Amy didn't also bring. She has a thing. You may remember that Captain Jack also had a thing. Captain Jack's thing was that he had been kicked out of the time police and lost his memory. We never found out the solution to this thing. But then he got a new thing. His new thing was being immortal. The solution to that thing was that he was immortal because he had been made immortal by an immortal-making-you-thing. Amy's thing was that she had a crack in wall. I don't think we ever heard the solution to that one, either. Clara's thing is that the Doctor keeps meeting people who look like her and have similar names. He wants very badly to find out why. It isn't quite clear whether this is a cosmic thing, because he thinks that she's important to the universe, or a personal thing, because he feels bad for not saving souffle lady and is looking for a stand-in. The solution will be plucked out of the air in the final episode of the season. That solution will be the plot of the big fiftieth anniversary story. There is no point in trying to guess it because it will be made up on the spot.

As well as a thing, Clara has a personality. Clara's personality is that she wants to see the universe but also feels that she has responsibilities on earth. This was also Amy's personality. She is spunky and wise-cracky and can do one-liners and stand up to the Doctor and give him silly nick names. This was also also Amy's personality. Clara has a book called 101 Things To See. I have a horrible terrible feeling that the solution to the book will be that a malicious fairy put a curse on it so that she cannot die before she sees all the things in her book, so the Doctor, by showing her the universe, is actually killing her, but that's okay because better is one day in the TARDIS than a thousand years elsewhere. 

In the olden days, when the companion was basically a confident for the Doctor, this would not have been that big a deal. There was the one who asked the Doctor questions and said "groovy" a lot, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and went on and on about women's lib, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and stabbed people. Now the programme is a proper serious human drama about the relationship between two equally important characters it would help if you could tell the difference between this season's supporting cast and next season's supporting cast. (Sorry,   between the first half of this season and the second half of this season.) Or maybe the format is now about the Doctor and the wisecracking spunky girl and we are intended to forget that Clara is not Amy in the same way that we were meant to forget that the second lady policemen in Juliet Bravo wasn't technically the same person as the first lady policemen in Juliet Bravo. 


The Doctor last visited Akhaten with his grand-daughter. The aliens call their soul sucking alien god-planet "Grandfather". Just saying.

[*] Some people don't think that there is anything which makes you "you" and pretend that when anyone says "soul" they always really mean "glowy ghosty thing that lives invisibly in you brain" even when they don't

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Do Not Let Your Happiness Depend On Something You Have Quoted Out of Context

What the internet says C.S Lewis said

"Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose."
C.S Lewis

"Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away."
C.S Lewis

What C.S Lewis actually said.

In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him. Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Do not put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as "Careful! This might lead you to suffering."

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to this appeal, I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground -- because, so to speak, the security is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend -- if it comes to it, would you choose a dog -- in that spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves,  before one calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love Himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St Augustine's Christianity than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic "apathy" or neo-Platonic mysticism than to Charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and who, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he "loved". St Paul has a higher authority with us than St Augustine -- St Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died. 

The Four Loves (p110 - 112)

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Songs To Listen to on a Wednesday Morning

"Play it fucking loud."
Bob Dylan
And who am I who dares to keep
His head held high while millions weep?
Why the exception to the rule?
Opportunist? Traitor? Fool?
Or just a man who grew and saw
From seventeen to twenty-four
His country bled, crucified?
She's not the only one who's died...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Okay, let's take this very slowly. 

1: In pantomimes, the baddie is often called "the Witch" or indeed "the wicked Witch." The goodie is often "the Fairy", "the good Fairy" or "the fairy Godmother".  

2: In Frank Baum's anti-Christian parable "The Wizard of Oz", the heroine Dorothy (accidentally) causes the death of a character called "The Wicked Witch of the East". All the Hobbits are pleased that "The Wicked Witch of the East" has died, because she was wicked. 

3: In the 1939 movie version of "The Wizard of Oz", they sing a song of celebration. It is a very catchy song presumably suggested by the operatic version of "Hansel and Gretel". "The "Wizard of Oz" is the very epitome of camp. It is very much in keeping with this tone that the little people sing a funny happy song when someone dies. 

4: There is also a Wicked Witch of the West and a Good Witch of the North. 

5: Mrs Thatcher was an English politician. She became Prime Minister in 1978 and remained in office until it became clear that she had become insane and was ousted by members of her own party. [The neutrality of his section is disputed.]

6: She died last Tuesday.

7: The Daily Mail Apocalypse Cult, with the full support of Her Majesty's Alleged Opposition, has announced that mourning is compulsory, that anyone criticising T.B.W in any way is part of  "The Left" and therefore an un-person. 

8: The Left, who, on this definition, represent the overwhelming majority, are not bloody having it. They felt that the singing of a happy camp song celebrating the death of a Baddie in a children's movie would be an amusing counterpoint to the compulsory mourning. They bought lots of copies of the record from I-Tunes, in the hope that the BBC would have to play it on the Radio 1 Chart Show which I understand is a bit like Top of the Pops only with fewer paedophiles.

9: The point of playing a camp happy song celebrating the death of a baddie in a children's movie is that it is a camp, happy song celebrating the death of a baddie in a children's movie. The point is not that all females or all female politicians are witches. Neither do the left, on the whole, think that female neo-pagans should have houses dropped on them. Everybody knows that wiccans do not wear pointy hats or fly on broomsticks, in the same way that everybody knows that members of the Society of Friends don't particularly like porridge. 

Lighten up, for god sake, can't you. Bloody Chumbawamba use "ding dong the witch is dead" as part of the soundscape on their Thatcher album. Trying to be more right-on than Chumbawamba is like trying to be more catholic than the bloody pope. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Actually, "dissent" is completely the wrong word. The overwhelming majority of people either hated her guts or else are totally indifferent to her.

I don't think it is particularly funny, and I think that there are better ways of showing dissent. But I take it for granted that when a Nazi enters the room, every decent person present will claim to be Jewish.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

If she were (as those who knew who said she would have wished) having a quiet, private funeral in a   dignified location, attended only by family, close colleagues and maybe one invited photographer then political demonstrations of any kind would be unthinkable. 

Someone would probably still think about them, but they would be unthinkable. 

As it is, her funeral is being orchestrated by the Tory party as a Tory party political event to beatify a former leader of the Conservative Party.

Falklands themed funeral? Falkands themed funeral? With some Chalky White jokes from Jim Davidson, a revue by the Black and White Minstrels and a special celebratory episode of Jim'll Fix It, I shouldn't wonder. The policing of the funeral has actually been code-named "Operation True Blue".

So the question is not "Should we desecrate a private, religious event by holding a party political demonstration?" Of course we shouldn't. I understand that after his assassination, Osama Bin Laden was given as dignified a funeral as possible, according to the tenets of his faith. Myra Bloody Hindley was given a quick, dignified send-off in a municipal crem. [*]

But that is not the question. The question is "Given that the Tory Party has already decided to take what should, indeed, be a private, religious event and turn it into a party political demonstration should the Left a: do nothing or b: have a demonstration of their own to show that no, actually,  there is NO consensus, NO unanimity and that T.B.W is NOT the best loved English person since Churchill." 

Only a complete shit would march into Canterbury Cathedral and disrupt a solemn mass on Easter Sunday because he doesn't like the political views of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he was going to hold a special mass to pray that all members of the banking profession should be damned for eternity, followed by the ceremonial excommunication of Sir James Crosby, I think that would probably be the wrong moment to say "I don't think it is right for the Banking Community to complain about what is essentially a private, sacred, religious event." The more strongly the Left threw up a police cordon around the Cathedral and said that dissent had to be prohibited because there was no dissent and everyone agreed with the Bishop anyway except the Right who don't count, the more important it would be for some kind of  counter demonstration to be hold. 

English British Prime Ministers don't generally have big public funerals. Churchill is the last one who did. That was a state funeral. This one technically won't be. The Daily Mail thinks that this proves that the Queen and David Cameron have been infiltrated by The Left. It is an "insult" that T.B.W will only have the same kind of funeral as the Queen Mother and the Princess of Wales, in the same way that is an insult to Christians that vegetarians also have a legal right to have their beliefs respected. (This is perfectly true and not something I made up.)

The whole point of the posthumous exaltation of T.B.W is to manufacture a false consensus. Love of T.B.W and support for the Conservative party, like love of the Queen and support for the Monarchy are not political points of view, they are a base-line neutral position which all British people agree with. [**] If you don't love the Queen, T.B.W and the Tory Party then you aren't British. Once we ignored all the dissenting voices then 100% of those questioned agreed with us. There will be no art, no science, no literature, no enjoyment, no laughter, but the laughter of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no love but the love of Margaret Thatcher. 

[*] Cats are to kittens as calves are to cows. "But that's ridiculous, Andrew: have you ever tried milking a cat?" 

[**] What is the British equivalent of Motherhood and Apple Pie? "The Church of England and Steak and Kidney Pie, perhaps?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (10)

People sometimes say that something is "so bad it's good", but that's hardly ever true. Plan Nine From Outer Space, often said to be the worst movie ever made, isn't so bad it's good: it's so bad it's incredibly boring. It does sometimes happen that someone spectacularly fails to do what he set out to do (say, write edifying, tragic poetry) but inadvertently succeeds in doing something quite different (say, writing comic verse). That's why we still read William McGonogal: the things he does by accident -- bathos, mixed metaphors, mismatches between subject matter and tone -- are exactly what a skilled comedian does to raise a laugh. And it's all the funnier because he doesn't know it's funny: skilled comedians never do. (Except I think he probably does. I think that, far from being the World's Worst Poet, he was a clever man who knew precisely what he was doing.) [*]

There are people who get pleasure at watching someone fail at something: people who go along to the talent competition in order to laugh at the guy who can't sing a note. But that's really only one step up from picking on the fat kid who came last in the sack race. There were bullies who liked to laugh at Doctor Who's shortcomings. One of them was head of the BBC from 1984 to 1987. But I don't think that's what people who think that its home made quality was part of its charm are talking about.

There was a very good story called Kinda which famously contained a very bad monster: a giant pink snake that was obviously a puppet. I do not think that the giant pink snake was so bad it was good. I do not think that the giant pink snake was "part of Kinda's charm". I think that the giant pink snake represented a weakness in the script. I think that it was a mistake for the metaphorical, psychological evil to manifest in physical form in the first place, and certainly a mistake for the physical form to be a giant pink snake. The DVD version replaced the unconvincing puppet with a more convincing CGI animation. This did not remove any of the charm from the story. It didn't improve the story very much, either. It was a giant pink snake. 

Christopher Bailley (the writer of Kinda) was reportedly disappointed with the way in which his story was mounted. It was, snake apart, a pretty polished and professional piece of work. But he felt that the jungle planet looked like a garden centre and the natives looked like extras in a shampoo advertisement. The sequel, Snakedance looked fabulous; but it still looked like a fabulous stage set, not a fabulous alien planet.

It's interesting to try to imagine Kinda being remade today. Exactly the same script, mind you, but location work in a real jungle, actors who really look like aboriginal natives -- or, better yet, CGI aliens, possibly with blue skin. I don't know if this would remove any of the episode's "charm", but I do think it would change the whole tone of the exercise. I think that dialogue which worked fine when spoken by BBC actors in a studio would seem stilted and artificial on a location shoot; I think that the whole idea of an alien worlds being used as the crucible for an experimental morality play would be harder to swallow if we half-believed that this really was an alien world we were looking into. For one thing, our attention would be focused on the wonderfully convincing alien shrubbery, when it ought to have been focussed on the script.

Gerry Anderson died recently. I used to love Thunderbirds. It was always on on Sunday lunchtimes. The episodes weren't shown in any particular order. I swear they showed that one where the explorers get stuck in the alien pyramid twice in three weeks. I remember the boy next door saying that he would like Thunderbirds better if it was real -- people rather than puppets, he meant. I think that he had missed the point of Thunderbirds. If you are going to make a series in which spaceships fly to the sun and property developers physically move the Empire State Building, and where skyscrapers, space ships and pyramids can be guaranteed to explode before the third advert break, then the thing has to be done with models. Most of the time, we couldn't literally see the strings, but it was important that we could see them metaphorically. It's not that the machines are unconvincing: they are incredibly convincing. The best models anyone has ever made; far better than anything Doctor Who ever had. But still obviously models. That was the point. Gerry Anderson had better toys than we did, but they were toys and he was letting us play with them for an hour. 

And isn't that what people mean when they talk about Doctor Who's homespun quality being part of its charm. Sometimes, the special effects were genuinely bad; more often, they were pretty good; but  they always looked like something someone had made. It was never really true that the sets wobbled: no more so than in any other TV show of the era, anyway. But it is true that there was an awful lot of running down corridors. And the line "all these corridors look the same to me" really did turn up: and not always ironically. And we all understood the reason: it was filmed in a studio; there were a finite number of sets available, so you couldn't always construct an impressive location for an expository scene to happen in, so you had one all purpose length of corridor and put the minor scenes there. 

This, particularly in the Baker era, created a feeling that there was no real geography, no transitions: Tom could pop up wherever he needed to be, wandering about spaceships and nuclear bases with apparent impunity. That capacity to walk into the boss's room and say "I'm the Doctor, this is Romana, would you like a jelly baby?" is far more believable in a universe which we know (deep down) consists of six sets, one corridor, and no space in between them one which plausibly consists of the whole of London, if not the whole of space and time.  The Doctor, like Gandalf, has the capacity to be always exactly where he needs to be. New Who uses, and overuses, devices like psychic paper and the bloody sonic screwdriver to explain how he gets there. In Old Who, he didn't need them so much. We accepted, at some level, that he was in a model universe which someone had built and he could, when he needed to, simply nip behind the scenery.  

So, then: the child man who is both inside and outside your TV is also both inside and outside of the scripts. He knows he's in a play; he knows the walls are really just flats, and he can nip backstage, look behind the backdrop, slip between the cracks. That character is easier to believe in if his world, at some level, looks like a stage set. Looks like something someone has made.

What I am describing as the texture of Doctor Who was -- of course -- the result of the physical limitations of low budget TV. Clearly, nothing of that texture can possibly survive in a programme made on a high budgie, with your newfangled CGI special effects and good actors and well written scripts. And I am not suggesting that it should. The idea that New Who should be made on the same shoestring as Old Who is as silly as the idea that all children should listen to Dick Barton and there should be no TV cookery show but Fanny Craddock. But the idea of the Doctor became what it was because, or partly because, of the physical limitations of the show, and it was, in the end, that idea which made people like Doctor Who in a way that no-one has ever loved any other television programme. 

So it's to Matt Smith we have to look: has he found a away of embodying the idea of the Doctor -- both child and adult; both inside you TV and outside it; both real and fictional; not bound by the script -- in this new modern thing? 

Or is just doing a funny affectionate portrait of a clever autistic man trying to form relationships that Benedict Cumberbatch does much better in Sherlock? 

Mr C.S Lewis once wrote an essay called "Hamlet - The Prince or the Poem?" He argued that critics were too keen to focus on the psychology of the Hamlet himself, a subject that Shakespeare was demonstrably uninterested in, and fail to talk about the structural ambiance of the actual play. (This theory was one of the chief causes of Planet Narnia.) 

So I guess I could have called this essay "Doctor Who: The TV Show or the Time Lord?" Or "The Corridor or the Cosmos?"

Actually, the title it really needed is the one which Andrew Hickey has already taken. "So, Do I Even Like Doctor Who?"

And I could probably have kept it shorter by giving the answer "Yes. Oh yes." 

[*] e.g But accidents will happen by land and by sea
Therefore, to save ourselves from accidents, we needn’t try to flee
For whatsoever God has ordained will come to pass
For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or a piece of glass.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (9)

Everyone knows that, on December 25th 1965, in the seventh episode of The Dalek Master Plan, William Hartnell "broke the fourth wall", appearing to turn to camera and say "A Merry Christmas To All of You At Home." 

In a small way, and in the margins of the Who-text, there is quite a lot of this "acknowledging the audience" stuff -- think of Tom Baker looking into camera and bursting out laughing when he opens up K-9 Mark II at the end of Invasion of Time; or being warned of the return of the Daleks by a BBC continuity announcer. Think of Patrick Troughton warning the viewers that their mummies and daddies might find this weeks episode too frightening; or even Sylvester McCoy winking at us from the title sequence. 

Think also of the blurring of the line between actor and character. Think of Jon Pertwee explaining the Whomobile to Peter Purves on Blue Peter; think of William Hartnell being followed around by children as if he was the Pied Piper; think of Tom Baker...well, just think of Tom Baker. William Hartnell's Christmas greeting may or may not have been ad libbed -- but Tom Baker really did make up his own lines, and the more lines he made up, the more like Tom Baker the Doctor became. If it wasn't quite clear whether it was Tom Baker or Doctor Who signing your book at the school fete, it was equally unclear whether the person playing chess with K-9 or suddenly taking up oil painting was the Doc or Tom. 

Television is weird. The word, as a great man said, is half Greek and half Latin. It's a piece of furniture which sits in the corner of your living room, in front of the proverbial sofa. But it's also as magical as a Narnian wardrobe. Valerie Singleton used to talk about whisking us away "through the magic of television" to the Ivory Coast or France or whatever exotic location she had visited during the summer recess. We had a strange, intimate relationship with TV presenters, which we never presumed to have with the movie "stars". They wore smart suits, talked politely, and regarded themselves (they sometimes used the phrase) as guests in your home. Everyone knows the story about how, one evening in 1977, Doctor Tom became literally the guest in strange families home. It may not be true: but if it wasn't true, it would have been necessary to invent it, and it's an important truth about Tom that stories like that cluster around him. We feel that the TV screen is permeable; if we are looking at the TV presenter, then surely he must be looking back at us. Kids shows like Play School were built on the conceit that Brian Cant and Chloe Aschcroft were relating to the audience on a one-to-one basis: they would pretend to be otherwise occupied, look up in mock surprise and greet the viewer as if he had just arrived in their house; or else they would pretend to be able to hear them joining in with the songs and nursery rhymes they were singing. Dixon of Dock Green did a similar thing. (Speak to the audience, I mean, not recite nursery rhymes.) 

Sometimes, the metaphor seems to be that the magic box in the corner is taking us to strange places; sometimes the presenters seem to be visiting us in our world; sometimes we are asked to imagine that we are visiting them in theirs. 

The magic window. The box that we are both inside and outside at the same time. Transcendental.

The analogy between the TARDIS and the television was made quite explicit by William Hartnell's Doctor: not only did he say that the bigger-inside-than-outside phenomenon was like showing a picture of a skyscraper on a nine inch TV screen, but when the TARDIS refused to go where he wanted it to, he claimed that the horizontal hold was malfunctioning. (Horizontal Hold was the bane of old black and white TVs, which used to make the screen scroll three minutes before your favourite show was about to come on.) The opening credits, which became a tunnel and then merely a starscape, were originally completely abstract, and resembled nothing so much as the random snow and interference you would have seen on an old fashioned TV which wasn’t working properly. Very similar imagery was used in the Outer Limits, which made the connection quite explicit. 


Monday, April 08, 2013

Nothing is more ungentlemanly than

Exaggeration, causing needless pain,

It's worse than spitting, and it stamps a man

Deservedly with other men's disdain.

Weigh human actions carefully. Explain

The worst of them with clarity. Mayhap

There were two sides to that affair of Cain

And Judas was a tolerable chap.


Who Remembered Hills (8)

But, of course, I left two rather important items off my list of things which I like about old Who. Let's add them now:
  • Tom
  • Baker

I liked his wit. I liked his floppy hat. I liked his teeth. I liked the way he was clever enough to get away with being cheeky in the face of authority. 

I didn't, in fact, particular care about his jelly babies. I liked them  -- and of course this is a Type 3 interpretation which I could not have articulated at the time [*]  -- but only because because they were tangible expressions of the Doctorness of the Doctor. He's a grown up, but he has childish, old fashioned sweets in his pockets. My grandfather had sweets in his pocket, but they were serious grown up sweets like extra strong mints and liquorice. [**]

That is why Peter Davison never really worked for me. The jelly babies encapsulated the idea of the schoolboy pretending to be a grown up or the grown up pretending to be a school boy. The stick of celery, not so much. But if we are actually going to find some continuing essence of Doctor Who, that's the place we need to be looking. In the central, Peter Pan conceit. There is a temptation to come over all Joseph Campbell and say that the Doctor is the embodiment of a universal jungian archetype: trickster of somesuch. But he really isn't. He's just a man who thinks that there is no point in being grown up if you can't sometimes be childish.

We think of the yo-yo's and sherbet lemons as being mainly part of the Second Doctor's era. And it is true that Troughton is the definitive Doctor, in the sense of having defined the role for everyone who came after him. Hartnell had been a patronizing old man: almost the first thing Ian had said to him was "Doctor, you are treating us like children." But the child-like thing was already there, despite, perhaps because, he was "really" an old man. It's the first thing the makers of the Really Awful Dalek Movie latch onto when they want a single image to tell new readers what Doctor Who is like. In the opening scene, "Susan" is discovered reading Physics for the Inquiring Mind; , "Barbara" reading The Science of Science and "Doctor Who" reading...the Eagle. ("Most exciting, most exciting.")

"But Andrew: saying that Tom Baker is the best Doctor and that the true essence of Doctor Who is jelly babies tells us nothing except that you were born in 1965. Everyone knows that the Golden Age of Doctor Who is 'about twelve'. All this talk of atmosphere and texture really amounts to a set of audio visual cues which remind you of your last year in junior school. Everybody thinks that the popular culture they grew up with this the best popular culture."

Actually, what everyone thinks is that the popular culture they grew up with is the correct popular culture; the way popular culture would be if political correctness hadn't gone mad. I don't intellectually believe that vinyl is better than MP3: in fact I have never owned a turntable in my life. But it is still obvious that, in the natural order of things, music lives on heavy black discs. I still refer to my music collection as 'records'. (I also say "hang up the phone" and "pull the chain".) I was brought up to believe that English children had enjoyed Dick Barton and Muffin the Mule since the time of Alfred the Great at least, and that my generation had broken the apostolic succession by turning to Rentaghost. Our generation has done the same thing: Blue Peter is obviously part of the natural order of things and has to be kept going at all costs, even though the young folks show no interest i it. (Who cared, or noticed, when the Dandy ceased publication?)

But it must be the case that some things are better than other things; and some things are better than some other things at some particular times. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had to contend with some of the very worst popular music that there has ever been. (Garry Glitter, the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers.) We had a very bland light entertainment culture, give or take an Eric and Ernie. (Val Doonican, for crying out loud. Little and Large. The Black and White actual Minstrels.) On the other hand we lived at a time when Oliver Postgate was creating miniature worlds at the rate of approximately one a year; Blue Peter was being presented by Valjean and Pete and the Wombles and Magic Roundabout weren't half-bad either. If I had had my wish to be born in the 1955, I'd have lived through the Golden Age of pop music and the Totally Forgotten Age of Children's TV. 

I don't think Bagpuss was great because I happen to have been a kid when it was on; I just happen to have been a kid when the best children's programme ever made was being transmitted. Actually I was rather too old for Bagpuss, but that proves my point. I think. How many people have you ever heard claiming that Busy Lizzie was the greatest children's programme of all time?

Tom Baker is not the greatest because he was "my Doctor". But one of the reason that the expression "my Doctor" has gone on meaning something to me for more than thirty years is that I happen to have been twelve years old when the role of the Doctor was being played by the person who most perfectly embodied the part. 

"Embodied" being the operative word. You can't say "Jon Pertwee is playing the same character as William Hartnell, only younger" in the way that you probably can say "Roger Moore is playing the same character as Sean Connory, only worse." The different Doctors are different takes on the idea of the Doctor, and the notion that there is an idea of the Doctor that needs different people to embody it has increasingly been written into the metaphysics of the programme itself. 

I don't know what Patrick Troughton thought he was doing when he played the Doctor. He was probably the kind of actor who didn't think that he was doing anything except remembering his lines and not bumping into the scenery. But I have a strong sense of his Doctor being multiple. When the Second Doctor fools around with a recorder or passes round a bag of sherbet lemons, he isn't playing a role -- pretending to be stupid so people underestimate him. It's really him. He likes the toys and the sweets and the silly hats. But when he confronts the War Chief on his own terms, or makes that series-defining speech about how some areas of the universe have bred the most terrible things, he seems to be something else as well; or instead; or mostly. It's as if sherbet-lemons-Doctor has slipped under cosmic-entity-Doctor, or Sherbet-lemons is floating on a big sea of Cosmic. Which applies to jelly-babies-Doctor and fast-cars-and-gadgets Doctor and bow-tie-and-fez Doctor as well. The trouble with cricket-whites Doctor was the lack of conviction that there was anything very much going on beneath or alongside the stick of celery. 

Every attempt to sum up the Doctorness of the Doctor gets you involved in obvious banalities -- that he always does what is right, that he prefers to solve problems without the use of violets, that his dress sense is questionable at best. True but unhelpful. (Christopher Eccleston rather pointedly avoided all the superficial Doctor signifiers, but was clearly the Doctor. Tennant was full of Edwardian mannerisms, but just didn't seem to get it.) 

So I don't insist on my child-man thing. I merely throw it up in the air.

And I am going to make one other, very tentative, stab in the dark.

Part and parcel of the Doctor's child/man persona is that he transcends categories. He is both real and fictional; inside and outside the TV set; able to break the rules because to some extent he knows he's in a story. And that's what people who say "oh, the home-made quality is part of the charm" are groping towards.


[*] and yes, that is a Type Two comment: do you want me to draw you a venn diagram?

[**] Grown ups bought sweets like that because they smoked and needed to clear their breath. That has literally only just occurred to me. 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (7)

It would be very easy to make a list of thing which Star Trek had in common with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  • Series of fifty minute episodes 
  • Humanistic in outlook 
  • Idealized humans encountered aliens who were mainly characterized by cultural differences. 
  • Human / alien conflicts generally settled peacefully 
  • Conflicts involve a moral dilemma without a right answer 
  • Often involved not-very subtle metaphors for some contemporary issue 
  • Had Gene Roddenbury at the helm

I could, if you wished, add to that list:

  • Included characters called 'Vulcans' 
  • Included characters called 'Klingons 
  • Space ships said to have 'warp drive'

And I suppose that there are people who like Star Trek because it contains Vulcans, Klingons and warp drives; who will put the Star Trek label on anything with Vulcans, Klingons and warp drives and who will take it for granted that anything with the label Star Trek on it is great, even if it even if it re-imagines Captain Kirk as James fucking Dean. But they are wrong. Love it or hate it Star Trek is a type of story; an approach to story telling. You could cut out all the window dressing and still be left with something that was recognisably Star Trek. Abrams cut out everything that was recognisably Star Trek, left us with the window dressing, or at least a sort of parody version of the window dressing, and has now been commissioned to destroy Star Wars as well.

If we tried to do the same exercise with New Who and Old Who, we wouldn't get very far. 

  • Hero is an alien 
  • Travels through time and space 
  • Travels with pretty ladies.  
  • Helps people 
  • Mostly helps people foil alien invasions. 

Or, in fact:

  • Hero travels around and does stuff.

Not much to go on, is it? 

The best definition anyone has so far come up with is "it's all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism" which doesn't get us that much further. And it is the council of despair to say "The essence of Doctor Who is that its essence constantly changing" or "The essence of Doctor Who is that it doesn't have an essence". That's too much like one of those dreadful politicians who say "The French are characterized by their liking for good food; the Arabs by their hospitality; the Japanese by their honour; but the English are characterised by not having a national character but putting up with French, Japanese and Arab johnnies with their funny foreign ideas about food and etiquette." 

So we fall back on characteristics like 

  • Has Silurians 
  • Has Daleks 
  • Has Cybermen
  • Has Tardis
  • Has Sonic Screwdriver
  • Has Time Lords

And cool as some of the Doctor Who window dressing undoubtedly was, and indeed is, the fact that I used to like a TV series in which there was a blue police box with a control room inside it is not much guarantee that I will like a new series in which there is a blue police box with a completely different control room inside it. Some fans do talk as if the presence of some icon or bit of jargon from the old series is a sacred guarantor that New Who is still carrying the torch of Old Who and that there is some corner of a foreign field which is forever 1976. Which is why "Will there be any old monsters?" is such a totemic question. From the beginning of the 1980s, the old show had a fan adviser (cough, cough, Ian Levine, cough, cough) who would ensure that magic words like "UNIT" and "fluid link" were sometimes uttered by Peter Davison. The show honouring its history, they called it. For half a season, we were all ecstatic. Then it got cancelled.