Saturday, March 21, 2020

12.2: Spyfall part 2

In Which The Doctor Is Unbounced 

The Doctor's unique selling point is that she has a Time Machine: so the series has to find new ways of being about Time Travel. Old Who used use history as a source of settings and locations R.T.D and Moffat were more interested in using Time to create complicated four dimensional narrative structures. This week, Chibnall allows the Doctor to jump between three different historical settings in a single episode. If the Doctor is going to encounter the Master again, she might as well encounter him in  Victorian England and World War II Paris. This foregrounds the fact that the Doctor is a Time Traveler and ups the ante a little bit higher. We now know that the Alienses are active right through human history. But it doesn't disrupt narrative causality in the way that Moffat's constructions tended to. 

Very Old Who just dropped the Doctor into an historical genre -- knights in armour or cowboys and Indians or the Scarlet Pimpernel. Less Old Who, from the Time Monster inwards, used historical backdrops to tell the same kinds of alien invasion tales that could just as well have happened in 1980s London. New Who Historicals generally involve the Doctor meeting up with some important historical character and bouncing about how famous and important they are. I rather enjoy seeing the Doctor get starstruck, but speeches about everyone being amazing and important in their own way can get a little wearisome. 

This weeks she meets Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and then leaps forward half a century and meets Nora Baker in Nazi occupied Paris. Ada Lovelace is important to the plot because the Alienses are messing around with the development of computers. Nora Baker just happens to be the nearest famous person to the Doctor when the TARDIS misfires.

The scenes are quite fun: I enjoyed the Master coming over all General Zod and forcing the Doctor to kneel to him. The encounter between the Master and the Doctor at the top of the Eiffel Tower was worth the price of admission on its own. They felt like actual people with interiority and motivations; while also being representatives of an alien civilization with a history that they know about and we don't. A hundred and twenty minutes provides the narrative space for longish conversation of this kind. It is taken for granted that Ada Lovelace is the significant person: Babbage comes across as a typically patronising Victorian male. Sylvia Briggs deserves a lot of kudos for playing Ada completely straight; and the script allows her to talk more or less like a Victorian lady is supposed to talk. 

The three plot threads completely fail to come together in an convincing way. The presence of the Master disrupts everything. Daniel Barton is very plausible as a completely unscrupulous computer whiz kid who is still bitter about his upbringing and needing the approval of his mother. He could have been an interesting baddie in his own right. His speech to the conference about how people have given all their personal data and control over their lives to billionaire tech magnates like him was fairly interesting. There could have been an interesting story about what an amoral character could do with all that information. But all Barton's really does is make a Faustian pact: he sell the human race to the Alienses in return for... 

I am not actually quite clear what he was getting out of the deal. It's hard to see what someone who likes fast cars and parties and prestige would do in a world where all the rest of the human race has been wiped out. And although there is a bit of waffle about how the Alienses are made of data and want to rewrite human DNA because the human mind is the most powerful hard drive in the universe, it really boils down to "They want to conquer the earth because they are Doctor Who baddies and that is what Doctor Who baddies do." 

The presence of the Master saps both the human and the Alien villains of any agency or motivation. The Master does stuff because he's Evil. Barton and the Alienses do things because the Master has manipulated them. The whole scheme was only ever a ruse to get the Doctor's attention so the Master can tell her what he has discovered about the True History of Gallifrey. 

I guess the Master has to exist. Once you have had the idea of a traveler who bounces through history doing Good Things, the idea that she has a counterpart who growls through history doing bad things is irresistible. In some way, the Monk was a better idea: a naughty version of the Doctor who mucks around with history because it's fun. The Monk had an objective: the Master is evil for the sake of being evil; because being evil annoys the Doctor. Delgado and Ainley were Punch and Judy devils; John Simm redefined that character as a psychotic imp, with a sadomasochistic crush on the Doctor. Missy was pure, genre bending camp and quite brilliant at it. If a series allows character to regenerate, this is what regeneration should look like: versions of the same character who are completely unlike one another. It is easy enough to believe that Jodie Whittaker is a different manifestation of David Tennant. Believing that John Simm and Michelle Gomez are the same person requires an act of faith.

Sacha Dhawan can definitely act. But he's doing John Simms all over again: a grinning, gleeful, Luicferian clown. 

The Master's revelations -- that Gallifrey is dead, again, and that there is something unpleasant in Gallifreyan history that even the Doctor doesn't know about -- noticeably changes Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. We find out that she can brood as well as bounce. The final scene, with her separated from the rest of the TARDIS crew while Graham awkwardly asks her questions about her identity, fixes a lot of what was broken in the last season. Bradley Walsh is wonderful in scenes like this, when he has to act as the grown-up member of the crew: I wish Chibnall could resist the temptation to use him as comic relief in other scenes.


Back in Human Nature, Paul Cornell playfully claimed that the Doctor's parents were named Sydney and Verity. In An Adventure and Time and Space, Sacha Dhawan did a very good turn as Waris Hussain. So it is now canonically true that the Master produced the First Doctor.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, March 20, 2020

12.1 Spyfall part 1

You Only Live Thirteen Times

I can tolerate any Doctor Who story no matter how silly, provided Stuff Happens: and in tonight's season opener, stuff never stopped happening. Secret agents killed in the the pre-cred. Yaz, Ryan and Graham kidnapped by the Men in Black in the opening scenes. The kidnappers assassinated by their own sat-nav. Lenny Henry as Evil Steve Jobs. Stephen Fry as -- well, to be honest, Stephen Fry as Stephen Fry. And that's before the plot has really got started. Doctor Who benefits tremendously from 60 minute episodes: this one whizzes past at a full sprint, with each short scene releasing a new plot development into the wild. It is recognisably a Doctor Who story, but it is specifically a Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who story. You couldn't imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant in this one. 

Doctor Who has always been about appropriating imagery from other genres. This isn't merely a spy story; it is very definitely a James Bond story. Something suspiciously like the 007 theme tune plays in the background when our heroes arrive in the MI6 building, and when they leap onto hot-wired motorbikes to chase Lenny Henry's limo. You never expected Doctor Who to do realistic spies or John Le Care spies or even a Daniel Craig version of James Bond. This is a world of smart suits, anesthetic darts and shoe mounted laser guns. You expect Roger Moore to walk in at any moment. 

Spy stories are all about cheating and deception and sneaking around: the Doctor comes back loaded with sonic screwdrivers and psychic paper and a computer which can translate every language in the universe. Yaz and Ryan do their best to crank up the tension when they have to infiltrate the IT magnate's high security corporate offices. Ryan panics and is way out of his depth while Yaz tries to hold things together. But we know that the Doctor will find the answer using pixie dust before the episode ends.

This is a Doctor Who story: so the solution to the mystery is that the spies are being killed by Aliens. The Aliens are killing spies because they want to conquer the world, no, sorry, universe. The Aliens want to conquer the universe because they are Alienses and that is how they roll. 

Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were both massive Doctor Who fans. But they weren't the kinds of fan which obsessed about the furniture. They wanted to make good TV first and good Doctor Who second. Chibnall's particular kind of fannishness involves laying down a trail of Plot Biscuits and immediately consuming them himself. A good Doctor Who story is one that brings back a famous old enemy. The best Doctor Who story would be one that totally redefined who the Doctor was. 

Some of you may have seen a popular American situation comedy set in the afterlife; and some of you will know that at a certain point there is a major revelation in which one character turns out to be not at all who you thought he was. And when you go back and watch the series again, it is quite clear that this was set up from the beginning. There are hints and "tells" all the way through. 

You may also have read a series of children's books about a training academy for young wizards. In one of those stories, there is a nice teacher who is consistently presented as a nice teacher; who indeed dispenses excellent and wise advise to the protagonist; until the very final scene in which it turns out that the nice teacher had actually spent the whole novel tied up in a cellar while a nasty teacher took his place and was only pretending to be nice. There was no way you could possibly have guessed. This felt so fraudulent as to spoil the rest of the series for me. 

Go back and have a look at the scene in which "O", the retired spy specializing in extraterrestrial stuff, goes into the TARDIS for the first time. He is surprised and full of wonder, just as anyone would be going into the TARDIS for the first time. There are hints that he knows slightly more about the Doctor than he is letting on, but not the slightest hint that he is anything other than he appears. Only in the final scene does Chibnall pull out of thin air the shock revelation that O was the Master all along.  

This is not a convincing narrative development. In fact, it is barely a narrative development at all. The big revelation is not that an apparently nice spy is actually a nasty spy pretending to be nice. The big revelation is that THE MASTER IS BACK; THE MASTER HAS BEEN RECAST; and THE MASTER IS NOW BEING PLAYED BY AN ASIAN ACTOR

So long as you don't care to much about narrative coherence and are thrilled about having a new picture to glue into your "many faces of the master" montage, the last ten minutes of the episode are very well done indeed. Chibnall keeps turning the jeopardy levels higher and higher.

Our heroes get on board Daniel's private jet through a cargo door after it has already taken off! "O", who everyone thought was on our side, is really the Master, who everyone thought was dead!! Daniel isn't piloting the plane after all!!! There is a bomb in the pilot's seat!!!! Surely "will the bomb explode" must be the cliffhanger? But no... Chibnall lays down another plot biscuit. "Everything you think you know is a lie" says the Master!!!!! The bomb goes off!!!!!! And the Doctor is transported to an alien dimension!!!!!!! 

The problem with this kind of story is that the stakes are so high -- both in terms of dead companions, the possible destruction of planet earth, and the Master's promised shocking revelations -- that we doubt if the next episode can possibly live up to them. 

Ryan promises that he will not let Yaz die, which makes her "companion least likely to survive the season." Given her supposed background, it would have been nice if she could have felt a little bit uncomfortable at a party replete with alcohol and gambling.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Doctor Who: The Unravelling Text


Truth never changes,
And Beauty's her dress,
And Good never changes,
Which those two express.

The TARDIS has been destroyed. The Doctor is stuck on one particular planet. Next season will be composed of a single, long "arc" about that planet. The one after that will involve the Doctor hitching a ride on a series of spaceships to try to find their way home. 

Nothing will ever be the same again...

The Doctor has died and not regenerated. They gave their life nobly to save their friends, the earth and the universe. They leave the TARDIS and give Graham the keys, saying "I've got no further use for these." Next season, Graham, Yaz and Ryan will, in their bumbling way, try to look after the universe with technology they don't understand. 

Nothing will ever be the same again...

The Doctor has finally gone over to the Dark Side. The much trailed "Dark Doctor" has arrived. Jodie Whittaker was the Valeyard all along! They spend the next season coming up with malevolent plans just like the Master. No, worse, they try to irresponsibly use their great powers to change time and space for the better. Their former companions and foes have to come together to stop them. 

Nothing will ever be the same again!

The Doctor commits suicide in order to destroy a new alien race ­— regenerating Cyber Time Lords, for the sake of argument. They are totally dead: their story is over. But the series is not over, because it turns out that there were many, many Doctors before the one we have always thought of as the First. No one actor will replace Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor; but the next few seasons will be set in different times and different places with different actors in the role of the Doctor. 

Nothing will ever be the same again!


It is highly unlikely that in any of the above scenarios nothing would really ever be the same again. What one writer can write another writer can undo. The TARDIS can be fixed; the Doctor can recover from their death. But each situation would genuinely change Doctor Who for at least several seasons.

Almost the whole point of popular culture is that it doesn't change. Spider-Man, Paddington Bear and Kellogs Cornflakes are fixed points in an increasingly confusing world. That is why people complain that the BBC axed the Test Card or that the label on the HP Sauce bottle is different from the one they remember. Everything else keeps changing, so why can't my bacon sandwiches stay the same? Actual grown ups are actually saying that one of the actual benefits from Britain seceding from the European Union is that the cover of replacement passports will be blue instead of red.

In 2007 it was widely reported that Captain America was definitely and completely dead: and indeed there were several years' worth of stories in which the Falcon and Bucky and the anti-communist Cap from the 1950s tried to fill his red, white and blue shoes. But anyone who has ever read a comic knows that when a major character gets knocked down, he can also get up again. Resurrections can happen relatively easily within the framework of the story, and if that fails, comic book universes periodically reboot and revert to the status quo. It is quite fun to pretend that Thor has retired from thundegodding and handed the hammer over to a thundergoddess, but no-one apart from journalists and sad puppies believe this to be a permanent arrangement.

Every decade or so D.C Thompson announces that Dennis the Menace is going to start wearing blue denims, or a hoodie, or whatever the current fashion is, and sure enough, three weeks later, he is back in his iconic, identifiable and eminently trade-markable black and red stripey jumper. The same newspapers are surprised every six to eighteen months that he no longer gets hit by his father even though that hasn't been a running gag in the comic since the 1970s.) Characters change; but they change incrementally. There was no one moment when we looked at Superman and said "Nothing will ever be the same again." But the Superman of 2020 is hardly recognizable as the Superman of 1939.


There have been at least five points in the history of Doctor Who when we could truly have said "Nothing will ever be the same again."

1: The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)

The Dalek Invasion of Earth ended with the Doctor's grand-daughter, Susan, leaving the TARDIS to marry David Cameron. Nothing was ever the same again. Doctor Who was no longer an ensemble piece ­— the William and William and Jacqueline and Carol show. The centre of gravity shifted to William Hartnell. Everyone else was down-graded to one of a potentially infinite series of temporary "companions". Susan's exit also functionally amputated a chunk of the show's central mystery. She was the original unearthly child, and the problem of her relationship with the Doctor would never now be resolved. When we finally learned the secret of the Doctor's origins, and when, even later, they returned home, Susan was not mentioned.

2: The Tenth Planet (1966)

By 1966, we had had three complete change-overs in TARDIS personnel: from Susan and Ian and Barbara to Steven and Vicki and thence to Ben, Polly and Dodo. But you could no more imagine Doctor Who without William Hartnell. than you could imagine the Avengers without Patrick McNee. But the Tenth Planet ended with William Hartnell changing into Patrick Troughton. Nothing was ever the same again. Doctor Who was now bigger than any one actor. Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker could have stints as the current doctor or the new doctor, but no one would ever again be the Doctor.

3: The War Games (1969)

And then, three years later, the Doctor went home. We were told the name of their own people, and learned how they came to be wandering in the fourth dimension in the first place. Nothing was ever the same again. Of course, we knew already that the Doctor was a renegade from a very advanced alien species with the secret of time travel: we just found out that the very advanced aliens were called Time Lords and that the Doctor ran away because they were bored. But "I was a pioneer once, among my own people" has one effect on our imaginations. "Frankly I made such a nuisance of myself that the High Council of the Time Lords banned the things..." feels quite different. If the Time Lords had never been identified you might possibly still have had the Master. But you probably would never have had Morbius or Omega.

The War Games changed Doctor Who in a much more immediate and radical way. The TARDIS was stranded on earth for two and a bit seasons. The series became about the relationship between the eccentric, amnesiac alien scientist and the no-nonsense British brigadier. And the Doctor never quite left 20th century England behind. Some people say that Doctor Who was effectively cancelled in 1969 and replaced with a different show which happened to have the same title. This is an exaggeration, but a good way of visualizing just how radically the show changed.

4: The Deadly Assassin (1976)

Then came the Deadly Assassin. Fans spotted immediately that the Deadly Assassin was a radical change of direction. Fans were angry. Some of them, I recently learned are still angry. Deadly Assassin went back and overwrote the War Games. It reinvented the Time Lords: pretty much the whole of what we now think of as Doctor Who mythology comes from that one story. It did what it did consciously and deliberately. Nothing was ever the same again. Jan Vincent Rudski (who wrote an infamous review of the episode at the time) still thinks that Robert Holmes was ignorant of the show's lore. I find this hard to believe. He rightly saw that a race of omnipotent, god-like aliens with a non-intervention policy were of no dramatic use; but a space Vatican with colleges of Cardinals jockeying for power had numerous narrative possibilities.

5: The Girl in the Fireplace (2005) and Doomsday (2005)

What would have happened if Doctor Who had stayed on air through the 1990s? We know that the final script editor had a multi-season story arc up his sleeve: this would have changed Time Lord mythology a third time, and given the Doctor a much more pivotal position in their people's history. Things like Ghost Light and Greatest Show in the Galaxy pointed to a version of Doctor Who that would have been more atmospheric and surreal; and there were some clumsy attempts to sledgehammer some mystery back into the Doctor's character. But the series was cancelled before this could become any more than a few broad hints.

The Doctor Who which finally reappeared on the TV in 2005 was not interested in any Cartmell Masterplan. The idea of the Time War echoes down the Seasons; but it is functionally a metaphor for the fact that Doctor Who has been off air for a decade. On an episode by episode basis "I am a Time Lord" is not that much different from "I am the Last Time Lord." The really big moment came in the second season, when the Doctor started to openly flirt with Reinette; and in the over-wrought farewell to Rose at the end of the season. I said at the time that I felt as if the classic series had been put to death and replaced with something different; and I do not think I was wrong. Tom Baker and absolutely everyone else who ever watched the old series thinks that the Doctor was an asexual being: Rusell T. Davies started to put them into love stories. Doctor Who became a rom-com about a series of human women and their doomed relationship with an unattainable deity. Old Who was about the situations the Doctor and their companions found themselves in; New Who was about the relationship between the companions and the Doctor. Nothing was ever the same again.


So. In Spyfall the Master tells the Doctor that everything they think they know is a lie. The BBC trailer for Fugitive of the Judoon emphasizes that we had already had one great big revelation, but an even bigger one is on the way. And Ascension of the Cybermen winds up with the Master repeating "everything you think you know is about to change forever". He is partly talking at the Doctor but he is mostly talking at the Doctor's fans.

This is hype. And it is meta-textual hype. You have to have bought into the history of Doctor Who in a very particular way to care that the history of Gallifrey is about to be changed.

Can any story actually deliver on this much hype? Can a single revelation actually change the entire fifty seven year history of Doctor Who? And would it matter if it did? Is the Doctor Who we are left with more interesting than the one which existed before?

The Doctor can say “I am half human on my mother's side” as often as they want: if nothing interesting follows from it we forget all about it almost immediately. Jan Vincent Rudski can spend forty-four years sulking about Deadly Assassin spoiling the War Games, but scheming archbishops with twelve regenerations are firmly and irrevocably embedded in the narrative because they are interesting. Lore counts for nothing: only story matters.

So what just happened?

The Doctor's back story changed. The Doctor is no longer merely a renegade Time Lord. They are now a special Time Lord, the Time Lord from whom all other Time Lords were cloned. Their story no longer begins when they stole a TARDIS and went on the run: it turns out they have lived many, many lives before that. For some of those lives, they were working for the Celestial Intervention Agency — mercifully renamed “the department” — but records of this have been deleted from the Matrix.

What follows from this? Why, apart from adding some new pages to our I Spy Book of Doctor Who Lore, should we care?

Back when the world was black and white, the primary characteristic of the Doctor was that they were Mysterious. Not surprisingly, after 57 years, a lot of that mystery has been eroded. It isn't just that we've known the name of their people since 1969 and the name of their planet since 1973 and the address of their planet since 1976. It's that over the years, writers stopped treating the Doctor's past as if it were mysterious. Romana took the mickey out of the Doctor because they had had to do retakes of their Time-lording exams. Borusa treated them as a rather naughty undergraduate; and Drax called them by their college nickname. By the time Peter Davison relinquished their stick of celery, learning about the Doctor's past escapades on Gallifrey was no different from learning about what Jim Kirk did at Star Fleet Academy. Moffat and Davies both gave us flashbacks to the Doctor's childhood: but to their credit they presented those scenes as if they were slightly transgressive; letting audiences in on secrets that they weren't really supposed to know.

Like Andrew Cartmell, Chris Chibnall has shoe-horned some "mystery" into the Doctor's backstory. We can no longer say "The Doctor comes from Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterburus". We have to say "No-one knows where the Doctor comes from." We know all about their fifteen lives since running away from Gallifrey; but we know nothing about the many, many lives they had before that. And neither do they. We definitely don't know anything about the even more mysterious period when they were working for the CIA.

I think that it was a mistake to write it into the series that William Hartnell was literally the first Doctor. I think it would have been better to have left that vague. I think that that is probably what Philip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes had in mind when they frivolously dropped pre-Hartnell faces into the Mind Wrestling scene in Brain of Morbius. 

I was eleven when that scene was first shown. I didn't think "Omigod everything I thought I knew has changed." I thought "Oh, other Doctor's before the first one; I never knew that." William Hartnell already seemed a fantastically long, mythological time in the past: a time before Andrew was born. A time deleted by the BBC.

But it has, in fact, been stated frequently that the First Doctor was the first Doctor; that the Doctor has lived thirteen, or depending on how you count it, fifteen lives. And on a day-to-day, Doctor-Who-watching basis, this shouldn't matter. Doctor Who is still about a madwoman with a magic box who defeats evil aliens whether they have had three past lives or fifty three. Chibnall has written a huge amount of new back-story to correct an aesthetic niggle that didn't make very much difference in the first place.

Either we will find out what the Doctor did when they were working for the CIA, or we won't. If we do, then either they were doing good things which benefited the universe or they were not.. If they were then they were already the Doctor we know and love. If they did bad things on the Time Lords behalf then they have a new skeleton in their cupboard (which is presumably bigger on the inside than the outside). But they must, a very long time ago, have had a change of heart. They may not always have been the Doctor but they are quite definitely the Doctor now.

Either we will find out where the Timeless Children originated, or we will not. If we do not, then the Doctor is still the Doctor, but with a slightly more nebulous point of origin. If we do, then they will turn out to have come from a race even ancienter and powerfuller and mysteriouser than the Time Lords. The Even Timier Lords. And that doesn't make a great deal of difference. The Doctor is still an ancient, powerful, august, godlike being who presents as a human boffin with a liking for jelly babies. Or as it may be, custard creams.

The Doctor has had previous lives: but their memories of those lives has been erased, and at some point a couple of thousand years ago, they were turned into a child. It isn't quite clear how "All your memories were wiped and you were turned into a baby" and "You were killed" are two different propositions. I seem to recall that Krishna tells Prince Arjun that it is okay that friends and kinsfolk are about to slaughter each other in a catastrophic war, because everyone who dies will be reincarnated. Arjun objects that this doesn't mitigate the horror, because he will not know or recognize his brothers when he meets them in future lives. This seems to be a good point.

We have largely accepted that when the Doctor dies, they really die: the consciousness of that individual is extinguished. Doctor David and Doctor Matt certainly appeared to experience their regenerations as if it was the end of their lives. But the memories and experiences of the dying Doctor are carried over into their new form. Doctor Peter will never experience being Doctor Jodie ­— they are dead. But Doctor Jodie has the memories of Doctor Peter. If the memories of the Minus Onth and Minus Second Doctors have been wiped out, in what sense can Doctor Jodie be said to have been them?

The Timeless Children has changed Doctor Who in one solid way: there are potentially many hundreds of different Doctors bouncing around the universe, having adventures in many hundreds of different TARDISes. Writers can write multiple Doctor stories to their hearts content: they are not limited to cameos by ageing 70s actors and unconvincing William Hartnell lookylikies. You could have a new Doctor without a regeneration scene: "This season happens to be about that time thirty thousand years ago when the Doctor had regenerated as a frog." Chibnall has opened up the possibilities for more stories, and more kinds of story.

The Minus Exth Doctor we have actually been shown ­— Jo Martin ­— seems to be almost indistinguishable from every other post reboot Doctor. They have the same eccentricity, the same moral compass, the same terrible dress sense, the same stolen TARDIS and indeed the same broken chameleon circuit. We have not discovered that Doctor is more multiple than we thought but that they is more singular. There are lots of Doctors running round the universe but they all have a police box, a screwdriver and a habit of carrying on conversations with themselves.

It doesn't really make any difference if the Doctor is black, white or oriental; it doesn't make any difference if the Doctor is masculine, feminine or neuter: they are still the Doctor. I don't know if that is reassuringly egalitarian or horribly racist. Gender and race are not really part of who your; they are just superficial add-ons to your true self. I suppose that is implicit in the whole idea of regeneration; if you can switch your whole body and still be the same person than bodies can't have much to do with who you are.


"How many children had Lady Macbeth" is a proverbially unanswerable question. The only answers are "It doesn't matter"; "Shakespeare was inconsistent"; or "She didn't have any. She didn't really exist." This hasn't stopped a certain kind of scholar building great critical theories on the fact that Lady Macbeth must have had kids ("I have given suck") who died ("He has no children!). Or that she has children by a previous marriage. Or that she at one time worked as a wet nurse. Most critics think this is not a very fruitful way of approaching a text.

Some Doctor Who fans ­— and by "some Doctor Who fans" I obviously mean Ian Levine ­— seem not to be able to imagine any question apart from the "how-many-children-had-lady-macbeth" kind. The only pleasure they get out of Doctor Who is treating it as if it were literally true ­— an accurate portrayal of incidents in the life of a real person ­— and building up complex histories and biographies using the TV show as data. Even more oddly, they insist on treating all thousand and something episodes as if they made up a single text. Even worse, they try to treat each component of that text ­— each 60 year old episode ­— as if it were a fly-on-the-wall recording of actual events. If Susan Foreman said something in the Sensorites or the Edge of Destruction then she really said it. It can be reinterpreted but it can never be unsaid.

"How will these new ideas affect the future of Doctor Who?" is a perfectly sensible question to ask about the Timeless Children, just as it was a sensible question to ask about the Deadly Assassin or the War Games. Will next season's stories, set in a universe where there are potentially an infinite number of Doctor's be more or less interesting than they would have been if they had still been set in universe where there is only one? But the deal-breaker, for Mr Levine and others, is the affect which the Timeless Children supposedly has on past stories. Doctor Jo's TARDIS already looks like a TARDIS ­— a London Police Box from the 1950s. But in the Cave of Skulls ­— the second ever episode of Doctor Who, December 1964 ­— William Hartnell is surprised and alarmed that the TARDIS has jammed in the Police Box form. So the TARDIS can't have been that shape before; so the Timeless Children makes the text incoherent. If you accept Chibnall's story as part of the text, then Unearthly Children is no longer literally fly-on-the-wall camcorder "true". If you accept the historical truth of Unearthly Child, then you reject the Timeless Children. You either acknowledge that Doctor Who is not a single coherent text; or you fulminate against Chibnall as a betrayer of the canon.

It's a very odd way of consuming TV.

It is definitely true that in 1963, a comic book was published in which a dislikeable nerd called Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. And it is certainly true that the character currently appearing in the Amazing Spider-Man comic book was bitten by a radioactive spider years ago when he was a dislikeable nerd. But we do not insist on him having worn 1950s fashion and spoken 1950s slang and thinking of the Beatles as a new and innovative band. Nor do we claim that the present Spider-Man is 74 years old. Amazing Fantasy #15 is the source-text from which our consensus memory of Spider-Man was created. It is not the memory itself.

"I am a Time Lord from Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterburus. I can regenerate thirteen times. I stole a TARDIS and ran away." That is what exists in the collective memory of fandom: that is the lore. "Susan Foreman made up the name TARDIS from the acronym" is a curious piece of writing in an ancient text. It may be where "the lore" came from; it is not "the lore" itself.. [*]

We are happy enough to treat what happens on the screen as a mere picture or representation of "what really happened". We never say "The anthropology of the Doctor Who universe must be radically different from ours, because cave men spoke in posh British accents and conformed to BBC standards of modesty." We never say "The Doctor's trial changed the physical nature of the universe: up to that point, time and space had been monochrome, but afterwards, the cosmos was in colour" or "Why were their no toilets in the doctor who universe until 2005")[**]  or "Why did the first generation of Daleks have cardboard cut-outs of themselves in their base." 

We accept that this kind of thing is an artefact of story telling: that Doctor Who was more primitive in those days. We might talk about the old school special effects and prissy BBC social attitudes as artistic blemishes; we might on the other hand quite enjoy the retro feel; but we don't ask why spaceships in the 30th century will dangle on pieces of wire. So why are the scripts so immutable?

In the second century of the Christian era, a writer named Marcion declared that Christianity was basically a massive ret-con of the Old Testament, and that everything everyone thought they knew was wrong. The Old Testament was a lie, the God who Jesus was son of was a different God from the one the Jews believed in, and nearly all the Christian scriptures were false. He declared that Matthew, Mark and John were #notmygospels and that only a handful of Paul's letters counted. This seems to have been the main reason that Christians came up with a "canon" of authoritative texts: if Marcion was making lists of books which weren't authentic, they needed a list of texts which were.

"Canon" is not unimportant, whether you are talking about the Bible or Doctor Who. If you are telling a story which follows on from another story then you have to know what story it follows on from. When Walt Disney acquired Star Wars it made perfect sense to say "from the point of view of The Force Awakens, none of the comic-books, video games, cartoons or novels about the Star Wars characters really happened: only the main movies." But it is that "from the point of view of" which makes the difference. The so-called "Extended Universe" novels still exist, and are still in print, and you can read them if you want to. Some fans somehow thought that their reading experiences were invalidated by the new movies: even that the time they had spent reading had been wasted. But that is not the only way of thinking about this stuff. I am sure that readers of TV comic in the 1960s understood perfectly well that the adventures of "Doctor Who" and their two grand children "John and Gillian" were not canon, in the sense that John and Gillian could never appear or be referred to on TV. But they still enjoyed them. Hell, at the age of 6 I understood perfectly well that Sooty and Sweep had legs in the comic but not in the TV show.

Some fans have responded to An Untimely Children by saying that discussions of Doctor Who canon are rendered pointless: that the history of the Doctor is now so vast and so multiple that anything and everything is now "canonical". I do not understand how this works. I am rather fond of Peter Cushing and Their Amazing Technicolour Daleks. I don't see how my pleasure has become more legitimate because I can say "Maybe they were one of the ten thousand avatars of the Timeless Children." I don't foresee a moment in the next season when the Thirteenth Doctor says "Gee, I now remember that time when I was an Eagle-reading human living on earth with two grandchildren who mysteriously had the same name as my legitimate Gallifreyan kid and her history teacher." I don't see how the Timeless Children permits the Doctor to say "And then, of course, I had exactly the same adventure at the same public school, twice, once when I was Sylvester McCoy and once when I was David Tennant." I don't even see how An Untimely Child allows me to pretend that,say, the Big Finish and the New Adventures versions of Paul McGann are both true. 

And I couldn't possibly see why it matters. Fan fiction writers can, and probably already are, creating stories about Previous Doctors, probably including dirty bits. But fan fiction writers have always done all kinds of crazy shit, with or without permission. That is what they are for.


So. This time next year, if the human race survives, the Doctor will have some thrilling adventures. They will land on alien planets and thwart alien invasions. There will be Daleks, and there will be at least one other alien life form which fans have heard of but casual viewers don't remember. The Doctor will pick up three new companions of mixed heritage, and in the final episode Jodie will have some flashbacks and regenerate into a black guy. That is the format: that is how Doctor Who has always been. Nothing will change.

At some point, this year or next year, they will encounter a past version of themselves that we hadn't seen before. This will be on one level quite fun, because new casting revelations and new Doctors are always exciting, and at another level, quite boring, because "new Doctor" will become a lazy cliche to fall back on when inspiration fails.

By season 14, "there are many thousands of Doctors in the universe and even the Doctor doesn't know who they are" will be an a true thing that has always been a part of Doctor Who lore; or else "it was once implied that there were many other versions of the Doctor" will be an esoteric fact that only fans remember.

Since Doctor Who rebooted, we have been concerned that it is over-reliant on Regeneration: both as a plot device and as a way of generating public interest. No sooner is one Doctor cast than the speculation begins about who The Next One will be. And each time, we go through the same questions: could the next Doctor be black; could they be a woman; could they be an all American tough guy who thinks with their fists? The answer to all of those questions is "yes, they could be, but it wouldn't really be very interesting if they were" A better question would be "Could the next Doctor be really old, like Gandalf? Could they be a small, brilliant seven-year old? Is there any reason they couldn't regenerate as a Zygon or an Artificial Intelligence?"

I grant that the Big Reveal at the end of Name of the Doctor ­— that there was an twelfth Doctor who had never been mentioned on TV ­— was pretty dramatic. But that's the sort of stunt you can only pull once in a lifetime. The result of Timeless Children may be that "And introducing ­— Wendy Craig as the Doctor" will become one more over used cliffhanger. If there are an infinite number of Doctor's in the universe than famous actors who would never commit to a three year stint will be queuing up to have a go.

That is certainly a little bit different. But it is not very much more interesting.

[*]Time Lords are very old, and someone must have coined the name "TARDIS" and there is no logical reason why it can't have been a member of the Doctor's family. But "Susan suggested the name to Rassilon during the Dark Times" does not redeem the literal text of Unearthly Child. In Unearthly Child, the TARDIS is the Doctor's machine and their smart kid thought up a funny name. Darth Vader is the murderer of Luke Skywalker's father. Jean Grey committed suicide on the moon; Bucky Barnes died in World War II.

[**] There was a sign pointing to a public lavatory as early as 1969

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, March 09, 2020

13.2 Planet of Evil

The Doctor and Sarah are strapped onto slabs in a morgue. Salamar, the deranged space captain pushes a button, and they slide off into space.

The story has gone to some trouble to set this up. Earlier in the episode, crewmen Morelli was gruesomely killed by one of the red glowing anti-matter ghosts that has infested the space ship. He was given a decent, if perfunctory, funeral. His body was placed on one of the mortuary conveyor belts; a tape recording of the last rites ("Morestran Orthodox") was played, and his body slid out into space. So we know what the conveyor belt is for and what is going to happen when the button is pressed.

Quite why Captain Salamar is going to all this trouble is not clear. Even if he sincerely believes that the Doctor and Sarah are killing off his crew, he hasn't bothered with anything like a court martial or a trial, so why we would he follow the protocols of an execution? (I could never figure out why pirates made captives walk the plank rather than just chucking them overboard.) It is, however, a stonking excuse for a cliffhanger; morbid and sadistic, putting our heroes in mortal danger at the end of Episode 3, but giving them a sporting chance of escaping at the beginning of episode 4.

It is like one of those elaborate death traps that villains used to leave Adam West in on alternate Saturdays. No, no, no: you can't leave Blast Off Basil like that! 


Planet of Evil is different from Terror of the Zygons. If you half close your eyes and squint, you could almost mistake it for science fiction. 

I sometimes talk about "conceptual" fiction, particularly when trying to justify a liking for badly written sci fi. It can certainly be enjoyable to have big ideas presented to us, even if the story in which those big ideas turn up is very weak indeed. But in truth, an idea has to be very big indeed to justify a bad story; or else the bad story has to be so overflowing with big ideas that it makes you dizzy. If you are Philip K. Dick or Clifford D. Simak you might be able to pull it off. If you are Louis Marx, not so much. 

But still: Planet of Evil has got ideas in it, in a way that Terror of the Zygons really didn't. The Zygons and the Loch Ness Monster were plot devices. No-one was remotely interested in how a semi-organic spaceship was meant to work; or what it would feel like if respected members of your community kept turning out to be big orange space aliens. The spaceship, the dinosaur, and the shape changers were only there to provide a pretext for the Doctor and Sarah to get captured and escape over and over again. The Anti-Matter Universe and the Anti-Matter Ghost, on the other hand, are what Planet of Evil is about. The idea of their being such a monster is supposed to be exciting and interesting enough to carry the story. There's certainly no other reason to be interested in it.

People sometimes compare Planet of Evil with Forbidden Planet. And certainly it is about a mad or maddish scientist who is the sole survivor of a previous expedition; and certainly it is about the military expedition which comes to rescue him; and certainly everyone is menaced by an incorporeal entity; and certainly they both have the word "planet" in the title. On the other hand, Professor Sorenson shows no sign of having a beautiful daughter or a robot companion. And the core psychological dynamic from the movie -- that the monster is a projection of the scientist's psyche -- is entirely absent in the Doctor Who version. The Planet is simply Evil and very much not a part of Sorenson's Id. 

Doctor Who villains are very often jumped up tax-men and civil servants; would-be fascists or school-yard bullies. Rarely do we get this kind of antagonist: one who is simply evil; simply alien; simply Other. 

We are supposedly on the very last planet in the universe. But it looks like every other planet the Doctor has ever visited. As a matter of fact, it looks very much like Skaro; a dense alien jungle full of trees and creepers. For those of us with long memories, Sarah's trek back to the TARDIS to retrieve the "spectromix" recalls Susan's race across the petrified forest to get the anti-radiation gloves.

It may be thirty thousand years in the future; but the science base looks very like a Portakabin, and Prof Sorenson's room looks like a study bedroom in a provincial university. The crew of the rescue ship from Morestran look like every other spaceman we have ever encountered. With their tunics and their futuristic shoulder pads, they could perfectly well be mistaken for Thals. None of them is called Tarrant. 

When we say that Zeta Major looks like an alien jungle; we mean, of course, that it looks like a BBC mock up of an alien jungle. Terror of the Zygons was filmed in Sussex and in London and in a quarry; Planet of Evil is completely studio-bound. But that artificiality tends to work in the story's favour. We know from the very beginning that what we are watching is a play; so we accept it as such. The stage set represents the jungle, rather well. We aren't inclined to say "it's only a back drop" any more than we would say that Danger Mouse is "only a drawing" or Virgil Tracey is "only a puppet." 

In Episode 2, the Doctor is chased through the jungle by a remote-controlled spy-drone. It is perfectly clear that the drone is "only" a model: it is obviously being moved across a back-projection of Tom Baker running through the jungle set, and rarely leaves the bottom left hand corner of the screen. But it never draws attention to its own ridiculousness. It conveys what it needs to convey and we accept it as such. Technically it isn't that much better than the Skarasen; but our imagination accepts a model drone moving in front of a back-projected jungle more easily than it accepts a glove puppet dinosaur moving across a London street scene. 

This is a science fiction story which is completely uninterested in science. It appears that if you travel a sufficient distance, the universe has a literal edge; and that if you travel beyond that point -- which you can do, but shouldn't -- you end up in a different universe. Space is like a flat earth you could theoretically sail over the edge of. But on the planet Zeta Minor there is a great big pit; and in that pit lives a monster made and that monster comes from the Anti-Matter universe and is made of Anti-Matter. So the other universe is more like a parallel world, entered through a dimensional portal. But what Sorenson is taking from the planet are lumps of crystal which contain sufficient energy to reboot the Sun and solve the energy crisis. This is much more like anti-matter in a classic scientific or science fictional sense: a limitless, but very dangerous, source of energy. The edge of space; a parallel universe; dilithium crystals: the term "anti-matter" does for all three.

Of course, Doctor Who is a show that can't always remember that "galaxies", "solar systems" and "constellations" are three different things. So the writer could just be throwing vaguely sciencey terms at us with no particular interest in what they mean. But the ambiguity seems to be a part of the poetics of the story. "From the beginning of time, the other universe has existed side by side with the known universe" explains the Doctor. "Each is the antithesis of the other. You call it nothing, a word to cover ignorance, then centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. Antimatter, they called it". 

Anti-matter crystals are scientifically dangerous. They might blow up. But they are also taboo: one of those pesky secrets that man was not meant to know. The creature from the pit will not let the scientists leave with his crystals. It drags the ship back to the planet's surface when they try to go home. It starts to kill the human interlopers -- rather gruesomely by Doctor Who standards; draining their moisture and leaving them as pre-decayed corpses. 

This plot doesn't leave much space for anything very interesting to happen. The Anti-Matter ghost manifests and scares everyone; Sorenson ingests anti-matter and turns into a monster; crew members get freeze-dried. There is none of the revelation and escalation which characterized Ark in Space, and none of the B movie sugar coating which helps Terror of the Zygons slip down easily.  

The rescue spaceship is unfortunately commanded by Inspector Javert. When the Doctor and Sarah arrive, they are found standing over the bodies of one of the dead crewmen. The Captain spends the rest of the story convinced that they are responsible for all the deaths. There is no suggestion that the Anti-Matter is making the captain unhinged; the Morestrans are apparently in the habit of putting out-and-out psychopaths in charge of their ships. Whenever the story flags, Salamar orders the Doctor and Sarah to be arrested, imprisoned or executed. 

Tom Baker is still playing "the serious Doctor" and "the Shakespearean Doctor". He quotes Hamlet at Sarah and claims to have known the Bard personally. He has not yet fallen into silliness and clowning; he takes his hat and his scarf off  allowing him to look less crazy and more Bohemian and boyish and heroic. 

At the end of episode 2 he falls into the pit where the monster lives. Or rather; we see him begin to fall; and then the picture freezes. Some cliffhanger shows used to use freeze-frame a lot, but it was quite rare in Doctor Who. I don't know why it is used here. Are we being allowed to hope that the Doctor might somehow learn to fly before episode 3? Or is the moment he cross the threshold into the other universe best left to our imaginations?

Sarah spends several minutes at the beginning of the next episode assuming that the Doctor is dead and feeling quite put-out about it; but after a few scenes he bounds back in. We never see him fall down the hole and we never see him climb out of it. There is a cryptic exchange with Sarah 

"What happened?"

"It's difficult to explain." 

"Well try. What did you do? Enter another universe and have a chat with it?" 

"I communicated." 

"I communicated". The mythical heart of the story takes place off stage. The Doctor makes a promise to the anti-matter creature; and he keeps it. He returns the anti-matter crystals to the pit. A foolish scientist has stolen the forbidden fruit and been punished; a wise scientist makes a promise to return it; and the monster's rage is placated.

"You and I are scientists" says the Doctor "We buy our right to experiment at the cost of total responsibility." 

Tom Baker's Doctor is a different being from Jon Pertwee's. He's an alien; but more than an alien, he's a middle point between the familiar and the wholly Other: a person who can talk to the forces of darkness on their own terms. A kind of space deity. There is going to be a lot more of this as the season progresses.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, March 02, 2020

I know it is a bit late, but I thought it was about time I reviewed the new Doctor's second season.

13.1 "Terror of the Zygons"


Literally the first line of the story is: "Can you no send a couple of haggises over? The chef disnay ken anything aboot food..." The cast convene in a pub; the Brigadier is wearing a kilt; the landlord won't stop playing the bagpipes. Tom Baker comes on wearing a tartan scarf and a tam-o-shanter. Harry and Sarah are, rather charmingly, wearing his normal scarf and hat.  

The story was, of course, filmed in Sussex. 

If one wanted to defend certain other stories of this era -- stories, for the sake of argument, which make fun of Chinese people -- then this is the context in which to put them. No-one is trying to make a point about Scotland or whip up hatred against the Celts. But we are in a world where TV is made out of stock situations and stock characters. If this is Scotland, then there must be moors, haggis, pipes, mist, lairds and kilts. And Lochs. 

An oil rig is mysteriously destroyed. The local Laird doesn't hold with the idea of drilling for oil, d'ye'ken? The bag-piping landlord holds forth about how naught but bad luck comes to those who venture onto the Moors. A survivor from the oil rig is washed ashore; he is about to tell Harry that the rig was destroyed by a... by a... when he is shot by a man named Caber. In full highland dress. 

Set up, set up, set up: not all of it will pay off as the story proceeds. But this is part of a game we play; every year at this time, when the nights start to draw in. There are first episodes, and there are middle episodes, and there are last episodes. Each has its own unique pleasures.

We think of Doctor Who as being entry-level sci-fi, in direct competition with Space: 1999. But this has more in common with the spooky, "hauntalogical" children's shows of the era; Children of the Stones and Tom's Midnight Garden. Pubs and moors and dark mutterings about the environment and pointed conversations between grown-ups in pubs. No-one drinks. In Children of the Stones, everyone drinks, all the time. It's the language of gothic horror. It starts with a scene from a disaster movie. But it's really about Aliens. It's always really about Aliens. 

Sarah-Jane is interviewing the landlord who talks about his clan chief and not going out on ye moors after dark...and we cut away, and there is a rubbery reptilian claw, and we are watching from the viewpoint of something orange and rubbery with scary eyes. The orange rubbery thing is spying on Sarah and Angus. Through the eyes of the stags-head mounted on the pub wall. 

Was Doctor Who always this weird? Could we tell how silly it was, or were we willfully not looking? When Terror of the Zygons was shown in Australia, a baffled broadcaster dubbed in laugh tracks.

The script is still not really being written with Tom Baker in mind. He is still mostly a Boffin, pouring plaster of paris into the wreckage of the oil rig to establish that it was destroyed by something with giant teeth. The characterization still comes mainly from Baker's facial expressions and from his physical presence. In the offices of the energy company in glowers against a wall; looking incongruous and sinister; like the cover of an annual or a BBC icon. He lies on his back and pretends to be asleep while the Brigadier briefs him about the attacks on the oil rigs. Only when the Brig talks about men being killed does he take the hat away from his face and grin. "When do we start?" 

He's only playing at being a cynic and the Brigadier knows he's only playing. But then Angus is only playing at being Scottish and the Aliens are only playing at being Aliens. Doctor Who, almost for the last time, is a great big silly game. 


There are Aliens. The Aliens want to conquer the earth. The Aliens have bred a gigantic lizard which lives on the moors and eats oil rigs. And the Aliens can shape shift into exact facsimiles of any human captive. This is why the sinister Laird is so sinister.

They are proper Aliens. They find human beings disgusting. They look like giant rubber sea horses with suckers. Their space ship interior is as globuley and rubbery and organic as they are, although the doors are literally made of tin foil. They talk English among themselves and measure distances in earth miles. (This is 1975 and earth miles are increasingly being replaced by earth kilometers.) You might think that the idea of organic technology would be developed in the story; but the designer and the writer don't seem to have talked to each other. The outside of the space ship is just a spaceship. 

Still; the writer cares enough to put in some hand-waves. The giant lizard was transported to earth in embryonic form; the Aliens feed off its "lactic fluid". So: milk eating aliens who's ultimate weapon is a giant reptilian cow. Harry expresses surprise that they are mammals -- one wonders if that was a late ad lib to lampshade an obvious absurdity in the script. It doesn't matter. The Aliens are the point. 

There are cliffhangers. Gas -- Scotch mist, very possibly -- seeps under the doors of the tavern and knocks everyone out. The Doctor and Sarah-Jane are stuck in a decompression chamber while the evil nurse sucks their air away. Sarah-Jane is menaced by an Alien in Harry's form, wielding a pitchfork in a barn. The solutions are uniformly weak. Everyone just kind of wakes up after the nerve gas attack. The Doctor hypnotizes Sarah-Jane so she doesn't need to breathe. Harry somehow breaks his connection with the Alien, which turns back into its original form. And melts. It doesn't matter: the cliffhangers are the point.

By the end of episode 2 a stunt man in a Tom Baker costume is tripping gaily through the heather, pursued by a giant lactating alien lizard. He runs through the moor. He jumps, rather dramatically, off a bank. He stumbles. And we cut away to the monster; part dragon, part dinosaur, part, admittedly, glove puppet. 

The actual physical monster isn't quite as bad as you may have heard. The design is okay; the animation entirely absent. The director avoids putting the model and the actor in a single shot; so we see Tom running away from an unseen monster; and we cut away to close-ups of a giant reptilian head. Last episode was mock Gothic. This episode, while not remotely scary, manages to feel quite nightmarish. A nurse who is not a nurse. A friend trying to kill you with a pitchfork. Running headlong away from a monster you can't see. 

And so we see the point of the Caledonian setting. The Aliens' spaceship is at the bottom of a lake. The glove puppet embryonic milk secreting plesiosaur is the Loch Ness Monster. The aliens have been marooned on earth for hundreds of years. Their own planet has been destroyed. More of them are on the way. That is why they want to conquer the earth. Their giant lizard has been around for hundreds of years too. That is why legends about the monster of Loch Ness go back to medieval times. At least someone cares enough to wave their hands a bit.

There could very well have been a Doctor Who story about the Loch Ness monster. A science team is studying the Loch in an old boat; the boat is attacked by a monster; the monster is chased back to its lair; the lair turns out to be a crashed flying saucer, and then -- surprise reveal -- it's an alien beastie who was brought to earth to give the invading forces a source of dairy produce. And that may, in fact, have been the jumping off point for Terror of the Zygons. But it isn't the story we ended up with. The story we have is not about the Loch Ness Monster. It's a story about some shape-shifting Aliens and their ultimate weapon. Loch Ness is just some tartan window dressing. 


If the BBC was doing, say, the Mayor of Casterbridge or Pride and Prejudice, you kind of needed to see every episode in order for it to make sense. There were no videos or DVDs although admittedly Austen and Hardy's novelizations were pretty good. So there were usually two chances to see each episode: a prime time showing on BBC 1 and a late night repeat on BBC 2. And each week an announcer read out a summary of last week's episode in a posh voice. Doctor Who had no repeats and no "previously..." voice-over. The best you could hope for was a ten word listing in the Radio Times. ("The Doctor is a Zygon captive. Can he avert the terrible threat that faces London?"

So the episodes have to stand alone: and on the whole they do. 

EPISODE 1: Mysterious Scottish stuff happening in Scotland. Final shot provides solution to mystery: it's aliens!

EPISODE 2: There are Aliens in Scotland! Aliens chase and are chased by the Brigadier around Scottish town. People are captured, fall into death traps, and escape.

EPISODE 3: There are still Aliens in Scotland! Aliens continue to chase and be chased by the Brigadier around Scottish town. People continue to be captured, fall into death traps, and escape. 

EPISODE 4: Big science fiction climax, explosions, soldiers. Alien plot to destroy London. Alien plot to destroy London thwarted. 

They certainly hoped that if you watched the Doctor being chased by a glove puppet in Episode 2, you'd want to come back for Episode 3 and find out how he escaped. (Harry gets out of his cell on the Alien spaceship and switches off the glove puppet by remote control.) But if you missed it and came back a week later, you could pick up the thread perfectly well. The Aliens are still being Alien but now the Doctor is their hostage. The vagueness and the perfunctoriness of the Aliens' plan is less a bug than a feature. What is the solution to the mysteries in episode 1? Aliens. Why are the aliens swimming up the Thames towards London? To conquer the world. Why do they want to conquer the world? Because they are Aliens. If you've ever seen Doctor Who before, you don't need a catch-up.

And the Alien plan is really very vague and very perfunctory indeed. They are destroying oil rigs because the employees of the energy company might see the Monster crossing the moor. No, wait a minute, they are actually destroying the oil rigs as a dry run for conquering the world, and as a show of strength. The real plan is to use the Monster to destroy an energy conference in London. Once the Monster destroys the conference than everyone will hand control of the Earth over to the Aliens, and the Aliens will terraform the Earth to suit their requirements. Using humans as slave labour. Obviously. 

The final episode is a 1950s flying saucer B movie run at double speed. Spaceships blow up; soldiers run backwards and forwards and bark urgent messages into field telephones. Bystanders scream; police sirens whine; giant dinosaurs rampage unconvincingly around the city. The Doctor and the chief Alien fight, quite dramatically, in a cellar: the Doctor gets hold of the doohickey which controls the Nessie and she swims peaceably back to Inverness. 

Cleverer people than me have argued that this is an anti-Who story; a repudiation of what has gone before; affectionately putting an end to alien invasions and noble UNIT soldier boys once and for all. I don't believe this for one second. This is just what Doctor Who was like. Tom Baker's hints at self-deprecation don't amount to a full-on deconstruction of the series.

But it is true that Terror of the Zygons is almost the last traditional Doctor Who story. You could have imagined Jon Pertwee or Patrick Troughton or at a pinch William Hartnell playing Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a wee Scotch glen. But next week the Hinchcliff Era will begin in earnest. Doctor Who will start to turn into a new thing; a different thing. Younger fans will scarcely believe the sense of betrayal that the old guard felt at the time; the extent to which Robert Holmes became every fan's bogeyman. But in a sense they were not wrong. This is where the series they grew up with ended. This is where the series most of us grew up with began.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no hardly any political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Sunday, March 01, 2020

I wouldn't join any political party which would accept me as a member

If I asked arkela why she wants to keep the Cubs going, she would say "Because it gets kids away from the TV and playing in the open air. Because Baden Powell's ideas are still relevant in the modern world. Because the boys who still come seem to enjoy it."

If I ask the vicar why he wants to save the Church, he would say "Because the word of God is still the word of God whether we are getting congregations of six or six hundred."

If you asked me "Why do you want to save the Labour Party" I would reply "Because I still believe in socialism, because I think socialism is the fairest way of running the country, because I want someone to put the case for socialism at every election."

And you would reply "You are part of the problem, not part of the solution." And you would not be wrong.

I gather there are two main contenders in the current round of displacement activity: a leftie one, who is popular with the people who prefer leftie ones, and a centrist one, who is popular with the people who prefer centrist ones. I understand the centrist one looks more male and white and therefore electable; but that he used to be a human rights lawyer, which is a bomb waiting to go off in the popular press. I understand they are both Zionists; I don't know if anyone has asked them if they are Catholic Jewish Atheists or Protestant Jewish Atheists.

Any talk about which of them is potential prime ministerial material is about as meaningful as discussing who will host the victory party when Bristol Rovers win the F.A Cup. The next Labour leader is never going to be prime minister; nor is the one after that. The next Labour leader with a shot at becoming P.M. is currently revising for his politics GCSE.

The purpose of the Labour Party is to form a Labour government. The purpose of forming a Labour Government is that if there are no Labour government then the Labour Party has no purpose. All talk of socialism and ideals and principles is meaningless flim flam if you aren't in government. Tony Blair has made that very clear: the question is not "is it right to support the rights of trans people"; the question is "will supporting the rights of trans people help or hinder the long march to a Labour Government." And he is not wrong.

If people think your fizzy drink is too sweet; then you have two options. Either you make it less sweet; or you fill the airwaves with subliminal advertising for sweet things; and advertising spots that say that sweet things are what the cool kids drink; and blind taste tests to show that people prefer sweet soda when they actually try it.

If people think your newspaper is too hard to read, then you have two options. Either you dumb it down, or you have an advertising campaign that tells people that all the girls prefer smart guys; and that in this day and age you need to read a serious paper to be informed; and that influences and opinion-formers prefer broadsheets over tabloids.

If people won't vote for your party, then you must either change and become the sort of party people will vote for; or else stay the same and persuade people that they ought to want to vote for the kind of party you already are.

But trying to persuade people to vote for your party is patronizing and insulting and suggests that you think you know better than them. It is tantamount to saying "If the people voted for the wrong Prime Minister then we should elect a new people." It is that kind of thinking that leads to walls along the Mexico boarder and sea bridges over ammunition dumps. In the real world, you have to find out what kind of political party people want to elect; and become that kind of political party.

We know the kind of political party people want to elect. They told us that very, very clearly in December. They want to elect right-wing, racist, nationalist, populist party, led by a rich, posh, white male. In order to form a government in 2029, Labour needs a posh, white, populist, racist leader: ideally someone even posher, even whiter, even more populist and even more racist than Boris Johnson.

Some people will not find such a leader to their personal taste: but there is an easy answer to that. Would you rather have a leader who you personally find congenial; or would you rather win an election?

So: whether the Leftist One or the Centrist One ends up as leader of the opposition, they will have only one job. They will need to do what Kinnock did and indeed what Momentum tried to do from the other direction. They need to rebuild the party machinery to ensure that they are succeeded by the kind of person that the people would vote for. An electable leader. A Labour Johnson or even a Labour Trump.

They will need, at all costs, to keep people like me  out of the party.  This could be achieved by a series of internal purges and loyalty oaths; or simply by becoming the kind of party that people like me would never, ever join. They need to change the rules so that party members are never again allowed to choose the party leader. They need to make a great big symbolic gesture to show the world that this is no longer Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, or even Red Ed's. Tony Blair famously tore up clause 4. Enthusiastically supporting the "Yes" side in Priti Patel's 2022 referendum to restore capital punishment would go a very long way to drive undesirables out of the party, while speaking to the legitimate concerns of ordinary working class voters in constituencies where there hasn't been a murder in decades. Of course, there would need to be a few sops so that old fashioned reformists can persuade themselves that a Labour populist racist is better than a Tory populist racist. Nursery school places often hit the spot, I am told.

"But why would you want to save the Labour party on those terms?"

Peace, child. You don't understand.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no hardly any political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Skywalker Saga IV

There was a moment, the third time I saw the Rise of Skywalker. The Dark Side Jedi and the Light Side Jedi were standing on the wreckage of the second Death Star on Endor fighting with lightsabers. And a little voice in my head says "This is not a Star Wars movie any more."

This is, of course, absurd. The film -- the whole sequel trilogy -- is very much like a Star Wars movie. If anything, too much like one.

A list of references and call backs to the original trilogy would be longer than the actual movie.In Episode IV we saw Luke practicing his lightsaber: trying to hit something called a remote; wearing a helmet with a blast shield which obscures his vision. It is made pretty clear that the helmet and the remote are things which Ben found on the Millennium Falcon and re-purposed for Jedi Training. The radio version says explicitly that Han used the remote for target practice. Certainly, Ben didn't bring them with him from Tatooine. In Episode IX, we see Rey running through a Jedi training programme, wearing that exact same helmet; being zapped in the leg by the exact same remote. (Jedi Knights are clearly related to English P.E teachers, not averse to using little zaps and stings to make sure you are doing your best. Luke even raps Rey's knuckles in the Last Jedi.) Luke and Leia are wearing the same helmets in the flashback to her training. This is not very logical; but it works artistically. It draws a mental line from the rec room on the Millennium Falcon to the Resistance Base on Ajan Kloss.

When Rey crashes her stolen TIE Fighter on Ahch-To, Luke kindly lends her his old X-Wing; which is referred to as Red One. It has been underwater for the past decade. Luke levitates it out of the sea, just like Yoda did on Dagobah, with the same serene expression on his face. (There is no rust in the Star Wars universe.) Rey flies off wearing Luke's helmet from A New Hope, which in turn looked a lot like Anakin's helmet from Phantom Menace.

The trilogy is held together by recurrent themes and leitmotifs, just as surely as John Williams score is.



During the first half of the movie, our heroes visit Kijimi, a cyberpunk planet where Poe Dameron used to hang out. He meets up with a lady called, and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble, Zorii Bliss. During a pause in the action, they have a chat. They are sitting on the edge of a building. They don't say all that much. They were evidently lovers at one time. Poe wants Zorii to join the Resistance; and Zorri wants Poe to come away and be a scoundrel with her. In the end she gives him a stolen First Order Plot Device which will unlock the next level for him. But the tone of it -- just two characters having quite a long conversation -- is different from anything we have seen before.

It happens again on Endor. This time it is Finn who has made friends with Jannah, who turns out to be one of a group of Stormtroopers who deserted from the First Order when they were ordered to open fire on civilians. It is insinuated that the Force made this happen; and that it was the Force which made Finn run away from the First Order in Episode VII.

Perhaps that is what the title meant. Perhaps the Force had "awakened" in the sense that it was moving goodies all over the galaxy to stop working for the bad guys. Perhaps that's the underlying theme of the trilogy: Poe in the first movie; the boy with the mop in the second; thousands and thousands of ships in this one. A terrible piece of editing means that we hear Finn telling Rey that he has something very important to tell her; but we never find out what he was going to say. The easy answer is "Rey, I love you, but we literally have only sixteen hours to save the universe." But the more interesting suggestion is "I, like you, have Force powers. Will you teach me?"

Jannah and Zorrii are fairly marginal characters. They don't turn the wheels of the plot any more than Admiral Ackbar or Wedge Antilles did. And yet they get to talk, at length. They come across far more as characters than Rose Tico, who had a much more important role in Last Jedi.

The Prequels happen in a world where nobles and queens perform arias. The Trilogy is a world of comic strip heroes who shout cliches with exclamation marks on the end. Bu the Sequels take place in a world of human beings -- or at any rate, believable movie characters -- who have a past and a future and an off stage existence.

It has been said that the Trilogy is constructed like a silent movie. You could easily look at the pictures and infer: "Luke hesitates. He wants to go with Ben but also feels responsible to his uncle" without actually hearing the words. The Prequels would, of course, be greatly improved if you couldn't hear any of the dialogue. Rise of Skywalker moves directly away from this: quite pointedly so in the opening scenes where everyone keeps talking at once. The speech bubbles have been replaced by dialogue. The comic book characters have morphed into people.


George Lucas originally planned to make a series of twelve Star Wars movies. And they were going to be set over hundreds of years; but they would all have been focused on the Skywalker Clan.

That makes a certain amount of sense, given that part of the original premise (back when the project was still called The Star Wars) was that Luke was from the Starkiller family, one of twelve different Jedi Clans. Lucas may not have known the identity of Darth Vader while working on the first film; but he always envisaged a generational story. The Skywalkers were always going to be very important people.

Some people find the whole idea of a story about a clan or a family distinctly problematic. The idea that heroes become heroes because of their heritage smacks of royalty, nobility and privilege. You could even draw racial conclusions from the idea that you are a goodie because your daddy was a goodie and your daddy is a goodie because his father was... That is why the boy-with-the-mop scene was so radical in the Last Jedi.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and started to talk in terms of a trilogy of trilogies; three films about Anakin Skywalker; three films about Luke Skywalker; and three films about the next generation of Skywalkers. The dashing young heroes from one trilogy could become the ageing mentors of the next.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and said that the original trilogy told the whole saga of the redemption of Darth Vader. And once you have bought into the Joseph Campbell refit which occurred between episode four and five then I think he was right. The unmasking of the father is a very beautiful thing. Once Luke and Anakin were reconciled the story was over. It was a nice joke to say that the first film was the fourth episode, but there was no need for episodes one, two and three to exist.

Then Lucas changed his mind, kind of. Star Wars was a six part story after all. His three prequels didn't change the central premise; but they rehearsed the established back-story on the screen. We learned more about the Republic and the Emperor and the Jedi and the Clone Wars and how Vader fell into darkness. But that only made Return of the Jedi more definitively the end of the story. Six parts, two trilogies, all the extended universe novels you could eat, but no more movies.

Then Lucas changed his mind and authorized Walt Disney to create three further installments of the Saga, with minimal input from him. The story which started with Phantom Menace would end in the Rise of Skywalker; but that is only one story in the universe. We already have two floating chapters, the very good Rogue One and the really not at all bad Solo; but other movies will follow. Possibly a new trilogy or a new trilogy of trilogies.

"Where will it all end?" asked Threepio in the 1977 Making of Star Wars TV documentary. "Perhaps, Artoo" he replied "It will never end."

So the sacred Trilogy is now only one third of a nine part saga; and that nine part saga is only one element in a saga that that includes cartoon shows, comic books, novels and a theme park. And that saga is only one small thread in the history of the Galaxy. It is one tale; a big one, certainly, one that takes forty years to play out and ends in the most apocalyptic of apocalyptic wars. But it is not all that is happening.

The epilogue tells us very clearly where the Sequels stand in relation to the Prequels. The final seconds of Rise of Skywalker take us back to the beginning. If we really believed that Star Wars was a nine part story beginning with Phantom menace, then Rey would have gone back to Threed and laid a flower on the grave of Amidala; or else she would have gone back to Tatooine and found the slave hovel where Anakin was born. But we all know that Star Wars really begins in the Lars moisture farm; with Aunt Beru calling out "Luke! Luke!" The final scene doffs a cap, not to the multi-part saga, but to our Trilogy.

Rey buries Luke's lightsaber on Tatooine. She buries Leia's as well, in a place she never visited and which had no particular significance for her. (She did go to Tatooine briefly to rescue Han from Jabba.) I will lay you to rest in the place your grandpa lived for a while, and where your brother was fostered. Well, okay. Leia's childhood home exploded a long time ago.

Going back to Tatooine means going back to the where the films started...and crucially, conceptually, to the image of two suns. Twin suns. Luke looking to the horizon; Rey walking off into the sunset.

Rey takes on the name Skywalker. After Luke, and I suppose Leia; identifying them as her parents. Anakin was lost when he took on the name Vader; I suppose Rey taking on the name Skywalker somehow reverses his fall. And although Rey buries the lightsabers, she now has one of her own. Making your own lightsaber is the mark of completing Jedi training. Rey is totally a Jedi, and so...

...and so what? The idea that the Jedi would end and be replaced by something different has been overwritten. The hints of a Jedi Reformation, in which everything comes down to your personal relationship with the Force, seems to have gone away as well. There has to be a Jedi Order with Jedi Books and Jedi Temples. Is Rey going to start the whole thing up again? Will she avoid the mistakes that Luke made; or will one of her students fall to the Dark Side? Does Palpatine have other living descendants?

Cinema audiences are more savvy then they used to be. Cinema audiences grew up with Star Wars. Cinema audiences read Wikipedia. When the prequels came out, serious movie critics found the idea that Episode One came out after Episode Four so esoteric as to be almost impenetrable. But everyone understands that Rogue One takes place "just before Star Wars" and Solo takes place "after episode III but before episode IV" and that even the theme park has a place in the official chronology. Not that weird an idea, truthfully. If you were making a Wild West visitor attraction, then "which state are we meant to be in?" and "what year is this?" would be perfectly good questions. 

Do you know what I would like?

I would like Disney to decide that Rise of Skywalker is the terminal point in the Star Wars saga. New films and cartoons can take place anywhere within the I - IX timeline; but nothing canonical will take place outside it. The Star Wars universe will get thicker: we will see more and more of the Old Republic, the Rebellion Era and the Resistance. But it will never get longer. We will never see the New Republic. We will never see Rey's students fall to the Dark Side. We will never see the return of the return of the Sith.

That is what I would like.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)