Sunday, September 19, 2021

When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus

"Spokesperson for a generation of disappointed brit Cerebus fans..."
                  Dave Sim


80 page booklet 
20,000 word essay
plus extras
pretty layout



paperback book

Or (what would make me happiest...)

free PDF Download to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $1 tier

free hard copy to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $5 tier

Or just read the text on this blog...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"Together, they created Spider-Man..."

It took that Catholic Church four hundred years to admit that Galileo may have had a good point; it has only taken Marvel comics 50 to acknowledge that, er, comic books are a collaborative medium. 

(I don't know if there is a doctrine of infallibility which means that from now on, this is what they always thought...)

A Stupid Person's Idea of a Clever Person

Little extra something for my Patreons.... I thought the essay on Invisible Enemy was a bit on the short side, so here is some more of it.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (iv): The Invisible Enemy

The Doctor regards the mind/brain interface as a physical location: part of the architecture of his brain. He says that he is searching for the bridge between the left and the right lobes; but when he gets there, everything goes mystical. The connection between the two brain hemispheres is an invisible bridge across a dark chasm. He says that the chasm represents "the gap between logic and imagination"; that on one side (the logical side, presumably) is the brain, and on the other side, the mind. He says that the mind and the brain are "two things entirely different but part of the same thing". When they cross the bridge, they are in "the land of dreams and fantasy."

Nothing narratively follows from any of this this. A journey through one of the Doctor's dreams could have been quite interesting: but what we actually see is a projection of lots of Greek columns floating through space. The much foreshadowed interface is a corridor exactly like all the other corridors. The virus takes the form of a large bean-bag with a claw. The Doctor and the beanbag engage in the same kind of mutual taunting as the Doctor and the Rutan did last week.

My best guess is that we are dealing with the then-fashionable but now obsolete ideas of the left and right sides of the brain; where Left Brain is linear, fact-based and logical, and the Right brain is imaginative, intuitive and artistic. Brain turns out to mean Left Brain: mind simply means Right Brain. K-9, who uses big words, knows a lot but has no emotion circuits, is a purely Left Brain entity. Leela, who is all instinct and cannot read, is a Right Brain Person. The Virus attacks the Left Brain: K-9 can be infected even though he is not organic: Leela, because she is ruled by the Right side of the brain, is invulnerable. The Mind-Brain Interface is nothing more interesting than "the bridge between the two lobes". The swarm is a physical virus that jumps into the Left Side of the brain through the optic nerve and then moves to the Right side via the bridge. It was never really neotic at all.

"Don't be funny" says the Doctor to Leela.

The Doctor has just used "Hello!" as an exclamation, in the sense of "I am surprised" or "Take a look at this!" Leela replies "Hello" as if he had just greeted her. I don't know if we are supposed to think that Leela is unfamiliar with human idioms, and the Doctor unfairly assumes she is making a weak joke; or if she is actually making a weak joke.

But "Don't be funny" pretty much sums up the story. Everyone is trying, and no-one quite manages it.

When Leela says that the dark abyss between the left and right sides of the brains is "very deep", the Doctor pretends he thinks that she means that his explanation of the mind/body problem is very profound. When an actual electrical impulse zaps past them, he says that it is "just a passing thought". Leela says "I don't know what to think" and "I have no idea", which are, like, ironic things to say inside the Doctor's head. Like a Shakespearian clown, the Doctor seems to see everything as the opportunity for a wearisome pun. I wish I could say "This is because language is breaking down in the mind/body interface" or "The Signifier is kind of like the body, and the Signified is kind of like the soul." I like wordplay. Basil Brush was not above spending a whole season setting up a bad punchline. But merely twisting meanings for its own sake is not funny. 

I have said that Tom Baker's Doctor's arrogance is what made him so hugely attractive to naughty boys in nasty schools in the 1970s. I terribly fear that this just-passing-for-comedy crosstalk between the Doctor and Leela is what my 12 year old self would have thought was smart. Repeating yourself. Deliberately taking colloquial speech literally. Using unnecessarily big words. I don't know if we picked it up from Tom Baker, or if Tom Baker channelled his inner pre-adolescent. It's what Miss Griffiths would have called back-talking. He thinks he's the class comedian. "I know this brain like the back of my hand. What do you know about brains any way? I'll get excited if I want to it's my brain. Oh you want to know something about brains? I'll tell you anyway...." One feels he needs a slap. Miss Griffiths would have given him one.

It turns out that the Bean Bag wanted the Doctor to confront him in the mind body interface. The Doctor has fallen for his stratagem. If anyone were still paying attention this would feel like a terrible cop-out. A reverse deus ex machina. The good guy has spent two episodes doing what the bad guy wanted him to do; making the last fortnight seem like a bit of a waste of time.

They let us go. It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape.

Quite what the Bean Bag's stratagem was isn't entirely clear, but the Doctor totally fell for it. I suppose it thought "What I would really like is to be a giant Prawn in the macrocosmic world. But the only thing that can possibly make small things big is the dematerialisation circuit of a TARDIS. So here's the plan. I shall hang about in space for a billion years: a TARDIS is bound to come past eventually. When that happens, I shall mind control the occupant, because then he is absolutely certain to travel to the asteroid belt, clone himself, miniaturise himself, inject himself into his own blood stream, and confront me in the corridor where the left brain neotically meets the right brain. Then I will stall him for half an episode and at the exact moment he is about to dissolve, I will emerge through the tear duct, and they will think it is the Doctor and turn the embiggening ray on me, and I will turn into a Prawn and conquer the universe!"

It's not the daftest plan a supervillain has ever come up with but it does seem a little on the optimistic side.

The microscopic Leela and Doctor melt into air, thin air, leaving not a rack behind, unless you count the Doctor's scarf and Leela's loincloth and dagger. This is one of many dozens of things which makes no sense: if the Doctor and Leela are clones then surely all their clothing and possessions should survive the time limit? But if they are 3D photos then shouldn't their clothes and personal effects also turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight? The camera lingers on Leela's dagger, as if this is of special significance.

Once again, the plot wriggles. For three episode, we have been told that Leela is immune to the virus because she is stupid, instinctive, a hunter -- in short a right-brained person. But when her clone dissolves inside the Doctor, she somehow transfers her immunity to him. And by taking samples of the Doctor's tissue and doing Science on it, the Doctor and Marius can create an anti-spawn-vaccine. In about five minutes. Even AstraZeneka would be impressed.

The virus was never neotic. Leela's immunity never had anything to do with her savageness. The blokes leapt to the conclusion that she was immune because she was stupid, but actually she just happened to have some Virus Repellent Leela Spray in her blood.

Except -- except -- except...

In the final episode, the Intellect / Emotion duality is played out, very unsubtly, in the macrocosmic world. The Prawn is flying back to Titan in a spaceship, where he hopes to hatch an army of giant viruses in order to conquer all of time and space. The Doctor and Marius are trying to breed antibodies from the Doctor's blood. Leela asks why they don't just blow them up. Then she points out that the Doctor is meant to be a pacifist, but he is okay with using antibodies to wipe out a whole alien race. Then she asks why they don't just blow them up. They nip back to Titan in the TARDIS with a plan to introduce the antibodies into the virus breeding tanks. Leela still says they should blow them up. The Doctor confronts the Swarm and carelessly loses the phials of anti-bodies. Leela says it is possible to kill swarm-infected humans by knifing them in the neck. The Doctor doesn't think this is a very good idea. So instead, he blows them up.

The episode has set up a conflict between intellect represented by the Doctor, and action, represented by Leela. ("Do you think that is a good idea?" asks Leela, when the Doctor tells her to use her intelligence.) But in the end, the Doctor's intelligent approach fails, and nuking the site from orbit turns out to be the best solution. Leela's instinct does indeed win the day. There is quite a nice special effect of the base blowing up, but truly, wiring the door to the breeding colony to explode doesn't feel like a very satisfactory conclusion.

Some Doctor Who stories (the Web Planet?) have primitive, even ludicrous, special effects, but succeed because of their strength of their ideas, or their characterisation. And some Doctor Who (Remembrance of the Daleks?) make little sense, but carry us along with shiny monsters, arresting cliffhangers, and fun characters. The Invisible Enemy is in neither category. Some people have tried to defend it by saying that it is simply too ambitious: BBC special effects simply couldn't run to giant virii and journeys to the centre of the cerebellum. But better special effects would not have helped a story which doesn't seem to have been thought through; which doesn't seem to be interested in it's own world or it's own plot. For almost the first time, a Doctor Who story fails on every level: and Tom Baker is not enjoying himself enough, or being given interesting enough material, to save the day.

In the final seconds, K-9 becomes a companion. It is quite obvious to even the least critical viewer that there is no way he can get through the TARDIS door, but he does so anyway. The Doctor does not yet think of K-9 as a person, although Leela does. Marius makes a weak joke about K-9 shitting on the floor. Leela says "please can we keep him, please" like a schoolgirl with a puppy.

If you want to blame someone for the demise of Doctor Who, don't blame Mary Whitehouse, Michael Grade or Colin Baker: blame K-9. K-9 may have appealed greatly to eleven-year-old-me, but he embodied the fact that Doctor Who no longer wanted to be taken seriously. He turned the Doctor into a stooge in his own series. The pacifist Doctor who thought his way out of conflict was now accompanied by a ray gun wielding tank.

But thematically, K-9 had to be in this story. It's a story in which Left Brain Doctor wins the day by giving way to Right Brain Leela; in which the Doctor's brain turns out to be much less exciting than it should have been. So of course there is an artificial intelligence as well. K-9 is there to be the third point in the triangle. K-9 has no brain, but clearly thinks. Leela has a brain, but usually doesn't. The Doctor has a Mind full of fantasy and imagination; K-9 has no Right Brain at all.

Think I am reading too much into the story. Consider this. In the final seconds, K-9 shows that whatever the Doctor thinks, he/it is capable of acting under his/its own agency. He/it decide for himself/itself what he/it is going to do.

He has, says Marius, made up his own mind.


Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15:2 (iii): The Invisible Enemy

The idea of cloning the Doctor and injecting him into his own bloodstream is not, in itself, terrible. Of course, it is ripped off from Fantastic Voyage; but everything in Doctor Who is ripped off from something. You might think that the idea is a bit too whacky and oddball for Saturday night; you might on the other hand think that it was about time Doctor Who had a stab at the more fantastic, surreal end of science fiction.

But it doesn't work. It doesn't work on any level. As with the Prawn, we are left wondering if someone has deliberately decided to make it not work in order to prove some kind of a point.

It is introduced into the story in a painfully perfunctory way. No attempt is made to persuade us that it is plausible: if anything, the script seems to be saying "We know this is silly and we don't remotely expect you to believe in it."

How are we going to defeat the thought-like-virus that exists in the space between the physical and the spiritual?
By making a very small copy of the Doctor.

How are we going to make a copy of the Doctor?
Oh, Prof Marius just happens to have a fully functioning cloning machine lying around his lab.

Why are we going to make a copy of Leela as well?
Because the Doctor needs her tracking abilities. (The ability to hunt game and pursue enemies in a forest obviously translates into tracking a virus through the inside of someone's brain.)

How are we going to make them very small?
Oh, The Doctor just happens to have a fully functioning shrinking machine; or at any rate a part of the TARDIS that can be reconfigured as one.

How are we going to get the clones inside the Doctor's head?
Marius points a hypodermic needle vaguely at the floor of the cupboard which is serving as a shrinking chamber, scoops them up and injects them into the Doctor's neck. This is almost the most ridiculous thing in the whole ridiculous story: they are supposed to be so small that they can see individual nuerons firing, yet Marius simply picks them up off the floor. It's the 50th century and they still use needles: Dr McCoy was already using high-tech needle substitutes in the 23rd. But then all the doors in the installation have MFI chrome handles, and there are Greek pillars scattered around the medical centre, so maybe they have a thing about retro hardware.

I don't know how being injected into a bloodstream would present itself to human senses. And even if I did, I don't know how I would represent it with 1970s technology and a BBC budget. But I am pretty sure I could have come up with something better than the Doctor and Leela, superimposed over a swirly whirlpool, linking hands and spinning around like kids in a playground. If I was being nice, I would say that it looks as if they are in a washing machine. If I was being less nice, I would say that it looks as if they are being flushed down a toilet. Along with the credibility of the series.

Last season the Doctor's mind was projected into a universe created by the Master. It was still low-budget TV: two or three actors running around a quarry, intercut with stock footage. But Deadly Assassin Episode Three looks like grown-up TV: it almost looks Art House. Invisible Enemy Episode Three looks cheap. It looks silly. There is a weird white climbing frame, I suppose intended to represent brain cells; and there are a lot of redd- orange tunnels that put us somewhat in mind of the organic Zygon space ship. The anti-bodies (phagocytes) which attempt to destroy Leela look very much like furry white balloons.

There used to be a Jonah and the Whale attraction in the fun-fair at Blackpool. You entered through some fibreglass jaws; you walked around a dark maze, you had to squeeze through narrow foam apertures, you had to navigate wobbly floors and rope bridges; and you could hear a recorded heart beat that was meant to guide you to the centre of the maze. 

That's what Invisible Enemy Episode Three feels like: a giant brain-themed fun-house. My friend in the playground was right: whatever my brain would look like from the inside, it wouldn't be this. 

If we are going to spend twenty five minutes inside the Doctor's head -- inside the actual Doctor's actual head -- one feels something interesting ought to follow. All that Time Lord knowledge; all the terrible things he has seen; all those past and future selves. But only once in the episode is there the faintest attempt to show us that the Doctor's brain is a surprising and wondrous thing: he points out the "reflex link" through which he can "tune himself in" to the "Time Lord intelligentsia"; but adds that it doesn't work because he was thrown out. You might think that this would be foreshadowing or setting up some plot development -- maybe the Prawn is going to somehow infect all the Time Lords or hijack the super-mind? -- but the line is instantly forgotten and never mentioned again.

I always thought that the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey. Because he was bored. Now it is "revealed" -- in passing -- that he did not leave voluntarily: he was thrown out. 

What am I supposed to do with this kind of remark?

"Aha! So this is a very daring attempt to reintroduce some mystery into the character of the Doctor."

"Aha! So for some reason the Doctor is lying to Leela."

"Aha! So the clone Doctor has defective memories of his past."

No. Let it pass. Step away from the canon. Bob Baker and Dave Martin -- and, for that matter, Robert Holmes -- don't know or care about the Matrix. Deadly Assassin was long, long ago, last year, and everyone has forgotten it. It's just a line. Tune himself in to the Time Lord Intelligentsia. Doesn't work since I was thrown out. The TARDIS exists in a state of temporal grace, except when it doesn't. The TARDIS controls are isomorphic, except when they aren't. Someone left a cake out in the rain. The only way of viewing Doctor Who is to assume that the entire continuity is rebooted at the end of every episode.

K-9 says that cloning means taking a single cell from a person's body and growing a copy of them. This is what cloning usually means in science fiction. (This was before Dolly the Sheep.) It would probably have occurred to any thoughtful viewer that "growing" an adult clone would take decades; and that the clone would not have the memories or personality of the original. (A small girl wrote to the Radio Times and asked where the Doctor and Leela got their clothes from.) So the script backtracks: this is "not, in any real sense, a clone" but instead "a short lived, carbon based imprint" and "a sort of three dimensional photo" and finally, in so many words "a photocopy."

An entity which is both a clone and a photograph makes about as much sense as a creature which is both a viral infection in the brain and an incorporeal thought in the mind. (As much sense as a phenomenon which is both a wave and a particle.) Throughout the episode, the micro-Doctor talks as if he and the macro-Doctor are the same being. Things which happen to the original Doctor affect the clone. Micro-Leela feels a pain in her head when macro-Leela is hit; the Doctor says that if macro-Leela dies, micro-Leela will expire as well. And it works in reverse: when the antibodies are attacking Leela, micro-Doctor deliberately gives himself an electric shock, causing them to think that a different part of macro-Doctor's body is under attack.

If they are clones this makes no sense at all. If you punched my brother (even my twin brother) in the face you would not expect me to develop a black eye. It hardly makes any more sense if they are photographs or holograms. You can't make me bleed by stabbing a photo of me; and if I get a nosebleed the photo of me doesn't get one too. But if we pretended that the idea of the Doctor were trying to remove the idea of the virus from the Doctor's mind it kind of works. When the Doctor talks about "inside Leela" (as opposed to "outside Leela") he seems to be thinking of the clone / imprint / photocopy as a kind of dream-self or avatar. There is a strong tradition in fantasy mysticism that if your ethereal or dream-self is harmed then your physical or conscious self suffers.

Microscopic and macroscopic mean "very small" and "very big". Microcosm and macrocosm refer to the mystical idea that there is a connection or analogy between each individual and the universe as a whole. But Baker and Martin seem to be treating "microscopic" and "microcosmic" as synonyms. If Doctor Two is a microcosm of Doctor One -- if Doctor Two is the protrusion of Doctor One into a different reality -- it is possible to salvage some sense from the story. The Prawn is not merely a tiny little organism turned into a very big one; but an analogy for a neotic being projected into the physical world from the world of thought. Baker and Martin have come up with a story about a psychopomp reflection of the Doctor engaging in a spiritual journey through his own soul; and put a paper-thin scientific gloss on it. The science is deliberately silly to indicate that we are supposed to look the other way. "Shrinking" is a metaphor for being transformed into thought. "Small" is code for "spiritual, conceptual, imaginary".

Or perhaps the story just simply doesn't make any sense, and the writers, like the costume department, no longer give a damn.

Descartes said "I think therefore I am". He said it in Latin and French. Clever people call it the cogito. He meant that the fact that he had thoughts proved that he existed: the one thing that it is is impossible to doubt is the fact that you are having a thought. Sloppy minded people have often imagined that he meant "Thinking is great!" or "If I wasn't thinking about stuff, I don't know what I would be doing" or even "I am much better than all you plebs who don't do philosophy."

The Virus is all about thinking. It has chosen the Doctor as host because he is a lovely little thinker. Not just because he is the cleverest person in the room: thinking is a deliberate act and the Doctor does it more than anyone else. "The harder I think, the more of a grip it gets" he explains: it couldn't attack him in the TARDIS because his brain was idling; he is able to resist it by ceasing to think -- putting himself into a trance -- meditating. Cogito ergo sum infecta.

Leela doesn't need to go into a trance, or leave her brain idling. Leela is immune to the virus because, at some level, Leela does not think.

The Doctor thinks she is immune "because she is all instinct and intuition". Marius quite specifically frames the question in terms of a mind/body duality

"It could be a psychological factor."

"You mean not physical at all?"

"Yes, something in her mind, her way of looking at things."

"Aggression. Determination. Stamina. The predator's instinct."

Leela clearly does not have limited cognitive function: she isn't in any sense mentally retarded. Her problem-solving ability is quite good: when the Doctor explains a new concept she can quickly grasp it. But Marius writes her off as "stupid" because she doesn't know what the word "inoculation" means. She asks K-9 to restate "Efficacy of individuation not completely guaranteed" in simpler language. K-9 refuses. Leela is "stupid" in so far as she is ignorant and uneducated: because she lacks a scientific background and doesn't know the right buzzwords. K-9 is clever because he uses three syllables where one would do. The Doctor is vulnerable to the virus because he thinks a lot and knows long words. Leela is immune to the virus because she perceives the world around her without putting it into words, and because she often reacts to problems without intellectualising them first.

We might say that she is prone to let go of her conscious self and act on instinct. This was, as we may have mentioned, before Star Wars.

And this brings us to two of the oddest things about the whole mess. Small things, in the margin, which we probably overlook: and therefore very probably the key to the whole mystery.

In Episode One, Leela is shown writing her name on a blackboard. The TARDIS is infinitely large, so there is no reason that there wouldn't be an old bit of classroom equipment in one of the cupboards. The TARDIS is infinitely configurable, so there is no reason why it wouldn't produce a chalk board as the most user-friendly interface to a literacy programme. God knows, the interior of the TARDIS is going to do some stranger things before this season is out. But it's an odd moment. It isn't there for any particular reason. It's a bit of business, unreferenced in the script.

Most commentators have noticed the weird preponderance of phonetic, mis-spelt signage on Titan and the medical base: IMURJINSEE EGSIT and ISOLAYSHUN WARD. Our attention is never drawn to it; no-one in the story ever comments on it. It's a little like the penny farthing bicycle in the Prisoner: obviously important, yet never addressed.

I distinctly remember a moment in my childhood when I looked at a sign which said "GO" and realised that I was reading it whether I wanted to or not. "GO" is just what the shape said. Literate adults do not need to decode writing: the letters D O G, the sound "dog" and the smelly furry waggy thing are a single unity. The name "K-9" is funny (very slightly) because sound and meaning are separated: it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "K-9" could be understood as "canine". (After a few viewings of Star Wars, Threepio stops being a facetious spelling of 3PO and just becomes what he is called.) Similarly, it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "IMURJINSEE" means "Emergency". Leela, coming from a non-literate culture and still writing her name on the blackboard as "Lulu" must perceive all words like that. What if that difference in perception -- that inability to go from "EGSIT" to the concept of the way out, or to know that "inoculate" means "medicine-that-stops-you-getting-sick" were the very thing which makes her immune?

If you were to ask a philosopher "what is the interface between the mind and the brain" -- between the realm of concepts and the shared physical word, then he might reply, like Hamlet -- "words, words, words". Language is the mind-brain interface. So if the Virus exists in the place where mind intersects with the brain, it exists in words. The very thing that Leela does not fully understand.

Only a year before this story came out, a little known Cambridge biologist published a book on evolution in which he proposed that ideas -- especially ideas which he personally disliked -- spread and reproduced themselves like a virus, using human minds as a host. Meme's he called them: viruses of the mind.

Six or seven years before, William S Burroughs informed us that language was a virus from outer space.


Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (ii): The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy is based on a huge equivocation. 

Episode One is explicitly about possession. The Swarm inhabits and controls people's minds, passing from host to host by zapping them in the eyes with Force Lightening. It jumps into the TARDIS memory banks (because they are so advanced and clever) and then into the Doctor's Mind (because he is the cleverest person in the room). Later in the story, it possesses K-9, a robot, who is arguably capable of thinking but who certainly does not have an organic brain. But by Episode Four, the mind-virus has become a physical, prawn-like entity which infects the actual grey matter inside the Doctor's cranium, and which can (in principle) be resisted by antibodies in the blood-stream.

There is a kind of ghost story in which the ghost is real: the hero is a priest or mystic who knows how to exorcise it or lay it to rest. But there is a more secular kind of ghost story in which Harry Houdini, or the Rev. Tilney, or indeed Fred and Velma exorcise the ghost by explaining it away. It is still defeated; but it is defeated by the power of rationalism rather than the power of God. The demonic hound is turned into a perfectly ordinary german shepherd smeared with phosphorescent paint; the Mummy turns out to be an unscrupulous archeologist who wanted to steal a gem from the museum. And he would have gotten away with it too, if not for...

The Invisible Enemy may make slightly more sense if we try to read it in that way. The spiritual force which has possessed the minds of the astronauts, the station manager, and the Doctor is drawn out of the realm of ideas into the real world. It escapes from the surreal mindscape of the Doctor's brain and manifests in a mainstream science fiction world of corridors and airlocks. It is transformed from a force which might have made the Doctor murder Leela into one more megalomaniac alien who wants to rule the universe. ("For no adequately explored reason" as the next script editor but one would have put it.)

So perhaps the inadequacy of the Prawn Special Effect is not unintentional. The Nucleus is supposed to be ridiculous: Science! has rendered it non-threatening. The Doctor calls it "a pathetic crustacean". (Tom Baker reportedly sang the theme song from "Prawn Free" whenever it came on set.) Drawn out of the realm of thought into the realm of bodies, it can be defeated.

Not, in the end, with an antidote; but with a very large bomb.

We start with three men in space suits. They would not have looked out of place in any Patrick Troughton story. We have a space ship that looks distinctly like a space shuttle. The Space Shuttle was much in people's minds: the first testing flights, off the back of a Jumbo Jet, had taken place the previous August. They have the kind of conversation that these kinds of space-men always have in this kind of story, gently telling the viewer that space travel is not glamorous and heroic but a routine slog. ("Look, I qualified for exploration eight years ago, and what am I? Glorified garage attendant on some planetary filling station.")

And then a Thing happens. 

The spacemen get possessed by an alien force. They start talking in monotones about how "contact has been made" and "this planet will be suitable for our purpose". We can tell they have been possessed because they have sinister white fur on their skins, like out of date blackberries.

This is standard issue Doctor Who, and it is not badly done. The music is extreme and melodramatic and the acting is completely over the top. Innocent lines like: "I will stay with them to guard the nucleus and destroy the reject" become "to GUARD the nucleus, and to...des TROY...... the reject", jabbing one finger in the air and then making a fist. Alarms go off, maydays are issued; we see extreme close ups of trigger fingers on ray-guns. 

We know how this plays out. The Doctor arrives on the base, finds it besieged by the possessed astronauts; and begins a race against time to find the cure while more and more of the humans succumb to the infection.

But Bob Baker and Dave Martin, to their credit, throw away the rule book. The Invisible Enemy does not proceed according to formula. In Scene One, the space shuttle gets zapped by the alien force, and the three space men get possessed. In Scene Two, the TARDIS itself gets zapped, and the mysterious alien force takes over the Doctor. He resists it by putting himself into a trance.

This is not merely quite a good twist: it's a mild subversion of the whole idea behind Doctor Who. Or, if you are certain kind of 1970s Whovian, a terrible debunking of its magic. The Doctor is meant to function as a deus ex machina who comes along and sorts everything out. This time he's directly threatened. Indeed, he himself is the threat.

The question is not "Can the Doctor save the space-men?" but "Who can save the Doctor?"

The answer, being "The Doctor", obviously enough.

Horror of Fang Rock felt like the continuation of the Hinchcliffe era by other means. Invisible Enemy feels like a dissonant change of tone. The old silver TARDIS control room is back, and Leela feels incongruous in it: not merely a savage on a space ship, but an imposter on a set created in a different era. She is not the same character she was even a week ago. She is back in her leather bikini, but she spends a good chunk of the first episode wearing the Doctor's hat: at one point she appears to be chewing on his scarf. (We hardly notice the oddness of the Doctor's costume any more. They are on a spaceship. He is in outdoor clothes; Leela is dressed for the beach.) In Fang Rock, the Doctor and Leela were two grown up, mutually respecting characters who had conversations with each other. Invisible Enemy is full of this kind of thing:

"Saint Elmo's fire. It happens at sea."

"Saint Elmo's?"

"Yes, it causes a sort of halo effect round the masts of ships."


"Why do you keep repeating everything I say? You're not a parrot, are you?"


"Yes. A parrot's a bird that repeats things. Move over."

"Move over".

This hardly qualifies as dialogue: it is a bit of panto, a cross-talk routine of this kind Basil Brush had with Mr Roy on a weekly basis. Leela is the comedy primitive; the Doctor is the comedy smart-alec. No longer characters: more like Doctor and Leela off the back of a box of Weetabix. 

In order to cure the Doctor of his possession, it is necessary to get from Titan to a Centre for Alien Biomorphology in the asteroid belt. Leela suggests that they "take the TARDIS". Lowe, the supervisor of the crew of the Titan Base, himself possessed by the virus, tells them where Biomorphology Centre is; and the Doctor comes out of his trance to tell them the coordinates. Leela, who can't reliably write her own name, programmes them in.

In the past, the TARDIS was de facto and sometimes canonically involatile. You are safe once you are inside it: but you can't go back to it until you have finished this month's adventure. Now the Doctor can be zapped in his own control room by what is, frankly, a distinctly second division bad guy. And the TARDIS can be used to give people a lift from one part of the story to another, and a not particularly clever companion can operate it. Lowe's TARDIS trip takes place off-stage. We don't find out if he was surprised by the TARDIS' internal dimensions. And in a way, why should we? We take the TARDIS -- and the Doctor -- for granted; so why shouldn't the non-player characters?

But a TV show where the Doctor is a clever alien with an impressive vehicle is a lot different from one in which the Doctor is a mysterious wanderer with a wondrous Ship. Horror of Fang Rock would have been over very quickly if it had occurred to the Doctor to use the TARDIS as a taxi to ferry everyone back to the main land.

Once they arrive on the Centre For Alien Morphology (which turns out to be a space hospital) the story, and indeed the series, pretty much turns into a cartoon. Was I the only person who saw the hollowed out asteroid, with a Red Cross emblazoned on the surface, and thought we'd moved to the Clanger's moon Oliver Postgate could have supplied a better class of prawn.

We meet some nurses in strange green uniforms and eye make up. We notice some mis-spelt notices. And we encounter a scientist with a beard and a silly accent, who keep taking ticker tape out of the mouth of a robot dog.

Leela was, we are often told "something for the dads": K-9 was arguably something for the kids. We have shifted from a world where astronauts talk like truckers and drink liquor in the mess to a world where scientists with beards and tweed jackets talk pseudo science in Dr Zarkov accents. Nerdy kids like big words: I can remember driving my parents mad saying "deactivate it" instead of "turn it off". But we have had Hal and we are weeks away from Threepio and Zen and Marvin: a robot who says "affirmative" and "negative" instead of yes and no feels retro. It is never quite clear if K-9 is mainly a toy, a pet, or if Doctor Zarkov actually needs a portable computer with a death ray in its nose and has made it dog shaped on a whim. I felt, and still feel, that a group of Daleks sliding around the studio floor in formation look cool and alien; but K-9 just comes across as a shopping trolly or a motorised wheel chair.

Basil Brush had a battery operated toy dog called Ticker that would interrupt Mr Roy's stories by doing back-flips and barking. ("Quiet Ticker. Shut your little bone-shoot.")

According to K-9, what the Doctor has been possessed by is an "unidentified viral type infection with noetic characteristics" which is "at present seated in the mind-brain interface and therefore having no ascertainable mass or structure".

Nous is "mind"; noetikos is "intellectual"; "noetics" means the philosophy of mind. So, "a virus with noetic characteristics" might simply mean "a micro-organism which can think for itself". But this micro-organism exists in the place where the material universe (the brain) interfaces with the immaterial (the mind) and therefore has no weight or form. So I think that by "virus with noetic characteristics" the comic relief robot means "a microscopic pathogen which shares some features in common with thoughts". Thoughts, after all, have no mass or structure. Arguably.

The idea that the mind and the brain are different things is called Cartesian Dualism, after Descartes, who is also to blame for Calculas. Arguably. The question Cartesian Dualism can't answer (arguably) is how the supposedly perfect, incorporeal "mind" interacts with that lump of matter we call the brain. Descartes' answer was "through the pineal gland" which presumably went down better in the seventeenth century that it does today.

If the brain and the mind are separate, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much inconceivable. If the mind is simply the word we use for some of the things the brain does, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much without meaning. And it is in this inconceivable, meaningless place that the virus-with-thought-like-qualities resides. The Doctor is being controlled from a place which does not exist by a thing which does not exist.

What did Bob Baker and Dave Martin think they were doing? Were they making a serious attempt to use a children's TV show to talk about the mind/body problem. Tea-time philosophy for tots, as it were? Are they dimly trying to draw an analogy between the virus and quantum mechanics? A photon is in some sense a wave and a particle simultaneously: and the Nucleus is in some sense both an organism and an idea?

Or were they just filling the air with meaningless gibberish?



Doctor Who 15.2 (i): The Invisible Enemy

It is funny how the mind works.

I remember talking about Hand of Fear at lunch time in primary school; but the person in the memory is not me. In my mind's eye I see a little child with his two little friends, sitting around a blue formica table. I see one of the dinner ladies, The Fat Miss, or as it might be The Grumpy Miss, watching closely to see if a flicked baked bean or some spilled water would give her a pretext to send one of them to stand outside the headmaster's office.

It is the olden days: those happy golden years when willies and bums and farts were the highest form of wit.

But I also remember talking about the Invisible Enemy at lunch time in secondary school: and the person I remember is a younger version of me. Eleven years old now, a sophisticated chap talking to another sophisticated chap about that show we happened to have watched on the television at the weekend.

The child regenerates into the man. I sometimes think Eleven is the real me and everything since has been a digression. All children but one grow up. Eleven is the beginning of the end.

Mum and Dad took me to watch the cricket. Mum was secretary of the village team and sometimes kept score for them. I realise that going to the park and watching village cricket and drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches and looking for conkers sounds like a parody of an english childhood, but it is very nearly true. (The sandwiches were more likely to be cheese and pickle.) I remember not particularly paying attention to the cricket one Sunday afternoon and idley looking through the Sunday Mirror, or possibly the Observer. My parents were figuratively and literally Guardian readers, but the Guardian doesn't come out on a Sunday. July or August, it must have been, a month or so before Doctor Who and therefore school started up again after the summer break. The BBC must have been promoting the new season.

There, in the paper, innocently sitting on a particular page for anyone to see, was a picture of Doctor Who.

And Leela.

And...a robot.

A robot in the shape of a dog.

A robot in the shape of a dog called K-9.

I think he was photographed by a lamppost. The copy editor couldn't resist spelling out the joke: K-9 Ps 2.

Doctor Who was going to have a pet robot dog.

It was one of those things which you become obsessed with for no reason. It became a mantra, a thing to chant when I was happy or when I wanted to annoy my sister (which was nearly always). Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. And his name's gonna be K-9.

Singing ay ay ippy ippy ay...

This was before Star Wars, just barely. October, November, December, January: four whole months when I knew K-9 but didn't know Artoo Deetoo.

When I saw Invisible Enemy, I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Sun Makers I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Underworld, I had not seen Star Wars.

Divide time in two. Before John Lennon died; after John Lennon died. Before Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister; after Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Before Star Wars, after Star Wars.

Ante Bella Sidrum. 

K-9 came first.

The golden era of Doctor Who was over. It used to be the thing the cool kids watched. Then it was the thing which everyone watched. But it was becoming a thing which I watched. A thing which I could see was second rate, but for which I still felt a deep love. A love of Tom Baker. A love of Daleks. A love of silliness for silliness' sake. I had watched every story since Carnival of Monsters, an inconceivable amount of time ago and I was not going to give up.

"Do you really imagine for one second that that is what the inside of your brain would look like?" asked Kevin in morning break on Monday 17 October 1977. (Morning break. We were eleven. We did not talk about play-time any more.)

"Of course not" I said "But I am not a Time Lord."

I thought it was a clever answer.

Insufferable little geek.

What does it mean to be an embodied consciousness?

What is the difference between the brain and the mind?

Am I reducible to the lump of grey matter in my head, or is there some essence-of-me that exists apart from the atoms I am composed of?

Should we think in terms of body and soul or hardware and software -- or is trying to think of the mind as distinct from the brain on a level with trying to think of 23 miles per hour as distinct from the car?

Can things other than brains have minds?

Would an artificial brain have a mind?

What are the limits of artificial intelligence?

Could a machine have a personality -- even a sense of humour?

Could a human befriend a computer?

Or is the idea of "befriending" a robot on the same level as befriending a teapot?

Should I think of my mind as the rational, logical part of me; and my emotions and gut-feelings as by-products of the meat-sack my mind is housed in?

Or should I rather see my reasoning ability as simply an on-board calculator and data-base, and my instincts and feelings as constituting the real me?

If you made an exact physical copy of my brain would you have made a copy of my mind?

Is making an exact physical copy of me more like giving birth to a child who happens to look a lot like his father?

Or is it more like taking a photograph?

How does the mind work?

These are the kinds of philosophical question which The Invisible Enemy shows absolutely no interest in answering.

We all remember the Giant Shrimp.

It isn't the first silly monster to appear in Doctor Who. But in the past, we were mostly able to see what the production team was trying for and explain why it didn't come off. The Giant Rat looks silly because we are cutting between real rats in realistic location shots and an obvious puppet in an obvious model. There is nothing actually very wrong with the puppet per se. The Loch Ness Monster is not irredeemably ridiculous; but the primitive green-screen effects make it look absurdly out of sync with the Scottish Moors and Big Ben.

But the only possible response to the Giant Shrimp is "What on earth were they thinking?"

Yes, Doctor Who didn't have much money to throw around, and they had already blown the budget on K-9. But that's no excuse: these are skilled model makers and costume designers. The sequences of space shuttles flying through asteroid fields and landing in moon bases at the beginning of Episode One may not have troubled Industrial Light and Magic (or even Gerry Anderson) but they are decent models. They might not have won an Oscar but they would comfortably have won second prize in the Hornby Model Train Club Awards. Briefed to take £10 worth of crepe paper and tin foil and make a fancy dress costume that suggests a virus, they could surely have done better than this?

A Prawn for goodness sake.

Perhaps they were doing it deliberately. Perhaps Robert Holmes, still smarting from the way the BBC blue-pencilled Deadly Assassin, started consciously or unconsciously undermining the stories on which he is working out his notice. Perhaps the costume people have noticed that, however much they knock themselves out making a scary costume, Tom is going to undercut it with some ad lib about Jelly Babies, so they might as well meet him halfway and give him something ridiculous out of which to take the piss.

Graham Williams and Derrick Goodwin were new to Doctor Who: it is possible that there are tricks you can do with camera angles and lighting to make shit monsters look less shit, and they simply hadn't learned them yet.

For god's sake, it's on casters, and no-one tries to disguise the fact that it's on casters

But the Giant Prawn On Wheels skews our perception of The Invisible Enemy. It is literally the only thing we remember about the story. And the problem with the Prawn is not that it is a monumentally unconvincing representation of a virus. The problem with the Prawn is that it should never have looked like a Prawn to begin with.

I have been thinking about the Invisible Enemy for nearly half a century. Something very, very obvious just occurred to me.

The monster is officially called The Nucleus of the Swarm. The costume department must have been asked to make a costume representing The Nucleus of the Swarm, and misheard the word.

"The nucleus of the prawn".

Now I've thought it I will never be able to unthink it, and neither will you.

That's how the mind works.



Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Doctor Who 15.1

John Abbot must be in his seventies by now. In his youth he reportedly played Snoopy on the Edinburgh Fringe. But for four weeks in 1977 we knew him as the Nice One On The Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is called Fang Rock. It is populated entirely by stock characters who are wiped out by a giant luminous brussel sprout at the rate of 1.75 per episode. There is an Old Set In His Ways Lighthouse Keeper and a Middle Aged and More Up To Date Lighthouse Keeper. The latter doesn't last ten minutes into Episode One.

Everyone speaks non-specific Mummerset so it is probably inevitable that Abbot's character, the Young Lighthouse Keeper Who Is Still Learning The Ropes should be called Hawkins. Old Reuben really does say things like "it do seem...unnatural" and "this is a queer 'un". Thank goodness he resists the temptation to say "Arrr... Vince-Lad!" at any point.

In Episode Two Central Casting supplies a fresh boatload of victims: otherwise the story would have been very short. There is a Greedy Financier, a Corrupt MP and a Posh Lady Who Keeps Fainting. In Episode Three, Palmerdale, the nasty rich guy, tries to bribe Vince to send a message about a shady stock deal to the mainland on the lighthouse's morse code transmitter. "A hundred pound!" exclaims Vince. "That be a fortune!" Palmerdale becomes the Monster's fourth victim almost immediately and Vince burns the money because he is afraid he'll be accused of murdering him. In Episode Four, the monster offs Vince as well.

Abbot spends the rest of his career playing rolls like Estate Agent, Lawyer, Mouth Organist and Verger. Probably getting regular bit parts on TV is a good gig for an actor; very likely he doesn't think of Vince as anything other than a job of work he did a very long time ago. But Doctor Who and its fans go on and on forever. Someday we will hear that the guy who played the nice one on the lighthouse has died, and a few thousand of us will think of that day as one thinks of a day on which we did something slightly unusual. Fifty years from now someone who thinks of the Twenty Ninth Doctor as their Doctor will decide to watch the one where the one with the scarf goes to the lighthouse and will feel ever so slightly sad when the giant Brussels sprout kills Vince Hawkins.

Acting is an odd job: fandom is an odd hobby.

Season 14 of Doctor Who came to an end in April, 1977. Season 15 began the following September. On May 25, a new space fantasy movie was released in the U.S.A. It would not arrive in the UK until the day after Boxing Day, but the comics, novels, picture cards and breakfast cereals were already much in evidence. Doctor Who knew that it couldn't compete.

Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng Chiang wanted to be exceptional: interrogating and deconstructing the show itself; embracing the idea of Time Travel and melodrama like they had never been embraced before. Horror of Fang Rock wants to be just good enough.

Fans are always dividing things into Eras. Talons of Weng-Chiang brought the Hinchcliffe Era to an end and Horror of Fang Rock inaugurated the Williams Era. And it is entirely true that between Season 14 and Season 15 Phillip Hinchcliffe stepped down as producer, and Graham Williams took over. But Producers didn't have as much power and influence as Show Runners do today; and script editor Robert Holmes would hang on for three more stories.

Season 14 ended with a Victorian costume drama; Season 15 opens with an Edwardian costume drama. Season 14 was full of pastiche horror; Season 15 opens with a spooky gothic spine chiller. The lighthouse is as emphatically shrouded in fog as the streets of London were. No-one ever suggested giving Col. Skinsale his own series, but you could imagine him in the club with Dr Litefoot, swapping tales of China and India and being patronising about the natives. Horror of Fang Rock didn't feel like a new era: it felt like business as usual.

Although it is full of stock characters and stereotypes, Fang Rock is not doing conscious literary pastiche in the way that Weng Chiang was. There is no particular "Edwardian Lighthouse Keeper" genre to draw on. If anything, it falls back on the venerable Who format of "aliens besieging a base". Everyone dies by the end of Episode Four: this is in fact the only story in which the Doctor fails to save anyone at all. No-one seems very bothered. The Doctor makes a quick joke about Louise Jameson's contact lenses, quotes an obscure poem that no-one is likely to have read, and hops into the TARDIS for next week's romp.

Doctor Who is now Tom Baker's show, and he knows it. This is his fourth season, and he has already clocked up more screen time than Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi would. He is slowly morphing from the Shakespearean One to the Alien One; the Callous One; and indeed the Insufferable One. Terrance Dicks's script does not give him very much; but he does a great deal with what he's given. He turns an innocent line like "I don't know what the truth is yet" back on itself by adding a little snarl around the word "yet". He makes much use of his trademark device of delivering lines in a convincingly inappropriate tone of voice. He exclaims "We haven't been introduced!" as if it were a life and death crisis; but announces "The lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead" with a silly grin on his face. When old Reuben ("'t'aint natural!") says that this new-fangled wireless won't bring middle-aged Ben back to life the Doctor responds "No!" just a shade too emphatically; raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes. When Reuben, insinuating that it was the Doctor who murdered Ben, says "I knows what I knows and I thinks what I thinks" the Doctor responds with the single word "Incontrovertible!" as if Reuben has just had a clever scientific insight.

It is this Doctor, smug but likeable, who won our devotion, who turned Doctor Who from a TV show into a religion. We felt sure that he would confide in us, as he does with Leela; not patronise us and ignore us, as he does with Reuben. We wished we could be as witty and supercilious to all the bullies and P.E. teachers in the world as the Doctor is to superstitious old duffers who prefer oil lamps to electricity.

Enjoy it while you can: soon it will be buried beneath a stream of weak jokes and jelly babies.

From Ian and Barbara to Harry and Sarah-Jane, the Doctor's companions had always been our near-contemporaries, wrenched from their proper contexts, but acting as our anchor-points and avatars. Doctor Who was about normal people taken to unusual times and places. Horror of Fang Rock lacks any contemporary viewpoint. Seven Edwardian stereotypes go through their paces, while two alien outsiders stand apart. The Doctor and Leela feel increasingly like Sapphire and Steel: visitors from a different world, not quite engaged with what is going on. Although he calls her "savage", Leela is treated almost as the Doctor's equal. The Doctor has knowledge that she doesn't have, but she has instinct which the Doctor respects. When Leela threatens to cut Palmerdale's heart out, we almost believe that she would -- and that the Doctor would let her. Leela is still a character -- recognisably the same young woman we met in Face of Evil and followed through Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang. She has not yet been reduced to a pretty assistant with a dagger instead of a personality.

When Screamy Adelaide mentions that she consults astrologers, Leela says that she too used to believe in magic. "But the Doctor has taught me about Science. It is better to believe in Science." Leela's faith in the Doctor is almost superstitious: she thinks that they have nothing to fear from the alien murderer, because the Doctor is a Time Lord and the monster is not. She believes in him more than he believes in himself. But she can also stand up to him and puncture his pomposity as Sarah-Jane used to. "That's what I thought" she says "But of course I am only a savage!"

The Doctor's pomposity needs to be punctured from time to time: we can really only enjoy someone behaving awfully if there is someone to point out his awfulness. (We are licensed to enjoy Basil Fawlty's rage because we know he will end up with egg on his face.) That's why the Doctor needs to be paired with some sassy mortal: with a Sarah or a Leela or even a Jo. Much of the rest of the Baker era will descend into bickering between two insufferably arrogant ubermenschen -- and and even more insufferably arrogant robot dog.

The murderous Brussels sprout is eventually revealed to be a Rutan. Rutans have, in fact, been mentioned before: almost the only thing we know about the Sontarans is that they are engaged in a perpetual war against them. This is something of a watershed moment. When Dicks requires a rationale for the lighthouse monster, he doesn't go into folklore or literature, but to the series' own marginalia. Vanishingly few viewers in 1977 would have remembered the small print in the Time Warrior or the Sontaran Experiment, and nothing follows from it. But there is now a feeling, outside of fan fictions in mimeographed zines, that the show has a mythos -- or at least a body of old texts -- which are worth gesturing towards.

"What are you doing in this part of the galaxy?" asks the Doctor, as if intergalactic travel is about as remarkable as hitching a ride on a stage coach. Up to this point we've been watching a kind of low key nautical gothic -- Agatha Christie meets William Hope Hodgson. But this dialogue pulls us back into the realm of space opera; the realm, indeed, of Star Wars. Weng Chiang and Sutekh remained godlike even when they were revealed to "really" be time travelling war criminals and exiled aliens. The Beast of Fang Rock ceases to be beast-like and becomes merely an alien soldier. The Doctor spends the first three episodes convincing us that he is genuinely scared and genuinely worried: but as soon as he comes face to face with his adversary, he sets about relentlessly trivialising it. "I don't like your face"; "Reuben the Rutan"; "Oyster face". We are meant to think that he is being brave, or that he is carefully goading the creature into making an error: but in fact it has the effect of making the audience think that this baddie is really nothing to be too concerned about. We don't need to take the threat seriously if the Doctor doesn't.

The Doctor will rarely take anything seriously again.

Terrance Dicks knows how to construct a story. There is set-up and pay-off: characters do exposition without it being too obvious that exposition is what they are doing. ("So long as it isn't a hazard to navigation we don't have to bother with it" says Reuben, in case we were in any doubt as to what lighthouses are there for.) Everybody remembers the cliffhanger at the end of Episode Three: "I thought I'd locked the enemy out; instead, I've locked him in". But I preferred the end of Episode Two, however much it may reek of cheese. Palmerdale asserts that "absolutely nothing is going on" just as the set is plunged into darkness and someone off stage screams.

The characters are one dimensional, and it is impossible to care about the Palmerdale / Skinsale intrigue. But they are well enough drawn that it is possible to remember which is which, and to vaguely care as they queue up to fall into the Rutan's metaphorical jaws.

After three episodes build-up and a 100% casualty rate, the Doctor makes a plan and the plan works. The monster is scared of heat, and light; the Doctor can use diamonds to turn the lighthouse into a kind of laser. It would have helped if the fact that Palmerdale carries diamonds as "insurance" had been foreshadowed. Skinsale spends an inordinate amount of time rifling through his trousers to find them.

"The Doctor jerry rigs a doohickey and saves the day" feels like a cop-out, but in a sense the Doctor's whole rasion d'etre is to be a deus ex machina. The 21st century Doctor would have made the monster go away by thinking beautiful happy thoughts at it.

There was never any point in Doctor Who trying to be bigger of flashier than Star Wars, just as there is no point in the Doctor Who of today trying to be bigger and flashier than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Horror of Fang Rock is small and cheap and just good enough. One senses that Terrence Dicks delivered the script with a resounding "will this do?". It tries to get by on charm; specifically, on Tom Baker's and Louise Jameson's charm. It very nearly succeeds.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

Why Andrew Is Never Going To Write About Politics Ever Again (*)

I wish I could say I did it deliberately.

I wish I could say that in the context of a series of articles about Cancellation and Stuff You Can’t Say I deliberately wrote something a bit provocative, so that I could turn round an say “A-ha, you see, there you are, there really ARE things you can’t say.”

Or, more interestingly: “Actually, there is nothing you can’t say. I put some real hot-button stuff in my last essay and no-one batted an eye-lid”.

But I didn’t do it deliberately.

I mean, calling Richard Dawkins a cunt and generally swearing more than I usually do: yes, absolutely. I was using all the bad words I knew because I was writing about Stuff You Can’t Say. But the awful terrible no good bad footnote wasn’t like that. Not consciously, anyway. I have read enough Freud to know what a parapraxis is.

It was if anything more like that piece I wrote on Life of Brian in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. Midway through an essay about an essay about a nasty person saying nasty things about a particular subject that I have always avoided talking about, I thought “Oh, it is daft that I have always avoided saying what I honestly think about this particular subject” and wrote down very very quickly what I honestly thought.

Felt. What I honestly felt.

I suppose if anything I was making a joke against myself. "I’m very naive and out of the loop", I was saying. "I am old enough to not get this stuff but still young enough to think I ought to get it."

Who was it who said that as long as you think young people’s music is rubbish, you are still young: you only become old when you start to pretend not to understand it?

I used to be vaguely aware which teams were playing in the F.A Cup Final and the title of England’s song in Eurovision, even though I care less than nothing about either subject. Both events now pass by without my knowing that they are happening. I don’t even pretend that I know.

I hate what Chibnall has done with Doctor Who, but I know what he is doing and care enough to hate it. I dread the day when I will say “Oh, has there been a new series of Doctor Who? I used to watch that.” I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat realising that there are Tom Baker audios that I have not listened to.

And I am not even joking.

Or perhaps I am.

My feelings about the particular subject we don’t talk about are genuinely as confused and immature as I portrayed them as being. That’s why the language was deliberately childish. It is literally true that, at some level, some aspects of me have never progressed beyond junior school.

It is also literally true that in my head I always pronounce “Titans” to rhyme with “Mittens” and think that if a book is boring, it contains long “ers”. There is no point in writing and telling me that this is not right. I know this is not right. That’s why it is interesting and amusing.

I only know how to write in two modes: textual criticism and autobiography. I have never worked out how to write about things which never happened to people who never existed. I believe in Neil Gaiman and the power of stories and I remember when I used to believe in Joseph Campbell and the one story which is every story and I designed a quite good card game about stories (“with others”) and wasted a very large amount of my life using funny dice and little models to make up stories about dragons with my friends. Perhaps I spaffed my lifetime’s allocation of stories playing Pendragon at college. Perhaps I should have embraced it more deeply. Perhaps I should have become a pagan like Greg Stafford or a magician like Alan Moore. 

Robyn Williamson of the Incredible String Band has been known to say “Ach, I’m too Christian for the pagans and too pagan for the Christians”.

One thing makes me think of something else. It’s the only way of writing I know.

“Do you like scones, Andrew?”

“I remember my Aunty Molly called them splits and served them with clotted cream instead of butter. She had a caravan at the end of her drive. We used to go there once a year. It was Cornwall, where King Arthur was born. My Mum wasn’t one for baking, but she bought tiny little current scones from the co-op sometimes. There is a strain of Sweet Pea named after my Aunty Molly.”

I used to search for happiness, I used to follow pleasure: but I found a door behind my mind and that’s the greatest treasure.

I sometimes have a notion of trying to write Harvey Pekar style autobiographical comic strips. I cannot draw but the internet makes montage and paste up and photostrips relatively easy. The one time I tried autobiographical fiction everyone was intensely embarrassed by it: but that was 30 years ago in Coventry, and besides, the cat is dead.

I will probably write more about children’s TV. I write about Doctor Who, of course: last year I found things to be said about Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng Chiang which had never been said before. I don’t think anyone noticed. I would like to analyse Tom Baker’s fourth and fifth seasons, of course. But the world and his mother in law is already writing about Doctor Who and my remarks about Horror of Fang Rock would hardly be heard above the cacophony. There is a heck of a lot of other children’s TV on BritBox: Grange Hill and Supercar and Mr Benn. Catweazle is awfully good. It’s hardly the kind of thing which would sustain the sort of extreme textual analysis I subject Spider-Man and the Bible to; but I could see a way of writing an autobiographical critical psychodrama.

The Tomorrow People: Season 2, Episode 4:
The one in which our heroes are dressed up in baby-clothes and forced to fight in an arena by an insane Robot disguised as Caligula. I was nine when it first came out, and in Miss Griffiths; class. I remember what Miss Griffiths told us about Caligula....

But that sort of thing involves free writing; turning off the internal censor and saying what is in my head. Let go of your conscious self and act on instinct. Once I start to talk about the 1970s all sorts of other things are going to come tumbling out: Harold Wilson and Jimmy Savile and Our Vicar and Miss Beale and the Miner’s Strike and when I first realised Daddy was sick and what it is like to be systematically bullied for six years and Enoch Powell and the generation gap and football hooliganism and Punk and the Jubilee and C.N.D and South Africa and Mr Burnham's sex-ed lesson...and if I switch off my targeting computer and act on instinct I may find myself saying what I really think.

Feel. What I really feel.

“If people would only be frank and say what they really think!

“Lord forbid!”

“But why?”

“What they think they ought to think is bad enough, Lord knows; but what they really think would break up the whole show. Do you suppose it would be really agreeable if I were to come out now with what I really think?”

“Is it so very cynical?”

“Cynical! Who the dickens said it was cynical? I mean it wouldn’t be decent”.


"Oh come on. You positively enjoy standing on the metaphorical stage and metaphorically taking your metaphorical clothes off. That’s where this all started from."

I wonder if I will get letters telling me that this is the biggest load of self indulgent garbage they have ever read, or ones saying that this personal prose-poetry is my forte and I should expand it into a novel.

"Oh look, Andrew is having one of his bi-annual blog crises: he’ll be back to writing about continuity errors in 1970s Marvel before you know it."

I mean for goodness sake one person said they found one footnote slightly hurtful...

There is a scene in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man where he they, the author, admits that he  they were almost broken to pieces by the death of his their pet cat, but that there was always a part of him them thinking “But if she does die, I will be able to mention it in my comic and that will give it a wee tinge of authenticity.” Which is to have one's cake and eat it: mocking yourself for using your grief as narrative currency, but making narrative capital out of the fact you are mocking yourself.

I am not going to write possibly touchy stuff on possibly touchy subjects any more but I am damn well going to tap out two thousand words writing about how I'm not writing about it.

A long time ago I was mugged by some Asian kids outside my house: I wrote about it on my blog precursor, mentioning that for a few weeks after the attack I looked at every Asian I met and wondered if they were the ones who had attacked me. I thought it was evident that I knew that this was a very silly thing to be thinking: that was the whole point of saying it. But sure enough I got a letter from an outraged person telling me firmly that I ought not to feel that way and explaining patiently that just because one individual Muslim was a petty thief that was no reason to think that all Muslims are petty thieves and my dark skinned neighbours were no more or less likely to attack me than the light skinned ones.

The Right talk about Virtue Signalling: people express liberal views, not because they believe in them, but because they want other people to think that they believe in them.

But there is another kind of signal: the endless searching of tea leaves and the endless casting of runes and the endless study of telegrams and tweets in the hope that you will find a word of secret significance that will reveal what is really going on.

We don’t have arguments: we have treasure hunts. Eventually, X marks the spot.

I honestly had not realised that the feelings which came out of my head when I wrote the Footnote were almost precisely word for word the credo of certain deeply unpleasant individuals that I absolutely don’t want to associate myself with.

I suppose if I periodically blurt out things which make me sound like a baddie I ought to entertain the possibility that I really am a baddie. 

A sudden conversion to right wing politics would be worth a few blog posts; there could even be a book in it.

Becoming a militant Dawkinsian would be a bit obvious, but I could surprise everyone by becoming a Jain or a Christedelphian. Do elderly evangelicals ever embrace Islam?

I’m not going to do any of these things. I think that Bristol should get rid of Colston, American cops should stop killing black people, climate change is real, and we should have gender neutral loos. I am bad at remembering the right pronouns, but I try really really hard. I am not going to stop writing about politics for ever, but I have got some other projects I want to get stuck into for the foreseeable.

Or I might change my mind.

Stranger things have happened.

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(*) Or at any rate, not for a while.