A Town Called Mercy

 

 

 

In an interesting example of parallel evolution, at about the time Western movies were taking off in America there was a similar genre burgeoning in Germany: bergfilme or mountain films. They were not afforded the time to flourish or to develop any formal complexity or tradition of romanticism because, in the thirties, they fell foul of the Nazi regime’s predilection for censorship.

Ironically enough Hitler did eventually come to admire mountain films and their mythologising of self-reliance but this late conversion merely accelerated the extinction of the genre. The post-war taint of Nazi affiliation was too much to overcome.

One of the finest examples of a bergfilm is Dr. Arnold Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (1926). This tale of two mountaineers both in love with the same woman could be trite enough but, as with Westerns, the desolate nature of the landscape in which the story takes place makes any systematised morality redundant. A new morality emerges which is personal rather than imposed by social conventions, and is all the more interesting for it. If you haven’t seen The Holy Mountain please give it some consideration. It is an amazing film.

The photography is entrancing. The movie was filmed for real in the Alps over a whole year. And the woman at the apex of the love triangle is enchanting too: eerily beautiful, and not emotionally straightforward. She was played by the twenty-four year old Leni Riefenstahl. At the time Riefenstahl was an actress and interpretative dancer but she went on to become a filmmaker of considerable technical virtuosity.

She directed and starred in the peculiarly slanted fairy tale The Blue Light in 1932, but she is principally remembered for her documentaries made for the Third Reich: Triumph Of The Will and Olympia. The repugnant nature of these films’ subject matter inevitably left more of an impression than her directorial skill and in the aftermath of the war she found her reputation permanently tarnished.

Through her life Riefenstahl actively sued for libel anyone who accused her outright of Nazi collaboration. The creative urge behind her most infamous works was, it became widely accepted, aesthetic rather than political. During the seventies there was a partial rehabilitation for her as she photographed the 1972 Olympics in Munich and was feted as a guest of honour at the 1976 Montreal games. And although she lived to the age of 101 (dying in 2002) indefatigably unapologetic and apparently having lived a full and happy life, her name still carries deeply unpleasant associations to anyone of any sensitivity.

If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows. And the same happens, I’m afraid, if you step with the geese.

It is hard not to burden her youthful beauty with the emotional freight of everything that came afterwards. It can all make for a very difficult and ethically provocative wank.

But as the tradition of mountain films fizzled out before establishing itself, westerns continued to flourish.

It is possible to see now in the Westerns of the thirties through to the sixties abiding themes of emergent personal moralities. Stagecoach, High Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Naked Spur, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all show in one way or another and to greater or lesser degrees, what it is like to be an individual with a dilemma, but without societal constraints or the mitigating effect of a civilised environment.

These frontier narratives are about the development of a coherent and tolerable sense of self, and up to this point it makes sense to regard cowboy films or Westerns as a consistent genre.

This ceases to be the case in the sixties I think when the influence of spaghetti westerns, particularly the sordidly beautiful ones of Sergio Leone turn the Western from a philosophically enquiring form into ostentatious theatrics.

This isn’t to say the Leone films and their orbiting satellites are bad or unworthy in any way. They aren’t. They are fucking magnificent. But they are less rooted in personal responsibility and growth, and more excited by the trappings of Grand Guignol, the stating of moral certitude and a rudimentary narrative balancing of accounts.

The choices of emphasis in something like Once Upon A Time In The West for example have more in common with Mario Bava’s Bay Of Blood or Dario Argento’s Deep Red than they do with Shane. In fact Argento even shares a story credit for Once Upon A Time In The West.

There were far fewer Westerns made during the seventies than in previous decades, and many of those that were released seemed less bothered about frontier morality and more concerned with how an individual fits into the wider world whose encompassment has become inescapable. As perhaps you might expect from an anxious superpower still stinging from its disastrous involvement in a land war in Asia.

“Sometimes trouble just follows a man,” says Clint Eastwood during The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), in which he is playing a man who seems fundamentally to want to be left alone but who cannot escape the company of others.

There were still Western stories being told, but more often they were in what seemed to be other genres. Dirty Harry, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Alien, The Thing all have the traditional Western ethic at their hearts.

Films of the eighties onwards that looked like Westerns (Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, 3:10 To Yuma) may be terrific films, but they are made by people concerned with the craft of making a cowboy film rather than people with a new thing to say in a Western framework.

This is all a terribly long-winded way of saying that not every Western has people with cowboy hats in it. And not everything with cowboy-hatted people is a Western.

One can see this quite clearly in any Western/fantasy genre mash-up.

At their worst they can be pretty ignoble spectacles, the sci-fi Westerns. The Valley Of Gwangi, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, Jonah Hex, The Burrowers, Cowboys and Aliens. These all make quite steep demands of the casual viewer. And even the good ones like The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao or Billy the Kid vs. Dracula are principally genre pieces with cowboy clothes on rather than Western movies per se.

Back to the Future Part III for example is a glorious piece of work just quivering with glee, but it would be a brave and heterodox critic indeed who stuck it on a list of the greatest Westerns ever made.

And where does Doctor Who stand in all this? Preserver of the western tradition, sci-fi nonsense in a ten-gallon hat or something else?

Prior to A Town Called Mercy the programme’s only notable dalliance with the genre was the 1966 William Hartnell story The Gunfighters. This is the story in which The Doctor, Dodo and Steven become embroiled in the events leading up to the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The Gunfighters has had quite a shabby reputation in the cardboard corridors of Doctor Who fandom for as long as I have been watching the show. It does now seem to be going through some process of rehabilitation into society thank goodness, and (partly at least because of the attentive DVD release it got in 2011) it is finally accreting a number of proselytes. Of whom I am one.

It is easy with any telly programme dating back forty-six years to have a bit of a snark at the production values, but this is horribly misguided in the case of The Gunfighters I think. It is a plucky little series. There is just something majestic in the idea that it would be advisable, or even possible to create a four-episode cowboy story entirely within a British studio.

The only other contemporary British Western I can bring to mind is Carry On Cowboy (1965), and even that allowed itself the freedom of some location shooting to alleviate the studio claustrophobia.

Furthermore The Gunfighters is admirable in sticking pretty closely to what, if they aren’t actually the facts, are the accepted movie-truth version of events. It is still part of Doctor Who’s, by then waning, commitment to pure historical stories with no science fiction overtones at all.

Finally, I find its jamming together of broad comedy (Peter Purves in particular absolutely nails it) and brutal, fatal reality to be in every way laudable. Tonal consistency is an ambition for lesser minds. Bring on the creative dissonance, I say.

Toby Whithouse and Saul Metzstein, the writer and director of A Town Called Mercy respectively, both seem aware of The Gunfighters and reference it deliberately several times I think: the use of narration, the confusion between our Doctor and another Doctor (Doc Holliday and Kahler Jex), the Doctor’s becoming a deputised lawman, and the shiftless locals in need of moral authority.

Saul Metzstein’s direction of A Town Called Mercy is simply magnificent. The Almería location may do some of the work for him, but the Leone-esque frame filling is his entirely. Murray Gold’s music helps a great deal too, channelling both Bernstein and Morricone at times whilst maintaining his own musical idiom. Murraycone.

As always though Who stands or falls on its actors and we are in safe hands here. Matt Smith’s comic abilities are beautiful. I could have done without some of the script’s seeming heavy-handedness (leave the bag in, a horse called Susan and so forth) but Smith can pull just about anything off. Getting up after being thrown to the ground. The business with the tooth pick. The alien car alarm. It’s all in Smith’s performance. And he’s becoming great at doing Hartnell-hands as well.

I love his spindliness and his big flat, pink face like a chatty shovel with a hat on. But I love how quickly he can take it down to sinister, solitary menace too.

Toby Whithouse’s script is clever. It is nice to see a conflict in which it is not really clear who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. And it is rare for so convincing a moral equivalence to be drawn between the Doctor and the, for want of a better word, baddie.

The resolution is smart too, and morally sophisticated. The notion that one inevitably pays for one’s trespasses in some form or another is a mature one. The hope that the people one needs to make amends to will be kind is a beautiful one. More of this on a Saturday night, please.

The companions seem to be very much in the background in A Town Called Mercy. Rory’s input is confined to some funny business acknowledging the tertiary nature of his role in proceedings, and Amy is only really called on towards the end of things when she is required to talk the Doctor down. This is thrilling to watch and is a major step forward in the depiction of Amy and in Karen Gillan’s interpretation of the role.

There is foreboding at the start of the episode when Amy seems to point out that the Doctor suffers when he travels alone. We have been here before. Donna Noble noticed it in Ten’s era and look how that ended up.

The companions also take one more tentative step down the road to ultimate divorce from the Doctor at the end of the episode when they decline to come with him on another adventure. And whilst part of me does sort of want to know what happened to the dogs and chimps that got blasted into space, most of me accepts that this is like Holmes’s giant rat of Sumatra. A thing more exciting to wonder about than to see made specific.

Amy’s reason for not going with the Doctor is that their friends are going to start noticing that they are getting older faster than them. This is a particularly exquisite Toby Whithouse grace note, and he has touched on it before in his 2006 story School Reunion . That was the story in which the actual alien invasion plot was entirely subordinate to the notional subplot: that of Sarah Jane meeting her Doctor for the first time in thirty years. That packed a massive emotional wallop. I am beginning to suspect that the Ponds’ leave-taking may actually be as gruelling as Steven Moffat has been suggesting for some time.

Who does she look like then? And there’s bullet holes in his hat… Visual echoes abound

Moral equivalence

High Something Or Other

A couple of things to mention that don’t really relate to anything else: Firstly, that’s two weeks running that the Doctor has mentioned his Christmas list; secondly, the Henry VIII en suite phone-charger incident, is that before or after the parson’s nose affair?

Before leaving A Town Called Mercy altogether, there is one final parallel to draw between this episode and The Gunfighters: that being the use of narration.

In the latter the narrative voice is Lynda Baron singing Tristram Cary’s Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. This is slightly overpowering when the programme is watched through in one go but as a weekly contextualiser, which is what the song originally was, it is a witty and effective solution to a tedious problem.

The narrator of A Town Called Mercy is slightly more enigmatic than Lynda Baron. Not appearing as a character, she is finally revealed to be the great-granddaughter of a young girl who is at best ancillary to events. This is puzzling.

Does it make the narrator a contemporary of ours? If so will she become a character, or is this just part of the season’s theme so far of removing the Doctor from the centre of events and making the story about someone else, like Oswin or Brian? We may find out later.

Her early references to “…a man who lived forever but whose eyes were heavy with the weight all he’d seen, a man who fell from the stars…” are cheekily misleading. But the references to America being a land of second chances are peculiarly specific and seem to have their origins in George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2004.

Can this be right? Casting Richard Nixon in a half-light of approbation was one thing, but Dubya? That would be amazing.

Get Josh Brolin’s agent on the phone. Now.

Next week, God help us, it is this. I wear pants now. Pants are cool.

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

There was a point about sixteen minutes into the bonkers funtime of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship when I abruptly and vigorously applied the palm of my hand to the face of my head, irked that for the second week running I had missed all the clues in front of me. Well I hadn’t missed them so much as failed to put them correctly together.

Writer Chris Chibnall had previously scripted a two-part Silurian story for Doctor Who in 2010 (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and this new episode of his was to be called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.

“Hur hur,” chortled my, well, let’s call it a brain. “Chib’s certainly your go-to guy for cold-blooded scaly action.” Didn’t make that final five millimetre leap in logic to work out that this was going to be a Silurian story though, did I? Oh no.

Once again thanks are due to the kind-hearted reviewers and members of the Who community who knew this but did not spoil the surprise. The reveal that the spaceship was a Silurian ark on its way back to Earth was masterful.

They are a bit of a victim race are the poor Silurians. They first appeared in Malcolm Hulke’s 1970 story which seems now to be known by the rather weird, over-conjunctioned title “And The Silurians”.

Their sea-faring cousins the Sea Devils (which is surely not what they call themselves when they are sitting at home with their fins up, enjoying a plankton supper) appeared in Hulke’s 1972 follow-up story called, simply enough “The Sea Devils”.

Both stories were, as was so often the case with Malcolm Hulke’s stories, moral conundrums with some pertinent political questioning thrown in for good measure.

Briefly: In prehistoric times the Silurians and The Sea Devils, the dominant species on Earth in that era, both put themselves into deep subterranean hibernation to avoid a forthcoming planetary catastrophe. If memory serves it is the approach of a body that looks set to crash into the Earth but which instead settles into orbit, becoming the Moon.

This last minute non-occurrence of the catastrophe leads to both species sleeping through their alarm clocks. When finally awoken in the twentieth century they are understandably peeved that upstart chimps have taken over the place and they seek to eradicate us.

In both stories the antagonism resolves itself in the destruction of the older races. Hulke was an intelligent, liberal man though and did manage to raise the point, so often missed in the binary simplicity of science fiction TV, that maybe the apparent “baddies” actually had a bit of a point. They were here first after all.

This goodie/baddie dichotomy is a thing I always found a little bit problematic about the first three Star Wars films (IV, V and VI) too. We understand that the Empire is evil because all of its authority figures are quite ugly and dress in dark clothes. The rebels in the alliance, on the other hand, are quite sexy looking and wear light coloured clothes, so clearly they are the good guys.

Looked at objectively though it’s hard to see what the Empire is doing that is so objectionable. Life still seems pretty sweet down the space pub, and there’s always loads of blue milk in the fridges of the sand farmers. The revolutionary rage of the Rebel Alliance is obscure to me, and their phased regime change strategy seems lacking too. Politically they seem less astute than the People’s Front Of Judea and the Judean People’s Front put together.

But I digress.

My point is that it was nice to see a bit of moral ambiguity in Doctor Who even if the end result was the preservation of the status quo.

I am skipping over Johnny Byrne’s presumably well-intentioned 1984 story Warriors Of The Deep not because I don’t like it (I do), but because I don’t really understand it or what it is trying to say. It’s a clumsily executed Cold War allegory I think. Fifty percent Fail-Safe, fifty percent Rentaghost Series 9.

Hey, hey, it’s the Myrka

 

 

The Silurians’ reappearance in 2010’s two-parter was welcome though the ending, again, left me a bit unsatisfied. The reptiles return to hibernation after another bruising encounter with humanity, vaguely hoping that some sort of rapprochement between the species might be possible in the future. A two hundred million-year sleep and they still go for the snooze button.

The Silurian Ark in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship is a tremendous idea however, and full points to Chris Chibnall for being the first, as far as I know, to come up with it. A spiffing notion to have an off-screen homo reptilia equivalent of When Worlds Collide have taken place.

Extra points too for not then, having set it up, proceeding in that direction, but instead turning ninety degrees and giving us something different: the putting together of a team for a fight. Narrative gold dust from The Seven Samurai (and its western and sci-fi remakes The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond The Stars) through Kelly’s Heroes, and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 to Avembers Assengle. I loved it.

I also enjoyed immensely Mark Williams’ portrayal of Rory’s dad, Brian. Close family is not a thing that classic-era Who ever concerned itself with much, other than Ace’s mum’s brief appearance as a baby in The Curse Of Fenric. It has, however, been a defining feature of new Who since episode one, Camille Coduri’s barnstorming performance as Jackie Tyler kicking open the door through which Martha and Donna’s kin came merrily later.

Nothing was mentioned, unless I missed it, of Rory’s mum. But there was a shot which dallied deliberately on Brian’s wedding ring. This may signify plots yet to be. I hope so. Mark Williams is drily loveable in the role and I will take as much more of this as he is prepared to provide.

Brian’s very specific wedding ring

That character’s inclusion gave Arthur Darvill a number of opportunities to exhibit his amazing comic timing; a great many more certainly than he has had so far in his scenes shared with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond.

Now, Karen Gillan is a good, confident actress and this does not reflect on her at all, but I have found the depiction of the Pond marriage to be a tiny bit unsettling recently. I had hoped to see some sort of evolving affection between Amy and Rory, but that has not happened. Their relationship seems instead to be descending into a borderline abusive one.

Amy can be stroppy, belittling and controlling. Her leaving Rory in the Pond Life mini episodes was put down to her wanting to spare him the pain of not being able to have kids with her. How passive aggressive is that? To hurt someone and then say it was what they wanted, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Also she is a slapper. And not the good kind of slapper either. She hits Rory an awful lot. It wouldn’t be acceptable if he were to be seen hitting her. I think that holds the other way round too. A personal opinion.

It’s not the kind of thing I care to see in real life. I worry about the depiction of it so lightly in this context, and I worry about the normalising effect that that might have.

You wouldn’t see it happen with Ian and Barbara. Or Ben and Polly. Or Jamie and Zoe. Or Sarah Jane and Harry. Or Jo Grant and absolutely every man in UNIT.

The Doctor is not above a bit of bullying behaviour either. Seconds after kissing Rory for having a good idea (a clinch that will launch a thousand fanfics) the Doctor is slapping him about the face because it didn’t work.

He has previous form in this matter does the Time Lord. Affecting not to remember the (entirely blameless) time-cuckold Mickey’s name for most of the first series in 2005 the Doctor finally gets it right, only to start calling him “Mickey the Idiot”.

If I was eight and this was happening in a playground I would be on Mickey’s side, but possibly I am missing a finer point here. Please leave a comment below if you would like to put me right.

It certainly seems not to fit with every single other aspect of the show, which is a gleeful jamboree. A ceaseless parade of positivity.

I love that.

I am constantly delighted that, in what I increasingly perceive to be a doom-inflected, angry, selfish world, Doctor Who just bulldozes through an agenda of joy, tolerance and love. It advocates that change happens, but that this need not be a thing to fear. Soap operas will portray change as darkening degradation and an unstoppable progress towards extinction. Doctor Who on the other hand will show change as a chance for evolution, improvement and ascension.

We see it in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship most obviously in Brian who changes from an anxious traveller into a trotter of the globe. But we also see it more subtly in the character of John Riddell (Rupert Graves) who moves from being an uncouth hunter to someone who takes his hat off when a triceratops is pointlessly butchered in front of him. In his final scene he seems to have found romantic fulfilment with a bazooka-wielding queen of the Nile.

And that’s just in one fifty minute episode. It’s been doing this for forty-nine flipping years!

Queen Nefer-what now? Sorry… I wasn’t listening

A final note of appreciation for the epically bad villain Solomon. I am not, I’m ashamed to say, very familiar with David Bradley’s Harry Potter work, and I am struggling to place him as one of the long-haired, bedraggled misanthropes of Game Of Thrones. I do however clearly remember his heart-breaking turn as Jim Broadbent’s brother in Mike Leigh’s ace film Another Year. It’s utterly compelling. Please consider giving it a watch, even if Mike Leigh isn’t on your usual wish list.

I hope that Solomon and his argumentative, sarcastic robots are not as dead as they appear to be. That was some high quality ruthlessness and I would like them all back please.

There was some fluttering on Twitter that maybe Matt Smith’s Doctor had behaved rather cruelly in his aiding in the dispatch of Solomon. I don’t buy this though. It was a final sanction after all possible alternative solutions had been offered and rejected.

It is certainly far removed from the still-troubling acid-bath-and-a-quip combo of Vengeance On Varos.

Next week it’s cowboys, which can mean only one thing.

SINGSONG!

Last Chance Saloon

So fill up your glasses and join in the song

The law’s right behind you and it won’t take long

So come you coyotes and howl at the moon

Til there’s blood upon the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon

What is the noise? Explain! Explain!

 

 

My erudite pal Lawrence Sutcliffe and I have recorded a podcast commentary for Asylum Of The Daleks.

You can listen to it or download it for free here: (Clicky Magic Words)

It is also available for free download on iTunes. Search the podcasts for “feexby”.

I accidentally swore a bit. Sorry.

Other than that I hope you enjoy it.

Asylum Of The Daleks

When we were being clever in the seventies sometimes we would stroke our chins and say things like “Ah yes, you see Terry Nation writes about blank-faced figures of totalitarian authority.” This was based on a fairly simple reading of Blake’s 7 and the knowledge that Nation had invented the Daleks.

It didn’t really stand up to examination. There aren’t themes of political oppression in Nation’s peerless TV series Survivors. And whilst I am unfamiliar with his radio scripts for Terry Scott, Eric Sykes and Frankie Howerd I can’t imagine that they staggered under a weight of doomy metaphors for despotism.

I could be wrong.

Another stupid thing we used to say about Terry Nation was that Blake’s 7 was somehow a British Star Trek, which was a bit thick of us. The two shows are entirely antithetical. For instance, in Star Trek the idea of a rigidly hierarchical expansionist Federation manned by thugs in uniforms was deemed to be a good thing, whereas in Blake’s 7 it wasn’t.

Space Commander Travis and Captain Kirk. The same bloke. That’s all I’m saying.

(I utterly, utterly adore Blake’s 7 with its bunch of sarcastic new romantics. Not so keen on Wagon Train To The Stars.)

What is true is that the Daleks were intended to be symbolic Nazis when they originally appeared. The first Dalek was glimpsed towards the end of 1963, a short eighteen years after the end of the Second World War. And whilst the sight of a bombed out London in 1964’s Dalek Invasion Of Earth looks eerie to us, to a child watching the story as it was first broadcast that was just the way their parents would have recalled the city looking during the blitz.

Daleks have always, accidentally or otherwise, held a mirror up to contemporary society. As the baby boom generation began to more confidently assert itself during the sixties and memories of the war receded so the Daleks became less feared and more mocked.

This loss of reputation, partly stemming from their sheer ubiquity, led to the Daleks being sidelined for several years before reappearing in the colourful Pertwee era of the early seventies. Their impact had undeniably diminished though.  They were by now mere totems of evil. Their motivations and agendas were as opaque as those of THRUSH or Galaxy or the Mysterons.

In the persuasive 1975 Tom Baker story Genesis Of The Daleks, however, a new direction was found. There are blatant First World War trappings but underneath that what the story clearly is is a Cold War parable. This theme was carried over into 1979’s Destiny Of The Daleks in which the irresistible force of the Daleks has fought itself to a standstill against the immoveable object of the space-disco empire of the Movellans. It doesn’t matter which represents the West and which the Soviet Bloc, this is self-evidently John le Carré in space.

S-K-A-R-O! We are S, super-sexy. We are K, komplicated…

As classic Doctor Who started tripping over itself so too the Daleks lost their way. What were they now? Funeral directors? Bank robbers?

In the last classic era Dalek story, Remembrance Of The Daleks (1988), the action is relocated to 1963 London in a dizzying spin of self-reference and pantomime. It’s a really enjoyable story but if the Daleks had arses this would be the point at which they finally disappeared up them.

When Doctor Who came back on the telly (hooray!) in 2005 we were initially told that there would be NO Daleks. This was misinformation clearly. In fact they reappeared quite quickly in Robert Shearman’s wonderful story simply called Dalek.

How contemporary was it? Well, unlike any previous Dalek stories this was the story of a lone survivor of the Time War; a single Dalek on a journey of self-discovery, struggling against appalling odds to achieve its destiny. It is the Peoples’ Dalek. The Dalek Of Hearts. It is the winner of Britain’s Got Daleks.

The Daleks even lowered themselves to become involved in TV production before ultimately, in the delightful Victory Of The Daleks (2010) refreshing their brand proposition as the New Dalek Paradigm. You just cannot get more of the moment than that.

(Briefly and parenthetically on the subject of the New Dalek Paradigm: I can broadly understand the Scientists, Strategists and Supremes. The Eternals are pleasingly mysterious. But the Drones? Really. What are they? Drones don’t actually do too much in a hive. The word basically means idler or slacker. There is a reason that Bertie Wooster is a member of The Drones Club. Did the writers intend this, or have they just confused Drones with Workers? This is a genuine question. Please feel free to answer.)

After the Daleks’ appearance in Victory Of The Daleks Stephen Moffat announced that they would be retired for a while.

Mr. M. is a puckish, playful show-runner however, and here we all are now at what, for the sake of simplicity, I shall call Series 7 and what do we have?

Asylum Of The Daleks.

To emphasise their tail-end-of-2012 credentials and maintain that zeitgeistiness I’ve just been bibbling on about for eleventy-twelve paragraphs the Daleks are now revealed to be heavily reliant on outsourcing.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the universe DALEK PUPPETS! The G4S of Doctor Who monsters.

They have always tendered some work out to third parties have the Daleks. One thinks fondly of the Robomen and the Ogrons. This is something a bit more though. The Dalek Puppets are a genuinely clever innovation (though they have an antecedent of sorts in Lytton from Resurrection Of The Daleks) and they can do all sorts of stuff that actual Daleks can’t do. Applying make-up. Driving double-decker buses. That kind of thing.

Their focused obtaining of the Doctor, Amy and Rory at the beginning of Asylum Of The Daleks is a rather wonderful thing. It’s so much better than the usual method the Daleks use to apprehend the Doctor which tends to involve designing a bewilderingly complicated trap and then hoping the Time Lord somehow walks into it.

Which to be fair he usually does.

It is magnificently creepy that the puppets can have access to their own memories when required. The best thing though is the sprouty eye-stalk they develop as they become fully conscious.

We have had third eyes before in Who (the Silurians, Davros, the upgraded Adam) but this is the first time I can recall it being so symbolically purposeful. Also known as the Ajna chakra in Hinduism, the third eye is associated in mystical traditions with enlightenment, religious visions and communication with higher planes of existence. It is supposedly stimulated by the process of trepanning.

I love the fact that that image is just dropped into a kids’ teatime TV show.

I liked Asylum Of The Daleks very much, but rather than just pointlessly recapping the story for you or embarking on a bit of febrile speculation as to what happens next I’d like to list just some of what I loved about the story. It’s a bunch of spoilers really. Mind how you go. (Though honestly if you’re reading this before seeing the episode my question to you is: Why are you reading this before you’ve seen the episode?)

1) There’s a Parliament of the Daleks. So there must be elections of the Daleks and maybe Expense Scandals of the Daleks too. Floating Slyther Islands. Trench cleaning. Bunker flipping.

2) There are broken, ill, lunatic Daleks but they aren’t destroyed because that would offend the Dalek aesthetic.

3) The most deranged Daleks turned out to be the ones who have been defeated by the Doctor: Spiridon, Aridius, Kembel, Vulcan, Exxilon.

4) Jenna-Louise Coleman showed up several episodes before I expected her to. As a Dalek. A sexy, witty, elfin Dalek.

5) The script was smart, giving us clues as to what was happening. Soufflé, milk, eggs… “Are those things eggs?” No Rory, those are etheric beam locators.

6) The Rory/Amy dynamic took a turn for the unexpected and, in conjunction with the Pond Life mini-episodes that have been available on the BBC website, that moved me a little bit. Which was unexpected.

7) Arthur Darvill’s comic timing was superb on the line “What colour? Sorry. There weren’t any good questions left.”

8) Matt Smith’s galloping confidence is glorious. His entrance, a shadow in profile, was epochal. You can already imagine this stuff being fondly written about in forty years time by today’s seven year-olds.

9) The visual language is fabulously sophisticated. I like the clue we get that every time Oswin sees anything on her monitor it’s through a Dalek sighting reticule. And I outright love the reflective compositions that accompany the Dalek Puppet abductions of Amy and Rory. This visual shorthand for a fractured, unreliable sense of personal identity is straight out of the Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell movie Performance (1970). Top directoring.

Amelia Pond acquired

Rory Williams acquired

10) I knew what I was expecting and I was wrong-footed. Completely. Happily. Excitedly.

By any standards this is high quality television. For a crowd-pleasing, family-oriented, ratings-sensitive Saturday night it is pure platinum.

There was a singing competition on the other side.

Next week it is Dinosaurs On A Spaceship. This half-reminds me of a Calvin & Hobbes strip but I can’t immediately source it.

Also, apparently, it will feature the voices of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Are they the baddies?

Stephen the Special Weapons Dalek, in case you missed him

Festive Films 9 – Prometheus

There isn’t much mystery to Alfred Hitchcock, As naked exhibitionists of the inner self through one’s work go, only John Norman, author of the astonishing-but-not-in-a-good-way Gor series, comes close to Hitch I reckon. They are amazing, the Gor books. Slave porn disguised as fantasy they are written nonetheless in such a mimsy, short of breath way that arousal, even if the text wasn’t so ethically troubling, would be borderline impossible. 

Norman can refer, for example, to a woman being hit (and there’s a lot of woman-hitting going on) ” just below the small of her back”. Run that phrase through your brain a couple of times and you realise that there is a much shorter way of describing the area of the body which is just below the small of the back, and the action of hitting it. Much shorter indeed. Maybe he was getting paid by the word. Certainly if he was getting paid by the idea then his bank manager would have been calling him in for a chat.

Maybe they just don’t have a word for “spank” on Gor.

Anyway, despite Hitchcock’s clarity of motivation and identity in all other spheres of his work, it is still completely mysterious why in the name of God’s blue thunder knob he chose to set Psycho round about Christmas time. Every December I remember this and I dig out Psycho for another watch, and it’s always great but I never get close to an answer. There’s the caption right at the start of the film: Friday December the Eleventh. It never gets mentioned again. Nobody talks about it. There are no Christmas trappings in evidence. Why, Psycho, why? Maybe it’s Hitch’s Christmas ghost story. Or maybe it’s just because he was a big, fat, awkward blancmange of polymorphous perversity who liked to make people uncomfortable.

That’s often the answer to Hitchcock questions, I find.

Still though Psycho is a good one to have in the bag for when people ask what your favourite Christmas movie is. And it’s certainly a lot less emotionally harmful than, say, Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday or, as doctors call it, The Pancrea-tiser.

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Friday, December the Eleventh: Psycho time

A brand new addition to the Christmas panoply is, I am delighted to find, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, his festive prequel to Alien.

Now. I like Alien. I like it a great deal.

When it was released in 1979 it was successful, but I seem to remember it wasn’t particularly favourably reviewed. There were specific complaints that it was just a haunted house movie in space, or an uncredited remake of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space (beyond space being, in this instance, Mars).

Looking back now, this is inconceivable. There is so much in Alien that it’s hard to know where to start talking about it. Firstly, in reaction to the explicit criticisms of its structure, I really like the stripped down Ten Little Indians format. It’s involving, and the character acting is such that I consistently become quite affected by the deaths.

In addition to this though there is a ton of uncompromising stuff in there about the physicality of sex and birth, and about how relationships between parents and offspring work. It’s a fiercely unsentimental film, and that exposition of what life actually is once you take off the recently-acquired evolutionary doilies of self-consciousness, morality and rationalised emotion, that was not the common currency of cinema at the time. It still isn’t really.

Thirdly, and this is the bit I like best, Alien is a witheringly political look at the inefficacy and lack of justice inherent in a profit-oriented work environment. From Parker and Brett’s disgruntled engineers up to Dallas’s compromised captaincy, that horrifying capitalist stratification is played beautifully. And it’s deeply encouraging to the small S socialist in me to witness the way the ranking system dismantles itself under threat and the professionals start working together as people. It’s a film which is less nihilistic than a lot of people assume. It is ultimately quite generous in its depiction of the human species.

There have been sequels. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is as good a movie follow-up as has ever been made. A dramatic inversion of the first film it makes humans the invading force and inciters of the action. It brings the parental theme of the first film to the fore, making it more specific and offering explicit statements about motherhood. You would need someone less unsalvageably blokey than me to tell you how successful these statements are, but what I can do is vouch for the peerless-ness of the action sequences.

Cameron’s forte lies in  making films of utter mechanical majesty. He is less good with the kissing and cuddling. This is why the sinky bit of Titanic is better than the dancey bit, and why the whole of Terminator 2 is endlessly re-watchable and the domestic banter of True Lies isn’t.

David Fincher’s Alien3 (1993) secured a less enthusiastic audience than the first two films, but I found its astringent monasticism to my taste. More so certainly than the fancifulness of Alien Resurrection (1997) which might just about cut it mustard-wise as a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, but as Alien 4 is frankly unacceptable.

In brackets I should mention that there are also two Alien Versus Predator films. The first one is marginally less catastrophic than the second. Prometheus (thank God) renders both of these non-canonical. We can move on. There is nothing to see here. Literally nothing to see in fact in the case of AvP: Requiem which, for ninety interminable fucking minutes, consists of little other than badly rendered CGI monsters fighting each other in a swimming pool in a power cut. I’ve eaten salads that have more narrative complexity than that.

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The news that Ridley Scott was making a prequel to Alien was not met with uncomplicated delight, in my head at least. He is, for me, a problematic director. I think, up until now, he has only really made two good films: Alien, which is beyond good, and Blade Runner which is great, but completely broken at story level. It’s almost like we’re following the wrong characters for most of the duration of Blade Runner. It would make much more sense if the central characters were Eldon Tyrell and J. F. Sebastian, and the Deckard/Batty/Rachael thing was a sub-plot. Yes? No? Just me then.

These two bon fide marvels aside, what actually is Scott’s career? Legend, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator have their fans. (Not me.) I quite like Kingdom Of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and Body Of Lies.

But: White Squall, GI Jane, Black Rain, Someone To Watch Over Me, 1492, Hannibal? Really?

A Good Fucking Year? Robin Fucking Hood? Really really?

(And sorry completists, but I haven’t seen The Duellists or Matchstick Men. I know. What am I like?)

So love of Alien and qualms about Ridley’s choices abounded, but there was also in my recent memory a deplorable example of how badly a well-intentioned prequel can misfire. People other than me have written well about Matthijs van Heijningen’s precursor to The Thing, also stupidly called The Thing, and how its wretched digital haecceity should be clicked and dragged to a huge Trash icon in the middle of the Antarctic.

Here for instance is m’good friend Andygeddon’s blog on the subject: http://andygeddon.com/2011/11/13/the-thing-2011usa/

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), itself a remake of a 1951 film, was a master class in siege narrative. A brilliant, layered, litotes-infused depiction of paranoia and lethal trust failure.

Van Heijningen’s prequel however is a lamentable fannish misfire, so concerned with ploddingly joining the pre-existing dots in numerical order that it completely neglects to bring anything new to the party. Christ, it doesn’t even bring most of the old stuff. And because the end of the film is, by its own definition, the start of Carpenter’s film there is literally no surprise. It’s the grim cinematic equivalent of watching someone who isn’t very good at Sudoku puzzles doing a Sudoku puzzle.

Ridley Scott’s decision to revisit a past triumph is not completely unprecedented in science fiction. As they reached their later years novelists Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both started to reconfigure their work into vast, self-contained units. Heinlein had a head start as a lot of his stuff was written as a consistent future history, but even he had to introduce dimension-hopping immortal characters to make it work. His later stuff is quite hard to read. It’s a melancholy, quixotic spectacle, a writer gleefully including himself as a character in his own stories. And there was a burgeoning fixation on breasts too which was a little uncomfortable to be in the same room as. Number Of The Beast (1980) is a 512 page book 509 of which seem to be about nipples.

Isaac Asimov cheated a bit in his oeuvre-consolidation by using the time travelly men from The End Of Eternity to jam together a number of series which were quite all right by themselves but which buckled when forced into close proximity.

So in summary the auspices for Prometheus were not good: Scott’s own debatable career, the lack of wisdom inherent in the process of prequelising in the first place, and the tragic precedent of aging authors revisiting the scenes of past triumphs.

And yet, and yet, and yet… The trailers looked so cool. The cast was full of proper actoring people.

Then it opened a few days ago and, despite my best efforts to avoid reviews, I began to become aware that people were disappointed. Star ratings were posted where I could see them. Critics ignobly stampeded over each other, competing to be the first to deride in sneer-o-vision.

I heard someone use the word “Meh”.

I hate “Meh”. It’s completely fucking meaningless. It’s a definition-free word for people who have VERY IMPORTANT disdain to share but who lack the necessary articulacy. “Fuck language,” they presumably think, “With all its fancy words and shit. I’ma use me a phoneme to impart my VERY IMPORTANT opinion.”

Fuck.

Anyway, I went to see Prometheus in 3D today. 4D if you include time.

It was very good.

I’m going back to see it in 2D on Tuesday and I am right looking forward to it.

The negativity I am hearing (and yes, I did mean to use the present continuous there – it’s rhetorical see) is completely confounding.

What has happened is this, I think. A significantly large bunch of professionally paid film critics have become complete idiots. They have taken to reviewing their expectations of a film rather than the actual film itself. This is less damaging to a movie like The Avengers (or Avembers Assengle as it is known in the UK) where earlier films have provided enough momentum to squash the point-missing critics, but it’s instant death to films that are opening cold like, say, John Carter.

I liked John Carter. I wouldn’t make claims for any abiding artistry or anything, but it was a pleasant callback to the blockbusters of my early adulthood: Conan, Dune, Flash Gordon, Superman, that kind of thing.

But it got completely, mercilessly kicked to bits before it opened to the public, and it never stood a chance after that. Some critics, like Mark Kermode, are still jumping on the pieces. This is quite sad. Most folk I know who have seen John Carter think it’s OK. Not a happy-ending massage from Victoria Coren in a platinum bikini perhaps, but definitely a step up from shooting political dissidents in a football stadium, which is where a lot of reviewers went with it.

This “I can snark snarkier than you” attitude is quite tiring.

Whilst the critics are busy with their meh-ing what is happening in Prometheus is this:

Archaeologists at the end of the 21st century have interpreted prehistoric images from around the globe as depictions of pre-civilisation alien visitations. Perhaps more than just visitations. The inference drawn is that these visitors created humankind. They are dubbed the Engineers. There are enough astronomical data in the carvings to pinpoint where in the cosmos the Engineers came from. A ship is crewed and the crew dispatched to see what they can see.

There is obviously an element of inevitability to the film’s denouement because it has been sold as a prequel to Alien and we know where Alien starts.

Where Prometheus scores highly in comparison to the The Thing prequel is that the inevitable points are reached quite surprisingly. The planet the ship arrives at, for example, is not evidently the planet in Alien, though aspects of it start to look familiar quite quickly. The last fifteen minutes, in which loose ends start getting tied up with some celerity, are emotionally very compelling. I had my hand over my mouth and had to sit and gather myself as the credits rolled. I was the only one though.

The rest of the audience (couple of dozen of them that there were) scarpered as soon as the credits started. They didn’t seem particularly taken with it.

What were they expecting exactly?

The original Alien is 33 years old now, fifty percent further away from us in time than It! The Terror From Beyond Space was from it. If you see what I mean. Cinema has moved on and expectations of plot and spectacle are different now I guess. But I am bewildered by the nay-sayers. To my mind Scott has turned in a thematically consistent, visually beautiful, thought-provoking companion piece. Am I missing something that other people are seeing? Am I seeing something that isn’t there?

Here is what I liked about Prometheus.

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SPOILER ALERT! That man from Loofah wears a hat in some scenes in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! Sean Harris has got some sort of funny hairdo or something in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! The man from Shadow Line wears some sort of space glasses in Prometheus!

Scott is a thoughtful director and he is working with a very competent script. This is not a simple story about conflicting forces. It is a film whose principal concern is one of ontological enquiry.

One of the themes of the film, made clear in the title, is that the exercise of curiosity is an irresistible urge in us, but that the obtaining of knowledge comes at a price. The knowledge the characters are seeking relates to the origin of mankind with a view to shedding light, stolen light, on our place in the universe and our purpose.

If we have one.

This compulsion to dig deeper and to understand more about our creation, regardless of all negative consequences, is contrasted with the glibness with which we humans treat our own creations. The central antagonist in the film is not, uniquely for an Alien movie, a rampaging xenomorph. It is David the robot who catalyses the events of the second half of the film. With his inclusion in the dramatis personae we now have three layers of parenthood: the Engineers who made humanity who, in turn, made David.

Much drama is eked from the relationships between parents and their children, harking back to the original Alien’s unspoken suggestion that parents and offspring are, ultimately, in opposition to one another.

The passing of old orders is very much in evidence in the film too, and at least one character is motivated to find the Engineers as a bid for apparent immortality. The possibility of an afterlife is debated on a few occasions also.

It is possible that these themes are what attracted Ridley Scott artistically to the project, and he does seem infinitely more engaged with Prometheus than he did with, say, Robin Hood. But I’m just guessing. They are certainly the concerns of a man in his later years: mortality, legacy, usefulness, achievement. What might come next, if anything.

The confronting of the issues is not half-hearted either. There is an admirable bluntness to the answer of what happens after you die.

“There’s nothing,” exclaims one character on the very brink of extinction.

“I know,” consoles David the robot who is uniquely placed to, in fact, know. It’s like the desolation of the end of Ken Russell’s sublime Altered States when William Hurt’s character returns from a hallucinogenic trip down through his own molecular structure only to announce that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.

Even that isn’t the end of it though, and Prometheus finishes with the start of a spiritual quest, taking the end of everything we know as its first step.

This is a Christmas movie in a way that seems quite purposeful. If it is mere set dressing then it is highly weird set dressing. It is referenced specifically several times in the dialogue, and visually in the literal Christmas tree they have on the ship. The topology of the tree is even reflected in the constantly developing green Pyramid Scan that the ship’s crew run as they map what they find. Does this festive trappery mean anything?

The Christmas thing is about the bestowal of gifts I think. Life is, initially at least, that which we are given and, however vigorously we pursue an explanation of its cause and intention, it is just life. As with our Christmas presents, how much we like it, and what we do with it is entirely up to us.

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VUE Cinema extra features included: Wallet-damaging personal expense; an overwhelming sense of existential dread; compulsory commentary from the ten year old boy sitting next to me. He made pretty heavy weather of the chocolate he was eating too, though in fairness to the lad that may all have been part of the 3D experience. He was eating a colossal Toblerone which is the least two dimensional chocolate known to man.

In related Doctor Who news: The female protagonist played by Noomi Rapace is called Liz Shaw.

Imagine that. Liz Shaw.

http://www.weylandindustries.com/timeline

Tree Of Life, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Drive, Melancholia

There is a moment towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s unorthodox, inquisitive horror film Antichrist (2009) when Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.

It is an incredibly upsetting sequence. I was pre-aware that the scene was in the film because, regrettably, some reviewers can’t keep their damn yappy mouths shut yet it was still one of the most distressing things I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen. I watched it with my hands over my face peeking through my fingers.

The second time I saw Antichrist it was less of a big deal. It was still a deeply dismaying sequence but (as with the infamous Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene in which no ears are sliced) a great deal more of it had taken place inside my head than in front of my eyes. On the second viewing it was easy to see where the edit is from Charlotte Gainsbourg to a jobbing porn star, and again where the edit is between actual genitalia and a prosthetic special effect. My suggestibility got played the first time around. Second time, however, I was looking rather than seeing.

It is still a scene of great impact, but it is not the whole film. It is a very tiny part of the film from which (in isolation) you cannot infer a great deal about the rest of movie.

Antichrist is different in this respect from, say, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which I once heard referred to by a ticket-buying customer as “that film where that boy cuts his own arm off”. In the case of Antichrist the DIY clitoridectomy is a justifiable development of the film’s central ideas. For an hour and a half Von Trier has been asking questions about human nature. How do we reconcile our deep, selfish physiological needs with our apparently higher intelligence and morality? What does it mean when we seek pleasure in the face of grief? How in control actually are we in our post-lapsarian, civilised world? To what extent do we have some say in the way the world is? How in thrall are we to basic biochemistry?

In the case of 127 Hours you are watching a film whose central question is: When is the boy who’s going to cut his own arm off going to cut his own arm off? And the answer is: In about 127 hours.

(Parenthetically, I am sorry that this sounds rude about Danny Boyle. He seems like a genuinely lovely man and his films Sunshine and 28 Days Later are good, provocative genre pieces. Others in his oeuvre I find a bit confusing. Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, The Beach. They have the jumbled narrative through-line you’d expect from a seventies episode of Seaside Special and the philosophical shallowness of Tarby’s Frame Game. There is nothing remotely wrong in making a film whose sole raison d’être is spectacle I suppose. Sometimes I like a bit more is all.)

Having the view then that Von Trier is at least up to something worth thinking about with Antichrist I then found myself asking whether or not the explicit level of the scene was necessary. The best I could do was to accept that it is Von Trier’s work and he can express himself however he likes. I’m no expert on dramaturgical necessity and I concede the high ground to those who say they are. But to me it did look like he had overdone it a teensy bit.

There’s a scene in Talladega Nights in which villainous French racing driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, coasting) puts some money in a jukebox in a redneck bar and selects a jazz track. The truckers and hillbilly types recoil as though they are under physical attack and round on the Frenchman saying that no one plays jazz in the bar.

“So why is the song on the jukebox?” he enquires.

“We keep it on there for profiling purposes,” the barman explains.

I wondered a little bit if maybe Von Trier had put his attention-grabbing scene in for similar reasons, to identify and isolate people who weren’t engaging with the film on anything other than a superficial level. Certainly I’ve never had an enjoyable discussion about Antichrist with anyone whose opening conversational move is “Oh, is that the one where…?”

Yes it is the one where… Also many other things happen, but that is the one you have fixated on. This is going to be a boring conversation.

Is it quite a new thing, this reduction of everything to its tweetable, textable minimum? I don’t remember people going on about the one where the giant ape falls off the Empire State Building, or the one where the woman gets a bit of grit in her eye. How about the one where the guy wakes up with the horse’s head in his bed? That’s starting to sound plausible. The one were the boat rolled over on New Year’s Eve? The one were the swarm of bees swarmed? The one were the inferno towered? Let’s say it started, but started slowly, in the seventies.

These days (he says, waving his walking stick at a passing new-fangled whippersnapper) it’s all fucking shorthand. All of it. Quick hits. No substance.

So, inter alia, Doctor Who reduces to ideas rather than stories. The girl who waited. The madman in a box. Timey-wimey. Wibbly-wobbly. Please don’t be scared. There’ll be no patient examination of character or motivation, no careful, consistent extrapolation of what happens subsequent to a set of initial conditions. Just a frantic succession of shiny novelties each shinier and more novel than the last like some ghastly, high-speed, colour-saturated Generation Game conveyor belt.

This is not the fault of Steven Moffat or any of his team. They still turn out peerless entertainment of a wit and quantity I find staggering. They just have to do it within a structure that doesn’t allow for audience patience or intelligence, even though the audience in this instance palpably has both.

Not Moffat’s fault then, but it is the fault of each one of us who has allowed our national intellect to dwindle to this level. The level at which any developed, analytical thought processes are seen somehow as “gay”, and the word “gay” is seen somehow as an insult.

Harry Hill’s TV Burp was poking fun this weekend at a BBC4 programme I haven’t seen. In the extracts shown Jonathan Meades appeared to be talking about a period in French history during which it was difficult to question matters of faith because there was a cultural predisposition towards accepting precedent. Things that had gone before had an undeserved authority just by virtue of having gone before. I am simplifying (and possibly misrepresenting) Meades’ assertion grotesquely, but my point is that he was using the English language effectively to make a point that was easy to apprehend.

This was intercut with Harry Hill pulling silly faces and culminated in Hill saying, effectively, “What ARE you talking about?”

Hill is a qualified doctor. His writers are generally bright, satirical, observational people. This, though, was militant thick-ism. One of the few remaining refuges of didactic TV was stormed and one of its blinking, bespectacled occupants was dragged out into the courtyard for an unnecessary kicking in front of a howling Saturday night crowd.

Do the fans of Take Me Out and Red Or Black really feel threatened by the knowledge that somewhere, someone is having consecutive, related thoughts?

Such educational TV as is allowed on the main channels tends to be pretty puny fare.

I have been watching episodes of Planet Earth on Blu-ray lately and whilst there is a part of me that is grateful to be able to see this footage of frankly amazing things in a way I never could on my own resources there is a slightly bigger part of me that winces at the presentation. A troop of baboons (or flange of baboons as we Not The Nine O’Clock News rememberers say) is depicted living in isolated heights in Ethiopia. Their daily routine is described fascinatingly (by David Attenborough, who is reading the script but surely, surely had no hand in writing it) and all is well until dusk when some predatory foxes appear. My problem with the presentation is that the musical cues and portentous narration clearly prompt the notion that the baboons comprise a happy community and that the foxes are somehow evil.

This is a perception of ecosystems that most school children and even the writers of The Lion King would regard as being a bit on the embarrassing side. The foxes and baboons exist in a stable relationship. Without the baboons the foxes have nothing to eat. Without the foxes the baboons will over-proliferate and run out of vegetation. It’s not a question of goodies and baddies or victims and perpetrators. Morality – and let’s not even start on whether or not morality actually exists other than as an expedient survival trait – morality plays no part in this at all and to suggest that it does, explicitly in the language of the narration and implicitly in the use of music, is completely unhelpful. Counter-educational even.

Another failure of Planet Earth is that you can watch the episodes in any order. Any order at all. Doesn’t matter. This suggests to me that it’s not really a learning experience the way The Ascent Of Man or The World At War were. This isn’t a course of study in which each episode builds on the previous one. This is simple spectacle. You ooh and you aah and after it all you know nothing you didn’t already know.

Let’s talk about Brian Cox for a minute. Not that one. The other one. Professor Brian Cox is great. He’s a real scientist with real degrees and a real job at a real particle accelerator. But I bet all the money in my pockets that that is not the reason he gets to present every single fucking thing on telly to do with what we used to call natural philosophy (back in the 1600s when I were a lad).

I bet the Professor Brian Cox list of ranked attributes goes like this in TV people’s heads:

1) He is very pretty.

2) He used to be in a band you know.

3) He’s got a gentle northern voice like Simon Armitage or Jeremy Dyson.

4) He knows a shit load of synonyms for the word “big”.

5) He is a scientist.

Not his fault, and as with Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, his ability can only roam as far as the broadcasters’ expectations will let it and the broadcasters’ expectations are insultingly low.

So he is allowed to front programmes on the wonders of the universe and the audience sit and gurgle and feel like they are being educated, but as the credits roll, what can the audience tell you about what they have seen? What knowledge do they now possess about the solar system? What do they understand about the structure of the universe?

Find a Brian Cox fan. Ask her (or him, could be a bloke) how far away the sun is. What order the planets go in. How many stars in the galaxy? How many galaxies in the universe?

If you like ask what the difference is between astronomy and astrology, and then reflect on how educational this educational programme has actually been.

Want embarrassment? Want embarrassment on a squirming, toe-clenching, wishing yourself inside-out kind of scale? Then watch a “science correspondent” trying to explain the Higgs boson at teatime.

It is known as the God particle, they may intone as if that means anything at all. If you are very lucky (or it’s Newsnight or something) there may be a graphic of E=mc2 in a futuristic font wobbling behind the luckless BBC arts graduate who is having to read all this crap off an autocue until a proper story about princesses or politicians turns up.

Higgs boson? We live in a country where the average person (whilst enjoying a frame or two of snooker) has no knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion. Nor do they wish to know, because gad they might end up on the ducking stool.

It’s OK not to know stuff I suppose. A bit unnecessary given the easy availability of information in this era, but OK if you’re happy that way. But I have higher hopes of people than that. We are an amazing species but we are currently selling ourselves short. As a society we in the west, particularly the UK, seem to undervalue complexity, demonise it even. Superficiality, distraction, vanity, coarseness and a remorseless pursuit of the base run amok.

Learning, thinking, teaching, tolerance, empathy and compassion all feel like they are in retreat.

Or maybe I’m getting old and cranky.

But that’s not likely.

Happily I have recently watched or re-watched four movies from last year which completely undermine my argument:

Tree Of Life – Terence Malick’s transcendent movie requires a conscious act of surrender on the part of the viewer. If you think you aren’t going to enjoy it then you really aren’t. Find a bit of faith however and you may find your way of living changed. A woman’s life of being is contrasted with her husband’s life of doing. It’s spirituality versus temporality. Except it’s not a fight. And at the end, Malick seems to suggest, aren’t we all doing the best we can with what we’ve got anyway? A humble blockbuster if such a thing is possible.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Somehow, without the novel’s or BBC TV adaptation’s length (and indeed with out even their commas in the title), this movie version of the well-liked spy novel seems to miss nothing out. It’s a master class in tight scripting and disciplined acting. Huge plot details are told with mindbogglingly delicate flourishes. Director Tomas Alfredson distinguishes between two potentially confusing timeframes for instance by having a neat bit of business in an opticians with Smiley choosing new glasses. Old frames = flashback. New frames = present day. And a minor change to the character of Peter Guillam (an on fire Benedict Cumberbatch) brings out some barbaric truth about the seventies, all shown rather than told. Quiet, powerful and overwhelmingly affecting.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn’s contemporary tale of a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal getaway driver is closer thematically to his previous film the epic, stark-staring-mad Valhalla Rising than I would have thought possible. And like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy it is a dramatically convoluted action movie that expresses itself through the twin media of stillness and silence. I’m still not quite sure how it manages it. Ryan Gosling’s brilliant negative-space style of acting asks a lot of the audience, but please go with it. He is superb at the disjunction that comes from a desire to be civilised in conflict with the basic impulses we need to keep us alive. The guy is acting with his autonomic nervous system! It’s very impressive. Stellar support and a killer soundtrack too.

Melancholia – In which Lars Von Trier shows us what George Pal’s 1951 movie When Worlds Collide would have been like if it had concentrated less on the mundane matter of worlds colliding and more on the thrilling prospect of the inability of depressed people to get worked up about it. This is worth your time if only because of the extraordinary lengths Von Trier seems to be going to to make you hate it. Hey, he’s only the director. He’s not the boss of you. Also this is hilariously, almost sarcastically, far away from his Dogme 95 manifesto in its intricacy of composition. Beautiful, cultured, ugly and extremely defiant. Nice one, Lars.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

When C.P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture in 1959 he gave it the title The Two Cultures. His contention was that there was a breakdown in communication between the humanities and sciences which was badly hindering global development.

As an example he mentioned the number of times he had been in the presence of supposedly highly educated people who were loudly criticising the illiteracy of scientists. Provoked by this on occasion he had asked those making the complaint to describe the second law of thermodynamics. Their responses he described as “cold” and “negative”, yet this is the scientific equivalent, he said, of asking, “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Snow went on, I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question such as “What do you mean by mass or acceleration?” which is the scientific equivalent of saying “Can you read?” not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt I was speaking the same language.

Frankly Snow was lucky. At least he lived and wrote in a time when education was valued and the possession of knowledge was seen generally as a good thing. This attitude is in full retreat now and ignorance is galloping forward at full speed waving a flag and laughing at us.

The UK series The Apprentice has much to teach us in this regard.

For the joyous few who haven’t seen it the programme is, superficially, a recruitment process. An assembly of soi-disant entrepreneurs, blue sky thinkers, high achievers and assumption-challengers (all young, all pretty, all thin and scrupulously groomed) is set a series of tasks over a period of weeks. Their performance is assessed and, week by attritional week, they are booted off until only one remains. That person gets a “job”.

It’s a contrived entertainment of course, but there is a nucleus of truth in it. It isn’t the intelligent or imaginative that thrive in this environment. It is the amoral, the carnivorous, the self-seeking and the deeply deluded.

As a quick example, in the most recent series the business wannabes had the task of constructing a fast food outlet. Imaginatively enough one team came up with the idea of a “British” pie franchise. It is, I’m sure, a gap in the market. They named each of their pies after a famous Briton including, dismayingly, “Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the potato”.

At this point the planet developed a slight wobble due to a gyroscopic anomaly induced by twelve generations of dead British people suddenly spinning in their graves.

It wasn’t dwelt upon though, and there was no admission that someone had made a pretty basic factual error.

The Apprentice process is presided over by Alan Sugar an angry, wizened autodidact who, in this country, passes for a guru. He doesn’t need people telling him stuff like what’s right and wrong, doesn’t Sir Alan. He left school at 15 and now he has all of the UK’s money so he must know a thing or two. And all you fancy, book-reading, thought-thinking, idea-exchanging nonces had better get out of his way. Blahdy quickly.

Sir Alan's Gifts to the Nation 1: I had one of these. Got a lot of work done on it too.

Sir Alan's Gifts to the Nation 2: I never had one of these though. I'm not thick.

Like Tony Montana in Scarface (if he’d been played by Ray Winstone voicing a Yoda puppet) Alan Sugar has everything he could possibly want or need, and loads more stuff on top of that, yet it doesn’t seem to have bought him even a molecule of happiness.

That’s parenthetical though. I might come back to it if I remember.

Meanwhile, back at the pie debacle… Now everyone has blind spots and intellectual lacunae. I have committed hideous errors in print in front of large numbers of people. We are all human beings just trying to get on and whilst we may move towards perfection we are never actually going to get there.

I accept this, but I think it is crucially important to admit to a shortcoming when it becomes apparent and to try and learn from it. Bluster, shouting and trying to turn black into white to make your incorrect assertion correct is futile.

Some examples.

I used to work in a branch of a bookshop chain. Remember shops? They were like the internet except you had to walk to them in the rain and they never had what you wanted.

The first branch I worked in was in Aberdeen and was, at the time, the northernmost outpost of that retail empire. This made us the ideal branch in which to try stuff out. One experiment involved the introduction of a loyalty card scheme. This was in the mid-nineties and was genuinely pretty forward thinking at the time. There were those who argued that customers have no “loyalty” per se and that you couldn’t buy their repeat custom. The counter-argument was that they did and you could. Splendidly enough Head Office decided to give it a go in our branch, and our branch only, and see what happened.

As it goes this is pretty good empirical science.

Anyway the machines were bought. The laminated rectangles with the little magnetic strip doodahs on the back were made, and tons of posters and fliers were printed. We festooned the shop. We leafleted like mad. We stood and we waited. Day one of the scheme was going to be a big deal. A lot of head office people were going to be there.

It went pretty well. Slow at first, but momentum built and we were starting to get a good feeling when suddenly one of the booksellers went a bit pale and quiet.

When pressed as to what was wrong she pointed to the nearest of the billion posters in the shop.

“That quote,” she said.

It was the custom of the chain at the time to adorn bags, bookmarks and sundry items of point-of-sale with pertinent literary quotes and this one, the one causing the bookseller to have an attack of the vapours, was on every single poster, leaflet and card.

They took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note – Lewis Carroll, it proclaimed.

“Wasn’t that Edward Lear?” asked the bookseller.

It took some time to dismantle the whole operation and start again, but I don’t remember any blame throwing, just a resigned sense of “oh well that’s a fuck-up, best start again”. And that’s how you do it ladies and gentlemen. You take it on the chin and you move on.

A counterexample. Same bookshop chain though happily not a branch I worked in. In fact this may be an entirely apocryphal story, but it has the bouquet of authenticity.

Customer enters bookshop and walks straight to the till.

“Do you have Mein Kampf?” they enquire.

“I’m not sure,” says the bookseller. “Do you know who wrote it?”

“Well, Hitler,” says the customer becoming a bit embarrassed.

“How do you spell that?” asks the bookseller.

“Hitler. You know, the Second World War? Hitler? H-I-T-L-E-R,” says the now quite surprised customer.

“Listen,” retorts the bookseller querulously. “I can’t be expected to know all the authors.”

And that’s how you don’t do it.

My point is that there isn’t anything wrong with being wrong. We all do it from time to time. We have the ability to change what we think in the face of new evidence. Ignorance is not a bad thing, but wilfully remaining ignorant when the chance to learn something new crops up is.

I like Doctor Who. I have done since about 1970 when it was all opera capes, clumsy assistants and SF stories hiding social realist agendas. I can accept that there’s a large number of people who don’t like it. Fair enough. That’s why there are different things on the telly too.

It’s always struck me as a programme that appeals to the outsider, Doctor Who. There is, I understand, a particularly large gay following which makes sense when you think about it. A charismatic, flamboyantly dressed authority figure who can sort out planetary injustices and yet still has time for the eccentricities of individuals. Why not?

When I grew up during the seventies and my nerdliness was burgeoning there were only really two science fiction shows on the TV with any degree of longevity: Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Now this is proper Star Trek we’re talking about here. The ego, superego and id of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. But even in those prime directive-flouting, alien-shagging days there was a codified formality to Trek that put me off. Kudos indeed to Gene Roddenberry for casting an African-American actress in a primetime programme at a time when that was quite a progressive thing to do. Shame on him though for then giving her the job of, basically, answering the telephone.

Further Trek coups of characterisation: Pretty white girl? You’re a nurse. Russian man? You have no sense of humour. Scotsman? You’re an engineer. And drunk.

I am unfamiliar with the eight thousand Star Trek spin off series but my overall (completely unfair) impression is that they appeal to people who like uniforms and rigidly enforced hierarchies. Are there any main Trek characters who are gay? It would be nice to think there are but I can’t name any.

Doctor Who on the other hand practically revels in its pan-sexuality. This bringing to the front and centre an aspect that has always existed dates from the 2005 revival of the show and can be credited to the then-show-runner Russell T. Davies. A man of outstanding energy and open-mindedness Davies brought both his love of old Doctor Who and a grounding in ace contemporary telly (such as Queer As Folk and The Second Coming) to create in new Doctor Who what many of us had thought would be impossible: a show which appealed to the mythical Saturday teatime family audience, but which at the same time didn’t piss off the hardcore fans of the old stuff.

That was pretty fucking impressive.

Davies moved on after a rampagingly successful four years and handed control of the show over to Steven Moffat. This is where things become complicated and Britain’s current obsession with anti-intellectualism, wilful incomprehension and Thick Pride become depressingly apparent.

Moffat is a highly accomplished writer. He is responsible for The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink, two of the most thrilling and innovative Doctor Who stories ever aired. He is responsible for the updated Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock. He wrote the cheeky, galvanic Jekyll which (incredibly) briefly made a James Nesbitt fan of me. He was co-opted by Steven Spielberg to write the first draft of the forthcoming Tintin movie. He is no hack is Moffat. He can plot and do dialogue. And he loves Doctor Who. Safe pair of hands then.

But almost immediately the whinging started.

One of Moffat’s characters in the programme, River Song, is a time traveller just like the Doctor. The logical result of this (almost always ignored in time travel narratives) is that she and the Doctor keep meeting out of order. Sometimes she knows a lot more than he does, sometimes vice versa. Additionally, the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory are married. A great deal of the most recent season has been the story of Amy’s developing pregnancy and who her child might turn out to be.

Well that’s too hard to understand, complained the press.

Is it? Is it really? I’m pretty certain an attentive eight year old could follow it.

But the reviews have continued to be hostile and the tone is not one of “Oh this is an interesting narrative, I’d better pay attention and see what happens.” No it’s more “This is complicated. I don’t get it. Why don’t I get it? It must be the writer’s fault.” That would be embarrassing enough coming from an adult on the street. From professional television reviewers it’s excruciating. There is precious little on TV that’s challenging. To complain about the tiny amount that is seems a bit perverse.

It’s a similar story with game shows. On the radio we still have Brain Of Britain and Round Britain Quiz which don’t yet seem to have succumbed to the oncoming storm of militant thickism. And on TV we have University Challenge and Only Connect, though as the controllers seem to be about to shoot BBC4 in the face we may soon have to discount the latter. Apart from these though, where are the brains?

(Also Feargal Sharkey, Mr. Over-Defensive: Nobody really thinks that you’re a cabbage because you hate University Challenge, though a few of us find your rhyming schemes a bit perplexing. Now leave us to enjoy our half hour a week in peace.)

The majority of game shows currently aired seem resolutely proud of their absence of intellectual rigour. They are glorified guessing games at best, hollow box-opening spectacles at worst.

Take as an example Deal Or No Deal which has been broadcast every weekday for the last six years. The format is not difficult to understand. Twenty-two people have sealed boxes each containing an amount of money ranging from 1p to £250,000. One of them is selected to play the game. This involves them opening other peoples’ boxes three at a time and then receiving an offer for their own box. So if the boxes they open all contain small amounts of money it becomes increasingly likely that their box contains a high amount and it becomes worth more. If they open boxes to reveal large amounts of money then it becomes more likely that their box contains a small amount and it becomes worth less. The amount they are periodically offered for their box is dependent on which amounts are still in play. It’s basically probability theory, though there is an element of the offer being fine-tuned according to how rash or fearful the player appears to be. Essentially there is only one thing the player has to do, guess the point at which to bail out and accept the offer for their box. The chances of winning the £250,000 are 1 in 22 to start with. They are zero as soon as it is revealed in someone else’s box. They fluctuate during the rest of the game depending how many boxes are left.

It is luck.

There is no system you can bring to the table that will tilt the odds in your favour.

I say again, it is luck.

However… You would not believe the stuff contestants have said, in public, on TV. They have lucky numbers. They have birthday numbers (though the boxes are numbered from 1-22, so what you do if your birthday is the 31st is a bit of a mystery). They have house numbers that are significant to them. They have guardian angels watching over them. They believe everything happens for a reason. They once heard someone talking about something they’d read about quantum mechanics and it turns out you can rescue a cat out of a box full of poison by having a positive attitude. Or something.

It’s enough to unhinge your jaw permanently.

The “everything happens for a reason” people are the most depressing. Yeah, they say, what goes around six swings comes around on half a dozen roundabouts. What will be will be. Then they skulk off with 10p at the end of the game, victims of nothing other than their own vanity and venality, teeth clenched and clearly bitter about the fact that their guardian angel apparently thinks they’re a bit of a prick.

That calm, Zen-like acceptance of unalterable circumstances only really works as a philosophy if you are prepared to accept apparent adversity the same way you accept apparent good fortune.

The whole farrago is presided over by the brittle, short, over-sensitive, bullying seventies DJ Noel Edmonds. This, in his mind, is clearly his show. He is the life-giver. The contestants go in one end, move through the show in some ghastly process of peristalsis before emerging, sucked dry of entertainment value at the other end. But Edmonds abides!

He is an appalling presenter. When flustered he hides behind an array of three or so “funny” voices. When feeling threatened by a contestant’s personality, wit or simple conversation he resorts to volatile hostility.

The seventies

In a recent show a contestant chose in his opening round (where you have to choose five boxes) box 4, then 8, then 12, then 16.

“You’d better have box 10 now,” said Edmonds (though I thought he was supposed to remain impartial). “To keep the pattern going.”

When the player pointed out that the next box would have to be 20 to keep the pattern going Edmonds visibly bristled and remained tetchy and wounded-looking for the remainder of the show.

And now

In keeping with all other programmes involving members of the public Deal Or No Deal encourages its participants to have a story, to consider their lives not as a haphazard parade of mundane incidents but rather as the modern urban equivalent of the saga of Thorfinn Skullsplitter. So one after another these wheezing human sea cows finger their magic photographs and sob about the tragedy of their tragic grandma who tragically died at the age of 104 tragically and peacefully in her own bed surrounded by her friends and family. And they cry, and the audience cries and Noel fingers his money clip and the majority of the world dreams of having as much as a dollar a day to get by on.

The Cosmic Ordering System has dispatched your Scimitar. It is expected to arrive in 1973.

There has clearly been some sort of counter-Copernican revolution at some point.

What an amazing shift the Copernican Revolution originally was, the intellectual inversion of the geocentric model to the heliocentric one. What a coup of decentralisation. Initially a scientific landmark it had social and philosophical repercussions too. How refreshing suddenly to realise that we weren’t at the middle of anything after all. Alive we most definitely are, and important probably too, just not, you know, the MOST important things in the universe.

That’s all been reversed now. In a backwards cultural leap of astonishing magnitude we are back to being encouraged to think of ourselves as that around which all things revolve.

Want some anecdotal evidence? Watch some adverts.

I watch adverts a lot, almost always against my will. Sometimes it’s my fault admittedly. I watch a great deal of TV which I have recorded on my Sky+ box. Customarily I forget quite quickly that what I am watching is recorded and I sit blithely through ad breaks that I could be fast-forwarding through. Irritatingly often I will get 90% through an ad break, realise I could have skipped it, press fast-forward and end up whizzing well past the end of the break and into the programme I’m watching. So I rewind, end up further back than I was and end up watching some of the ad break twice.

I am an idiot.

Sometimes though the ads are unavoidable, often even though you have paid for the experience and might reasonably expect to be left alone by commercial sponsors. Yes cinemas I’m looking at you. How much do I have to pay for a ticket to see a film that doesn’t have half an hour of commercial suck-hole before the main feature?

And if I start on the unskippable ads I keep finding on Blu-rays I have paid full price for we’ll be here all day.

Some time ago, before the financial implosion of the entire western world (yeah, go on Cameron, leave the rich alone, tax the poor, that’s where the real money is) adverts were a bit fuzzy and cuddly.

Typically some low-end equity card-holders would act all amazed and entranced in front of a green screen whilst the CGI guys would add some coloured balloons or paints or crayons, or have everything all wrapped up in paper. There’d be plinky, whimsical music like from off of Juno and a calm voice would intone “What if everything was different, and nothing was the same?” or some such before a brief shot of a phone or a car or a bank or a sweetie.

Not any more though. It’s all dead sinister now. The text of a lot of ads is the bang-on austerity message of “we’re all in this together”, but the subtext is clearly “not you though mate, you’re special”. So we have ad after ad featuring groups of people each and every one of whom clearly thinks that they are the main one.

Look at the current Lucozade advert. Kids on skateboards! With musical instruments! They’re a band! But as they career (in an unintentional allegory) downhill look how individual and special they’re all being.

Look at the menstruating chocolate lady. She only wants a bit of chocolate, but one of her BFF, sexy-city flatmates has taken the last bit. They’ve even left the wrapper in the fridge, the cow. Chocolate lady doesn’t mind though because she’s got a special place for hiding chocolate that the rest of them don’t know about. The fuckers.

The rebarbative Malteser girls? The highly killable Pepsi Max guys? They look like they are in groups. It looks all friendly. But they are all pursuing their individual agendas.

The least successful, most telling version of this advertising genre was one for a pain relief formula. I can’t remember which one, and I’m not going to dignify it by looking it up.

In the advert literally dozens of the recently pain-relieved were shown unconvincingly jamming a version of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” originally by McFadden & Whitehead. They were all up on stage. All of them! Well a handful occupied an inexplicable recording booth pushing meaningless faders up and down meaninglessly. But basically everyone was doing a special thing. A funny drum solo. A wiggly dance thing. A hey-look-at-me-got–my arms-in-the-air bid for attention.

And who was enjoying the spectacle?

No one. There was no one where you would conventionally put an audience.

And that’s the problem. When everyone is special, no one is.

The reality is that you just aren’t that important. You matter, you’re just not crucial to the running of the universe. Chances are that, unless something has gone horribly wrong, you come from a family some of whom survive. You don’t get on with them all the time but basically you love them. You’ve got friends. Some of them can be a bit twatty from time to time but fundamentally they’re a good bunch. That’s groovy. That’s the normal way of things.

We aren’t all lead guitarists in a band. Some of us are bass players. Some of us serve the hotdogs or sell the T-shirts. Heaven help us, some of us are just sitting in the audience enjoying the spectacle. And in fact, why would you want to be the big important one receiving all the attention?

Why would you want to be a celebrity? It’ll break your heart if you watch the lauded and the screamed-at closely enough. They have all the stuff and they have all the attention but they have no joy. They can’t even see the irony attendant in selling a story to a celeb magazine about how impossible it is to have privacy.

Where, if your only talents are doing poor cover versions of limp songs and crying about your grandma whilst a Snow Patrol song plays in the background, are you going to get a sense of self-worth from?

You want the meaning of life?

I point you in the direction of Monty Python:

“Well it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in. And try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

***

I have recently been watching the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 1979 and it has cheered me up enormously. It is a very long time since I read the book, probably when this series was first on the TV in fact at which point I would have been fourteen. And I have never seen the TV adaptation before, though I’ve long been aware of its high reputation.

Smiley, Smiley, bad times behind me.

It is a wonderful and compelling endeavour, the type of which you could never expect to see made for TV today. And it is extraordinarily absorbing for what, when you boil it down, is pretty much 300 minutes of middle-aged white men sitting in rooms, sitting in cars and walking through parks.

The strength is that the characters are fascinating (the four mole suspects are introduced and effortlessly characterised in a wordless two minute sequence at the beginning of the first episode), and the plot is labyrinthine, with frequent, almost episode-long flashbacks.

Brilliantly, the makers of the programme (as was conventional at the time) make no allowances for the viewer. It is assumed that you’re going to watch the whole thing in order, and that you will be capable of remembering who all the characters are and that you can follow dialogue consisting of quite long sentences peppered with authentic-sounding intelligence jargon.

It is magnificent.

The cast is amazing too, but Alec Guinness is the undoubted star as the phlegmatic, implacable moral centre of the story, George Smiley. And saucy old Beryl Reid gets a massive amount out of her brief cameo as Connie Sachs. The whole thing is just a big, faultless, luxurious treat. I have Smiley’s People to look forward to too.

There is a new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hoving into view. This would en-dreaden me if it was a TV adaptation as I can imagine various diversity checklists being ticked off and tedious things like plot and dialogue being jettisoned in favour of sexified car chases and whatnot.

Happily though this is a movie version directed by Tomas Alfredson whose previous film was the Swedish vampire story Let The Right One In, and the auspices are good.

Gary Oldman as Alec Guinness and Kathy Burke as Beryl Reid? Go on then. I’m in.

Rage, rage against the re-standardisation of the format

Back in the mid 90s when I worked as a bookseller in Aberdeen we once took delivery of a new volume (the last I guess) of Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography. On the jacket photograph Dirk was captured looking relaxed – serene, you would have to say – in loose linen clothing alone in a vast room that looked as though it might be in a Moorish palace or something. There was some indefinable quality of the photo that had me and a fellow bookseller staring at it for a moment or two. A man, perfectly at ease, in an immense, tranquil, empty space.

“Wow,” said my colleague eventually in a tone of total wonder. “Where’s all his stuff?”

I live in a world of stuff. Books, DVDs, CDs, toys of little men off the telly, gadgets, games. It’s great. I love it. From time to time in the past I have cast off large amounts of it for reasons of space or money or carelessness, and it has always been a mistake and I have always come to regret it.

Stuff is not the way of the world now though.

I mean there has always been a large part of the population that doesn’t need to archive obsessively – normal people, they are called. They finish a book and they are quite happy to pass it on to someone else, rather than carefully shelve it (or more likely put it into a pile on the floor) with other books that are a bit like it. If they put their CDs back in the cases at all they won’t necessarily be the right cases. They watch a movie once, and that’s it. They’ll never consider seeing it again.

Cool. Fine. Six horses for half a dozen courses. Live and let live as Paul McCartney once so nearly sang. Barking up the wrong gum tree. Without a paddle.

But even among the collectors and non-casual consumers of literature, music and movies these days, stuff itself is becoming a bit passé.

The tipping point seems to have been reached where people are now happy to accept that information is just information. They don’t need a shiny disc or a papery cuboid of matter to “own” something. They are happy with a bunch of ones and zeroes on a hard drive. They are downloaders.

This was really hammered home for me when I was down in Leeds last week. I made my usual trip to the palatial HMV down there and, on entering, thought I’d gone into the wrong building.

Where previously there had been miles and miles of racking containing CDs was now a T-shirt boutique with a sideline in key rings, mugs, coasters and video game hardware.

The CDs had been almost entirely eliminated from the store and shifted upstairs and to the back of the shop in a retail move that will be familiar to anyone who gambled their entertainment future on eight track, audiocassette, Betamax, VHS, DAT or MiniDiscs. It’s the last stop before the goods are finally hauled off and broken down for metaphorical dog food.

I’ve known this day was coming. Anyone I know who’s younger than thirty finds the contents of my flat hilarious. Why would you clutter your living space with all that obstacling nonsense when you could just download it or stream it when you want?

And they are right! It’s a point of view I have some considerable identification with. I now “own” albums which I don’t have as physical objects, although with iTunes’ insanely anal digital rights management system philologists might like to quibble about my use of the word “own” there.

I have a Sony eReader and an eBooks app and comic reader on my iPhone.

I’m not against this. I think the technology is marvellous and lovely and totally seductive. I accept that information is information. Download it onto an iPad or print it on sugar paper with bisected potatoes. It’s the same information.

What makes me sad is the sense it evokes in me of my own mortality. There’s a new way of doing things that’s better, but I’m clinging to the old way. Life is like a constantly eroding sandbank where you get nearer and nearer the end just by standing still, and I feel in recent years that a big lump just dropped off the front.

In the post today I got the Complete New Avengers on DVD.

Nobody would argue that that’s the pinnacle of 20th Century artistic achievement, but it made me very happy when it arrived. I might have cuddled the box a bit.

***

Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai.

What a silly goose I can be. For most of my life I have just assumed that I wouldn’t like Jim Jarmusch movies. This was based on nothing other than a misapprehension that he was a bit arty and up himself. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I have had Ghost Dog sitting on my pile of unwatched gubbins for some months now. I bought it in a frenzy of snapping up Film 4 DVDs when they went down to five quid each. Having watched it today I feel like an idiot for not having got to it sooner. It’s spiffing.

It is a bit of an auteur experience in that Jarmusch wrote and directed it and clearly had an exact vision of what it was he was doing, but that’s not a bad thing here. Some auteur films are untrammelled idiocy which could have used the mitigating touch of a co-creator, but not Ghost Dog. This is a finely balanced mix of a bunch of indie movie mechanics, but also a narrative through line that most current Hollywood writers would kill for.

So the vision is Jarmusch’s but the film would be nothing without the immense Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog the solitary contemporary samurai. At the film’s outset he is a solid, stoical presence: still, dutiful, silent and looming like a menhir. He provides a motionless axis around which everything else crazily revolves.

As the story progresses and he is spurred into his samurai duty as he sees it – full on apparently, no skulking round in the dark for your samurai – he becomes irresistibly telic, a gallant, code-bound version of an action movie hero.

There are, as befits an arthouse effort, spiralling digressions into friendship, age, communication and mortality, but it’s all done with wit, focus and considerable panache.

I’m embarrassed about my former Jim Jarmusch prejudices but they’re gone now. I’m on team Jarmusch. What’s next?

***

Doctor Who news:

There is some talk that Karen Gillan slowed up the queue in the Post Office here in Inverness by posting what appeared to be a “large parcel”, though this needs more corroboration before I’ll believe it.

Karen Gillan showing some decorum earlier today.

And finally: the great big 36 Hour A Day Tesco at the Inverness retail park has stocked up with Doctor Who figures again. I am reported to be very pleased indeed with my Ice Warrior.