The Snowmen

Christmas 2012 logo

Face

Titles

For a little woman she casts a long shadow.

In his magisterial comic book sequence The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Alan Moore writes a bold narrative of authentic Darwinian winnowing, allowing his advancing plot and characters to dwindle through wastage over time rather than to proliferate explosively.

At its culmination in Century: 2009 the story has very few of the original Victorian league left. Effectively only Orlando and the immortal Mina Harker remain to combat the twenty-first century antichrist, and they are forced to rely upon a literal deus ex machina in order to prevail. As things look hopelessly, lethally bleak a single new character sails down from the sky to scold the monstrous antagonist.

Deus ex machina

“I’m well famous, actually,” declaims the antichrist in the manner of a dim, self-centred, Jeremy Kyle-inflected youth. “I’m in a book of the BIBLE!”

“Tsk,” says the recently arrived stranger. “Just the one book? I’m on every page. Who did you think you were talking to?”

It’s the God-Poppins basically.

Splish splash

All of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is brilliant, and really it works best if read from the beginning right through, but for any near-horizoned Doctor Who fans with little time to invest Century: 2009 is the one to concentrate on. Look. It has a Hartnell/Smith cameo in a couple of frames and propounds the spiffing notion that Emma Peel (now going by her maiden name) has charge of UNIT and Torchwood.

Doctor Who?

Night, Miss Emma Night

Potterheads and Bond fans will find things to delight them too.

There was a lot of Mary Poppins stuff in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode, The Snowmen, though wasn’t there?

Mary Poppins has always had something of Gallifrey about her. In the original P.L. Travers stories written between 1934 and 1988 she is a character of enigmatic origin who blows in without warning and leaves when the wind changes, who carries an umbrella, whose bag is smaller outside than in, and who has fantastical adventures that she then rarely discusses afterwards. If Chancellor Flavia had unbuttoned a bit and absconded in a Type 40 all those centuries ago, isn’t that what she would be like?

The two previous Steven Moffat Doctor Who seasonal episodes have merrily abstracted elements of A Christmas Carol and The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, and I had previously pondered what he might have planned for 2012. That the Doctor recently appeared to have removed himself from the Universe in a self-erasing huff did lead me to wonder if we were heading towards It’s A Wonderful Life territory, but no. We got a jolly holiday with Mary instead.

Poppins isn’t intrinsically Christmassy but she has, thanks to the easily-scheduled, endearing 1964 Disney film adaptation, assumed a place in the festive hierarchy.

It is clever and funny and wise of Moffat to appropriate Poppins for Whodom. It is a good fit, and gives him an opportunity once more to explore his philosophy that Doctor Who is a programme about the companions rather than about the Time Lord himself. Having said that though, the Doctor is not as drastically sidelined in The Snowmen as he was in some of the Pond episodes thank God. And, whilst there are elements of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert about his portrayal in this episode, Matt Smith’s Doctor never wanders too far from the dramatic centre of gravity.

The biggest big thing though, and there are many big things about The Snowmen, is not the Doctor, it is not the notional villain, and neither is it the ultimately revealed monster (more, joyous self-perpetuating causally-wausally stuff from King Moff). It isn’t even the hootingly funny comedy ensemble of supporting characters.

Nope. It is the loudly proclaimed inauguration of the new companion Clara that is the biggest big thing. For the second time now Clara Oswald Oswin has been introduced to us, has seduced us entirely and has then been unexpectedly killed before our eyes.

What are we to make of this?

Let It Snow

The Snowmen

Clara concerned

Those were the days

Here are my handles… There's my spout

First time round (in Asylum Of The Daleks) we didn’t find out too much about Oswin other than that, for a ship’s entertainment officer, she has a damn fine line in killing a besieging Dalek horde. If that had been the Christmas episode it would doubtless have been seen as Steven Moffat’s tribute to Home Alone. By me anyway.

Second time around, in The Snowmen, there is a clearer depiction of her ambiguous personal duality. As “Clara Oswald” she consorts chirpily with mutton-chop whiskered Cockney types (no chimney sweeps or one-man bands in evidence sadly), whereas as the more demure “Miss Montague” she is the spit-spot governess of two well-to-do kids.

The children are aware of her double life. They get her to use her “secret voice”, and beseech her to tell them more of her stories. Given that we know the one about the man who lives on a cloud is true should we make the same inference about her Big Ben story? Or the one about inventing fish? You wouldn’t put it past her now would you?

What the actual heck is going on with Clara?

Taking steps

Cloudboxing

Knock knock

Who's there

The internet is not short of speculations, ideas and frothy-minded thinks, and many of them are, in fairness, quite persuasive. This galloping, ravening urge to know things in advance though is just the fannish equivalent of shaking and squeezing your presents whilst they are still under the tree. When you reach a certain age you lose that impatience I have found, and it is easier to just enjoy what is in front of you.

I don’t think the Mary Poppins stuff is actually that significant. Steven Moffat is the emperor magpie and takes what he needs from wherever it is. There is the taller-on-the-inside clever staircase, the umbrella, the flying, the kids and so on to give us a handle on Clara, but that is all it is. An efficient contextualising device.

And there are plenty of homages in The Snowmen that have nothing to do with Poppins: There are cheery plunderings from Citizen Kane (a lonely, old snowglobe-owning, rich man never frees himself from the influence of childhood); Les Diaboliques (there’s a body in the pool, or is there?); and even Chandler once again (as Vastra’s interview with Clara echoes Philip Marlowe’s introduction to General Sternwood at the beginning of The Big Sleep).

None of it, I think, signifies anything other than Moffat’s ingenious ability to suggest an atmosphere from a few quick semiotic flourishes. It’s not deep but it is clever.

Vastra

Snowglobe

Matt the master detective

I think I used to go out with her

That's the way to do it

Very naughty

Clara ascending

Cloudboxing 2

Clara confused

New interior

Falling

Grave

Clara contemporary

I like Steven Moffat a lot. In his tenure on Doctor Who he has done very little to pander to the demands of fans (new and old) and, though this seems to have brought him a large amount of personal derision, it has been of immeasurable benefit to the programme.

When he has overseen the return of old enemies (the Autons, the Silurians, the sort of Nimon) he has done it respectfully but imaginatively. Same with the Great Intelligence here in The Snowmen. He does, however, seem to understand quite sensibly that for a programme to thrive for fifty years it is not enough to dwell on past favourites, it has to be constantly innovating. So in Moff’s time alone we have had the introduction of the Dream Lord, Liz Ten, Van Gogh, Churchill, Nixon, Canton Everett Delaware III, the Silence, Prisoner Zero, the Flesh, the Pandorica Alliance and loads more, all of which can be revisited at will any time in the future.

One of the more insistently shrill, fannish exhortations is for there to be some sort of New Who/New Sherlock crossover. Now, ignoring the fact that there has already been the ne plus ultra of Wholock convergence in Robert Holmes’s sublime The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (1977), this is still the stupidest of ideas. You know how good the Alien Versus Predator films aren’t? Well this would be that, but worse.

Wholock

Four and Leela

Impudently Moff has acknowledged the unfeasibility of the idea in The Snowmen whilst, at the same time, executing it. After a pleasing implication that Vastra and Jenny are the progenitors of Conan Doyle’s stories in The Strand magazine Moffat then dresses the Doctor up in the dimmest popular conception of a Sherlock Holmes outfit and has him do a crass deductive pantomime: “Do you have a goldfish called Colin?” “No.” “I thought not!”

I have found it funny each time I’ve seen it, and am delighted that now, at each subsequent Wholock demand, we are allowed to say, “You’ve already had it. There it is in The Snowmen.”

In fact for what could have been a thoroughly grief-drenched affair The Snowmen is pleasingly rich in laughs, and mostly these come from the Blackadder/Baldrick dynamic of The Doctor and Strax. “I’m the clever one. You’re the potato one.” Smith’s comic abilities have never been in doubt, but Dan Starkey’s performance as Strax is a magnificent revelation. Still, I think that sometimes less is more and I am emphatically not one of those clamouring for a thirteen-episode Vastra/Jenny/Strax spin-off. I deeply enjoyed what we got though.

A grenade!

Did I miss the explanation of which of the Doctor’s friends brought Strax back to life, or has that been left intentionally vague? Also I am not quite clear on which not-red-wine drink Vastra was enjoying. Vimto, hopefully.

The rest of the humour derives from Jenna-Louise Coleman’s boisterous, glittering performance as Clara. I haven’t dwelt too much on J-LC because there’s a limit to how much thigh-rubbing, Cosmo Smallpiece mimicking you need from me. Presumably.

Still, though. What a little teapot, eh?

You also don’t need me to tell you how superbly lugubrious Richard E. Grant is as Simeon, or how wonderful Tom Ward is as the lovelorn, Von Trapp-esque Captain Latimer. As chaos unfolds about the latter gentleman, still the only question he can think of to ask is the poignantly rhetorical “You have a gentleman friend?” to Clara. So sweet.

The whole thing looks lush too in the way-more-than-safe pair of hands that is Saul Metzstein. This is some of the most sumptuous TV drama around.

It is a relief to me that ratings and audience satisfaction have been high. I had slight concerns that the subject matter might be a bit savage or a bit opaque for kids, and that the continuity-dependence might have been alienating for the non-nerdish adults.

Once again we seem to have got away with it though. This year we had Christmas Day teatime telly that contained carnivorous telepathic snow, a Silurian detective, a Sontaran valet and a baffling governess who seems to exist across time and space. What did EastEnders have, by contrast? I don’t know. I didn’t watch it. But I am going to guess at adultery and fistfights.

We won.

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The Angels Take Manhattan

“I could write a book and this book would be thick enough to stun an ox.”

Thus intones New York art-kook Laurie Anderson in the song Let X=X on her 1982 album Big Science. It’s a great song on a great album by a woman who once chose Lou Reed over me without ever even doing me the courtesy of knowing I exist. Nonetheless she is great also. You should buy Big Science. You’d like it.

She recorded a very fine album called Strange Angels too.

The Doctor Who episode The Angels Take Manhattan has its characters taking their cues from a book which one of the characters will write subsequently. This book, Melody Malone, contains the line “I was packing cleavage that could fell an ox at twenty feet”.

There is no obvious dramatic connection with Laurie Anderson, but I was struck by the closeness of the wording, by the idea of the narrator being aware of their book, and by the evoked imaginary New York space.

For a not particularly old city New York has a great deal of accreted history. This is very visibly evident in Manhattan where, in the absence of archaeological depth, there is an extensive stratified narrative moving upwards in the borough’s architecture.

Horror movies have made great use of this from King Kong’s energetic trapezing round the Empire State Building in 1933, through the vitrified implacability of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, to the post-9/11 trauma of Cloverfield.

The city’s adorning accoutrements have not escaped the attentions of filmmakers either. The Art Deco style and radiator cap finishings of The Chrysler Building make a brilliant location for Larry Cohen’s 1982 horror film Q – The Winged Serpent. It’s a mad, skippy movie about an Aztec god biting the heads off window cleaners above, whilst the street cops investigate down below. Cohen filmed it semi-guerrilla style. Presumably this was a financial consideration first and foremost, but it has aesthetic advantages too, keeping matters fast and character-based.

Is there much left to be said about the two Ghostbusters movies? I shall let a picture take a stab at representing a thousand words instead.

Doctor Who itself has had fun in New York before. A brief segment of the chaotic 1966 story The Chase takes place on top of the Empire State Building. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicky land and then take off in short order pursued by a Dalek Incursion Squad. It’s a long story. Really quite a surprisingly long story. The only witness to events is the gawky Arkansas tourist Morton Dill played by Peter Purves, still a long way from the subsequent dignity of, oh let’s say Junior Kickstart.

In her brisk, endearing two-parter Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks (2007) Helen Raynor gives us a surviving Dalek faction using the construction of the Empire State Building in the thirties to cover a project in which the Dalek and human races are being hybridised. Makes kind of sense too, which is a thing we expected from stories back in the olden days of five years ago.

And now we are back for The Angels Take Manhattan, the final Amy and Rory story, the hype for which has been, candidly, ridiculous.

Now, I love Steven Moffat. He is a witty writer who has managed to keep the Russell T Davies fun-times going whilst simultaneously introducing his own subverting, necrotic darkness. In particular he has proved himself to be breathtakingly adept at the impossible PR tasks that are ancillary to his job as show-runner. Writing well, structuring a series, keeping secrets, engaging with an unimaginably frothy fan-base. He has done it all with some verve.

The run up to The Angels Take Manhattan has however felt a little galumphing to me. For the last six months Moff appears to have been bobbing up and down everywhere, a chuckling psychopomp, promising Amy and Rory’s demise and averring constantly that we, the audience, will cry.

I personally don’t like audience manipulation like that, but if that was his brief, to provoke a grief storm, then the job has most assuredly been done. The wailing and gnashing of teeth has nearly broken Twitter. The dread beforehand was touchable. The subsequent emotional outpourings make the Lamentations of Jeremiah look and sound like a tiny, sad face emoticon playing a quiet kazoo.

That’s impressive. Left me a bit cold though.

My inability to engage with the story feelinglingly is my shortcoming, I accept. Maybe it is my age. Certainly as an eight year old in 1973 I sobbed my tiny, adorable eyes out when Jo Grant (Katy Manning) eloped with that Welsh hippy from the Wholeweal.

I have clearly lost a lot of sentimental ability since then.

So what do we have here in The Angels Take Manhattan?

Once more a voiceover sets events out for us. That’s happening a lot this series. There are some pleasing semiotic pointers straight off the bat which tell us we are in fictional detective country:

In the opening narration the city is referred to as having “a million stories”, a self-conscious allusion to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City with its closing lines “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Our detective’s rates are taken almost verbatim from Marlowe’s tariff in The Big Sleep of “twenty-five a day and expenses – when I’m lucky”.

Even our detective’s name, Garner, to someone of my age (and the age of the Moff) means one thing above all others: The Rockford Files.

This bit of the story never happens. Literally. This brilliant detective set up culminating in the pre-credit climax of a looming Angel of Liberty is all part of the book River will eventually write to alert Amy and the Doctor as to what’s going on. I think. (Though it doesn’t seem to fit well with the other book excerpts we are treated to.)

I absolutely missed that first time round.

In present day New York Rory is zapped back in time by the city’s infestation of Angels. The Doctor and Amy become aware of this through the novel the Doctor is reading. They travel by TARDIS back to the thirties, discover that the Angels are effectively battery-farming humans using looped time. (A chronic hysteresis we used to call that.) Rory kills himself, taking Amy with him, causing a paradox. Everything snaps back to where and when it should be. Except there’s one last Angel which transports Rory back again. Amy follows. The Doctor says they are fixed in time now and lost to him.

OK.

It is brilliant. Obviously.

I want to state that clearly because I am about to list a couple of things I flat out don’t understand. That does not mean I am down on the story. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand how important the closure of Amy and Rory’s saga is. All it means is that I want to ask these questions so that they are off my chest.

What is River doing in the thirties?

How does the Angels’ battery farm work exactly? You lure someone to a trap. They see themselves as an old person. You zap them back in time, and then what? You get that “time energy” once and once only. Now you have the corpse of an old person on your hands. It’s not a self-starting causal loop at all.

Why does the guy from off of Whose Line Is It Anyway keep all those statues in his house anyway for Christ’s sake?

How come the Angels can do stuff whilst they are being watched now? Blowing out candles, zapping Amy away and so forth? Is there ever actually a point when no one is watching the Statue of Liberty and it is free to go for a walk around?

If the Doctor can’t see Amy any more then how come River is able to give her the manuscript of a book for publication?

And how would a book get published with that daffy afterword anyway? It’s a device that makes sense with the DVD Easter eggs in Blink, but which is much more of a stretch here. And how does the Doctor end up with the book? The scripted line “explaining” it is awful.

None of this matters of course. It is stuff from the top of my head based on two fairly casual viewings. Some of it may be stuff I just don’t get. The rest of it is trivial. The validity of this episode lies in its emotional truth rather than in any ideas I have about what constitutes coherent storytelling. And whilst I may find that emotional truth somewhat elusive at the moment, millions of others don’t.

And it is worth my while remembering that my eight year old self would not have taken too kindly to your telling him that chemical waste doesn’t make maggots mutate into giant versions of themselves, because in The Green Death it just did.

This is a story written for the adoring fans of Amy and Rory and in that role it succeeds one hundred percent.

I did not much care for the way the Doctor was sidelined, emasculated, rendered powerless and petulant, and slapped by his wife. Poor me. That’s just the way the programme is this week.

It has changed before. It will change again.

The podcast episode commentaries I recorded with Lawrence Sutcliffe are available to download for free from iTunes here:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

Or alternatively here:

http://feexby.podbean.com

The Power of Three

It is rare to get an icosahedron in a romcom, and octahedra almost never trouble a cop buddy movie. In fact when Euclidean geometry does manifest itself in the field of film it is almost inevitably within the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres, and it never augurs well.

Spheres, from the sphere in Sphere to the globe in 2008’s unwished for revamp of The Day The Earth Stood Still, can carry a degree of implacable menace. My own favourites though are the flying, drilling, bloodsucking balls of Don Coscarelli’s four Phantasm films. Seek the movies out now, if you haven’t already seen them. They are magnificent.

All of Coscarelli’s movies are magnificent, really.

In addition to Phantasms I-IV (Phantasm IV being pretty much entirely made out of spare bits from the first three) he directed Bubba Ho-Tep (2002). This is the film that stars Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis living out his dotage in an old folks home. During the course of the narrative he is called on to face down an ancient Egyptian mummy. It is based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, so you are in safe hands.

Coscarelli was also responsible for The Beastmaster (1982), a pale bud on the, by then thoroughly etiolated, post-Conan fantasy profusion. Marc Singer is likable enough in it though, and the movie does feature a sequence in which Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts frolics topless whilst ogled by ferrets.

Look!

Some people are a little ungenerous towards The Beastmaster but they tend to be people who have not seen Yor, The Hunter from the Future (and its little-known sequel Yor The Person Regretting You Watched This Film).

Anyway, the preternatural dread brought about by spheres is nothing compared to the terror occasioned by the cubes.

The obelisks in 2001 are cuboids rather than cubes, but their pleasing dimensional ratio of 1:4:9 (the first three square numbers) makes them interesting enough to discuss briefly.

Although they are ultimately demonstrated to be benign at a species level, prompting accelerated evolutionary change and paving, literally paving, the way to ascension they are, nonetheless, incredibly destructive at an individual level. They are big, black and scary and they make monkeys go hairy mental. People die because of them.

Regular cubes of the 1:1:1 variety are invariably horrifying. The cubic Lament Configuration in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser comes with a promise that it will “tear your soul apart”. The lethal, ludic prisons of the three Cube films fulfil none of their original philosophical promise, becoming instead inescapable sadistic death traps.

And then there’s the whole film career of Ice Cube, but that may be for another blog.

Within Doctor Who two of the five Platonic solids are completely neglected, unless I have missed something. We get a fine dodecahedron in the underestimated Meglos (1980); and William Hartnell makes as dignified a job as is possible of being squashed into an octahedron for The Three Doctors (1972-73). But of icosahedra and tetrahedra we hear nothing. The Pyramids of Mars come close, but square based pyramids are not tetrahedra, and you get nothing for half an octahedron in this game.

Of hexahedra, however, we have plenty. There is the Rubik’s cube twatted about with by Eleven in Night Terrors (2011); there is the Pandorica; there are the neat Time Lord distress beacon doo-dahs from The War Games (1969), which reappeared con brio in Neil Gaiman’s thrilling The Doctor’s Wife (2011).

And now we have the Cubes. Just that. Cubes. “All absolutely identical. Not a single molecule’s difference between them. No blemishes, imperfections, individualities…” A proliferation of them, resistant to the analytical powers of Professor Brian Cox, Doctor Who and Brian Williams combined.

The Power Of Three had an absolutely cracking set up: that of a slow, un-guessable invasion, a process so gradual that it involved the Doctor standing still for a while and experiencing life at the pace his companions usually live it.

I had some micro-quibbles which do not really signify much and which I will dispatch now so that they are out of the way:

Firstly I didn’t understand what the spooky little girl was up to. She is explained away as an “outlier droid” observing everything, but surely the cubes were already observing everything. Anyway she didn’t observe everything. She just sat, seemingly unnoticed, in the hospital for a year.

Secondly, I remain confused as to what the hexagon-head guys were doing and why they kidnapped the bloke with the Len Deighton novel. I am going to assume that they and the spooky droid girl were just some sort of portal guardians, but I could have done with another sentence or two just to clarify matters.

Thirdly and finally, the Shakri: Terrific idea for monsters. Things living “one dimension to the left” like Lovecraftian old gods, servants of The Tally, brutal dispensers of justice and legendary even to the Time Lords. A shame then that they were squandered almost immediately. The Doctor dispatched them pretty quickly and, to my simple mind, confusingly. Also they seemed to be exceeding their brief a bit by extinguishing humanity before humanity had even done anything.

Micro-quibbles, as I say. And that’s the end of any negativity from me because, for the fourth time running this season, we got a single episode story of exquisite lapidary beauty.

This, uniquely for the Matt Smith era, could have slotted easily into any of the first four seasons of New Who. The slow invasion brought to mind immediately the farty old Slitheen of yore; the blood control used by the Sycorax in the Christmas Invasion (2005); the apparitions in Army Of Ghosts (2006); the gloopy Adipose of  Partners In Crime (2008).

It is textbook Russell T. Davies-style storytelling, and all the more welcome for that.

To draw a line under the RTD influences and highlight them with squiggly lines from different coloured highlighter pens we also got tons of family involvement. We got wall after wall of news – I searched in vain for Trinity Wells but could not see her, alas. And, mirabile dictu, we got UNIT.

Proper, proper UNIT with Trap One and Trap Three and all that.

Just as I was fangasming at the whole thing we then discovered that Kate Stewart (coy, demure, understated Jemma Redgrave) was the Brigadier’s daughter, and my head fell off.

We have missed the Brig, those of us who grew up with him, but we surely have to applaud this final postscript to his character. He was quite blimpish when I became aware of him in the early seventies. He sanctioned the Silurian massacre. He couldn’t tell the anti-matter universe from Cromer. He had a bit on the side called Doris. But over time I became aware of how important a part of the family he was.

Battlefield (1989) is slightly too glossy and glib, too heavy on the Keff McCulloch Art Of Noise-wannabe music, for me to thoroughly love. But it did feature The Brigadier, and how great it was too see him back in action after the doomy solemnities of Mawdryn Undead (1983).

The Brig’s next, and final, return in the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures (Enemy Of The Bane, 2008) was a beautiful thing to behold. That his daughter Kate has not only survived him but has brought science to the forefront of the UNIT directives is an ingenious twist.

I gather that Kate Stewart as a character pre-exists The Power Of Three in some of the Reeltime fan videos, but you will need to find some Special Weapons Nerds to tell you about that, because I know nowt of them at all.

A final RTD leitmotif appears when Brian, in a compelling moment of gravitas, presses the Doctor for details of what happens to those who go travelling with him. This is something touched on very movingly in The Death Of The Doctor, a two-episode story of The Sarah Jane Adventures written by Russell T. Davies himself. It’s an amazingly ambitious bit of writing (especially given that it was in the context of a show for young children) in which it is suggested that the parting of the ways of the Doctor and his companions is not always as final as it seems.

The characters of Rory and Amy have grown significantly in the last four episodes. They are now explicitly ten years on from their first encounter (as adults) with the Doctor.

They have two lives, as they point out at the beginning of the episode: Their time with the Doctor and the more quotidian time by themselves when they fulfil their roles of journalist and nurse. (And if the female journalist/male nurse paradigm isn’t set up specifically to evoke memories of Sarah Jane and Harry then I’d be amazed.)

We have always accepted this fact of their existence, but this is the first time we have really seen it played out. The first time that we have watched the Doctor attempt to live at a human pace. And what a bathetic spectacle it is.

It is played as comedy, but there is something quite wrenching about seeing the Doctor so patently unable to live life at our level. It reminded me of a line in (er, I think) an Alan Moore issue of Swamp Thing when it is pointed out that the life of superhero the Flash must be like a gallery of still images.

There’s something of a shock about that realisation that a character does not actually see the universe the way you think he does.

I enjoyed very much the Doctor’s explanation of how he has to rush to things before they gutter out so completely and so quickly. And I enjoyed how much we got to see things through someone else’s eyes. There is an element of the 2010 episode The Lodger in this, but it reminded me more of Love & Monsters (2006) which, again, is narrated by a character whom the Doctor only meets fleetingly, but whose life is completely changed by the encounter.

Love & Monsters attracts some flak because of Peter Kay’s pantomime villainy as The Abzorbaloff, but putting that clodhopping casting decision to one side I think it is a really sweet story. I also applaud the experimental nature of it.

Back in The Power Of Three we see that Brian’s transformation from prosaic Dad to diligent, considerate parent is now complete. We only have one more Pond episode to go, so it looks as though the mystery of Rory’s Mum will never be solved, but I can live with that. Brian’s arc has been wholly satisfying and I love the way he hasn’t quite relinquished his daddliness. His plodding video log and his insistence on pronouncing UNIT as You En Eye Tee made me lol out loud.

And, on the subject of funny dialogue: “mass-defibrillation” indeed. Ha! Give Arthur Darvill a prize for getting that one out.

This is continuing to be a brilliant epoch of Doctor Who. There is evolutionary change in the character that I never expected to see. Matt Smith’s initial portrayal seemed, I thought, almost autistically “other”. Bouncing around like Tigger in The Eleventh Hour. Denouncing all of humankind in The Beast Below. Whereas now, arguably because of the ten year influence of Rory and Amy and probably Craig, he is capable of a degree of domesticity. Not only that, but he is back to defending humanity from colossal threats, not merely because of exigencies of plot, but because of character motivation. The Doctor has now seen enough to know that the good in us far outweighs the bad.

We have come a long way.

You can find the podcast commentary I did with Lawrence Sutcliffe on iTunes here:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

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

Scooby-Doo Meets Batman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast And Slow Daniel Kahneman explains our current understanding of cognitive processes by invoking two metaphorical systems, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is a fast, intuitive jump-to-conclusions system which assumes truth, and is predisposed to make connections, ascribe agency and so forth. It is a low cost thing is System 1 and it is running all the time.

System 2 is an effortful system, exerting the kind of deliberate, analytical thinking that is required when impressions, inclinations and feelings alone won’t do. It is the process from which we get beliefs, attitudes and intentions. It costs though, metabolically, so it is really only called on when required. And in Kahneman’s terminology it is “lazy” which, I think is a way of saying it acts until the exact moment it doesn’t need to anymore, then it stops.

As with everything in adaptive evolution the workings of cognition are shown not to be the noble striving towards an ideal of efficiency. They are the results of an “Ah fuck it, that’ll do” default.

If a genuine, actual God exists and this is his creation then he is my kind of guy. Botched jobs that will barely do, walked away from; and paths of least resistance all the way.

System 2 is not called upon that often because the broadly understandable, associative worldview that System 1 cobbles together in its charming, scatty way is generally unharmful. System 1 is blind to subtle, biasing things like suggestion and priming effects because, mostly, it doesn’t need to be aware of them.

If nothing else at least this provides Derren Brown with a way of making a living.

When System 1 does come across something obviously contextually unfamiliar it nudges System 2 for validation. There is an identifiable shift up from the one system to the other. This loss of cognitive ease is simple to observe. Kahneman uses the sentence:

“When something cement does not fit into the current context of activated ideas the system detects an abnormality, as you just experienced.”

The converse also holds true. If something doesn’t seem anomalous then System 1 blunders blithely on.  Kahneman demonstrates this by asking a simple-to-answer question:

“How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?”

The answer is so easy that the majority of people don’t spot what is fundamentally wrong with the question. System 1, not detecting an associative disruption, has given the answer. System 2 is still tucked up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and a Sudoku book.

Kahneman’s book is excellent, and there is a lot more too it than my piffling simplifications suggest. We are not quite as spiffing as we fancy ourselves to be and, as the book goes on to explain, we consistently make bad statistical choices because of the way we’ve developed.

There are economic ramifications I am given to understand.

A Nobel Prize got awarded they say.

I enjoyed the book greatly. It taught me a lot of new stuff as well as reinforcing a lot of previously ill-informed notions I had about why we think the way we think, and why, unless challenged, we believe the things we believe. It is all rooted in the physical, experiential, verifiable world too.

For the most part, I came to understand, when I am watching films I am running System 1. There are bright lights flashing on the screen.

Good.

Thing follows thing follows thing follows thing. It is rare that my cognitive ease is unsettled to the point that I think “Hang on a minute, though…” and when it does this is usually the result of a purposeful action on the part of the film makers.

Some film makers are good at exploiting a sense of unease by subtly altering what you expect to see. You can see it in the way John Carpenter has things happening in the corners of the widescreen frame in Halloween for instance. Or Philip Kaufman’s ruthless exploitation of the tilted topography of San Francisco to fill the backgrounds of his Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers with visual non sequiturs.

Others are less good. Ed Wood’s reputation as the cinema’s worst director is well founded. The clumsiness of Plan 9 From Outer Space, its lurches between night time and daylight, its mismatching of stock footage, its swooping tonal changes all make it quite difficult to watch. System 2 is getting constant digs in the ribs from System 1. That all costs you. The raising of your blood pressure and the dilation of your pupils has to be fuelled by something.

People have different thresholds.

I wasn’t irked particularly when the Raiders franchise “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Many people were.

Similarly I did not have a problem in this year’s The Dark Knight Rises when the Gotham City Police Department emerge from their prolonged entombment, fit, healthy, muscular of arm and shiny of buttons to fight Bane and his forces.

“That could never happen,” was the complaint, as though there was no precedent in magical realist literature, fantasy films or comic book writing. It is, at the very worst, para-consistent with what has gone before rather than outright inconsistent. And not even that I think.

It’s a thrilling sequence in a film that is one of the least compromised blockbusters I’ve ever seen.

2012 has been a year notable for films that have come freighted with heavy expectations but which nonetheless have not disappointed.

I adored the colour-saturated Magnificent Seven-for-nerds that was The Avengers. It was so much nimbler than I thought it could possibly be. Similarly I was agog at Prometheus. I think time will be as kind to that film as it has been to Blade Runner, which was also not well understood on its initial release.

The Amazing Spider-man was not to my taste. The revision of the Peter Parker character into a cool, sulky pseudo-outsider made the story considerably less interesting to me, but it is, I now realise, a film that is not intended for me any more than the Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Sex And The City films are. It has its own audience, and that’s good.

So what a relief that The Dark Knight Rises, fourth in the queue, was a tour de force too. It was sensible of the studio to give Christopher Nolan a free rein with it as a hobbled compromise would have been too much to bear.

Still though it must have taken some balls for them to release, under the mantle of a summer blockbuster, the movie he presented them with. Nearly three hours long, furiously unconventional in its depiction of the passage of time and without its central character for huge stretches, this is a challenging piece of work.

What can we say about Batman?

He is an archetype of apparently limited flexibility. The only child of philanthropic billionaires he witnesses their murders as a young boy. In adulthood he is compelled to fight crime, seemingly as a result of this early trauma. He dresses as a bat. The reason he gives is that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot.

His relations with the Gotham City Police Department are ambiguous but he has a mutually respectful friendship with the Chief of Police Jim Gordon.

Occasionally he has had a partner called Robin. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, later became the superhero Nightwing. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was murdered by The Joker. The third Robin, Tim Drake, grew up to be the superhero Red Robin and his replacement, Stephanie Brown, was killed in action almost immediately. The mantle is currently worn by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul from a storyline that I had previously thought was non-canonical. And if, when you hear the name Damien, your first thought is of The Omen rather than Only Fools And Horses then you are the sort of person that I would like to be.

Batman once had his back broken by the drug-engorged villain Bane, but he got better. Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend at the time had magic healingy-wealingy powers or something.

There is an ensemble of allies. There is a colourful spectrum of antagonists.

In his time Bruce has been killed. He has been imprisoned for murder. He has been sent back through time. He has been to the Moon, to distant galaxies, to Hell, and to Scotland.

DC, the company which publishes the Batman comics is astute about the character. He, at least in their main line of comics, is most generally played as the obverse of Superman. The dark night to Superman’s yellow sun. It is a very tidy conceit.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are both orphans, but they appear to have reacted differently to their situations. Superman’s affable, monogamous simplicity is a stark contrast to Batman’s glum, polymorphous complexity. A reason for the equivalence of their origins is simple artistic thrift. They both started out in their own comic books at about the same time (Batman in a 1939 detective comic, Superman in a 1938 action comic) with audiences that were separate and distinct. Fear of the loss of one’s parents must have been quite a thing to the kids growing up between world wars. An origin story is just an origin story. No wonder there were similarities.

You can read too much into the moral dualism the characters seem to present. Ooh darkness and light. Ooh the Manichaean struggle at the heart of all men.

Well, yes. But, more to the point, no. It’s just a fucking comic.

In the wake of Frank Miller’s transgressive 1986 comic series The Dark Kight Returns in which Bruce Wayne has succumbed to the ravages of age and Clark Kent has become the puppet of a right wing US President, there was a move towards seeing the expression of something political in comics. Perhaps something profound about twentieth century sexuality too.

Sadly though this doesn’t seem to have amounted to too much. There are now visionary comics writers who receive more attention than they otherwise might have done, but they are still the tiny exception.

Some of Miller’s subsequent work has been a bit thuggish and misogynistic, and The Dark Knight returns seems less and less important the further away we get from it. If Miller has left an enduring mark on Batman at all it is only that there are more stories about youth gangs now and fewer about Bat-Mite or Ace The Bat-Hound.

There have been sideways Batman stories too. There was a series of Elseworld graphic novels in which the Batman story was played out in the Victorian Era, or the Wild West, or against Dracula, or as if Bruce Wayne was Green Lantern. All jolly good but the point is that the parameters are very limited. There are few things of any philosophical worth you can get from Batman.

The point of it is how do you present what there is?

The Tim Burton movies were not that different from the two Joel Schumacher movies that followed. Both directors are more concerned with what happens of the surface of your retinas rather than anything a bit deeper into your head.

This isn’t so very bad in itself I suppose, but I prefer something a little less like a toddler tantrum in a migraine factory.

Christopher Nolan’s three Batmans are infinitely more measured. It would be a stretch to call them adult, but they do at least address the notion of change over time, both as growth and decay. They are also scrupulously directed and cast, and there is a perspicacity at work that you don’t always get in the genre.

There is no shortage of Joker stories in the gargantuan Batman oeuvre, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his malignant nature more intelligently observed than when, in The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred calmly intones, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

There is an uncommon weight of conviction in that.

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand as examples of mainstream cinema that do not underestimate or patronise the audience. There’s a stateliness to them that Christopher Nolan can be proud of, and I am glad that I have lived to see blockbuster entertainment start to move away from the ubiquity of the “defy authority, destroy property, take peoples’ clothes off” paradigm.

And if you know what movie that came from then you are my kind of people.

Anyway, when I sat down to write I hadn’t intended to talk about any of  that puffin-guff, but it wasn’t possible to get to Scooby-Doo Meets Batman without the set-up. Because Scooby-Doo Meets Batman is a complicated prospect. It is not a film to be watched lightly.

It’s not even a film at all if we’re going to apply rigorous taxonomy here. It’s two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The Caped Crusader Caper (1972) and The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair (also 1972).

Purists need not worry. This is classic era Scooby-Doo. Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy are all present and correct. It is free from the contaminating paw marks of Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum. There is even the classic misspelling of Casey Kasem’s name on the credits.

It is proper.

In addition the same tight team of thirteen writers (only thirteen!) worked on both episodes so the narrative consistency is high.

Second half first. The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair is the less confrontational of the two episodes. It is logically robust. The clues are all there from the start. When (SPOILER ALERT!) Mrs. Baker is revealed to be the counterfeiter and we learn that her disappearing house actually turns upside down as camouflage, and that’s why everything was stuck down, we slap our heads in exasperation at our own nincompoopery. It is like Poe’s purloined letter or Chesterton’s postman. It was right in front of us. How could we not see it?

System 1 thinking, Daniel Kahneman would tell us.

If The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair has a problem it is that the antagonistic matched binary systems of Batman and Robin/The Joker and Penguin feel ancillary to the story.

My suspicion is that they were added late as an understandable commercial reaction to the success of the first story, The Caped Crusader Caper, because that is where the art lies in this endeavour.

Its story starts quite simply with the Mystery Machine gang meeting Batman and Robin in a forest. The dynamic duo are in pursuit of The Joker and The Penguin who have kidnapped an inventor called Professor Flakey. Scooby and his pals have already been terrorised by a dryad and Batman quickly works out that this fits exactly with The Joker’s modus operandi. Dressing up as a dryad.

They go to the dryad place… Cave. It’s a cave I think.

There follows some hurly and some burly, a lot of it quite hard to follow. It’s a good job those thirteen writers were on hand or the whole thing could have got out of control quite quickly. It all leads to a climactic scene at the Gotham Rubber Factory where Professor Flakey’s secret invention is revealed to be a flying suit.

Well, he says it’s a flying suit. Fans of The League Of Gentlemen will recognise it as part of Daddy’s Medusa machine. (The safe word is Juliet Bravo.)

It is here though that the story becomes an art-terrorism affront to meta-fiction because the rubber factory, in addition to its primary function of being a place to hide mysterious inventions, also makes big novelty balloons for parades.

It makes five of them to be exact. Big balloons of Father Christmas, Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, Batman and Robin. And that’s when my highly revved System 2, which had been running like a cooling fan on an over clocked computer for a while, started frantically looking round for some sort of System 3 thinking, just to deal with the complete defiance of narrative congruence.

Father Christmas isn’t real. I know this. He sort of is compared to Scooby-Doo, but for the most part in our reality Santa and Scooby have equivalent degrees of fictiveness. However, in Scoob’s world Santa is fictional (presumably) whilst Scooby is real. And in Scooby’s world Batman and Robin are also real, but in addition to being real in that world they also share the fictional (balloon identity) status of Santa, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.

Small wonder that nine short years later Jean Baudrillard was driven to write Simulacra and Simulation.

I quite like the feeling of apprehension that this brought about in me. There is something dismayingly true in The Caped Crusader Caper about how we interact with fictional constructs which themselves interact with fictional constructs. For something made in 1972 it seems to me to reflect clearly the very contemporary concerns of the deconcretisation of the world and the dissolution of what used to be quite sturdy boundaries.

It was well worth the three quid I paid for the DVD.

Not quite, but almost entirely unrelatedly I was playing Monopoly by myself on my iPad recently. I do this because I am very important and clever and sexy. I was the car and my computerised opponent was the top hat, effete fool that it is.

At one point the top hat landed on the same property I was on and I felt a little warmth and camaraderie. That’s nice for everyone, I thought. On the same square at last. They can have a bit of a chat.

Then I realised that that was silly, because cars and hats can’t talk. Then I remembered that they weren’t even a real car and a real hat. They’re just little metal representations of a car and a hat.

Then I remembered that they are in fact computer renderings of metal models of a pretend car and a pretend hat and that’s the world now. We used to hit actual things with other actual things and now we don’t.

It is an interesting time to be alert.

CLICK HERE FOR “Sketches of Scoob”:   Batman

(Oh. And it’s Noah, not Moses.)