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Posts Tagged ‘Continuity Hell’

It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)

regen-ent

Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

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Join me now as we crash headlong into the main problem confronting anyone attempting to sample the whole breadth and depth of televised Doctor Who: the sheer lack of available material when it comes to the eighth Doctor, as played by Paul McGann. With only one ninety-minute movie to his credit, surely McGann is the invisible Doctor as far as the world at large is concerned – that’s not to denigrate the numerous comic strips, novels, and CDs that were produced (and continue to appear) about this version of the character, but McGann’s own self-deprecating appraisal of himself as ‘the George Lazenby of the Time Lords’ possibly overstates his importance in terms of the TV incarnation of the programme.

(Even the producer of the McGann movie was apparently pleasantly surprised to discover that the eighth Doctor was considered canonical, although it wasn’t until The Next Doctor that he actually takes his place in the succession of on-screen Doctors. Prior to this I had occasionally mused to myself that there was nothing to say that there hadn’t in fact been any number of unseen interim Doctors between McGann and Eccleston… not that they’d ever use that sort of idea in the actual TV show, of course…)

Then again, the existence of a Doctor who was both official and yet barely delineated was a boon to the makers of those same spin-off properties, and it would foolish to say they had no part in bringing about the programme’s eventual return. In any case, the eighth Doctor’s place in the series’ history is not our topic for today – the movie which constituted both his debut and swan-song is.

Technically there is a problem here, as I did set out only intending to write about stories which I have always really enjoyed: and I recall my initial impression of the movie mainly being one of bemusement, transforming into active dislike within the space of a year or so. But there’s nothing else available for this Doctor, and I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to watch the movie since before the series actually came back. Possibly, I thought, viewing it again now would reveal it to be a natural and organic step in the development of the series – the missing link between Survival and Rose?

dwmovie

The plot goes as follows (oh boy): the Master has been executed by the Daleks on Skaro, and the Doctor has been charged with transporting his remains back to Gallifrey. However the Master is not as dead as he appears, having transformed himself into a blobby snake thing, and manages to force the TARDIS to crash land on Earth at the end of the 20th century*. Walking out of the TARDIS, the Doctor is caught in the middle of a gang fight and gunned down.

Taken to a hospital, the cardiologist (Daphne Ashbrook) who attempts to make sense of the Doctor’s alien biology hashes it quite badly and he dies on the operating table, only to regenerate on the slab in the morgue. Meanwhile the Master possesses the body of one of the paramedics involved (Eric Roberts) – but this is only an intermediate step, his ultimate goal being to take over the body of the Doctor, no matter the dangers involved for the rest of the planet…

So, as I say, it’s a very long time since I have been able to muster anything approaching genuine affection for the TV movie as a whole – has this latest return to it done anything to change that?

Well, no. I still think that, in a unconscious moment of devastating candour, the movie reviews itself quite early on. The Doctor, who is not in good shape, finds himself in the hands of some well-meaning rich Americans, who promise to do their best to make him better than ever. However, they fundamentally misunderstand what makes him work and end up practically killing him instead. Substitute the TV show for the character and you have the movie in a nutshell.

This has never really felt like ‘proper’ Doctor Who to me – which is not to say that there aren’t some lovely isolated moments along the way, most of them connected with the performances of the two leads – after a surprisingly grim first act, most of it has a playful, intentionally romantic quality to it which even the 21st century series at its most sentimental has hardly ever tried to emulate. The focus of the plot solely on the Doctor and the Master – with a climax set entirely in the TARDIS – is arguably a misstep too. This is before we even get to the fact that the resolution of the plot is, by any conventional standard, incomprehensible gibberish, which even some of the characters don’t seem to understand (God knows what American viewers new to the series would have made of it all – the programme makes virtually no concessions to anyone unfamiliar with the set-up of it all).

And as for it being the missing link between Survival and Rose – the weird thing is that those two stories don’t actually need an additional link, in narrative terms they are remarkably close together in many ways. This story is just a weird detour off into some very peculiar territory, incorporating a heritage Doctor (all crazy hair and frock coat), a peculiar religious subtext, one of Eric Roberts’ less distinguished performances (surely one of the most erratic big-name performers currently operating – one minute he’ll be perfectly fine in a classy film like The Dark Knight, the next he’ll be easily the worst thing in a piece of trash like DOA), and a strange obsession with honouring past continuity while wildly innovating upon it.

Which brings us to a few key issues connected with the TV movie, which I shall conclude by briefly looking at:

The Kissing Thing: it’s strange to recall just what a big fuss got made about the Doctor kissing Grace back in 1996. I suppose the one and only way in which the movie anticipates the modern series is in its conception of the Doctor as, potentially, a romantic hero, as it’s become pretty much de rigeur for each new incarnation to have his own little osculatory interlude. In retrospect, it hardly seems worth going on about it.

The Eye of Harmony Thing: not long after the movie broadcast I was asked by a somewhat puffed-up acquaintance if I’d spotted the continuity error. ‘Which one?’ I enquired, rather drily. ‘The one where the Eye of Harmony used to be on Gallifrey but now it’s in the TARDIS,’ came the reply (where, according to Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, it has remained). Well, personally, given that the Eye is supposed to be a singularity and thus have a rather tenuous relationship with the standard laws of physics, I have no issue with it being in two places at the same time (or even many places, assuming the Eye is the power source of every TARDIS), or indeed looking radically different.

On the other hand, I am somewhat bemused as to what the Eye of Harmony actually does in the TARDIS these days – if it is still a source of infinite power, and the ultimate motive force of the vehicle, then why have there been a couple of stories kicking off with the TARDIS needing to be refuelled? But I digress.

The Half-Human Thing: Here we go. If the Doctor kissing has now become much more acceptable to an informed audience, the idea of his being half-human remains beyond the pale. A stony silence has descended with respect to the whole concept, almost as if it has been stricken from the collective consciousness of fandom.

Well, I think a sort of a fix is possible, if you go with the theory – which had some currency at the time – that it’s only the eighth Doctor who’s half-human, due to there being human DNA in his body at the moment he regenerates, the duffers at the hospital having pumped him full of human blood. (While we’re on the subject, the fact that Grace’s probe remains in the Doctor’s body post-regeneration is interesting: does this mean that if you kill the Doctor by stabbing him through one of his hearts, and leave the knife in, every time he regenerates the new incarnation will instantly die for the same reason? Thoughts about the usefulness of a stake through the heart as a method of killing, not to mention the ancient and obscure in-universe connections between Time Lords and Vampires, instantly occur to me. But I am digressing again.)

This does mean dismissing the Doctor’s line about being ‘half-human on [his] mother’s side’ as a joke, which may not have been the makers’ intent, and is a slightly odd coincidence. It leaves us with only the Master’s comment that ‘The Doctor is half-human. No wonder…!‘ It’s the ‘No wonder…!‘ part of the line which invites speculation. It could be the Master is assuming the Doctor has always been half-human, and the meaning is ‘No wonder he keeps visiting Earth,’ or just ‘No wonder he’s so weird.’

None of this explains the business about the Eye of Harmony not opening for Time Lords, only for humans. The audios had a valiant stab at retconning this, but I think it’s really one of those things best left as a mystery of time (i.e. swept under the carpet of awkward continuity issues).

The Doctor’s Precognitive Powers Thing: this is just cobblers (it’s been even more fiercely ignored than the half-human plot point). God knows what they were thinking of.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

I’m going to stick my neck out on this one and suggest the story happens on the last two days of December, 1999. Controversial, I know.

What is perhaps more interesting, and less facetious, is the issue of when the Master’s ‘execution’ at the start of the movie takes place, given it occurs on the planet Skaro. Skaro was destroyed on-screen in Remembrance of the Daleks, but the date at which this occurs is not given.

Now, going solely from what we see on screen: given the Doctor’s meetings with the Daleks occur out-of-sequence, there’s no reason why the trial and execution couldn’t occur at any point in Dalek history, long before the planet’s destruction – the Master’s history with the Daleks is much less extensive than the Doctor’s (as far as we know), but given the manner in which he arguably lets them down at the end of Frontier in Space, I would suggest that from the Daleks’ point of view the trial occurs post-2540 (which is when that story is set).

This still doesn’t explain the oddity of the Daleks actually putting someone on trial at all, given they are normally quite happy to kill people out of hand whenever it suits them: they  certainly don’t respect any outside authority in moral matters. Nevertheless, they do the same to Davros at the end of Revelation of the Daleks, which perhaps gives us a clue – both the Master and Davros have a history of potential utility to the Daleks, so it may be that the ‘trial’, rather than a legal proceeding, is more a sort of assessment as to whether it’s worth keeping him alive as a potential ally.

Complicating all this is the fact that an abandoned Skaro appears on-screen again at the beginning of Asylum of the Daleks. Given the Daleks apparently ‘withdrew from history’ prior to the Time War, it would be odd for the history of their homeworld to remain accessible to time travellers, but on the other hand, it seems entirely reasonable for the apparently-cataclysmic temporal upheavals of the Time War to have somehow restored the planet (which is in ruins anyway) – so I would suggest the Asylum scene is set in the post-Time War history.

Rusty Davies has made an apocryphal contribution in this area, suggesting that the TV movie occurs in the very final days before the Time War begins in earnest, with the Master having been handed over for execution in an attempt to appease the Daleks (the ‘Act of Master Restitution’) – presumably their getting the remains back afterwards was part of the deal. (This presumably gives the eighth Doctor quite a short tenure before the war catches up with him!) Nevertheless this still places the TV movie as pre-War, and so Skaro can only be there if the Daleks have already been engaging in a little surreptitious rewriting of the timelines (a little-known side effect of this sort of behaviour is a sudden rise in the pitch of the voice).

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As Peter Capaldi receives his first official DWM cover, all the agitation and uncertainty of the summer seems to be fading away, and it feels slightly strange to look back and recall some of the wilder discussions and stronger sentiments which were in currency. Nevertheless, fandom did seem unusually exercised this time around. I myself distinctly recall that moment where we were treated to a close-up of ‘the new Doctor”s hand prior to his name actually being announced, and my flood of relief at seeing it was obviously that of a man.

The calls for the Doctor to be regenderated seemed much louder this time than they have been in the past; I don’t recall any but the most cursory discussion of the possibility prior to Eccleston or Tennant being cast, nor in 2008 (though admittedly I was a bit out of the loop at the time). This time round, it turned into a bit of a Thing, even warranting a DWM article on the topic.

Funny. But not real.

Funny. But not real.

I talk about a ‘discussion of the possibility’ but what really struck me about the various outpourings on the topic was just how little discussion was actually taking place: this was such a polarising issue, people either saw the idea of a female Doctor as perfectly unremarkable and a natural development for the series, or a ludicrous bastardisation of the entire character and concept, with no middle ground or room for debate. Did people snipe? Did they accuse? Did they name-call? Yes, yes, and yes. Did they discuss? Not so much.

Personally, and this isn’t really important to anyone but me, I am in the ‘terrible idea – never, ever’ camp, along with most of the other old-school viewers of the programme whom I know. It does seem to me that most of the advocates of the regenderation are people who have come to the series in the last ten years (a few big names like Gaiman and Cornell notwithstanding). Quite why this should be is something I am reluctant to offer an opinion on.

What does strike me is that this more than anything else this resembles some sort of religious schism, with both sides completely entrenched and absolutely certain that their beliefs are correct. I used to feel vaguely disturbed by news reports of Creationist pressure groups attempting to ensure that no Darwinist candidate ever secured the presidential nomination – however, now I am completely okay with the idea of making sure any future showrunner is ideologically sound on this topic (which rules out Neil Gaiman, for one).

However, however, however: when it comes to this sort of radical reinterpretation of a character, I have become aware that I am woefully inconsistent. I had a bit of a problem with the gay Green Lantern DC introduced last year, not because I object to gay superheroes (or indeed gay people in general) but because I thought the whole thing was very cynically promoted. I have no issue whatsoever with Miles Morales, the Afro-Hispanic Spider-Man Marvel have introduced as an alternate version of the character. I’m not even particularly exercised by the feminisation and change of race of Dr Watson in the American TV version of Sherlock Holmes – I think it’s another dubious and arguably cynical idea, and it’s not a show I would ever sit down and watch, but it doesn’t ignite the explosion of outrage and despair within me that I’ve no doubt the announcement of the twelfth Doctor being a woman would have.

I don’t think I’m a misogynist any more than I am a homophobe or racist, so why should this be? I don’t particularly want to go through the reasons why I think the Doctor is essentially male, mainly because this doesn’t seem to be an issue much lending itself to reasoned discussion. But I do think this can potentially tell us about some of the things that makes Doctor Who special as a concept and the Doctor special as a character.

The clue is that there have been female versions of the Doctor in the past, of course, and they left me notably non-outraged – the ‘ultimate’ Joanna Lumley Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death, and the equally final Arabella Weir Doctor from the Doctor Who Unbound series. The difference, of course, is that both of these versions appear in comedy skits based on the series – Lumley, certainly, arguably so in the case of Weir – and are outside the main continuity of the show.

I’m sorry, I usually try and avoid the C-Word like the plague, but I’m going to have to talk about the concept of Canon. Canon presupposes that there are two kinds of Doctor Who story – ‘real’ ones, which all connect to tell a single, consistent story running from An Unearthly Child to The Name of the Doctor and onwards, and ‘unreal’ ones which are somehow even more fictional than the rest. The Lumley and Weir Doctors are both non-Canon, obviously; were Matt Smith to transform into – I don’t know – Miranda Hart, she would be the first Canon female Doctor.

I am much more relaxed about the concept of Canon than I was a couple of decades ago – did the New Adventures count? Did the early Big Finish stories count? Then again, these days I tend to dismiss everything beyond the actual TV series as apocryphal and leave it at that. But Doctor Who’s idea of Canon is different from that of other, broadly comparable series and institutions.

Partly because this is Doctor Who originated as a TV show rather than, say, a series of books and stories. One can meaningfully talk about ‘the Sherlock Holmes canon’ in terms of the stories actually written by Doyle (as opposed to all the pastiches written by other people since). This exists as a sealed bubble and has done since the death of Doyle in 1930. The same could be said of the Cthulhu Mythos, since the death of Lovecraft, and the Conan saga, since the death of Robert Howard.

Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in that manner – it’s been handed on from writer to writer with no-one truly having a claim to being the single key figure in its development. However, this is equally true of characters in other media – for example, comics superheroes, many of whom have histories even longer and more complex than the Doctor’s.

The concept of Canon is a much more flexible one when it comes to comics characters – of the big companies, DC Comics in particular is wont to aggressively re-write the histories of its characters on a regular basis. There’s less an idea of Canon here than one of an archetypal concept of each character – individual story developments may lead to a gradual drift away from this, but sooner or later the character will be reset back to this point. As a case in point, there was some brouhaha in 1991 when Lois Lane discovered that Clark Kent was really Superman, and even more in 1996 when the couple actually married, but as of 2013, in the comics at least, they are not and have never been married and she does not knw his identity.

How is this possible in the same narrative? Well, it’s not, and this isn’t strictly speaking the same narrative. I remember a time when people only ever used to reboot computers, but now it’s always happening to continuities: resetting the clock to zero (or, the archetypal set-up) and allowing writers to tell stories with a minimum of constraints in terms of historical baggage. It’s happened to Superman, Batman and Spider-Man in their most recent movie outings; it’s happened to Godzilla about six times (usually with the respectful proviso that the original 1954 movie remains as the foundation stone of the series); something broadly similar (yet, to my mind, uniquely unsatisfactory) happened to the Star Trek universe when JJ Abrams got his hands  on it.

One of the advantages of this kind of reboot is that it instantly sets the original continuity apart – it doesn’t quite turn it into the equivalent of a definitive canon, in the sense of the Doylean Holmes canon – but it does mean that creative people are less likely to be excoriated for making radical changes to characters. I’m happy to ignore Elementary, with its modern setting and female Watson, because it plainly is just a slightly weird alternate take on the original Sherlock Holmes characters and doesn’t attempt to pass itself off as a genuine continuation of the characters.

Hey, if it floats your boat...

Hey, if it floats your boat…

There have been plenty of alternative versions of Doctor Who – the comic strips, the Cushing Doctor, the Trevor Martin stage Doctor, the Unbounds, and so on – but one of the things about it which is perhaps more surprising than many people realise is that the continuity of the TV series has never knowingly been rebooted: a single narrative thread does indeed continue unbroken, from 1963 through to the present day.

That this has happened is actually roaringly unlikely: Philip Segal’s planned American TV show would have started over again, while at least one of the other proposed versions from the 90s would have seen the ‘canonical’ seventh Doctor handing over to an alternate Doctor from a parallel universe. BBC executives at one point wanted Tom Baker to regenerate into Paul McGann in 1996, which would presumably have created a new continuity with a different fifth Doctor. Mark Gatiss’ pitch to revive the series around the turn of the century would have been a clean reboot of the series from scratch with a new first Doctor.

But Doctor Who has not – so far – been rebooted. I think this is largely down to the fact that the people at the top of the show are fans and love the heritage of the programme as much as anyone – ‘…worst of all, it’ll be a reboot. No thanks’ (Rusty Davies, discussing the possibilities of the 2005 relaunch), ‘…it should be one big long story, not two different versions’ (Steven Moffat, dismissing the idea of a US-made Doctor Who running in parallel with the current show).

There is, I suppose, a strong case to be made that most of the reasons leading to other TV and film series being rebooted do not apply to Doctor Who: the facts that the show is infinitely recastable – that this is actually incorporated into the narrative –  and unlikely ever to run out of ideas are two of the main reasons why it has lasted half a century.

And yet, in a strange way, this also makes the series uniquely vulnerable. Doctor Who doesn’t have a closed canon like Sherlock Holmes, while any archetypal version of the Doctor is a hugely nebulous thing at best. If the BBC does a bad version of Sherlock Holmes, as it has a couple of times over the years, one can simply dismiss it as a poor adaptation and look forward to the next one, which will be an entirely separate entity. Should they make a similar creative misstep with regard to Doctor Who – and here it’s very difficult to resist mentioning Colin Baker’s costume – then the series is stuck with it in perpetuity.

Steven Moffat dismissed the prospect of an American-made, parallel series. I don’t know, but I think I’d rather be showrunner on that show than the British one – it would be a terrific opportunity to revisit the mythology and characters, free of the demands of continuity. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of the Doctor being female some of the time in this sort of show, provided it was seeded into the format properly.

And the existence of a second version of the series running in parallel might go some way towards firming up the archetypal concept of Doctor Who as something existing beyond the confines of any particular incarnation (by incarnation here, I mean TV, films, books, and so on). The existence of two equal valid versions of Doctor Who would be more likely to lead to more – the concept transcending its TV origins to become a genuine cultural icon across different media, which it currently is not. The only casualty would be the existence of a single unified continuity – and given that the continuity we’ve got largely doesn’t make sense anyway, would that be so great a loss?

I started by talking about a schism between Doctor Who fans and find myself discussing the possibility of destroying any idea of Doctor Who as a coherent narrative – and doing so as though this were potentially a positive thing. Whether or not this happens is, I suspect, largely down to who is curating the show at the BBC and their attitude towards the idea of Canon. It would be very interesting to see a modern version of the show not overseen by a card-carrying long-term fan, for this reason and many others.

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I can’t honestly bring myself to believe that anyone really thought The Name of the Doctor would actually reveal the, er, name of the Doctor: Steven Moffat may enjoy stretching the format of Doctor Who until it groans under the strain, but even he wouldn’t destroy it completely [How young and naïve I was when I wrote this – A]. Finding out the Doctor’s ‘real name’ (I suspect we are now obliged to put that in inverted commas) would, in a strange way, be absolutely fatal to the appeal of the character, although the exact reason why is difficult to explain: it would be the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes settling down and getting married or, perhaps, Superman starting to wear a mask.

Thus has it ever been: a lot of the original paperwork for the series has been put back into circulation, as the golden anniversary draws closer, and there never seems to have been a serious attempt at issuing our hero with a conventional name other than ‘the Doctor’ (or, in production documents, Doctor Who). Nevertheless the series has played with the notion of exactly what it is that the Doctor writes down when signing his library card, and needless to say, a lot of this is wildly inconsistent.

For the first ten or twelve years of the series, the question of the Doctor’s name is rarely addressed on-screen. He acquires (or, rather, is given) the pseudonym John Smith in The Wheel in Space, which he’s used on and off ever since, but this is clearly just an alias. However, in a couple of the early stories there appears to be on-screen evidence that his ‘name’ really is Who, as unlikely as that sounds: he signs notes ‘Doctor W’ rather than ‘the Doctor’, and adopts the alias ‘Doktor von Wer’ when pretending to be German. More interesting (not to say notorious) is the cliffhanger to part one of The War Machines, in which the computer WOTAN declares that for its plan to succeed ‘Doctor Who is required’.

The Who family. Or not.

The Who family. Or not.

Well, I suppose you could say all this constitutes ‘case closed’ as far as the name issue is concerned, and there is, obviously, a lack of direct contradictory evidence. That said, as we’ve already seen, the Doctor is wont to use aliases sometimes, and one has to wonder where WOTAN is getting its information from: there is plenty of wriggle-room here for the various ‘Doctor Who’ references in the text of the series not to constitute a smoking gun.

And, let us not forget, here we are dealing with black-and-white Doctor Who, the earliest days of the series where its continuity and mythology are still in the process of being established. There does appear to be evidence that our hero is called Doctor Who. There is also evidence that he only has one heart and an unlimited number of regenerations, and that the TARDIS shell can have holes cut in it by very ordinary alien tech, none of which even the most dedicated old-school fan would suggest is ‘really’ the case. Digging one’s heels in over the ‘Doctor Who’ thing in particular is an odd position to take.

While there is hardly any direct evidence to contradict the ‘Doctor Who’ references, there is plenty of indirect material to work with. Once the Time Lords appear on the scene, the Doctor’s name becomes a bit more of an issue, as one would expect them to know what it is and use it. The show gets round this rather neatly, by hardly naming any of its Time Lord characters prior to 1976! (This chimes rather nicely with the presentation of the Monk on his appearances in the 60s.) The only ‘named’ Time Lords prior to The Deadly Assassin are Omega (a marginal case) and Susan (definitely a retcon – and probably not her real name either).

Terrance Dicks touches on the name issue in a couple of novelisations, not that these strictly count: the Doctor at one point is reluctant to tell his name to the Brigadier, partly because names have a special significance for Time Lords and are not lightly divulged, but mainly because the Brigadier will never be able to pronounce it (a gag Terrance may have lifted, consciously or not, from the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise, where Spock gets a similar line). On another occasion a visiting Time Lord refers to the Master by his real name, which Terrance finds himself unable to represent using the English language and instead describes as ‘a mellifluous string of syllables’, or words to that effect.

However, The Deadly Assassin and its heirs are filled with Time Lords, many of whom are named, and none of said names are particularly challenging to the tongue: even leaving the possibility that some of these people are not full Time Lords, Borusa definitely is, as was former President Pandak. Just another example of The Deadly Assassin‘s rampant iconoclasm, I’m afraid. Tellingly, everyone addresses the Doctor on-screen by his title, even those of his superiors who know him relatively well.

There’s an attempt to redress the balance when Romana is introduced, as she does have a long and relatively difficult-to-pronounce name, Romanadvoratrelundar, which is then chopped down for convenience. However, she objects to this, which suggests it hasn’t happened before – so it doesn’t seem to be the case that Time Lords routinely have a full, complex formal name, and an abbreviated everyday name.

In The Armageddon Factor, we learn the Doctor’s school nickname was Theta Sigma (hey, there are worse possibilities), which is another neat way of dodging the issue, but from this point on the series settles down a bit – the issue of the Doctor’s name is barely ever addressed, even when the question of his actual identity becomes an element of the plot (as in Silver Nemesis). Pretty much the only exception to this is a gag in the opening episode of The Trial of a Time Lord where the Doctor appears to be about to casually reveal his full name unprompted, only to be interrupted at the crucial point (from memory, the dialogue goes something like ‘I may write a paper – Ancient Life on Ravalox, by Doctor -‘ ‘Doctor, look!’) – I wish the very best of luck to anyone trying to reconcile this with the current ‘the Doctor’s true name is a dreaded secret which must never be revealed and which he will go to tremendous lengths not to say out loud’ position.

Nevertheless, that seems to be where we’re at. It seems to be a trope of the 21st century series, and Moffat in particular, to take things that were the unarticulated subtext or conventions of the old show and write them into the text of the new incarnation – this runs from elements like the Doctor’s character, to changes in the appearance of recurring monsters. And the same has happened with the mystery of the Doctor’s name, which has gone from being just one of those things to a universe-shaking secret. To be fair, Moffat has been setting this up for six or seven years – the ‘terrible secret’ idea makes an appearance in The Girl in the Fireplace, after all – but one still gets the sense of him writing himself into a corner: he can’t actually reveal what the secret is, can he?

'I've just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and "dance".'

‘I’ve just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and “dance”.’

Perhaps this explains why The Name of the Doctor feels like it fails to deliver, almost as if Moffat’s grand plan is something he’s making up as he goes along. Certainly, the situation on Trenzalore which is shown on-screen does not appear to match the one described by Dorian a series earlier (again, from memory: ‘…no creature may speak falsely or fail to answer…’, which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case!), although if the universe is going to collapse as a result of the Intelligence corrupting the Doctor’s timeline this would definitely count as ‘silence falling’.

One thing The Name of the Doctor does do, by the way, is flatly and directly contradict the ‘his name is Doctor Who’ position. The episode makes two things clear: the Doctor’s tomb will only open if his name is uttered, and it’s River who eventually does so, off-screen (so it doesn’t matter who says it). Crucially, when the Great Intelligence goes into its ‘Doctor who? Doctor who? Doctor who?’ routine, the tomb stays shut: so ‘Doctor Who’ can’t be the name on the dotted line. River makes it clear that she says the real name, and only because no-one else was going to.

So maybe The Name of the Doctor did tell us something new after all. It’s a small thing, but at least that’s one possibility eliminated. Whether the whole mystery-of-the-name issue is now resolved (or as close to resolved as a Steven Moffat script gets), basically being just a lead-in to the mystery of John Hurt’s missing incarnation, remains to be seen. I rather suspect it is, because there’s a limit to the number of interesting stories you can tell about a mystery you can never, ever resolve.

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So, how did you do? Personally I managed to get through the whole of the week without picking up any spoilers. Well, any new spoilers, but we should probably leave that until later on. If you haven’t seen The Name of the Doctor yet, there will be explicit Spoilers later on, so pay attention and stop reading when we get to the pantomime dame.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US's delivery schedule.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US’s delivery schedule.

I fear that three years’ exposure to Moffat scripts and particularly his brand of season finale (and, by the way, doesn’t it feel weird that this was still technically only the end of Matt Smith’s third season as the Doctor? With all these mid-series breaks, it feels like he’s done four or five) has innoculated me to the majority of his tricks and games, because while The Name of the Doctor was dazzling and breathtaking while I was first watching it, I’m already getting the distinct impression that there was less going on here than met the eye.

That said, judged just on first impressions, Moffat writes a brilliant season finale – much of the time this felt like the 50th Anniversary Special had come six months early. I couldn’t decide which moment in that opening montage stunned me most, seeing a colourised William Hartnell, revisiting that notorious Dragonfire moment, or realising they’d actually found someone else prepared to wear the sixth Doctor’s costume. As usual there were big ideas and potentially format-shifting concepts being casually chucked about, winning reappearances by favourite characters, and some really good jokes.

But, then again, wasn’t it just the Doctor finding himself in some obscure metaphysical bind, with the universe as we know it falling to bits, and sanity being restored only through the Doctor doing something timey-wimey and his friends going to great lengths to preserve him? I’ve seen that in both the previous Moffat series conclusions. It’s all a bit abstract, and  – potentially worse – thoroughly Doctor-centric. Perhaps Moffat’s most brilliant achievement is to find a way to sneak what are essentially fanfic stories onto BBC1 on a Saturday night.

That said, you have to admire his legerdemain – for this story to work, it really needs a villain of substance. The fact that the Doctor’s adversary is the famed Great Intelligence gives its presence a heft that goes some way to make up for the fact that we’ve no idea what it fundamentally is, who its new friends are, or how they function together. The fact that the Intelligence was reintroduced half a dozen episodes ago works the trick of concealing how arbitrary its powers on this outing are.

I was all set to criticise this episode for being ridiculously over-hyped in terms of ‘the Doctor’s greatest secret is finally revealed’ and ‘prepare to question everything you thought you knew about the Time Lord’, but of course I was looking the wrong way: the final scene of the episode came as a total surprise, and… oh, look, we’ve reached that cut-off point I was talking about. Spoilers follow the dame.

dame

(The beautiful thing about that photo, is that if you don’t know who it is it’s almost impossible to tell.)

Part of me is quite pleased John Hurt made his debut as… well, is he playing the Doctor or not? Definite mixed messages, but the credits say he is. So let us refer to him as the Lost Doctor. Anyway, I heard that Hurt was coming as the Lost Doctor about ten days ago, the news was all over certain bits of the internet and while I’m slightly annoyed to have had the climax semi-spoiled for me, at least I can now write about the appearance of the Lost Doctor with a clear conscience.

The reaction to the Lost Doctor’s introduction that I read seemed to be almost wholly negative, most of it – unfortunately – on the grounds that ‘another regeneration has been pointlessly wasted’ – I gave my opinion on this sort of thinking a few years ago and don’t really want to go through it again. Criticising Moffat for behaving as if he’s the boss of Doctor Who also strikes me to be missing a small but key fact: namely, that he is the boss of Doctor Who.

My instinctive assumption was that Moffat had written a script for the three 21st century Doctors, and that Hurt was involved only because Christopher Eccleston had declined to take part: he was, basically, filling in for a Doctor unable or unwilling to participate in an anniversary special. Well, if nothing else, a brilliant actor like John Hurt is a better replacement than unused footage from an abandoned story or film inserts making heavy use of idiot boards.

However, having seen how the Lost Doctor has been introduced, I’m not quite so sure he’s just standing in for the ninth Doctor: there seems to be a bigger story involved here, with this being a very distinct and unusual incarnation. The obvious conclusion to jump to – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moffat were going to wrong-foot the audience again – is that the Lost Doctor comes from the heart of the Time War, between the McGann and Eccleston incarnations. (Funny: it did occur to me ages ago that, prior to The Next Doctor‘s flashback clips, there was no on-screen confirmation that the Eccleston Doctor was McGann’s direct successor.)

The implication seems to be that the Lost Doctor has somehow lost the right to use his own name, due to some terrible crime or other he committed. (Could this be the use of the Moment to destroy Gallifrey and the Dalek fleet?) Who decided this? The other Doctors? If nothing else the suggestion that ‘the Doctor’ is not so much a name or title as a status that can be earned or lost is a curious one – but not totally without precedent.

Yes, I’m thinking of The Brain of Morbius and its bevy of previously-unhinted-at pre-Hartnell incarnations. Did they also lose the right to the title ‘the Doctor’, or did they simply predate the adoption of it? Personally I suspect the latter – thus, when the Time Lords refer to ‘the first Doctor’ in The Three Doctors they really mean ‘the first incarnation of this particular Time Lord to call himself the Doctor’. One consequence of this would be that the eleventh Doctor is actually the nineteenth incarnation overall.

The Thirteen Life Rule dogmatists have probably turned purple and fallen over already, and are doubtless pointing out that Mawdryn Undead not only reasserts the regeneration limit but specifies that the Doctor has only eight left, effectively ruling out any pre-Hartnell incarnations. I concede that The Brain of Morbius and Mawdryn Undead appear to explicitly contradict one another – but then again Mawdryn Undead appears to explicitly contradict most stories from the UNIT era, and not many people seem willing to take its side in that particular tussle.

Anyway, the precise details of the regenerative process are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there have been hints that the limit of thirteen is not wholly inflexible. Taking a title instead of a name seems to have been an unusual occurrence amongst Time Lords, and usually the mark of a renegade. Could something so significant have an effect on the regenerative cycle, to the point of resetting it? I am probably either indulging in a wild flight of continuity cop fantasy, or over-thinking, or both.

I am virtually certain that none of the above will be addressed in the 50th Anniversary Special. To be perfectly honest, just the prospect of seeing John Hurt as an (apparently ‘bemused’) incarnation of the Doctor, not to mention the return of the Zygons – and of course David Tennant – has me quite excited anyway. All right, so for me, this series has flopped more often than buzzed – but the potential for greatness is integral to every second of this show. I just hope that potential gets realised as much as it should come November the 23rd.

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My God, the end of the complete Babylon 5 is finally in sight – when I started this I didn’t really anticipate it would take nine months. You could have gestated a child in that same period of time, which would have been less labour-intensive and very nearly as worthwhile. Oh well. But before we get to Legend of the Rangers and Voices in the Dark, let’s wrap up on Crusade.

I’ve been watching this series in the JMS-suggested order as listed on the old Lurker’s Guide website, and except for the oddness of the crew changing back and forth between black and grey uniforms apparently at random this was not initially a particular issue – especially as it meant the generally weaker early episodes of the TV broadcast order were split up.

Towards the end, though, things get quite a bit more peculiar, starting with Ruling from the Tomb. The plot is distinctive without being distinguished – religious maniacs plan to blow up a medical conference on Mars, and in places oddly parallels that of Luc Besson’s The Messenger (the villain keeps hearing the voice of Joan of Arc in his head, which incites him to various naughtinesses). Meanwhile various other characters engage in jolly character-building subplots – the prick-of-an-archaeologist, who to be honest by this time had started to grow on me as one of the more interesting and well-defined characters, goes dancing with Ship’s Thief, and so on. Captain Surly meets Captain Lochley and the two of them like flirting like you wouldn’t believe, especially considering the general gravity of the situation.

Possibly as a result of the show being mucked about and prematurely cancelled, the Surly-Lochley subplot is not left to smoulder for long, as it features strongly in the very next instalment, The Rules of the Game, which is the series’ only full-blown visit to Babylon 5 itself (which has the welcome consequence of giving the illusion of a bigger budget). More than this, it is another character-building runaround straight after the last one, and focussing on most of the same characters. The development given to the archaeologist seemed to me to be rather in the same vein as that given G’Kar in The Parliament of Dreams, but it’s not quite up to the same standard, mainly because his subplot revolves around his love for his cat, which is named Mr Kitty. Aliens from the planet Bathos do not appear, but they may as well. While Mr Kitty is in peril, Surly and Lochley are getting it on a) in a shower and b) in silhouette. I am glad of the second, at least.

Hey ho. The JMS order comes completely adrift as the next episode on the list is War Zone, written at the behest of the network to explain the format and characters very… very… slowly… and… carefully. It’s a turgid load of old nonsense, with a very peculiar structure, and I can see why JMS would want to hide it at the tail-end of the run, but in any sane chronology this would obviously come first.

And it’s not even as if War Zone is the tail-end episode anyway, as that honour goes to Appearances and Other Deceits, another import from the Starfleet Surplus Store (i.e. this is very much like knocked-off Trek). A character from B5 comes back to play the villain but apart from that this is very undistinguished, slightly dodgy stuff – drifting alien starship, possessing alien spirits, tense stand-off between the captain and the aliens, and so on. There’s a dubious subplot with a camp stylist, inserted to explain the grey-and-black-uniform issue, but that’s very by-the-by given this is the JMS order we’re using.

A sorry piece of wreckage makes its exit. And a spaceship gets towed off too.

A sorry piece of wreckage makes its exit. And a spaceship gets towed off too.

Anyway, that’s it for Crusade – is it fair to judge it, given it only ran for 13 episodes of a projected 110? Well – let’s be fair, none of these episodes are truly great, and many of them struggle to be even average. But even comparing Crusade with the first 13 episodes of Babylon 5, it’s clearly inferior: the characters are less engaging, the universe is much less well-defined, and there’s none of the sense of mystery, novelty and promise that the parent series had in spades from practically the word go. I’m not sure that even another 97 episodes of Crusade could have lifted it very much in quality.

 

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