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Posts Tagged ‘ranting’

This last week has been a pretty good one, but also a slightly odd one. (Much of what follows is quite personal, an area which I generally try to protect the general population from, so I almost feel the need to apologise for much of what follows, partly because it makes no particular point or argument, partly because friends of mine have almost certainly already heard me articulating some of what is to follow.)

The most recent series of Doctor Who finished last weekend. I watched all the episodes, because the reflex to do so is still there, but the vast majority of them were on catch-up and the ‘of course’ which would once have accompanied the first clause of this sentence is, you will have seen, conspicuously absent. Looking back, I’m not sure which is more surprising: that the series as a whole should be so weak, or that I should be so indifferent to it.

Doctor-Who-596013

(As noted up the page, this is a personal view. You may personally have loved every episode of the recent run and genuinely believe it to have been a golden age in the history of the series. If so, I respect your right to hold this opinion and wish you well. I hope you will extend me the same respect, at least.)

Then the new issue of DWM turned up in the middle of the week, and while I was flicking through it at work something very odd happened. I had one of those moments of clarity you sometimes hear about: there I was, reading about the tenure of Peter Capaldi, a brilliant, brilliant actor, who is doing a terrific job of playing the lead role in my favourite TV series, with a new co-lead on the way along with a jolly-looking festive special, and I was feeling almost completely indifferent to it. And this filled me with a sort of anguish and a cold fury I can barely put into words. Just to reiterate: Doctor Who is not currently making me angry. Current Doctor Who doesn’t make me feel much of anything, beyond occasional moments of annoyed irritation and very occasional moments of surprise when it shows brief flashes of the old magic. But the fact that I feel so dislocated from the series makes me very angry indeed.

Can I make you understand just what a big deal this is for me? I’m not sure. Doctor Who has, without a shadow of a doubt, been my unquestioned favourite TV series for nearly 35 years now. Even that understates the matter. It’s been more than just a TV series for me, it’s been… I can’t think of an easy way of describing it. Other interests have waxed and waned, friendships and other relationships have come and gone, my career has taken me around the world, and through it all, Doctor Who has been a constant. Either the TV show, or one of the many books or CDs, or even one of the comic strips or games, has not been far away if I needed a bit of a pick-up. I have watched Doctor Who in beach huts in Sri Lanka, in internet cafes in Kyrgyzstan, and over the complementary internet of a business hotel in Hiroshima. I was one of the people crying in a cinema when Tom Baker came back for the 50th anniversary special (I look back now on the sheer joyousness of that week with something close to utter bemusement: can everything have changed so much in only two years? It feels like something that happened to another person in a distant part of history).

It is just the modern show, as well: The Brain of Morbius came on the Horror Channel the other day and was as much of a joy as ever, to say nothing of Genesis of the Daleks the week before. (Though I must confess to a certain level of fatigue with regard to the Horror Channel’s endless recycling of the same stories again and again – just to get away from it, I watched The Monster of Peladon and The Power of Kroll on DVD not long ago, and I honestly don’t think I’ve enjoyed either of them quite so much.) I was very kindly sent free copies of a couple of new Who books not long ago, and the desire to dig into them and assimilate the opinions therein was undimmed.

Even there, though… well, the reason I was sent one of the books is because I contributed a piece to it, and what am I saying, literally as the opening words of my section? ‘Much to my surprise, I have found myself becoming increasingly disenchanted with the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who…‘ Crikey, when did I write this? Nearly three years ago, as far as I can remember; certainly long before that Golden November. So it has been a long process of estrangement, though accelerated considerably over the last year or so.

Need you ask why? It is Moffat, of course, or at least the Moffat who writes the episodes. Moffat made a joke in the new DWM to the effect that he actually has a Zygon duplicate who does all his interviews and media appearances, leaving him to do the actual hard work of showrunning, which would be funnier if it didn’t actually seem to be true – even today I can read an interview with Moffat and much of the time find myself thinking that this is someone who understands and loves Doctor Who in the same way I do, someone who I am on some level sympatico with. But then Moffat-the-Writer will get up to his old tricks and I will be unable to accept that this is the same person.

The ‘old tricks’ of which I speak? Well, for one there’s coming across as some kind of evil, corrupted clone of Robert Holmes, whose love of the big set piece is not accompanied by any need to ground it in something approaching context. Or there’s that infuriating tendency to write something in as a major shift in the status quo of the series, only to utterly ignore it the next time it becomes inconvenient for a script. Or that apparent tendency to base scripts on the kind of concepts the DWM question-and-answer page was contending with in the early 80s: let’s do a story about someone whose meetings with the Doctor are not chronologically synchronous! Let’s do one where you see different types of Daleks together!

Of course, there is one thing which Moffat has been consistent on throughout his tenure on the show, and it’s this more than anything else which is forcing me away from the series. It’s a bit startling to look back only six years and realise that, as late as the start of David Tennant’s final episode, the idea of turning the Doctor into a woman was something various people made vague noises about at regeneration time, but not something that was really taken seriously. Nowadays, almost entirely as a result of Moffat’s own scripts (Neil Gaiman has also touched on it), it is apparently an inevitability. (And this despite Moffat himself saying in an interview off in the wayback that he was very dubious about this concept – ‘I’m worried that you might not believe,’ was roughly what he said.)

If I had to identify the moment when I stopped really caring about modern Doctor Who, it was when Moffat tried turning the Master into a woman. The gears in my head locked up, I couldn’t (and still can’t) make sense of it, I could no longer sustain my belief in the fiction of the show (see, Moffat, you were right the first time).

(Feel free to write in and tell me I’m a woman-hating bigot, if you really feel the need, but please remember that your saying it doesn’t necessarily make it so. I’ve had that in the past when I’ve commented on this topic elsewhere.)

I am genuinely and absolutely baffled when I am told, with great sincerity and urgency, that this is a necessary and important change for the series. Someone told me with a straight face just the other day that the Michelle Gomez character is there because the programme needed more ‘strong female characters’. Say what you like about the series since 2005, but it has never been short on strong female characters, and even if it had been, there is always an obscure and little-understood process known as ‘creating a new character’.

I think I’ve said before that in this and similar cases – such as the suggestion that the ‘new’ Spider-Man could be of a different ethnicity – there’s a degree of wanting to have your cake and eat it going on: people want to make a statement by doing something new and radical and making a bit of a departure from the past, while simultaneously retaining the iconic qualities of the original character and the emotional investment people have in them.

We could argue about this in terms of metaphysics, morality, culture and even (if you really must) continuity, but what it boils down to is my belief that trying to turn the Doctor into a woman is an essentially meaningless gesture, the primary result of which is the reduction of a much-loved and essentially well-rounded character to an abstract narrative blob. It doesn’t say anything significant about modern society or culture or attitudes to gender that couldn’t be equally well accomplished in some other way.

A few years ago I wrote a review of the novel of Interview with the Vampire, essentially saying that, in terms of metaphorical treatments of the lifestyle of gay men, this was not the most subtle thing I’d ever read. And I got a slightly bemused comment from one reader, to the effect of ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was supposed to be about gay men, I thought it was about vampires.’ In this particular case, it’s the metaphor that lends the story its power, because who can relate to a story about fictional supernatural creatures?

My point is that attempting to turn the Doctor into a woman is a story which has no metaphorical weight or power to it. It has no connection to reality. Don’t tell me it’s about showing that women can be strong, unless you’re also telling me that women can only be strong if they’ve previously spent fifty years as a man. Don’t tell me that it’s making society and culture more trans-acceptant, because to liken the fictional process of regeneration to gender reassignment is both facile and stupid. Don’t tell me it’s about making a statement about non-binary conceptions of gender, because the characters involved have existed within that framework for years, and it will take more than a half-baked retcon to make that go away. It will achieve nothing of value not available through less destructive means. It is pointless.

…sigh. On the other hand, is there any point to writing this? If so, I don’t really see what, beyond giving me the opportunity to get this off my chest. Every year rolls around, every year Moffat goes to further slightly absurd lengths in pursuit of this peculiar agenda, every year I go on the internet to give vent to my frustration. I am aware, thank you, that this is all, when it boils down to it, simply about the fact that I’m just angry about not being able to enjoy Doctor Who any more. I, along with many people I know, don’t foresee myself continuing to watch at all, if the next performer cast as the Doctor doesn’t have a Y chromosome, simply because I will be fundamentally unable to recognise them as the same character. I can’t imagine how I will feel about that; I won’t know until it happens, but I’m pretty sure it will not be good. And the fact it was so totally avoidable, and will serve no real purpose, just makes the prospect worse.

 

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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

apple
‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’

‘Mmm-hmmm?’

‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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Okay, it’s taken me a few days to get my head around this and arrange my thoughts to the point where I can be coherent. But now I am ready to write cogently and clearly, write from the depths of my soul, write about the crushing, draining sense of dismay and horror that consumed me when I saw that David Yates has started work on a movie version of Doctor Who.

Or, to put it less cerebrally: ‘Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo (pause for breath) ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!’

Thanks for bearing with me while I got that off my chest. Now, I imagine there are a number of thoughts impinging upon your consciousness. There may be a few people actually agreeing with me (though not many, I would suspect). More likely you will thinking ‘Oh for God’s sake it’s only a Doctor Who movie, stop making such a fuss,’ or, ‘Awix, David Yates is the multi-award winning director of four of the massively popular Harry Potter films, which have been international smash hits and made over 5 billion dollars at the Box Office – isn’t this exactly the guy we want making a movie of the show?’

Well, to the stop-making-a-fuss contingent I can only apologise and politely suggest you move on, as I fear nothing I have to say will enlighten you in any way. Some things run too deep to be truly articulated. To the isn’t-this-exactly-the-guy crowd my response is a more concise NO!

All right, I shall do my best to wail and shout no more for the rest of this, I promise. I should probably start my explanation by saying that when I initially heard that (yet another attempt at) a new movie was in the works my response was cautious interest and vague goodwill. I’m not sure a big screen Doctor Who movie is a good idea or even really do-able, but I think with the right people in charge it could be rather interesting.

I suppose this is the place to refer briefly to the sixties movies, which if nothing else gives me an excuse to use a nice picture of one of my favourite actors, thus:

I rather like the Aaru movies, although these days I don’t think either of them holds up compared to the small-screen stories they were based on. They are fun and groovy in a kitschy Sixties way, rather disposable, and they have some very likeable people in them. Quite apart from the opportunity to see one of England’s most iconic film actors giving us his take on the Doctor (and – does it even need saying? – Cushing is fantastic in the role), we get folk like Andrew Keir, Roy Castle, Bernard Cribbins (of course), and Philip Madoc, all doing their thing.

Twenty or thirty years ago it felt the films were deeply hated by fandom, while these days they seem to have slipped into the outer reaches of Who-world, more ignored than anything else. I suspect the general distaste for them was largely born of the fact that they are cheerfully and resolutely outside the (apologies for the C-word) canon of the TV show. A certain kind of fan goes a bundle on canonicity – in fact they care rather more about canonicity than they do about quality. Thus Warriors of the Deep gets a relatively easy ride from some people, despite being almost wholly wretched and cocked-up, while Daleks – Invasion 2150 AD is dismissed out of hand despite being pacy and fun to look at and having the brilliant food machine sequence. Sigh.

So I don’t have a problem with a new movie being outside the canon: I really care very little about the whole concept of canon, as you can probably tell. (Although the new movie will almost certainly cleave closer to Who-world as we now know it, simply because Who-world as we now know it didn’t really exist to be cloven to back in the mid Sixties.) But I do have a problem with a movie doing violence to the style and texture of the show, and that’s why I’m so alarmed by the prospect of Yates getting his hands on it.

Writing about HP7b, I said that I thought the Harry Potter books were essentially unfilmable and that the movies are just companion pieces to them. The movies are inoffensive and generally quite entertaining to watch, and of course they’re made to a very high technical standard. But if you think of the Harry Potter books, you think of the richness of Rowling’s prose, the intricacy of the plotting, the depth of characterisation and the sheer detail of the mythology. And – if you ask me, other opinions are of course available – the movies are a gutted vestige in which most of this stuff has been jettisoned, leaving not much more than a trot through the main points of the plot with some nice visuals and fruity cameo acting but not much in the way of atmosphere (Alfonso Cuaron’s entry I partly exempt from the foregoing).

Yates has already made it pretty clear that whatever he makes is going to be an original story, and so it won’t even have the plot-trot option to fall back on. In other words, Yates and his writers are going to have to come up with an original story which works on the big screen in addition to working as a Doctor Who story and capturing what makes the TV programme so very special. As I said, I don’t think a big-screen Doctor Who story is particularly do-able at all – the format of the show is so brilliant because, at its best, it’s a weekly series of unconnected episodic stories in wildly different genres and settings, and how can you communicate that brilliance in a single movie? Achieving that, and bestowing the result with the authentically strange and knowingly absurd atmosphere of many of the best stories, is not something that anything Yates has done in the past suggests he is capable of.

I think he’s just been hired on the strength of the $5bn take and the fantasy hero connection. I don’t really have a problem with the BBC trying to monetise the series, as seems increasingly to be the case, as long as it doesn’t impact on the actual stories. But, if the Yates movie does get made, can you imagine there not being some kind of backwash from it affecting the TV show in some way? I can’t imagine it.

Still… thinking back to the travails of Guber and Peters and their attempt to get a movie made, I can take solace in the fact that, well, it never actually happened. Fingers crossed that history repeats itself. David Yates, do yourself a favour, and accept a suggestion: I believe the movie rights to Merlin are still available.

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