...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Day 5007: Goddammit, We're BRITISH!


OK, nobody needs a fluffy elephant wading into the debate that Scotland is having over her future. Where do fluffy elephants even come from, anyway? I'm as British as a Tikka Masala! I don't feel English. English is small. British is about being part of something bigger!

But this referendum looks like ending in a dead heat and that's going to leave a lot of people unhappy. 50% plus 1 vote for staying is not going to settle the question for a generation; but equally it's no mandate for a brave new nation to cast itself upon fortune's ocean.

The campaign that started out so well appears, at least from a safe distance, to have degenerated into a lot of anger and name-calling and egg-throwing.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the arguments about dividing the country have proved divisive.

I want to see a world where there are fewer borders between people, not more. That's why I'm in favour of the European Union as well as the British one. The more we share, the lighter our burdens – only working together will help solve problems like climate change and energy shortages, or protect workers' rights or defend us from the threat of violent extremism.

And I am quite sure that Scotland can be, as "Yes" keep telling us, a perfectly successful small country.

But why be adequately successful as small country when you can be outstandingly successful as a BIG one?

People want the positive case for the United Kingdom, but Better Together did start with a positive case, saying: "look at all the benefits of being in Great Britain: a stable currency; membership of the EU; and NATO; jobs, trade and travel; sport; the BBC; the Queen!"

And Mr Salmon replied: "Oh but we will keep all of those things."

"No you won't."

"Now you're just being negative!"

"But here's why we can't keep all those things."

"Now you're bullying and scaremongering!"

Faced with that sort of thing, it's difficult to see how the "No" campaign could go any other way.

Meanwhile, the "Yes" campaign has been one of "nothing will change and everything will be better!"

If nothing is going to change, why do you want independence?

Obviously, it's the very BEST possible chance for the Scots Nats, when the Tories have ruined their reputation by their government in the Eighties destroying industry and jobs, and Labour have ruined their reputation by their government in the Noughties destroying the economy and Iraq, and we Lib Dems have ruined our reputation by the government in Coalition because… the Tories.

And it's so EASY for an independence movement to play the "let's walk away from all the troubles" card, rather than the harder – but right – thing to do of all mucking in together, sharing the pain to make it less. It's the nasty side of nationalism, that it's all about putting the blame – and the pain – on someone else. It's funny how "we only want our fair share" always means "more for us" and never for the other feller. Telling people that they are being shafted by the wicked rich "other" is an old, old lie. It's been "the Jews". Or "the Chinese". Or "the Poles". Or "the Asylum Seekers". Or "the Europeans". Today it's "the English".

It isn't the fault of the Englanders – or even of our pie-faced loon of a Prime Monster – that people in Scotland are having a hard time. By and large, the English are having a hard time too. As are the Welsh, and the Irish and gee look, everyone everywhere in Europe and beyond.

Only together was Europe able to save Greece. Only together were the British able to save those banks with "of Scotland" in their names. Together we weathered a terrible storm.

Personally, I think if Scotlanders do vote to go their own way, we in the rest of the UK certainly should share the pound, and the BBC, keep open the borders, and lobby the EU to continue Scotland's membership… we should look out for our friends and families, like good neighbours, as we did for Ireland recently when their banks got into trouble too… but I also think that will be a really hard sell to the 90% of UK voters left in the country, and I don't see any political party being able to stand on a "let's play nice with Scotland" platform.

That's the hard political reality that airy promises about a "yes" vote "forcing" Mr Balloon and Mr Oboe to the negotiations will run up against. And just how well-inclined do you think they'll be if you force them to the negotiating table? Might they not decide to play hard-ball with Scotland just to look good in the run up to a tricky general election?

But on the other fluffy foot, the voices of the people of Scotland have at least been heard enough to see the Westminster Parties scrambling to offer a new political settlement in recognition of the justifiable claim of a right to self-determination.

For far too long Westminster governments – Labour as well as Tories – have centralised more and more power to London, not just hoarding power away from the Scots, but also enfeebling the great cities of Northern England, disenfranchising whole regions from the Kingdom of Cornwall to the Empire of Yorkshire, and treating all four nations of our nation – yes, England too – with little or no respect at all. No wonder the peasants are revolting!

But now, both sides are asking the voters to make up their minds based on promises of what will happen, rather than on a concrete plan. Which is why I'm thinking, whatever side wins (unless it's unexpectedly decisive, and the polls don't point that way) both sides need to think very hard about a second referendum (I hear the groans already) in eighteen months' time to agree the outcome.

I say eighteen months because that is the timeframe for exit negotiations set out by the "Yes" campaign, and they should then put the outcome of those negotiations to the vote. If they've fulfilled their promises about the currency, the EU membership and the Queen then they'll have no problems. If they've got the best deal they can, short of that, they should still let the people decide based on what they'll actually be getting, rather than Mr Alec Salmon's slippery promises.

But by the same lights, if Better Together prevail – and I hope they do – we should hold a constitutional convention for Scotland, in which the "devo max" powers that have been promised by all the Unionist parties will be decided with the people and at the end of that process they can have a say on whether they have done enough to keep the United Kingdom's promise and to keep the United Kingdoms united.

And why stop at Scotland, when we should be doing the same for England and Wales and Northern Ireland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol…

Break the stranglehold of Westminster and set out a path to reform Europe, reconnect people to their regions and to the nation and to the EU by handing power back and making the institutions more democratic and accountable.

Let the cry go up: Home Rule for all!

It's catchy and it might just keep us together.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Day 4993: DOCTOR WHO: Carry On – Don’t Lose Your Head


There are two problems with my writing a review of "Robot of Sherwood". Pressure of work is one, and the other is that beyond saying it was laugh-out-loud hilarious but that ending with the golden arrow is a total fail, what is there to say? And everyone else has said those things already.

Capaldi is a great comic actor, and here he's at his most Malcolm Tucker-alike, especially in the exchanges with Robin in the dungeon. Dressed in black, getting robbed by Robin Hood, he's very nearly the villain for the first act, particularly the "thwarted again" face Capaldi pulls when dunked in the stream. Which is great, but might be a danger. He's got such range, it might be better to let him find new ways of being funny, rather than writing for the Doctor as the acerbic spin doctor. Shades of writing for Bonnie Langford as "Bonnie Langford".

The message was a bit blunt force trauma as well: Clara spells it out before they've even left the TARDIS; Robin hammers the point home at the end. Yes, we get it, the Doctor is a hero, one of the iconic figures of British myth, to stand alongside Arthur, Gloriana and Sherlock. And of course, Robin.

Having spent a year deconstructing his own legend because it cast too long a shadow, though, his denial that Robin could be real just didn't ring true. He's not a stupid man; he would see the reflection. If the Doctor had been trying to tell Clara "you'll be disappointed; heroes never live up to the legend" it would have fit more with this newly self-doubting Doctor. His initial friction towards and mockery of Robin would have had a more solid foundation in his own psyche. And the journey towards liking the outlaw, seeing the man under the bluster, would have been more personal, of self-acceptance.

It was a good story for Clara. For once – finally – I could see the "control freak" tendencies. Though what happened to "my only pin up was Marcus Aurelius"? Squeeing over a Robin Hood is a lot closer to "young men performing sport" than "flirting with a mountain range". But the moments where she allows Tom Riley to uncover that Robin is more than just that guy whose laughing face you want to punch bring out the good teacher in her. And the scene between her and Ben Miller's delicious Sheriff of Nottingham, where she turns the tables and convinces him to tell her everything was excellent for the character. Very reminiscent of the Doctor doing something similar in the one really great scene from Gatiss's earlier "The Idiot's Lantern"; clearly Mark writes a good interrogation.

Though it's a shame the full reveal of the Sheriff's cyborg nature was dropped for entirely sensible reasons, as it would have added the twist that he lied to her too. Miller was a great villain as the Sheriff, just the right side of over-the-top ham. And I liked that he would undercut some of the more ludicrous clichés – "You'll live to regret that... actually, no you won't", or "that would be a ridiculous plan". Like Robert de Rainault of "Robin of Sherwood", or Blackadder (to Robin's Lord Flashheart) he brings the sensibilities of the modern viewer to the land of make believe. The (pardon the pun) cut slightly derailed a more interesting twist that he'd been literally rebuilt in the image of the legend. Though, again, the story could have done with a little tightening – if the robot knights had made themselves a Sheriff in response to a real Robin Hood, it could have tied up some of the story's contradictions.

Essentially, the story sets us up to expect this to be a fool. It's too good to be true, too true to the legend to be good.

And the scene where Robin goes into the moat with Clara – and is under for a long time – and then emerges carrying her Frankenstein fashion... That and the flip archery certainly look like they're trying to tell us he's a robot too.

So we keep expecting the other shoe to drop. And it doesn't . I suppose I should be praising that, given how absolutely by the numbers Gatiss ticks off the key Robin Hood plot points. But dramatically it feels off. If Robin were real but everything else faked by the robots reacting to him based on their faulty foreknowledge, that could work. But it's not. The Merrie Men are real, the splitting the arrow archery is for real (at least Robin's is). Yes, we get a bit of hand waving about the radiation leak making Sherwood CinemaScope green, but that's to explain something the Doctor's quibbled about rather than a cohesive story element.

The spaceship that disguises itself as a castle is very proto-TARDIS, a point that nothing is made of. And then there's that bit with the arrow. Was it scripted that the arrow should fly through that hole the robots had blasted earlier and strike the controls? (People who've read the leaked scripts will know.)

Obviously Gatiss has been going through those Robin Hood moments – the log over the river, the archery contest, the big fight with the Sheriff – but all nicely undercut and peppered with references to the Pertwee era, clearly a Gatiss favourite. Mention of miniscopes, and Capaldi's hilarious "Hai!" karate chop. But the biggest influence is season eleven opener "The Time Warrior", to the point I was expecting Dan Starkey to cameo as Field Marshal Swag on video link to the spaceship control room, demanding what they were doing with the Sontaran's robot knights. Which might be why the conclusion – shoot the arrow; castle explodes – deviates from the Hood myth (King Richard arrives to put all to rights. ish).

Or it's just as crushingly banal as the end of "The Shakespeare Code" (must use historical guest star's "superpower" to resolve plot. Somehow).

Only a brief nod to the arc this week. Or maybe two, if the Doctor's chalk and calculations are going somewhere. Obviously we've got more robots looking for "the Promised Land". Where, indeed, do all the calculators go? Which may or may not be Missy's heaven. It seems to be a real place though, which might count against the rather good theory I heard from The Pharos Project podcast: "heaven" is inside the Doctor's head, a place where he's remembering all the people he's killed. Making Missy his conscience. Which would be why she's a bit... broken. (Missy... My self... Nah!)

As for the Gallifreyan math... Obligatory Lawrence Miles reference: in "Interference" (book 2, I think) the eighth Doctor uses Gallifreyan written maths to create a fold in time. It has been argued that the twelfth Doctor might be doing the same, trying to engineer a backpack door into wherever Gallifrey is now, beyond the "crack". Presumably, Heaven.

None of which is to detract from the fact that this made me laugh. A lot. And on second viewing too. The sword v spoon fight is very Doctor Who. As is staging a genuine peasants' revolt and overthrowing the feudal tyrants. Nice nod to Troughton. The Sheriff is a hit. Clara is much more than a pretty dress. Robin is a true hero. Oh yes, and the Doctor is a hero too.

Next Time: the one with the scary poetry, the one with the thing in the corner of your eye, the one with something under the bed, the one with companion in the timey-wimey spacesuit... It's the most terrifying story... "Doctor Who and the Tropes of Moffat"! No, listen...

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Day 4990: Doctor Who: Strictly Come Dalek


How many times can we tell this story?

Terry Nation, infamously, recycled "The Daleks" on let's just say "several" occasions, but now it seems that the "good Dalek" story is giving him a run for his money.

And it turns out that what's inside a Dalek is, basically, "Doctor Who", including corridors for running up and down, bug-eyed monsters (that are literally bug eyes), gunk tank, and an archive with, of course, missing episodes. If only they'd found "The Evil of the Daleks" they could have seen what happens when Daleks "turn good", and saved a lot of bother.

David Whitaker's second Doctor classic is not only pretty much the series' definitive story already – the Doctor has adventures in present, past and future on a distant planet, with Daleks – but already explored what makes the difference between the Human Factor and the Dalek Factor. "Dalek", "Evolution of the Daleks", and "Journey's End" all feature tinpot tyrants who see the error of their ways, or at least see that the Daleks' main operating principle of "exterminate everyone else" is evil. And futile. Life, as is pointed out, prevails.

There was even the graphic novel "The Only Good Dalek" – still more ironic, in this context – and of course David Whitaker’s TV21 original… Oh, and "Children of the Revolution"… The comics like this story, don’t they?

But if we're talking about getting into the "guts" of "Doctor Who", if we're taking the reference Peter Capaldi's twelfth Doctor makes to his first self's first visit to Skaro as taking us back to the series' very beginning, then questioning our basic assumptions about who the Doctor is and who the Daleks are is good, necessary stuff.

No, that doesn't do "Into the Dalek" justice – and I feel bad, having watched "Doctor Who Extra" and seeing Nick Briggs so enthused that this is a "new" thing to do with the Daleks.

Much as we "Doctor Who" fans love to laud our series as capable of doing anything, telling any story, infinite in variety, it is in the nature of the show to go in cycles, as each generation matures and a new audience comes along. People who were eleven when they saw Rose and the Doctor face the Dalek in "Dalek" will now be starting their twenties. Even Millennium is a teenager now! Finding new ways to tell old stories is as necessary as telling new ones.

And: "Can Daleks be good?" is about as important a question as the series can ask. So it should keep asking it.

Actually, everyone seems to proceed from the idea that a Dalek that wants to kill other Daleks is "good". As opposed to "differently psychotic". Fortunately, by the end of the episode, the Doctor has, with some help from Clara (let's skate over that unnecessary slap), reached the realisation that this is not good.

Actually, let's not skate over that slap. The Doctor comes to the self-defeating, self-satisfying conclusion that Daleks just are evil. Clara manages to arrest the Doctor's depression with a look. She has got through to him: he's asking what the look is for. It's totally unnecessary actually to hit him. And as a good teacher – which she is – she would know better. The whole of the rest of the episode is about not using violence against the Dalek but trying to do better. That slap really should not be there.

But aside from that, she is completely right that that is not what we have learned.

The show, never mind the Doctor, often treats monsters, especially the deadly dustbins, as irretrievably evil. And therefore it's okay to kill them.

Except, and "Into the Dalek" makes this abundantly clear, the Daleks are as much victims of their evil as perpetrators. That memory vault in their heads – "evil refined as engineering", brilliant line – doesn't so much keep them "pure" as take away their free will.

And taking away free will is about as close as we get to "Doctor Who's" definition of pure evil.

That memory-controlling vault is a very Moffat meme too, and as a further exploration of the mechanics of the Daleks goes very well with the Dalek pathweb from Moffat's "Asylum of the Daleks", and proto-Clara Oswin Oswald's power to make them all forget about the Doctor.

Also it's really quite hard not to think of it as the evolved remnant of Davros' computer limitation that he installed in the very first generation of Daleks, as seen back in "Genesis of the Daleks", nicely tying new series and old series together. You can see how the Daleks, geniuses but conditioned to obey their orders, would improve that to make them even better at obeying. From a certain point of view – Cornell, Topping, Day – that is the "weakness" that the Doctor retroactively adds to the Daleks, making them vulnerable, in the long run, to defeat, thus enabling "Genesis" to be counted as a "win".

I've said before that I disagree. I think that the Doctor wins philosophically by rejecting genocide – yes, he blows up the incubation chamber later, but only once the "limited" Daleks have been sent out and it's no longer the sole repository of the entirety of Dalek-kind. But, importantly, "do I have that right" is an exercise in free will, defining the Doctor – as ever – in opposition to the Daleks.

(And then we've got the Doctor inside the Dalek's head, holding two cables about to make a huge moral decision in yet another "quote".)

Where "Into the Dalek" is very interesting, is that its conclusion restores free will to "Rusty" – and it chooses to find hatred in the Doctor. So the Dalek does not "turn good".

So, this is a brilliant piece of Doctor Who, from the moment that Capaldi appears sneering down at Journey Blue and ticking her off for not being properly grateful, from the (simultaneous – timey-wimey) moment that new boy Danny Pink sits there headdesking intercut with his epic fail response to Clara's chatting him up. It is everything we want our Doctor Who to be: challenging, brave, darkly funny, with an idea that needs thinking about. And the special effects knock it out of the park.

On Facebook, I remarked that the Daleks boarding the Aristotle, while virtually a shot-for-shot remake of a scene from "Resurrection of the Daleks", is a case of someone showing Eric Saward how it's done. (And I know Matthew Robinson not Eric Saward was the director – he actually makes a lot of the rest of the story very brilliant and watchable, but that attack is pretty much unfilmable in a four-camera studio on the budget they had in the Eighties. And as script editor Saward should have known that.)

But never mind that, the opening effect shot of the Dalek saucer pursuing Journey Blue's space fighter through asteroids is… well, almost everyone has seen the opening of "Star Wars", haven't they. That's the league we're playing in now.

In fact I generally thought much more highly of the direction this week, too, Ben Wheatley bringing a real cinematic scope to the adventures. A lot of very interesting direct looks into the camera – in particular the moment they all look into the Dalek-eyestalk-point-of-view before entering the lens (what a trippy journey into the eye of the Dalek too) and the shift in perspective on the Doctor when he goes from "standing in front of Rusty's eye" to "inside Rusty's mind".

And after last time's very literal use of mirrors, there were many more metaphoric reflections here: not least the Doctor and the Dalek, of course, but also soldiers Danny Pink and Journey Blue (and, via the Verity podcast, the Doctor meeting the Dalek with hatred as Clara meets Danny with… flirting).

And, although I don't really want to tread on the mystery of Missy (Hmmm, Missy, Miss Tery… Nah.), but thought that in among the reflections the arrival of Gretchen in "Heaven" mirrored the arrival of Journey Blue in the TARDIS console, making me wonder if Missy wasn't materialising a time-capsule around the "dead". (Unlucky Ross, of course, is definitely physically dead because the Doctor tracks his remains.)

Capaldi continues to impress as the Doctor. Putting the alienation into the alien. Making Journey Blue ask for a lift properly; suddenly being a bastard about Ross's death – "he's the top layer if you want to say a few words"; jumping from despair to delight when Clara teaches him that Daleks are not predestined to be evil; his horror and self-recognition when he realises that what the Dalek chooses to see in his mind is his own worst side.

I have seen people criticising the line: "You are a good Dalek" as a poor man's knockoff of Rob Shearman's "You would make a good Dalek".

But to me it's another example of reflection: the Dalek's statement is definitive – "You are a good Dalek" – as inversion of the Doctor's question, "Am I a good man?". Again, recalling "The Evil of the Daleks", asking questions is a sign of the Human Factor and the antithesis of the Dalek Factor.

And it's more of Moffat-era playing with ambiguity (see last week). Where the Dalek in "Dalek" means it only one way (and a nasty way, at that), here we ask does Rusty the Dalek mean: "You are good at being a Dalek" (good in the Dalek sense); or "You are what a Dalek would be if it really were good"? (good as the Doctor would understand it). The Doctor's fear and horror is that it's the first.

It's good that the Doctor knows he should be better than that but isn't.

Remember, this Doctor has just come back (literally from the dead) from the siege of Trenzalore, hundreds and hundreds of years of stand-off against the Daleks, and just seen them overrun the planet, very nearly win, and then get wiped out alongside his chance of getting Gallifrey back… a Time War in miniature all over again. So he's had those hatreds stoked all over again. But also the unexpected reprieve from the regenerations limit may have given him cause to look back, reflect on his lives once more.

The prospect of actual death may have led to the eleventh Doctor living without thinking of the consequences. He wrecked lives – Amelia's, River's, Rory got killed more than anyone deserves – and, to borrow from Captain Kirk, patted himself on the back for his cleverness in dodging the consequences. Much like Moffat himself, in fact.

Capaldi, rather like Eccleston, has the gravitas and reputation to bring off this more introverted side to the Doctor's character, and if his arrival has raised Moffat's game to match that first glorious series from Russell, so much the better.

Equally, Clara continues to flourish thanks to seeing her life outside the TARDIS. It is a bit of a shame that she goes straight from "I'm not your boyfriend" to "hello salty goodness", but having her meet Danny, and how she engages with him start to add an actual second dimension to her. And at the same time she has a stronger relationship with the Doctor now that he is her hobby, rather than she being a puzzle for him to solve.

"Doctor Who" is often at its best when it operates on the fringes of great events. That old Bob Holmes technique for painting a bigger canvas by alluding to the larger story off. Think backstory in "Pyramids of Mars" or the galactic politics that drop the Graff Vynda K into "The Ribos Operation". So I like that what we see here is the fringe of a galactic war. We don't go straight to the Emperor and learn about the Master Plan; we take the view from the trenches. Leave the rest of the story to your imagination – it's bigger on the inside, that way.

Next time: Mark Gatiss writes what looks like a comedy historical. There's Ben Miller in the Sheriff of Nottingham's castle, wearing the Sheriff of Nottingham's hose; sporting the Sheriff of Nottingham's sticky-on beard.

Is he the baddy?
(Hat tip: Warped Factor)

But who's that blank-faced automaton… or is Jason Connery not in this one? Twang! It's "Robot of Sherwood".

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Day 4983: Doctor Who: Breathing (Obligatory Kate Bush Reference)


Doctor Who returned, as an irrepressible, outrageous, furious Peter Capaldi.

I loved it. But not everyone did. And I loved every moment of it while it was on-screen, but afterwards have found myself struggling to puzzle why.

So in a most curious way, "Deep Breath" exists in two states simultaneously: one has dazzling effects, moving acting, subtle and clever script; the other has alienating continuity, no concessions to the viewer, and reiteration of the wrong plot points.

You can’t say the Mister Moffster doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Au contraire, Blackadder! He learns whole new ways to remake them.

Not taking enough time over the stories? Fine, we will stretch it to eighty minutes!

Clara doesn't have a personality? Not a problem, let's give her a brand new one!

Worried the audience might not connect to the new Doctor? Let's make it really obvious that the central idea of the story is the paradox of Trigger's Broom.

Change is continuity. So the metatext become the text.

We have a story where in-episode viewers complain about the quality of the special effects; a story about rebuilding things from stolen spare parts is made of stolen bits of other stories, including the main plot – and monster – lifted from "The Fire in the Girly-Place" (hat-tip Lawrence Miles); where the Doctor himself is sure he's seen this episode – or this face – before, he just can't quite place it; a story that answers "is he still the Doctor" with a blizzard of continuity and quotes from "here we go again" to "you've redecorated" to the whole "shall we go for chips" scene from "The End of the World" (retold more awkwardly, because in Moffat men are always more awkward); a story so keen to let you know it's reflecting on who is the Doctor that it hits you with more mirrors than Paul McGann in a room full of mirrors yelling "Who! Am! I?!?!".

If these moments resonate for you, if you feel that all these quotations amount to meaning – and I do – then you'll love "Deep Breath". If they don't, if maybe you don't have that history in your blood, then you better be pleased by a distracting dinosaur of Godzilla-sized, credibility-stretching proportions.

Let start with what was unashamedly good about this.

Capaldi delivered. That's the single most obvious but most important thing.

Sure, he had nothing to prove – unlike Matt Smith turning in a tour de force in "The Eleventh Hour" – and nobody seems to have doubted he had it in him. But boy is he a pro. Terrifying, cowardly, arrogant, compassionate, infuriating… and that's before he gets out of his pyjamas.

There was a lot of Tom Baker in the performance, at his most enigmatic, aloof and alien; his first line out of the TARDIS – "shush" – reminding me instantly of Tom's "not today, thank you". The dialogue – Moffat seems to have gone "school of Dicks" and written generic Doctor, or just "Matt" – was full of the swerves and scattershot that could easily have been delivered by the eleventh Doctor but delivered in very different style – particularly, say, "I don't like being wrong in public; everyone forget I said that" coming across much more Malcom Tucker than Matt Smith.

His defining scene, naturally, the confrontation at the climax taking him from icy calm offering the villain a drink to a face full of teeth as they struggle as we see the possibility of a Doctor fully in control of himself and his powers and responsibilities, no longer hiding behind "tawdry quirks" and a youthful mask. Though my favourite moment may have been the – immensely Tom in "Robot", too – glimpse of childish glee on rejecting the door as "boring; not me" and spying the window: "me!"

Then there's the episode length.

Some people have said that it dragged, or at least that it didn't find its feet until the scene where Clara meets the Doctor in the restaurant. I don't agree. And it would hardly be consistent of me if I did, having last year said that Moffat's problem was too short a running time, and that he was generally better with the longer frame of the specials.

And a double-length episode means we in fact are getting the same bangs-for-your-buck's worth in twelve weeks as a season as the "usual" thirteen normal-length episodes.

You get to have your season-opening two-parter all at once!

Though I'd say that this is, essentially, an entirely laudable effort to reinvent the old four-parter.

There are clear demarcations between what could have been episodes – part "one" has the Doctor in his nightshirt and a "cliffhanger" where he jumps off Westminster Bridge; part "two" has him in the tramp's coat and focusses a lot on his and Clara's "finding" the Doctor, before the second "cliffhanger" when their table at the clockwork restaurant goes all "Live and Let Die" on them; part three has the new Doctor and Clara becoming a team again, and him coming into his own as a person, finishing in the fatal fall of the half-faced man; and the fourth part is the aftermath, and looking forward, where he is entirely his new self and Clara has to accept he is the same person, and we get a nod to what is surely the arc of the season (Missy, Mistress, Master? Nah…).

In a way, then, like the way "Inferno" slips a parallel Earth story into the middle of its run, "Deep Breath" is a two-part adventure with the clockwork droids – reimagined in delicious Gothic style with heavy doses of Justin Richard's novel "System Shock" – in the middle of a two-part regeneration story, with the Doctor's recovery in the first part and Clara's acceptance in the fourth.

And for me, it really worked, giving a lot more time for developing character. The Doctor's "regeneration crisis" – and that dinosaur – are largely confined to the first twenty minutes. Afterwards he's playing on people's confusion and lack of expectations about him… (particularly "that" scene with Clara…).

The second "episode" has a "next morning" feel about it (not the only thing "Deep Breath" has in common with "The Sensational TV Movie", by the way). The Doctor's scenes – with tramp Barney touchingly played by Brian Miller – are all about him discovering who this new face is. Where do the faces come from is a particularly interesting question (suggested by a conversation with Russell Davies, apparently), and this too holds hints that there may be something in it this time, a message, though why Caecilius (or Mr Frobisher) we have yet to understand.

There's also time to expand on the characters of the returning Paternoster heroes, and for the first time I really felt that Vastra and Jenny were in a real relationship (no, not because of – in fact almost in spite of – the heavy-handed "we're married" refrain that kept being hammered home). Strax may be becoming a bit of a one-note joke, but there are the odd interesting thing slipped in among the gags: he notices, for example, that Clara has good lungs – which comes in handy shortly – and you have to wonder (Miranda moment: I don't think we do!) what the "young men doing sport" in her subconscious are about after her strenuous assertions that she could flirt with a mountain range. And the funniest bit in the episode is the slapstick flooring of Clara by the Sontaran "sending up the Times".

But mostly the second act puts the focus squarely on Clara, on how she feels about the Doctor now, and how clever she is. It is after all she who works out the clue in the newspaper. OK, the Doctor does too, but he's supposed to be that smart and it is Clara that we see doing it.

Former teacher Steven Moffat has clearly brought some history to Clara now. The great use of classroom flashback to show where Clara gets both intelligence and sass to use against the clockwork villain.

Now, however, we're getting to the parts that are more brilliant/awkward than purely brilliant.

I loved all that character stuff for the Paternoster Gang, but at the same time I can see that it's really asking a lot of someone tuning in for the first time. They might be Moffat's satirical updating of the old UNIT family but they're still a bit… weird to just take as read (in a way that "straight" archetypes like the Brig and Sergeant Benton are not). Of the prehistoric lizard lady and the Victorian ninja maid, is their marriage the thing that you most need to make clear to the audience? (OK, actual complaints to Ofcom about the kiss suggests that yes maybe it is.) And while I think that the "reverse Emperor's clothes" of Vastra's veil – seen only by those whose prejudice won't see her, another re-echoed theme – is ingenious, is this "introducing" episode really the best place?

(Oh, and one little flaw in the direction, that seems to have been widely praised: Vastra and Jenny drawing their swords is clearly supposed to be a two-shot that demonstrates they are equals in spite of the rôles they cosplay, so why is the camera only on Vastra, cutting Jenny out?)

Clara is the first companion since Rose actually to experience a regeneration, and in the case of Rose the Doctor's change made him more the sort of young, dashing man she expected, more "her boyfriend", perhaps trying to satisfy Rose’s "inner fan" was the start of his making that mid-lives-crisis mistake.

Something we've not seen really since the 'Eighties is the "hang-over" companion, the assistant perfectly suited to a Doctor who then unfortunately dies and leaves them with a very different successor: think Adric, sorcerer's apprentice to Tom Baker's ageing wizard who winds up with the youthful Davison; or Peri whose energy and enthusiasm clearly go with Peter One*'s curiosity and gentlemanly vim, but who gets stuck with the crazy shouty man; or even underrated Mel who is loud and direct and proactive and just perfect for Baker Two, but who is entirely unsuited for the complex manipulations of Sylv's master chessplayer.

[*Alex note: This makes the Lord Cushing: Peter Zero :^]

Clara, on the face of it, seems so much more the companion for the eleventh Doctor who she absolutely did not fancy (Miranda moment: she did fancy him). But twelve could be the making of her.

Clara slightly out of her depth and on the edge of panic, Clara clearly pissed off with the Doctor messing her around, these are good, believably human traits for her, and bring out some strong acting chops from Jenna Coleman.

But where's it come from? How is this the same character, the same Impossible Girl, we've followed for a year or more? And you might say that Clara is a control freak – second-funniest moment in the episode: "Nothing in this room is more important than my egomania!" – but did anyone honestly think that of her before?

Though never mind the switch from last year's Clara (who for no readily apparent reason dived into the Doctor's timeline without batting an eyelid, and then without breaking into a sweat persuaded not one but three Doctors to save Gallifrey because that's the man they all were); what about the one between one side of the new title sequence and the other? From "He's [the Doctor is] right here" to "The Doctor is gone!"

Moffat likes to make his writing ambiguous (or "clever") so that you read it one way only for a later twist to make you re-interpret. An example would be the "translating" of the dinosaur's lament which also refers to the Doctor, as made clear by the reiteration of "just see me" from the end of the bedroom scene to after "that" phone call (and yes, just like when he translates the minotaur at the end of "The God Complex").

I think the Grand Moff is trying to do the same thing with Clara's reaction to the regeneration: it's supposed to have a superficial reading of "whah he's got all old", as a rebuke to the widespread supposition that the Twenty-First Century Doctor needs to be young and pretty to appeal to the audience, and then it turns out she's fine with his age but thinks something else has gone wrong.

Except it falls flat on its face, because Clara expressly says "why's he old?" and says nothing to suggest an alternative interpretation (until she tears Vastra off a strip). So what was she moping about?

I'd suggest that there are two or three possible ways they could have gone to clear this up.

My first thought, and perhaps simplest: just a line to say "I've seen all of his faces; this isn't one of them!" It would take people's strongest objection to Clara's reaction – that she more than anyone else ought to be au fait with regeneration – and turn it on its head; her very familiarity is what makes this new face, this stranger's face so upsetting to her.

Secondly, and possibly connected to that, play more on the "Power of the Daleks" question of: "is he really the Doctor?" Could this be a completely different Time Lord sent to take his place? After all, Clara saw "her" Doctor blow up. And then this guy appears in the TARDIS. By making this more of a mystery through the episode it would also have added extra strength to the phone call ending, where the new man turns out to know what the Doctor said… proving he is the same fellow at last.

Thirdly, and maybe what they were trying to allude to, Clara does say at one point "it's gone wrong", though it is sadly a bit lost between flirting with the "big lady" and "maybe you should wear labels". It's possible that Clara thinks that either the Doctor is supposed to "renew" into a young body and age normally (as, to be fair, she saw Matt's eleventh Doctor do), or possibly she's taken aback by his post-regenerative trauma. But this feels unnecessary to us when even casual viewers know that he goes a bit dippy after regeneration, and to the fans this is one of the least disturbed new Doctors. He doesn't try to strangle anyone!

…well hardly anyone. …well he pushes them out of a balloon… or doesn’t…

The possible "darkness" of the Doctor comes to the fore in the "third" part of the story, playing with the notion that he might have gone a bit "sixth Doctor" (or a bit "first") when he seems to abandon Clara, only for it to turn out that he's really channelling the "seventh": throwing his companion into peril to "fix" her flaws, make her "better".

Does he murder the half-faced man? The blatant ambiguity here – even before mad woman in the coda hangs a lantern on it – is obviously set up to keep fans arguing forever: did he or didn't he.

But, to coin a phrase, that's not the right question.

Does he steal the tramp's coat? He's distinctly cagey about it; his first answer is an outright lie, and then he says he traded his watch for it. Which may be true. But we know the Doctor steals clothes: the third, eighth and eleventh all raided hospital lockers for their first outfits, and the first committed outright burglary on an (all right, somewhat dubious) merchant in Jaffa. We've just not previously seen him steal clothes from someone who is actually wearing at the time. It's awkward, isn't it, it feels more wrong. And it may be in there precisely to challenge our pre-conceptions about what this alien thinks is moral. That's where ambiguity works.

The final part of the story sees us having come through the change and looking to the future. The Doctor is finally dressed in his own clothes – if you think about it, he's got a change of costume for each "part": first the nightgown (or first Matt Smith's costume before the titles, then the nightgown); then the tramp's coat; then the droid's Victorian suit (and face!); and only finally his own understated third Doctor duds. And he's redressed his TARDIS too.

In a way it's a shame that – in the move between Upper Boat and Roath Lock – they regenerated the TARDIS console room back in "The Snowmen". It means the "redecoration" doesn't have the impact here, doesn’t in fact seem that different at all, ironically, just making it pinker and warmer. Imagine instead going from Matt Smith's original bonkers golden fishbowl to Michael Pickwoad's austere steel engine; that would stamp the new Doctor's no-frills frills all over the show.

And because we're looking at taking what's come before and moving on, we perform that neat little restaging of the "chips" scene from the end of "The End of the World", where Rose and the ninth Doctor first properly bonded, but with the Moffat-twist of the Doctor now being awkward and not huggy. (And while we're at it, it's also referencing "The Hand of Fear" by way of "School Reunion" with Sarah revealing that the Doctor took her "home" but missed a bit, only this time he 'fesses up and Clara is fine, because she's not leaving.)

"Deep Breath" is a regeneration story and thus much more like "The Christmas Invasion" (or for that matter "Castrovalva") than a first adventure like "The Eleventh Hour" or "Rose". And regeneration stories are always a bit weird, as though "regeneration" forces its way into the story, forces the story into being about regeneration. And it ends up pulling in two ways – both about newness and about everything being the same.

Thus change is continuity. And so the metatext become the text.

Sometimes it seems like everything is quotes.

Next Time: Oh look, the quotes continue with a scene from Rob Shearman's "(Into The) Dalek". What would the ninth Doctor say about this voyage? Fantastic…

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Friday, August 22, 2014

Day 4982: Do you want me to turn the Moffat era upside down?


We've got just ONE day to go before DOCTOR WOO returns with brand new Doctor, Sir Peter of Capaldi.

So we've been celebrating by watching all of the Grand Moff's stories so far.

It would be UNFAIR to suggest that this hospitalised Daddy Alex, but we have to confess that our little remake of Carry On Doctor may have slightly DERAILED our Matt Marathon… our scaling the Matt-a-horn. Sufficient to say that Season Six has proved… difficult.

But looking back at the GRAND PLAN we suddenly realised we'd been looking at it all wrong! What was it we'd missed? It was right there on screen from the beginning, from The Eleventh Hour!

Who destroyed the Universe? The Silence didn't destroy the Universe; the idea is absurd. Only two powers in all of space and time have been seen to have the power to do that. And the Daleks were trying to stop it.

What did we see in The Eleventh Hour? We saw what was on the other side of the Crack. The Crack in the surface of the Universe. We saw what was on the inside. Inside Time. And it was a PRISON.

Where in the Moffat era would you hide the Time Lords? Where else but inside a lost story. Inside THE lost story.

The other side of the Crack isn't Gallifrey.

It's Shada.

Happy Capal-day!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Day 4932: You Can Prove Anything With Statistics Part Deux


This time it’s Tom Clarke writing in the Gruaniad to assert:

“How the Tories chose to hit the poor”

(and just look at all those buzzwords in that URL!)

“George Osborne claims to have cut inequality,” adds the sub-editor. “But look behind the figures and it's clear the Conservatives can't take any credit.”

To summarize: the existing data points do not agree with his thesis so he says that they don't count and makes up what next year's figures will say instead.

It seems Iain Drunken Swerve isn’t the only one for whom denial is a preferred tactic.

The implications of the piece are that the CHOICES of the Coalition are bad ones, and therefore that any beneficial outcome is accidental. To come to that conclusion it is necessary to downplay, ignore or indeed run away and hide from the contribution of the Liberal Democrats to Coalition policy.

Inequality, measured by the Office for National Statistics figures for 2011/12, FELL in the UK under the Coalition, and the new 2012/13 figures show that fall has not reversed.

As Lib Dem Voice reports, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have commented that inequality is now lower than since before Tony Blair brought Labour back into government in 1997.

This is a fact.

A startling one but indisputably a fact. Startling not just because this is the first fall in inequality for nearly three decades, but also because it is unique among Western nations.

Is this a beneficial outcome?

What has happened has happened in the worst way. I – and I think most Liberals – would prefer to reduce inequality by raising everyone up, not grinding the richest down. Making the rich pay, that’s Labour’s way. In this recession, everyone has had to take a hit, including hitting some of the least well off, but proportionately the better off you were the more you’ve been asked to pay – from each according to their means, as it were. And it must gall Labour and the left that this Coalition has been more socialist than the socialists ever were.

But if, as Labour do, you subscribe to the “Spirit Level” thesis that more equal societies are happier, healthier and better then you would have to say this is a beneficial outcome. Even if you don’t subscribe, you would have to accept that the cost of the Crash had to be borne by someone, and these figures show that the better-off have shouldered their share of the burden. Those better able to pay have paid and as a result there has been a slight rebalancing of income after tax and benefits.

So is this just by accident or does it down to the choices we have made in government?

It is not difficult to see how it’s happened. Salaries were frozen or even reduced, whereas, at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats, benefits continued to be increased*, and with a triple lock pensions – more than half the Social Security budget – were and still are increased by even more.

(*Full disclosure: for the period covered by these figures, benefits were increased in line with inflation. For 2013/14 benefits were still increased, but we could not stop George Osborn capping many increases, but not pensions, at 1% – a cut in real spending power as it is below the rate of inflation. Because pensions increase by more than inflation, the impact of this is uncertain, but it does, of course, form the basis of Mr Clarke’s speculation that inequality will rise again in next year’s official figures.)

Add to that the effect of the flagship Liberal Democrat tax policy of raising the personal allowance, a tax cut directly aimed at the less well-off earners.

And the Liberal Democrats also required, in the price for Coalition, that Capital Gains Tax – a tax largely paid by the well-off – be increased from Labour’s inequality-creating low level of 18% to a more reasonable 28%.

Furthermore, the Lib Dems would not let Master Gideon reduce the top rate of tax from 50% to the 40% rate that it was under Labour.

Remember when Labour raised the top rate to 50p… for a MONTH. The Coalition because of the Liberal Democrats has a rate of 45% that is still higher than under any budget presented by Gordon Brown.

Remember when Labour DOUBLED the tax paid by those in the lowest band, and how Mr Balls still wants to reintroduce the 10p starting rate? The Coalition because of the Liberal Democrats gave those people a ZERO starting rate and took them out of paying income tax altogether!

You can see the theme here: Labour under Mr Blair and Mr Brown – who, if you recall, were in the words of Mr Peter “Prince of Darkness” Mandelson: “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” – saw inequality rise like a rocket. The Coalition, because of Liberal Democrats’ fair tax policies, has seen a remarkable fall.

For that fall in inequality to come about because “the Tories chose to hit the poor” IS. NOT. POSSIBLE.

Remember Labour’s COMPLICITY in the Great Crash of the Twenty-Nothings. It wasn’t ALL down to a few “rogue bankers”. I’ve written before of how Labour’s “borrow and spend” economic policy buoyed the bubble, how their “let the good times roll (on tick)” philosophy cheered on many millions of small borrowers to risk more than they could afford on the (fictitious) promise of a never-ending supply of cheap money lent from China – how often did Gordon Brown say “no more boom and bust”? What did he think he was encouraging people to do?

Remember how Labour were taking bungs and favours from everyone from Bernie Eccleston to Rupert Murdoch. They were deeply entwined with the really filthy rich.

Remember the facts of what Labour really DID, not the fairy story of good times that they want you to believe in.

Labour, even when they nationalised a bank or two, were only ever socialist by accident; we have achieved this by design.

In this crash (which, whatever the causes, you have to admit happened on Labour’s watch) everyone has done worse. But Liberal Democrat choices have made good on the Chancellor’s promises of being “all in this together”.

And that’s important to us because we CARE about a Fairer Society as well as a Stronger Economy.

The impression from his article is that Mr Clarke appears not to care that Labour never really cared at all.

"…so when the truth finally outs, what will be the response?"

Practically an admission there that he doesn't know that either. So he’s just making that answer up too. Not necessarily an unreasonable prognostication – Mr Drunken Swerve has form – but still not in fact fact.

The 2013/14 data – when it comes out next year – may (or may not!) undermine the Chancellor's current statement, but at least Mater Gideon is basing his words on the facts as they are known now. Mr Clarke and the Graun are not.

And the confirmation bias of 450 below the line CiFers nodding and saying “he’s right you know” does not count as supporting evidence.

Mr Clarke touches their G (for Grauniad) spot again by referring to the 2008 crash as “Lehman Brothers' implosion” pinning the blame on the bank and definitely not the profligacy of any governments that might have supposedly had oversight of the economy at the time.

And again we have the lazy accusation against the Coalition of “a government that has lurched to the right”.

Then there is this:

"This week's data only takes us up to this point, the financial year that began in April 2012"

This is such a weirdly constructed sentence that I have to wonder if it's deliberate. If you are talking about the point that the data takes us to, then surely it only makes sense to talk about the *end* of that Financial Year, so April 2013.

By using 2012 (whether by accident or design) it conveys the impression that the data is even more out of date and only covers maybe a year or so when the Coalition were in charge, rather than 60% of the current Parliament.

If you are going to criticize the use of statistics by others, then you must take the greatest care that no distortion creeps into your own version – that he has failed to do so critically undermines his argument.

I realize Mr Clarke has a book to sell – it’s actually advertised right there in the article (or “advertising feature” as these things used to be called) and "oops I have no evidence" doesn't help with that, but really this is just hiding from the facts.

Inequality has fallen. This is not because the Tories chose to hit the poor. It’s because the Liberal Democrats chose to defend the poorest-off where we could and to raise fair taxes from the rich.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Day 4931: Most Right-Wing Government Evah…


Number One in a series of lazy clichés that need stamping on…

Again and again you see this snide little assertion slipped into an article or among the comments. It’s a nasty little code phrase for sneaking around Godwin’s Law (for who would the Coalition have to be more right wing than?) Rather than addressing why a policy might be bad, it’s used as a “joker” to declare any policy simply to be bad because of its authorship, rather than outcome.

And of course it’s just not true!

This isn't even the most right-wing government of the last TWO!

In the last 30 years…

The Coalition gave us Equal Marriage; the Thatcher Government gave us Section 28, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition gave us cash back with a tax cut for basic rate taxpayers, and the first fall in inequality in 30 years; Maggie gave us the Poll Tax and Major gave us Back to Basics and Cash for Questions, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition gave us an end to child detention, scrapping of DNA databases, reform of the libel laws (and Nick Clegg blocked the Snooper's Charter); the Blair government tried to give us ID cards and 90 day detention-without-trial, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition acting under International Law and with a UN Resolution used minimal force to defend Benghazi from Muammar Gadhafi’s air strikes; Labour invaded Iraq.

The Coalition gave a triple lock to pensioners; Gordon Brown gave them 50p. The Coalition achieved the Millennium Development target of 0.7% of GDP in overseas aid; the Brown Government gave a massive bailout to bankers, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition were faced with quite simply having a lot less money to spend and has managed this very difficult very painful loss of income without it all ending in a Winter of Discontent or a year-long strike and with only one major bout of rioting.

You don't have to be right-wing to be financially responsible.

Running up a mountain of borrowing means transferring money from future generations to the present bankers. Labour might believe that it is left-wing to throw away our children's money, but that’s probably why they’re still in such a pickle over the economy; where I come from selling kids into slavery is the very worst sort of Victorian values.

And if your response to the above – looking at you, Mr Balls – is “but Master Gideon is still borrowing”, are you really saying that the Coalition has not been “right-wing” enough?! The Coalition has curbed but not conquered the deficit precisely because they are on the moderate and not the extreme right.

Have there been right wing proposals? Sure. Theresa May and Michael Gove can hardly shut up, except to take chunks out of each other. But when they get to the Quad, Nick Clegg says “No” and that’s the end of the matter.

This is the most liberal, centrist government since the post-war consensus ended in the Seventies.

Isn’t that depressing enough?

Coming soon: "30 years of Neo-Liberal consensus – the only Liberal Conspiracy is that there isn’t one"