...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day 5079: The Image over Rochester


This time last month, we were on our way to New England, setting for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by (unspeakably racist) HP Lovecraft, wherein it turns out the locals have been (spoilers) interbreeding with immigrants.

This time last week, the locals of Rochester and Strood were cheerily chucking out their incumbent Tory MP and re-electing him as a Kipper. This despite him revealing that his new Party’s policies are entirely as anti-immigrant as we suspected.

This time in July, Ed Milipede was giving one of his relaunch speeches claiming he “didn’t do image”. And on Thursday, he proved it.

Mr Milipede’s preposterously over-the-top faux-outrage firing of Emily Thornberry for her “Image from Rochester” tweet put the (probably tin-foil) cap on the whole ridiculous affair of a by-election win for “A Plague on All Your Houses”.

The tweet itself was a relatively innocuous picture of house decked in flags and white van, with neutral comment. It was only possible to interpret it as a passive-aggressive attack of snobbish contempt because of the febrile atmosphere that economic post-Armageddon has brewed, one to which Labour have contributed more than a little, encouraging the “us v them”, “Westminster bubble”, “plebgate” contempt for all things elected and establishment. As in Scotland, Labour’s taking for granted of the people they are supposed to most represent comes back to haunt them. As they reap so they sow.

Am I snobbish about the man the Sun has dubbed “White Van Dan”?


I’m repulsed by the policies he espouses and profoundly depressed by the ignorance that informs them.

Bash the benefits; block the immigrants; spend more; tax less; and bring back the cane. If these things worked we’d have solved all of society’s problems by now. And why the reactionary paranoia about burning the poppy when no one is even doing it?

But “point and laugh” tactics particularly from a Metropolitan Liberal Elite Minority like me, never mind Ms Thornberry, is not the way to engage with this kind of thinking. In fact, it’s massively counter-productive, lending “Dan” the fake credence of being “against The Man”, when in fact he’s expressing exactly the sort of white cis straight male privileged oppression that generations of genuine outsiders have been struggling to get out from under.

But while Ms Thornberry’s tweet may have been revealing, the response by Labour’s spin team was nothing short of astonishing. The suggestion that the Labour Leader was “more furious than he’d ever been” was beyond ludicrous.

More furious than over phone hacking, Ed? More outraged than by tuition fees? More angry than at the bedroom tax?

The sad thing is he probably was more furious over an incident that did damage to Labour’s image than by any of those things. There’s a reason why Miliband’s leadership is not seen as “genuine”. It’s because it’s not.

Maybe it was a typo: “The Labour leader is more fatuous than he’s ever been”?

And yet, in one way, he was actually right. The sacking of a shadow cabinet member over a photograph was a massive distraction from the appalling reactionary lurch of British politics.

It’s what the Tories used to call a “Double Whammy”, with on the one fluffy foot more ludicrous Security Theatre and on the other more Anti-immigration nonsense.

It is surely a co-incidence that the Metropolitan police are warning commuters to “Run, Hide, and Tell” and trying to convince the City that saw off the Luftwaffe that it’s facing its “worst threat ever” just as the Home Secretary is trying to sex up her TPIMS, exclude British citizens who’ve been to fight in Syria, and raise her Snoopers' Charter from the dead.

Only this week we’ve heard evidence that the Security Services had information on the killers of Lee Rigby and still failed to stop them. It’s no good trying to pin the blame on Facebook; demanding access and retention of even more data only makes a bigger haystack to lose the needles in.

And as for cancelling the passports of British terrorists who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq: washing your hands of a problem is a shockingly weak abrogation of responsibility, not a strong stance against terror.

And the Liberal Democrats’ principled opposition has… melted away.

Meanwhile, the Tories received a well-deserved humiliation for their failure to deliver on an in-so-many-ways stupid pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands.

And yet we hear Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary – surely that’s Michael Howard in drag not Yvette Cooper – saying: “It isn't racist to be worried about immigration or to call for immigration reform,” before announcing more guards on the frontiers.

While her counterpart Rachel Reeves at the Department of Work is saying she will deny benefits to EU migrants.

Only to receive support from Nick Clegg, for goodness’ sake!

It isn’t racist to be worried about immigration… UNLESS YOU GO ON TO BLAME THE IMMIGRANTS!

Please, I urge you, particularly if you happen to be Deputy Prime Minister, go read the inestimable Mr Hickey on why it’s both morally and tactically suicide to follow the other Parties down the road to UKIP-ised xenophobic populism.

People who think that UKIP are popular because of their policies are frankly morons, who make “White Van Dan” look like Aristotle.

UKIP’s popularity is entirely independent of any policy they may have from moment to moment, as amply demonstrated by the way Farage simply re-writes their manifesto every single time he finds himself on a sticky wicket without any apparent impact on people’s opinion or his Party’ poll ratings.

“Privatise the NHS? No, I meant preserve the NHS! Lower business taxes? No, I meant higher business taxes! Transitional arrangements? No, I meant concentration camps…er, is this on the record?”

No one seems to care that he’s winging it, contradicting himself, saying anything he thinks the voters want to hear, because after all he’s Nige, the bloke with the pint, and he’s sticking it to the Westminster elite, isn’ee.

There used to be a sense that the Westminster Parties were there to make things better for people, for you!

Labour would give you better public services; Tories would lower your taxes; Liberals would stand up for your rights and freedoms. What happened to all that?

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – and it’s well worth a read if you can get over the flagrant fears of miscegenation – the protagonist finds, to his existential horror, that (spoilers) he himself is of “questionable” heritage and is turning into one of the monsters.

Here’s the irony. In Britain we are all immigrants somewhere up our family tree. Unless you’re descended from a Woolly Mammoth! (I’m saying nothing!)

And yet, we have the choice: are we capable of being brave enough not to turn into Monsters?


For clarity:
“Two large and protruding eyes projected from sockets in chameleon fashion, and it had a broad reptilian mouth with horny lips beneath its little nostrils”
is Lovecraft’s description of one of the Deep Ones, and not, as you might think, of Nigel Farage. Who, if anything, is one of the Shallow Ones.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Day 5076: When is 1% not 1%? When it’s 4%, apparently


Today the NHS has suffered the indignity of a strike by thousands of nurses and midwives protesting that their pay has been frozen for years and all they are asking for is the 1% that was recommended by the independent review body and that the Government has reneged upon.

Except that’s not really true, is it.

The Government offered 1% to everyone who wasn’t already getting an automatic pay rise.

So if you’ve not had a rise in four years, it’s not the Government blocking the 1% on offer; it’s those people who want 5% rather than “just” 4%.

Nursing is a tough job. And a necessary one. Especially as we’re all getting older and more reliant than ever on the Health Service. And this year, we’ve been personally especially grateful to some good nurses, I can tell you. So who wouldn’t want to reward them well?

But it begins to look like their representation is, well, misrepresenting them.

Quite rightly, our nurses have the sympathy and support of the public, but they risk losing that if the public – many of whom have genuinely seen 0% increases, that’s a real terms (i.e. after inflation) decrease – discover that the NHS Unions insist on using such mendacious tactics as claiming that nurses have not had a pay rise when in fact nurses’ pay comes with a built-in increase every year.

More than a million NHS staff – except for doctors, dentists and some senior managers who are on a different scheme – are paid according to a system called Agenda for Change (you can tell it came in under Tony Blair, can’t you).

Under this arrangement, you are assigned to a “Band” based on your job and seniority level: nurses and midwives, for example, start from Band 5; sisters and senior radiographers are in Band 6; and so on. You then have “points” on the payscale and in the normal course of things you would expect to go up one point each year.

Here, from the Royal College of Nursing, are the current (agreed in 2013) pay bands.

So for a nurse in Band 5, you begin at point 16, which is a salary of £21,388 on the 2013 agreed rates.

Then in your second year you advance to point 17, and receive a salary of £22,016, an automatic increase of 2.9%.

In your third year this goes up to point 18 for £22,903, a 4.0% increase and so on up to your seventh year when you reach top of your Band. In fact it’s 4% increase all the way up to the top of the scale for Band 5 when a nurse can earn £27,901.

Similarly for Bands 6 and 7, the salary increase between different points varies from point to point but on average is 3.5% per year, to a top salary of £40,558.

(Bands 1-4, incidentally, who are assistants, secretaries and porters earning between £14,094 and £22,016, have average rises of 2.5%.)

The review body’s proposals, then, were to increase all of these pay points by 1%.

So the effect for a nurse going into their second year would be an increase from £21,388 (on the 2013 rates) to £22,436 (on the new 2014 rates) which is a pay rise of 4.0%. And pay increases of 5% for nurses in their second through seventh years.

The people who wouldn’t be getting an automatic pay rise are the people at the tops of the scales… to whom the Government is offering the 1% that they say they are striking for.

(So actually, the people affected by this are new NHS staff, coming in at the old starting rate rather than the new proposed one.)

There are 380,000 nurses in the NHS in the UK, earning at least £21,388 each or a total wage bill somewhere north of eight billion quid. That 1% increase will cost the NHS, will cost you because you pay for the NHS, at least eighty million pounds.

Or, in the emotive terms that people like to pitch this debate, 4000 nurses.

Not that nurses are paid brilliantly, but the £28,180 on offer (after 1% increase) to an ordinary ward nurse at the top of the Band 5 pay scale is above the median average national wage, and quite a lot more than quite a lot of people get, particularly people on sickness benefits who get hardest hit by NHS strike action, or people on minimum wage or zero hours contracts who lose money when they have to refuse work in order to turn up on time for their NHS appointments, and only get told when they get there that they’ll have to miss more work without compensation because their appointment’s been cancelled through NHS strike action.

Everyone is fed up with austerity. Everyone is tired of tightening belts. And it’s true that to get through the worst of the recession that they inherited, the Coalition did freeze all those pay rates that were over £21,000. The rates were kept the same for the first three years: 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13.

Although rates were increased for those lower paid NHS workers, on Bands 1 to 4, but not the nurses who were already better off than that. And, of course, you would still get an increase by progressing up the rates each year.

But, something I’ve just noticed from the RCN website: all pay rates were increased by 1% for last year (2012/13).

So that “not had a pay rise in four years” just cannot be true.

A nurse starting in 2010 on £21,176 would expect to be earning £24,799 in 2014, an increase of 17% or an average increase of 4% a year. Better than inflation in every year except 2010 when Alistair Darling’s devaluation and George Osborne’s VAT rise both hit.

In real terms, then, nurses are barely any better off. But try telling that to people who really haven’t had a pay rise in four years.

It’s said that the NHS is what the British have instead of religion these days. It’s an article of faith that we must preserve it, as much as it’s a standard mantra that the NHS is in crisis. Labour in particular have made a fetish of “their” NHS – “don’t let the Tories ruin it”, they cry when all other rational reasons to vote Labour fail them; any attempt to empower local people to vary provision to suit their needs is greeted with cries of “post code lottery” and results in power being snatched back to the Secretary of State; at the last gasp, any reform at all is answered with the desperate war cry of “privatisation”.

But locked-in inflation-busting salary increases are another reason, along with Labour’s privatization through the PFI door, why the “best health service in the world” is going to go bust in spite of having ring-fenced, real terms cash increases no matter what the damage that does to other spending commitments.

The NHS has been made a sacred cow by at least five major Parties (and UKIP) including, sadly, my own. And as with most cows, the debate seems to come with a quantity of bull.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Day 5075: Happy Endings and other Wedding Stories...

Sunday of the Doctor (one year on):

In celebration of my Daddies' four week anniversary, (and some little TV show being 51 today), by gracious permission of Uncle Barry, we bring you

"Alex and Richard in an Exciting Adventure with Doctor Who"

by Daddy Alex,

with some assistance from Terrance Versatile Dicks, Robert Holmes, David Whittaker, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaranovich, Simon Guerrier, Andy Lane, Paul Cornell and many many more.

and additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.

starring Mr Simon and Mr Nick. And the Daddies' Wedding Chorus.

Thank you all, so very, very much.


Full text and quote-o-matic guessing game to be found at: "Maius Intra Qua Extra"

Friday, October 03, 2014

Day 5022: Conference Season – Now Everyone Wants to Be the Liberal Democrats*


Welcome to Glasgow, Liberal Democrats (though for wedding reasons Daddies can’t be there).

What with Hard Labour out to steal our Mansion Tax and the Conservatories shamelessly trying to claim our raise in the Personal Allowance, it’s beginning to look a lot like the agenda for the next government is already being set by the Liberal Democrats.

Ah, Party Conferences – a Tale of Two Nitwits, as Charles Dickens very nearly had it.

“It was the worst of times; it was the most hilarious of times,” Mr Balloon might have said, or Mr Milipede might have forgotten to say.

So there were the leaders’ speeches: Mr Milipede promised to save the NHS, but omitted to mention the one thing he’d rather not talk about, namely the steaming great black hole of an economy we’re still left with; and then Mr Balloon promised to save the NHS, but managed to misspeak that he resents the poor, before going on to not leave a tip at the posh burger hut.

Somewhere the ghost of Dr Freud is having a chat about satire with Tom Lehrer.

There was the traditional roll-out of “tempting” new policies. For Hard Labour, a pledge to make employers pay minimum wage earners an extra £1.50 by about 2020. And a promise to sweep away the problems of the health service with a massive two-and-a-half billion in extra cash, totally dwarfing the extra, er, three billion pounds injected by the Coalition. Just this year.

Too little too late.

It could be Hard Labour’s next election slogan. The Country is crying out for a genuinely BOLD alternative to business as usual, a change from the Rich and the City doing very nicely while it’s austerity all round for the rest of us, but the best Labour can come up with is more of the same but a little bit less so.

Mr Milipede’s “don’t mention the economy” moment (he didn’t mention it once and didn’t get away with it), is just too perfect a metaphor for the emptiness of Hard Labour’s offering. It’s actually the sort of error that it’s impossible to recover from – because there’s no way the Tories or the Tory press are going to let him – but with six months to go, Hard Labour are saddled with him and he with them. If he loses, it will certainly have the fluffy foot of fate pointed at it as the defining moment of his failure.

But, if it is possible, what was worse than the TIMIDITY of suggesting a rise to a mere £8 an hour after five more years of inflation, was Mr Milipede trying to sell us this on the grounds that it RAISED MONEY FOR THE GOVERNMENT. The poor workers get to pay more in taxes and receive less in tax credits, so Mr Balls is quids in in the Treasury, but whatever happened to helping the low-paid?

Make the Minimum Wage £10 an hour. From 2015. And don’t tax people on it. That would be a GAME CHANGING, not to mention VOTE WINNING promise. Give the people who need it most MORE of their own money to spend and see if it doesn’t boost the economy AND lift people out of poverty.

I want to be EVEN MORE radical! I want to see an economy that genuinely shares its successes – a kind of John Lewis Partnership of Britain, with a British Dividend, a share of the GDP for everyone, so that you’re rewarded for work but not totally dependent on your job. Because success comes from companies that work together, not from bosses and workers trapped in a them-and-us conflict.

Labour just want to tinker with the already broken system that enslaves people in zero-hours jobs and poverty pay.

The Conservatories, on the other fluffy foot, want to abolish your Rights. And if that doesn’t persuade you, how about some money!

Seriously, though, if you ever wanted reasons to vote for the Liberal Democrats, you just have to tot up the Tories shopping-list of TERRIBLE IDEAS that we have STOPPED them thrusting down your necks in the last five years:

I’d say it was all an exercise in willy-waving, but, er

And finally, of course, there were the Party Games. Pin the Tale on the Dimbledonkey. Call My Bluff. Do the In-Out-In-Out Hokey-Cokey. And of course Hunt the West Lothian Question. First Mr Balloon managed to derail Hard Labour’s agenda, by making the talk of their conference all about English Toasts for English Muffins. Sauce for the goose, then, when Mr Froggage the Kipper managed to derail the Conservatories’ agenda, by making the talk of their conference all about which rat would be next to jump ship.

(You can probably understand the kind of crossness that prompted inept Tory Chairperson Shan’t Gaps to bawl from the platform: “he lied and lied and lied”, but it was… let’s just say UNWISE. You didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to foresee UKIP’s reply: “Mr Balloon promised a referendum on Europe, he promised to cut immigration; he promised to balance the books: he lied and lied and lied.”)

It’s not that there ISN’T a good answer to the “English Votes” question. The answer, OBVIOUSLY, is that England does not deserve SECOND-CLASS, SECOND-HAND MPs.

Why should people in England ONLY get one overworked MP when every voter in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland has BOTH an MSP/AM/MLA to address their devolved policies AND an MP to represent them at the national level? Mr Balloon is trying to SHORT-CHANGE the English YET AGAIN.

You do have to admit, the Pie-Faced – not to mention TWO-faced – Prime Monster… mmmm, two pies… I’m drifting… Mr Balloon is good at pulling a FAST ONE. His turn on the steps of Downing Street the morning after the referendum before was as cunning as fox coming out the henhouse claiming that all those feathers were because he’d been doing the dusting. Mr Milipede OUGHT to have shut that down FAST by WELCOMING the forthcoming SCOTLAND BILL and saying how much he looked forward to the discussions that would lead to an ENGLAND BILL to follow.

After all, the question of “devo max” has been very fully discussed in Scotland; the question of what the English peoples want has barely been touched upon. Certainly it’s not something that can be answered by Mr Balloon pondering it over his cornflakes and deciding, you know what, the answer must be what Tory policy has been all along and nobody wanted.

Instead Milipede Minor gave us his famous “Wallace-caught-in-headlights” look. It was as if he’d forgotten to think about something. Again.

For a so-called Political Wonk, he’s really not good on the issues very much, is he?

So in the Red Corner we’ve got a promise to be REALLY hard on skivers and you’ll get a bit more money, eventually, sometime, paid for by someone else, if they can afford it, maybe. And tears about the NHS. And in the blue corner we’ve got a promise to be REALLY REALLY hard on scroungers and you’ll get no Human Rights but a bit less tax, and more if you’re rich. And tears about the NHS.

It’s almost like they’re all trying not to win the next general election. Is it like getting the Defence Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts?

*Except, probably, for Theresa "British values will prevail against extremism and that’s why I’m abolishing them!” May.

Our Hoax Secretary would rather make an outrageous speech that tries to cover up for her own department’s inadequacies with a “won’t somebody think of the children” and a claim that Liberal Democrats protecting your Internet records were somehow responsible for her losing data and failing to act.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Day 5011: DOCTOR WHO: Crime Traveller, no, wait, come back!


Now that’s much more like it.

Superficially, a piece of stylish fluff after “Ocean’s Eleven” or TV’s “Hustle”, even to the slo-mo entrance and how-they-did-it flashback.

But, Saibra, a shape-shifter just dying for someone to see the real her, and Psi, a human computer who casts aside his memories and his past, could almost be wearing signs saying “we’re aspects of the Doctor”. And a descent into the Plutonic underworld, the minotaur-guarded labyrinth, to unlock the heart’s desire might just make this the most heavily symbolic episode yet in this series that seems intent on “unlocking” the Doctor’s psyche.

The much talked about “change of tone” for season eight seems less of a specific new direction and more a real effort to grasp the series defining ethos of change. With a different kind story every week, Victorian mystery to space war, historical romp to urban horror, they’re almost taking us back to the Hartnell era for diversity of story modes (and oh look, there’s a Sensorite between Androvax from “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, Captain John from “Torchwood” and Daffy Abslom Daak from the pages of “Doctor Who Magazine”). And they’re not so much defining Capaldi’s Doctor as any one thing, yet, but throwing a whole lot of things at him to see what he does with them all.

So let’s look at the Doctor’s psyche this week: a mix of seventh Doctor cunning, first Doctor scorn, and a dash of sixth Doctor braggadocio (“What you need right now is ME!”). And I forgot the eighth Doctor amnesia!

Let me toss a theory out there: each episode so far this year is looking at a side of the Doctor’s character, in fact one of his character flaws: “Deep Breath” represents his self-doubt; “Into the Dalek”, obviously, hatred; “Robot of Sherwood” is cynicism; “Listen” clearly fear; (and of course “The Caretaker” will be all about the Doctor’s jealousy); so, this week – well, given how secure the “securest bank in the Universe” turns out to be, it’s tempting to say we’re talking about his insecurities, but it’s pretty flagged up that really this is all about guilt.

The beautifully designed Teller creature feeds on guilt – and I love the twist of satire that I read on the Net that the bank is quite safe from their pet monster because bankers feel no guilt; harsh but fair. The reveal at the end that the escapade has been initiated by the guilt – as regrets – of the bank’s director, Madam Karabraxos. And the thing the Doctor desires most in the Universe, (or at least appears to) is to make the Teller not the last of his kind, the “survivor guilt” that has plagued the Doctor since Gallifrey, even if he now never foomed the homeworld after all.

Admittedly, the “monster actually pining for his mate” is a rerun of the ending of “Hide”, but rather than being a handbrake turn in a scary-movie story, this felt like a natural twist in a story mode where twists are the order of the day. And it’s not like it wasn’t flagged up ahead of time: the Guantanamo jumpsuit and chains, and the Doctor even asks what hold the bankers could have over the Teller.

And what sort of Teller would the richest bank in the galaxy employ anyway? Obviously a fortune teller.

Mind-reading you to death was new and grotesque. I liked that. And made a good counterpoint (and cure) to the reuse of the Memory Worms, previously established in “The Snowmen”. And the monster is still a monster, in the end – it still turned a whole lot of people’s brains to soup. The Doctor just found a way to deal with it that didn’t involve killing it. Interestingly, the Doctor doesn’t pass judgment on that either. Perhaps it’s not his place to mete out more guilt.

Okay, so “Time Heist” is yet another ontological loop: the Doctor becomes involved because Madam Karabraxos calls him on the number she only had because the Doctor became involved. Perhaps I minded it less this week because I didn’t really notice until I thought about it afterwards. It’s fridge logic: you only notice it when you think about it later.

(Unlike the “if he could set it all up, why couldn’t he have just used the TARDIS?” question I’ve seen on the net. They’ve thought of that one: the Doctor even says robbing a bank is easy if you’ve got a TARDIS. But the last lock on the vault can only be opened by the sun exploding(!) which is the one moment that they can’t use the TARDIS. And as for the complaint that the air vents with the “Do Not Enter” signs on are way too big and easy to get into… well of course they are: they lead straight into the Teller’s tank; they are very obviously a trap!)

Unless, of course, the Doctor, as a Time Lord, can just create ontological loops at will – which it certainly looks like he does, just to drag Clara away from her date, an interpretation reinforced by the last moment of the last scene.

Perhaps this one is about his jealous ego after all.

Actually, there are plenty of ways that it does fall apart – surely it’s a bit unlikely that Ms Delphox would leave the big door unlocked after catching the Doctor and Clara in the vault, so how did they get back in after being captured? But if they don’t need to get into the main vault to penetrate the private vault, then why break in there in the first place? And obviously the biggie: why does no one notice that the solar storm is going to destroy the bank?

I’d like to say I forgave it because at least Steve Thompson’s script was showing signs that he’d thought about some of the flaws and set up answers for you to pick up. But perhaps it’s just that I was just having too much fun watching this to notice or mind those as it went along.

And it’s a bit rude of me to just reduce Saibra and Psi to cyphers for the Doctor. In spite of their brief screen time, they both came across as distinct and interesting characters played with a proper sense of the fun that a heist story can be. It was a proper shock when Saibra was got by the Teller and her smart realization of what the “way out” would be. Psi’s decision to sacrifice his empty/forgotten life for Clara was perhaps a bit sketched because of the episode’s runtime, but came across. And for once the “no they’re alive” was less of a sentimental Moffat trope than a genre-appropriate “fooled you!”.

(Does it count as an “everybody lives” if the Teller’s victims are sitting around drooling with their heads caved in? I would say not, actually.)

And they are genuine Lawrence Miles-esque posthumans! The series very underuses the idea that the human race will have a future beyond homo sapiens and – sure, maybe because they borrow all the clich├ęs – these people felt like they were coming from a genuine future culture (or cultures). The bank itself, for that matter, with its mixed clientele and staff in African, Japanese and European couture – not to mention being a big old pyramid – came across as proper transgalactic, too.

Jonathan Bailey as Psi and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Saibra looked good in the roles and looked like they were having a good time doing it. I wouldn’t mind if the Doctor’s “call me” gesture to them at the end led to them returning.

Meanwhile, Keely Hawes is a wonderful and subtle actor playing both Ms Delphox and her boss Director Karabraxos, and managing to make the latter just slightly more human, ingeniously conveying the brittle, hollowness of the clone – again, online complaints that Ms Delphox is just a caricature, a typical Moffat “strong woman villain in black suit and heels” (to be fair, reinforced by Doctor Who Extra making the same point), fall down because that’s exactly what she’s supposed to be – it’s a choice that both confirms Karabraxos’ opinion of Delphox as a “pale imitation” while telling us that it’s possibly the powerlessness and fear of a literal firing that makes her a different person. It’s quite a clever take on the old nature versus nurture debate – Karabraxos puts it down to “nature”: she thinks the clones are by nature inferior to her original; she cannot entertain the possibility that she is not superior, merely lucky to be in the top position. Would she even have felt regrets if the Doctor hadn’t planted the idea in her head? Another paradox, but again, for me, a pleasant tease rather than an annoying flaw.

Anyway, if it is all about psychoanalysing the Doctor it might add some weight to the idea that “Missy” is indeed inside the Doctor’s head, and Clara’s references to the Doctor’s missing conscience resonate too. (Missy, missy, miss…ing? Nah.) This is the second week running without reference to the series arc – baring the briefest reminded about “the woman in the shop” who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number, and that more as a lead-in to the unlikeliness of the phone ringing… ooh, it’s ringing…. But then this is the “hiding in plain sight” episode, so who knows what might come back to bite us.

If there’s a downside to the “a different story every week” format, it’s that you know from the outset that you’re going to get divided reactions to all of them. And I can see why this wouldn’t be for everyone, just as I can see why “Listen” pushed so many people’s buttons but not mine. It makes for a roller-coaster of a series, but one with Peter Capaldi at its heart and always dragging us back to see how he reacts to the next trick out of the bag. His superpower, clearly, is to be the centre of attention. It’s the eyebrows.

Next Time: We’ve done horror. We’ve done heist. Let’s try… a rom com. The horror! The horror! All that stands between the Doctor and a fateful meeting with Clara’s boyfriend is a guy in a bow tie. Oh, and a sort of clockwork owl on castors. With really big guns. There’s been a spillage! Call “The Caretaker”.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 5004: DOCTOR WHO: Nothing at the End of the Plot


"Listen" certainly seems to have pushed the right buttons for most fans of the show, garnering near universal praise from the online communities: an acting tour de force, an intricate character study, and the rest. So I know I'm in a minority on this one.

And there must be some irony there, because "Listen" is a shaggy dog story to which the punchline is "the Emperor has no clothes".

"Why has evolution not come up with perfect hiding?" asks the man who lives in a machine that does – or at least is supposed to do – exactly that.

"Why do we talk to ourselves when we know no one is listening?" he asks when he knows his machine listens to every work he says… and broadcasts them in episodic chunks on the BBC(!)

The story opens with this typical piece of Moffat sleight-of-hand, and he proceeds to run through his usual playbook of directing you to think one thing and then pulling the rug from under you. He does it twice with the identity of the person in the spacesuit, for example.

This is the episode's biggest cheat: the "monster" on the bed. No, the cheat isn't the "did we just save him from a kid in a blanket" line, it's that Clara – who just climbed under the bed to show there was nothing there – does not just whip the sheet off whatever it is. Or at least call out the Doctor for stopping her.

And again we have non-linear intervention in childhood creating someone's future. Clara here is appalled to think that she is now responsible for Danny's past as a soldier which she clearly has trouble relating to as all the misfiring jokes attest.

It ought to be clever, this lifting the veil on how we all change each other by our interactions but rarely see the consequences separated from them as we are by time.

But this is all so familiar now, after Reinette, Amelia, Kasran Sardick, Melody/River Song, and Clara herself. So when Clara ends up doing it again to the Doctor himself, forgive me I stifled a groan.

(With all the repeats of Moffat tropes in this I was tempted to call this "Listen Again"!)

And it very much raises again the issue of consent: how can it be okay for Clara to change people's past this way, which we can explicitly link to her continuing to hug the Doctor even though he has said he doesn't like it. The message here seems to be it's okay for a girl to do that to a man because he has to change, or more bluntly grow up and stop being afraid of that thing that happens in the dark and in beds.

More interesting, potentially, is when we see it flipped when Orson hints to Clara that she is the one caught in a destiny trap now, as it's pretty obvious that if she is Orson's great-grandmother, then she and Danny have to... Does that mean Clara has no free will? Or is that her choices – getting Danny to ask her out for this drink – have set a train of events in motion. After all, if you exercise free will to jump out the window, you can't blame gravity for your lack of further choices in what inevitably follows.

In Marvel's "Days of Future Past" – comic not movie version – or rather the much longer follow up strip "Days of Future Present", knowing that their child from the future means that they have to be together actually drives a couple further part. Is Orson Pink, by telling her and potentially putting her off Danny, creating a Grandfather Paradox? Not every Grandfather Paradox has to involve killing your (great) grand-parent.

But anyway, and speaking of paradox, the answer to the mystery is that the Doctor, by investigating his childhood dream, sort of caused it himself.

All of the rational explanations could just be true. (As long as you ignore the big cheat of the possibly-child on the bed.) The Doctor wrote "listen" on his blackboard himself and forgot, as he later accuses Clara of forgetting her own childhood. When your coffee goes missing, it might just be the Doctor. The knocking sounds on the door of Orson's time capsule might just be the metal cooling and shrinking.

Do we infer that the Doctor being a Time Lord (eventually) the events in that barn on, let's say it, Gallifrey, somehow "imprint" themselves on the Universe so that the dream is repeated throughout time? Or that it's a coincidence that Clara causes the child Doctor to experience what a lot of people have dreamed? Perhaps it's just that I have never had a dream remotely like that, and it bugs me that – once again – Moffat has taken his own experience as universal, rather than subjective. (See also, though more entertainingly, Clara and Danny retreading the autobiographical relationship paths of "Coupling"). And Moffat's life experience comes across as boys need to grow up and have relationships with girls; which is why girls need to force themselves upon him.

Thematically, the Doctor causing his own nightmare feels satisfying, but irritatingly it's another ontological paradox, another Moffat sticking himself in as first cause.

Alex was particularly irritated by Moffat expropriating "fear makes companions of us all", reducing the first Doctor from a wise old man to a parrot quoting parables, which is at least up there with "Timelash" suggesting that HG Wells never had an original idea he didn't copy from a trip with the Doctor. (Does that sound familiar?)
What most infuriated him was Moffat, for the millionth time, being so arrogant as to make a continuity reference and get it wrong because he assumes he must be right in everything and not need to spend a moment checking (starting with the "Time Agents" in his very first story – Greel assumesdoes not work). It's actually "Fear makes companions of all of us," but Moffat just assumes he's right. He's saying he wrote these words and he can't even write the right ones.

But I'm even more bugged by Moffat's own "fear is a superpower" (which he'd already used in "The Time of Angels") ending up a paradoxical "gift from time", as the New Adventures used to have it. Clara hears it first from the Doctor, then tells it to the child who will become the Doctor. So where did it come from?

Well possibly the TARDIS, taking him "where he needs to go", but still.

And we're also doing fan service, tying up three (and more) continuity points: the Doctor's worst day as recounted to Jo in "The Time Monster"; the moment, as he tells Martha in "The Sound of Drums", when as a child of eight he gazed in to the Untempered Schism; and the unasked question of why the War Doctor chose that particular barn in which to do the deed in "The Day of the Doctor". (With a side nod to not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords and just a hint of "Lungbarrow" and a family of cousins in "all the other boys".)

So it's another copying from Russell with more attempted justification for "I never stopped running", which I've never seen as right. He stopped long enough to go to the Academy and take his exams twice, didn't he? He took a TARDIS and went adventuring; that's more than just running away.

And if I'm being picky… the end of the Universe is not going to look like that. There's still a star in the sky! The Stelliferous Era – the Age of Stars – is going to last a hundred trillion years, but that is an eye-blink to a Universe that is going to go on a hundred trillion times a hundred trillion times longer. When the last star burns out, the sky will be full of black holes that eat most of everything that's left, and then slowly evaporate into Hawking Radiation. And once they're all gone, all that remains is dust that escaped the gravity wells infinitesimally gradually, over eons and eons, falling to bits by proton decay until there are only scattered photons barely warmer than absolute zero. The long, cold dark is very long and very cold indeed.

(Enough time even for me to get a few reviews done!)

And I know it's really not the point, but it does bug me that the "things that come out in the dark" don't even get to wait for the real dark.

Unless, unless… could it even be deliberate – that though we're told it's things coming out of the dark, the truth is that things come out of the pink? And the message is don't listen – don't blink – to what you're told and instead use your eyes to make your own observations…

"Listen" is full of the Doctor and Clara making mistakes, but because they don't tell each other what they know, actively deny each other information – the Doctor orders Clara back into the TARDIS; Clara makes the Doctor take off from Gallifrey without knowing where he's been – then they don't learn from this. If Clara had just explained she'd been distracted and piloted them into in Danny's childhood, not her own… If she'd said something about what she suspects is her timeline's connection to Orson… if she'd just told the Doctor "I may have just accidentally caused your dream" then… well, the plot would have collapsed like a bubble of air.

And because the direction cuts away, we don't get the whole picture of either of their points of view either. Did the Doctor see anything when that door opened? Why does he seem to feel the plot is resolved at the end when he underlines the word "listen" on his chalkboard? (Particularly when he missed the key revelation to Clara.) Either he's just been a bit of an idiot or she has. Occam's razor: Moffat has.

These ambiguities are what the series is playing on at the moment, a more metaphorical take on "Who", perhaps, than the season six arc, but it's still all bit "ooh, I'm so ambiguous, I am. Or am I?"

Fear is more complicated than a super-power (and more common: we can't all fly. That's why that's called a super-power): it can paralyse as well as empower; it can make us procrastinate as well as set us running; it can be an incredibly conservative force – as we've seen in the Scottish referendum, only most recently. Clara's fear of embarrassment (perhaps to partially redeem what I said above) drives her failure to explain – and disarm – the plot to the Doctor. But not everything in life can be a farce. Part of the illusion of "Listen" is that it uses the series' history and quotes, and Moffat's usual storytelling gimmicks, to dress up Robert Holmes' riposte to Mary Whitehouse about scaring the little buggers as though it's something profound.

And "sometimes it's good to scared" is fine as far as it goes but it just isn't that profound.

A lot of it is very, very good. Jenna Coleman is outstanding, whether it's being brave for Rupert Pink when something sits on the bed or realising just what she's done when she grabs the child Doctor's ankle. The direction manages to take some shonky stock horror scenarios and make them genuinely tense or tender or even moving as required. Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink is much more interesting than your usual male Doctor Who companion – or male Moffat character for that matter – with a habit of emotional hand-break turns that suggests something broken and an interesting past even (or especially) before Clara starts messing with it. The one outstanding visual of the episode – the Doctor's zen meditation atop the orbiting TARDIS – will stay in the mind for a long time. And Capaldi himself dances a line between terrifying and hilarious, and continues to give his Doctor an alien, not quite getting it vibe, and terrible, aching yearning to know.

But still we end with the Emperor telling us that there was nothing under the bed, it was all just scary misdirection, he has no clothes on. Which is at least a cheeky admission of sorts, I suppose.

Next time: Let's do this properly by crashing the TARDIS into someone else's genre, or in this case Doctor Who does "Hustle". Take the money or open the box? In "Time Heist".

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.