Media

Black Orchid

What my last post boiled down to, essentially, was that I’m old enough now, with around three and a half decades behind me, to have become aware of some of the ways that values and norms of acceptability have shifted just during my lifetime, such that people (of whom I am one) see the world differently now, when I’m thirty-four, than many of the same of us did back when I was, say, fifteen.  That time, I was talking about sport, but I recently came upon the same phenomenon again in a different context during my family’s multi-year Doctor Who rewatch.

The Cranleighs. At least, those of them who survive the story.
BlackOrchidCranleighs

We’ve reached season nineteen in the rewatch, Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor, and recently we watched “Black Orchid”.  It was first transmitted on 1–2 March 1982, and there’s simply no way the same story in the same way could be told now, in 2014.

(Ten-year-old David Tennant was probably still excitedly watching his future father-in-law’s time as the Doctor when “Black Orchid” premiered, though twenty-three-year-old Peter Capaldi is more likely to have outgrown the programme by then. And, literally, no one had even conceived of Matt Smith yet.)

There are spoilers ahead for “Black Orchid”.

In the story, the TARDIS materialises in the 1920s at the home of Lord Cranleigh, who lives in a huge country manor somewhere in the Home Counties with his fiancée, Miss Ann Talbot, and his mother, the dowager Lady Cranleigh.  (I apologise for referring to a mother-and-son pair as Lady and Lord Cranleigh, because I know that’s confusing, but it’s how they’re continuously referred to throughout the story, except for when the local police commissioner once addresses Lady Cranleigh as “Madge”.)  Lord Cranleigh is the younger brother of George Cranleigh, a famed botanist who was killed by natives during an exploratory expedition in the Amazon rain forest; Ann was engaged to George before she agreed to marry Lord Cranleigh after the elder brother died.

Nyssa, Adric, Tegan and the Doctor
BlackOrchidTARDIS

The TARDIS team (at this time consisting of the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) have arrived on the day of an annual masquerade ball at the Cranleigh residence.  At Lord Cranleigh’s insistence, they agree to attend; Cranleigh and Ann provide them with costumes from the house supply.

What neither the TARDIS crew nor Ann know, though, is that George Cranleigh is not dead; during his expedition to the Amazon, the natives tortured him in a way that left him physically deformed and mentally unbalanced.  Once George was returned to England, Lord and Lady Cranleigh decided to keep his survival a secret, and have been holding him captive in a secret room deep within their manorhouse in order to save both him and themselves the embarrassment of being made a public spectacle.

While the masquerade ball is going on, however, George manages to escape from his captivity, killing one of the household staff in the process.  He then sneaks through the secret passages that riddle the house until he arrives in the Doctor’s bedroom, where he dons the harlequin costume the Doctor is to wear to the ball.

The Doctor does not see George, but he does find the secret passageway that George used to get to his room.  He follows it back to George’s room, where he finds the body of the murdered servant.  He summons Lady Cranleigh and shows her the body; she express shock and mystification at the murder, but fails to tell the Doctor about the existence of George.  She promises him that she will call the police immediately, and asks the Doctor not to tell the other guests about the murder so as not to upset them.  The Doctor is reluctant but agrees and returns to his room.

George Cranleigh, disguised as the Doctor disguised as a harlequin, makes his move on his long-lost fiancée
BlackOrchidGeorgeCranleigh

George, meanwhile, with his face covered by the harlequin mask, has infiltrated the masquerade, where he brutally attacks Ann Talbot and murders a second servant.  He then escapes back into the depths of the house, where, after he politely returns the harlequin costume to the Doctor’s room, he is secretly recaptured and returned to captivity by Lord and Lady Cranleigh.  The Doctor, meanwhile, has returned to his room, where he puts the harlequin costume on and arrives at the masquerade just in time for Ann to identify him as the man who attacked her.

This is followed by a fairly predictable twenty minutes in which Lady Cranleigh refuses to help the Doctor and covers up the fact that she knows it was her son George who is in fact the culprit, leading to the police arresting the Doctor for murder.  Matters come to a head when George escapes once more.  He sets fire to the house, then kidnaps Nyssa and retreats onto the roof with her as a hostage.  Lord Cranleigh redeems himself (apparently) when he and the Doctor follow George onto the roof of the burning manorhouse and persuade him to release Nyssa.  Lord Cranleigh, realising the error of his ways, steps forward to embrace his brother, but George instead hurls himself off the parapet and falls to his death.  I think we’re meant to take George’s suicide as demonstrating just how far his mind had gone, but it more feels to me like he was simply terrified of the man who has kept him tied to the bed in a darkened room for the past two years.

But it doesn’t matter why George has killed himself; he has, so now that’s cleared up, the TARDIS team and the Cranleighs can all be friends again, and there is much smiling as our heroes bid farewell and depart through the TARDIS doors.

Which, of course, points up the biggest problem with viewing “Black Orchid” nowadays—that this ending is considered happy.  The conflict has been resolved, and so everyone can move on with their lives.  This necessarily implies, then, that the conflict in “Black Orchid” is that George Cranleigh has survived his torture in a deformed and unbalanced state, and not—as I think any viewer in 2014 would expect—that his brother and mother are so monstrously inhumane that they have secretly kept him imprisoned in a tiny room with no natural light because admitting that he is still alive would embarrass them.

(You can make the argument that George Cranleigh might have been so proud a man that he would rather have the world think him dead than be exposed to public scrutiny in his present state; but his repeated and violent attempts at escape would seem to give the lie to that idea.)

It’s important when we look at “Black Orchid” to distinguish between ideas that the story thinks are A-OK by 1982 standards and ideas that the story presents as A-OK by 1920s standards.  We’re obviously not meant to think it’s all right for the Cranleighs to so callously imprison George, or for Lady Cranleigh to allow an innocent man to be arrested for murder rather than admit the truth, but the problem is that our reaction is meant to be one of disapproval rather than condemnation.  Once they stop engaging in their objectionable behaviour—ideally by seeing the light and setting George free, but, you know, I guess him throwing himself off a building and thus removing the dilemma works just as well—then there don’t need to be any consequences for what they’ve done, and it shouldn’t even occur to us that they’re morally responsible for their son/brother’s death.  So incongruous is the ending that I was certain that in my previous viewings of “Black Orchid”—on TV in the mid-90s and when the DVD first came out in 2008—that the Cranleigh brothers had fallen to their deaths together at the story’s climax.

There’s something really ghastly about that final farewell scene, with all the smiles and hugs goodbye.  Tegan, as the only human amongst the Doctor’s companions of the moment (and as a pretty outspokenly judgemental character), is the voice of the 1982 viewer, but the only emotions she displays here are excitement and gratitude when the Cranleighs let the TARDIS crew keep the costumes they wore to the masquerade.  (Read in a broad Australian accent: “D’ya really mean it?  We can keep them?”)

And then there’s the deep creepiness of Lord Cranleigh’s relationship with Ann Talbot—and when I say creepiness, that’s definitely something that we bring to it as 2014 viewers, because the script doesn’t expect the 1982 viewer to have any problem with it whatsoever.  Lord Cranleigh, a man in his mid-thirties, lumps his fiancée in with a group he refers to as “the children”, by which he means the teenagers who are too young to be served alcoholic beverages.  And yet not only is Ann, who we might therefore guess is twenty-one at the oldest (actress Sarah Sutton was twenty at the time the episodes were taped), old enough to be engaged and live with her fiancé, but she’s apparently old enough to have been engaged to an even older man, George Cranleigh, several years ago.

(I think we’re meant to conclude that Ann is the Cranleighs’ ward, which makes the idea of her living with them totally fine at the cost of making her engagement to successive Cranleigh brothers much, much skeevier on the men’s parts.)

And if we the viewers find it impossible to forgive the Cranleighs for what they have done, how much worse is it that Ann seems to forgive them in no time at all?  Sure, she has a tearful exclamation of, “How could you!” when first she finds out, and flees from the room, but her disgust with them seems to last approximately six or seven seconds.  The next time we see her in the sort of context that allows her to show us her state of mind, during the goodbye scene, she is snuggled comfortably in the arms of Lord Cranleigh, the man who knew that her fiancé was still alive but kept that knowledge from her, imprisoned her beloved and used that pretence as a cover to allow him to woo her himself.

That final scene isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story’s problems, but removing it would go a long way to rinsing out the bitter taste that “Black Orchid” leaves in the mouth.  In my last post I wrote from the perspective of being left behind as society changed around me; this time I’m glad that it is I who have changed with society and left behind the outlook that would have allowed us to think of this story as having a happy, or even an acceptable, ending.

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Red Dead Redemption and women

That’s an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the spinoff of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women web series, dealing with the phenomenon of the generic female sex worker NPCs who are so ubiquitous in the background of open-world video games.  It’s thirty minutes, which is a huge time commitment on the Internet, but if you like these sorts of games, it’s well worth it.

Let me start off by making it clear: I love open-world games. I love Grand Theft Auto.  I love Assassin’s Creed.  I love Red Dead Redemption.  I love Sleeping Dogs.  I’m one of the few GTA fans who was around for the original Grand Theft Auto game in the 90s, and I own every GTA game released for console from GTA3 onward.  I own every Assassin’s Creed game released for console.  I replay Red Dead Redemption in the same way that people regularly reread their favourite book.  In fact I’m in the middle of an RDR replay right now, which I started after I finished replaying GTA5 last week; I started GTA5 right after I’d finished replaying Sleeping Dogs.  The games in this video can be divided, fairly evenly, into games I own and love, and games I haven’t played.

(The exception is Just Cause II, which I own and have played but abandoned about halfway through because I just didn’t enjoy it.  It was too much of a shooter and not enough of an action-adventure game for me.)

And yet I can still acknowledge that every criticism Sarkeesian makes in the video—of the games I’ve played specifically and of the culture of M-rated open-world games in general—is valid and deplorable.

I came across the video in Kotaku’s short article linking to it, and then I skimmed through the first few dozen comments.  The level of discourse was a lot higher than I’ve seen in other online posts confronting misogyny in video games, and there were plenty of commenters who recognised the truth of what Sarkeesian is saying.  But of course, there were also plenty who tried to refute her argument, either by being the guy who thinks he’s “living proof that any supposed correlation between ‘long-term exposure to hypersexualized images’ and ‘higher tolerance of sexual harassment of women’ is complete bullshit” because he watches “loads of porn.  I mean, crazy amounts”, but doesn’t think of himself as a misogynist; or by dismissing Sarkeesian’s legitimacy as a critic of video games (apparently because she funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games through Kickstarter?  I couldn’t really follow the logic.); or by attempting to argue that the misogyny in these games is actually A-OK.

I’m going to assume that it’s pretty self evident what the problems are with the first two of those—the dude with too much porn and too little self-awareness, and the guys who would find a way to dismiss anyone who criticised the boobs in their video games—and instead address the last, the guys who acknowledge the misogyny on display here but who have arguments to legitimise it.  I’m mostly going to concentrate on Red Dead Redemption, for three reasons:

(1) It’s the game I’m seeing these commenters cite most often with their arguments;

(2) It’s one of my favourite games of all time; definitely my favourite console game;

(3) It actually is really progressive as far as these things go.  It has multiple strong female characters, one for every act of the game.  Apart from the single instance of the Dastardly trophy (discussed in the video), the player’s interactions with the prostituted women are always either polite or heroic, and the player is not allowed to avail himself of their services.  And again apart from the Dastardly trophy, every instance of violence against women in the game is depicted as making its perpetrator a horrible human being.  I ask myself with every narrative game I play, “Just how bad is the misogyny here?”, because I want to know if this is a game that I can discuss with or recommend to the women with whom I discuss games, and with Red Dead Redemption I come closer to saying, “Not that bad at all,” than I do with pretty much any other open-world game besides Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.  But it’s the very fact that Red Dead is actually one of the least offensively misogynistic games of its genre but is still such low-hanging fruit for a feminist critique that shows just how pervasive a problem this is.

(And yes, I do have to consciously ask myself about the misogyny, because I’m a straight male, and I’m aware that just being a straight male gives me the male privilege of ignoring that misogyny if I don’t make the effort to look for it.  Having male privilege doesn’t make us, as men, bad people; it just makes us men.  It’s only if we use that male privilege to pretend our blindness to misogyny means that the misogyny isn’t there that we make ourselves bad people.)

(Also, it should come at no surprise at this point when I warn that there will probably be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption ahead.)

The counterarguments seem to fall into two general categories: relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s just realism or historical accuracy; or relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s counterbalanced by the presence of three well-developed female characters.

The first argument is easy to refute: it’s just flat out not true.  Even if the situation were simply that Red Dead Redemption depicts women as passive and irrelevant while it’s the men who actively drive events (which of isn’t what’s being criticised, but the commenter would like to pretend that it is), it still wouldn’t be accurate.  You only assume it’s accurate precisely because you’ve been exposed to so much media that pretends it is.  Women have always been active in our public life; women have always been present in fields we think of as traditionally belonging to men.  Anyone who tells you that all the women characters being relegated to passive, supporting roles and kept away from the real action is legitimate storytelling because history isn’t qualified to tell you anything about history.

And besides, that’s not even how Red Dead Redemption presents its world.  It’s not that women don’t get much say in the course of events; it’s that most of the women who appear onscreen are sex workers. I mean, the game allows the character to roam across the American southwest and the Mexican northwest, and about half the women he sees are prostitutes.  Prostitutes who only ever appear in public wearing nothing more than their underwear.  Are you really going to argue that that’s valid in the name of accuracy?  The town of Armadillo is, in the game, the only urban settlement in the state of New Austin.  Its population apparently consists of one general storekeep, one gunsmith, one doctor, one telegrapher, one marshal and two deputies, a staff of three or four at the train station, that weird dude who runs the cinema, a dozen or so pedestrians, a dozen or so customers at the saloon (as well as the saloon keeper and the piano player), and two or three dozen prostituted women.  Does that really seem like an accurate portrayal of a frontier town’s economy to you?  Even accounting for the ranchers in the surrounding counties, there must be one prostituted woman for every two men west of Hennigan’s Stead.  This is no more “accurate” than is GTA5’s depiction of strippers as a demographic who really really want you to grope and fondle them in the champagne room, if only it wasn’t for that mean bouncer putting a stop to their fun, and who will happily take you home with them if you can manage to fondle them enough without the bouncer seeing.

As for the idea that the presence of a strong female character balances out the purely male-gaze prostituted women who are so visible in Red Dead Redemption and, indeed, in so many other open-world games.  Red Dead does indeed have three really solid female characters with a lot of depth to them, and that’s (sadly) a lot for a game like this.  In fact, let’s take a look at all the main characters in Red Dead Redemption to see just how overrepresented women are.  I’ll even highlight them so it’s easier to see their prevalence in the game world:

(I’m defining a “major character” here as someone who either (1) is John Marston, (2) gives Marston a main-storyline mission, (3) is one of the major villains Marston has to hunt down in the climactic missions of each act of the game, or (4) doesn’t give Marston a mission per se, but who is a frequent companion of a mission-giver and accompanies or leads Marston on multiple missions, like Nastas the Indian or Captain Espinoza.)

CHARACTERS IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION

John Marston, male

Characters in the New Austin act

Bill Williamson, male (Williamson also appears in one mission in the Mexico act.)

Bonnie McFarlane, female (Bonnie also appears in two missions in the final act.)

Marshal Johnson, male

Jonah, male

Eli, male

Nigel West-Dickens, male (West-Dickens also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Drew McFarlane, male (Drew also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Seth, male

Irish, male

Characters in the Mexico act

Landon Ricketts, male

Captain de Santa, male

Colonel Allende, male

Luisa, female

Captain Espinoza, male

Abraham Reyes, male

Javier Escuella, male

Characters in the final act

Edgar Ross, male (Agent Ross also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Agent Fordham, male (Agent Fordham also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Dutch van der Linde, male

Professor MacDougal, male

Nastas, male

Abigail Marston, female

Jack Marston, male

Uncle, male

I mean, yeah, right?  It’s ridiculous how overrepresented women are in Red Dead Redemption.  It’s clear as day in that list.  Twelve per cent of the characters in the game who speak, have personalities, interact with the player and move the game forward are women.  That’s a ridiculously high proportion for a game with pretensions to “historical accuracy”.

(Seriously who can immerse themselves in a huge, deep game world like Red Dead Redemption but where only three out of twenty-five actual active human beings are female, and somehow come away with the idea that they’ve been playing a “historically accurate” rendition of how Western society works?  I guess the same guy who can play a game in which you can lasso and hogtie a prostituted woman, then place her on the train tracks, and she continues to sassily flirt with you while you both wait for the train to come run her over, and still describe the game he’s been playing as “historically accurate”.)

Like I said, Red Dead Redemption does have more—and more fully developed—major female characters than its peers such as most of the Grand Theft Auto games and most of the Assassin’s Creed games and Sleeping Dogs.  But that just highlights how low the standard is; it doesn’t make Red Dead some sort of bastion of egalitarian storytelling for giving John Marston literally one woman per act to interact with.  Pointing to Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail as if they somehow insulate the game from being called out on the objectification of the sex worker NPCs does much more to confirm accusations of misogyny in video gaming than it does to refute it.

But let’s say that three strong female characters really was impressive.  Let’s say Red Dead Redemption really did have a historically accurate, representative gender balance in its main narrative and cast of characters.  That still doesn’t change that the bordellos in towns throughout the game are creepy, male-gazey bits of window dressing that encourage the players to treat these women as being there just for their own entertainment.  Quite simply, the presence of the one element doesn’t erase the presence of the other.

(This works just as well in the opposite direction.  A lot of the commenters seem to take Sarkeesian’s criticism of Red Dead Redemption’s sex worker NPCs as her somehow saying that the presence of Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail doesn’t count.  Sarkeesian doesn’t ignore the major female characters or pretend they don’t exist; they simply aren’t relevant to a discussion of Red Dead being yet another instance of games that use sexualised images of women as objectified window dressing for the presumed straight male player.)

I started out by saying that I love open-world games in general, and I love Red Dead Redemption in particular.  I’m reiterating that now.  It’s important always to remember that finding some elements of a piece of media problematic doesn’t mean that other elements of it can’t be very satisfying and rewarding; it’s also important to remember that it is okay to like even the problematic elements.  But that doesn’t mean the problematic elements aren’t problematic, and it doesn’t mean we can wave away or dismiss the very real issues they raise.

Read Dead Redemption would be just as compelling and immersive a game without its three towns full of women walking around wearing only corsets, bloomers and stockings.  The gameplay experience would be just as satisfying. And yet someone still seems to think they need to be there.  And not just in Red Dead, but over and over again, in GTA, in Assassin’s Creed, you name it.  Why?

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Eurovision!

Last week was Eurovision, always one of my favourite afternoons of the year.  Lisa and I were honestly really impressed with the music this year, at least in the final (I didn’t watch the semi-finals)—usually Eurovision manages to turn up ten or twelve solid songs that I like, but this year I’d say it was somewhere around twenty, out of twenty-six entries.  Even the UK had a strong song, and that’s not normally something I get to say.

That did mean there was a lack of gimmicky weirdness this year.  The closest we came to that was the buxom, revealingly-clad peasant girls Poland sent onstage to churn butter and wash clothes during their song.  But apart from that, every entry let its song do its singing.  (Yes, that means Conchita Wurst won on the strength of her song.)

So in the absence of oddity, I guess I’ll just be highlighting my favourite songs this year.  Well, I’ll start with Lisa’s favourite, which was Belarus.  Here’s “Cheesecake” by Teo:

I really liked Iceland, though I did understand immediately that it had no chance of winning.  Iceland has vastly different songs every year, but I’ve noticed that they pretty much always manage to come up with something that I like a lot.  I was torn here whether to use the song’s music video or else use the live performance.  I decided on the live performance, because I think it serves the song better, but if you like Aquabats-style low-budget enthusiasm, I encourage you to check out the video.  “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk:

But my favourite song—hands down, in a year full of great songs—was Spain.  I thought this was hauntingly beautiful, and honestly it had me from the opening chords.  Again I had a tough time choosing which performance to put here.  Ultimately I went with the live performance because I really liked the rainfall effect they created onstage (Boy asked if it was really raining inside the auditorium), but I did think that the dancing segments in the music video were pretty sexy.  “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo:

And one last word, on the interval entertainment, while voting was in progress and while the votes were being tallied.  This is normally, you know, just something to watch for twenty minutes.  And I have to say, I think Eurovision hosts have a pretty tough job: they have to banter in English, not their native language, and they have to do it slowly enough for an audience, many of whom do not speak the language terribly well, to follow along.

This year the interval entertainment was genius, and it was made so largely through the comedic abilities of the hosts, especially Pilou Asbæk (who, Wikipedia tells me, appeared in The Borgias in 2013, though it doesn’t say in what role).  The Museum of Eurovision History skit and the ode to the number twelve were hilarious.

Until we meet again, in Vienna.

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A real historian makes my argument for me

I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson.  The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766.  That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.

In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776.  As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.

Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.

This immediately put me on my guard.  I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.

But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that.  That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years.  But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s.  For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.

When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it.  We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.

To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire.  When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory.  (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.)  When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance.  When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.

Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:

Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War.  Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution.  No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period.  By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.

(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)

Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent.  “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”

This hits on something really important in history: perspective.  It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.

This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history.  Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering.  But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.

The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms.  By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.

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New Orleans and the world that made it

Yesterday I finished The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette, a history of the first hundred years of the Crescent City, from its founding in 1718 through 1818.  It was a topic I went seeking out, I freely admit, because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, which is set in New Orleans in the 1760s and has as its hero a femme de couleur libre.

worldthatmadeneworleansSublette opens his book by telling us that it’s “not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.”  This if anything understates the presence of music in the book, which shouldn’t be surprising for a city that has for two hundred years been known for the vibrancy, uniqueness and Africanness of its musical traditions (just like its religious and cultural traditions), through which it birthed the art form that is modern American music.  The book definitely comes across as a work written by someone who was brought to the history through a love of the music, rather than someone who was brought to the music through a love of the history; but as such, it gives you a perspective on the history of New Orleans that’s absolutely necessary and couldn’t have been achieved the other way around.  Sublette occasionally assumes that his readers will find a certain specific commonality between the musical/dancing traditions of New Orleans and Trinidad, or Cuba and Guadeloupe, as prima facie fascinating as he does, but that’s a small price to pay for that.

(The other small price to pay is Sublette’s insistence on referring to foreign monarchs by their names translated into their own national languages, even for those monarchs who are known in English only by their English-language names.  So he refers to Felipe II of Spain, not Philip of Spain, and to Carlos III, not Charles III, making it tough to follow the fact that he’s talking about individuals who already have established names and identities in English-language historiography.  Maybe he worked for NBC during the 2006 Winter Games.)

(No, I’m never going to let that go, NBC.  We speak English, so we call the city Turin.)

The book’s title is an accurate one—this is a book about the world that made New Orleans, and as much time is spent on history elsewhere as is spent on the city itself.  This could well be because, for most of its first century, New Orleans was a small, distant outpost, and there wouldn’t be much more with which to fill four hundred pages than there would be for a history of the first century of Charleston, South Carolina, or Bridgetown, Barbados.  So what we get instead are introductions to all the distant places and events that poured themselves into New Orleans and forged the city’s unique character.

There’s a chapter on French court life during the regency of the duc d’Orleans (during the childhood of Louis XV, the only French king ever to rule over New Orleans), since it was the duke who first sent French settlers to the mouth of the Mississippi and for whom their settlement was named.  There’s a chapter on life in prerevolutionary Haiti and a chapter on the revolution itself, which led so many refugees, eventually, to resettle in New Orleans—white men and the black slaves and mixed-race concubines they brought with them.  (Those chapters made me look forward to playing Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, whose hero is an escaped slave washed up on the shores of prerevolutionary St-Domingue.)  And when we get to 1803, there’s a chapter on Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, and another on the booming American slave trade of which the Big Easy suddenly found itself the fulcrum.

These last two were the chapters that blew my mind.

First, Jefferson.  Sublette spends a chapter voicing, eloquently and incisively, exactly the same reaction I have whenever the morality or virtue or greatness of Thomas Jefferson is discussed.  Yes, Jefferson was the primary author of the most famous affirmation of political self-determination ever written.  Yes, he forcefully and repeatedly articulated that the only way for Americans to practise the freedom of religion that we hold so dear is for us to maintain a government that is wholly free from religion and entirely secular.  Yes, throughout his life he wrote against slavery and wrote of it as an evil that does harm to everyone it touches.

He also owned other human beings, his entire adult life.  He lived a life of leisure and comfort, made possible only by the labour (and lives and good health and children) he stole from them every day, a life in which he generated huge debts that he knew quite well would be paid by the breakup and sale of the families he owned after his death.  He raped at least one of his slaves.  (And yes, it is rape to have sex with a human being you own, full stop, and it deserves to be called out as such.  And the fact that the woman he raped was his dear deceased wife’s half-sister only makes it creepier.)  And through the Louisiana Purchase, as Sublette points out, not only did he significantly increase the extent of American slavery’s territorial grasp, but he gave the slave industry a crucial shot in the arm that was a major factor in allowing it to boom right up until the Civil War.

Whenever the moral hypocrisy of the man is pointed out, the first half of all that always gets brought up as if it somehow alleviates him of the moral responsibility of the second half.  I’ve never understood why that would be, and apparently neither has Sublette.  Rather, the second half negates whatever praise he might have earnt from the first.  Sublette explains at length why that is, and my original idea for this post was simply to transcribe the entire Jefferson chapter verbatim, until I considered, you know, the law.  (Also all that typing.)  So I’ll content myself with just two paragraphs:

No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not.  If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case), we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof.  On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime.  After all, you can do with your property as you like.

And so we come to the chapter on the American system of chattel slavery.  I’ve done a bit of research on slavery in the past few years, though (like most Americans) I still don’t know nearly as much about it as I should.  I do have it on my reading list to read a book devoted to the institution, but I haven’t got there yet; so it’s entirely possible (hell, even likely) that the points Sublette makes, which have significantly shifted how I looked at American slavery, are points that are very commonly made in the literature about it.

I did already know a few things.  I knew that both abolitionists and slavery advocates believed strongly that slavery had to continually expand in order to survive.  This means, for instance, that when Abraham Lincoln reassured the South that he did not want to abolish slavery, merely contain it within its present extent, both Lincoln and the slaveowners were well aware that that “containing” slavery was code for “condemn it to a slow, gasping death without the need for legislation”.  And I knew that, generally speaking, the American slave population expanded from the northern and eastern states of the South into the southern and western states.  And I knew that Congress forbade the slave trade—the importation of slaves from locations outside the United States—in 1808, the very earliest date allowed by the Constitution.

But I hadn’t put those three things together and carried them out to their logical extreme.  We all know—or we all should know—that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revitalised the American slave trade.  It industrialised the processing of cotton for its use in manufacturing, and so it vastly increased the demand for unprocessed cotton; and unprocessed cotton, because of the intensity of labour, miserable conditions and lack of education required to harvest it, is something that lends itself readily to slave labour.  Then, following close on the heels of the cotton gin was the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new lands to plantation cultivation, and therefore to the slave trade.

It’s easy, therefore, to see slavery and its hold on the South as an unfortunate accident of history—tragic, monstrous, criminal, but still also accidental.  Slavery, such an argument would go, only took such economic hold because it was needed to prop up the cotton industry, and it was to cotton that the Southern economy was dedicated.

But that ignores the facts.  Slavery very quickly became an industry in and of itself, an industry that was perpetuated just for its own sake.  Those plantations in Virginia and North Carolina and parts of Kentucky had been under cultivation for a hundred years—in the case of Virginia, two hundred.  Their soil was spent.  They could be more profitable planted with cotton than with tobacco, sure, thanks to the cotton gin; but they still wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the cotton plantations in the virgin soil of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Arkansas.

But those new plantations presented an opportunity to the planters—to turn their existing slave populations into a source of profit, by using them as seed stock from which to breed the slaves who would fill up the new lands.  (Does that sound horrible and dehumanising?  Good.)  It’s not just that slavery thrived because it supported the thriving cotton industry; the cotton industry thrived because it supported the thriving slave industry.  We can talk of cotton plantations in Virginia and Carolina and Kentucky that operated on slave labour; but we might also talk of slave plantations that happened to grow cotton.  The cotton there was grown not as an end in itself, but as something for the slaves to do during the ten or fifteen years it took to raise a baby up into a saleable field hand.

That’s why slavery “needed always to expand in order to survive”; because as plantation lands filled up with slaves, their owners needed new, virgin lands opened up in which to sell their children.  That’s why Congress outlawed the importation of foreign blacks on literally the very first day allowed by the Constitution: because, like a tariff on foreign manufactures (the existence of which the Confederacy would denounce as being the other reason they were seceding), it kept the cost of the domestic good artificially high.  And that is why slave migration followed a basic north and east to west and south pattern: because slaveowners in the more settled regions were actively breeding slave populations who were always intended to be sold on down to newer plantations.  (In countless cases, the slaveowners were of course actively fathering parts of the population that they always intended to sell.)  We know that slave trading frequently caused the separation of families and we think their owners were monstrous for allowing this (the scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti in Twelve Years a Slave touches on this), but we are perhaps less cognizant of the idea that many families were created so that they could then be broken up—so that their children, when they reached an age where they’d be capable of a full day’s work, could be loaded onto flatbottom boats in Wheeling or Louisville and floated thousands of miles downriver, to be displayed in a showroom and sold on an auction block.

The World That Made New Orleans has twenty-two chapters, and those are only two of them.  The book had its weaknesses, but on the whole I’m glad I read it—and I’m really glad I read those two chapters, because they’re going to inform how I look at their topics for a long time.

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The Doctor has his Day (SPOILERS)

Three DoctorsOn Friday, we passed the fifty years since the deaths of two of the great names of early British fantasists; and then a day later, Britain’s greatest television fantasy reached its fiftieth birthday, and threw itself quite the party.

I’d been somewhat worried about the fiftieth-anniversary special.  Despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to avoid spoilers about all the elements from the last fifty years of Who history that it would be giving screentime to: Daleks and Zygons and Cybermen (about which … um … ?) and David Tennant and Billie Piper.  Combined with the cliffhanger that had ended “The Name of the Doctor”, with the Smith Doctor and Clara trapped in the deepest depths of a vaguely defined “Doctor’s Timestream” in which all his memories and past adventures could haunt them, that had got me really worried that the special would take place in some sort of fantasy dreamland in which gratuitous continuity references could be hurled at us for eighty minutes as placeholders for an actual story or dramatic tension, a la “The Five Doctors”.

But I will happily admit I felt a lot better after seeing “The Night of the Doctor“.  That reassured me that the special was going to approach things in what I think is exactly the right way: more self-indulgent than we’d expect of a typical Doctor Who story, to be sure, and with some continuity elements that were going to be baffling to audience members who didn’t understand their history, but with the needs of the story still supreme and with every allusion and reference and onscreen recurrence having an actual, legitimate justification for appearing.

As a piece of nostalgia and as a celebration of Doctor Who, I think “The Day of the Doctor” does its job wonderfully well.  By its end I was grinning with happiness.  It was full of love for the programme it was honouring, it was funny, it was dramatic.  It gave us a climax that I think we all have known was inevitable, in one form or another, for many years, and because of the occasion it was able to give us that climax in a way that made it as special a moment for us as it was for the Doctor.

(And I will freely admit that I spent much of the episode thinking, See? This is exactly what I was talking about!”)

Billie Piper was excellent.  I loved the banter between the three Doctors, which I honestly felt was written better than in any of the previous multi-Doctor stories, and I particularly liked the Smith Doctor’s habit of commenting on allusions to Who history: “Nice scarf!”; “You never do”; “He always says that.”  And was that final cameo by Tom Baker widely known about?  Because I certainly managed to stay unspoilt for it, about which I’m very glad; that wonderful little surprise at the end really made my day.

As a work of storytelling, an episode of Doctor Who and a contribution to Who continuity, “Day” is a lot more mixed, I think.  Of course we all knew from the moment the Moment (hehe) chose to present herself as Rose Tyler that the episode would end with the Hurt Doctor having his memory wiped of events.  But I think that by using that memory loss to allow him never to have destroyed Gallifrey, never to have pushed that big red button, Steven Moffat struck a real blow at the character of the Doctor as it’s been constructed over the last eight years.

The Doctor pushed that button.  The Doctor murdered every Time Lord and every Gallifreyan.  Throughout the RTD and Moffat production eras–particularly the RTD era–that has been who he is.  It’s not just a matter of him thinking he once did it, it’s a matter of him being someone who did do it–a matter of him having been the Doctor, as the Smith Doctor so wonderfully puts it, on the day it was impossible to get it right.  There are so many times over the course of New Who when the Doctor opts to once again push that button or this time not to push it, and the dramatic impact of those moments is very much informed by our knowledge, as the viewer, that he is a man who has pushed that button before, knowing that there would be no escape, and who could choose to push it again in the same circumstances: when he refuses to unleash the delta wave in “The Parting of the Ways”, when he drops the impossible planet into the black hole in “The Satan Pit”, when he shows Miss Hartigan what she has become in “The Next Doctor”, when he flirts with megalomania in “The Waters of Mars”, when he sacrifices himself to seal the cracks in the universe in “The Big Bang”.

All those moments now have been altered.  The Doctor no longer is someone who definitely can get it wrong, because he no longer is someone who definitely did get it wrong when it mattered most and there was no right way to get it.  He is a less fallible and therefore less compelling character.

I don’t object to Gallifrey coming back; indeed, I welcome it, as long as it’s handled right–and the writers of the programme for the past eight years have consistently shown me that they can indeed handle potentially tricky continuity morasses like this.  But I object to the Hurt Doctor never having had to press that red button, and I object to him coming out of the situation knowing that he found a way to avoid pressing it, even if that knowledge did then get locked up in his head for four hundred years.

But for me the important thing about “The Day of the Doctor” is how wonderful it was to be a Doctor Who fan yesterday, and how much the episode helped that wonder along.  When we reached the fortieth anniversary ten years ago, the idea of having anything like this for the fiftieth would have been laughable.  But we’ve had a fiftieth-anniversary special that now holds the Guinness record for largest international transmission in history; we’ve had a TV movie about the programme’s genesis; and we’ve had days of national and international celebration.  “The Day of the Doctor” was certainly a worthy entry in all that, and rewatching it in the years ahead is something I will always do with joy.

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To conclude, I’ve got a list here of all the little shout-outs to previous Who, both classic and new, that I’ve noticed, omitting obvious plot-integral things Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator or the appearance of all thirteen Doctors in the climactic sequence.  This is from two viewings, during neither of which did I take notes, so I welcome any other additions people have:

–The opening shot, the policeman’s silhouette on the I.M. Foreman’s Scrapyard gate, is a recreation of the original shot from the programme’s first episode, “An Unearthly Child”.

–Clara is teaching at Coal Hill school, where Ian and Barbara are teaching and Susan is a pupil in “An Unearthly Child” and which the Daleks invade in “Remembrance of the Daleks”.

–We see a portion of the Tennant Doctor’s (or as I like to call him, D-Ten) encounters with Queen Elizabeth I, alluded to in “The Shakespeare Code”.

–River Song’s high heels are held by the Black Archive.

–The Tennant Doctor’s line, “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it,” a quotation of the Troughton Doctor from “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors”.

–The Brigadier’s old file on the events of “The Three Doctors” being named Cromer.  Nicholas Courtney was very pleased with his ad-lib about Cromer in that story, and I think giving the file that name was lovely.

–The refusal, as in “The Sontaran Stratagem”, to pin down whether the UNIT stories took place in the 70s or 80s.

–The Tennant Doctor’s last words being, “I don’t want to go.”

–Osgood wears a Tom Baker scarf.

–I did rather wonder if the Smith Doctor’s monologue at the end was meant to allude to the McCoy Doctor’s closing monologue in “Survival”.

–I really loved that the Brigadier got explicitly namechecked and his photograph on the companions’ bulletin board got a lingering closeup.  Nicholas Courtney is, I think, the most loyal servant Doctor Who has ever had, and to acknowledge his passing in “The Wedding of River Song” and then to pay tribute to him again on this day of days have both been perfect moments.

–On the subject of that bulletin board, I also really liked that we saw the different faces of UNIT over the decades pictured alongside the companions they were apparently checking on: Captain Yates and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Brigadier Bambera and Captain Magambo and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  Nicely done.

The Time Lord and his ladies

Spoilers for the seven series of New Who, concentrating on the plot and character arcs of the five primary companions

Saturday night I saw Star Trek: Skyfall, then came home and watched the Who finale, “The Name of the Doctor”.  So I spent a lot of that night watching loving homages to Classic Who and Original Series Trek that had clearly been made by people who care about those things as much as I do, and I loved every second of it.  A lot of effort obviously went into crafting things designed to bring joy to longtime, old-school fans, and I appreciate that.  Especially with Doctor Who–the technical achievement we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” was clearly a longtime coming in both conception and execution, long enough that it was already in a pretty advanced stage by the time that worst of Who episodes, “Let’s Get Hitler”, was produced back in 2011.

But there was something else that really struck me about “The Name of the Doctor”, something troubling.  I’ve been noticing bits and pieces of it at least as far back as “School Reunion” in 2006, and it’s always bothered me.

When Doctor Who repremiered in 2005, much was made of the new attitude the programme would now have toward the Doctor’s female companions.  They would be intelligent, active, independent and competent, not the ditzy, over-terrified sexist stereotypes that we were assured they had been throughout the programme’s first twenty-six seasons.  I long ago debunked the idea that ditzy, over-terrified companions were ever a common thing on Doctor Who, or that capable, confident companions were any sort of departure for the programme.  But this is more than that.  The more I look at it, the more it’s a central message of New Who that the Doctor’s female companions–women who we’re regularly told are special, unique, transcendent individuals in a way we never were in the classic programme–are of value only insofar as they submit themselves to the Doctor.

RosevsMarthaRose and Martha

Much got made during the RTD era of the effect the Doctor had on his companions, of how he made them flourish, capable of more than they would have been otherwise, whether we saw that as a good thing (“But she was better when she was with you!”) or bad (“He fashions his friends into weapons.”).  Three of RTD’s four series finales turn on the companion saving the universe (and the Doctor) by achieving some feat that shouldn’t be humanly possible.

First you’ve got Rose, cracking the TARDIS open and taking the time vortex into herself; then Martha, who spends a year wandering the post-apocalyptic Earth, spreading word of the Doctor.  Rose refuses to accept her separation from the Doctor and goes to any lengths, including physically impossible ones, to return to him, as she will later do once again with the dimension cannon.  Martha, on the other hand, walks away from the Doctor.  She sacrifices him, as she sacrifices her family, as she sacrifices at least a degree of her own humanity–when she returns to England at the beginning of “Last of the Time Lords”, she is a visibly harder, less merciful, less empathetic person.  Rose rips apart the fabric of space and time to satisfy her own desire to be with the Doctor, whereas Martha spends a whole year in a literal hell on Earth, surviving entirely on her own, telling everyone she meets the importance of having faith in the very man who failed to save her, her family or her world.

And yet of the two, who is routinely treated as the example of the perfect companion, the one who surpasses all others?  Whose sacrifice is considered greater?  Even the Master laughs at Martha’s trauma, derisively citing Rose as her better, because Rose stared into the time vortex in order to return to the Doctor.  The Master, who never even met Rose, thinks immediately of her when trying to come up with an example of companions superior to Martha, rather than thinking of, say, the companion whose brain had such a capacity for mathematics that the Master actually kidnapped him and wired him into his own TARDIS, then was able to harness that mental capacity into constructing solid illusions capable of invading the Doctor’s TARDIS.

After They Leave the Doctor

It is true that time with the Doctor seems to leave his companions more capable, more accomplished individuals.  New Who has shown us Sarah Jane, Martha and Donna all excelling in their independent lives–in Donna’s case, even after just a few hours and a single adventure with the Doctor.  Of course, Donna turns herself into a professional, perceptive investigator of suspicious situations not because the events of “The Runaway Bride” opened her eyes to the dangers Earth faces constantly and awakened in her a desire to be involved in foiling those dangers; no, she’s simply going to places she thinks she’s likely to find the Doctor so that she can hopefully run into him again.  And, in fact, her veneer of accomplished professionalism is just a charade; she’s actually empty and deeply unfulfilled so long as she can’t find the Doctor.

But that’s okay, right, because after she does finally reunite with the Doctor, she and we discover that she’s the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Donna, of course, believes that’s impossible–she believes she can only be important because she’s associated with someone of real importance, the Doctor.  But the Doctor assures her that no, the importance is hers and hers alone.  So what is that importance?  Why is Donna the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Because she happens to be the one who’s there to give the Doctor a hand (literally) when he needs it.  If it had been Rose or Jack who were the last ones out of the TARDIS aboard the Dalek spaceship, we’d be talking about the DoctorRose or the DoctorJack.

Yes, Donna then saves the day during the final confrontation with Davros, but critically, it is only the Doctor part of Donna that does so.  It’s the new intelligence and perception that the addition of Time Lord genetics has given her; there is, again, no reason it had to be Donna involved here rather than anyone else.  And if we really want to get all feminist-critical-theory over this, there’s the very obvious subtext to the idea that what makes Donna special, what allows Donna to fulfill her potential, is that she serves as a receptacle for the Doctor’s genetic code.

At least Sarah Jane achieves for realsies what Donna was only playing at: she’s an actual investigator and defender of Earth.  Which is not to say she ever got over the Doctor; it’s important that former companions never get over him.  She waited for him, pined after him–clearly she felt a romantic love for him that she did a remarkably good job of hiding, since she showed nary a single sign of it during her actual time in the TARDIS.

Still, she’s overcome being abandoned by the Doctor and has made a life for herself as a truly exceptional person.  She’s never found the right man to settle down with, of course, but that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for a character like Sarah Jane–she’s simply not someone who’d necessarily need a romantic relationship at the centre of her life.  Which is all fine, until Sarah states outright that the reason she never found the right man is because no man could ever measure up to the Doctor.  Sarah Jane Smith was introduced to Doctor Who as the explicit representative of feminism, a driven, focused, professional woman; a woman who took it upon herself to lecture the Queen of Peladon on the women’s lib movement.  But when New Who gets a hold of her, we find out that the reason she never got married is not because she simply didn’t need a man to make her life complete; it is, rather, because being friends with the Doctor ruined her for all other men.

Come.  The fuck.  On.

Which leaves only Martha.  Martha is the only companion of the RTD era, and possibly of New Who as a whole (I’d consider Amy a borderline case), to make the conscious choice that she has outgrown the Doctor, that she is ready to face life after the TARDIS.  She leaves entirely under her own steam at the end of series three in a scene that’s a neat parallel to her walking away from the Doctor in the cliffhanger at the end of the prior episode and heading off alone to face whatever the Earth has to throw at her.  She forges her own path–and the Doctor absolutely despises her for it.

Martha chooses to make a difference in the world by joining an organisation that the Doctor himself devoted six seasons of his life to, an organisation built by his closest friend–and yet he regards Martha has having placed herself under suspicion by having joined the organisation.  And we as viewers aren’t directed to take issue with the Doctor’s reaction, to see him as some sort of emotional predator who demands adoration and complete submission from the women he takes with him on his journeys–no, it would seem we’re supposed to agree with him for being disappointed with and suspicious of Martha for joining UNIT.

The Women With the High Concept Nicknames

The Most Important Woman in the Universe.  The Girl Who Waited.  The Impossible Girl.

(Why is Clara infantilised as the Impossible Girl instead of the Impossible Woman?  Is it possibly for the same reason that the Doctor–the fucking Doctor–, when trying to distill the sheer, fascinating impossibility of her into a single sentence, actually devotes more words to how eyecatching her ass is than to the fact that he keeps meeting iterations of her scattered throughout his timeline and watching them die— “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a bit too tight.”  I am going to puzzle out this impossible womangirl, puzzle out what the universe is trying to tell me through her very existence, and defeat whatever profound danger she represents.  And then, Jesus H. Christ I’m gonna hit that.)

Amy, the Girl Who Waited.  Her nickname is a regular reminder of her deeply creepy origin story.  The Doctor meets her when she’s a child, promises he’s about to admit her to a universe of wonder and adventure, and then vanishes for twelve years.  Returns, shows her that that universe of adventure is real, that he is real, and then vanishes for another two years, before ultimately returning to bring her aboard the TARDIS.  The Doctor is grooming her.  He grooms her to regard him as the most wonderful person possible, as her only gateway to an escape to the life she dreams of.  He grooms her to respond to his sporadic arrivals in her life by dropping any other priorities she has so she can place herself at his disposal.  And he grooms her not to expect anything from him in return–not even his presence, or the idea that he’s under any obligation to keep promises he makes for her.

And now we come to Clara, the Impossible Girl.  Whose impossibility, we discovered on Saturday, exists purely so that she can save the Doctor, over and over again, all throughout his life.  Even if we assume River’s line about “millions” of Claras being created is hyperbole, there must still be, at a minimum, thousands.  Thousands of Claras, through all of time and space, whom, it would seem, are all born, live only the first twenty or twenty-five years of their lives, and then have their encounter with the Doctor–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days; the whole purpose of their life.  And then, apparently, they die.

And Clara is fine with that.  She’s fine with the idea that on a thousand different worlds in a thousand different times, she has lived a thousand different lives, each of them to help the Doctor on one of his adventures.  More than that, she’s proud of it.  “I was born to save the Doctor, and the Doctor is safe now.  I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”

It’s not there in Classic Who.  In Classic Who, the Doctor is the leader, yes, and he inspires his companions’ trust.  But the companions (generally) leave of their own free will, either because they have outgrown their need for him or because they have found another calling that compels them more.  But in New Who, the message is clear: these exceptional women have tremendous potential, but they fulfill that potential only by pledging themselves totally to serving the Doctor.

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But let’s not lose sight of the real issue

Today I found the kids watching an episode of Arthur titled “Muffy and the Big Bad Blog,” in which one of the kids started a blog. The blog initially becomes very popular, but soon enough, the episode devoted itself to teaching kids that social media will ruin their lives as it inevitably becomes a conduit for gossip and the destruction of their privacy.

However, between the two main plot points–between the blog having its first bloom of popularity, and then turning into an instrument of gossip in order to restore that flagging popularity–there was a brief moment when Muffy ran out of things to say, encapsulated by Arthur exclaiming, in a combination of bewilderment and disgust, “Now she’s blogging about … blogging?

I don’t know whether it was conscious or not, but I loved it: a brief moment before we get to the designated “lesson” of the episode, during which the writer slipped in the real reason to be wary of blogging (or microblogging): the inherent, narcissistic self-involvement so many of us seem prone to when we sink our teeth into the medium.

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As it happened!, except more concisely

One of my favourite Twitter feeds that I follow is @RealTimeWWII, a six-year project to do a real-time retweet of the Second World War, broadcasting every event exactly 62 years after it happened. I started following late last year, after the fall of Poland and right before the Soviet Union invaded Finland; this morning, I woke to find the Germans had occupied Paris.

I also really like @JQAdams_MHS, which reproduces John Quincy Adams’s daily diary entries on the two hundredth anniversary of when each entry was written. John Q is currently the American ambassador to St Petersburg, and word should be reaching the Russian capital any day now of Napoleon’s invasion.

And I followed a live-tweet of the hundredth anniversary of voyage of the Titanic, though I picked the wrong one–the one I followed wasn’t terribly good, and I found a couple of much better ones after everyone had wrapped everything up.

As is my bent, I found myself wanting to do my own real-time historical Twitter stream, and tried to think of a good topic. Fairly naturally, considering that the best one I’ve seen so far is a Second World War stream, my first thought was the First World War. But that’s not really feasible for a couple of different reasons–first, with its hundredth anniversary approaching, there’ll be a whole lot of people doing the same thing, better than I could; and second, the First World War is too well-chronicled and too intense an event for me to give it the treatment it would demand. It’ll need two or three dozen tweets a day.

So I looked for an event in the more distant past, something that proceeded at less of a frenetic pace. A friend suggested the (Anglo-American) War of 1812. This was attractive, because there are several parts of the way the War of 1812 is commonly taught and thought of that I really disagree with. But one of those ways is the insistence in American historiography of teaching it like it’s an independent war, rather than a minor theatre of the Napoleonic Wars, so I decided I couldn’t spend two years presenting a picture of only the war in the North America and feel like I was presenting a picture that in any way resembled the context that its participants were actually living in.

So then my next thought was to do the Napoleonic Wars as a whole. And then it occurred to me that that would mean the French Revolutionary Wars as well, since the break between the two is pretty arbitrary. And then it occurred to me that I’d be blogging, in real time, a series of events that lasted for twenty-six years from 1789 to 1815.

And really, I have to admit in the end that I’m probably just not suited for this sort of thing. I simply don’t have the attention span to give it the care and effort it needs continuously for months or years on end. But I still like reading them when they’re well done, and I still daydream about doing them.

I

Eurovision 2012

Normally when I post about the Eurovision Song Contest, I highlight my favourite songs each year, because I get tired of people slamming the quality of the music.  (It’s not that I think people underrate how good Eurovision songs are; it’s that I think they overrate the product of the non-Eurovision, general music market by doing so.)  This year, for the record, my favourites were Italy (who might have been represented by the ghost of Amy Winehouse), Cyprus (with a music video that’s pure Mirror Mirror/Snow White and the Huntsman meets weird Balkan surrealism–my favourite part is the giant plastic fruit), Turkey (bad in all the ways that Eurovision is glorious in its badness–that is, bad and catchy and fun) and possibly Iceland.

But what really stood out for me with this year’s Eurovision wasn’t the good; it was the goofy.  So that’s what I want to highlight here–some goofy and good, some goofy and bad, but all goofy.

First, the goofy that everyone saw, because it came in second place–the Russian grannies singing “Party for Everybody”:

My other two favourite bits of goofiness, though, got eliminated in the semi-finals.  This first one, I’ll openly admit that I think it’s awful, but Lisa liked it so much that she made me add it to her iPod.  To be fair, I’m not really into rap in general, but you’d think that that could totally be overcome if the rappers are rapping in German and wearing designer suits while purple-haired girls in full body spandex dance on poles behind them, right?  Here, then, is Austria’s “Woki mit deim Popo”, which apparently translates to “Waggle Your Ass”, by the aptly named Trackshittaz:

And lastly there’s Valentina Monetta singing San Marino’s entry, which was originally titled “The Facebook Song” until Eurovision made them scrap the name because they thought it constituted a commercial advertisement for Facebook.  It does for social networking everything that “The Fast Food Song” did for fast food; it’s “The Social Network Song”:

As always, can’t wait till next year!

I

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