Reviews

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.

I

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.

I

Farthing

Book coverIf you only read one alternative history novel this year that takes place in a world where Britain and Nazi Germany made peace with each other, you should of course read A Traitor’s Loyalty.  (Or at Barnes and Noble.  Or on Goodreads.)  But if you read two such books?  Well, I’ve recently read one that I’d like to submit for consideration.

Farthing is a 2006 novel by Jo Walton set in a world in which Rudolf Hess made a much more successful flight to Britain in 1941, leading to a peace settlement before either the Soviet Union or USA entered the war.

Conventionally in an alternate history novel, the action focuses on the part of the world that is most drastically different from our own.  Harry Turtledove’s The Two Georges is about a world where the Americans lost the American Revolutionary War, so it takes place in North America (a British dominion), rather than in Britain or France or Senegal.  If you’re writing a Nazi-victory alternate history and you want to set it in one of the Allied countries, you have the Nazis conquer that country–like in SS-GB (set in Nazi-occupied Britain), It Happened Here (Nazi-occupied Britain), The Man in the High Castle (German- and Japanese-occupied America) or “The Last Article” (Nazi-occupied India).  If you’ve created a world where Germany has instead made peace with the Allies, who have remained democratic societies, you’re going to set it in Germany or German-occupied Europe, like in Fatherland, “Ready for the Fatherland” or my own A Traitor’s Loyalty.

But Farthing is a book where Britain made peace with the Germans, escaped defeat, preserved democracy.  In the book’s world, Nazi Germany is ruling Continental Europe, implementing the Holocaust, and fighting an endless war with Soviet Russia–but the book takes place in England.  It’s presented as a Christie-esque English country manor murder mystery, set in 1949.

And that means that the changes it presents are far more subtle and gradual than you’ll see in a standard alternate history novel–a society that, confronted with a victorious right-wing dictatorship twenty miles away across the Channel, is quite understandably drifting toward the far right itself.  Moves to turn the British class system into a legally-enshrined caste system.  The reversal of the progress made by socialism, and a regression to where socialism is once again being seen as borderline treasonous.  (In real history, 1945-1950 was the period of Britain’s first true socialist government.)

And most jarring–and most effective–to the modern reader is the anti-Semitism.  It’s a rise in cultural sentiment against Jews, a greater willingness to express anti-Semitic views openly, an amplification of the idea that it didn’t matter if they’d been born and raised in London, Jews were still foreigners.  It’s so terribly English, because (at least until the attempts of the book) it’s been accomplished without violence.  And it’s the cultural movement that has cleared the way for political leaders to begin attempting anti-Semitic political programmes.

The book, as with any book, isn’t perfect.  For a story that spends eighty per cent of its time dealing with members of the aristocracy, it’s a shame that several of the arcane complexities of the aristocratic system get fumbled.  (The author, for instance, has baronets as members of the House of Lords.)  But it’s a very different spin on Nazi victory than I’ve found before.

There are two sequels, Ha’penny and Half a Crown, which I’ll be moving onto.  I’m looking forward to them.

I

The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2594
Words total: 42,888

Time spent writing: 1pm-3.30; 9pm-10pm
Reason for stopping: Picking Boy up from the school bus; Lisa got home
Darling: A string of Russian obscenities unraveled off her tongue.
Words that boggled Word: stationmaster’s, submachine, snuck, railyard
New words used today: captor, inscrutable, pothole

Cinema Sunday

This morning I went to see the new Steven Soderbergh movie, Haywire.  The plan was actually that I’d be seeing Contraband–according to Lisa’s plan, I’d see the 10.30 showing of Contraband, and she and the kids would see the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie at 10.50.  Contraband is twenty minutes longer than Alvin and the Chipmunks, so it would work out perfectly.

Well, except that when we got to the ticket machine, we discovered Contraband didn’t start till 11.40.  And that the Chipmunks started at 10.15.  (It was 10.13 when we discovered this.)  So I decided to see the 10.40 Haywire instead, while Lisa and the kids headed into Alvin and the Chipmunks.  As it turned out, they didn’t miss anything, because instead of the Chipmunks, the cinema put The Iron Lady onscreen instead.  (They fixed that, of course, and then gave everyone in the auditorium a free future admission.)  This was in contrast to the theatre where I was sitting waiting for Haywire, where rather than start the wrong movie, they didn’t start any movie at all–after that series of commercials-dressed-up-as-entertainment that cinemas show nowadays, we got five minutes of a screensaver on the screen, then ten minutes of sitting in the dark.  Presumably because whoever was in charge of getting the movie started was at the other end of the cinema, desperately trying to stop an auditorium full of six-year-olds having to watch Margaret Thatcher order the sinking of the General Belgrano.

It was a weird trip to the movies, is what I’m saying.  Weird enough that the discovery that there’s actually a church that’s located in one of our cinema’s auditoria on Sundays becomes just a sidenote.

(The review that’s about to follow is, I think, basically spoiler free.)

But so how, Haywire.  Good movie.  Utterly disposable, with a ridiculous plot–not a film I’ll ever see again.  But an enjoyable, watchable, well-done thriller.  But what made the biggest impression on me by far was the directorial style.

Style seems an odd word to use here, because what that style amounts to is a heightening of the realism of certain aspects of the film (certain aspects only–other parts of the film remain as preposterous as they generally are in this sort of thriller); but style is exactly what it was.

The fight scenes.  There are four or five hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film, distinctively choreographed–since Haywire has been put out as a vehicle for its star, female retired mixed martial artist Gina Carano, this isn’t much of a surprise.  The fights aren’t filmed in any sort of spectacular way; they’re presented matter-of-factly.  But impacts are emphasised in a way that highlights how painful they must be.

I don’t mean that they’re gory; as far as I recall, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled during them, though they’d certainly produced blood in real life.  But whenever someone gets their face slammed into a mirror, or a wall, or the zinc counter in a diner, there’s a quick closeup of it that can’t help but you make wince.

The movie’s one car chase is probably the most realistic car chase I’ve ever seen–by which I mean, it’s the slowest car chase I’ve ever seen.  It starts off making you think it’s going to be a traditional high-speed chase: our heroine Carano is driving briskly down a long, straight US Highway in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on either side by a forest of bare, snow-covered trees, when she comes upon a police roadblock.  She slams on the brake and turns the wheel, and we get the traditional shot of the car spinning a hundred eight degrees as it stops, so that now she can slam on the accelerator and speed away.  Of course, the cops pursue her.

But a moment later, Carano turns off the highway onto a dirt path, and all pretence of a conventional, spectacle-laden car chase is abandoned.  She doesn’t slam on the break as she turns, so that the car slides along the road into its turn.  Instead, she does exactly what all of us do when we play Grand Theft Auto or the like (which is, I think, about as close as any of us ever get to being in an actual high-speed chase)–she slows down when she’s making the critical turn into a narrow space, to ensure that she takes it smoothly.

And once she’s made the turn, the chase is now taking place on a snowy dirt road, only the width of a single vehicle, that twists its way through the trees–so the cars involved move damn slowly.

And last, there are two scenes in which the tension is drawn out far longer than we’d ordinarily expect.  In the first, Carano emerges from a building, spots a man across the street who may or may not be tailing her, then turns and walks down the busy city street.  The man starts walking parallel to her, and she and we know that he is following her.

What would normally happen, of course, is that she’d therefore take some action to lose him–dash down a side street or get into a car–and a chase would ensue.  But not here–because there’s nowhere for us to go.  We stick with Carano as she walks, deliberately unhurried, the entire length of the city block, before finally turning the first time she comes to a corner.  Which is, of course, exactly how it would happen in real life, and it takes probably a full minute to play out onscreen.

There’s another moment like this, late in the movie.  A bad guy is lounging on his patio, with a much younger, bikini-clad companion canoodling with him on a cabana.  There’s a knock at the door, and the bikini bunny gets up and walks inside to go answer it.  She doesn’t come back.

Of course, we know what’s going on, and what danger the knock at the door and the woman’s failure to return signals for the bad guy.  But Soderbergh draws it out beautifully–and all through a single shot.  It has the bad guy’s face in the foreground on the right half of the screen, while on the left half of the screen we can see over his shoulder.  First we see the bikini buttocks departing, across the patio, then through the door into the kitchen, then disappearing through the kitchen doorway toward the front of the house.  And then we’re left with just the empty kitchen, while the bad guy contentedly lights a cigar, then has something occur to him and shouts an instruction to the woman in the house, then frown slightly and look over his shoulder as he realises it’s taking longer than he thought, then go back to puffing on his cigar, then finally realise that it’s taking way too long and get up to go investigate.  Again, it takes as long as it would take in real life.

I don’t want to give the impression that Haywire is some sort of cinema verité found-footage docudrama–the spy thriller genre’s answer to The Conversation.  It’s very much in the same boat with other identically-plotted movies like Hannah, The Bourne Identity and the first Mission Impossible film.  But even while playing in that fantasy world, it tips its hat toward reality, and I really liked that.

I

The wedding with Steven Moffat

“All of history is happening at once!”

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Doctor Who season 32.  I was intrigued by the decision to abandon the highly-structured season-long arc format of the Russell T Davies era, and I think ultimately the season benefited from that, developing a freewheeling narrative feel that recaptured a part of 60s and 70s Who that had eluded the revived series at least since Christopher Eccleston left.

It also allowed far more cliffhangers than we had during the RTD years–by my count, seven of the season’s thirteen episodes ended with cliffhangers.

But as far as the individual stories themselves?  I’d been unimpressed.  Apart from the gem of “The Doctor’s Wife“, the first seven-episode half-season, transmitted in the spring, was deeply average, with a couple of competent stories and a couple of sub-par but not horrible ones.  That’s not a condemnation–it means, of course, that the season could have been far worse.  But it could also have been far better.

(Even “The Doctor’s Wife” relied for its gem-ness on the viewer already having a familiarity and an emotional investment in the programme; in that respect, it was far more of a “Remembrance of the Daleks” or “School Reunion”–though better than both those–than a “Caves of Androzani”, “The Empty Child” or “Blink”, whose brilliance I’d expect to shine through even to the casual viewer.  I don’t know how the not-we reacted to “The Doctor’s Wife”, but I’d be curious to find out.)

And then the second half-season picked up at the end of August with “Let’s Kill Hitler”, which was, in this reporter’s opinion, the single worst story Doctor Who has ever done in the 48 years since it first began transmission.  Really, just absolutely horrible.  Every creative choice made in the writing, direction and editing of that episode made a bad situation worse.  We’re still in 1967 with our Doctor Who rewatch, and already I’m dreading the day when we get up to “Let’s Kill Hitler” and I have to watch it again.

After that nadir, though, the second half-season picked up for me, with four stories that were all solid and enjoyable (one of which was outright excellent).  Only with the last, “Closing Time”, did I really find anything to spoil it for me, borne out of an inability really to successfully marry the episode’s dark menace (Cybermen really are at their best when they’re a desperate, final remnant of their race) with the attempt to recapture the happy-chappy bromance atmosphere of the Doctor’s relationship with Craig (James Corden) from “The Lodger”, to which this episode serves as a sequel.

(Ironically, I thought the dynamic between the Doctor and Craig in “Closing Time” was far more successful than it had been in “The Lodger”.  All this time I’d been thinking “The Lodger” failed because of the way it contorted itself to serve as a vehicle for its celebrity guest star, but now I’m having to conclude that its problem is one of execution rather than conception.)

But even as I was enjoying those four successive stories–and even as someone who was sympathetic to the abandonment of the RTD narrative-arc-by-rote format*–I confess that that succession of standalone episodes making up the body of the second half-season caught me by surprise.  This is exactly the period when we’d normally expect the buildup to the season finale to be ratcheting up, but what we instead got were four entirely self-contained episodes that moved away from that completely (apart from the last five minutes of “Closing Time”).

That’s a choice that’s going to take some thinking about before I can evaluate whether it’s a choice I would have made.  On the one hand, I think Peter David’s quite right when he observes that a consequence of this approach has been the absence of the I-need-to-see-next-week’s-episode-now tension that the programme often achieved at the tail end of the Davies seasons.  (Though it’s important not to overstate that; even during much of the Davies era, that feeling was only achieved following episode twelve of the thirteen-episode season; only two of New Who’s six series have had a cliffhanger leading from episode eleven to episode twelve, turning the finale into a three-episode event rather than a two-episode one.)

On the other hand, I once read Lawrence Miles make the excellent point that the problem with arc storytelling is that it places all the focus on what might happen in future episodes rather than on what’s currently happening in the episode that’s on right now.  That’s bad for a number of reasons, and happily, for the first time since Christopher Eccleston was playing the Doctor, it managed to be largely absent from this second half-season.  That was both refreshing in and of itself, and also–yes–gave the half-season a strong Classic Who feel (which was only helped along by all the classic-era callbacks and thematic links in “The God Complex” and “Closing Time”.)

All of which is a very long preamble to say–I was trepidatious going into “The Wedding of River Song”.  I’d been simultaneously impressed and nonplussed by the four stories since “Let’s Kill Hitler”.  And I knew that status of “The Wedding of River Song” as the Big Finale Episode would herald a return to all the things that were responsible for the depths that “Let’s Kill Hitler” plumbed, the very things that the ensuing four episodes had been able to move away from: the poor handling of a complicated (and in places, frankly, uninteresting) arc storyline, and the need for supposed Grand Spectacle to justify all the hype surrounding the episode as a Big Event.

So I was gratified to spend an hour watching an engaging and entertaining piece of television.  Really, it was pretty decent.  Not a timeless addition to the pantheon of great Who by any means, but nevertheless fun, and smart enough for the kids, and dumb enough for the grownups–which is, in the end, all I think we should ever be asking of Doctor Who.

It’s worth noting that it was exceptionally uncreative, basically a mishmash of formulae from Moffat’s previous big episodes.  It opens on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the Doctor’s death; as opposed to Moffat’s other season finale, “The Big Bang”, which opened on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the TARDIS’s death.  Like the mid-season finale, “A Good Man Goes to War”, it spends its opening third showing the Doctor popping up in a progression of seedy science-fictional settings, seeking out a series of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells.  (I must say, I love how Farscape the programme looks when it does that.)  And like “Let’s Get Hitler”, it’s built around a succession of “Ooh, now look at this cool bit!” set pieces, but critically, it strings them together to form a plot, rather than using them in lieu of a plot like “Hitler” did.

Of course, formula is not stranger to New Who finales.  In RTD’s four finales, three of his opening episodes (“Bad Wolf”, “Army of Ghosts” and “The Sound of Drums”) were all constructed to a single formula, and three of his part twos (“The Parting of the Ways”, “Doomsday” and “Journey’s End”) were all constructed to a single formula.  Which didn’t stop any of them from being enjoyable stories.

But really, there were two moments in “The Wedding of River Song” that turned me from “Yeah, it was fairly good,” to having an outright great time.  The first was the lovely, sweet farewell to Nicholas Courtney, a moment made all the more poignant by it being thematically integral to the storyline.  It’s something I want to devote a few paragraphs to in a post of its own tomorrow, because it’s resonant with my own family situation right now.

And the second was that ending.  “The oldest question, hidden in plain sight.”  Goodness me.  You know how much I love post modernism, right?  Well, I’m telling you that right now we can pretty much stop post modernism from this moment forward.  There’s no point to it anymore.  With “The Wedding of River Song” it reached its moment of sublimity, and any further instance of post modernism won’t be able to measure up to what’s come before.

(As some fans of message boards seem to have failed to notice, it works so well because it’s just as legitimately “the first question” in-universe as it is to us, watching the programme–Who am I? is the most basic of philosophical questions.)

So, yeah.  “Let’s Kill Hitler” was still awful, so for me “The Wedding of River Song” wasn’t good enough to redeem the season as a whole.  But it was a lovely cap to the sequence of solid episodes we’ve had throughout September.

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*I want to state for the record that I don’t think the RTD formula for a season-arc is a bad thing, just that after doing it five series in succession, it was time for a change.  The one constant of Doctor Who is change, in every aspect of its storytelling, and I think it would have been no more advisable for Moffat to stick to the RTD format once a new era of the programme began than it would have been for RTD to pick up in 2005 with the Cartmel Master Plan (or, egads, to have pursued the idea of the Doctor being half-human) and have had episodes be 25 minutes long.  And for that matter, of course, there’s the obvious point that Moffat didn’t want to replicate what RTD had been doing any more than RTD wanted to replicate what JNT and Andrew Cartmel had been doing during their own tenure.

Revelation about "Revelation"

Over on the Livejournal Doctor Who forum, a New Who viewer has asked for recommendations about how to introduce themselves to Classic Who, and I responded with my customary observation that “Revelation of the Daleks” makes a great starting point because, in my opinion, it has so much in common with New Who (or rather, Davies-era Who). pbristow asked me to expand on that, but rightly pointed out that it could be a bit spoilery and that that thread might not be the best place for it.

So I figured here was as good a place for it as any. Correlations between “Revelation of the Daleks” (1985) and the RTD era of Doctor Who (2005-2010):

*It’s an exploration of the funeral parlour of the future!, just as the RTD era gave us the TV studio of the future! (twice in one series), the hospital of the future!, the traffic jam of the future!, cruise liner of the future! and the library of the future!

*Alexi Sayle’s radio DJ who spends all his time playing rock and roll music to dead people. To me, he’s a pure RTD story element, both because of his ridiculousness and because he’s from the deep space in the far future (I don’t remember if it’s even established that he’s definitely human), and yet he’s obsessed with twentieth-century or twenty-first-century Earth–in this case, rock and roll music. Just like the iPod-jukebox in “The End of the World”; just like two-thousandth-century Earth being caught in the grips of Big Brother, The Weakest Link and What Not to Wear hysteria; just like the legalistic devotion to disclaimers in “New Earth” and non-disclosure agreements in “Silence in the Library”.

*The direction. There are vanishingly few Classic Who stories that I’d describe as stylish–“The Web Planet”, “Earthshock”, “Caves of Androzani” and Revelation are the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that half of those are the stories directed by Graeme Harper, or that Graeme Harper subsequently became the only Classic Who director who showed up in New Who. It’s such a joy to see the director actually using the camera as a mode of artistic expression rather than just as a way to transfer the script into recorded pictures–the most obvious instance of that is the pedestal pan (not actually a pedestal pan, but achieved through post-production) showing us a whole series of shots of various identical corridors (actually the same corridor set, obvs) scrolling past the camera like stills on a reel of film.

*The character-driven drama. I don’t want to hang my hat too much on this, because too often in New/Classic debates we end up caricaturing Classic Who as all plot/no character and New Who as all character/no plot, which does a disservice to both. But in Revelation, plot is secondary to character in a way that’s rarely true in Classic Who (or the Moffatt era, for that matter) but that we see over and over in the RTD era. What engages the viewer isn’t what’s happening, but rather the interaction between the various characters, so much so that it’s almost surprising when all the different threads weave together at the end. Closely related:

*The cast of outlandish grotesques. The Don-Quixote-and-Sancho aging knight and his squire. The creepy, womanising funeral director who refuses to pursue only one woman, the unattractive girl who’s devoted to him. The Laurel and Hardy workers who turn into quietly gleeful sadists when given the opportunity. This isn’t the only time Classic Who hung its stories on oddballs like this, but unlike certain other attempts (I’m looking at you, seasons seventeen and twenty-four), Revelation doesn’t promptly descend into pure farce. Instead (and this is to me what makes it dark comedy, rather than simply “comedy”), it continues to treat these oddballs as real people, fully capable of either tragedy or menace. Just like the blue people in “The End of the World” or Cassandra or the farting Slitheen or the CEO in “Planet of the Ood” or the working class couple in “Voyage of the Damned”.

I’d seen Revelation long before, but when I watch it again when it came out on DVD, now having seen however many series of RTD Who, I found I couldn’t escape the parallels.

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The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersMixing a bit of seventeenth-century French history with a great deal of invention, Alexandre Dumas tells the tale of young D’Artagnan and his musketeer comrades Porthos, Athos and Aramis. Together they fight to foil the schemes of the brilliant, dangerous Cardinal Richelieu, who pretends to support the king while plotting to advance his own power. Bursting with swirling swordplay, swooning romance, and unforgettable figures such as the seductively beautiful but deadly femme fatale, Milady, and D’Artagnan’s equally beautiful love, Madame Bonacieux, The Three Musketeers continues, after a century and a half of continuous publication, to define the genre of swashbuckling romance and historical adventure.

I love The Three Musketeers. It’s one of my favourite books–my 35th favourite book, to be specific. I love the story of d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. (My grandfather loves to complain about the fact that the book follows the adventures of four musketeers.)

But whenever I picture the story in my head, d’Artagnan isn’t a dashing young Frenchman. He’s a grey-furred beagle in a bright red suit.

I’ve known the story of The Three Musketeers my whole life. I’ve loved it my whole life. Because it got told to me, when I was four or five years old, in the 26 episodes of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds.

Dogtanian and the three MuskehoundsI used to play Dogtanian in the back garden with the kids from across the road. (I was always Dogtanian.) For a five-year-old, that cartoon retelling–which, as far as I can tell, never aired in the United States–perfectly captured all the excitement and adventure of Alexandre Dumas’s story.

I read the novel The Three Musketeers for the first time when I was thirteen. It was pretty thick prose at that age, though I still loved it. But I’m absolutely serious when I say that I pictured d’Artagnan as a beagle. And Milady de Winter as a cat, and Athos, Porthos and Aramis as they were depicted in the cartoon. It even extends to any time Cardinal de Richelieu in historical accounts–in my head, the Thirty Years War was totally masterminded by an anthropomorphic doberman in a cardinal’s garb.

If you’re reading this somewhere that you can’t see the video embedded below, check it out at the original post:

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The Tourist, or as it’s titled in Spain, El The Tourist

Image from The Tourist's movie poster“That’s disappointing,” Angelina Jolie tells Johnny Depp upon their first meeting in the film The Tourist.

They’re sitting next to each other on the train trip from Paris to Venice, and Depp’s character is trying to flirt with Jolie’s character. Worried that she might find his smoking distasteful, Depp has just explained that he’s actually smoking an electronic cigarette, and has lovingly detailed its features–it delivers just as much nicotine as a normal cigarette, but the smoke is only water vapour and the tip is merely an LED light, so it won’t burn anything it comes into contact with.

Depp is surprised and deflated when this revelation produces only disappointment in Jolie. “You’d rather I were smoking an actual cigarette?”

“I’d rather you were a man who does as he pleases,” Jolie tells him.

I’d encountered two reviews of The Tourist before I saw it: Roger Ebert’s and, on Tony Kornheiser’s local radio show, Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday’s. What had lowered my expectations wasn’t that neither of them had really liked the film, it was that they had both levelled the exact same accusation: that The Tourist aspires to be an old-fashioned, pseudo-Hitchcockian romantic thriller, but that while Jolie easily manages to play Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, Depp doesn’t in any way measure up to Cary Grant.

You’d expect this to be a criticism that could very well kill the movie for me, as the genre of movie being referenced is one of my favourites. Since the two specific pairings Ebert mentions are Grant/Kelly and Grant/Hepburn, I’m guessing the two individual titles he’s thinking of are To Catch a Thief and Charade, which are both amongst my favourite filmsTo Catch a Thief in particular is one of my top three or four.

And it’s true, Depp is no Cary Grant here. But that wasn’t a problem for me, because that was so clearly the point.

I love old-fashioned Hollywood thrillers. The Third Man–very much of that genre, even if it’s not actually a Hollywood film–is my very favourite film. But one of the things that’s undeniably true about them (as it’s true of most genres of Hollywood film produced in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s) is that their leading men are cast not to play the main characters of the films’ stories, but are first and foremost cast to play Hollywood leading men.

The prime consideration when making these movies was always preserving the image of the star–what would show off his handsomeness, his virility, his charm, his man-of-action-ness, his wry sense of humour. Anything else came second. And because of this, what you ended up with was that each Hollywood leading man would end up playing the same character from film to film. He would, in fact, play himself–or rather, he’d play his public persona.

(George Raft had a list of conditions so specific–his character had always to be presented in a heroic light; his character had to be alive at the film’s conclusion; etc.–that the first director assigned to Background to Danger famously got up, left his meeting and enlisted to fight in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War rather than have to work with Raft.)

Think of Cary Grant in Notorious or To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest or Charade. Think of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca or All Through the Night or To Have and Have Not. Think of Joseph Cotten in Journey into Fear or The Third Man. Think of Robert Mitchum in Macao. Think of Paul Newman in The Prize. All these men, and all the characters they play (which is saying much the same thing), have one thing undeniably in common–they’re all Alpha Males.

And The Tourist is an attempt to see how this sort of thriller plays out when it’s a beta male who ends up in the leading role.

After having spent The Tourist’s opening sequence skilfully and mischievously escaping the high-tech pursuit of the French police, Jolie boards the train for Venice looking for Cary Grant. But instead she gets Frank Tupelo, a community college maths instructor from Wisconsin. Their first meeting lays the movie’s terms out about as explicitly as a movie ever will; the conversation bears more than a whiff of the post-modern.

First there’s the exchange about the cigarette, exposing that Depp is not the cocksure, charismatic Hollywood leading man for whom Jolie was looking. Then Depp asks about Jolie, to which she responds, “You read spy novels; I am a mysterious woman on a train. You tell me who I am.”–a signal that she is perfectly prepared to play her role in the story that’s about to unfold. But then the final part of the conversation indicates that Depp still isn’t, when Jolie instructs him to invite her to dinner.

“Would you like to have dinner?”

“That’s a question. Women don’t like questions.”

It’s hardly something that’s never been tried before–in fact, it very much put me in the mind of James Stewart in Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Depp and Stewart enjoy very similar arcs–both diffident, unsure men who spend much of the film being pushed around and bullied both by the bad guys and by the good guys who are supposed to be protecting them, until finally, in desperation, they lash out and take decisive action.

But it’s still an interesting and somewhat uncommon spin on one of Hollywood’s great templates. For one thing, it allows Jolie to become the Alpha Female for much of the film, to be the agent of a great deal of change–something the femme fatale doesn’t often to get to do in this sort of story.

I’m honestly surprised, considering how universal the assessment has been that Depp doesn’t measure up to the Cary Grant role, that no one (so far as I can see) has pointed out that that failure is deliberate. Especially someone like Ebert, who’s a truly brilliant scholar of film theory and history. It’s one thing to say, “The Tourist attempts to subvert the trope of the debonair, adventurous leading man in this sort of thriller, but the result is an unsuccessful film.” But it’s a whole other thing not to notice that that attempt is being made. It’s so clear to me that that’s what’s going on in the film that I’m honestly wondering if I’m missing something.

The Tourist certainly isn’t without problems; I’d call it average rather than great. Within minutes of Depp’s first appearance onstage, we learn he’s travelling in Europe to escape the death of his wife–who is then never mentioned again. Once the film enters its final act–right after Depp’s character has had his apotheosis moment–the plot starts taking a twist or two that had me thinking, “Oh, come on, guys. Really?”

But it was still decent, and I’m glad I saw it.

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Diplomacy

Diplomacy by Henry KissingerIn this controversial and monumental book–arguably his most important–Henry Kissinger illuminates just what diplomacy is. Moving from a sweeping overview of his own interpretation of history to personal accounts of his negotiations with world leaders, Kissinger describes the ways in which the art of diplomacy and the balance of power have created the world we live in, and shows how Americans, protected by the size and isolation of their country, as well as by their own idealism and mistrust of the Old World, have sought to conduct a unique kind of foreign policy based on the way they wanted the world to be, as opposed to the way it really is.

Spanning more than three centuries of history, from Cardinal Richelieu, the father of the modern state system, to the “New World Order,” in which we live, Kissinger demonstrates how modern diplomacy emerged from the trials and experiences of the balance of power of warfare and peacemaking, and why America, sometimes to its peril, refused to learn its lessons.

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, my 35th favourite book, played a huge role in how I see history and international relations. (The other big influence was my high school history teacher.) Richard Nixon’s secretary of state has a firm view as to what guides the interactions of nations, and it’s a decidedly pragmatist one. Therefore he lauds statesmen who have pursued their countries’ national interests and made their decisions on cold calculations of relative power–Cardinal Richelieu, Lord Castlereagh, Otto von Bismarck–and derides those who allowed themselves to be guided by wilder, more romantic interests, like Napoleon III.

He then relates this principle to American relations. The American people, he argues, have generally eschewed the idea of the balance of power or the national interest; they would rather construct the world into moral and immoral nations–with the United States of course at the centre of the moral side. It’s easy for Americans to cling to this idea of themselves as the barometer of world morality, as they have generally managed to hold themselves aloof from the more morally neutral cut and thrust of world affairs, like the creation of the power blocs before the First World War and the appeasement crises before the Second. But Kissinger deprecates Americans for seeing this as evidence of their moral superiority; what allows the United States this freedom from compromise, he points out, is the very pragmatic facts that America’s borders comprise two countries who could never be military threats to it, and two vast oceans.

According to Kissinger, the challenge of the American President is to strike a balance between the moralistic demands of the American people and the need for pragmatism in American foreign relations. He applauds those Presidents who have done so–Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon–but reserves special derision for Woodrow Wilson (who probably did more to set the direction of American foreign policy than any other President) for allowing himself to get lost in the arrogance of the idea of America’s special mission in the world, and therefore of America’s superiority to the rest of the world, with disastrous results.

The sentiment of American moralism has produced some exceptional accomplishments: its crusading element sustained the United States through four decades of the Cold War (a conflict where it would be very easy to paint Soviet expansionism as no more than a continuation of the same expansionist tendencies, based on national interest and calculations of power, Russia had been showing in Europe, Central Asia and China for centuries), and without American involvement the Western European democracies surely would not have survived that time. But its isolationist element–what historians have called America’s desire to be a “beacon” of world democracy–has also led to withdrawal after the First World War and again after the end of the Soviet bloc, a willingness to let the world burn rather than get involved.

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The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2106
Words total: 17,904

Time spent writing: 12.30-2.30
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: The handmaid could see only the back of her mistress’s head, and therefore did not see the tears glistening on her cheeks.
Words that boggled Word: formulaically, tablion, raiments, unbefitting, porticoed, footsoldiers
Tyop: disipline
New words today: haunches, rump, whimpered

The five stories that should be exterminated

The human Dalek SekJust as the Daleks have given us some of the best Doctor Who over the years, they’ve also been witness to some of the poorest. Here, then, are my five least favourite Dalek stories. But when it comes to Doctor Who, it seems nothing can ever be wholly without merit, so for each story, I’ve also added a brief section at the end, detailing those little moments of pleasure mixed in amongst all the awfulness.

An invisible Dalek5. “Planet of the Daleks”. Jon Pertwee (third Doctor), season 10, 1973. Written by Terry Nation; directed by David Maloney.

There’s nothing really horrible about “Planet of the Daleks”, which is why it’s down here at no. 5 rather than further up on the list. It’s just that it doesn’t really work–it’s relentless mediocre. The central premise of Dalek research into invisibility is a bit silly, but that’s hardly enough to scuppered pretty much every other Who story ever made. The invisible aliens themselves are bit silly, though they get considerably worse when they make themselves visible by donning the purple pelts of skinned animals–pelts so shiny and clean and silky that they genuinely look like an army of Grimaces.

What redeems it: I do rather like the character of Rebec, mostly because of the actress, I think–Jane How has some sort of very watchable quality about her. There’s also the Doctor’s final speech to the Thals, about not glamourising the experience of war.

The new Daleks confront the Doctor4. “Victory of the Daleks”. Matt Smith (eleventh Doctor), season 31, 2010. Written by Mark Gatiss; directed by Andrew Gunn.

When it first aired, I talked about the problems “Victory of the Daleks” created for itself by attempting to shoehorn its premise–a very good premise, on its own–into the limiting formula of having to accommodate one of New Who’s “celebrity historicals”; this only gets compounded by the fact that the historical celebrity in question is thoroughly underserved by the story. And when you bring in Sir Winston Churchill and then treat him like this, you’re always going to lose my sympathy. But what really knocks the story down into “five worst” territory is the unveiling of the new, redesigned Daleks. I don’t mind the obviously marketing-minded decision to give us a rainbow of new Daleks each with their own candy flavour. I don’t mind the weird, blocky mounting for the gun and sucker. What I mind is that they’re humpbacked. Perhaps you have to see them in person, handle them to really understand just how ungainly they are–certainly the moment that drove it home for me was finding a red drone Dalek on the shelf at my local comic book store. They are seriously carrying so much junk in their trunk that they genuinely look like they’re supposed to be played like a panto horse, with one guy running the front and a second running the arse.

Ironside DalekWhat redeems it: It’s a little bit ironic (don’t ya think?) that in the story that gives us the naffest Daleks ever, it also gives us pretty much the coolest Daleks ever–the Ironsides. Seriously–how can you beat Daleks painted in olive drab, with tiny Union Jacks emblazoned on them, their ear-light things covered over to stop them being spotted from the air, utility belts draped over their shoulders? The prospect of Spitfires flying into orbit to duel with a Dalek spaceship is also pretty damn cool.

Dracula vs a Dalek3. “The Chase”. William Hartnell (first Doctor), season 3, 1965. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Richard Martin.

The Daleks’ third outing, in which they build their own cardboard doorway time machine and pursue our intrepid TARDIS crew through time and space, isn’t so much a cohesive story as a series of set pieces. We see the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki flee from the Daleks on the desert planet Aridius; we see them flee from the Daleks atop the Empire State Building in 1965; we see them flee from the Daleks aboard the Mary Celeste; we see them flee from the Daleks in an animatronic funhouse; and finally we see them flee from the Daleks on the jungle planet Mechanus. Real low points include the bizarre sight of the Daleks fleeing in terror from Dracula and Frankenstein, and the android “replica” of the Doctor the Daleks construct to infiltrate and murder the group. This replica looks absolutely nothing like William Hartnell, but even if we’re willing to play along and pretend that he’s identical to the Doctor, we’re then treated to the sight of Barbara and Vicki eventually realising which Doctor is real and which is fake for no good reason.

What redeems it: Peter Purves’s Alabama yokel, confronted by a Dalek on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, walking in a full circle around the creature, and the stationary Dalek’s eyestalk rotating 360 degrees to follow him, is an undeniably endearing moment; indeed, the Daleks’ appearance at the Empire State Building in the first place brings a smile now, since we learnt in 2007 that it was actually the Daleks who constructed the great skyscraper in the first place (see below). Also fun is the signage the camera pans across just before we fade away from the monster funhouse: Frankenstein’s House of Horrors, $10; Festival of Ghana, 1996–cancelled by order of Peking. Just how many distinct fears of the future can we find in that brief message? We’ve got China dominating Africa; we’ve got the British Commonwealth using American currency.

A Dalek flanked by a pair of pig slaves2. “Daleks in Manhattan”. David Tennant (tenth Doctor), season 29, 2007. Written by Helen Raynor; directed by James Strong.

It’s just silly, from the title onwards. It also suffers from the fact that the central point of its story, the event on which the cliffhanger separating the two episodes of the story hinges (episode two is entitled “Evolution of the Daleks”) isn’t actually an interesting one–nobody particularly wants to see a “human-Dalek hybrid”. The very appeal of the Daleks is that they aren’t human. It’s actually a shame that most of the hybrid prosthetic is so well done, because it’s completely undercut by those jiggling, twitching vestigial phalli dangling off its cheeks.

What redeems it: I guess there’s just inherent comedy value in Daleks turning their heads, because the moment that always elicits a smile in this disappointing story is when the two Daleks beneath the sewer drain draw together to start discussing treason, and one of them actually looks over its shoulder to make sure they’re not being overheard.

The Movellans1. “Destiny of the Daleks”. Tom Baker (fourth Doctor), season 17, 1979. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Ken Grieve.

Tom Baker is the longest-serving actor in Doctor Who’s title role, but his tenure coincided with the biggest dearth of Dalek stories the programme has so far experienced: in seven years, he fought the pepperpots only twice. And yet with these stories (the last two Dalek scripts Terry Nation contributed), he managed both the Daleks’ best story and their worst. Nicholas Briggs, who voices both the Daleks and the Cybermen in New Who, has called “Destiny” the Dalek story where “Terry Nation forgot the Daleks aren’t robots”. This seems an accurate summation–and it’s rather odd, considering that at one point in the story the Doctor actually picks up and handles a Kaled Mutant. But the Daleks depicted in “Destiny” are coldly logical machines, who need to find some foreign source from which they can inject ingenuity into their strategic planning. They’re opposed by an equally cold and logical robot warrior race, the Movellans–a more poorly realised “warrior robot” race than whom is difficult to imagine, with their lithe, beautiful bodies, spandex uniforms and glowing pink guns. The Dalek props themselves are fallen to pieces. And then, again as Nick Briggs points out, we’ve got the extras playing the Daleks’ slave workers–extras who smile slightly as the Daleks select them from extermination, then don’t so much fall down when shot as look around for a comfortable place to sit down.

What redeems it: As poor as I think season seventeen is–and it’s one of Doctor Who’s two worst seasons ever–it does have the advantage of having been script edited by Douglas Adams, and every one of its stories contains lovely repartee in dialogue. There’s also the undeniable chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, which infects all of the second Romana’s stories–it’s no surprise these two ended up (very briefly) married. But this is pretty minor stuff when set against the consummate awfulness of the story–as you’d expect from the very worst Dalek story ever.

I

The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2018
Words total: 11,331

Time spent writing: 2pm-2.45, 9pm-10.30
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: He did not speak so brusquely out of disrespect, but rather because he was used to commanding men, and not at all to conversing with women.
Words that boggled Word: gartered
New words today: urbane, handmaid, wimple

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