Got an email from Fios at the end of June, telling us that, as thanks for being such valued customers, they’re giving us HBO for free for three months. (No idea why we should be such highly valued customers. We’ve only been Fios customers for three months.)
Of course, what I immediately did was download the HBO Go app to the Playstation and our Fire TV sticks, and for the past month I’ve been binging on as many episodes of HBO shows as I can. I’ve finished all of Game of Thrones (so far) and am about two thirds of the way through Boardwalk Empire. Next up will be Deadwood, then I’ll be moving on to the shows that have a lot fewer episodes, like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Parade’s End.
(Incidentally I don’t recommend mainlining episodes of Game of Thrones, though it’s a fine show. Quite apart from that da-da-DA-da, da-da-DA-da, da-da-DAAA rattling through my skull like it was the rhythm from the Archangel Network, there was also the fact that I pretty much could no longer interact with a woman without picturing her naked, and anytime I got into a dispute with someone, I developed the urge to win it by surprisingly and dramatically cutting their throat.)
Boardwalk Empire came at just the right time for me, though. After I finished Game of Thrones we went off for a weekend road trip to Philadelphia, Valley Forge, Hershey Park and Harpers Ferry. It involved a whole lot of history and was a whole lot of fun, but it really got me thinking again about my alternate histories set in colonial and Revolutionary America. Those are topics that I really love but that I want to avoid writing about because I really don’t think they’re terribly saleable, so I always end up feeling like the time I’ve spent on them has been wasted. But they had wormed their way back into my imagination by the time we got home, and I’d resigned myself to thinking I was going to be spending at least the next few weeks working on them again.
But then I started Boardwalk Empire, and that was no longer an issue. It’s set in 1920 and manages to actually be about people who genuinely feel like they could have inhabited the 1920s, unlike most historical fiction, which (especially in TV and movies) is typically about modern people who happen to live in an earlier time period. And it immediately refocused me on stuff I’d been working on before, set during that post-WW1 period, that I think has a much better chance of finding an audience.
We’ll see what happens when I start Deadwood. Maybe it’ll make me replay Red Dead Redemption again.
My first semester at university, when my Writing Through Media instructor (the very drunkest teacher I ever had) introduced the idea of the third meaning, I never thought to ask if it counts if you’re seeing third meanings in the credits.
At the beginning of every episode of Vikings, the first card that pops up reads, “HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present”. And always I read “HISTORY” as referring not to the TV channel/production company that used to go by the name the History Channel, but rather to history, the last six thousand years of human society and culture.
“HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present VIKINGS” reads to me like, “Metro Goldwyn Mayer is about to put Vikings on your screen, made possible by their actual existence a thousand years ago.” It’s basically the same as if the title card said, “PARAMOUNT PICTURES and GEOLOGY present A VOLCANIC ERUPTION”.
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.
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.
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, 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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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 talked a while ago about when I realised how much more enjoyable becomes when I avoid spoilers, and the basic principle I derived from that.
Right now spoilers are a big topic, because of the Olympics. If, like me, you’re on the East Coast, you have to wait until 8PM EDT for NBC to start their broadcast of the day’s major events. That’s 1AM BST–in other words, it’s right when actual competition is wrapping up for the day, and it’s hours and hours after many of the events we’re most interested in have finished. You have to wait three hours longer on the West Coast.
But while you’re waiting, lots of your friends on Twitter and Facebook already know the outcome, either because they watched it live in Europe or because they’ve gone online–maybe even to NBC’s website itself–so they don’t have to wait. And they’re talking about it.
I’ve seen both extremes in reaction to this. I’ve had someone in my stream declare that we need to hold our tongues even after this stuff airs on NBC, to accommodate those who are watching on DVR(!). And I’ve had someone tell us all that you either can have Twitter, or you can not be spoilt, but that you’ve got no right to expect people online to consider others when spouting spoilers.
I think they’re both wrong.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve refined my position down to a basic standard:
If there’s a time we’re all supposed to gather together to watch something, I think it’s really rude to spoil it beforehand. What this means, as far as the Olympics go, is that it’s my own responsibility to avoid what’s being said by the people I follow who are actually in Britain–they’ve all seen it live on TV (or in a few instances, in person). But those in America, who are heading online to see it before the rest of us? They should be taking the rest of us into consideration. And I’m speaking here as someone who is far more interested in Team GB than Team USA, so this system leaves far more of the onus on me than it does on others.
Note that this does not mean that you can’t talk about what you know. Just have the politeness to ensure that people are able clearly to see that they’re about to read a spoiler before they read it. Best way to do this is generally to start off with SPOILER in big, obnoxious capital letters.
For TV shows, that rule stands until the episode airs. (Yes, that includes not spoiling things that are being revealed in the adverts.) For a big movie, until it’s been in release for a week. For a book? As long as it’s a new release (ninety days from publication), certainly, and then probably as long after that as it remains a top ten bestseller.
Note also that this is a minimum. I for one have always tried to maintain a higher standard. As far as movies, TV shows, books go? I try always to include a spoiler warning in some form. I was going on thirty the first time I saw The Third Man, and it was over sixty years after the film’s first release. Yet somehow I’d managed never to be spoilt on one of the most famous movie twists of all time, and it was brand new to me. If I’d known what was coming, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have nearly the appreciation for what’s now my all-time favourite film as I do. But as far as sport goes? If I’m watching a live event on TV, and I have something to say about it, I say it.
We can talk about the things that engage us. But we don’t have to trample all over everyone else’s engagement with them to do it.
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.
At least the first one briefly flirts with highlighting some desirable quality of Kumho tyres in comparison to their competition.
These are, so far as I’m aware, the only adverts Kumho has ever run in the United States. They’re on fairly constantly on Fox Soccer Channel, and the second one–the one that’s currently in rotation–was on the main Fox network this weekend when they broadcast the Arsenal/Man United match.
I just find it fascinating how absolutely different they are. One is in a European urban centre; the other is on an isolated, apparently North American beach. One is about sophistication and refinement; the other is about youthful exuberance. One tells a story; the other is a snapshot. One looks like it was shot on low-budget videotape; the other looks like it was shot on film, slick and professional. One demands deliberately stylised artifice from its actors; the other goes for (and achieved) that candid, sort of found-footage effect that we’d often associate with a music video.
And yet they both have exactly the same emotional arc:
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I first heard the word internet on an episode of seaQuest DSV.
I remember this because I had actually recently made up the word internet for a science fiction story I was writing. To name an international network, I’d combined international and network. How original am I.
(Actually, I have a feeling I’d combined interplanetary and network or interstellar and network.)
And my reaction to the word’s use on seaQuest was to think, Damn. Now I can’t use that word, because now it’s a seaQuest word. Everyone’s going to think I stole it from seaQuest.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
If you don’t see a YouTube video above this text, check out the original post to see it.
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.
*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.