Outside The Government: The Gift

(32 comments)

Last War in Albion will be up tomorrow.

It’s November 19th, 2009. The charts haven’t changed. STS-129, the third-from-last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, launches. Barack Obama makes an international trip to China. The Original of Laura, an unfinished novel by Nabokov, is published over his wish that it be burnt upon his death. France qualifies for the 2010 World Cup due to Thierry Henry committing a deliberate handball to score. Oprah Winfrey announces the impending end of her television show. The Large Hadron Collider is turned back on.

While on television… oh dear. The third season of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been in many ways uneven, but The Gift is frankly an unmitigated disaster. Attentive readers may recall a kerfuffle back in the first season of Davies-era Doctor Who when Lawrence Miles, enfant terrible of the late Wilderness Years, famously and controversially lambasted The Unquiet Dead for its alleged xenophobia. The argument went that the episode went to great lengths to have the Doctor refute Rose’s objections to the aliens being allowed to use human cadavers as bodies only to prove Rose right when the aliens really do turn out to be evil. At the time, I largely sided against Miles, suggesting that he was making a reading of the episode that no actual viewer would make, and thus was talking in a vacuum.

Which brings us to The Gift, a story in which a pair of Raxicoricofallapatorians explain that they are not members of the villainous Slitheen family, who had previously been the only Raxicoricofallapatorians we’d seen, but instead members of the virtuous Blathereen family. Much of the cast, particularly Clyde, treats them with suspicion, assuming from the outset that they’re evil. Rani is the only person who defends them, and even Sarah Jane stresses the importance of being suspicious of aliens. Eventually it turns out that the aliens are in fact irredeemably evil - so evil, in fact, that Sarah Jane has to kill them - and we get a final monologue about how there are some good aliens, while offering an overall moral that suspicion and paranoia are the correct way to treat people who are different than us until proven otherwise.

That this is done with the Slitheen, whose original concept was a deliberate cut against the idea that aliens are best identified as a species, is even crueler. The entire point of the Slitheen is that they were set up to trick the audience into thinking they were monsters, when in fact they were people and characters. And the vague hedge that the Blathereen were actually half-Slitheen accomplishes little other than suggesting that there are some people who are just irredeemably evil because they have bad blood in them, and they should probably be killed via explosive farts. 

So really, fuck The Gift. It’s consciously and deliberately xenophobic, there’s no way to read it as anything other than that, and it’s also unambiguously for children, which means that The Sarah Jane Adventures closes out its third season with an act of overt and conscious evil. There's no reason for it, and everyone involved really and genuinely should have known better, because they are smarter and capable of making better television than this. Everyone involved should feel properly ashamed of it, and I frankly hope they do.

“Now or Thereabouts,” on the other hand, is a short story by Blair Bidmead featured in Obverse Books’s 2011 Faction Paradox anthology A Romance in Twelve Parts. The story tells about the Faction Paradox initiation of Ceol, who is a thinly veiled version of Kelsey Hooper, the character that Clyde was created to replace after Invasion of the Bane. (At one point an equally thinly veiled Maria Jackson shows up - Ceol talks about her “pink velour trackie,” and Maria is said to have spent several years in the United States; beyond that the name Kelsey derives from “Ceol’s Island,” at least according to numerous sources that may or may not be right, but are right enough to establish an allusion)

The initiation takes the form of an extended riff on The Apprentice, with various “Little Siblings” competing for an initiation into the Faction and being berated extensively by Godfather Starch. Eventually the competition comes down to Ceol and one other Little Sibling, Dominic, who makes an impassioned speech that, from the description, is exactly the sort of winning speech that the most skillfully slimy reality television contestants are adept at. Ceol, on the other hand, suggests that Dominic “would be an excellent candidate. He wants everything the Faction offers. But, that’s the difference between him and me, Godfather. He wants to play dress-up. He wants to appear mysterious. He wants this! He wants that! I need this, Godfather, not want. I need this. It’s not a question of choice. It’s a question of… survival. It’s this or it’s nothing. End of story.” 

This is an interesting moment, to say the least. The underlying logic that suggests a failed Sarah Jane Adventures character is a good choice to establish as an agent of Faction Paradox, those loveable not-a-Doctor-Who-Spinoff-At-All-Guv-Honestly narrative terrorists from the Wilderness Years, via a parody of a reality TV show about fetishizing capitalist zeal over any sort of human decency in a macabre attempt to please some judge whose sole qualification is his incidental success at rent-seeking is, to say the least, obscure. But that is perhaps the point. We have, after all, at this point swerved rapidly from the BBC's number one international franchise to a children's knock-off of it to an off-license appropriation of a minor character published in an anthology belonging to a franchise that's at this point on its fifth publisher that isn't even seriously an attempt at making money so much as at having a bit of fun with an obscure fandom. We are as far from Lord Sugar as you get, parodic name aside.

Which, in point of fact, it is. As a discarded supporting character on an ancillary show, being subsumed into Faction Paradox really is the only way her story could possibly continue. Sure, maybe during the Second Wilderness Years someone will bang out a short story for whatever the equivalent of Short Trips is in which Kelsey makes some sort of cameo appearance, but really, she’s unlikely to have a life even as well-developed as that of Brendan Richards, who appeared incidentally in a pair of Wilderness-era short stories.

No, the only option that is left open to her is to become a narrative ghost - a fly in the ointment. All that she can possibly be is an objection; a dissent. As a forgotten and discarded bit of story, her only hope is to heavily arm herself and reenter the narrative as something unrepresentable and forbidden within it. Her name cannot even be spoken, for aesthetic reasons as much as legal ones. Instead she’s haunted by Ryan - a relatively mysterious figure. Whoever he is, Maria recognizes his name, suggesting that he dates to the shared past of The Sarah Jane Adventures. And yet his identity is thoroughly unreal - he appears as a priest with a face of continually exploding glass. “Had there ever been a ‘real’ Ryan,” she wonders. “She couldn’t picture it. It didn’t matter. It was just some bad time, gone on for too long,” she decides. And then she kills him, because, apparently, there actually are monsters it's necessary to kill because they're irredeemably evil. It's just that those monsters aren't aliens or metaphors for the Other - they're metaphors for ourselves.

This constitutes some sort of capitalist victory, apparently. A successful engagement with the free market. A promotion. Which is fair enough, in a world where our leisure time remains a form of labor. When we voluntarily work at our own entertainment, grinding away at our bullshit jobs in order to fund our Obverse Books habit, or our Big Finish habit, or our drug habit. Killing a shitty story borders on a revolutionary act. Invading it even more so. Occupy Bannerman Road. 

Very well. A call to arms, then. It is time to decide that the stories we do not like can be excised. “It’s all true” is one option, but perhaps not the most interesting one in the end. A vulgar postmodernism where there are no wrong answers is ultimately an impotent one in which we have no ability to fight off the unpleasant ones. “It’s all true” is as much single vision as “only one thing is true.” Perhaps an alternative - any of it can be true. A story can be dismantled and put back together however we want. Endings are always an option, as is returning to any old point and simply carrying on, appropriating the discarded relics of the past for our own idiosyncratic purposes.

A better sort of gift, this - the ability to reject our childhoods when they inconvenience us. The ability to declare that we are telling our own stories, consequences be damned. These alien lands - these stories we are not yet in - are not the Other, but rather roles we can step into. Masks we can don. Different people we can be. We are under no obligation to become them. We can reject them, declaring that we want to be something else. We can refuse to be written, can write ourselves out, can decide that we have been written into a different book entirely. 

How can the alien be a source of suspicion or paranoia in a world where this is possible? The alien is only another sort of possibility. A different thing we can be. There are a thousand more interesting stories than another alien invasion. Why take the obvious route? Why accept a story where the alien resolves inexorably towards being the evil. Or indeed, more compellingly, why not become evil ourselves? Why not let the aliens take over - let the world become something other than what it is. “For once, I truly hoped we'd found a friend out there, someone Earth could trust, a way for us all to move forward, humans and aliens together,” someone said once, on a dead and rejected piece of narrative. “There are friends out there, too. Friends who really will want to help us. And as we all know, there's nothing more important than friendship. And then, one day, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, Earth could be a shining example to the entire Universe.”

Perhaps. But why accept friendship? Why not be colonized by weirdness. Why not abandon ourselves to the pleasures of the text so completely and hedonistically that there is no more human, only the everlasting strangeness of what was called the alien, back when there was still a barrier between us and them to maintain. It is, after all, a simple move - a case of taking the pleasures of the text more seriously than the text itself does.

Indeed, let us ever so briefly run the clock in reverse. This is, after all, just a bit of filler in the course of our big Davies-era denouement. We've got the usual array of little filler posts - some comics and other ephemera of the time - and then the regeneration story. So given that we're all obsessed with the Time War right now, let's let Davies enter the War in Heaven and do some real damage.

Davies has already launched his most savage attack on Faction Paradox. Never mind the Grandfather Paradox, let's kill your own grandchild. The utter rejection of reproductive futurism. It's a strange thing for a man with a children's program to do. And yet what if we accepted the value of children's programs even in a world where we reject reproductive futurism. The point, after all, is that children are people, not abstract principles. They are worth engaging with well and substantively. The entire point becomes to teach children a way to be.

If we cannot bring ourselves to kill our own grandchildren, then, perhaps we can bring ourselves to kill our own childhoods. To wage war on them, rewrite them, reclaim some self from the wreckage. Does this constitute political rebellion? Does this constitute an opportunity for utopia? Perhaps not, but it is the best that Davies can muster, and it's no worse a stratagem than any other the program has offered. Through hedonistic ecstasy, allow ourselves to become something other than people.

We could even take inspiration from the third-season finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Mona Lisa's Revenge, and embrace the possibility of becoming art and story ourselves.

It’s November 19th, 2009. The television has gone dead. There is nothing to watch. In the darkness, we tell ourselves stories. Terrible, monstrous stories, too awful to ever be shown on television. 

The best sort.

Comments

Anton B 3 years, 2 months ago

Is there not the redemptive possibility that RTD is allowing his child viewers to question the assumption that the hero in fiction is always right? Again, I haven't watched this episode and from your description am rather glad I haven't but if we take this as part of the narrative collapse being perpetrated on the Whoniverse, first in Children of Earth with Captain Jack's questionable ethical choice leading to infanticide and soon with the tenth Doctor's hubris leading to not only the return of the Master and the Time Lords but a regeneration that nearly destroys the TARDIS and causes a new fairy tale paradigm to become dominant, the lovely Sarah Jane rejecting the other and demonizing the alien is about as final a collapse as you can get. I like to think at least a few kids watching, particularly in a multi-cultural UK made up of so many 'others' (of race, ability and gender) just shouted 'No' at the screen and went off to write thier own life stories.

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Alex Antonijevic 3 years, 2 months ago

I didn't find it offensive or xenophobic because my brain is not usually in critical thought mode when I watch this sort of stuff, but I do feel that it is incredibly lazy and unoriginal, and is what everyone expects. The show could have been brave and had the central conflict of the episode purely be tension that turns out to be unjustified.

But I know the format of the show requires action and a villain or monster to be fought.

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David Anderson 3 years, 2 months ago

The idea that the Slitheen aren't an evil race but are evil people was always paper-thin anyway. The plot of Aliens of London/ World War Three would have been exactly the same without those couple of lines. There's little to no effort put into differentiating the Slitheen in terms of personality traits. If someone were to ask a question during those couple of lines you'd never notice you'd missed anything. The idea that the Slitheen aren't a race does a bit more work in Boom Town, but even there the Raxacoricofallapatorian government could be replaced by the Shadow Proclamation with little inconvenience.
That doesn't make the 'are the obviously evil aliens who are pretending to be nice really evil?' plot any better, but it's not as if they did it with the Silurians.

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Andre Salles 3 years, 2 months ago

Let's not forget as well that the lesson of the Slitheen is that all fat people are monsters. That's hideous in and of itself. Of every horrid thing Russell T. Davies has inflicted on this little corner of the universe, I think the Slitheen are his most odious creations.

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Ross 3 years, 2 months ago

You know, while everything you say about The Gift is true, it seems strange not to mention that none of this actually matters to the story, because the whole totality of this story is just set-up for the punchline "But when it's Luke being threatened directly, Sarah Jane goes all Ellen Ripley, picks up a Big Alien Gun and storms off to actually shoot the bad guys for once. It's her version of climax of Dalek and the climax of The Doctor's Daughter and the second scene of Day of the Doctor, and the actual point of all the xenophobic garbage is really just to set the audience up with the fake "Will she actually pull the trigger? Will she cross that line?" dilemma that would be a legitimate moment of tension if the audience hadn't actually watched any television before in their lives.

Not that it makes this story any better (I mean, they hit the hilariously low bar of "Best outing the Raxicoricofalloipatorians have had", okay.), but it's strange to not address the actual crux of the episode at all.

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elvwood 3 years, 2 months ago

I'm half with you. I'm not really in critical mode either when first watching, and never felt the urge to watch this one again. However, the contrast of the rhetoric regarding nice aliens with the content of the program made me sit up and say, "hang on a minute - where are all these nice aliens?" - and that discomfort stayed with me for the rest of SJA's run.

There had to be a threat, of course; but I remember at one point I was really hoping that the blathereen had been duped by someone.else. As it turned out, though...bleh.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 2 months ago

Rubbish.

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jane 3 years, 2 months ago

"If we cannot bring ourselves to kill our own grandchildren, then, perhaps we can bring ourselves to kill our own childhoods. To wage war on them, rewrite them, reclaim some self from the wreckage."

Memories. You're talking about memories. They're implants. Those aren't your memories, they're somebody else's.

I don't blame my mother. Not her fault I paint myself blue. She did her best to keep the color out of house and home, but you can't conceal the sky. Still, I have to say, it was a good thing my eyes are brown. But that will change. It has to.

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J Mairs 3 years, 2 months ago

"We could even take inspiration from the third-season finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Mona Lisa's Revenge, and embrace the possibility of becoming art and story ourselves."

So... what you're saying is... we're all stories in the end? ;)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 2 months ago

Which part?

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Bennett 3 years, 2 months ago

I don't know if the lesson is that 'all fat people are monsters' was intended, but the Slitheen's additional traits of being childish, gassy, selfish, greedy materialists makes it troublesome. Not to mention that the weight of the politicians and policemen is played up as part of a joke, even though every single one we see has been murdered, skinned and vilely desecrated.

Combined with Partners in Crime, and the lack of any sympathetic obese characters (the Duke of Manhattan...maybe?), it makes me wonder whether the "fat politics" of the Davies era are worth examining, or if it's just another one of those things us obsessives read into a text that isn't there.

In either case, it still gives me one more reason to love The Wedding of River Song which manages to fit two obese characters into its plot, and give both a major role and substantial dialogue that wasn't dictated by their size (though admittedly, one of them had lost a considerable amount of weight since his last appearance).

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Bennett 3 years, 2 months ago

Oh...but I should pull you up on that last sentence, and add that I in no way feel "inflicted" by Davies' writing, and remain grateful for and appreciative of his tenure. Hell, when Moffat steps down I'd be more than happy for Davies to have another go (though I think Davies himself might have other thoughts on that matter).

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 2 months ago

I think it's possibly the emptiest version of the "crossing the line" moment I can recall. I'm more worried about Batman than I am about Sarah Jane, which says how ridiculous the proposition is.

I can see why Doctor Sandifer would not want to engage with the episode at all given his very strong feelings on xenophobia and racism in Who and related works. If he engages with it, he grants it a level of legitimacy that he's uncomfortable with given it's connotations. See Also: The Celestial Toymaker

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eternaly relyneat 3 years, 2 months ago

A masterful post, you've really made my day!

Although, to my horror, upon first viewing I read The Unquiet Dead the same way Miles did and it really worried me. It's not THAT buried of a subtext and I was, and am, abhorred at people's reaction to Miles calling it out.

At any rate, now I guess now I'll have to pop my Obverse cherry and pick up A Romance in Twelve Parts...

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

I remember watching this. I remember having distinctly mixed feelings at the revelation the Blathereen were the bad guys; on the one hand, where are the nice aliens, but on the other, at least the idea that Raxicoraphalipatorians could be neatly classified by family seemed to be getting kicked into touch.

And then they pulled the "Oh, but they're Slitheen really" and I think I actually groaned aloud.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

As I recall (and I could be mistaken) the reaction wasn't so much of Miles pointing it out, as of Miles assuming it was meant to be there and therefore Mark Gatiss is racist, rather than Gatiss writing a scene without thinking through its implications.

I know, I know, (lack of) intent isn't magic. But by the same token, you can't base a criticism on an intent that you don't actually know is there. I believe Miles actually rewrote his piece, and I can't see him bowing to internet pressure unless he thought they had a point. (But I could be wrong; I have no insight into what he thinks...)

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Andre Salles 3 years, 2 months ago

The only sympathetic obese characters I can think of are the couple from Voyage of the Damned. And of course, they both die.

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Chicanery 3 years, 2 months ago

Miles did rewrite after admitting he was overly harsh and overly drunk.

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encyclops 3 years, 2 months ago

But by the same token, you can't base a criticism on an intent that you don't actually know is there.

That's a nice thought, but it invalidates a frightening number of essays on this blog if it's true.

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Bennett 3 years, 2 months ago

How did I forget about Voyage of the Damned? (And more importantly, how can I forget about it again?)

I don't think the fact that they died is too significant, given that they're in a disaster movie. That they tick so many stereotypes, and that so many of their plot functions revolve around their weight, may be. (And I think it's fair to say that their deaths, as well as the death of the red midget, would never have been played the same way as Kylie Minogue's was.)

But they were clearly flagged as sympathetic, so that does run counter to my point.

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liminal fruitbat 3 years, 2 months ago

And even when sympathetic they're still comedy fat people like the disguised Slitheen and the Abzorbaloff and the victims of the Adipose gestation.

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liminal fruitbat 3 years, 2 months ago

However, the contrast of the rhetoric regarding nice aliens with the content of the program made me sit up and say, "hang on a minute - where are all these nice aliens?" - and that discomfort stayed with me for the rest of SJA's run.

See also the wondrous future of The End of the World compared to every future/space story until Akhaten.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 2 months ago

"Why not be colonized by weirdness. Why not abandon ourselves to the pleasures of the text so completely and hedonistically that there is no more human, only the everlasting strangeness of what was called the alien, back when there was still a barrier between us and them to maintain. It is, after all, a simple move - a case of taking the pleasures of the text more seriously than the text itself does."

Essentially, this would be Davies' conception of a utopia, the overcoming of one's own identity to become something other than what was. It ties in to the nature of Jack's pansexuality (and the implied pansexuality of most humans by the 51st century) that we saw in The Doctor Dances, the visions of humanity progressing through the stars by radical bodily modification and interspecies marriage and breeding (essentially taking the principle of Spock's lineage to its limit) that are spread in stories all over the Davies era. Really, Jack Harkness would embody the utopian vision of Davies in a single character: he's the pansexual man who gives up the conservative definition of humanity in reproductive futurism through the brutal exorcism of killing his own grandson, and eventually radically transforms himself in however many imaginable ways to become the Face of Boe.

In Children of Earth, we saw the most terrifying articulation of this utopia of constant total transformation. With what we saw of Jack's biography of Doctor Who, we see a more hopeful version of that. And Phil's collision of Faction Paradox's appropriation of marginal SJA characters with this, probably the worst and dumbest SJA episode, constitutes a more hopeful version of that utopia than Davies every managed himself on television.

Nice work.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 2 months ago

I have to say I approve *mightily* of this.

The last 3-4 paragraphs were brilliant. Could be used for my blog just as easily.

Wish I had more to add than that.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 2 months ago

I, of course, dig your mention of Spock, Adam. And agree.

I have more to add, but I'm keeping my cards close to my chest for the moment...

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Phil, do you have any comments on Rossgate? All I know about it is Gaiman's post and the two pieces he linked to; I know nothing about Ross's reputation apart from that.

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Dave 3 years, 2 months ago

Shit, I've missed this sort of post. My favourite material is always that which is constructed around odd readings of objectively naff (or outright reprehensible, in this case) objects (still go back to read the NES post about Cabal from time to time). Something something qlippothic enlightenment, eh?

Maybe it's my inner postmodernist crying out to be liberated from my (not-actually-)positivistic marxist epistemology.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

I can't think of many - most of the entries that are critical of a story for racism etc, say something along the lines of "the writers probably aren't actively racist, they just made no effort not to be racist". The Dominators maybe, but that's not even subtext.

Actually, what it might invalidate, now I think about it, is Phil's defence of The Unquiet Dead on the grounds that someone like Gatiss couldn't have meant to write anything like that. Which means my argument destroys its own point...

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David Anderson 3 years, 2 months ago

I think it's not so much that Gatiss couldn't have meant to write that. I think it's that it's obvious from the story itself that Gatiss wasn't trying to draw the moral. (Or that if he was trying to have the audience draw the moral he was going out of his way to make it difficult.) Up until the betrayal all the signals are that the Doctor is doing the right thing, rather than that he's being unduly credulous. (The aliens don't put on shifty expressions when he's not looking; Rose loses the argument fair and square, and so on.) So what we get is reasonable trust betrayed rather than ill-judged credulity getting its come-uppance. That suggests that Gatiss does not intend the message that there's no such thing as reasonable trust when it comes to funny aliens.

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encyclops 3 years, 2 months ago

I can't think of many - most of the entries that are critical of a story for racism etc, say something along the lines of "the writers probably aren't actively racist, they just made no effort not to be racist".

Oh, sorry, Daibhid, I think I get what you mean now. In other words you can still argue "'The Unquiet Dead' is racist because it easily lends itself to an analogy with asylum seekers," but you can't argue "Gatiss himself is definitely a racist because how could he not intend this analogy with asylum seekers." Is that the idea?

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

@Anderson: Good point.

@encyclops: That's it, yes.

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