Shabgraff does Series 1 of the revival. It’s my blather from Timelash II, plus a little new stuff. (I may do something separate about ‘The End of the World’ at some point.) This is about a series which works because its about a young woman growing up. I feel like I’ve grown up too, in a sense, since 2005… which is why my opinions about Series 1 have drastically changed since first viewing.
I have never been able to entirely make up my mind about this.
The characterisation is glib, sneering at ditzy blonde ‘chavvy’ people who say silly things about making legal claims and flirt with anything in sight, etc (admittedly, this improves later in the series)… not to mention having a LAD character who is OBSESSED WITH FOOTBALL (as are all men, obviously), probably looks at porn on the internet and is stupid (this doesn’t improve ever… though, in fairness to RTD’s writing, it might’ve helped if they’d cast somebody who could act, even just a little bit).
There are things about it that are puzzlingly wrong… just off somehow… like the way Rose calls for a lone store caretaker (!) and calls him “Wilson”, as though he’s an underfootman or something. Huh?
Plus, the music is absolutely awful. And about half the comedy bombs. I know we’re all supposed to look down our more-sophisticated-and-ironic-than-thou noses at people who hate the wheelie bin… but it’s still stupid.
There are some great things in it, however. They whole idea of the Autons being the first monster in the new series is inspired… and they’re quite well done… though, obviously, the priority was to use monsters that were on Earth in the present day, i.e. to make the initial setting as inoffensive to sneery meedja types as possible.
This really is the underlying logic of the whole episode: appease the meedja. Look meedja, it’s a “serious” actor… and he’s not wearing anything naff, he’s wearing a leather jacket, etc. Look meedja, a pop star/lad’s mag companion! Look meedja, London (the only place people like you think fucking exists).
Luckily there’s enough magic in the TARDIS and the Autons and Chris (who’s miscast but good anyway) and the excellent Billie Piper (who will be the unexpected jewel of the first series) to make the whole thing watchable and, often, fun.
Oh, and the ferocious, unrelenting, slavering meedja hype helped too, I imagine.
There’s a germ of something interesting in the Doctor’s appearance as a lone bomber (soon junked)… and the geeky internet bloke who’s somewhere between an obsessed fan, a conspiracy theorist and a cultural dissident. It suggests a support for the uncool, the obsessional, the underground that strangely belies the meedja-pleasing and brand-resurrecting surface priorities on display.
The Autons retain their original charge as emblems of commodity fetishism… products become autonomous and threatening because they represent alienated labour. Rose’s status as a wage slave only emphasises these undertones, as does the Doctor’s reference to a “price war” and the Auton’s imperialistic lust for our plastic (oil). Sadly, the Nestene consciousness is now a refugee rather than a imperialist invader, and has lost its old tentacular image.
The Unquiet Dead
All this took place in the cultural context of an ongoing reactionary panic about asylum seekers and refugees “swamping” us, getting special care, bringing crime, etc… when in fact they are treated abominably by our system… which is all the more shameful since they are very often fleeing poverty and war created by the very neoliberal system that we, as a nation, have so belligerently promoted. For instance, just googling “asylum seekers iraq” instantly turns up this press release from Human Rights Watch, criticising the British government for plans to return Iraqi asylum seekers to the hellhole that our invasion helped create. The date of the report? About four months after ‘Unquiet Dead’ made the government’s case for it.
This story clearly carries connotations that relate directly to the ‘debate’ about refugees and asylum seekers. It is, moreover, clearly lending support to an isolationist and xenophobic worldview, pursued as policy by the British government and promulgated with special intensity and racist viciousness by our press.
The fact that its possible to devise tortuous and disingenuous ways of reinterpreting all this away does not dilute the self-evident moral, intellectual and artistic bankruptcy of this episode. Mark Gatiss’ intentions are (and this really shouldn’t need saying) neither here nor there.
Aliens of London / World War III
Hated this at the time. Now…
Look, there are all kinds of things wrong with this… but, at the end of the day, it does involve a bunch of vicious, vulgar and venal criminals, hiding under the skins of politicians, generals and senior policemen, who are plotting to start a fake war against a mythical enemy (supposedly capable of launching their “massive weapons of destruction” in “45 seconds”), supposedly in response to a flying ship crashing into a tall public building (a symbol of power and establishment)… and all in a quest to make a massive profit from selling fuel on the intergalactic market.
As in ‘Sound of Drums’ later, RTD is getting public-faces to appear in shows that critique their own values. In Chris Morris style, he relies upon their tittery vacuousness to do all the deception for him.
Of course, we also have the irritating business with a precision guided missile that solves the problem by hitting its target and killing all the baddies (whereas, in reality, they actually tend to exacerbate problems and kill loads of innocent people when they miss). And Harriet Jones is a comforting reformist daydream: the decent backbencher who could solve it all if only she could get into power… though this is pleasingly undermined later by the events of ‘The Christmas Invasion’.
An efficient action thriller. They do things here with both the physical and psychological Dalek that they will never bother to attempt again. It’s all downhill from here, Dalekwise… though RTD’s fundamentaleks in ‘Bad Wolf’ also impress.
Of course, this is greatly inferior to the audio play from which it comes. Demented and overheated as ‘Jubillee’ is, it’s still a much more interesting tale, seething with violence, madness and rage. ‘Dalek’ seems somewhat neutered by comparison.
There are some astonishing clunkers. The “if you cannot save the woman you love” bit is an excrutiating non sequitur.
There are some chillingly wonderful moments. Eccleston’s spit-flinging rage and “You would make a good Dalek”.
Politically, we’re mostly in the right zone, while straying from RTD’s insouciently brazen satire. Van Statten’s villainy stems from his wealth and his self-involved, fetishistic narcissism. The bit where he decides whether he wants a Democrat or a Republican based on their relative humour value (and no other consideration) is especially good. His torture of the Doctor ties right into the cultural moment… and ours, though people seem to have forgotten that the ‘goodies’ in the continuing “war on Terror” still have loads of people locked up in torture chambers.
Also, as Richard Pilbeam put it: “GeoComTex keeps going despite Van Statten being ousted, and there’s no indication that it’s going to be any better under Godard. The system’s inherently rotten, it doesn’t matter who’s nominally in charge. Miles way from the standard ‘Things will improve now that the evil CEO is gone’ approach.”
On the other hand, the depiction of the Dalek as an unreasoningly hostile enemy that wants to destroy civilisation for its own sake, and must consequently be kept locked up, chimes with certain neo-con-friendly ideas. Is it an image of the unfathomably antagonistic barbarian against which Western culture must defend itself? Is it, in short, al Qaeda? If so, surely the dungeons of Western culture are where it must stay? This could be seen as tying in with the final episodes of the series, where the Daleks explicitly become religious fundamentalists…. though, as we’ll see, I think that representation is much more complex than it appears.
The end is curiously mishandled. Shearman’s script makes no gesture towards showing the Dalek in a sympathetic light. It is being driven mad by emotions that it hates because they come from beings that it considers inferior and revolting. And yet we get Murray Gold and Joe Ahearne trying to smear on the pathos.
Pretty good… though nowhere near as good as it could’ve been, if the production team had let Shearman rip with his trademarks: half-crazed satire, fevered and grotesque surrealism, ghoulish blacker-than-black humour and quasi-Pinteresque violent dialogue.
The crushing inevitability of Gatiss one day being the showrunner depresses me. I want Shearman. For me, he’s the only one of the various touted candidates who could possibly bring it back up to quality again. Allow me my fantasy.
The Long Game
I kind of knew in advance that I would like this one. Perhaps it was the fact that the Radio Times was less than enthusiastic. Somehow, I was tipped off to the fact that ‘The Long Game’ would be a corker. It’s still, possibly, my favourite episode from Series 1.
‘The Long Game’ tackles the issue of media manipulation head on. The Editor’s speech about the power of nuance in news reporting may not exactly be subtle (and it may be a bit of an info dump, a recurring problem in the episode) but it is, nevertheless, an intelligent comment on the power of those who control the media to use (and abuse) information for their own ends. The fact that – hooray! – the Editor turns out to represent a consortium of banks, throws in the last missing ingredient: money. Once again, in RTD’s universe, money and the rich are the roots of all evil… but here its a systemic diagnosis, albeit illustrated with lurid symbolism.
There is no equivocation in ‘The Long Game’. We are seeing a stalled, backward, entropic, corrupt society (the Doctor expressly comments on this, though he is talking about technology). They consume and do not much else (is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the Jagrafess turns out to be little more than a gigantic mouth?). This future society is explicitly described, in caustic tones, as “the Great and Bountiful Empire”… its great bounty consisting (like that of ours) of brain-rot TV, media saturation, junk food and cut-throat battles for promotion.
The people of the Empire aren’t stupid, but they are self-obsessed and unable to think clearly, unable to question authority, or even wonder why they should. The connection between these failings and the constant stream of controlled imformation pumped at them is clear.
The technology the people of this Empire use has fused their minds with the media. They are what the consume. The messages are, in some cases, actually beamed straight into their heads. They’re jammed in the hyperreal, contextless, flattened, homogenised, cybernetic world of overpowering capitalist realism. Blinded by too much choice and not enough context. They exist in what is obviously an exaggerated version of our own society: a globalised capitalist dystopia of infomercials and credit cards, of feared refugees and all-power bankers, of a great centralised power controlling us via what they let us know.
And Adam makes the episode. Bruno Whatsisface may not be the greatest actor who ever lived, but he copes. And Adam’s journey is a superb coup of narrative bifurcation. Adam’s characterisation unfolds. He lies to Rose, smiling as he wanders off by himself. He lies easily to the nurse (delightfully portrayed by the wonderful Tamsin Greig). He tries to steal information and technology from the future for personal gain, regardless of possible consequences for the world. Adam suffers from a fundamental weakness of character (already glimpsed in ‘Dalek’, in which he reacts blithely to the torture of the Dalek and runs ahead of Rose to get to the bulkhead): selfishness. By itself, this isn’t so terrible… Rose isn’t exactly free of it herself… but the implication is that Adam is ready to submerge himself into the world of the Empire (as he submerged himself in Van Stratten’s world before). These worlds – both capitalist worlds where media information is owned, controlled, parcelled and used by unaccountable and impersonal systems of wealth and power – are both willing to offer him the chance to squash others to better himself. He’s the entrepreneur. He’s the self-interested rational actor that this series keeps coming back to, the utility maximiser. He’s the kind of tick that our society idolises and (hypocritically) despises in equal measure. He’d win The Apprentice… as long as he was trying to be Alan Sugar’s apprentice rather than the Doctor’s.
The Doctor here is no tedious ‘hero’. He’s the caustic observer who inspires curiosity and bravery in the previously-vacuous corporate drone. He’s a moral force and a political force… without being a god or a saviour or a capeless superhero.
To cap things off, the evil banker (who is just a replaceable tool of the great devouring mouth of consumerism and money and empire… i.e the system itself) gets capped by the determined anarchist. Now we’re cooking with gas. Protestor greases CEO. Love it.
Much as I hate to give Paul Cornell any credit, I must say that ‘Father’s Day’ (awful title, by the way) is a pretty wonderful episode.
Cornell smuggles in his usual, obligatory Christian subtext, but we needn’t worry about that. Sci-fi constantly reiterates myth and legend; that’s arguably what sci-fi is.
Interesting to see a Socialist Worker ‘Thatcher Out’ poster in the background, used as a period detail like the Acid House image. Both are implicitly presented as things of the past. Well, we’re seeing nowadays how quickly things can change.
Billie is wonderful. Chris is great too, especially when he says “I’ve never had a life like that” to the couple who are supposed to be celebrating their wedding.
It’s a story about the end of the world… couched in terms of the loss of people. The gradual, unseen vanishings are incrementally terrifying. They suggest an unravelling of reality, expressed as the loss of people, of society, of community. Cornell presents a Church as the place where society and community can be kept safe. The old walls of tradition (whether we believe or not) shelter people from the silent desolation brought on by an act of love that is also an act of selfishness and utter individualism. Save your Dad, whatever the consequences. There’s no such thing as society anymore because of an individual’s desire to save her family. An implied critique of the social cost of the rampaging 80s.
And yet there is compassion and understanding. Pete is the harmless, clueless wannabe-entrepreneur who doesn’t realise he lives in a society that just pretends to be open to the bloke who keeps trying. And while Pete can be read as Christ (he sacrifices himself to save the world) he can also be read as an ordinary man. In fact, he can be seen as the human part of Christ. The carpenter’s son, common as muck, giving himself up to death for a higher ideal.
This is Christianity I can relate to, the Christianity of ordinary people, resisting the emptiness, resisting the scavengers who want to use them as fodder. How ironic that Cornell’s chosen party should now be snuggled up to the Tories and helping them recycle the 80s that ‘Father’s Day’ treats as an era from the past, helping them attack ordinary people like… well, like the rapacious, scavenging Reapers.
It’s powerful. It prefigures ‘Gridlock’ as a hymn to the social, albeit from a less caustic and more theistic perspective.
The above seems like an argument for reading this story as a political parable, which isn’t necessarily what I’m getting at. The Reapers are, of course, also symbols of time itself (“the devourer of all things” as Ovid put it). Human resistance to anything powerful is beautiful and inspiring to me.
It also works as a moving human drama, despite moments when incipient mawkishness threatens to derail proceedings.
Sad that this story should be so undermined by the subsequent use of the Tyler family as fodder for sentimental season finales… episodes that systematically reverse the deaths and losses and regrets that Rose experiences, thus rendering them less meaningful. The alt-Pete also manages to be a success, thus blunting the pathos of our-Pete’s perpetual failure.
The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
Very good, on the whole. A sort-of first cousin and husband to ‘Curse of Fenric’.
‘The Empty Child’ is saturated in sex (from the girl/woman child/mother Nancy to the omnivorous lothario Captain Jack; from the butcher and his other way of trading meat to that whole conversation about “dancing”; from Algy’s cute bum to the “man” that sent an evacuated boy running back to the safer option of nightly bombing raids) but, while it acknowledges that sex is scary and dangerous, it doesn’t seem to despair of the possibility that most options – including promiscuity and teen-parenthood – can bring fulfillment… indeed, if it has a ‘message’, it is that sex is linked to the fulfillment of real humanity, counterpoised against the emptiness of repression and denial.
Interesting to see the absence of any timey-wimey… but the presence of Moffat’s incipient preoccupation with the rendering of people as information, their storage as patterns, their meshing with technology and their transmission through machinery.
Sadly, the nanogenes are extremely predictable as a denouement. You don’t have to be a geek either. As soon as they’re so heavy-handedly mentioned, we know they’re going to be behind the gas mask thing.
This story is another that has been unjustly devalued as a result of its strengths being raided and reused. Whereas ‘Father’s Day’ is undermined by the subsequent reuse of the Tylers and ‘Dalek’ by the subsequent inferior use of the Daleks, ‘Empty’ is undermined by Moffat’s constant recycling of themes, styles and motifs.
Kids, physical transformation, the body as pattern, sexual badinage, sit-com quipocalypse, etc. It suffers less than, say, ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ though because a) it lacks the time paradox thing that has since become nearly obligatory and b) it is much, much better.
Sadly, there are moments that I absolutely hate. The “Marxism in action” quip is annoying (to me anyway); clearly something written by someone who knows precisely nothing about Marxism. Worse is the “damp little island” speech, which caused me to hurl a coathanger at the TV in disgust the first time I saw this. It’s idiotic, conventional, inaccurate jingoism. It reveals the distance between this and its cousin ‘Fenric’. In ‘Fenric’ we got “workers of the world unite” (written by someone who clearly does understand at least something about Marxism) and powerful internationalism. In ‘Empty’ we get jingoism and a bit of “don’t forget the NHS.”
But I’m just kvetching now, from my own particular ideological standpoint. Don’t mind me.
A real squib. It’s supposed by some to be a sophisticated debate about capital punishment, isn’t it? Where’s that then?
This debate isn’t about slow torture versus total freedom.
And besides, 6yr old children were turning to their parents and saying “why doesn’t he just take her somewhere where they’ll lock her up and not kill her?”.
Meanwhile, we get non-hilarious slapstick heist-movie chases and the uninteresting business with Billie Piper doing dreary doomed-romance scenes with someone who can’t act.
A rare example of Russell writing a small-scale episode, about people debating values while trapped together, and failing to pull it off. They’re normally his greatest strength.
Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways
It starts off with a replay of the sucking-up to da kidz and, far more importantly, the Meedja, with which RTD began the series. The use of current TV shows initially smacks of sycophancy to Heat Magazine, etc. Season 1 is still obviously in mortal terror of words like “corny” or “old-fashioned” or “irrelevant” being used about it in a column written by some vacuous media prick. And, as we all know, the way to be acceptable to such people is to pander to the echo chamber they live in.
Chris seems wonderfully bemused and irritated to find himself in BB. It’s like a refugee from the pop TV of the past (much of which, including much Who, looks like Brecht compared to pop TV now) who has suddenly found himself stranded in the middle of Charlie Brooker’s TV Go Home.
The objectives here seem a tad ambivalent and confused. Big Brother is actually depicted rather sympathetically, with the housemates being a quite personable bunch… as opposed to the malignant cretins, vulgarians and bores who actually featured in the real show. Moreover, these sequences say pretty much nothing about the peculiar hall-of-distorting-mirrors effect which causes people to be famous for not being famous, and makes us identify ‘reality’ as carefully-chosen unlikeable people filmed while boxed up in a completely fake environment and subjected to random, authoritarian commands.
It’s not bad exactly, just awkward, undecided and a bit thin.
Billie carries her sequences brilliantly… with the guy played by Patterson Joseph being the sort of reptile who ought to have been in with Chris. The subplot with the programme makers feels very much like old-fashioned, trad Who, particularly 80s Who, which constantly featured audiences of cynical and powerful and bored voyeurs… which is a narrative device that tends to make you remember that you’re a viewer, watching something made by people behind the scenes… which, in a funny way, is almost a Brechtian effect, thus making it somewhat more sophisticated than just about anything else in the lists of mainstream ratings smashes of 2005. Could do without the tedious office romance but even that has a pleasingly bathetic effect, and also highlights the way perfectly ordinary people can get caught up in the running of staggeringly evil systems.
As the nature of the set-up is revealed, the story becomes much stronger than the rather toothless referencing game with which it seemed to begin. We learn that the Gamestation is a platform that overlooks a world of people who are subject to its impersonal whim, a kind of metal god that picks victims/winners for huge financial reward or gruesome death, based on random chance… with their literal life-and-death stakes resolved via media humiliation (that everyone fears, longs for and watches) and challenges devoid of all proof of merit. The Bad Wolf corporation hovers over the human race like a whimsical, cruel deity. As flies to wanton boys are people to the corporate system.
The shows slowly reveal themselves. Trinny and Susannah are utterly inhuman monsters that want to carve you up with knives and saws and re-stitch you in pointlessly ‘designer’ ways if they think you don’t look right. Weakest Link becomes a genuinely brutal Darwinian contest in which people compete to stamp on each other in order to survive and profit, all watched over by an inhuman gamesmistress, and with survival resting on arbitrary knowledge (or guesswork) about spectacularly trivial and worthless brainfluff. Big Brother becomes a “charnel house”. ‘Bad Wolf’ simultaneously dwells within and attacks a system of media representations that it essentially predatory and cannibalistic. It feeds us back to ourselves as product.
The revelation that the Daleks are behind it all satisfyingly aggravates the implications of the Gamestation system. These Daleks may not be as psychologically interesting as the lone specimen in ‘Dalek’, but they’re easily better than in any of their subsequent appearances. They’ve become TV producers, and manipulators of corporate power from behind the scenes (i.e. installing the Jagrafess). They prey on the people apparently killed after losing the televised Darwinian survival games. They steal the unpeople, the derelicts, the poor. They use them as raw material. And they are now made from that material. They’ve rebuilt themselves from the wreckage of humanity. The Daleks have always been *us* in a way… now it’s become literal.
This ties into the alienation inherent in the Autons (human labour reified into autonomous products that attack and dominate us), the carnivorous media imperialism of the Jagrafess, the wittering Andrew Marr who fails to notice the predators inside the fat politicos…
It also ties back into ‘Dalek’, making that into a story about the Dalek and the capitalist (the hostile prisoner and the system that imprisons) being reflections of each other. They’re even linked by the media, when you remember that Van Statten owned the internet before the Dalek ate it.
RTD’s signature move is to make these new Daleks into mental religious fundies. Fundamentaleks, you could call them. Cue much chin-scratchy pondering about whether they represent Al-Qaeda or Bush and the Neocons. Or both. Well, they certainly talk more like evangelical Christian extremists than Islamists… and they’re in control of a massively powerful military machine… and they’re behind a massive media corporation… etc. They certainly seem more like the unholy alliance between Fox News, neoconservatism, conservative evangelical christianity and American imperialism than they seem like a network of people in caves…
But I think it’s more interesting to consider these Daleks as reflecting yet another kind of extremist fundamentalism, one which mirrors and allies with the opposed religious fundamentalisms. It’s impervious to evidence and is weilded by the powerful. It creates massive imbalances between the obese and the stick-thin. It permeates the values of TV to an extraordinary extent… with its war of self-interested utility-maximisers played out in deliberately nasty game shows where the brutally self-interested individual ‘rational actor’ is implicitly praised, or exhorted to alter their clothes or hair or bodies in order to succeed over others. Yep, I’m talking about market fundamentalism.
The Doctor’s dilemma here (and here he faces a genuine dilemma, as opposed to a fake one like in ‘Boom Town’) is to be a coward or a killer. Destroy the human race or let them be harvested by the Daleks, who’ve become a distorted mirror held up to humanity, showing us at our modern worst: imperialists, fundamentalists, media-executives… I don’t think you can make the Doctor’s dilemma relate directly and mechanically to anything specific in the real world, though obviously it has a ring of that fake debate that was presented to us before the invasion of Iraq: be a heroic invader for the greater good or a cowardly appeaser. I think the Doctor’s refusal to make the choice for us is the key thing.
He’s lucky that Rose turns up with her floaty-haired, glowing-eyed, posh-voiced, god-like power. She’s a deus ex machina… but in this case it’s a deliberate and witty pun, on both a linguistic and story level. She’s the god in the machine… who kills the machine god. And it happens because she’s changed, and because the people around her have changed. The scene in the café could be prefaced with “And the moral of the story is…” but it’s done with such conviction, by the absolutely superb Piper, that they get away with it.
So the Doctor prefers to be labeled a coward by a rampaging imperialist monster than to take millions of lives that aren’t his to take, perhaps remembering acts of war he committed in the past. A human comes to his rescue and puts things to right. In fact, she puts things too right. The Doctor has to stop her from going too far; he has to save her by stopping her from being a god. Godhood has to be sacrificed so humanity can live, as in The Second Coming. That’s a very atheist perspective. But it’s also a very Christian perspective. Jesus had to die so we could go on. Like many religious stories, it resonates powerfully through SF.