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19 July 2018 @ 09:59 am
I have a slightly odd relationship with the word ‘geek.’  Initially this was because it was used as an insult against me at school; it took me a while to adapt to the fact that it had become a more positive statement.  But I feel I don’t exactly fit the criteria of ‘geek’ as it is usually used.  I’m interested in some geeky things, particularly Doctor Who, but a lot of my geeky interests are circumscribed and I have non-geeky interests.  I’m interested in the humanities more than the sciences and I went through a phase of calling myself a humanities geek to indicate that my interests were less science and technology and more history, economics, politics, literature (not just geeky books, but the Western canon in general as well as some nineteenth century Yiddish literature) and Jewish philosophy.  I’ve never got into computer gaming or RPGing at all.

I don’t read much fantasy, although I’ve read what I suppose you could call the core British fantasy texts (Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Mervyn Peake).  I read quite a lot of science fiction, but I tend to concentrate on particular writers (Philip K. Dick, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula le Guin) who I read at great length rather than exploring  the genre.  I have a long list of SF authors to try that I’ve never got around to and I don’t read much contemporary SF except occasionally for people like Christopher Priest and Connie Willis, not least because I don’t know who is worth reading.  I tend generally to be a timid cultural consumer and have to force myself to try new things, geeky or otherwise, although at least I do try to make a constant effort to try new things, as well as to force myself to read more books by women and non-Westerners.

What I do like is a very narrow subset of things that link up in a way that seems coherent to me, but perhaps not to other people.  I like vintage British television science fiction and fantasy, mostly from before1990s and the influence of the US SF TV and film explosion of that time, what used to be referred to as ‘telefantasy.’  Things like Doctor Who, Quatermass, The Prisoner, Emma Peel and Tara King era Avengers, A for Andromeda, Sapphire and Steel and Blake’s 7.  For me the appeal is less pure SF (arguably most of these are not pure SF or even not SF at all, but science fantasy, horror or genre hybrids) and more about atmosphere.

For a bunch of reasons, some budgetary, some probably more cultural, British telefantasy developed its own unique style, focused more on atmosphere and the collision of the everyday and the fantastical or horrific.  Visually, it often appears as a collage of tropes from different genres, of which the Doctor’s police box time-space machine is perhaps the boldest symbol (albeit a steal from Lewis’ wardrobe, itself really a version of the magic door), putting the science fictional literally inside the everyday prop of the police procedural.

Surrealism often appears here.  In the 60s and 70s, many of these stories had their own distinctive sound as well as a distinctive look, with bizarre sound effects, experimental electronic incidental music and pervasive electronic ‘atmospheres’ that broke down the barriers between music and sound effects.  While plots varied, the style was often wittier, sometimes in a somewhat self-aware way, than the American science fiction of the same time.  The original Star Trek, for example, rarely deployed humour outside of closing tag scenes or purpose-built ‘comedy’ episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles.  On the other hand, British telefantasy could often be much more bleakly dystopian than the optimistic Star Trek and Star WarsThe Andromeda Breakthrough (the sequel to A for Andromeda), Quatermass, some Doctor Who and especially Blake’s 7 take the view that human nature is basically selfish and unthinking and without some kind of external shock or brake will result either in tyranny or self-destruction, a strong contrast to Star Trek’s utopian vision.

It's the atmosphere and the aural and visual misc en scene, the moments when the normal gives way to the surreal, that appeal to me most, I think, the feeling of being somewhere unlike the everyday and yet recognisable in a way that makes it more, rather than less, sinister.  As someone who has struggled since adolescence, if not earlier, with mental health issues and who is on the borders of Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism, I often feel totally lost in an threatening, alien, unintelligible environment and it is helpful to me to find fictional worlds that mirror that sense of alienation and surrealism, perhaps because the nature of the fiction allows me to take control and tame it or understand it, particularly as the heroes attempt to impose logical order on the chaos they find.

My feeling is that these styles of stories are also found in other fictions I like, some of which may have been influences on these stories, but not always in other geeky stories or series.  I like Star Trek, but I think Doctor Who has more in common with children’s TV programmes like The Clangers, Mr Benn and Bagpuss than it does with Star Trek.  Similarly, my favourite prose fiction authors are Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka.  Only Dick is considered a ‘real’ SF author (although the others have had significant influence on the genre), but they all share, in different ways, the sense of alienation and surrealism, the struggle to make sense of the incoherent and to grasp the infinite[i].

[i] I think I read somewhere recently, although I can’t remember where, that Dalek creator Terry Nation seems to have been the first person (of many) to adapt a Philip K. Dick story for the screen.  This would be Impostor, adapted by Nation for Out of this World in 1962.  The episode, like all bar one of the others in that series, no longer survives, so we can’t see how well Dick and Nation’s very different takes on the science fiction genre meshed.
16 July 2018 @ 03:02 pm
"Nor was this the only time in the episode when the Doctor's favourite tool was used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card.  If the audience knows that the Doctor can always pull out the screwdriver when he's stumped for any other way to advance the story then it really does lessen the suspense.  I personally hope we'll be seeing less of the damn thing in future." After-Image: The End of the World by Rebecca Levene, Doctor Who Magazine #356

I'm re-reading Rebecca Levene's reviews of the 2005 season.  I remember them as being overwhelmingly positive, but re-read now, certain long-standing criticisms of the new series are already present.  In the first two reviews alone, there's criticism of intrusive incidental music telling us what to feel, overuse of the sonic screwdriver and a lack of clues that would enable the audience to guess the solution to a mystery.
15 July 2018 @ 04:41 pm

I've spent the last twenty months or so watching all of surviving Doctor Who in order as research for a book.  I'm coming to the end of Matt Smith's time and am hoping to finish Peter Capaldi in time for Jodie Whittaker's debut.

One thing that really strikes me on this viewing is how little exploration and deduction the modern Doctors do when compared to the stories of the sixties and seventies.  When you get an episode like The Long Game (originally pitched in the late eighties) or Fear Her, wiht a lot of investigation and deduction, it stands out.  And far from exploring new planets, the Doctor always seems to be trying to take his companions to places he's visited before, although he doesn't always succeed.

I guess partly from lack of time and partly to make the Doctor seem even more amazing (new Who spends a lot of time telling us how amazing and all-powerful the Doctor is) he usually knows everything straight off.  Even when he does make a deduction, it's often based on something already known to him, but not to us, like the significance of the sevens and the Shakri in The Power of Three.  Even when the Doctor doesn't know what's going on, he has to know something in advance.  In A Town Called Mercy the Doctor is taken by surprise by street lights that are ahead of their time and makes some deductions... but as soon as Kahler-Jex appears, he's babbling on about how great the Kahler are because he already knows of them.  I find this irritating.  I don't want to sound like Tat Wood (the latest About Time books are made hard to read by their hatred of new Who and especially Steven Moffat), but I feel something has been lost.  The Doctor has become an explorer who never explores who seems to know almost everything in advance in a series that used to be at least vaguely about empiricism.  This isn't quite unique to new Who as the sixth and seventh Doctors had similar troubles at times, but with the latter at least it was part of a radical reimagining of the programme.  This just seems like laziness.

I don't want to sound relentlessly negative, because I have enjoyed watching most of new Who again, but I do feel like something has been lost.

11 July 2018 @ 10:11 pm
It's depressing on multiple levels to realise it took ten seasons (or twelve years) to get a 'proper' (i.e. not a one story guest character) female new Who companion who never kissed the Doctor during her tenure.  (OK, strictly speaking it was nineteenth century Clara that kissed the Doctor, not 'our' Clara.)  Some of those kisses seem to have been scripted purely as visual bait for the trailers.  I'm thinking in particular of Donna kissing the poisoned tenth Doctor, although to be fair that sequence was funny in context, which is more than I can say for the Rose/Doctor kiss in New Earth or the Clara/Doctor kiss in The Snowmen.  Thankfully Nefertiti doesn't count as a proper companion, so I can skip over the start of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but I do worry what it portends for Chris Chibnall's era.
29 June 2018 @ 02:13 pm
I watched A Good Man Goes to War again yesterday.  It shows season twenty-two how the Doctor can fruitfully be held out of the action for twenty minutes, building up excitement and expectation for his appearance, but I'm still puzzled by the end.  River tells the Doctor who she is by getting him to read the Gallifreyan writing on his old cot, which is apparently her name.  But why is River's name on the Doctor's cot?  Granted, he's just given the cot to 'Melody', so maybe he quickly carved her name on it, for some reason, in Gallifreyan.  But it seems an odd thing to do at that time, while she's crying.  Particularly as he seems to get very excited about having kissed River when she gets him to read the name in answer to his question of who she is.  So is there an ancient Time Lord custom of using the Matrix to find the name of someone's future spouse(s) and carving it on their cot as a baby?  So that he suddenly realises she's his wife?  Am I missing something?  Or was it just another detail of this plot arc that was never properly resolved?

I like Moffat's Who writing and his era as showrunner a lot (I think for me Moffat is one of the 'big three' Doctor Who writers, alongside Robert Holmes and David Whitaker), but watching it all in order again is really revealing how many plot details went nowhere and how many questions were left unanswered.  His season arc planning was never as comprehensive as his planning for episodes like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Blink, although it was probably unfair of fandom to expect another Blink every week, building expectations impossibly high and leading to disappointment and disillusion in some quarters.
12 June 2018 @ 07:14 pm
Watching new Who in order, I'm struck by how many stories are either set in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Idiot's Lantern, Let's Kill Hitler, Victory of the Daleks) or evoke that kind of aesthetic in a science fictional setting (Utopia, The Beast Below, World Enough and Time).  The aesthetic of bakelite and valves, privation and community spirit.  Smart clothes worn into shabbyness.  Call austeritypunk.

I guess it invokes nostalgia for a world still just within living memory, but filled with events beyond the experience of most Westerners: war, hunger, homelessness, want.  A society more ordered and repressed than ours, but one under intense social strain from war and economic depression, resulting in furtive rebellion; it's no wonder this is where we are introduced to Captain Jack.  All of which makes for good drama.

Looking back, it probably begins in the McCoy/Cartmel era.  The Curse of Fenric is a direct hit, but Remembrance of the Daleks is probably the first - 1963 is just about the tale end of the immediate post-war era, just before the sixties started swinging.  Delta and the Bannermen is arguably different, though, a story about rock and roll and rebellion although the pseudo-Butlins holiday camp setting is very austerity-era.
03 June 2018 @ 09:13 am
It's funny how one's views about an episode can change over time.  Usually familiarity makes things seem worse, but sometimes things seem better a few years down the line.  When new series three and four (seasons twenty-nine and thirty) were first broadcast, I thought them my least favourite seasons ever.  Rewatching them as part of my viewing of all of TV Doctor Who, things seem different.  Season twenty-nine seemed pretty good, certainly better than season twenty-eight, which I quite liked on original transmission, but struggled with a bit this time around.  Season twenty-nine has its flaws, mainly the quite good, but overly self-satisfied and self-referential The Shakespeare Code and the deeply stupid The Lazarus Experiment, but was otherwise fairly solid.  I'm not sure what was responsible for the change; maybe I can tolerate Russell T Davies's writing/showunning style more, at least up to a point.

Season thirty still seemed very patchy though: an OK, but underwhelming opening trio of episodes, a drab and stupid second trio of episodes, the silly but enjoyableThe Unicorn and the Wasp, the solid, but unspectacular Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the excellent Midnight followed by the innovative, but not entirely successful Turn Left (a strong concept, but a bit repetitive by the end and suffering from the Cult of Rose Tyler).  So far, so reasonably good, but I can't warm to The Stolen Earth/Journey's End at all.

I don't remember how it fared at the time of broadcast, but I think it came first or second in the Doctor Who Magazine season poll of that year and did well in later 'every story ever' polls.  I hated it at the time and I strongly dislike it now, albeit that my feelings now are more laughing at it (and occasionally with it) rather than actual hatred.  While The Doctor's Daughter remains stupid and boring, this story is stupid and boring and presses a load of my personal Davies era dislike buttons: dodgy science that isn't rescued by a coherent aesthetic (I don't think Doctor Who science has to be particularly accurate, but it should feel consistent with itself, not like something being improvised or deliberately and unnecessarily at odds with popular science); too many recurring elements from the series' past; a linear plot with little mystery; technobabble and exposition gabbled off at ninety miles an hour; a cruel 'emotional' ending which hasn't been earned for a character I never liked, but didn't want to see treated like this; an unnecessary extra-long running time; an unnecessary epic scale that leads to a year on year escalationas things get absurdly larger and larger with every passing season; pointless celebrity cameos; unfunny in-jokes and catchphrases; and fetishisation of the Doctor (admittedly not at its worst here compared toVoyage of the Damned) and Rose (and probably other stuff that I can't even remember).  As I say, I felt I got through it this time by laughing at it, which probably doesn't endear me to online fandom (well, other people laugh at The Space Museum, which I've always had a fondness for).  It's an improvement, though: this time I found watching it just about tolerable rather than an endurance test.

I wish I knew why the TARDIS doesn't get moved with the Earth at the beginning, though.  One can only assume that it's anchored to a specific point in the space/time continuum rather than sitting on the Earth, but in that case it shouldn't stay with the Earth when the latter spins on its axis and orbits the sun.  Eh.

Still, just five more episodes (admittedly bumper-length ones) of the tenth Doctor to go and then on to the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era, which I definitely prefer.
Current Location: The Medusa Cascade
31 May 2018 @ 11:37 pm
Sometimes Doctor Who hits you unexpectedly.  I'm reading Voyage, Stephen Baxter's very un-Who-like hard SF novel imagining a manned NASA mission to Mars in the 1980s with realistic technology.  And suddenly I'm hit by the line, "I've been studying space medicine'" like the much-derided line (in Planet of the Daleks) "I'm qualified in space medicine".  NASA found "liquid ice" on one of Saturn's moons a while back too.  It's a scary moment when you realise that all the science in a Terry Nation script might just be true.  I'm sure that Nation, who was pretty self-deprecating about his talent, would be amused too.  Maybe the government should fund research into the properties of static electricity as an alternative energy source...
Silence for weeks, then two posts in one day, I know.  Truth is, my life is very busy at the moment and, while I'm still working my way through the whole of TV Who in order as research while redrafting my book, I don't have much time for writing up my thoughts.  But I did have an interesting thought earlier (indirectly as a result of the comment on my previous post).

I deliberately don't talk much here about my mental health issues, but one thing that has never really gone away, and has actually come back recently, is whether I have an autism spectrum disorder as an underlying cause of my otherwise surprisingly persistent mental health issues.  I've twice been assessed and told I don't have it, and I've twice been told by mental health professionals who knows me better than the assessors that I probably/certainly do have one.  I am resigned to the fact that I will probably never know for sure either way, but I definitely see a lot of autistic traits in myself.

Where this relates to the subject matter of this blog is that I found myself wondering if that is why I prefer old Who to new Who.  This is for two reasons.  One is that people on the spectrum are susceptible to sensory overload.  I find the fast editing and flashy visuals of new Who quite disorientating at times.  The second is that people on the spectrum have trouble with executive function, making what I call 'gear changes,' going from one activity to another.  So, at my workplace if get interrupted while I'm working on a task, I find it very hard to stop and engage with the new task and even harder to get back to my original work afterwards.  It's not exactly a concentration problem per se (like a lot of people on the spectrum I can concentrate for long periods on something that interests me) it's a difficulty with changing thought modes for a different activity.  Again, with new Who, I find the speed of the episodes and especially the dialogue can be disorientating.  One minute it's a joke, then a scary bit, then an info dump... I find it hard to keep up and work out what's going on.  I prefer to watch on DVD, so I can rewind the important dialogue until it has sunk in.

I wonder if this is why I prefer old Who to new Who.  Old Who is much more...well, you could call it slow (the new Time Team in the latest Doctor Who Magazine called it boring and said they watch it on 1.5 speed), I prefer to call it atmospheric.  I find it a lot easier to keep up with old Who than new Who, although the fact that I know the old episodes much better probably helps too.  Again, like many autistic people, I often find repetition comforting rather than boring, although I still prefer new episodes to have new characters and situations; while I may watch The Daleks dozens of times, I would rather see new monsters in new episodes rather than have the Daleks come back again to rehash old situations.  Just a thought that I want to throw out there.
13 May 2018 @ 04:22 pm
I just watched The Lazarus Experiment, probably the weakest story of season 29, but (as Professor Lazarus might say) research is research.  One has to admire Francine's faulty maternal protectiveness sense.  While she's busy wondering about who the man who has saved her daughter multiple times is and is listening to a Mysterious Man spread Mysterious Rumours about him (what were they, exactly?  Because Francine really doesn't seem to know about time-space travel in the next episode), she completely ignores her other daughter going off with a man three times her age who is mutating into a murderous monster.  Is she one of those mothers who are far more protective of some of their children than others?  Not that Tish comes across that well here: when old-Lazarus molests her she's creeped out, but as soon as he becomes Mark Gatiss in a bad wig, she wants to snog him.  Are we supposed to be endeared by the fact that she can overlook his lack of manners and values in favour of his new-found youth, looks and (perhaps now, post-experiment) fame and wealth?