Archive for category Television
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
Master: Is the future going to be all girl?
Doctor: We can only hope.
With hindsight it was obvious this regeneration was going to be the one. The one that brought us a woman Doctor.
We’d seen it established that Time Lord regenerations can involve a change of gender as well as of height, hair colour, apparent age and so on. We’d engaged with the Master/Missy conundrum.
DOCTOR: She was my first friend, always so brilliant, from the first day at the Academy. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.
BILL: I’m sorry?
DOCTOR: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
BILL: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah?
DOCTOR: We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
BILL: But you still call yourselves Time Lords?
DOCTOR: Yeah. Shut up.
With lines like the above, we were being set up to welcome (or not) a woman to the role. Still, at some level, at least until a couple of days before the announcement, I really thought they might row back from that and say no, not yet, not this time. I really wasn’t sure they had the bottle to do this.
There’s been a lot of rather predictable frothing at the mouth, harrumphing and incipient apoplexy, with claims that this is the BBC surrendering to some mysterious all-powerful Political Correctness lobby (‘Murdered a part of our culture for feminazi political correctness ideology!’ ‘Doctor Who … didn’t die nobly as you might expect. He was murdered by Political Correctness’). That’s best ignored, by and large. I fear that Jodie Whitaker will have to contend with worse than that, and with personalised unpleasantness, but I’m sure she’s well aware and will be ready for the haters.
Not everyone who dislikes the change is of this breed, of course. There has to be a core of Doctorness with each regeneration, and some feel that maleness is a part of that. I disagree, but I suspect that many of those people, if they genuinely love the programme, will continue to watch and will be won over. Another response was that whilst of course boys have far more heroic role models in popular culture to emulate and be inspired by than girls do, the Doctor is different, and valuable because of the ways in which he is different. I do see the need for boys to have role models who aren’t all about action and fighting (even fighting for Good against Evil), but part of what makes the Doctor different, for me, is that gender roles and stereotypes simply aren’t (or shouldn’t be) relevant.
A plethora of girls and women have regarded the Doctor as a role model, and identified with him, over Doctor Who’s 50 year span, whilst he’s regenerated, repeatedly, as a man. The Doctor is still, no doubt, going to be the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker – alien, two hearts, both of gold, funny, witty, snarky, capricious, kind, adventurous. (Juniper Fish, Doctor Who Forum)
The Doctor can and should be a role model for both boys and girls, in a way that Captain America or Batman can’t quite be – and probably Wonder Woman and Buffy can’t quite be role models for boys either. So, the Doctor can continue to inspire boys whilst giving girls and women a whole new image of how to be wise, and brave, how to save the world, to do what’s right, to be kind. Girls need to develop the confidence to take the lead roles, not to assume that a hero/a protector is by default male.
Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
Funnily enough, whilst the Outraged/Betrayed/Will Never Watch Again lobby were as loud and silly as one might have expected, overall what I found on Twitter was a mix of sheer delight, excited anticipation – and a different kind of silliness. See the #TardisFullOfBras hashtag, for example – someone took a hostile Daily Mail comment and turned it around, so that it’s full of fan art and daft jokes (and bras). That’s the way to go, I think.
There’s little point in trying to engage with someone who throws ‘feminazi’ into the conversation simply because someone gives a job to a woman that has been previously held by a man. There’s little point in trying to unpack the hotchpotch of false analogies and fake news and mythology that is evoked whenever the term ‘political correctness’ is used. And if someone believes that ‘social justice warrior’ is an insult, we don’t really have a lot to talk about.
What matters here, to me, is the delight that this news has brought to so many of us. It’s only a story, but stories are the most powerful things in the world.
Stories can make us fly.
We need stories, and we need heroes. And if we can’t immediately see around us the heroes we need, we build them. It seems that we are having a real moment here.
When I wrote about Wonder Woman, only a week or so ago, I did not know – though I hoped – that the 13th Doctor would be a woman. They’re quite different of course, but what is so glorious is that now, right now, there are two more in the pantheon of women who can, women who can stand up, will stand up. We have a woman (OK, a demi-god) who uses superhuman physical strength, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity, and another (OK, a Gallifreyan Time Lord) who uses the wisdom of centuries and galaxies, wit and invention and intellect, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity.
without hope, without reward, without witness
I felt when I was watching Wonder Woman like punching the air and having a bit of a cry at the same time, and when I think about the Doctor’s next regeneration, I feel much the same. Of course it is vital that the stories are well written, that the wit and humour is there, as well as the thrills and chills. Of course it is vital that the gender thing is dealt with intelligently, that stereotypes are undermined or dismissed with humour and that the Doctor is and remains Doctorly, demonstrating both difference and continuity as each new incumbent has done over the last 50 years.
It is perhaps even more vital that the stories are strong because there are those who (even though they may have vowed never to watch it again) will be waiting for it to fail, wanting to say that they told us so, that it could never work, that the Doctor can’t be a woman. If Jodie kicks it out of the park, as we hope and believe she will, then each regen that follows can be whoever seems right at the time and whoever takes it on will be critiqued for their ability and not for their gender.
Meantime, we’re loving this moment. Loving it for ourselves and for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, all the young women who can now enjoy Doctor Who in a different way, who can take on the lead role in playground games. Not just companions or assistants but The Doctor.
My love for Doctor Who is, I realise, a bit ridiculous but I don’t bloody care because we all need escapism sometimes and, as my often tested loyalty to lost causes show, my love is nothing if not tenacious. At primary school I distinctly remember the humiliation of a school assembly where some of us were asked to share our pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. A Timelord was not an appropriate aspiration for a girl apparently and the piss was duly ripped. Not the first, worst or only time youngling (or indeed “grown-up” me) encountered sexism and ridiculous gender stereotypes but, because as a troubled kid my fantasy life was a refuge and a solace, one of the hardest stings. Anyway, fuck that nonsense because anything can happen with a Tardis and hooray for progress and little girls being allowed imaginations. And no, that does not come at the expense of little boys at all, and yes, I am really sorry Capaldi and Bill are gone because when they got the scripts they were brilliant and that, actually, is the heart of what I want. Good writing, please, please, please (and obviously for me to get a ride in there somewhere with them, because what is the Doctor if not an intergalactic anarcho-flaneuse who needs a bit more glitter?) (Morag Rose)
Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world. (Laurie Penny, The New Statesman)
Last weekend Buffy the Vampire Slayer got more attention online than I can ever remember. It’s the 20th anniversary of the show’s first air date and my week was emphatically improved by reading so many love letters to a show that means everything to me. Seeing article after article from authors who adored the show and revelling in the fact that quite often it was something entirely different that drew them to it has inevitably led me to start yet another binge watching session. These articles have done better justice to the cultural importance of the show than I could, so I’ll focus on the personal instead.
I’ve tried to write about Buffy many times. I usually end up losing myself in the rabbit hole of how to explain why this show matters without feeling like I’m straying a long way off of the reservation. How do I write about a show like Buffy without losing my flimsy grip on objectivity? For as long as I’ve been obsessing over essentially unanswerable questions, two of my old favourites to return to are these: Can a TV show/film/song change your life? And if so, could it ever be argued it saved it?
Even with an honorary PhD in hyperbole and a tendency to overthink things, the question of where to draw the line on the influence of media on a (my) life has always fascinated me above and beyond any other.
There are individual films that make a strong argument that it can happen but it’s the form as a whole that I struggle to imagine life without. When I look at music there are stronger arguments for life changing interventions, with Frank Turner responsible for getting me through more days than most, but that’s a separate argument for another blog. I also owe more of my degree from De Montfort University to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” than I’m entirely comfortable with.
TV has offered me plenty of great options and probably consumed more of my time than either of the two former media. However while I frequently crumble into a bumbling mess when asked what my favourite band or film is, if the same question is posed about television there’s only one answer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Reading a lot of the responses to the anniversary I’ve been struck by a whole bunch of thoughts.
Many describe the show as a feminist awakening for them. That’d be a stretch for me, but it was certainly an essential part of my education. A strong woman kicking every arse that had the temerity to do anything other than respect her was perhaps less revelatory to me than some simply because I had the utterly blind luck to be raised in a household where strength and influence weren’t framed by gender. My mum was always the primary bread winner, my go to guide for how to face the world and as I grew up a continuous reminder of how utterly fucked so many of the default structures of our society are. My dad might argue over whether he is a feminist (mostly because he’s never been presented with a claim he won’t try and dispute for the sheer joy he experiences from being on the opposite side of an argument) but I learnt from him how to be a man utterly un-reliant on outdated stereotypes. I was introduced to the show by them both and we still regularly end up talking about it. In honour of the anniversary we watched “Once More With Feeling” together.
Buffy may not have taught me something entirely new but it delivered the most emphatic argument for my budding and formative world view I could have hoped for. The central female characters were my heroes (and, let’s be honest, crushes) for what they represented. Buffy and her vulnerable strength. Willow and her genius. Joyce and her compassion and aspiration. Faith’s ferocity and self-reliance. Cordelia’s willingness to fight the entire world if it got in her way. Anya’s ability to embrace the changes in her life. Tara’s integrity. And as crazy as she was, even Drusilla had two of the most powerful characters in the show wrapped around her little finger most of the time.
This was the company I spent my teenage years with and one of the main reasons I tried my best to surround myself with female friends. I’d already been insanely lucky with the circle of friends I had, but the idea of forming my own wonderfully diverse Scooby gang was inevitably part of my thinking as I went through my A-Levels and tried to work out what on earth I was doing with my life.
In amongst the multitude of angry male leads (and for balance I loved 24 far more than my lefty politics should have let me) not just Buffy herself, but the entire cast provided expression for dozens of different concepts of strength, whether it was individual or collective, selfish or selfless, calm or angry.
Staring out at the world with perhaps even more uncertainty than the average teenager, I was constantly aware of one of the abiding messages of BTVS: the family you choose is as important as the one you’re born with. So I surrounded myself with the best and the brightest, the kindest and the most fascinating people I could, both during 6th form and Uni. It’s not an overstatement to say I owe an awful lot of my happiest memories from that time to the influence of Buffy and Joss.
I don’t know if I’d have believed that a constantly awkward and self-doubt filled teenager could befriend the kind of people I did without having grown up on a diet of Buffy.
And I don’t know if I’d have made it through the days when that support network couldn’t offset my depression anymore without a few key moments that kept echoing around in my head long after most rational arguments had retreated in the face of the stubborn self-destructiveness that defines those utterly bleak days.
Buffy was a show that managed to combine wit, drama and a hefty emotional punch, always reluctant to sacrifice any of the above to the other. Its most heartbreaking episodes have some great one liners (other than “The Body” in season 5 which is an exquisite exploration of grief and you should never watch it expecting anything other than a rush in demand for tissues). It did a better job of capturing the joys, traumas and uncertainties of being a teenager and trying to become an adult better than most “grounded” dramas I’d seen. It is also a show that revels in language to a degree few other shows manage, no small factor in my enduring love for it.
It was a show about defiance. About accepting who you are and fighting every single day to try and make the world a little bit better. It’s a twin message I frequently fall short of both halves of but keep coming back to. On shitty nights when I’m starting to wallow in my self-pity I can escape into an episode that never shames a character for feeling lost but reminds you of how essential it is that they fight. On good nights where I want that elusive boost to keep me going there are episodes to fire me up with righteous passion that the world can be better if you have the will to fight for it.
It’s been difficult to write this piece without throwing out too many spoilers, but it’s a challenge that is now two decades old. How do you get reluctant audiences past a silly sounding name and concept without giving the game away? How do you hint at how much this show can mean without taking the joy out of its highs and stings out of its lows? I might write a separate, spoiler heavy, piece soon about my favourite moments from the series, but for now I’ll draw to a close.
I was always going to want to finish this post with a quote from the show. There’s plenty to choose from, but there was one that maybe comes closest to providing an answer to the question I posed earlier: Can a TV show save your life?
It would be a stretch to say Buffy saved my life, but not a sizable one. Without the constant reminder of what I could be, of what the fight can be worth or of why fighting for lost causes is worth more than fighting for a thousand sure things, I can’t guarantee I’d be sitting here writing this.
Of all the quotes I could have chosen, all the words Joss put on scripts that shaped the majority of my life, there is one line I keep coming back to. A line that has echoed around my head in the darkest of hours and fired me up in those all too rare moments of defiance, a line that to a neutral observer I suspect might seem lightweight and innocuous.
It’s not possible to give the full context for the line without straying into spoilers, but I’ll frame it as well as I can. Faced with moving on from an almost unbearable sacrifice by a loved one, they reflect on the final words of the fallen. It’s a line I return to over and over again. A line that I rely on to remind myself that no matter how dark it gets there is always hope, so long as you accept that everything in this life that is worth having is worth fighting for. A sentiment that has become even more relevant in the face of recent political developments. A line that works whether I’m just barely holding on or facing a day head on. In good times and bad, Buffy has been there for me and I suspect it still will be when the 40th anniversary rolls around.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
Buffy is 20 years old today. That is, for those to whom those words are meaningless (where have you been?? what is wrong with you??), it is now twenty years since the first episode of TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was broadcast.
Twenty years ago I was far too old for a show with a daft name like that. So I caught it more or less accidentally, and realised that the daft name belied a drama with depth, intelligence, wit and invention. A few years back, pondering more generally on why I care about fantasy as a genre, I wrote this about Buffy:
It all goes back to Buffy. Not, for me, to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror. Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King. Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that. The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline. Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake. For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.
I quote Buffy all the time. In daily life, and in this blog. When I write about death, and how we deal with it, I go back again and again to this:
Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):
“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.” (‘The Body’, season 5)
And there are other moments that come back to me, inspire me.
There’s a cracking body-swap episode where Buffy and Faith swap places. Faith, as Buffy, begins by mocking what she sees as Buffy’s humourless puritanism, practising in front of the mirror saying ‘Because it’s wrong’, po-facedly. And then later, confronted with the reality of evil, and knowing that she could walk away, instead asserts that she will stop that evil from killing its intended victims, ‘Because it’s wrong’.
And then there’s the finale.
|EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
A young woman stands at the plate staring at the pitcher, waiting to bat. She looks a little nervous.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer…
|INT. HIGH SCHOOL HALLWAY – DAY
A young woman breathes heavily as she leans on her locker for support.
|will be a slayer.|
|INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
A young woman is lying across the floor, having fallen out of her chair.
|Every girl who could have the power…|
|INT. DINING ROOM – DAY
In a Japanese-style dining room, a young woman stands up at family dinner.
|will have the power… can stand up,|
|INT. BASEMENT – DAY
A young woman grabs the wrist of a man who’s trying to slap her face, preventing him.
|will stand up.|
|EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
The girl at the plate changes from nervous to confident, smiling as she waits for the pitch.
|Slayers… every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?|
That montage was really important to me. I wrote this, a couple of years back:
That bit where the potentials become actuals – that beautiful sequence of young women taking that power on, without understanding it but knowing that its theirs, and standing up, literally or figuratively… Lord, that moves me so much, I can’t even speak about it without choking up. Over the last, very tough, year, it has played in my head at so many moments when I’ve felt powerless and defeated, and made me stand up straighter too.
Buffy fans will argue endlessly about which episode or which series is best, or worst. Each series has its advocates, even if there’s a pretty powerful consensus about episodes (‘Beer Bad’ is unlikely to feature as anyone’s favourite, though I could be proved wrong…) – any ‘best of’ list would have to include ‘The Body’, cited above. And ‘Hush’, and ‘Once More with Feeling’. And those three episodes illustrate the sheer variety of the series.
The first is a viscerally powerful portrayal of death and grief. It nods briefly to the vampire slayer role but fundamentally it’s about humanity, and mortality. It’s known as ‘the one without music’. ‘Once More with Feeling’ is of course the one with music, and ‘Hush’ is the one without dialogue (virtually). In ‘The Body’ the ‘big bad’ is death itself. In ‘Once More…’ and ‘Hush’ both the compulsion to sing and dance, and the inability to speak, are demonic, but their outworkings emphasise humanity – our failure to communicate, the way in which our fear of losing those we love leads us to hide part of ourselves from them.
And whilst Series 7 is not many people’s favourite, I think that one of the reasons why it stays with me, has become part of me, that it allows us to see these characters that we’ve followed through multiple apocalypses, many of whom we love, so damaged and scarred. Not bouncing back with a merry quip, not any more. We used to mock so many TV series in the 70s in which, whatever happened in the episode, whatever traumas, terrors, dangers and disasters were visited upon the characters, at the end they got to go home and have tea, and have a bit of a chuckle. Buffy never did that – if there was a gag at the end it was tightly tied in with the preceding narrative, and had a bit of a kick to it, or a poignancy that stopped it being trite. But here over a whole series (and going back to S6) we see these battered veterans, hanging on as best they can to their loyalties and loves and to whatever humour they can find, but unable to be what they were, carrying the weight of so many losses. It’s right we left them there, but I’m glad we got to go that far.
There are so many aspects to Buffy that I haven’t even touched upon. Cos what I really want to do right now is to dust down those DVDs and go back to Series 1, Episode 1. Back to the Hellmouth.
Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen.
I’m very conscious that I’ve watched very few of the series which are getting the Best Of accolades from the quality press. Some of them are sitting on our BT Vision box waiting to be watched, others we didn’t catch on to until they were underway and so are now waiting for the repeats.
Some of what we did watch was old stuff, the crime series that circulate on the Drama channel or ITV3, of which the best was undoubtedly Foyle’s War, for its meticulous attention to historical detail and the wonderful, understated central performance by Michael Kitchen.
We came late to the Scandi party, having missed The Killing altogether, and caught up with the Bridge only on the most recent series, but did enjoy Follow the Money (financial shenanigans), Blue Eyes (politics and right-wing terrorism), Trapped (murder, human trafficking and a heck of a lot of snow). And whilst we wait for Spiral to return, we saw its late lamented Pierre being an unmitigated shit in Spin.
We enjoyed the latest series of Scott & Bailey, Shetland and Endeavour. But the prize here goes (again) to Line of Duty. Vicky McClure and Keeley Hawes were both formidable and the tension brilliantly ramped up.
The Returned returned. Series 2 was as full of mystery and atmosphere as Series 1 and thankfully did not feel the need to offer tidy solutions. It left loose ends, but in a way that suggested the cyclical nature of events rather than anything that could be resolved by a third series.
Orphan Black’s penultimate series was as always thrilling and funny and complicated, with Tatiana Maslany triumphantly playing multiple roles, with such confidence and subtlety that I still occasionally forget that it’s all just her.
The Walking Dead ended its last season on a horrific cliffhanger, and the opener was pretty grim as well. I have doubts about the series – it is inevitably repetitive: our group finds what looks like a haven, the haven is compromised/invaded, a few of our lot are offed, a few new bods tag along, and on they go to the next apparent haven. The big shift is that as the series have progressed, the greatest danger is no longer from the walkers, since their behaviour is predictable and the survivors have developed effective tactics for defence and despatch, but from other more ruthless survivors. This is interesting territory (the walkers themselves are pretty dull, after all), but I’m not convinced by the way the writers are handling the current storyline. And they’ve shown a worrying tendency to make people act out of character, to do utterly stupid things that they know are utterly stupid, in order to move the story along. So, the jury is out, but I will be watching, whatever.
We also thrilled to The Night Manager, London Spy and Deutschland 83, and to the latest adaptations of War and Peace, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
The A Word was wonderful – I know that parents of autistic children had some quibbles, particularly about the way in which children who are ‘on the spectrum’ so often are shown as having special abilities, like Joe with his encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s pop, which is not always the case. But this was the story of one child, and his extended family. The performances were superb, the writing subtle and nuanced, and the image of Joe marching down the road, earphones on, singing ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ or ‘Mardy Bum’, will stay with me for a long time.
Raised by Wolves had a splendid new series, and then was inexplicably and inexcusably cancelled. Still hoping that Caitlin Moran’s crowdfunding project gets sufficient support to bring it back.
Normally my TV of the year would include Doctor Who, but we’ve had a hiatus this year, and will have to wait till Christmas Day for the special, and then 2017 for a new series (and a new companion). Meanwhile there was Class, on BBC3, which got off to a promising start, but as I’ve only seen 3 episodes so far, all comment and judgement is reserved until we’ve caught up.
At the theatre this year we saw two Stage on Screen performances at the Showroom – the Donmar Warehouse production of Liaisons Dangereuses, with Dominic West and Janet McTeer, and Anthony Sher’s magnificent and heartbreaking Lear.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen at the Lyceum Theatre in Pinter’s No Man’s Land were deeply unsettling as well as darkly funny.
And we saw a glorious reimagining of The Duchess of Malfi, transported to West Africa, as Iyalode of Eti.
Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre – Andrea Chenier, Giordano’s French Revolution tale of loyalty and revenge and love. And a glorious Puccini double bill – Il Tabarro, and Suor Angelica.
Of course there was Tramlines, about which I have rambled euphorically already. There was also Songhoy Blues in a Talking Gig, performing (and talking) after a showing of the remarkable documentary They will have to Kill us First, about the repression of music in Mali by Islamist extremists. Malian music is something else I have rambled euphorically about, and Songhoy Blues in particular.
Two gigs in the Crucible Studio, the first under the auspices of Sheffield Jazz – The Kofi Barnes Aggregation, a collaboration between two splendid, but very different, saxophonists. And the Unthanks were as spinetingly and goosebumpy and lump in the throaty as I could have imagined, whilst being, in person, down to earth and funny and delightful.
Of course the year began with, in the space of just a couple of days, hearing the new CD from a musician whose music has been part of my life since I was a teenager, and then learning of his death. David Bowie is far from being the only important musical figure to pass away this year – indeed, that great gig in the sky is looking pretty crowded now, with Prince, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, Pete Burns, Prince Buster, Gilli Smyth, Alan Vega, Dave Swarbrick and George Martin, to name but a few, rocking up over the course of the year. But Bowie was the one who meant the most to me.
This was the year we threw off the shackles of paid employment. Martyn first, in March, and me at the very close of 2015. It feels terrifying and liberating all at once.
For me, this new freedom will give me more time to do the things I care most about. My PhD, which I hope I will now be able to do justice to. And Inspiration for Life, in particular the 24 Hour Inspire. Of all the things I’ve done over the years, this is what I’m proudest of.
And I hope of course to have more time to do the other things I love, more time to read, write, listen to music, go to gigs, go to the cinema/theatre, meet up with friends, travel, watch some of the box sets which are gathering dust by our DVD player…
Below are some of the cultural highlights of 2015. I’ve been lucky to have access to Ensemble 360, Opera North, Tramlines, Sheffield Jazz etc, and to have wonderful friends and family to share these experiences with.
The best of the year, without a doubt, was Timbuktu. Abderrahmane Sissako’s film is both beautiful and harrowing, a passionate cry from the heart about the threat posed by fundamentalist jihadists to the people, the culture and the music of Mali.
I won’t rank my other favourites, but they are:
Inside Out – Pixar at its very, very best. Clever, imaginative, daring, funny and moving. As the Guardian review said, ‘In the film’s wildest moment, the wanderers enter a zone of abstract thought, where they are zapped into a series of increasingly simplified geometric shapes, as they – and the film itself – dizzyingly self-deconstruct (“Oh no, we’re non-figurative!”)’.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour’s film has been tagged as ‘the first Iranian vampire Western’. Atmospheric and full of unexpected touches (including a skateboarding vampire), and a powerful feminist narrative. Sheila Vand has a fascinating face that can look very young and somehow ageless at different moments.
Love and Mercy – biopic of Brian Wilson, portrayed both in the Beach Boy years and in later life, by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. Cusack’s portrayal is fascinating – seeing the clip of the real Brian Wilson at the end of the movie, I realised just how perfectly he had captured him, despite the lack of obvious physical resemblance.
I Believe in Miracles – the story of Nottingham Forest’s astonishing European Cup success. A joy from beginning to end. And featuring a couple of brief glimpses of my kid brother who was a ball boy at one of those games, as well as glorious clips of my all-time footballing hero John Robertson at his best. And funny and poignant anecdotes from the players, and clips of Clough running rings around interviewers.
Mad Max: Fury Road – just a blast, possibly the best action movie I’ve seen, with a powerful female lead in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa (an action movie that passes the Bechdel test!), visually almost overwhelming and with an awesome soundtrack. And the Doof Warrior.
Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ve written previously about how much I love the Marvel films. This was a joy, thanks in large part to Joss Whedon’s crackling dialogue (the script is often where costs are cut in big budget movies, but thankfully not here).
Lots of Marvel here too, with Agent Carter, Daredevil and Agents of Shield all delivering in spades. Daredevil was the darkest of the three, but the others had their moments and all had humour, well-drawn characters and moments of poignancy as well as action. In other sci-fi/fantasy telly, Tatiana Maslany continued to be astonishing in Orphan Black, The Walking Dead continued to ramp up the tension till it was almost unbearable, and left us at mid-season break with everyone we care about in mortal peril – again. The latter also spawned a prequel (Fear the Walking Dead) which showed the start of the crisis – the bit we missed as Rick Grimes was in a coma in hospital whilst society crumbled in the face of the undead onslaught. And Humans was a thought-provoking and engaging take on issues around AI and what makes us human.
As always we watched a lot of detectives. Two French series – old favourite Spiral was back (we missed you, Laure, Gilou, Tintin et al), and a new drama, Witnesses, was complex and compelling with an intriguing female lead (Marie Dompnier). River was something else – Stellan Skarsgaard’s broody Nordic cop haunted by ‘manifests’ of his dead partner amongst others. Nicola Walker was stunning in this, as was Adeel Akhtar as River’s actual living partner. Walker also caused considerable potential confusion by simultaneously leading in Unforgotten, which made one forget the implausibility of an entire police team investigating a very cold case (and nothing else, apparently) by the subtle and compassionate portrayal of the various suspects as their past actions resurfaced to disturb the lives and relationships they had built. No Offence was refreshing too (though we felt uneasy with some particular plot developments in the later part of the series) with Joanna Scanlan’s DI being startlingly rude, but also funny, forceful and warm, and a fab supporting cast.
This is England 1990
This is England deserves a much more in-depth consideration than I can give it here – one would need to re-view the whole series from the film to this final (if it is indeed that) instalment. But there’s no denying – they can be a tough watch, as brilliantly funny as they often are. It’s not just the moments of horrifying violence, I think the hardest thing would be to have to go through again with Lol her descent into despair in TiE 88. Vicky McClure’s performance was intense without any histrionics and all the more devastating for that. This final part had moments too, relating to Kelly, and to Combo, which stay in the mind. And whilst the ending was upbeat, with that long-postponed wedding and Kelly’s return to the fold, Milky’s separation from the group and the reasons for it, and the likelihood that Kelly’s recovery will not be as straightforward as all that, mean that the darkness is not far away. It’s been a hell of a series, with superb writing and direction and equally superb performances.
Raised by Wolves
When it comes to comedy I can be a hard woman to please. Not that I don’t like a laugh, GSOH, that’s me. But I’ve given up on so many sitcoms because they’ve made me cringe more than they’ve made me chuckle. However, despite feeling slightly neutral about the pilot, I did get into Raised by Wolves, and fell rather in love with the magnificent Della (Rebekah Staton) as well as with the writing, which as expected from Caitlin Moran (and sister Caroline) was rude and exuberantly funny.
We watched this back in the day (88-97) and rewatching it now is punctuated by cries of ‘OMG that’s George Clooney’, or spotting Big Bang Theory cast members (Sheldon’s mum and Lesley Winkle, with Leonard still to show). But what we also realised was how much of our approach to parenting came from this show, where family life is chaotic, temperamental, combative but always loving. And ‘our’ tradition of summoning family members to the meal table with a loud cry of ‘FOOOD’ appears to have been inspired by the Conners as well. As I recall, things went seriously off kilter in later series, but so far, so funny. Joss Whedon had a hand (probably just a fingertip in some eps) in the early series, which can’t ever be a bad thing.
French drama focusing on the activities of various Resistance groups in Occupied France – this was obviously a must-watch for me. I hadn’t expected it to be as close to real events as it was, which was a mixed blessing, as I quickly realised who was doomed and who might survive… The central female character, Lili, was a fictional construct, which seems to have annoyed some viewers, but I felt it was a valid way of providing a thread to link the early activity of the Musée de l’Homme group with the Maison de la Chimie and the Combat and Manouchian groups, taking us all the way through to the Liberation. It was a powerful, well constructed drama. And the renditions of the Marseillaise, ringing out in prison cells and in the face of firing squads, came back to us so intensely in November when that spirit of defiance was called upon once again.
If the idea of series 1 seemed in principle a bit odd, a second series was all the more so. But if anything, series 2 is even better, even madder, even wittier than the first. The film had Frances McDormand, who is always a very good thing, and series 1 had Allison Tolman, who filled those shoes admirably. In series 2 we root for her dad, Lou (we’ve gone back in time) and grandad Hank (played by Ted Danson), and her mother Betsy (I would like some time to see Cristin Milioti NOT dying of cancer, if that’s OK). And we do kind of root for Peggy too, with her passion for self-actualisation and ‘being the best me I can be’, even if it proves somewhat dangerous for those around her.
Honourable mentions to Homeland, Doctor Foster (Suranne Jones magnificent as a woman scorned), and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
And of course there was Doctor Who. This year’s Who was top notch. Capaldi really found his voice, the plots were rich and complex without being merely baffling, and the climactic episodes were powerful and moving. I will be writing more about Who in due course.
On the Crucible main stage, we saw Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, with a stunning performance from Sian Phillips, and Romeo & Juliet, with Freddie Fox and Morfydd Clark as the lovers. The Miller play seemed stagey at times (an odd criticism, in a way, for a stage play) but the performances carried it and I reflected afterwards on the way in which the Nazi death machine was itself stagey, whether the intention was to terrify and subjugate, or to deceive. Romeo & Juliet was terrific, but reminded me of how bloody annoying those two are, and it’s no disrespect to the actors that I wanted to give them both a good slap.
Operatic outings this year included a fabulous Kiss me Kate, a powerful Jenufa, and a magnificent Flying Dutchman, all from Opera North.
I’ve written previously about the splendid Bassekou Kouyate gig at the University’s Firth Hall.
At the Crucible Studio, Ensemble 360 treated us to performances of Mendelssohn, Ives, Janacek, Watkins, Brahms, Berg, Boulez, Kurtag, Mozart and Bartok, amongst others. Such fantastic musicians, and particularly delighted to have had the chance to hear so much 20th century music this year. Same venue, different ensemble – Chris Biscoe’s Profiles of Mingus feat. Tony Kofi on sax (we’d heard him playing Mingus last year, with Arnie Somogyi’s Profiles of Mingus). More jazz, courtesy of Leeds Jazz Orchestra (feat. one Aidan Hallett) in Leeds Golden Acre Park.
And then there was Tramlines. Nothing much to add to what I said at the time, except that I can’t wait for the 2016 festival.
So, thanks to those who shared these highlights with me. I look forward to lots more in 2016.
I hope to blog more in 2016, of course. I managed a post most months in 2015, and the overall total looks more impressive thanks to eight in Refugee Week and a few reblogs from That’s How the Light Gets In and Nowt Much to Say. I blogged for Holocaust Memorial Day, wrote about the Hillsborough inquests, the 24 Hour Inspire, Marvel films, Tramlines, the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur’, the music of Mali, the ‘refugee crisis’, and the murderous attacks by Daesh in Paris and elsewhere. I also blogged for Inspiration for Life, and on the aftermath of the May General Election. Thanks to all who have read, liked, reblogged, commented, etc.
And for 2016, which may seem to hold so much threat and so little hope, I cannot do better than to quote this poem, by Sheenagh Pugh. Apparently she doesn’t rate it – scribbled it in a hurry on a card for a friend going through a tough time. I beg to differ.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
May it happen for you, may it happen for all of us.
Previously published on the Doctor Who Forum – contains spoilers for Series 8
Sometimes everything you read or watch seems to have a connection, a theme that’s so clear it feels as though it cannot be mere coincidence, even though it is impossible for it to be otherwise. It’s been that way lately with death. Obviously once one heads into middle age and beyond, intimations of mortality come thick and fast. But it really isn’t just that.
The theme that has been so inescapable over recent weeks is not just mortality in general. It’s the blurring of the boundaries between death and life, about attempts to make the barrier between the two permeable. I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Revival, about which I can say little without risking spoilers, but which, suffice it to say, explores this theme in compelling and haunting fashion. And then there was Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary thriller, The Pierced Heart, after previous works drawing on, variously, Austen, Dickens and the Shelleys, this time turning to Stoker and the Dracula mythos, subverting the genre tropes without losing the chills. So when I picked up Peter Carey’s Bliss, and read the first sentence: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him’, I was tempted to say, enough already with the whole thing.
Especially as this season of Doctor Who has had such a preoccupation with death. Death and regeneration/rebirth, death and afterlife. These themes have percolated through the episodes, with varying degrees of intensity, culminating in the series finale, whose first part saw the highly disturbing notion that the dead maintain consciousness, aware of what is happening to their mortal remains, and that the message they want to convey to us, the living, is ‘Don’t cremate me!’. Of course, this was a con, but it was unsettling, to say the least, and the thought, once planted, may prove difficult to uproot. Part two showed us mortuaries and graveyards giving up their dead, now encased in cyberman armour and awaiting orders to destroy and/or assimilate the living.
Not only this, but the finale presented us with the deaths of Danny, Osgood and Kate, to name only those who have had the chance to embed themselves in the consciousness and affections of regular watchers of the show. (The body count in previous episodes has been high too, whether significantly higher than in previous series I will leave to other Whovians to assess.)
However for some, death proved to be less than permanent. Danny Pink reappeared as a semi-cyberman, retaining enough of his humanity to resist the orders of Missy and lead his cyber army to suicide rather than to victory. Is he now gone, for good? Kate fell to earth but her dead father saved her. Osgood appears, as far as we know now, to be simply dead.
Sci fi and fantasy take liberties with the boundaries between life and death, on a regular basis. In The Walking Dead all who die, unless despatched in a particular way, will reawaken as zombies (walkers). The living are engaged in a constant battle against the dead. French series The Returned gives us more mysterious revenants, seemingly unchanged from their living selves, and seemingly not out to harm the living (though we will see, in series 2, whether that is really the case).
In the context of Who, however, I’d suggest it’s more relevant to look at the way in which the Buffyverse handles death. Doctor Who Forum contributor JimTheFish has already noted the nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the finale: ‘And again with the Buffy maybe? Plucky lone girl surrounded by gravestones as creatures rise from the grave. Not to mention tear-jerking goodbyes with her now-undead boyfriend.’
Clara rages about Danny’s death, that it should have been significant and instead it was mundane, ‘boring’:
It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus’
This had echoes too, of the death of Buffy’s mother – a prosaic tragedy without supernatural cause and, particularly, of Anya’s speech about it:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)
Osgood’s death, and Kate’s, whilst not mundane in terms of cause, are almost casual in presentation. No time for heroics, or farewell speeches. Joss Whedon killed Anya almost casually – she dies fighting the uber vampires, but blink and you’ll miss it, it’s not highlighted or dramatised. Death’s like that. Arbitrary, stupid, pointless.
Except that there’s another strand, of death as chosen, heroic, self-sacrificial. In Death in Heaven, Danny gets a crack at a less boring exit. He’s given the chance to choose death second time around (and to make a speech about it).
Attention! This is not a good day. This is Earth’s darkest hour. And look at you miserable lot. We are the fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general. Nor the whim of a lunatic…. This is a promise. The promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.
The speech may appear to be aimed at his cyber-comrades but clearly its real audience is Missy, the Doctor and above all Clara. It’s – perhaps deliberately – classic eve of battle rhetoric – think Idris Elba cancelling the apocalypse in Pacific Rim, or Leonidas sending his Spartans into battle.
We await the Christmas special to find out Danny will have a third go at some sort of life. I kind of hope not. Not that I begrudge Clara a chance to make a better job of loving him than she did first time around, or Danny himself a chance to redeem his past through living rather than dying. But where death is chosen, self-sacrificial, does its reversal squander the emotional weight of the sacrifice? Not necessarily – Buffy’s return in Season 6 was shown as something itself painful and traumatic, rather than just the cancellation of the pain and trauma of her death in the finale of Season 5. It can work, but Buffy, after all, whilst mortal, is kind of a super-hero, and they play by different rules. Danny, as far as we know, is just a bloke.
Kate’s rescue seems to me to make Osgood’s less likely. Along with so many viewers, I really wanted Osgood not to die, and there was much shouting at the screen when we realised what was afoot. But I’m not sure that I want another death to be overturned,
There are a number of issues here. The first is common to all long-running TV dramas – how to keep real suspense and tension when the audience knows that certain characters cannot be killed off. When the Enterprise crew beams down onto a hostile planet, we know full well that it is the red shirts that will be zapped or otherwise despatched into oblivion, not the captain or any of his core crew. Occasionally that confidence is misplaced. But mostly, if one of the core characters appears to be dead, we are pretty sure that some plot device is in motion to bring them back (see Spock, Tasha Yar, Buffy, Loki, the Master/Missy…). And of course the sci-fi/fantasy context means that a way can always be found, retro-engineered if need be into the cosmology of the show, to get around the problem of losing a character that is felt to be essential to its long-term success.
Not that the absence of timey-wimey or supernatural mechanisms prevents soap operas from playing fast and loose with death. News just in – Madge and Harold Bishop are back! Both of them have been previously killed off, but the writers are undeterred, it’s Neighbours 30th anniversary, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. And unless one has personally checked the corpse for vital signs and got a DNA match it would be unwise to believe in the demise of anyone on Hollyoaks. It might seem odd to claim a greater degree of realism for a programme whose protagonist is a two-hearted time travelling alien than for the soaps. But far happier to suspend my disbelief with regard to Who, Buffy and other dramas which play havoc with the laws of physics but at their best offer us emotional truths.
Doctor Who has the particular challenge of its status as a family/children’s programme. It’s never been just a kids’ show and certainly with each regeneration it has retained the children who first watched it into their adulthood and parenthood whilst gathering in their children, and so on. It is still a show that the generations watch together, but the adults are there not just to comfort and reassure their frightened offspring but to enjoy it for themselves. But the presence of the children is a constraint which Buffy did not have to work within. That’s why the deaths, when they occur, are off-screen, or else clean – people are vapourised rather than eviscerated. We rightly shield younger viewers from the kind of gore that The Walking Dead so delights in. We can’t and shouldn’t however skate around the issue of death.
Of course children’s stories have always brought us face to face with death. My own and earlier generations wept for Bambi’s mother, as my children’s generation did for Simba’s father. In fact, the child heroes of many of the classics had misplaced one or both parents, even if the manner of their loss was not dwelt upon. The generations contemporary with Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lucy M Montgomery and their ilk were familiar with death, after all, with child mortality and perinatal maternal mortality at levels unimaginable to us today, at least here in the First World. Stories give us ways of understanding, of dealing with, the stuff that happens to us, and the best ones don’t just sugar the pill, cosying everything up, with rainbow bridges and happy ever afters, but acknowledge mortality in all its cruelty, that it takes whoever it wishes, pets, parents, friends.
I have no problem therefore with death – real, permanent, boring, pointless death – being part of the drama of Who, nor yet with the freedom that sci-fi/fantasy allows to take some of the sting of death away. But for the reversals to have any dramatic or emotional weight, we need there to be the possibility that this time it’s for keeps, that the danger is real, that we may lose someone we care for and that others we care for may be plunged into terrible grief.
We will not know until the Christmas special – if then – whether Danny Pink will return. We’ve been given the nod that things can’t be left as they were at the end of Death in Heaven. Quite right – that was bleak. Too bleak for the kids, too bleak for me. But I hope that there will be a different way of making things better, so that we can leave the Doctor and Clara in a more hopeful place, without simply erasing the loss and hurt that they’ve been through.
After all, what have we learned this series? OK, that there’s no such thing as an arboreal coincidence, which may or may not ever be a particularly handy bit of info. More importantly, we’ve learned that ‘stories can make us fly’. And we’ve learned about our ordinary human superpowers, not just the power to forget, but the most important one, fear. And all of the things that we fear come back to this – our own extinction, or the extinction of the people we love.
Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger. … if you’re very wise and very strong fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. So listen. If you listen to anything else, listen to this. You’re always gonna be afraid even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion, always there. But that’s okay because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.
Peter Carey – Bliss (Faber & Faber, 1981)
Stephen King – Revival (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)
Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart (NY: Delacorte Press, 2014)