Posts Tagged Doctor Who

“Change, my dear… and it seems not a moment too soon.”

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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.

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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.
BILL: Okay.

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.

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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)

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http://www.thepoke.co.uk/2017/07/16/doctor-jodie-whittaker-13th-doctor-favourite-20-responses-online/

http://doctorwhogeneral.wikia.com/wiki/Times_Doctor_Who_Was_Ruined_Forever

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Wonder Woman – the Man who Can

MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.

Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”

Diana: “I am the man who can.”

NB What follows contains some spoilers…  Caveat lector.

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It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful.  I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar.  But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.

And she did.

It’s not that she’s the first or the only.  She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies.  But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.

 

 

And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey.  The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really.  But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out.  There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength.  And there’s always and forever Buffy.

 

 

Wonder Woman is different.  First off, she’s a half-god.  Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.

 

 

The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.

wonder-woman-dceu-origin-story-amazons-themyscira-236572Of course all these women are beautiful.  But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent.  Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.

Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous.  That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere.  (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do.  The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)

She’s presented, in some ways, as naive.  That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira.  That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.

“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”

I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:

It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:

“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”

Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.

Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.

 without hope, without reward, without witness

What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira.  It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it.  But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.

Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and 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 in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. 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. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?

 

I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War.  But I think actually that’s right.  The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be.  The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme).  So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself.  Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.

Interestingly,  whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice.  Murky, messy, or what…

We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this.  We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength.  But we can be inspired by her moral strength.  That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).

But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places.  That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.

And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons.  From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.

From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer.  Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up.  … Are you ready to be strong?

 

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/05/why-wonder-woman-is-a-masterpiece-of-subversive-feminism

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/04/wonder-woman-review-gloriously-badass-breath-fresh-air-gal-gadot

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2016 in TV, theatre and music

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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2015 – the best bits

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.

Film

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.

timbuktu

I won’t rank my other favourites, but they are:

Inside OutPixar 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!”)’.

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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.

love and mercycusack

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.

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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.

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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).

TV

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Roseanne

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.

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Résistance

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.

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Fargo

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.

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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.

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Theatre

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.

Music

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.

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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.

 

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2014 – some of the best bits

Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre.   However, I did manage a few outings…

  • Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight.  I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed.  The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals  – see also Poppeia).
  • Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme,  and The Coronation of Poppeia.  And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location. 

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  • Tramlines!
  • Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’),  Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
  • Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture.  Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes.  We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015.  Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Lifegoes from strength to strength.
  • I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager.  That was a great game.  We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated.   If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around.  I hope he can.  I really, really, hope he can.

Top TV of 2014

No attempt at ranking.  How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy?  So, what do all of these shows have in common?  First, excellent writing, and great performances.  Essential to have both.  So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks.  Second, great female characters.  All of these programmes  basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park.   It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to.  So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.

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  1. Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
  2. Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it.  They did,  and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it.  Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes.  But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising.   The rest of the cast was superb too.
  3. Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year.  This valley was pretty damned grim.  But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
  4. Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4.  The three central women (count them!  three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
  5. The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time.   It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations.   Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout.  There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
  6. Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right.  It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well.  And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
  7. Community made me laugh more than anything else this year.   Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
  8. Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere.  I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
  9. Homeland redeemed itself.   Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
  10. Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year.  Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved.   And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others….  Cracking plot too.

Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic  reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon.   I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order.  Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front.   Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).

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Women of the year:

  Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty

Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science

kate Kate Bush – for doing it her way, as always

fahma Fahma Mohamed – for telling men three times her age what they needed to be told about FGM and how to protect young women in the UK

malala Malala Yousafzai – it’s all been said really.  A young woman of remarkable maturity and dignity, as well as courage.

adedevoh Dr Ameyo Adadevoh – helped to curb the spread of Ebola by quarantining a patient in the face of pressure from his government, but succumbed to the disease herself

 

laura bates Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.

In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, footballW G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who.  I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!

Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion.  This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance.  A fascinating project, beautifully documented.

To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you.   I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!

 

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Death and the Doctor

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.’

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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)

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Letting it get to you: Doctor Who and George Bailey

Once there was a planet much like any other. And unimportant. This planet sent the universe a message. A bell, tolling among the stars, ringing out to all the dark corners of creation. And everybody came to see. Although no one understood the message, everyone who heard it found themselves afraid. Except one man. The man who stayed for Christmas. (Doctor Who Christmas Special 2013, The Time of the Doctor)

So, this is the story of a man who got stuck somewhere.  ‘Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. Everything ends.’  He could have left, but no one else could have protected that small town as he did, from the forces that were besieging it, and from the war that could have burned it and all around it.

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A town called Christmas, blanketed in snow.  A town where truth prevails, and people greet each other warmly, and take care of each other, but constantly under threat, with enemies ready to take advantage of any weakness, and the citizens are all potential collateral damage.

If Stephen Moffat wasn’t consciously evoking Bedford Falls in those snowy scenes, I’ll eat my fez.   Bedford Falls – the town where another good man got stuck, protecting his family and his community.  Where he grew older, his own life on hold whilst he saved other people.   Where he kept his promises,  and watched his chances slipping away.   The enemy from whom he protected people was rampant capitalistic greed, rather than alien races bent on world domination, of course, but it nearly drove him to his death, nonetheless.

George Bailey was a man who dreamed of lassoing the moon, of travelling the world, and who ended up stuck in a small town.  The Doctor of course had done more than dream.  He had travelled the universe, and time itself, but to quote a contributor to the Doctor Who Forum, Matt Smith’s valedictory episode saw him ‘trying to do something small … spend the remainder of his life protecting the people of one town.’

With every victory, the town celebrated. In time, the Doctor seemed to forget he lived any other life. And the people of the town came to love the man who stayed for Christmas.

But the man who stayed did not do so without argument, without at least an internal struggle.  We see George Bailey’s anger and frustration at so many moments in the narrative, even as he does what he knows is right, he rages against what it’s costing him.  The Doctor too has that fight between the promise he must keep and the life he wants to live. 

Clara: What about your life? Just for once, after all of this time, have you not earned the right to think about that? Sorry. Wrong thing to say. We shouldn’t be having an argument.
The Doctor: Clara, I’ve been having that argument for the last three hundred years. All by myself.
Clara: But you didn’t have your TARDIS.
The Doctor: Ah, yes, well that made it easier to stay. True.

The absence of the Tardis may have made it easier, but we can be pretty sure that he would have found a way to leave, if he’d made the decision to do so.  I was reminded here not only of IAWL, but of Albert Camus’ doctor, Rieux, in plague-ridden Oran (referencing Nazi-occupied Paris), knowing he must stay even when he is offered a chance to leave, because he has to save lives:

 “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” (The Plague)

Or as the Doctor said, ‘Every life I save is a victory. Every single one’.

Doctor Who is not ‘a kid’s show’ in any sense that reduces its value, its quality or its depth.  But it is a fantasy, and one that is aimed at family audiences, in this case, gathered around a Christmas tree, replete with turkey and pud, and possibly still wearing, slightly askew, their paper hats.  So we don’t expect the kind of ending that Camus was prepared to give us.  We know that the Doctor will not be destroyed.  The end that he speaks of is the end of THIS Doctor, not of THE Doctor – though he may not know this as he says it. 

Emma: What’s wrong?

Clara: I just saw something I wish I hadn’t.

Emma: What did you see?

Clara: That everything ends.

Emma: No, not everything. Not love. Not always. (from ‘Hide’)

We’ve often been invited to contemplate what the world would be like without the Doctor.  But that’s too terrible to do more than glance at and then look away.  A world without the sound of the Tardis bringing hope, without the Doctor to bring protection and healing?  No thanks.  None of us would sleep at night if that was what we were confronted with, on a Saturday afternoon, let alone on Christmas Day.

But we are increasingly, in the more recent series of Dr Who, asked to deal with some much more grown-up themes.  Maybe this reflects the changing audience.  When Who launched, it was clearly aimed at children, and adults watched with their offspring, to remind them afterwards that it was only a story (only a story? As if there could be anything more important than stories) and that they could sleep safe in their beds.  As those children grew up they stayed with the Doctor, and watched with their own children.  Some of those parents too, I suspect, stayed with it long after their children needed them there for reassurance, and so we now have several generations for whom it is precious and important.

Someone said to me the other day, who hadn’t seen Who since they were a kid (we reminisced about the terrifying Autons and the Cybermen and the Yeti…) that whilst they could remember being scared, they couldn’t imagine being moved to tears by it.  And yet these days more often than not, I am moved to tears.  This is not just because my tear ducts are on a hair-trigger now – it’s because in Who since the reboot we’ve faced grief and loss, loneliness, ageing, choices made and chances missed, the possibility and threat of change.  The recurring theme of memory has a poignancy now that it would not have had years ago, now that there’s so much more to remember, and the fear that those memories will start to be engulfed in fog.  It gets harder to ‘remember all the people that you used to be’, whether you’re a Time Lord or not.  The young me would not have been as devastated by ‘The Girl Who Waited’ as the middle-aged me was, nor as haunted by the question ‘Are you my mummy?’.  And the young me would not have felt George Bailey’s despair, or the Doctor’s, as keenly. If  you’re old enough to have lost people, to have had to make hard choices, to have got some of them wrong, and to have missed chances that will not come round again – then you can feel for George Bailey, and you can feel for the Doctor too.

Who and IAWL also share a humanistic perspective.  IAWL of course starts with prayers, ‘ringing out to all the dark corners of creation’, and an angel.   George prays too, though he’s not a praying man, and Clarence (AS2) is the answer.  But all that Clarence does is to give George a glimpse of how, and how much, he matters.  The miracle is wrought by human action, by people moved to generosity to help the man who’s been so generous to them.  Remember ‘The Wedding of River Song’?

The sky is full of a million million voices saying, “Yes, of course we’ll help.” You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people, did you think when your time came you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.

It’s people, for good and bad, who make Bedford Falls, or Pottersville.   In Who too, whilst our hero is more than human he is no superhero, nor yet a god.  His judgement is often flawed, his personality too.  He’s prone to grumpiness, to vanity, to arrogance.  He does the right thing but often is prompted or inspired by his own guardian angel, the companion/associate who shows him a truth he’s not able to see, or who intervenes for him when he cannot or will not plead for himself.

As Liam Whitton recently wrote in Humanist Life:

It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.

Steven Spielberg once said that ‘ It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters – and that’s a very powerful message.”  It’s also a message reiterated over and over again by Who.  Capra offers us hope based in human nature.  ‘Goodness, simplicity, dis-interestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities’ (Graham Greene, reviewing Mr Deeds Goes to Town, The Spectator, August 28 1936).

If you believe that humanity is all there is, that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got.  I believe in Doctor Who.  I believe in George Bailey.  Call me idealistic, naive, if you like, but bear in mind that my academic research interests find me often mired in the history of the most appalling acts that humanity is capable of. So I do know that we don’t all live in a town called Christmas, or Bedford Falls, and that very often no one comes to save and to heal.   But that humanistic vision is vitally important to me.   Joss Whedon said it well, as he so often does, in Angel:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now.  Today.  … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

But it’s only right and proper that I leave the last words to the Doctor:

Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. (The Doctor’s Wife)

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