Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts from January 2010

This Is Not A TV Blog

In which we discuss the passing of The Doctor

Through the last year, we’d managed to avoid watching the various Doctor Who specials that popped up around each bank holiday. The reason being, the last full series, back in 2008, really hadn’t grabbed us very hard. Despite having a few sparkling gems within it, there were too many painful moments and mystical endings. So: the one-off specials passed us by, as if they had never existed.

We did think, though: better make an effort to watch the Christmas specials. Because, after all, we knew the Doctor was going to regenerate, and we assumed that it would be done with as big a splash as possible. So: a date for the diary. We watched them, on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. And, generally, they made me think: well, I’m glad we didn’t bother with the other specials then.

K pointed out that Doctor Who isn’t, and never has, been aimed at People Like Us. It’s aimed at the people it always has been: immediately-pre-teenage children and their parents, who probably loved all the dramatic running about and look-there’s-The-Master’s-skeleton special effects. But one of the problems with new Doctor Who is that it’s been caught between several camps: trying to appeal to Camp A, the family audience; Camp B, the Doctor Who fans who can quote whole segments of tangled back-story; and Camp C, the people in-between who can vaguely remember that the old 1970s and 1980s show was pretty cool when they were in Camp A.

I used to assume, back when the resurrection first started, that Russell T Davies was a Camp B type of chap. Now I’ve watched a few series, I’ve changed my mind. Some of his writers may be Camp Bs, but now I think that RTD himself is a Camp C who wishes that he was in Camp B; not just that, but also wants the rest of Camp B to look up and adore him. To do it, he pulls in bits of random back-story and continuity whenever he wants to, but without any consistancy or pattern. Timothy Dalton’s character, for example, was described in the credits as either “Narrator” or “Lord President”; but the Doctor referred to him as Rassilon, a character from Doctor Who ages past, but not one whose past appearances fitted at all into the new story.

The story as a whole seemed awfully twisted and confused. I’m not always, I have to admit, the most perceptive of people, but I really couldn’t make much sense of the plot. What happened to the secret society trying to bring Saxon back, and why were they doing it? Who was that millionaire trying to make his daughter immortal, and why was he doing it? Was he really as plastic as he looked? Those “locked/open” cubicles in the control room – just why exactly were they there in the first place?* Why was Gallifrey “hell”? For that matter, why did it just pop into existance when the Time Lords were vaguely nearby? Why didn’t it cause massive tidal waves on Earth?** Who let the Time Lords’ soothsayer near the box of black biros? Was there meant to be a connection between the Weeping Angels, the Who monster invented by Steven Moffat, and the female Time Lords who kept sneaking messages to Bernard Cribbins? If so, what the hell was it? Was it anything more than Davies trying to derail a potentially-good monster created by his successor while he still had the chance?***

Maybe that’s the key. Certainly, the episodes might have made more sense if more time had been spent on storytelling. Instead, a good 10-15 minutes at the end was spent on the Doctor popping round to visit his previous companions for a cup of tea to lurk ominously in the background in a meaningful oh-my-painful-heart way. Not something that’s happened for any of his previous regenerations, as far as I know. K said, charitably, that maybe this was because David Tennant’s Doctor character was rather more emotionally attached to his companions and other human characters than previous Doctors.***** My interpretation is: it’s not about the Doctor regenerating and Tennant leaving at all. It’s about Davies leaving, and regretting it. That was his goodbye to his creations, not the Doctor at all. It was self-indulgent, and the programme would have been better without it. Maybe he’s not very happy about the degree of change that’s coming now he’s left: the programme now has a completely new logo, a much better one at that. That’s hopefully a sign that a lot is changing, more than just a name on the credits.****

Having said all that: there were a few good points. There were a few good scenes. Not very many at all, though. Apart from John Simm’s performance, though, there was nothing that I can put my finger on and say: “ah, that made The End Of Time worthwhile”. Give me a minute, and I’ll try to think of something that wasn’t John Simm.

(no, a bit longer than that)

Nope, nothing springs to mind. Doctor Who in general is a Good Thing, but in its specifics it’s lacking something. I have a nagging feeling, though, that back, back into the mists of time, that was always the case.

* I mean, I know why they ended up being there in plotting terms, but I didn’t at all get what their justification was. And while I’m on the topic: I was rather suspicious that the protective glass the cubicles were made from could apparently block all that dangerous radiation, but said radiation couldn’t make it through the gap around the edge of the door. It’s semi-plausible – microwaves can’t make it though the wire mesh in your oven door, for example – but really not that convincing.

** true “tidal waves”, in fact, not tsunamis.

*** If so it didn’t work, because the Blink-style Weeping Angels popped up in the trailer for the next series. I feel like adding “why did the Time Lords’ sublimation mean that the universe had to end?” to that list of questions but the key there is in the word “sublimation” for what the Time Lords wanted to do – I first came across the concept in Iain M Banks’s novels, where many races have done it, but there’s nothing to say that it has to work the same way in the Who universe.

**** I am very much hoping that the incidental music is one of the things that changes. I’m hoping that it’s possible to have an entire series of Doctor Who without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and, in particular, without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Choral Section.

***** K also said: “why are you getting worked up about such insignificant stuff?”


In which measurements are somewhat elastic

Yuletide being over now, we’ve finally got all of the necessaries over and done with. Visiting all the family, distributing all the presents, and taking back to the shops everything that doesn’t fit.

That latter category seems to be getting bigger and bigger now; with more and more online shopping, it includes more and more things that we’ve bought for ourselves and not just things from other people.

I wouldn’t mind so much, if maybe different shops and different companies could be maybe a little more consistent. You see, I know how big I am.* So I go online and I look at sizing charts, I buy things that apparently match my body, and find that they don’t fit. At all. Fair enough. So I go to my wardrobe, and I find something from the same manufacturer, roughly the same type of clothing, that fits me. I note down its measurements. I buy that size. And, when it arrives,** does it fit? No, of course not. Nowhere near. How stupid of me to expect that it would.

Now, I know consistancy can be tricky to get in mass manufacturing: for one thing, I’ve been told before that no item of clothing will be exactly the same size as something else from the same batch, because of the way stacks of fabric are cut. And I’m used to the fact that different shops size things slightly differently, so Expensive Middle-Class Suits R Us will make slightly larger clothes that make you feel that little bit happier when you slip into a size 10, when Stylish Cheap Teenage Fashions Inc are a bit stingier with their stuff and will make you buy a size 16 for pocket-money prices. Even so, I’d expect different things from the same shop to be at least vaguely comparable. I don’t expect two garments to be six inches different on the label,*** but the same physical size. Grrr.

* About this tall, that wide, and so round around the middle.

** and “waiting in for delivery men who then don’t bother to ring the doorbell” is a whole another rant for another day.

*** literally, six inches. I wonder if anyone does make clothes out of literal stuff any more, or if you can even buy it.

Twenty percent of evil

In which we discuss The Turn Of The Screw Coupling

It being Yuletide, there’s nothing quite like a ghost story. Was it Dickens who started the Christmas ghost story tradition, or is it more down to BBC schedulers of the 1970s? Never mind. It being Yuletide, we sat down in front of the telly to watch the latest BBC version of The Turn Of The Screw, by Henry James. It seems like only the other day that it was last made for the TV; but here it is again.

I should admit, I’m not particularly a fan of The Turn Of The Screw, the book, thinking it rather dense and over-written, too wordy to be frightening or atmospheric. Partly this might be because I first read it in a less-than-ideal place: while working in a call centre, between calls. Being interrupted every few minutes by the phone chiming puts a slightly different perspective on your comprehension of mysterious horror and pernicious evil. The book itself begins with a properly seasonal framing story, which the new version ignored entirely, ripping the meat of the story out and sandwiching it within an entirely different framing story set some decades later. It’s now a 1920s tale told to some kind of doctor or detective by some sort of inmate – the narrator of the story proper.

I’m not going to delve into the whole thing; a summary is that the governess of two children becomes convinced that two evil ghosts are trying to attract her wards into their own world. These ghosts were evil when they were alive, we are told, are trying to cast the children into their moulds, and seem to be succeeding: one of the children has just been expelled from school for being unspeakably naughty. But while the governess starts to see the ghosts more and more frequently, and is convinced the children can see them too, noone else in the household thinks that anything at all is amiss. Thousands upon thousands of essays, papers and texts have been devoted to the question of: are we meant to think the ghosts are real, or meant to think they are in the narrator’s imagination. Whole critical careers have been staked on one side or the other of this argument.

For TV, though, subtlety is abandoned. The camera shows us: the children, possibly more of the household staff, know that the ghosts are there and have some idea what they are up to. The nature of Ghost One, Peter Quint’s evil, too, is much more explicit: he’s a Bad Man who has his wicked way with all the ladies. Because that’s often not thought so much of a Bad Thing these days, he’s violent to them too. The nature of the boy Miles’s evil is still left vague and mysterious. Peter Quint is trying to bring him up in Peter Quint’s image, so presumably he’s turning violent and misogynistic; but why would that get him expelled from a 1920s public school?* There’s not really a clear answer to that one, which is presumably why the film-makers left it still unexplained. It’s about the only thing that was.

Now, book and film/TV are different media, and it’s unfair to gripe purely about the fact that they are different media. Adaptations can’t be made unchanged, otherwise we’d hardly need the term “adaptation”. Anachronism, though, gets on my nerves a little bit. There were a couple of scenes in which the governess arrived or departed at their local railway station; I’m fairly sure it was filmed at the very scenic Cranmore station, on the East Somerset Railway, not too far from here.** This is the 1920s, so we should have a 1920s train turn up; at Cranmore, of course, that would be a GWR country branch train in the appropriate GWR dark maroon carriage livery.**** What train does the governess step out of? A 1950s British Rail carriage in 1950s chocolate-and-cream. It’s hardly very suitable; it’s just as anachronistic as a big diesel like this would have been. Or, indeed, as if Peter Quint had worn a James Dean jacket and shades. What’s the point of period drama if you don’t bother with a period set?

* we can presume, from his angelic tousled face, that he’s as yet too young to impregnate his house’s maid, which would be a very Peter-Quintish thing to do.

** At the Shepton Mallet end of Cranmore’s platform there’s an incomplete GWR “cash-register” signal, being slowly-but-carefully restored by the East Somerset Railway’s small signal-restoring team. You can see a picture of part of it here; it’s called a cash-register signal because, at the pull of a lever, a choice of signs will pop up from the black box. I’m fairly sure I noticed it pop up*** in the background of the station platform shots in The Turn Of The Screw, along with some platform buildings that looked rather Cranmoreish.

*** The signal itself, not the signs. Like I said, it’s not finished.

**** I forget the term for the colour; but then, most GWR fans tend to forget about it too.

Strange Loop

In which things get into a circular reference

Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points. It’s hard to avoid it at this time of year, though: forced to stay away from work, expected to visit the family, exchange gifts, rest for a week and recover ready for the new year’s start. I’ve been staying in and reading one of the books I received for Christmas: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s a long book, a complex book, and I haven’t finished it yet: but its essence is in loops, looping, and self-referentiality. How self-referentiality is necessary, as a minimum, before self-awareness can occur. It seems like an ideal thing to talk about on a blog which has always been highly aware that it’s a blog, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken in enough of the book to write about it yet. “It’s got a lot of equations in it,” said The Mother, giving it to me. It does have, true; it also has some truly awful puns, intertwined and nested ideas, and dialogues between fictional and/or appropriated characters who butt into the discussion on a regular basis.

Funnily enough, a letter came the other day from regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea…

The Plain People Of The Internet: Hurrah! We were wondering when that chap would pop up again. We were worried he’d got stuck putting shapes into boxes, or analysing what kind of linoleum he has in his kitchen.

Hush, you. As I was saying, a letter came, from semi-regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea:

“Gödel, Escher, Bach” is quite a work to try to emulate, isn’t it? Maybe you should try something simpler. Never mind the parallels between human consciousness, a baroque composer and a 20th-century artist: have you thought about the links between something simpler, like TV ghost stories and the British railway preservation movement? Or maybe: the parallels between the work of Robert Graves and books like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”. Something nice and straightforward like that.

It’s an interesting idea there. Maybe I should indeed be starting off along those lines. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be writing a critique of a piece of writing I read for the first time a few days ago. It starts like this:

Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points…

Somehow, I think I might be onto something.