Category Archives: Uncategorised

Uncategorised posts from (late 2005 onwards)

The Time Meddler

The TARDIS, the Doctor assures us at the start, has taken us into the past, but this isn’t your usual historical. Those are filled with Shakespearean dialogue and political intrigue. This is an altogether more quiet story. Little happens, little is said. The key image is Peter Butterworth’s fabulous Monk laughing hysterically at the end of the first episode, with no explanation of him given in the second. Something is happening: pay attention.

Pay attention to the watch. Vicki didn’t drop it. Could the Doctor have dropped it? What is going on here? This isn’t 2009 and the story can’t be watched with our contemporary genre expectations. The 1965 viewer would not have expected:

  • an artificially-recreated environment
  • a parallel world
  • a virtual reality
  • a hallucination
  • or…

Actually, ignore that ellipsis for a second, and go back a point. Ian thought that the TARDIS was an illusion. What would he have thought if his first trip hadn’t been back 102,000 years, but here instead? A watch, a gramophone… This can’t be the past. In story after story the Doctor has assured us that the past can’t be changed.

In fact it has already been changed, twice: the Doctor gives Nero the idea for burning down Rome; the Daleks cause the crew of the Mary Celeste to jump overboard. But these changes have been brief, comedic, and besides, nothing actually changed, did it? History was fulfilled. Now at the climax of Season 2, we are given time to understand.

The cliffhanger to the third episode is not as we try to understand it today. The revelation is not that the Monk is one of the Doctor’s people, with a promise of more backstory to come. The revelation is that the Monk is a time traveller—and is changing history. Interference is no longer impossible, merely proscribed. The incident with Nero doesn’t look as harmless when we hear the Monk has already helped the ancient Britons with an anti-gravity lift. This is why the story itself is so quiet. Imagine the turmoil of the viewer. The thought: until the Monk turned up, there was no Stonehenge. The nature of Doctor Who has changed irrevocably.

(But then the curious end. The Doctor doesn’t stop the Monk. Instead, the locals become suspicious of his plans to light beacon fires. It’s revealed that he is harbouring Vikings. To the monastery! History homes in for the kill.)

(For a fuller review of The Time Meddler, check out Alex Wilcock.)

(I claimed the other day that, after this, Donald Tosh returned us to the “pure historical”—I should have refreshed my memory about what happens in The Myth Makers. That story is a kind of nightmare inversion of The Time Meddler: in place of the Monk freely trying to change history with his technology, the Doctor is forced to change history with his technology. Merely showing up in the past is liable to interfere with it. (I wonder what impression is given with both the Doctor and the Monk being present in the next story as the Daleks try to destroy time?))

The Sensorites

Dear Verity,

Delighted to report the science fiction writers meeting for Strangers in Space was big success. Seems a show that moves through space and time attracts writers through time and space. Samuel Beckett came all the way from Paris if you can believe it. He’s suggested a novel situation for Carol and Maitland. They are discovered ashen and apparently dead, encased in identical grey urns about one yard high, from which only their heads protrude. They have been placed there by the Sensorites, and when action is called for they will cry that they are powerless, then wonder why they couldn’t do what was required.

One of our writers from the 70s (crossing our show’s timeline don’t you know!), called Adams, asked that the hands of the spaceship crew also be made free. There was some debate about how this could be best achieved but no consensus was reached. His plan is to have the Doctor deduce the crew’s period of immobility from their fashion in watches. We’ll say that digital watches fall out of fashion 24 years earlier, that would mean they had been in space for at least 24 years.

Your friend from Shepperton had some rum notions. It was his idea that the Sensorites used a kind of psychic defense against the third crew member, John. He would be opened to a new understanding of time that would turn him from the exploration of space. Barbara and Susan will be inspired by his conceptual breakthrough to have sex with the angle of a cupboard.

This is all good but I felt some resistance from Newman. We’ve all been working very hard and Hartnell’s fatigue in particular is felt by all. I certainly hope we can continue to deliver to a high standard.

Best Regards, David.

The War Machines

Here is a further bulletin on the London emergency. It is announced, a few minutes ago, that the machine which is now being described as the War Machine has successfully been put out of action. The city of London has responded with characteristic calm to the emergency.

Calm is certainly what characterises this story. And coldness. The Doctor dismisses Ben’s concern for Polly, saying “if we worry about one person we shall never solve anything,” to which Ben offers the sarcastic aside “Looks such a kind old bloke too, doesn’t he?” In fact I misheard the latter as “Looks such a cold old bloke too, doesn’t he?” The final cliffhanger works not because, after three episodes of WOTAN’s egoless and methodical plan unfolding, the Doctor strides into confrontation at last, but because he’s standing cool, almost as if observing a bus he isn’t going to catch.

If you think there’s such a thing as a pseudo-historical (and I’m not sure there is) then this is the first pseudo-contemporary, a type which the series has made such good use of up to the present day. Just as Spooner earlier made the past stories very much present, Ian Stuart Black here makes the Earthbound fantastic. The Doctor takes an interest in the modernist Post Office Tower within moments of landing and observes “You know there’s something alien about that tower, I can sense it!” There are no extraterrestrials here (other than the Doctor), no interference in history (other than the Doctor’s). It is our own present strange moment that concerns the story.

We’ve reached a standstill. We cannot develop the Earth any further. Further progress is impossible. That is the conclusion reached by WOTAN.

More than Kit Pedler’s idea of cybernetic intelligence, this is the astonishing core of the story. There is a future, but it does not belong to humanity. Our own instrumental philosophy is the end of us, but it is not the end. The Doctor and WOTAN do a silent dance. The latter wants the former’s brain. The former recognises the latter as deadly. There is no rebuttal from the Doctor “There’s nothing more important than human life. Machines cannot govern man!” There are simply two programs in opposition.

* * *

I’ve seen Dodo in The Ark, The Gunfighters and The War Machines—three of her five stories. Where Steven is a kind of copy of Ian, Dodo is a kind of copy of Vicki who’s a kind of copy of Susan. There seems little to distinguish her from the earlier characters or indeed from the background characters of each story.

In Episode 2 of The War Machines, the Doctor sends her off to the country house of a civil servant (who he’s just met and doesn’t like) so that she can recover from WOTAN’s mind control. Obviously unimpressed with this evaluation of her strength, she returns the favour in Episode 4, by sending word via Polly that she’s decided to stay on Earth.

Surely the most ignominious exit ever.

The Gunfighters

The received wisdom of fandom, way back when, was that The Gunfighters is shit. This, together with its too late availability on VHS, meant that I didn’t watch it till now. And it was my loss! Far from shit, this story is up there with The Happiness Patrol and Love & Monsters for deceptive whimsicality and misunderstood excellence.

The positioning of the story is curious. After Spooner used the second season to introduce the idea that time could be changed, Tosh and Davis return us to “pure historicals”. I love the idea here that the advanced and alien Doctor decides to submit himself to the barbarism of Doc Holliday’s dentistry, showing that he’s a tourist willing to go the extra mile. He starts off with a passive stance as is required by fixed historical events, but he becomes increasingly active in calling for peace as the story goes on, as if he thought to change history… though history here is a vague concept as the setting is a kind of Western fantasy.

His overt pacifism makes it easy to miss that he keeps real guns with the fanciful cowboy costumes in the TARDIS. The time travellers wave these and other guns around as if they were toys, but the locals always regard the deadly weapons with respect. The story is like these locals, able to shift register effortlessly from the bumbling to the malevolent. The cliffhangers are all solid, but the first is amongst the show’s best, with Steven forced to sing a ballad while Dodo plays piano, as the Clantons wait to shoot the Doctor when he walks through the door… Amongst all the jollity and expected death, we get one of the most felt deaths in Doctor Who, when Charlie the barman is gunned down, then remains macabrely slumped over his bar into the next episode.

Donald Cotton writes some great lines, and we get great performances from John Alderson (Wyatt Earp) and Anthony Jacobs (Doc Holliday), who both might have walked off the set of Deadwood, but the story really belongs to director Rex Tucker.

He’s in love with Barry Newberry’s sets and makes maximum use of their realisation; he takes unusual framings, shooting through parts of the set, and from above. He choreographs his actors around the sets for maximum effect, sometimes composing them in ways that surely inspired later directors like Grimwade or Harper, at other times knowing when only a hand is required. But he always makes sure that the acting itself is all on screen. The action measures up to the best I’ve seen in cinema Westerns because Tucker knows where to stick the actors, where to stick the camera, and when to cut. Then to add extra depth to the proceedings, he’s taken the ballad of the Last Chance Saloon out of the diegetic background, and made it a lyrical commentary on proceedings.

Tucker’s doctored the script
though Cotton’s no goon
but the direction is key
in the Last Chance saloon

It’s unfortunate this is his only story, as Tucker is perhaps the best director that Doctor Who got in its black and white years, and amongst the show’s best ever.

World AIDS

In 1993, William Gibson predicted the end of the United States within twelve years, while seemingly thinking the Soviet Union would remain. Yet the actual Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, while the US is with us still.

Gibson also predicted the use of a mutant strain of nonpathogenic HIV in reversing the effects of AIDS; and super anti-viral agent called Kil’Z, “capable of nuking HIV’s 1 throught 5, Crimean-Congo, Mokola fever, Tarzana Dengue, and the Kansas City flu”; and a German nanotech ultimate transmission barrier. Yet AIDS is with us still.

Hard science fiction is the science fiction that emphasises scientific detail, yet it is the sub-genre that is most likely to ignore scientific structure. It likes to deal in the tractable, the easy, the already-done. This is how we all like to think of science. It’s like magic, our childhood parents, god.

Despite being sometimes labeled as hard SF, Gibson delves into the soft squishy stuff, if not of science itself, then of human character. He predicts a cure, but also predicts protest, violence, vilification, ignorance, refusal. He acknowledges homophobia. The story of James Delmore Shapely has at its heart the message: open your eyes. Here is Gibson as angry as we’ve ever seen him: “in those days we didn’t really understand the disease’s exact vectors of infection, because, grotesque as it now seems, there had been no real research into the precise modes of transmission…”

And isn’t that still true, both in the specifics of transmission acts, and the more general ways that AIDS moves into families, communities, and countries?

I always forget the exact date of World AIDS Day, but every day we have a world with AIDS.


Binaries, we are told, are everywhere in nature. Like cheese and chalk, sweet and salt, blonde and brunette, freezing and humid, green and brown, Microsoft and Apple, carbon and silicon, male and female…

Wait, you say, that last one is a genuine binary, XX/XY. I say, No. I say: There is X, XXX, XXXX, XXXXX, XXY, XXYY, XYY, and more. (And of course it’s mostly just mammals that use X and Y chromosomes.) Then you might point to the presence or absence of the SRY gene on the chromosomes, but you’re not in Kansas anymore, where sex can be determined by breasts/no breasts, or, for sure, vagina/penis.

I’ve been wondering about sport, a word which has an interesting double meaning in English. 1. a competitive activity requiring skill and physical prowess. 2. an organism that shows a deviation from the normal type; mutation. It is in sport where we throw away liberte, egalite, amitie in favour of citius, altius, fortius. Where we do not allow illegal drugs, oh no, but we do allow better nutrition, environment, training, legal drugs, equipment, time, etc. Where we do allow physical abnormalities, unless we somehow think that the physical abnormality makes a woman into a man. (Remember, there are only two categories!) Because a man has an unfair advantage over a woman. (No one cares if a man is really a woman because, of course, a woman could never compete with a man!)

Poor Caster Semenya. The International Association of Athletics Federations is questioning her sex, though there has been no complaint from another athlete, and no failure of anti-doping tests. There are rules in sport, don’t you know! (Yes and a transitioned male-to-female transsexual may compete as a woman under the rules, did you know?) The IAAF has completely violated her privacy and their duty of care. All because she ran 1 minute 55.45 seconds in the 800m. (A long way from the 26 year old record of 1:53.28 by Jarmila Kratochvilova, and an even longer way from the men’s record of 1:41.11.) Though we may also note that there is a long history of accusing African-heritage sportswomen of being men.

The results of Semenya’s sex tests have not been released. The Daily Mail is not a reliable source. Having a deep voice and broad shoulders does not make her a man. If it turns out she does not have ovaries and a uterus, this does not make her a man. If she has internal testes, this does not make her a man. If she has both female and male bits, this would not make her a hermaphrodite, a mythical term that we apply to plants and animals that function reproductively as both female and male; it would mean she was intersexed.

She was born a girl, raised as a girl, grew up to be a woman, competed as a woman, looks like a woman in the toilets, identifies as a woman… You’ve got to start to ask yourself what this sex thing is all about. Is there a war on? Why do we let our reproductive system structure our lives? Why do we demand to watch games rigged so that men always win?

Further Reading

Fail Better

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

I’ve heard this phrase on the lips of everyone from Braemar Wilson to fellow bloggers. It gives the name of a literary magazine. The sense imparted by the quote in these contexts is: try, try again. “Fail better” means “fail less” means “succeed that little bit more”.

The quote is from the story Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett. It is soon followed by this:

Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good.

Now in the context of the title, these particular lines, and the rest of the story, the sense of “fail better” I get is “fail more”.

To take the words from Krapp’s Last Tape and reconstruct Beckett’s epiphany as he hinted: “[It's] clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under [control] is in reality [my most precious ally].” He expands with reference to James Joyce:

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.

His quest, the human quest as he writes it, is not one of aspiration, but of ever-worsening failure, that can’t go on, yet somehow goes on.

Said nohow on.

a favourite album for every year of this decade

Continuing a favorite album for every year of my life, here are my picks for this decade:

  • 2000: Kid A, Radiohead
  • 2001: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, Lovage
  • 2002: The Eminem Show
  • 2003: Mit Gas, Tomahawk
  • 2004: Medulla, Bjork
  • 2005: General Patton vs the X-Ecutioners
  • 2006: The Eraser, Thom Yorke
  • 2007: Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, Moonchild Trio
  • 2008: Xaphan, Secret Chiefs 3
  • 2009: Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos

It seems like a strong list, but…

The repeats start to set in now. Four albums with significant contributions by Mike Patton (adding to the three from prior decades), with another that he guests on (though those two songs are probably the weakest on the album), and another album that I am listening to because its creators have a relationship with him. Two albums by Thom Yorke (and I’m not a Radiohead fan!). Another Tori album to join the one I picked from the 90s.

The selections are not backed up by possibility either. When I look at albums from this decade, I’m only looking at albums I bought, because I bought everything I thought was good enough (and more than a few that weren’t). The pool is small, the competition low. Every year had a clear winner except 2002, in which I had to pick Eminem over () by Sigur Ros.

We have my first black band here, the X-Ecutioners, bought only because of my Patton obsession; and another two women. Cultural diversity is not me.

Yet there is a sign that my musical taste isn’t hopelessly finished, nor the 2000s fully explored. I was only introduced to 2000 album Deltron 3030 a few months ago, in a comparison made by Sean Witzke in his review of Year Zero by NIN. I listened to it and dismissed it. Then it started to haunt me. I accidentally queued up Madness in Media Player at work. Lines wouldn’t leave me. I listened again and again. This is a sci fi rap opera. I have fallen in love. OK, I don’t think it’s better than Kid A for 2000, but that album took time to grow on me too. OK, if I did pick it over Radiohead, I would only improve my artist originality a little, as I already have a Dan the Automater/Kid Koala album in my list, though swapping Mike Patton for Del the Funkee Homosapien would make me look less one-eared.

Given what I’ve picked, what else should I listen to?

(This is not my best of the decade post. That will have to be about individual songs, of which there is a much greater pool to draw on. Expect it when you see it.)

How it happens

ANZ have recently launched with a new brand, including a new set of slogans: “Life’s complicated. / We live in your world. / We’re making banking simpler.” To support this, M&C Saatchi have created an advertising campaign, which I’ve primarily experienced as posters: people walk around with a tower of icons above their heads representing the busyness of their thoughts. It’s a good campaign (assuming you don’t consider advertising to be psychic interference) but it’s also sexist.

Now ANZ is a progressive organisation, whose mission is to expand diverse markets, obey anti-discrimination legislation, and avoid antagonistic interest groups. I think they probably hired an even mix of sexes to model in their ads, perhaps even playing safe by including a slightly larger proportion of women. Are there crowd choreographers to direct the models’ movements? Or did they simply ask the crowd to mingle? I’m sure in either case, an effective randomness was achieved. Footage was shot. Photos were taken. Again I’m sure there was an adequate variety.

Now the problems begin. Shots are selected: the light falls beautifully on the models in this one; some models have been caught with awkward expressions in the foreground of that one; etc. Objectivity is maintained, purely aesthetic criteria followed. Post-production goes to work with what they’re given. The towers of icons are added. It’s all done digitally. Give towers to everyone. Make some of the towers higher, some lower: avoid clutter, create balance. Keep fiddling till it looks right. Then pass the drafts for review.

Imagine one of the reviewers is a feminist. She or he notices straight away. Through the process of selecting the felicitous shot it has happened that men are more likely to be in focus than women. Through the balancing of the towers it has happened that men are more likely to have bigger towers than women. No one has done this maliciously or even subconsciously. Other concerns have shaped these images. It is an accident. It is a problem, recognised.

Now it becomes a real problem. It is decided not to re-jig the towers. It is decided not to go back and make new selections. Do other configurations of tower exist? They certainly do. Do other suitable shots exist? They certainly do—or, in the age of digital effects, certainly can. That draft was let to pass, and it was that letting that was sexist. Ultimately those who made the decision probably didn’t think it was sexist. Probably they included women in their number, successful women who worked hard to get where they are. Probably they thought the feminist was overstating the problem, just as you perhaps suspect that I am. Perhaps they even argued that there are more male executives, lawyers, politicians, doctors, and engineers, so their ad is somewhat representative of the truth.

Yes and there will continue to be an imbalance as long as we continue to tell the same old myths about the sexes. These images do not stand alone. They enter a constellation of images in telling specific parts of the story: men are important; women don’t have much on their mind. They join those existing images and so entrench their power and stabilise their mystification.

(Lizzie Skurnick and Matt Cheney say it better, writing about a more difficult example, “best of” lists.)

(The ANZ ads seem to have a good balance of race, but I didn’t look at this as closely. Otherwise, in what was probably a deliberate up-front decision, the campaign only represents middle-aged suit-wearing city workers, excluding those of other ages and classes.)

Talking Animals

To me they seem dangerous, all these stories about ugly ducklings and good things coming to butterflies that wait. They confuse biological facts with moral choice. Just once I want to read a story where the dissatisfied caterpillar chooses to stay a caterpillar, and the slow snail turns into a butterfly. I want to read about male cows.

The question of distance is always difficult. At what level am I being asked to buy into the story? At what level am I buying into the story? At what level do social groups buy into the story? When does telling our story with animals free us, when does it trap us, and when does it become confused?

Lawrence Miles once said:

And while I’m in mid-rant I’d also like to question the long-term effects of children’s movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, which seem to be designed to turn things that used to be astonishing and remarkable into things that are crass and ordinary. In Toy Story, all the toys magically come alive and then… hold bureaucratic meetings about paint erosion. In Monsters Inc, it turns out that monsters aren’t actually strange and fabulous beasts but bored clerical staff who spend most of the day hanging around the water-cooler at Monster Head Office. These films aren’t made with children in mind, they’re made by “professional” adults who want to feel good about their own petty lives, and as a result the next generation’s being primed for clerical work from birth. I think the word I’m looking for here is “evil”.

Yet he seems to be into fairy tales, with their castles and princesses and dragons and so on—and what are these, but the emblems of a different age. I think I would rather a story structured around an office worker than a knight. The latter seems too fallen,
too entangled with toxic ideas class and gender, violence and simplicity (Cervantes was, after all, questioning this stuff four hundred years ago). The former is more fruitful ground for generating thoughtful critique.

The problem with Toy Story is that it chooses the story of a boy’s toys. The problem with Monsters Inc is that CEOs are less likely to be female, secretaries are more likely to be female, and women still earn less for the same work. The problem is not the work, but the bell curve that’s brought with it, and the assumptions that cause that bell to be formed and then mapped.

The worst of it are the biological fictions. The hippopotamus is not clumsy and hungry. The male Emperor penguin does not wear the pants. You cannot slow boil a frog. And if they are fictions about animals, then they are fictions about humans too.

The Third Age Begins

Patrick Meaney, as you may know, is a long-time blogger, has a book on The Invisibles coming out this month, and is making a documentary about Grant Morrison, as well as shooting NFL Writers Room for ESPN. He is also director, co-writer, and editor of a new webseries The Third Age, and was kind enough to pass on a screener of the first seven episodes to me.

What if you showed up to your first day of work at a biopharmaceutical company and found yourself in the midst of a bizarre ritual: an old man is blindfolded; he, you, and your co-workers are spattered with blood; a drummer plays gently on a bongo; and then something happens…

What if it was your last day of work as a drug dealer (but you didn’t know that yet) and you met someone you assumed was one of the victims of your industry on the street; and decided to take her home with you…

The first episode of The Third Age reveals little, but establishes the tone of the webseries. It acts like a teaser, yet this is no television show cut into eight minute segments: each episode has a coherent shape of its own.

The central image of the first episode is of the old man who is the focus of the ritual. In the episodes I’ve seen, he is little more than a presence, but luckily actor Joel Seligman has plenty of presence, establishing his character as a hierophant—or perhaps something more—with little more activity than raising his arms a few times.

The episode closes with first a voice over, then a floating image of the old man. The meditative images that close each episode are one of the series’ strengths, and always a good space for contemplation. The voice over feels different to most, and a later episode confirms it to be a bit of dialogue overheard ahead of time rather than a piece of narration. The series promotes a four dimensional view of time, and though we might logically infer the old man has a past, I can’t help wondering if the ritual we see in this first episode is in fact his origin.

If the first episode is about feel, then the second episode gives you an idea of what the show is about. Don’t expect too much—the show unfolds slowly, with new characters and images still being introduced in the seventh episode. In the second episode we are introduced to some of our chief characters.

The series has an oneiric quality too rarely seen outside of comics, where weird stuff can be understood to be happening against a strange context that is just accepted as reality. This quality is anchored by the two characters I described first. Our drug dealer is Zinone, played with expertly judged bewilderment as he tries to understand the strange power of the mystery woman, Morning. Our neophyte is Mark, whose well-observed naivety, for me, makes him the most interesting character to speculate on where he’ll end up.

We are also introduced to Mark’s boss, Jerrod, the man behind the biopharm company and its rituals. Actor Ted Spencer radiates considered charisma in this role, which is the active driver of the narrative. He’s had a vision and wants to create a drug that will bring us all into a new age. Whether he is antagonist, protagonist, misguided, or guided, remains to be seen.

All in all, this is a well-made package, but special mention must be made of Raul Coto-Batres’s lighting design. The biggest difference between, for instance, twentieth and twenty-first century Doctor Who, is not in its special effects budget, but in its lighting. Bad lighting reveals bad takes and bad sets. Good lighting makes good acting and atmospheric locations.

The Third Age is a psychedelic journey that includes the dark aspects of bad trips. It takes a position in conversation with Kabbalah, Crowley, and magicians like Grant Morrison, that, if I don’t always agree with it, is always engagingly put forth. I hope to engage in this conversation as episodes air.

I’ve seen seven episodes into the future (and perhaps more, in hints and snatches) and I can’t wait to join everyone else in waiting a week to find out what happens next for the remaining six episodes of first season. The Third Age will continue…

See the trailers on, where the series will be starting on Tuesday 17 November.