The Picard Manoeuvre

In Review: Star Trek: Picard

I want to review CBS’s latest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. But first I have to set the scene, about my relationship with Star Trek, and a potted guide to its history for those unfamiliar.

Prelude: Star Trek in a nutshell

When I was born, the BBC were three-quarters of the way through their first-run British broadcasts of the original Star Trek series, some two years later than their US broadcasts. Apparently a big hit in Britain, the series was repeated often through the 70s and early 80s. That success, now I come to think of it, may have influenced the commissioning of Blake’s 7, the BBC’s adult-oriented space opera, in 1978.

While I was an avid viewer of Blake’s 7, I never took much to Star Trek. The vision of a multi-national crew, represented by multi-ethnic Americans, nevertheless remains admirable for the times, and it was certainly politically engaged. The series stands as a curious and pioneering attempt to smuggle somewhat cerebral, literary sf concerns into a mainstream show, with a character-based warmth at its heart. It’s a good recipe, with some great ingredients. It addressed very American concerns of the late 1960s, but maybe felt a little bit dated for my generation.

Meanwhile, in the US, Trek also became a big hit in the 70s, re-run in syndication, bigger than it ever was during its original late-60s run on NBC. It grew not only its mainstream audience, but generated a qualitative change in the nature of audience itself, with the emergence of Star Trek fandom. The idea of an organised television audience, with their own voice and ideas, was so far outside of their reality tunnel, the story goes, that industry representatives, on seeing the much larger than expected numbers at the first fan convention, simply left the event, unable to deal with the implications and potential shift of power. The significance of this event for the changing nature of media audiences over the past 50 years bears consideration, as fannish cultural practices slowly, insidiously some might say, became mainstream. These days everyone binge-watches, over-analyses, reviews and makes their own fiction about their favourite TV show. That’s pretty much our culture now. But once, it was a sub-cultural sociality known as fandom.

The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved the importance of audience. The idea that Star Trek was a very liberal and progressive – and even in some areas a radical – enterprise, isn’t especially valid for the original series. Many of the ideas we associate with this interpretation of Trek derived from the fan culture of the 70s and 80s, who saw in Star Trek the potential for a radically inclusive and progressive futurism. The idea that poverty, hunger and racism have been eliminated in the future, within an enlightened, yet Earth-centred galactic federation, simply isn’t present in the original series. Indeed, it’s implied Earth is a colonial power. It’s now thought Roddenberry saw these more Utopian, progressive ideas emerge from the fan audience, and adopted them. The development of Star Trek was led by the remarkable creativity of its fan audience. The Next Generation also seems to me influenced by new age culture, surging in late 80s California, where as Dennis Potter once remarked, ‘every nut rolls’ sooner or later. By 1987, Paramount was still making $1 million per episode in syndication. The arguments for a new series were overwhelming.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s cultural influences can be read into the initial decision to dispense with a regular Chief Engineer, but insist upon a regular Counsellor character on the bridge of the new, pastel-shaded and softly furnished USS Enterprise. This reflects the caring, sharing, person-centred, eco-conscious culture of liberal America of that time.

Next Gen had a hard job convincing fans of the original series attached to the idea that Star Trek could only incarnate in the Kirk-Bones-Spock triumvirate. Indeed that idea had been established early in Star Trek fandom’s literature, that the heart and essence of the series lay in the interplay of these three characters. Mr Spock representing the emotionally repressed, logical, thinking element, Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy representing its counterpart, the emotional, feeling man. According to this theory, Kirk represents the perfect integration of feeling and intellect in a man, and thus is fit to both mediate between the forces represented by Spock and Bones, and lead them as their Captain.

The characters of the Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana, and thankfully don’t attempt to replicate this formula precisely. However, we have a female Doctor, hilariously named ‘Crusher’, and the android Data, who acts as a mirror of Spock in some ways. Unlike Spock, Data has no emotions to repress, so his desire is to become more human, not less. And so we come to Picard, who is presented as an idealised, integrated man. Cultured, intelligent, an explorer interested in poetry and drama, inclined towards the diplomatic and consensus solution, but entirely able to use maximum military force with ruthlessly effective tactics when necessary.

This triumvirate is backed by a slightly larger regular ensemble cast than the original series. By accident or design, the cast assembled had genuine chemistry with each other, forming close real life bonds which persist to this day, and this factor had a lot to do with the success of the series.

After a shaky couple of years, but with a base level of quality and moments of brilliance, Next Gen’s third season, with the writing drastically improving by the week, established the series in its own right. The events of that third season had genuine weight, affecting the characters, Picard in particular, in ways that are still being explored, most recently in the 10 part CBS series Star Trek: Picard that aired earlier this year.

There were times when Stewart had me crying my eyes out as Picard, most notably during the season 6 episode Chains of Command, in which Picard is tortured by David Warner. Picard gives an incredibly sensitive performance, informed by research undertaken with Amnesty International into people’s experiences of torture. Here’s a great Picard moment, from the best Star Trek movie, in which Picard reveals the extent to which his traumas still motivates him several years later.

The state of Trek

After the 2009 cinematic reboot, the Star Trek Universe split into two parallel universes. The new movies occur in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline, while the original universe maintains its existence as the ‘Prime’ timeline. As if mirroring this, the film and television rights split apart when Paramount Pictures’ parent company Viacom dispensed with CBS, who hold the television rights. It was in this environment CBS decided to return Star Trek to television, some 12 years after the last Star Trek TV show, the prequel Enterprise, ended after four seasons. The commercial circumstances were remarkably similar to those that conditions the return of Star Trek to TV back in 1987. The audience for genre film and TV had expanded, fandom now enjoying the kind of relationship with the industry which would have been a mad dream in 1972. Moreover, the back catalogue was finding a new audience on streaming services, just as the original series had found a new audience in syndication back in the 70s, increasing the commercial pressure for new content.

CBS hired Bryan Fuller, who’d worked in his younger days on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who’d now made a name for himself as the showrunner of the Hannibal Tv series, to develop new Star Trek shows. His winning idea was to create an anthology show which would start in the years before the original series, but progress through the Prime timeline, giving fresh takes on different eras of the show. While there were creative tensions between Fuller and CBS, it seems his early departure from the production of Star Trek: Discovery was more down to scheduling conflicts, with CBS and Netflix keen to get the series quickly while Fuller was tied up on prior commitments to adapt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for television.

CBS brought in Alex Kurtzmann, who’d worked on the new movies, to oversee Star Trek for them.

I’ve never seen Star Trek: Discovery, although I have seen a couple of the Short Treks anthology show that spun off from it, a show which seems to fulfil Fuller’s vision of a show that can explore any bit of Trek it likes. And Star Trek: Discovery, having explored and reinvented the back story of some of the original series characters (like Christopher Pike, Kirk’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Captain, and Spock), has now been flung forward to a century after the time of Next Generation, much as previous prequel series Enterprise brought in a plot elements from the far, post-Next Generation future too. This also fulfils Fuller’s plan to have the early seasons set before the original series, and later seasons set in advance of the later spin offs. But much of this has passed me by. I gave up on Star Trek sometime during Voyager, a show with a lot of unfulfilled potential, and saw little of Enterprise. But a little bit of Star Trek, thanks in large part to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, stayed with me.

And so the announcement last year that Stewart would be reprising Picard, in a new TV series focused on that character’s life 16 years after the end of the Next Generation, excited me. I figured if Stewart was involved, that suggested quality, and the potential for surprising quality.

So what’s Star Trek: Picard like? Was it a joyful reunion, or a disappointing afterglow? Join me next time to find out.

This post’s featured image is by JD Hancock, and used under license.

XOM and the question of music, part 3

In Review: XOM’s classic Rockyoke

Part Three: Another Overload
The Boar’s Head, Kidderminster, 23 March 2019

Kidderminster, described by Pevsner, the art and architecture historian, as “uncommonly devoid of visual pleasure and architectural interest”, can claim some musical heritage as part of the Midlands scene. Robert Plant played some of his early gigs here, attending King Edwards Grammar School in nearby Stourbridge, and went on to buy a farm just outside the town. Robbie Blunt, a Plant collaborator, also has connections with Kidderminster. Stan Webb, front man of the blues band Chicken Shack, and rhythm and blues singer Mike Sanchez, both lived in Kiddie – as it’s known locally – as well as Ewan Pearson and the late Tony De Vit, prominent producer-DJs.

Enhancing this history, or at least not disgracing it, XOM made their Spring 2019 sing-along appearance at The Boar’s Head, a pub in the town which has distinguished itself as a live music venue and art gallery.

I’d last encountered the band for their Stirchley Christmas Sing-along, at the end of a stressful year. This spring event found me in a happier place. I had just finished a rewarding, but rather exhausting stint performing in Birmingham Opera Company’s acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. With my birthday coming up, I was sorely in need of a knees-up, and where better than a town seven country miles from my birthplace?

I encountered the band in the beer-garden, and was warmly welcomed, with the caveat that the sound-check had been problematic. As the band took the stage, Mr Sandilands warned us to expect high volume.

They began reprising the encore from winter’s solstice, Linda and Paul McCartney’s Live & Let Die (probably not my favourite Bond theme but certainly one of the better movies), followed by U2’s Vertigo. If these were intended as two belting crowd-pleasers, they were followed with two perhaps lesser known songs.

XOM performed Queen’s Now I’m Here, written by Brian May. It was originally released after Queen’s breakout ‘power pop’ hit Killer Queen. Freddie Mercury felt Now I’m Here

was just to show people we can still do rock ‘n’ roll – we haven’t forgotten our rock ‘n’ roll roots. It’s nice […] I enjoyed doing that on stage

Freddie Mercury,1976 (cited on Queenpedia)

By this point I was dancing my heart out. In the opera I’d had a chance to try out what I hesitate to call pole dancing (see video), but the Boars Head venue had these pillars that seemed ideal for developing that particular art. And so the next song, Elbow’s Mirrorball, had me using them to help me dance in the most seductively responsive way I could muster.

I was not familiar, or even aware of Elbow and their music until this point, which reiterates the point I made in my first review:

good artists lead and educate an audience as much as merely entertain

https://words.korvin.org/2019/xom-and-the-question-of-music/

So it was good to see XOM continue to vary and diversify their set. This to me unknown, ethereal song captured me, so beautifully played and sung.

Continue reading “XOM and the question of music, part 3”

XOM and the question of music, part 2

In Review: XOM’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Sing-along

Part Two: The Greatest Gift
British Oak, Stirchley: 20th December 2018

Christmas comes but once a year, and as Christopher Hitchens remarked, you can’t get away from it then, like a one-party state, with its regulation songs, symbols and, ‘sickly Santa Claus obsequies’. Contrary to popular belief, even suicide rates decline in midwinter’s icy grip of good cheer, by order.

Having successfully batted away that pesky GBH charge, and completed my teaching qualification, I’d been looking forward to a pleasantly healing and productive autumn.

Yeah right. Turned out to be yet more unrelenting trauma, topped and tailed with all sorts of tiring idiots making outrageous and unacceptable demands on my liberties. Professionally it was full to the brim with “thoughtful and insightful work” writing and designing, as well as various interviewing and speaking engagements. And with my principle antagonist somewhat chastened I did get some peace and quiet, some rest, until Xmas, and was able to put more time into my stringed, percussive, and choral pursuits. So it turned out to be a musical fall, bound for winter’s ground cushioned by the comfy chair of XOM’s Xmas sing-a-long.

Earlier in the year I’d been asked to write some site-specific verse to be performed at one of Birmingham’s Oak trees, and came up with a serviceable enough piece of work that referenced the British Oak, Stirchley, a pub which turned out to be the venue for this event. I like Stirchley, and have been touting it as ‘the next Moseley’ for about eight years, so it was good to venture there with some good friends.

Once again, lyrics sheets for these classic rock ‘n’ roll anthems were distributed around the yard, singing along being encouraged. The songs for this gig danced around the decades, and seem thematically well sequenced:

  • Live and Let Die (by Wings) – the most rock and roll of all the Bond themes
  • Vertigo (by U2)
  • Are you gonna go my way (Kravitz) – as we discussed last week: ubiquitous, but fun and gutsy
  • You really got me (the Kinks; XOM add a note that they’re essentially doing the Van Halen verison
  • Just (Radiohead): written by Thom Yorke, supposedly about ‘a narcissistic friend’ (we’ve all been there), and apparently a competitive bid by Yorke to ‘fit the most chords into a song’)
  • Whole lot of Rosie (ACDC): I always enjoy a bit of AC/DC
  • Jump (van Halen)
  • Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) – lovely tune,really good to hear this one
  • Another Brick in the Wall p2 (Pink Floyd)

Intermission

  • We will Rock You (Queen)
  • We Are the Champions (Queen)
  • Here I go again on my Own (Whitesnake) – last week I noted the interesting history of this song. Originally recorded in 1982, there’s the line ‘like a hobo I was born to walk alone’, but this was later changed to ‘drifter’ in the 1987 version, apparently to avoid the word being misheard as ‘homo’. I thought this was a terribly interesting moment of queer history, and wonder what it would be like to, as it were, reinsert the hobo into the lyric.
  • Don’t stop Believing (Journey)
  • Final Countdown (by Europe), a song which I suppose can’t be avoided in current political circumstances
  • Champagne Supernova (Oasis)
  • Smells like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
  • With a little help from my Friends (The Beatles/Joe Cocker version) – Joe Cocker
  • Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) the third Queen number of the set, this again rather ubiquitous number has in some ways been a victim of it’s own success, its passage into jokey culture maybe masking something of how innovative and special it really is. One wonders, idly, what more could be done with this song.
  • Wish you were Here (Pink Floyd) – always good to hear
  • Here it is Merry Christmas (Slade)
  • Do they know it’s Christmas (Band Aid)

The band performed with their usual energy and passion. Once again, as Gary performed his vocal and keyboard duties, Jon Sandilands encouraged us to sing, Banks and Smalls on the rhythm section keeping us in time.

Ace rhythm guitarist Iain Davies, I believe the latest addition to the band, emerged somewhat into the light. Jon introduced him in his capacity as a vocalist, and as someone with more to contribute to the band. To be honest he seemed a little unsure of himself, but he acquitted himself with skill and grace, and this reviewer always appreciates a Monty Python reference.

Since this gig fell on Winter Solstice Eve, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull, in contrast to either the Slade or Band Aid numbers, would have delighted me. As it was, that Geldof/Ure charity smash ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ sounded the clanging chimes of doom, or possibly last orders, and by this point however I don’t think anybody cared whether it was Christmas or not, let alone whether people in Africa were aware of it, or the possibility of snow in that rather large and varied continent.

XOM’s custom of reprising a song from the set, as an encore chosen by audience voice speaks to that great sense of participation that marks XOM out from the crowd. The popular vote, Live and Let Die by Wings, rounded off Solstice Eve with a flourish. Jon said it was a strange encore, and now I come to think of it there did seem to be a rather charged atmosphere, as the very sun came to the beginning of that three day standstill, nights at their very longest before the creeping dawn of Christmas Day.

Ring out, ye solstice bells. I emerged from the gig energised and ready to take on Christmas. I found it a lovely way to spend Solstice Eve, and choir the following day was all the sweeter for it.

XOM and the question of music

In Review: XOM’s Rockyoke

About 400 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, it was my pleasure to make the acquaintance of John Sloboda, professor of psychology with a particular interest in the psychology of music. For Professor Sloboda, music is “a way of defining community”:

My eyes were really opened to this when I went to Ireland for the first time a few years ago; in any pub or village hall you see people of all ages and ability making music together…in England we are deprived of something by the lack of a folk tradition in our society; the closest people seem to get to music here is karaoke!

https://web.archive.org/web/20060412171023/http://www.oxfordmuse.com/selfportrait/portrait57.htm

Part One: 30 August 2018, The Prince of Wales, Moseley

Late summer last, I was finishing off a short but demanding course in adult education while simultaneously bailed on a GBH charge, pending trial. My choir attendance had rather dropped off the agenda, and with my voice stressed from all the screaming, I was looking for somewhere to warm up it up again. Drinking at my local, I noticed an intriguing poster advertising ‘a night of sing-a-long fun featuring the very best in rock’n’roll anthems’, raising money for St Basils, a charity that works with homeless young people. The gig, apparently chaired by a band called XOM, gloried in the name RockyOke.

When the poster came up in conversation with a close friend, who expressed interest, naturally we made arrangements, and then forgot all about it. But as fate would have it, returning from a botanical excursion one afternoon, I bumped into another close friend, and into the Prince of Wales we shot. On ordering my pint I heard an unmistakable melody floating in: the opening riff from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. This struck me very deeply, and following the sound into the beer-yard, we came face-to-face with XOM.

Imagine my delight, and curiosity. Cinderella shall go to the ball! A sound-checking band, including one or two faces I recognised, rehearsing some of my favourite tunes of yesteryear. Lyrics sheets printed up and distributed around the yard. A mutual friend sat on a stool. The sun shone. The very gig I thought with which to warm my voice, and reconnect with community at this stressful time, despite my forgetfulness, had me blown in on the steel breeze.

In my own assault on the rhythm part of that intro, I’ve used the following sounds behind it, both licensed for use with Attribution: FM radio tuning by MrAuralization — https://freesound.org/s/269701/ – and Forest Nov NL 1pm 181107_1297.flac by klankbeeld — https://freesound.org/s/448280/

Maria, in charge of the venue, was checking decibels. Gentrification’s wave sometimes breaks, finding tension and conflict as new residents complain of noise from established music venues. Caveat emptor, a principle with which we are all familiar, sometimes seems in abeyance when considering new build flats next to musical venues, being ‘far from the whole position‘, giving residents an advantage in pursuing noise complaints, potentially affecting the music venue, and its musicians and audience, adversely. This came up last decade: when new build flats went up near the venerable Spotted Dog of Digbeth. One complaint, if I recall correctly, had a significant knock-on effect for their musical events, and the issue of new build flats next to established music venues, and the potential power imbalance, became a live one for all of us who, like Professor Sloboda, care about live music and its role in our society. The life of and around the pub made a great show of support for their side. Similarly, the Prince of Wales had made the issue public, perhaps wary of similar sonic trigger-dramas, and were keen to ensure decibels were monitored, and below certain limits. One sensed a little extra tension in the sound check, but the band’s sense of discipline and camaraderie in the face of modern Britain was immediately obvious.

And anyway, I’d been heartened by news earlier in the year of movement on this issue, after lobbying, in part by local councils presumably fed up of having to mediate such tedium. There was in 2018 a drift towards common sense from central government, on this issue at least, with reference to the perhaps less familiar principle of agente mutationem which, if applied in such cases ought to protect a venue from noise complaints, giving the new arrival the responsibility to mitigate any problems. This article on local.gov.uk covers the basics and provides links for further reading. But in short:


Jonathan Sandilands, maestro of the whole affair, later told me of the genesis of the idea. Inspired by a sing-along event staged by Moselele, Moseley’s premier Ukelele meetup, at the Prince of Wales, as well as previous charity gigs at the venue, Jon put forward the notion of a sing-a-long rock anthems gig.

Continue reading “XOM and the question of music”

Prequel Smequel.

Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman & Steven Moffat
Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman & Steven Moffat (Photo credit: vagueonthehow)

It may not be unusual in a Doctor Who drama for the audience to be shown reveals before the Doctor.  It does strike me as unusual in some of Moffat’s Who when the audience finds out things the characters will never know. The final shot of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ reveals a crucial piece of information that makes sense of the central conundrum the Doctor has left the story, still puzzled as to why Madame de Pompadour was fixated upon by droids of a ship from the future. That the ship bears her name is revealed only to us.

Of course normally the Doctor knows more than about anyone in the room, but in the unfolding of ‘arc’ mysteries that span seasons, we tend to experience key reveals along the way with him: in ‘The Sound of Drums’, as the Doctor, Jack and crucially Martha realise the Master is Harold Saxon, the pieces of the season’s puzzle fall into place for us at the same time. Likewise the Doctor discovers River Song’s identity as Melody Pond at pretty much the same time we do, leaving her hapless parents to represent those members of the audience who really need it spelling out.

In the Current Epoch of the show, known as Nu-Who, single episode stories strung in a loose arc has been the norm, with RTD stating his Bad Wolf scenario was only ever meant to be a bonus thread not affecting the comprehensibility of individual episodes, and certainly not expecting it to be picked up by the Guardian and the mass audience (used, as has now become a cliche, to watching TV with an eye to ongoing arcs; ‘Middle class Britain addicted to DVD box sets’ as Alan Moore’s magazine put it). Bad Wolf became a brief national talking point. But again, it’s all fairly straightforward narrative exposition. We solve the Bad Wolf mystery with Rose, and subsequently, with the flabbergasted Doctor as Rose tells him ‘I am the Bad Wolf’.

With the ongoing saga of Clara Oswin Oswald, the knowledge available to the audience comes in different ways.

In this new scene acting as a teaser for the new series, and focusing on the search for Clara, picking up from the  end of the Xmas special, again we are left knowing more than the Doctor. I won’t say too much, but suffice to say there’s a charming use of one of Moffat ‘s box of tropes – just playing with the audience, teasing them as to whether the obvious and almost inevitable pay-off. In this case, the pay off implies to me that the Doctor will never know what we find out in the second to last shot. Because he doesn’t need to. It’s not a detail he ever needs to know. The meaning of this particular unfolding of the Oswin story is left to us to decide. I suspect it always will be.

The Bells of St John: A PREQUEL

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

By the way, I must observe this usage of the term ‘prequel’ in more detail.

The term prequel was surely invented to capture the ambiguity of a follow-up movie (normally called a sequel) which relates prior events. The first notable example I can remember in popcorn land is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I believe is meant to be set before Raiders of the Lost Arc. Lucas really exploited the form with his Star Wars prequels depicting the first, descending half (?) of the story of Anakin Skywalker. And of course the most obvious current ‘prequel’ would be the Hobbit movies.

But in book form, The Hobbit was written and published before the Lord of the Rings’s three volumes. To call it a ‘prequel’ would be to apply a new word to something it doesn’t even describe. Nor can the Dr Who episodes ‘Utopia’ or even ‘Mission to the Unknown’ adequately be called prequels to what they introduce.

This latest addition to Doctor Who shouldn’t be called a prequel’. In my view it is both wrong, draining  the meaning of the word of any of its delicious irony, and for that reason, also looks silly. A marketing term used to market something it was originally not intended to market. Namely, a Prologue.

Oh well. Thank the goddess they didn’t call it a Minisode this time.

The Bells of St John: A Prologue

>http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

The Ambassadors of Death

This image is cropped from a screencap of the ...
This image is cropped from a screencap of the television series Doctor Who and is intended for use in the article The Ambassadors of Death to visually aid the description of the plot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s Gary Gillatt’s review of the curious Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death, newly restored on DVD.

Great review which immediately impressed me by telling me something I didn’t know I knew about Season Seven. Confined to Earth, each seven-parter has the Doctor explore ” all three dimensions still available to him.” Almost shamanic dimensions – first down into the underworld to meet the Silurians, and now the Ambassadors lead him “straight up into the sky”.

I’m not sure Gary is correct that Episode 5 would be pulled today in the light of Apollo 13 – it had splashed down the previous day. Wife in Space commented on this during their watch of the story

And while the emotions of the finale are understated, I used to feel them especially in the aftermath of the emotive end of the Silurians, in which the Doctor fails to prevent his human associates from ‘wiping out’ their intelligent reptilian forebears. His success in saving the aliens of this story acts as a reflective counter-point to his earlier failure, and as a building of tension in the arc towards the season’s explosive, tense conclusion in the Inferno.

That’s my recall anyway. It’s a while since I saw the story, but look forward to watching the new DVD with friends some time this year. Gary’s review has certainly made me even more keen to make that soon.

Christmas Countdown

In review: Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Prequels

Ah, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, instant tradition invented in 2005 with The brilliant Christmas Invasion, followed each year with variations on traditional Christmas film styles: a midwinter’s journey, from screw-ball comedy via blockbuster disaster and mock epic, to the current mode of romantic and literate sf-fantasy with hints of steam-punk and paganism.

This year, the Doctor Who team revisit Victorian values, in The Snowmen, due for broadcast on Christmas Day at 5.15pm. If two years ago the Doctor played ghost to Scrooge, it seems this time the Doctor himself is cast as an uncommon Scrooge.

Back in November Cardiff revived an aspect of the tradition going back to 2005: the Children in Need prequel to the Christmas special.

The Great Detective.

TX: 16 November 2012

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G17_B4uACgg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

My main problem with this was the arch, knowing humour which plays incongruities for laughs. How Mark Gatiss plays the narrator’s line about the Victorian detective! Inter-textually, this refers to Sherlock of course, thus setting up the punchline: ‘I refer of course – to Madame Vaastraa’. A moderately clever gag lampshaded and rendered excruciating by Gatiss’s unfortunate delivery. A rocky start led to another over egged gag about the henchman Strax

‘whose countenance was too horrible to be photo-graphed’,

which when revealed as a not particularly horrible Sontaran accompanies one of Murray Gold’s musical exclamation marks.

Fortunately this air of beautifully produced but rather forced humour is punctured by the arrival of the ‘fourth member’, the ‘shadowy figure’ of Matt Smith.

Tom Baker in Shada
Cool

I have to say I adore his new Xmas costume, I feel the Doctor looks genuinely ‘cool’, perhaps for the first time since 1979. So I was pleased to read recently Moffat’s comments on costuming the Doctor, signalling a move towards varying the actual clothes while retaining some ineffable essence of this Doctor’s look or style, a reading of the 1970s ‘version of it’.

The Doctor’s melancholy rejection of the gang is well played, and mysteriously finished off by the Doctor disappearing into thin air as he walks off, as if walking through dimensions. Disregarding that, the format and hook of the special is set up in Jenny’s final ‘Merry Christmas’ to him, reminding us that, as has been noted by the Tenth Doctor in 2007, Christmas always seems to be a busy time for the Doctor these days. Something is bound to come up.

Ending on a repeat of the joke about Strax threatening the moon is I presume the rebel in Moffat producing an anti-cliffhanger to rival Barry Lett’s finest.

Pleasingly, there’s a part two.

Vastra Investigates

TX online: 17 December http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p012q4yl

I loved this sketch’s combination of info-dump and comedy, giving us useful back story, reminding the audience who exactly Jenny, Vastra and Strax are. I watched this with a mate the other day and he loved all the jokes, as did I. TBH the trailer shown an hour or so after the first ‘minisode’ in November didn’t excite me, but I remain intrigued. The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe has had an airing to general like this year. Two very different friends of mine watched it recently and both reassessed their formerly low opinion. It’s a grower. Maybe they’ll pull off something even better this year.

But, evil snowmen? Maybe this one’s best watched with child-like eyes. Leave your cynicism at the door, but please don’t forget Strax’s grenade!

Merry Pagan Feast Day everyone.

Loving Angels Instead

In review: Doctor Who The Angels Take Manhattan

TX: 29 September 2012
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n70f3

Some died. Not them, Brian. Never them – the Doctor, The Power Of Three

I wasn’t thinking of anything quite so…long term – Amy, Flesh and Stone

SO the big news this week, as covered by the Guardian, was the release of a deleted scene in storyboard and audio form, from this episode. The Chibnall written scene gave Rory a chance to let his Dad know what happened to them, by letter delivered by an adopted son, resolving rather prosaically the thread of Amy’s infertility, in a scene clearly inspired by a similar event in Blink. The scene picks up on certain fan desires for resolutions somewhat underwhelmed by elements of this episode. I think there was an intense fan reading generated for this episode, but it seems to talk about alternatives. A desire for more resolution to the River Song/Amy aspect of the story, for instance, has people assuming Amy and Rory somehow meet up with young Melody in New York, filling in the gap between her 1969 New York regeneration and arrival in 90’s Leadworth.

This companion departure was always going to be strained, deriving narratively from the Doctor’s feelings for Amy, and Rory, feelings whose motivations were made explicit for the first time last week, but have always been there. In review I mentioned The Power of Three‘s play with the format of the show, an experimentation enabled now the characters have been positioned to this point. The set up of Rory and Amy as, dare I say it, lame duck companions, by the coda of The God Complex proved both logical and potentially format-busting, raising the question of the whole status of a ‘companion’ in modern Dr Who. In some ways a consequence of the Doctor’s more perfect control over the Tardis, as much as any subtext that the Doctor must grow up, if you have a Doctor who is able to visit ‘companions’ at will, it disrupts the tradition of the companion role, into something more akin to another meaning of the word – an occasional traveller.

As far back as the departures of both Captain Jack (The Parting of the Ways) and more especially Martha (Last of the Time Lords), the possibility has been raised of a companion leaving the Tardis, but not necessarily leaving the show. I always thought this was a great idea, and the use of the Ponds since The God Complex has satisfied this viewer’s desire for a more realistic and involved treatment of the format implied, but never realised, by how RTD re-imagined the Doctor-companion relationship in terms of an attachment to home and hearth.

It lays possible groundwork I think for a more extended run of stories with occasional companions, perhaps those the Doctor has less of an emotional attachment to, so you don’t need to ‘write them out’ so artificially. Maintaining their base, these nu-companions can grab some agency in the series. With Amy however he has made his feelings clear, finally: Pond will be there till ‘the end of me – or vice versa’. A constant companion. So a combination of that emotional thread, and the realities of life in TV land, mean an ending which ensures that somehow the Doctor cannot visit these people again is required. Some reviews have suggested this episode plays out like a series of plot devices to get us to that point, both emotionally and mechanically, with Moffat exercising his plotting muscles and interest in exploring time travel within Dr Who, rather than telling a story. Yet Moffat said  the ending of this story – ‘the most important part of any story’ – was written and rewritten many times, to get it right. In public, this has been a mutable story with many possible paths not taken, a story with a public face of having multiple versions in the culture around it.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the episode. I wasn’t expecting any further resolution to the Amy/Melody story, and I enjoyed appreciating it on its own terms. Pacing this year has been interesting.  I loved the opening sequence. Much as I disliked A Town Called Mercy, I admired the pacing, a sense of the story slowing down at key points, for character to unfold. Here to me, the pre-credits sequence felt pleasingly like the beginning of a play. Some found the sequence wasted on a scene-setting mini-story whose characters proved entirely incidental after the credits, but I admire the unusual pacing going on here.

To be honest I feel put in a difficult position by my inability to resist spoilers. Off the top of my head, I was aware in advance of the following elements:

  • the statue of liberty as weeping angel
  • Rory sent back in time by the angels
  • to a 30s/40s setting
  • they filmed in a Welsh cemetery

And so, when considering if these elements were well used, I’m finding it hard to know if my judgement is clouded by knowing in advance, lacking the surprise necessary to judge them on their own dramatic terms. I shouldn’t read spoilers. I think I’ll stop now. I can’t help however in joining the chorus of disappointment towards the use of the Liberty Angel for pure ‘marquee’ effect. the statute of liberty angelThe appeal of the idea I think lies already in it’s audacious popular appeal, but to plonk it into the story without any visible means of support at all? Reminiscent of RTD’s Cyberking in London incident, which Moffat himself took the opportunity of his ‘crack in time’, swallowing both things and the memories of things, storyline to cover for. How is it not quantum locked?

The episode proper presents a classic Moffat time puzzler  The drama’s initial gambit, the kidnapping of Rory and his instant appearance in the book the Doctor is reading to Amy, certainly arrests and intrigues, but, as people are beginning to argue, Moffat’s distinctive use of time travel in Dr Who has a price when the basic rules in the show are so slapdash. The drama’s credibility suffers. While the incident in which Amy reads ahead succeeded for me in heightening the drama of the time paradox the Doctor and Amy had to negotiate. The drama of River’s wrist however, played out as a key emotional  moment in that negotiation, played out poorly because of how poorly it fitted what Amy did read in the book.

How did the Angels fare as a Dr Who monster here? Certainly creepy in a story which returns to their time-active abilities, it took me some time to realise there was no particular plan at work here, just an unfolding of Weeping Angel culture. There was no plot involving the Mike McShane character, no mystery behind who he was or his connection with the Angels and somehow I feel this was a weakness. Once we understand that, we can focus on the angels, the Doctor and co happening to cross paths with them in a city they frequent, and the tension of knowing Rory and Amy will not survive the story, according to contract, serving as the foregrounded plot. This took time to play out unlikely possibilities: Rory being the locus.

So, an angel people farm. Again, great idea but the specifics didn’t bear examination. In an alternative story called The Angels Take Manhatten posited by some fans, the same ideas are rejuggled.  The Statue as a permanently imprisoned Angel, always gazed at by someone in the insomniac city, with the angels out to free her was a Chinese whisper of a ‘spoiler’ trailed before the episode. The only sensible way to bring this about would be blinding everyone, Day of the Triffids style. Another alternative constructed after the episode prefers the Ponds final farewell to occur back in time, say 1969, with the Doctor (from earlier in his timestream, for timey-wimey fans), or perhaps River Song herself, guiding them to toddler Melody, to raise her before sending her on her way to Leadworth.

Yes, there are still people who don’t get it. Melody survived New York because she was programmed to do so. She sought out the young Rory and Amy to be raised by them (in a way), because she was programmed to kill the Doctor, and to give at least some resolution to the whole storyline of Amy having her new born baby kidnapped. That timey-wimey sort of resolution was all we were ever meant to to get. That, along with Amy’s sub-Eastenders declaration to Madame Kovarian in The Wedding of River Song that “Melody’s all grown up now and she’s fine – but I’ll never see my baby again,” resolves the issue as far as the screen is concerned.

The ending came down once more to the theme of Amy’s choice. It’s simplicity and suddenness appealed, her choice inevitable the moment Rory disappeared. She chose the angel, the route to live with Rory, over life with the Doctor. The Doctor was predictably gutted by this, and unfortunately River, who apparently is free to go sort out a publishing contract with Amy, isn’t much consolation. I really don’t understand why she says ‘one psychopath per TARDIS’ as a reason for not joining up with him full time: if it is a joke I don’t get it. Interpersonal relations in Moffat’s Who are…unusual.

Of course, the ending is beautiful, and clever, rewriting the past and resolving a loosethread fans haven’t generally paid attention to: an emotional thread connected with young Amy’s audition of yer classic Brian Hodgson Tardis, all the way back in the Eleventh Hour, on the first night she waited.

This post’s featured image is a detail from a photo in Greenwood, NYC by Tor Johansson