Tag: horror

Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

This review contains spoilers.

Well, the space zombies were not actually as bad as I feared. We’re not in the-moon-is-an-egg territory yet.

Oxygen is a horror story whose ultimate villain is capitalism. Following a distress signal, Bill and the Doctor find themselves on board a mining space station whose crew is nearly all dead – killed by their own spacesuits. Those intelligent spacesuits are now hunting down the survivors, taking their dead occupants along for the ride. So: space zombies.

At root, Oxygen is satire. Its conceit is that, this far out in space, oxygen is enormously valuable; so the corporation running the station supplies oxygen “for personal use only” – through the suits, rather than filling the station up with air. If the workers aboard the station want more oxygen, they have to buy it. Capitalism at its most efficient! It’s an exaggeration of the kind of financial logic that makes budget airlines charge you to check in. And the Doctor’s ghoulish conclusion at the end of the episode is that the suits (there’s a wonderful play on words that equates the spacesuits with “suits” – the accountants, lawyers and compliance officers popularly equated with The Man, and popularly portrayed as zombified by such allegiance) are murdering their occupants to save money – the crew have become unproductive and are to be replaced by a fresh one, and what’s the point of giving idle hands valuable oxygen? (And that sentiment feels chillingly Victorian, or even Trumpian.)

I think the episode’s power as satire, though, is diminished by its failure to understand capitalism as a truly overarching social system. I am aware, by the way, that this is but an episode of Doctor Who and I cannot expect it to do everything; but I do think there are a couple of ways Oxygen could have gone to be a little less…mendacious about capitalism’s power.

The moment of the episode that really sticks out to me here is the moment – in many ways the emotional crux of the episode – when Bill’s spacesuit malfunctions, anchoring her immovably to the station floor while an undead horde approaches. The survivors try to carry her, but are informed by the malfunctioning spacesuit that this is “an illegal move”. “Health and safety”, one of the survivors explains. It’s funny and makes a kind of sense against the satirical framework of the episode up until that point, but, crucially, makes no sense when the solution to the spacesuits’ behaviour is revealed: why would a company so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s prepared to kill its workers care about health and safety? Health and safety doesn’t exist because it’s intrinsically good for companies; on the contrary, it gives rise to a hell of a lot of paperwork they could probably do without. Health and safety exists because legislation has ensured that it potentially costs a company much, much more in damages not to do it. But, if this is a company that can, again, kill its workers (and I definitely read this as a systematic practice, not an isolated incident), then surely we can assume that no such legislation exists any more?

My point is, I suppose, that, far from being the party-pooping capitalist gremlin it’s popularly imagined to be, health and safety legislation is actually a quite astonishingly effective way of making sure that companies don’t kill people wantonly any more. And Oxygen‘s failure to recognise that is surely a failure to imagine capitalism properly.

The other moment that takes the wind out of Oxygen‘s sails, so to speak, is another throwaway line, this one at the end of the episode: the Doctor tells Bill that the upshot of the events on the mining station is that two of the survivors go to “head office” and make a complaint. And so ends capitalism.

What?

I mean, this underestimates capitalism’s ability to defend itself to an extent that’s actually laughable. And, again, it’s supremely easily fixed. Perhaps the company folds, and everyone sees that killing people in the name of efficiency is not good for the brand. Perhaps the legal battle stretches on for years, and in the end new, far-reaching legislation is put in place.

But the conclusion “and they all lived happily ever after” is one that doesn’t even make sense for Doctor Who‘s moral universe, and it certainly isn’t helpful for the project of the episode. The way out of capitalism isn’t whistleblowing alone; it’s years and years of legislation, of hard work that isn’t monetised, of sustained political activism. We can start at whistleblowing, certainly. But that’s not where we’ll end. And, generally, the Whoniverse tends to resist such easy answers.

At a micro level, then, there’s a lot that’s good about Oxygen: apart from the satirical elements I’ve mentioned above, the Doctor has a great line about being responsible for bad stuff:

You know what’s wrong with this universe? Believe me, I’ve looked into it. Everyone says it’s not their fault. Well, yes, it is. All of it. It’s all your fault. So, what are you going to do about it?

Which to me looks like a recognition of the state of complicity that capitalism puts all of us into; although the Doctor is feeling guilty about leaving Bill behind to be potentially zombified at this moment, so I think there’s a possibility that this line unhelpfully conflates capitalist complicity with the Doctor’s patriarchal god complex. Still.

At the macro level, though, Oxygen doesn’t quite do enough work to give itself real teeth as a satire. “The Doctor against corporate greed” has been done a number of times before (see, for example, Sleep No More, which even had a similar industrial spaceship setting), as has the link between zombies and capitalism. The latter’s practically a trope now, in fact. Oxygen is a better episode than Knock Knock; but it’s not exactly good, either.

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?

Top Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the trilogy that launched a thousand imitations, but no-one’s really tried taking on The Silmarillion. No-one who’s succeeded, anyway. It’s not really a novel, because it doesn’t really have characters. It’s not a fictional history, either – it’s too self-consciously literary. It’s a fictional myth cycle, and I’ve never heard of another one of those.
  2. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. Oh, House of Leaves! A real puzzle-box of a novel, a horror story about the treacherous power of story, one that thinks about the intersection of text and space, the uncanny and the unheimlich, in such a fascinating way. It’s almost a literary essay in its own right.
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. This is kind of impossible to place in any particular literary tradition. It’s definitely not realism, but it’s not quite fantasy either; by turns deeply, claustrophobically psychological and almost absurdly Dickensian in its caricature. It’s precisely that indefinability that makes it so interesting, though.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is quite recognisably literary fiction; but unlike most literary fiction I’ve read, its approach to the big questions in life feels specifically shaped by literary theory. It’s also bewitchingly charming in a way that I can’t quite pin down.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very unusual indeed: sixties SF that’s formally innovative, eschewing scientific infodump in favour of sensory affect and literary theme.
  6. Evelina – Frances Burney. Evelina is a gem. Published in 1778, it’s a novel about a young woman coming out into society. It mixes sensational melodrama with sharp social comedy in a way that’s really quite interesting, and revolutionary, too, for a woman writer in the 18th century.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I still haven’t read anything like the first few books of the Dark Tower series, with their apocalyptic dream-sequence landscapes, their uncanny echoes of our world; and I don’t expect I ever will.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Each of Valente’s novels is different in theme and setting and approach, though they’re tied together by her approach to myth and story. Palimpsest isn’t my favourite – that would be Radiance – but it is the one I most wanted to savour: its meaning unclear and becoming ever more multiple the more you think about it.
  9. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This was another surprisingly literary SF novel, one that plays with the inherent metafictional tendencies of SF to say something about science fiction and about reality.
  10. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. This is interesting because it talks about the intersection between science and culture, a theme that doesn’t crop up too often in SF. Also, feminism!

(The prompt for this post came from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Things on My Bookish Bucket List

  1. Get a novel published. I mean, I have no intention of stopping at one if I can help it. But one is a start. One is the doorway.
  2. Have my own personal library, i.e. a room that is just for books. This is a goal that is very much for when I am Grown Up and am living in more than one room. I mean, you don’t really need a living room, right?
  3. Own one of Jay Johnstone’s Tolkien paintings. Like, one of the big oil paintings with a commensurately big price tag. They are gorgeous: very different to how Tolkien’s work traditionally gets represented visually, but at the same time instantly recognisable as Tolkien art. It would go in my library.
  4. Get a reader’s card at the British Library. You’re only supposed to use the BL’s collections if you can’t find the text easily elsewhere. So I need a good excuse to do some proper primary text research – which would, in itself, be very cool.
  5. Write a long research piece about how buildings and texts work in the Gothic. I did my undergraduate dissertation on “breathing buildings”: how crumbling Gothic piles take on lives of their own and threaten the reader as well as the characters. It had Freud in it. I got a First for it and I feel like I have so much more to say on the topic – so whether it’s a Master’s dissertation or something else, I definitely want an excuse to do some more work on it.
  6. Know more about book binding. Ever since I read Inkheart at age 12 I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who can look at a book and go, “Yes, that is a classic Coptic binding with oak boards,” or whatever. I went to a British Library conservation day the other week, which was fascinating, and I need more!
  7. Meet, have a book signed by or otherwise interact with China Mieville. Mieville is probably the one author I would fangirl at meeting. (Terry Pratchett would have been, too, but alas, that chance is gone forever. I have a birthday card signed by him, though. It has a cat on it.) Not only is he a stupidly clever fantasy author, he is also really quite attractive.
  8. Watch the upcoming film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and pray that it is not terrible. I’m seriously nervous that it’s not a straight adaptation but an alternative take on the series – that could be a great decision, or…not. Plus, they seem to have cut Susannah? And Eddie? And Oy? This teaser poster, though. I approve.
  9. Read all of Saga. I think I got to…about #5 and stopped? This one is probably dependent on finding a library that has the volumes in it.
  10. Make one of the projects in my Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. This could be tricky as I am terrible at sewing – and, indeed, anything requiring more than a modicum of hand-eye coordination. I want to try doing a bustle skirt, though.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Popular Authors I’ve Never Read

  1. E.L. James. And I’m fairly sure I don’t want to: it’s so saturated into popular culture as a Trashy Book (not to mention Rapey Book) that I wouldn’t be able to look past the trashiness (and the rapeyness).
  2. Jim Butcher. I’ve sort of vaguely been meaning to read the Dresden Files for a while now, and I will! Eventually! When I forget that the last person who recommended them to me also expressed admiration for Orson Scott Card and surprise that a woman might be able to write space opera. Awkward.
  3. Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is one of those things which I sort of always mean to pick up but which always seems less interesting than other things in the shop. One day.
  4. Ursula K. LeGuin. I know that she is one of the founding mothers of modern fantasy, but I’ve never felt very drawn to her work. Sorry.
  5. James Herbert. Nuh-uh. I cannot deal with horror stories. Unless they are called House of Leaves or written by Marisha Pessl. And sometimes not even then.
  6. Jodi Picoult. It’s just not the genre I read in, or have any particular interest in reading.
  7. Cassandra Clare. I mean, Clare is quite infamously a plagiarist, and her books sound very extruded-fantasy-product-ish.
  8. Franz Kafka. I will read Metamorphosis one day. Probably.
  9. Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s on my mind because of the Tournament of Books, really. There is a small chance that I will read Purity, but I probably won’t.
  10. Lois McMaster Bujold. I will start the Vorkosigan saga this year! I do believe in fairies!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Worlds I’d Never Want to Visit

  1. Future Earth – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. The Earth is fucked, everyone spends their time in a video game and whitewashing is the solution to oppression. Yeah, no thanks.
  2. Panem – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.  Panem is a place of massive inequality, a system designed so that it’s near-impossible not to become complicit in the murder of children. Even the revolution is morally compromised.
  3. The silo – Wool, Hugh Howey. Another oppressive world, designed to keep its citizens in check. (Pesky citizens.) Pretty much every right you can think of is compromised: reproductive rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement. Again: no thanks.
  4. Orthogonal – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. Misogyny! Treacherous biology! Extra-dimensional danger from the skies! All that bloody physics!
  5. End-World – The Gunslinger, Stephen King. It’s a world that’s literally winding down: echoes of our own world lie scattered amongst the desert dust. There’s just nothing any more to look forward to, except death, and the mountains.
  6. Umayma – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Another desert world, this one in the throes of a holy war that’s gone on for so long no-one can remember why they’re fighting. And, let’s face it, I would be crap in a battle. Also, everything runs on bugs. Eurgh.
  7. The Wild West – Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente. Rich, racist colonists? Dusty, filthy ruby mines? Woods full of bears? Sounds great! /sarcasm
  8. Kingsport/Arkham/Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft. I think the Dreamlands would probably be quite interesting – if they even allow women in – but in Lovecraft’s Massachusetts you can barely move for haunted houses, weird fishy things from the depths of the sea, night-ghasts, witches, sinister aliens and fungi from Yoggoth. And then you die. Or, more likely, go mad.
  9. The Solar System – Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Probably the only remotely interesting thing about this book was its depiction of over-population: the packed public transport, the domes on Mars and the moon where people live crammed together, the ratcheting international tensions. Smelly, crowded and busy – and nowhere to escape to.
  10. The Solar System – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Again, this solar system is a massively overpopulated one, with the vast crowds of the poor living in fragile plastic bubbles orbiting the sun and prisoners used to make asteroids habitable for the rich. I mean, what is there to visit?

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

2016 Roundup

Lord. It’s the beginning of a new year again.

2016 was a better reading year for me than 2015. It had to be, really, given everything else that went on around the world.

And so, without too much further reflection: let’s begin.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2016

As always, these are things I first read or watched in 2016, not necessarily things published or released in that year. How organised do you think I am?

TV: Class: For Tonight We Might Die. Class just edges it over the last episode of Firefly because it was such a surprise to see a Doctor Who spinoff that actually cared about its characters and that treated its SFnal premise with something like respect. I’m hideously behind on the series, but I’ve every intention of catching up. Eventually.

Film: A Midsummer Night’s DreamRussell T Davies’ luminous and magical version of Shakespeare’s play gave me an emotional hangover for days: joyful, hopeful and inclusive.

Book: Railsea – China Mieville. A story of deserts and giant moles and people who live on trains and salvage and stories, all woven up with Mieville’s militant socialism and vibrant intellect. And that ending

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2016. Three days of pure and unadulterated geekery. What else is there to say?

2016 Reading Stats

  • I read 72 books in 2016 – the same as I read last year, and one fewer than I was hoping to read, thanks to a miscalculation last week. So close
  • The longest book I read was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which needs, oh, less than half of its 766 pages, I’d say. Tied for shortest were Saga‘s second, third and fourth volumes, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which in contrast deserved every page they had. Overall, I read 26,492 pages in 2016 – down from 27,390 last year.
  • The oldest book I read was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, first published in 1911. The average age of the books I read in 2016 was 16 – lower than last year’s 25.
  • Genre: I read 30 fantasy novels (42%), 17 SF novels (24%) and 6 “literary fiction” novels (8%) – although, obviously, take that latter category with a pinch of salt. Also: four thrillers, three humour novels, two historical, one horror (House of Leaves) and one “classic” (The Secret Garden). So I obviously slid back towards genre this year.
  • I read 19 YA novels (26%) – an increase on last year.
  • 21% of the books I read were re-reads – a slight increase on last year’s 19%, but not a disastrous one.
  • And, finally, my favourite statistic: 58% of the books I read in 2016 were by women – an improvement on my goal of 50%!