Tag: TV drama

A Doctor Who Post: Thoughts on “Blink” and “Midnight”

This post contains spoilers.

Presumably in celebratory anticipation of the fact that the first lady Doctor is coming to our screens this autumn, the BBC has made all 146 new Who episodes available free on iPlayer.

You guys, that’s three whole series, plus Christmas specials, of David Tennant doing what he does best.

So I want to do something a little bit different this evening, and talk about a couple of new Who episodes I’ve rewatched recently: Steven Moffat’s Blink, and Russell T. Davies’ Midnight. Because I think putting them side-by-side will help me tease out some of the differences between these two writers-and-showrunners, and elucidate why I prefer Davies’ work to Moffat’s.

Blink‘s one of the most famous new Who episodes – maybe the most famous – while Midnight tends, I think, to be overlooked. Everyone remembers the Weeping Angels; hardly anyone remembers that the Tenth Doctor nearly got killed by a bunch of scared, ordinary humans.

Let’s start with Blink, then: a classic haunted house story. A woman called Sally Sparrow (played, astonishingly, by the now internationally famous Carey Mulligan), and her friend Kathy Nightingale go to a creepy old house to take photographs. There’s a knock at the door: a young man bringing a message for Sally, from his grandmother, who died twenty years ago. Her name, he reveals, was Kathy Nightingale. And Sally’s friend has disappeared. Later on, the Doctor tells Sally that she was sent into the past by the Weeping Angels, creatures who can only move when nothing’s looking at them. The rest of the time, they’re statues.

Midnight, meanwhile, is a classic bottle episode. The Doctor and Donna are visiting the titular Midnight, a diamond planet bathed in lethal xtonic light. The Doctor decides to take a shuttle to a beauty spot four hours from the spa where he’s left Donna – but the shuttle breaks down an hour from help, leaving its seven passengers and three staff stranded on a toxic and supposedly barren planet. And that’s when something outside starts knocking.

There are some obvious points of similarity here: both episodes are horror stories; they’re both relatively low-budget; both of them are designed to fit around the filming commitments of the show’s stars. (Blink features the Doctor and Martha for all of about five minutes, while Donna only appears in two short scenes in Midnight.) They both fill a specific Whovian ecological niche.

But they exploit that niche in quite different ways, and that’s what I’m interested in. Moffat, ever a lover of puzzles and schemes and metafiction, turns to Gothic excess and the peculiarly Victorian device of unfolding mysteries through texts – Kathy’s letter, the DVD Easter egg through which the Doctor warns Sally of the Weeping Angels, the scrawled warning on the wall of the haunted house. Moffat externalises (externalises what, I’ll get into in a moment). Davies, by contrast, turns inward: a claustrophobic shuttle, the mounting panic of its passengers, the horror of encountering something that may not be there at all. This, too, is a kind of Gothic: it is Gothic in the way that it refuses to explain its central mystery (was there a monster or not? if there was, what kind of monster was it? what did it want with the humans on the shuttle? and what will it do now, with Midnight evacuated?), in the way it operates through gaps and suggestions and things left half-said.

So what are these episodes grappling with? What demons are they trying to purge through their use of the uncanny and the unseen?

With Blink, I think, the answer is relatively straightforward: this is an episode that indexes our fear of a past we can’t quite see, except in frozen moments recorded in a letter or on film; frozen moments terrifyingly mimicked by the angels’ seemingly inexplicable stop-motion movement. The episode is solved by making the past legible, by joining up the textual fragments – drawing a line from the Doctor losing his TARDIS in 1968 to Sally Sparrow handing him everything he’ll need to know to get it back in 2007. (It’s interesting that Sally herself doesn’t seem to have a past. She doesn’t have a job or a family. She is obsessed with old places, though, and it seems suggestive in this context that the episode ends with a specific nod to the future: when she hands the folder to the Doctor, she takes the hand of Kathy’s brother Larry. Having exorcised the demons of the past, she’s ready to move on to a future with Larry.)

Midnight, though, doesn’t bother with elaborate metaphors. Its stripped-back aesthetic – no special-effects monster, no McGuffins – means we’ve only got one thing to concentrate on: the humans on the shuttle and their rapidly amplifying panic. The horror here comes as much from what these people – normal, pleasant people for the most part, people who generally think themselves decent – are capable of as it does from the possibly-possessed Skye Silvestry (played by the always electric Lesley Sharp).

And, after all, is she possessed? As one of the passengers points out, she’s the most terrified of them all when the shuttle breaks down; she’s recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend. Could her actions be the result of hysteria? Could those knocks have been only rocks falling, after all?

I don’t think this is an interpretation that the episode supports, actually, but the very fact that there’s room for it is an indication that Davies isn’t really interested in the supernatural whys and wherefores of his set-up. He’s interested in human reactions to what we decide is Other, and therefore dangerous – which makes it a pretty interesting episode to watch at this moment in human history.

It’s pretty noticeable that Midnight is generally a lot more inclusive than Blink: Davies’ future is one in which a shuttle hostess’ standard greeting, one she repeats under pressure, is “Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon”; it’s one in which no-one raises an eyebrow at a woman having recently been in a relationship with another woman (although, I am slightly side-eyeing Davies’ decision to make this one queer character the victim of the episode). I also enjoyed the way bombastic Professor Hobbes’ repeated denigrations of his talented assistant Dee Dee were quite clearly gendered and racialised; we’re invited to see his behaviour as selfish, sexist and racist, and that works interestingly with the way the possessed Skye is othered. Blink, on the other hand, is full of manipulative men preying on women in vulnerable situations: the on-duty police officer who asks Sally for her number (we’re expected to find this cute); the 1920s farm labourer following Kathy across the fields after she’s asked him not to (she ends up marrying him); and Larry, who we see at the end of Blink apparently trying to guilt-trip Sally into a relationship (as we’ve seen, he turns out to represent her future). The fact that Moffat clearly sees nothing wrong with any of this is of a piece with his later work on Doctor Who, and as such is not especially surprising. The fact that fandom has collectively chosen to erase this fact (Blink is often trotted out as compensation for all Moffat’s Whovian crimes, “he may be ragingly sexist, but at least he wrote Blink”) is pretty troubling.

On this subject: let’s think, finally, about who the Doctor is in these two episodes. Because in Blink, the Doctor is, basically, a manipulative arsehole, manoeuvring a terrified Sally like a chess piece, keeping vital information from her. He doesn’t tell her, for example, that he’s set the TARDIS to leave her behind when it dematerialises towards the end of the episode; sure, he knows the Angels will be immobilised, but she doesn’t, and neither does Larry, and if the Angels are scary on our screens can you only imagine what they’d be like in real life? And what about the people he sends forwards in time to warn Sally? They have to get to her the hard way, without time travel, waiting all their lives just to get a message to her – and all, ultimately, so the Doctor can get his TARDIS back. Why can’t he transport these lost travellers back to their own time?

In other words, the Doctor treats people like puzzles, or pawns, things to be moved around for his own benefit. Which is also, I think, how Moffat treats his characters: think of the Impossible Girl, the Girl Who Waited; they’re puzzles for the Doctor to solve, not people in their own right. They’re bits of plot.

Whereas Davies’ Doctor in Midnight is interested in everyone as a person. He spends time chatting to each of his fellow passengers and finding out their stories (apart from, notably, the hostess, who remains pointedly unnamed). He’s even interested in what the monster wants, and in how he can help it. Sure, he’s not perfect – “I’m clever!” he says, desperately, as his fellow passengers begin turning on him – but look at how the very structure of the episode interests us in each of these characters, and encourages us to see them as the Doctor does, as complex people. The biggest tragedy in Midnight is for someone to have their voice coopted by someone – or something – else.

And, again, I think that focus is reflected in the rest of Davies’ work for Doctor Who: it sees people as complex, baggy, not always thoroughly good and not always thoroughly bad. I’m not, of course, saying that Davies-era Who was always a masterpiece of subtle characterisation, because it wasn’t. It was a monster-of-the-week science fiction show, sometimes glorious, sometimes silly. But it had as its founding ethos the idea that everyone deserves respect as themselves, as unique and interesting and human – which sometimes means cowardly and weak and stupid, and sometimes means being capable of great sacrifice. And it was that which made Davies’ universe bigger and wilder and more wonderful than all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-ness Steven Moffat ever came up with.

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Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The City & the City Review: Beszel

Look! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

I mean, I don’t like The City & the City very much; to me it falls into the group of Mieville’s work that I find dour and affectless (also in this category are Kraken and The Last Days of New Paris).

But! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

It makes sense that it would be The City & the City. Its brand of noir detective story, a cynical investigator struggling against an indifferent and grey-hued world, is common to practically every new TV show that the BBC makes these days. So the familiarity of protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlu is doing, investigating the death of a young woman in possibly tawdry circumstances, offers viewers a way into the strangeness of Mieville’s premise.

Said premise is this: there are two cities, shiny, neoliberal, rich Ul Qoma; and shabby, poor, vaguely Central European Beszel. They occupy the same geographical space – some streets are in Ul Qoma, others in Beszel, and there are some dangerous “crosshatched” areas that are both. Their separateness as cities is maintained by the culturally specific practice of unseeing: there is a powerful taboo against the inhabitants of either city seeing or acknowledging the physical presence of the other city. To break this taboo is to bring down the fearsome and unaccountable organisation that is Breach on the heads of everyone in the vicinity.

One of the things this first episode does very well (I thought so, anyway) is establishing the force of this taboo, the centrality of it to the cultures and the lives of the cities, and how unthinkable it is to most inhabitants of the cities to break it. There’s a great scene near the beginning where an Ul Qoman car swerves into the path of the car of our protagonists, who are in Beszel:

“Did you see that?!”

“That Ul Qoman red car? No, I didn’t!”

Let me qualify that “very well”, actually: I think the dialogue is more effective than the camera work, which signifies the practice of unseeing by blurring out whichever city our inhabitants happen not to be in. This is fine. It does the job. But, and this I think is generally my problem with the whole episode, it flattens the conceptual complexity of Mieville’s unseeing. It does all the work for us, which is very much the opposite of what Mieville’s fiction is generally aiming for. It has all the content and none of the style.

Perhaps necessarily. This is television, after all, and exciting as it is in theory to contemplate Mieville on screen, I’m not sure it’s the right place for him to be: so much of his work is specifically about challenging our reading strategies, about wordplay, about genre conventions. There’s no way for a visual medium to recreate the conceptual richness of novels like Perdido Street Station, or even Railsea.

Perhaps, also, it’s unfair to compare the TV show with the novel, given the differences between the two media. I can’t escape that comparison, though, when the only reason I’m watching The City & the City is because I happen to think the novel’s author is one of the best SFF writers (and writers of the radical left) around today.

So maybe my response is predictable. It’s the same response I have to every first episode of every gritty crime drama I’ve ever watched.

I didn’t mind it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with the rest.

Class Review: The Lost

Yes, I finally got around to watching the final episode of Class, about two days before it got taken down from iPlayer.

Yes, it took me a whole year to watch eight episodes.

Anyway, The Lost is where some of the narrative threads writer Patrick Ness has been toying with all season get wrapped up; where Our Heroes have to reckon with what they value most and what they’re willing to sacrifice; where, in other words, This Shit Goes Down.

The episode sees the Shadow Kin return and start killing people’s parents willy-nilly. Will Charlie finally use the Cabinet of Souls to destroy them and his people both? Will April escape from the bond between her and Corakinus, king of the Shadow Kin? Will Miss Quill go batshit crazy?

I was disappointed with The Lost, truth be told. Like preceding episode The Metaphysical Engine, it dumps all the careful character work the series has been doing – that lovely and very YA intertwining of the SFnal and the real – in favour of Stuff Happening. So much Stuff Happens, in fact, that, as in many, many Moffat episodes of Class‘ parent show Doctor Who, the emotional clarity of the whole is lost. There are about five different endings, in the course of which pretty much every character sacrifices something the series has established as emotionally important, even fundamental, to them; each ending is of course meant to Finish Things Once and For All, and invariably doesn’t. (Incidentally, this inability to conclude, er, conclusively crops up in a lot of SFF blockbusters nowadays, and by God it’s irritating.)

What’s more, the episode pulls its punches; most of those sacrifices end up meaningless, because the promised consequences don’t materialise. That doesn’t just ruin the episode; it ruins the entire series, which has from the start, and radically for relatively mainstream SFF TV, asked us to take its characters and their decisions seriously and realistically. That’s one of the effects of wrapping the SFnal up with the real: it signals that this isn’t a monster of the week show, but that these are real people with real emotional lives, people who have to live with their decisions.

Except now, they don’t.

There are reasons for this undoing. It’s clear that Ness and the production team expected there to be a second series, so any truly game-changing developments were out. Which doesn’t change the fact that there were other ways to write the episode without completely undermining the entire emotional foundation of the series. Other mysteries that have not yet been unravelled, and now probably never will be. Who are the Governors? What will happen when Quill has her child? Will April patch things up with her father? And so on. It’s a real shame that Class has been cancelled – but it’s even more of a shame that its last hurrah is so emotionally empty.

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

Class Review: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did

This review contains spoilers.

I quite liked the premise of The Metaphysical Engine, the penultimate episode of Class, but I also think it’s the least successful episode so far. It suffers considerably from the absence of its usual teenage ensemble cast: it’s set concurrently with the events of Detained, showing us What Quill Did while the ka-tet were busy trying not to murder each other. You’ll remember that, in Brave-ish Heart, Governor and Coal Hill headteacher Dorothea Ames promised Miss Quill that she’d remove the arn, the creature keeping her enslaved to Charlie, from her brain, in return for her help killing the carnivorous petals. The Metaphysical Engine sees Miss Quill, Dorothea and a shape-shifting alien called Ballon embark on a quest to get the things they’ll need to achieve this. The titular engine, it turns out, is an unstable alien technology that transports its users to fictional places – in this case, Ballon’s hell, Quill’s heaven, the birthplace of the arn and the Cabinet of Souls.

Unlike the previous episodes, in which the emotional development of the characters is pretty much inextricable from the SFnal plotlines, the quest structure of The Metaphysical Engine is essentially a backdrop to Quill’s journey; it’s really only a series of plot coupons designed to put the characters into extreme situations. (This approach reminds me much more of Moffat-era Doctor Who than it does of the generally more character-driven Class.) Although there’s still something of an emotional arc to the episode – Quill becomes more sympathetic as she befriends fellow soldier Ballon, who is himself imprisoned – it feels hackneyed and cheap. The ending, in which she’s forced by the Governors to witness the death of Ballon, the man she’s become increasingly attracted to, seems particularly egregious: why would the Governors go to such effort to remove the arn from Quill’s brain only to let her die? It’s just an excuse to damage this already traumatised woman still further; it adds nothing to her story, except, presumably, to drive the stakes of the last episode up.

It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of the money saved by making Detained a bottle episode went on The Metaphysical Engine, given its extensive special effects. I think Detained is very possibly a perfect episode in its own right, and it certainly didn’t need a higher spend; but it’s ironic that it should be better than an episode that cost twice as much to make. Hopefully the final episode, The Lost, will mark a return to form.

Class Review: Detained

I enjoyed Detained; I don’t have much to say about it.

The sixth episode of Doctor Who spin-off Class (which, no, I haven’t managed to finish watching yet), it’s a classic example of what Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge helpfully informs me is known as a bottle episode. Miss Quill puts the entire ka-tet into detention for mysterious reasons of her own, locking them into a classroom and stalking off in the way that only Katherine Kelly can. So, when a meteor smashes through the rip in space-time and propels the locked classroom into another dimension, there’s not much anyone can do about it: Our Heroes are trapped with a meteor that a) makes them irrationally angry with each other, and b) forces anyone holding it to confess their deepest darkest secrets. The episode follows them as they try to work out what has happened and how they can escape, without killing each other (or at least destroying their friendship, which when you are a teenager often feels like the same thing) first.

This is very simple storytelling; but I actually prefer it to the contrived, convoluted plotting of shows like Doctor Who, because its very simplicity allows it to make its character development explicit rather than subtextual. And character development is something Class does very well, especially for its genre. The storytelling in Detained may be simple, but its characterisation is anything but; it’s rare to find anything in SFF that’s this interested in group dynamics, in relationships under pressure. (I’m reminded, a little, of Firefly, which also shoves a found family into a confined space, with consistently interesting results.) I particularly like how Detained leans on the two romantic relationships in the series, revealing the cracks in them, showing up the fact that what seems like uncomplicated love is actually an agglomeration of more complex emotions: fear and insecurity and resentment among them. This is kind of an important message for YA as well as for SFF; too often in both markets we get romances that are a fait accompli, unbreakable and straightforward, when real-life relationships are hardly ever anything like that.

And how lovely is Tanya’s point that “We all feel like the one who’s left out, the one who the others can do without”? And how important is it that Charlie, the alien prince in charge of a hugely powerful weapon, has claustrophobia?

The BBC announced last month that Class has been cancelled after disappointing viewing figures. That’s a real shame, because there’s so little SFF – TV programmes, films or novels – that does half of the work Detained doe