Tag: period drama

Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

The eighth episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who, The Haunting of Villa Diodati takes us, along with the Doctor and her fam, back to the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, where Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr Polidori are playing happy families. Arguably the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is about to be born out of unseasonable rain and a night telling ghost stories. It’s one of the most famous house parties in literary history.

Except that when the Doctor and her companions rock up on the doorstep, the group is more interested in dancing than storytelling. The tale’s Gothic horror kicks up a notch when the characters start seeing ghosts and a disembodied skeletal hand starts rocketing through the corridors. Rooms loop back on themselves so it’s impossible to leave. And where is Percy Shelley, anyway?

It’s in this episode that we first meet one of the major villains of the series finale: Ashad, the “lone Cyberman” prophesied by Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon. Except he’s not quite a Cyberman: for reasons we’re not yet privy to, half his helmet is missing and he still feels the emotions that Cyberman technology usually suppresses – giving us a cyborg who’s much more uncanny than your standard issue Cyberman. In the episode he’s presented as the inspiration for Frankenstein’s creature, but I think he’s also speaking to our own anxieties about the permeable boundary between technology and the human: his un-Cyberman rage, his lone-wolf attempt to restore the race of the Cybermen and his rejection of the kindness and sympathy Mary Shelley offers him all have something of the radicalised white supremacist about them. And where does such radicalisation come from? The internet, of course; endless racist screeds colonising young men’s minds, creating rage-fuelled cyborgs determined to defend whiteness from a non-existent sea of threats.

In true Gothic fashion, placing the symbol of this anxiety in 1816 both distances it and makes it more troubling: on the one hand, it’s temporally distant from us, placed in a Gothic pastiche that’s rendered unthreatening by its familiarity; on the other hand, Ashad’s presence there, as well as the presence of the thing he seeks, is changing history itself (altering the inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein) and threatens to alter it further by causing Percy Shelley’s death six years too early. (To stretch the metaphor a bit, consider how internet white supremacy is linked to acts of historical revisionism like Holocaust denial.) And the threat Ashad poses is not successfully contained: he escapes, with the knowledge of all the Cybermen contained in the Cyberium, which Percy Shelley has unwittingly been hosting. The Doctor has to make a choice between Percy Shelley’s survival and the thousands of lives a regenerated Cyberarmy might claim: a choice we might characterise as one between the individual and the collective. The Doctor makes the Romantic choice, favouring the individual genius (Shelley) rather than following the utilitarian principle of securing the greatest good for the greatest number; but it’s a choice that leaves Ashad at large, the anxiety he embodies unresolved and uncontained. Here we see, perhaps, the Romantic ideal breaking down, its emphasis on individualism revealed as dangerous and imperfect – depending on how compelling we find the Doctor’s assertion that Percy Shelley’s death in 1816 would be worse for the future than allowing Ashad to rampage through it.

This Great Man theory of history is one we’ve seen a couple of times in Thirteen’s run (as well as in Doctor Who more generally), most notably in last series’ Rosa – which is where I want to pick up on another Thirteen trend, that of spotlighting notable women in history. The focus of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is initially on the truly remarkable Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein as a pregnant, unmarried teenager, as well as the equally unmarried Claire Clairmont, who in the episode recognises the narcissism and selfishness of her lover Lord Byron and decides to throw him off (sadly not something that really happened); that its Great Man turns out to be Mary’s lover Percy Shelley, who though he may have had a substantial impact on Western thought has not received anywhere near the popular and critical attention that Mary’s work has, does a disservice to both these women and the generally more inclusive bent of Thirteen’s series.

Having said that, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, though imperfect, is probably one of the best episodes in the series so far, with its Gothic creepiness and its array of well-written female characters. It’s also meaty enough to reward close engagement, with its use of Gothic and Romantic conventions, which I haven’t particularly found to be the case with other episodes this series. There were things which annoyed me ideologically about it (namely the prioritisation of the individual over the collective and the shift of focus from Mary to Percy Shelley), but overall it was a fun watch and a relief from the general pacing errors that have plagued series twelve.

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

Film Review: Colette

Literally the only thing I knew about Colette before we went to see it was that it was about a bi woman living in The Past. SOLD.

As it turns out, it’s a biopic of the French author Colette; or, rather, a Kunstlerroman, a story about how Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, country girl from Burgundy, became Colette, Nobel Prize-nominated author and socialite.

As such, it’s focused on her first marriage, to Henry Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”). Colette‘s Willy is something of a scam artist: he employs people to ghostwrite articles and novels under his own name, and he soon gets Colette writing a series of slightly lewd novels about a schoolgirl called Claudine. The film revolves around their fraught relationship, Colette trying to outmanoeuvre her controlling, manipulative husband and get some control over her work and her identity.

It’s compelling stuff: the script manages to convince us both of Willy’s general vileness and of his specific charisma; we’re desperate for Colette (who’s played by Keira Knightley) to leave him even as we can see the reasons why she might stay. But what really made the film for me was its depiction of Colette’s queer relationships: a fling with Georgie, a rich Louisiana debutante (played with a truly awful accent by Eleanor Tomlinson, who, distractingly, I last saw in teen romcom Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) and a romance with trans man Missy, a Russian marquis.

Like: this film is so unabashedly, unashamedly queer! This is a relatively mainstream historical film – starring Keira Knightley, currently one of the most bankable actors in the entire world – which features a bunch of non-titillating queer sex, a kinda-sorta-open marriage (although Willy is pretty jealous in a double-standards kind of way) and a scene in which one character corrects another about someone else’s pronouns. And what’s great about all of this is that it’s so matter-of-fact. It’s not a film that’s About queerness. It’s a film in which people just happen to be queer. As many people are.

It makes no bones, though, about the fact that Colette, Georgie and particularly Missy’s queerness is only tolerated because of their social class: Georgie and Missy are both fabulously rich, and even financially straitened Colette is plainly middle-class at the very least. And even for them, tolerance only goes so far: when Colette and Missy perform on-stage together as a couple they experience a torrent of homophobic and transphobic abuse, and their nascent mime show fails as a result. In the same vein, it’s worth noting that as far as I remember, everyone in this film is white. Which is disappointing: representation is not a zero sum game!

Still. I’ve already recommended Colette to several people this year, and I’ll probably go on recommending it, because its queer representation came so utterly out of the blue. More like this, please!

Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.

One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.

It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)

That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.

This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)

Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.

Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.

The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.

I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?

To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.

(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)

That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.

Doctor Who Review: Rosa

So my thoughts about Rosa are…complicated.

In the third episode of new Who‘s eleventh season, the Doctor and her friends end up in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, the day before a Black woman named Rosa Parks is due to be arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white person. They discover that a far-future white supremacist by the name of Krasko (“I don’t like it,” declares the Doctor) is trying to stop her protest, and thereby prevent the entire civil rights movement from happening, by nudging history so that the infamous bus driver James Blake is on holiday, the bus is broken, there aren’t enough people on the bus for Rosa to give up her seat…and so on.

The actual logistics of the episode get a bit tedious, as Krasko and Our Heroes try repeatedly to foil each other, with varying levels of hilarity. There’s also a tendency for things to happen in a way that makes an (important and interesting) narrative or structural point, that nevertheless don’t make sense in the Doctor Who universe as I think we’re supposed to understand it.

For instance: the Doctor’s apparent lack of awareness about how segregation worked in Montgomery, despite her being able to reel off encyclopedic facts about Rosa Parks’ life in the episode, and despite the fact that one of the Doctor’s main functions is to know stuff that keeps their companions safe. Twice she takes Yaz and Ryan into unsafe situations – a bar and a motel – and at least in the first instance is surprised at the hostility they receive from white staff, customers and police.

This is a way for writers Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (whose novel Noughts and Crosses has been used to teach young adults about racism since forever) to demonstrate the Doctor’s white privilege in a way that sets up the episode’s denouement, in which she and Graham realise that as white people they have to become complicit in Rosa Parks’ arrest. We see the Doctor as clueless about how segregation actually affects people of colour, because it’s never affected her personally. She doesn’t fully appreciate the immediate physical danger her friends are in because she’s brought them into white-only spaces.

And I do think that’s a clever thing to do with the Doctor, with the concept of the Doctor as this all-knowing supreme being: show up their cultural specificity, their blind spots as a white person. But this is such a famous historical moment. And the Doctor apparently knows Rosa’s entire biography! I feel like those two things, the Doctor’s historical knowledge and her cluelessness when it comes to the spaces her friends can safely inhabit, sit uneasily together.

And Chibnall and Blackman’s view on how history works feels a little off-base. The episode very much takes up the Great Person theory of history: the idea that just one person! doing something extraordinary! can Change the World! The truth is more complicated than that: Rosa Parks’ protest did not come out of a vacuum. She’d already been involved with the NAACP for twelve years. Even if she hadn’t refused to move on 1st December 1955, she might well have done so another day. Or the NAACP would have found another symbol to rally behind. Rosa Parks is important because she was an ordinary person, and she did protest, at significant personal cost. But she is not the only person who could have done so.

But then: I am white, and I am inevitably reading Rosa through a white lens. There’s a sense in which Rosa is not necessarily for me; in which it prioritises viewers who aren’t white; which is not, of course, a bad thing. One of the episode’s most powerful moments has Ryan in the same room as both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King: there’s this palpable sense of wonder, of Ryan’s delight and amazement at being part of a history that is his in a way that, say, Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst might be part of mine. It’s a history tied to his own family – to Grace, his dead grandmother, for whom Parks and King were personal heroes – and so, fundamentally, to his identity. In that context, we can perhaps read Rosa Parks’ specific actions that specific day as, in fact, vitally important to the narrative of the Black people who came after her; in trying to take that away, Krasko is perhaps destroying a foundational myth, an identity.

Generally, then, Rosa centres people of colour, relegating its white characters to positions of cluelessness, discomfort or complicity (hence, perhaps, my own discomfort at seeing the Doctor powerless to protect her friends from discrimination). I’m not sure, but that feels like something the show has never done before. In Rosa, Chibnall and Blackman position the civil rights movement as part of a long arc of justice and progress, of things slowly getting better for everyone. That might not be where the world is going right now, but it is at least where the show is going. And that’s a really lovely and really exciting thing.

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Doctor Who Review: The Eaters of Light

I’m really not sure about The Eaters of Light.

On the one hand: what a fantastic name – a name to go along with a fantastic symbolic set-up.

On the other hand: I think it has to muddle its moral world somewhat to get to that set-up.

It’s the second century AD. The Doctor and Bill have rocked up in Scotland to settle an argument about what really happened to the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire (which, to save you a trip to Wikipedia the Font of All Knowledge, disappears from surviving Roman records round about 120 AD). The Doctor thinks they were destroyed by the Pictish army. Bill believes they escaped. They separate, and tramp off in search of clues for their respective hypotheses. This is, as we know, always a good idea in a mysterious historical time period.

After a deal of mild peril and a foray into local folklore, it transpires that the Ninth were destroyed by the titular Eaters of Light: interdimensional locusts, as the Doctor dubs them, clustering Lovecraftianly at cracks in space-time, ready to come into our world and eat the sun. For three generations a local tribe of Picts have held the interdimensional gate against the Eaters, using a temporal trick of the gate to extend their lifespans – a couple of seconds within the mound that houses the gate amounts to a couple of days outside it. But the current gatekeeper, a young woman named Kar, has let one of them through, to destroy the army colonising her country. This, obviously, is A Bad Thing, and the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan to lure the creature back to its dimension.

There is one excellent scene which I would like to commend to your attention before I start complaining. Temporarily trapped with some deserters who are all that remain of the Ninth Legion, Bill comes out to Cornelius, the Roman soldier who’s obviously interested in her In That Way. “This is probably just a really difficult idea,” she says. “I don’t like men…Just women.” “Ah! You’re like Vitus, then!” Cornelius chirps, unperturbed. “He only likes men!” Cornelius himself is (what we would think of as) bisexual: “I’m just ordinary. You know, I like men and women.”

I just want you to think about that for a minute.

This is a prime time, popular science fiction show.

This is a show that spent last season punishing its strong women and blithely ignoring its vaguely racist undertones.

This is a show whose first episode this season made the lesbian love interest a literal possessive alien.

Not only is it now giving secondary characters non-heteronormative sexualities for non-plot reasons, it’s also doing the conceptual work to recognise that our sexual norms are culturally specific; further, that our assumptions about historic sexual norms basically erase non-normative people from history. (I don’t know enough to say whether Romans really thought bisexuality the norm, but it doesn’t seem hugely unlikely.)

And it’s doing all this in a two-minute throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

This is brilliant.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t extend that conceptual work to the bits that actually are plot-relevant. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the episode knows where it wants to get to: the Ninth Legion and the Keeper of the Gate, Romans and Picts, fighting the Eaters of Light, together, forever. Music under the hill, for those to hear as will listen. The crows, remembering down the centuries: “Kar! Kar!” Very Celtic. Very pretty. Very mythic. It’s just that, to get there, it has to do some painful-looking moral contortions.

The Eaters of Light picks up the theme of desertion from last week’s episode, Empress of Mars. Here, at least, Bill says to the Roman soldiers what we instinctively felt she should also have said to Captain Godsacre last week:

You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human.

But, you know, I think that sentiment would probably have meant more if the soldiers of the Ninth hadn’t redeemed their desertion, narratively speaking, by sacrificing their lives in an eternal fight against monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions; just as Captain Godsacre redeemed his past desertion by laying down his life in the service of a warrior race. So The Eaters of Light has the same problem as Empress of Mars: it co-opts the ideological structures of colonialism, invisibly, to make martial endeavour and sacrifice the “right” atonement for deserting the colonial project.

And, speaking of colonialism: the Doctor’s treatment of Kar, the Keeper of the Gate, struck me as deeply patronising and unsympathetic. Here is a woman – hardly more than a child, actually, but still – who has lost many of her people and much of her land to the Romans. Sure, she did release an interdimensional locust on the unsuspecting Earth – but then the Romans sent an army of five thousand to kill some Scottish farmers, as Bill puts it. The point being: none of the Ninth Legion ever get the kind of condescension and scorn the Doctor unleashes on Kar, who is, after all, de facto leader of her people. And the Ninth Legion are colonisers. Ultimately, the best answer the Doctor has for colonialism is “you’re all behaving like children, get over it,” which would seem to apportion blame equally to colonisers and colonised. This is, self-evidently, stupid.

The most egregious contortion the episode makes, though, is when the assembled cast start to discuss who’s going to guard the gate from now on. The Doctor points out that he is functionally immortal, compared to puny human lifespans; he can literally guard the gate forever.

Now, the moment he points this out the episode has written itself into a corner. Because, according to the logic of the story, this is actually the most sensible and the most moral course to take. The universe will be protected from the Eaters of Light for eternity, and the Picts won’t have to sacrifice themselves, generation after generation, any more, which is really what the Doctor is about. But the Doctor obviously can’t go and stand in a Scottish cairn for the rest of his eternity, because for one thing the BBC still has lots of perfectly good money to make from him.

The episode can only get itself out of this corner by making one of its characters do something, well, out of character. And because the Doctor is the Doctor and therefore an untouchable moral authority, it’s Bill who’s made to do the same thing she did at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World: to whit, sacrifice a world – a universe, in this case – for love of the Doctor.

To put it another way: this smart, empathetic, deeply morally engaged character thinks the Doctor, after ten episodes, is literally worth more than the universe.

“This isn’t your fight,” she says to him, weakly, ignoring the fact that the whole point of Doctor Who is him getting involved in fights that aren’t his. And when she says “this isn’t your fight”, what she’s actually saying is: it’s these people’s destiny to sacrifice themselves. Let them die in a strange universe – despite the fact that you could defend the universe better than they could.

I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect. I think this was hasty writing designed to bring about a specific ending, an undoubtedly resonant combination of symbols. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode fundamentally weakens Bill’s moral authority as the Doctor’s companion, as well as our perception of the Doctor’s moral judgement. It doesn’t work. And that’s a shame.

Doctor Who Review: Empress of Mars

First reactions to popular media can tell us a lot about what the work is trying to do, and also, if we can look beyond them, whether it succeeds.

Which is a pretentious way of saying: I liked Empress of Mars. In fact, my first thought after the closing credits was: “That worked!”

This episode is the much-anticipated One With The Ice Warriors. Briefly: when present-day NASA discovers that someone has written “God Save The Queen” on Mars, despite the fact that to their knowledge no human has been there yet, the Doctor and Bill go back to 1888 to investigate. They discover that an Ice Warrior awaking on Earth has persuaded a unit of the British Army – which, in true colonialist style, has called him Friday and made him a kind of pet servant – to travel to Mars in an Ice Warrior rocket, under the pretence that there are unfathomable riches there. In fact, Friday has returned to Mars to wake his Empress from a five-thousand-year sleep. This is, unsurprisingly, bad news for the British Army, who haven’t yet worked out how to get back to Earth, and moreover are disinclined to back down, having claimed Mars for Queen Victoria.

In other words, Empress of Mars is old-school Who, to go with its old-school monsters: a scenario with more than a whiff of the ridiculous about it; an old-fashioned science fantasy mystery; a stand-off in which the Doctor must intercede to avoid violence. It’s neatly plotted, with a finely-adjusted mix of sentimentalism and plausibility. It has characters we can root for, or at least understand, on various sides of the conflict. It works.

We should be cautious, when something works as well as this does; because a lot of narratives that feel like they just work at a fundamental level feel like that because they’re based on familiar, nostalgic narrative structures. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something we need to be aware of in encountering these texts; because it means that popular media can lie to us quite efficiently, looking superficially benign, neutral, even progressive, when in fact the assumptions of the underlying structure are deeply suspect.

So: Mark Gatiss* has given us an episode that feels very  Victorian, ideologically as well as aesthetically and thematically. It’s tempting to make comparisons with Thin Ice, the other historical episode of the season; but Thin Ice  did not actually feel very Regency, and was moreover actually aware of the unfairnesses inherent in the class system in a way that Empress of Mars emphatically is not. The emotional meat of Gatiss’ story is the power struggle between commanding officer Colonel Godsacre, a sensible man who nevertheless turns out to have been a deserter, and the technically loyal but hotheaded Captain Catchlove. Godsacre is outed as a deserter, and Catchlove takes control; it surprises no-one that Godsacre turns out to save the day.

It’s a predictable story, but then most Doctor Who episodes are when it comes down to it. What’s interesting about Empress of Mars is the way that it makes Doctor Who – a show that’s usually deeply mistrustful of traditional authority, especially military authority – co-opt the colonialist military values of the late Victorian period. The superior officer turns out to be morally superior, while the lower ranks are busy endangering the unit by trying to steal gems from the Ice Queen’s hive: officers are intrinsically worthy of command, soldiers intrinsically need to be commanded. Moreover, the episode is pointedly silent on the issue of Godsacre’s previous desertion, and in fact rewards him for symbolically undoing it – offering his life to the Ice Queen for the sake of his men in a gesture which turns out to be the key to the whole situation. By its silence, the episode supports the Victorian concept of desertion as a capital crime – a concept unquestioned even by Bill, who has developed over the course of this season into the progressive voice of the twenty-first century. Note: we have no details of exactly what Godsacre did. Did his troops die for his cowardice? Presumably the episode would have mentioned it if he had. And yet we’re supposed to make a moral judgement of him based only on the label “deserter” – a moral judgement that’s specifically Victorian.

I don’t think this necessarily has to spoil the episode for us. It is, after all, a non-trivial achievement to write something that so thoroughly enacts the mores of the time period it’s about; and it is a very well-structured episode of Doctor Who. But this season in particular seems to be feeling its way towards a more progressive vision for the show than I think we’ve seen yet in Moffat’s run, and I think it’s worth looking closely at where that works well, and where that throws up structural inconsistencies.

Next week: more historical high jinks, in what looks like Roman Britain. Hurrah!

*I just looked up the writer of the episode, and it surprises me that it’s Gatiss; his episodes are usually not so…coherent.

Top Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I think this is actually already a TV series – I mean, I doubt there’s a single Dickens novel that isn’t – but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it. It’s almost a truism to observe that Dickens is perfect for a TV series’ episodic, sprawling structure – certainly Our Mutual Friend needs more space than a film can give it.
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I had to think about this one a bit (and it’s never going to happen in any case, the Tolkien Estate being notoriously tight-fisted with the rights), but it’s an episodic narrative with a vast cast of characters and a number of narrative strands. It would be like Game of Thrones but without all the rape.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. I cannot imagine any TV producer being brave enough to take on Perdido Street Station, with its particular brand of squicky violence and unromanticised reality, but I wish they would. The pulpy plot elements, the rambly narrative, the overbearingly Gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon? Yes, yes, yes.
  4. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I don’t know why, I just think the high-speed zaniness of the graphic novels would transfer well to TV. (Maybe like Doctor Who but without all the sexism?) It makes a lot of play with different kinds of pop culture and the role they play in public dissent, too, which would be interesting to consider in a TV show.
  5. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, there’s a lot in Pynchon that couldn’t be captured visually, but that’s the case with pretty much everything else on this list too. But I can see a TV version of Bleeding Edge playing out like Dirk Gently, almost.
  6. Paradise Lost – John Milton. What? Paradise Lost would look fantastic on TV, all fire and brimstone and war in Heaven, and it has some pretty compelling characters too. If you can have Shakespeare on TV, you can have Milton.
  7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Yes! It would be like Firefly but with aliens and fewer guns.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. I just read this, and it would make a terrible film but a great TV series (though I suppose it’s quite short). You could do a lot with the city of Palimpsest itself, and intertwining that with the characters in the real world would work really well on TV.
  9. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. You know what would be good? A Twilight Zone-style anthology series featuring Asimov’s short stories, which all have that kind of conceptual twist you got in Twilight Zone episodes, when it turned out the person narrating the story was dead or something. Obviously, not that tone of twist, but structurally it’s the same thing.
  10. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. All the Regency society manoeuvrings are like a soap anyway. It would just have dragons in it too.

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