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.

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

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

So: on Sunday I visited the Barbican’s exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction” (which is excellent, by the by, and produced a few fangirl moments for me). One of the things the exhibition makes abundantly clear is the extent to which science fiction is a genre rooted, problematically, in colonialism: its roots are in Jules Verne-y tales of imperial adventure, in which Western gentleman scientists visit the unexplored corners of, say, Darkest Africa, and find dinosaurs and strange monsters to be conquered or exploited for the good of Queen and Country.

We can situate Doctor Who in this tradition, too. (Oddly, the exhibition skips almost entirely over Doctor Who, possibly because it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.) The Doctor is a white, straight man, usually old, who flies about the universe in a 1960s police box which these days symbolises Britishness.

That is, he may be canonically a Time Lord, and thus country-less; but in spirit he is definitely British. He flies around the universe, sight-seeing, exploring, boldly going, ands generally sorting out other people’s problems for them. He’s much too civilised to fight, and avoids doing so by outwitting his enemies using his technological superiority. He also Knows Best, most of the time. He is, in other words, a manifestation of a particular fantasy of British superiority over everyone else, ever.

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

There’s often more to Doctor Who than that, of course, but that’s the basic template. Or a basic template, at any rate.

I’m interested in making this overt, in relation to The Doctor Falls, because I think that Steven Moffat’s finale to the Twelfth Doctor’s escapades and his own involvement with Doctor Who is engaged in deconstructing a lot of what makes the show what it is.

For instance: isn’t it interesting that this final episode takes place on a colony ship? And not just any colony ship, either: it’s a ship that’s become stuck (outside a black hole) before it even managed to pick up its colonists; the colonialist project, mankind’s conquering of space, frozen and stagnated before it’s begun. Not only that, either: because the colonists begin to turn on themselves, enhanced human Cybermen fighting “normal” humans (and look how those humans are constructed as American pioneers, which is to say colonialists, in dress, architecture and outlook) in a spectacular self-destruct which the Doctor sees as inevitable in any human society. (Wherever there are humans, there will eventually be Cybermen.) That’s a self-destruct of the show’s underlying ideology of colonialist exploration, of technological superiority, of progress. Even the Doctor is cut off from his TARDIS, the mode of transport that defines who and what he is.

This ideological dissolution of the show’s Whoishness is compounded in other, smaller but not less significant ways. Look at the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode: another kind of stagnation that undoes the very essence of what the Doctor is, a palimpsest of personalities made up of hundreds of often contradictory episodes. (The show has the man’s name on it, after all.) Look at the Missy/Master side-plot: Moffat squanders the narrative potential generated by the Master’s appearance at the end of World Enough and Time by having the Doctor foil his plan almost immediately, so that the Master is reduced to purposeless, sterile evil, destroying his future self to prevent her standing with the Doctor. The parallel with the ending to The Last of the Time Lords only accentuates how the mighty is fallen: from a plot that stretched to the end of the universe and back in that episode to petty, self-involved irrelevance that destroys its own future.

And, finally, look at the dissolution of the little ka-tet that has formed the core of this season of Doctor Who. Nardole is left behind on the dying colony ship, fighting a war he cannot win. (I wonder if Moffat actually realises that this is what the Doctor has done by taking the TARDIS to Antarctica? Even if Nardole and the colonists make it eventually to the bridge, they will be unable to leave.) And Bill, pointedly and significantly, leaves the Doctor behind; escapes into a new relationship and a new mode of being which is anti-colonial, insomuch as it specifically excludes the paradigm of the white straight male explorer. This step into the future is pretty much the only note of hope in the entire episode. Having comprehensively dismantled the ideological framework of the show, Moffat gestures at what might come next – something very different, something that breaks Doctor Who and remakes it again.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the wake of World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that the next Doctor might be female; and plenty of ambivalence as to what that might mean for the show. It’s clear, I think, from this episode that a female Doctor would represent a symbolic end for Doctor Who – that is, an end to the colonialist and misogynistic ideological structures on which it’s implicitly built.

But would it, as Andrew Rilstone asserts, mean that the future could only ever be female, lest a male replacement seem to imply that a female Doctor is inferior?

I think it depends on what incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does with Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who. I think, from here – from that image of Bill and Heather stepping into the sky together – it’s possible to imagine a reconstruction of the show, with a woman at its centre, that’s inclusive enough, that’s anti-colonial enough, that it opens a way for the Doctor to be any gender, or none, without the implication that any of them are inferior; a reconstruction that exists outside the need for such logics. It’s also possible to imagine Doctor Who continuing much as it always has done: with a female Doctor who cannot help but be compared to her male predecessors.

It remains to be seen, then, what the ultimate “meaning” of Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who will come to be – whether it creates a new future for the show or just represents a creator at the end of his tenure wrecking things for his successor.

Class Review: Brave-ish Heart

It’s always difficult to talk about Class episode-by-episode, because it’s so much less a monster-of-the-week show than Doctor Who is. Unlike its parent show, its individual episodes all feel like they make up part of a coherent whole; which makes it tricky to identify the work they’re doing individually.

Still. Brave-ish Heart is another charming episode – if just a little overburdened with the teenage earnestness the series has so far managed to leaven with its ironising self-awareness. Having crossed into the realm of the Shadow Kin, April, supported by her love interest Ram, attempts to defeat Corakinus once and for all; while, back on Earth, Dorothea Ames (Coal Hill’s new headmistress, you’ll remember) tries to manipulate Charlie into using the Cabinet of Souls to destroy the flesh-eating petals menacing the planet – a course of action which Charlie believes will end all chance of resurrecting his people.

It’s complicated being a teenager.

In all seriousness, that’s exactly Class‘ project: rendering the emotional lives of its teenage protagonists as literal struggles against literal dragons. Certainly, the symbolism of April’s story couldn’t be more overt: the land of the Shadow Kin is a (sorry) shadow-realm in which April can act out, and thus resolve, her feelings about her father’s controlling influence over her life and her emotions.

It’s perhaps troubling that, in Class as in many YA narratives of its type, this struggle is transmuted into a specifically violent one – although it’s hard to think what other metaphor the show might use. But April’s violence is at least treated ambiguously: there’s a fine line, the episode seems to be saying, between righteous anger and toxic rage; between defeating your enemy and killing them. I’m not sure that ambiguity completely addresses the fact that dealing with your issues through violence – even metaphorical violence – is pretty unhealthy, but it’s more than a lot of narratives of this type are doing.

Charlie’s storyline, meanwhile, is more nuanced, and a better example of what makes Class really stand out. It uses a science fictional conceit – flesh-eating petals – to talk about issues of genocide and revenge, Big Themes that are nicely juxtaposed with April’s personal struggles. Charlie’s seen the murder of his people: will he use his weapon of mass destruction to take revenge on the race who did it (who also happen to be the Shadow Kin, obviously) – thereby dooming humanity to death-by-petal – or to save another race? It’s not a storyline that works through metaphor; it’s a discussion that can literally only work in science fiction (or conceivably fantasy).

As I’ve said before, I think what’s at the heart of what makes Class work is the fact that it switches between metaphorical and literal modes of science fiction. It recognises the potential SF has to encode emotional truth, but it can also use its SFnal conceits as if they’re real. This flexible approach, I think, allows the show to address some of the emotional issues that the genre at large tends to skate over. Although individual storylines can be a bit hit-and-miss (as I said above, April’s fight with Corakinus is just a little too over-dramatic), the series as a whole has a heft to it, as a result, that Doctor Who never quite manages.