Sunday, October 26, 2014

In the Forest of the Night - "There are wonders here."

In the Forest of the Night - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 10 (Overall Series Story #255) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Beat That For a Date


If last week celebrated Banksy, this week, we knew we were in for at least a bit of a cap tip to William Blake when we saw the previews, which included a tiger, and put it all together with the title.

THE TYGER (from Songs Of Experience)
     By William Blake 
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Here's the thing, I'm no Blake scholar, and I'm liable to come precariously close to sounding a fool trying to put the pieces together, but here goes. If it were only the title, and there were no other links to Blake or his works, then we'd say "In the Forest of the Night" was a cap tip and nothing more. But Clara and the Doctor encounter a tiger in the forest. And there's the Doctor's monologue about an acorn planted in 1795. (Because I went googling around trying to brush up in advance of this episode, I had 1794 in mind as the publication date of Songs of Innocence and Experience.) That acorn in 1795 being the tree in the middle of London in the present, in time to save the Earth, and that tree being a sort of time traveler by having a little bit of 1795 in it ... that's, effectively, Doctor Who arguing for saving the world by looking to William Blake. As sure as I'm only nibbling around the edges of the significance, I've a pretty fair idea where to turn for guidance ... and where not to *koff* reddit.

Sure enough, as much as the vast bulk of fandom seems to have loathed this story, our man Dr. Sandifer thought it fantastic. I've done the whinging about the science, recently, and over time where the classic series went apeshit bungling it, but what Doctor Who is doing these days, and especially this week, is something completely different from science fiction -- this is not extrapolating from current knowledge and theory to some future we can use to look more deeply at our lives, our society now. This is science fantasy (and maybe just fantasy), pulling from old myths to tell a fable. All that fairy tale stuff that was getting to be a bit much when Eleven was our Doctor, it's never gone away, and the fairy (or faerie) is very much at the heart of this story's plea that humanity be less fearful and more trusting.

One of the other connections to Blake, and one I couldn't have made without reading around, was that Blake's writings were inspired his visions and voices he heard. In the story, we've got Maebh hearing voices, and (sonic screwdriver wavey-wandy) receiving a vision in a clearing in the forest. Give her her tablets so she stops hearing the voices, that's how everyone -- save the Doctor -- responds to her. But we're forced to compare her to Blake here and wonder, would the world have been better off if Blake had been treated by the physicians of his day to quiet the voices he heard?

Now, here's where I worry about DW possibly getting in over its head. In some cases, we do want to help people not hear voices the rest of us don't hear. Whether they are able to articulate a plea for help or not, when the voices tell people to harm themselves or others, I'm not against society saying that person needs the best available help we can offer to prevent harm. A facile reading of this story might yield the conclusion we shouldn't treat mental disorders. I'm not sure that's the correct reading; if it is, I'm inclined to say that's not a tenable position. Acknowledging we're not very good at it, we should at least try be trying to get better.

Time and again while writing these posts, I've lauded those stories where we're reminded to have brave hearts, to approach the world with compassion and trust. This story is clearly, explicitly, and in full knowledge of its agenda, saying that this is what Doctor Who is, this is why the story is being told: To save us from the fearful side of our nature so we don't destroy ourselves and the world.

It may not seem like it, but I don't only write about Doctor Who on this blog. One of the other great influences on my imaginative life is the collected work of Kim Stanley Robinson. Apart from writing brilliant novels and stories, Mr. Robinson makes some fairly pointed arguments in interviews and in his public speaking. One of the arguments he makes frequently is about our future on Earth -- and it may seem to be in stark contrast to the visions of the future he puts to paper: he acknowledges that our technology almost certainly will continue to make tremendous, rapid progress, but the constraints of the laws of the physics, confine humanity to our solar system. Forever. And, within our solar system, there is no other planet on which we can expect to live and thrive apart from the one we're on.

When he writes about terraforming Mars, he's writing science fiction. It's sci-fi with a useful lens to turn towards our activities on Earth. We are terraforming the Earth, but we are doing so in a way that it is going to render it hostile to our continued existence because we refuse to grow up and deal with the effects of human-driven climate change. We must find a way to deliberately, reasonably, shape our society (our governments' policies, our lives) so that we can continue to live on Earth. I'm straining here to draw two parallels between disparate styles of storytelling, two narratives that are informed by different ways of looking at history and storytelling, and offering two different (but, crucially, not incompatible) solutions. Stan's embraces the scientific method, suggest we act based on reason, conduct experiments, be bold in the quest for solutions, but remain clear-eyed and honest with ourselves about what it's going to take to effect change. Doctor Who is asking us to embrace a more imaginative, fantastical worldview and to live bravely with each other's mad genius, to trust one another to do what's best. I see one trying to open our minds so our hearts can be guided with wisdom, the other trying to embolden our hearts, so when we find the wisdom, we're ready to pursue the path it shows us.

So the question is, does Doctor Who do the latter well? I take it as a premise that the ends are good, so the question is about the means. Do these sorts of fairy tale inspired stories, un-moored from science fiction and the usual rigors the genre entails, fit the aim of the story? And, if we say they do, are the elements of the story put together coherently, executed well enough to lead the viewer down the path the storyteller intends to take us?

Yes, I think stories like "Kill the Moon" and this one using storytelling techniques that suit the moral of the stories. It's in the execution that the stumbles occur. But, they're stumbles don't take us off the path. TV as a story-telling medium has been around long enough that we've gotten pretty good, as viewers, at identifying when constraints of format and budget have forced attempts at hand-waving keep the narrative on track, and under the 45 or so minutes allotted. That's not to excuse them, only to say certain flaws are understandable.

The haters are getting this one wrong though. They're missing the thematic forest for the problems with the trees. And, yes, there are problems with the trees. Conceded. The science of trees springing up to protect the world from a solar flare, then disappearing in puff of fireflies is, of course, no science at all. And if you're trying to put it in that box, then of course it's not going to fit. We don't criticize fantasy literature for using magic; criticizing DW for magicking up the science is misunderstanding what mode of storytelling it is using and applying the wrong standards to judging it. Or, they're getting it and dismissing the thematic elements as inadequate. But if you opine that this was the worst Doctor Who story since "Fear Her," without so much as mentioning Blake in the reasons for your assessment, then I'm afraid you haven't tried hard enough.

(Oh, and there's another reference that clicked on third watch which I haven't seen anyone else mention yet, but I think firmly cements this as a faerie story. Maebh Arden sounds like a name that means something, one chosen for a reason, but the pronunciation obscured what I now think was. Mercutio's speech in Romeo and Juliet: "O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you ..." Maebh is a variant of the Irish name Medb, which I've seen as possible source of Shakespeare's naming of his faerie Queen Mab, who has the power to craft dreams for sleeping humans. A forest popping up and covering the world, filled with wolves and tigers, and little girls in red jackets running from those wolves, who are in turn running from a tiger, feels very much like a sort of dream logic. Maebh is the key to this story, the one who delivers the message to humanity that the trees, of which she had first dreamt, must be preserved. Now, the last name I'm not able to place, but I hear Arden and think of the Ardennes, the site of WWI and II battles in the forests of Belgium where the British Empire sent tens of thousands of men to die.)

Having just finished reading Master & Commander, I've had at least some exposure to how Admiral Nelson fits in the British psyche. The statue that the forest tumbles, nearly crushing the Doctor and Clara, that's of Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, for which the square is named. Wonder why the camera panned down to show the statues left arm broken off? Nelson lost an arm in a naval battle. It may not speak to the international audience quite so directly, but I expect this was picked up on by the British audience and resonated in a way it simply couldn't for us outside England.

Got to admit I thought it was an odd decision to let the camera drift down and linger on the statue's broken arm on first watch, it wasn't until I decided it must have been done for a reason that I went to check on why. But that's back to my point that I find so much of the lambasting this episode has taken frustrating, because so much of it is so glib. It's so obvious, the redditors moan, this is a terrible episode. But reasons either aren't offered, or when offered are often either wrong (the Doctor didn't "do nothing," as so many have complained -- now whether setting Maebh up to make the call to the whole world worked dramatically or not, that's fair to criticize, but I think we were supposed to imagine the planned defoliation campaign would have undercut the trees' ability to absorb the shock of the solar flare), or focused more on ticky-tack complaints that don't bear the weight of the condemnation. Child actors are what they are. Some are better than others. This lot are not the worst I've ever seen. Nor are they the best. Maebh's arm-waving while running looked, well, like a child actor told to wave her arms around while running, not like she was trying to brush away little faeries she didn't understand. But, I don't blame the young actress for that. A better to film that should have been found, perhaps by showing us her perspective and cutting it against what everyone else saw?

The harshest critics of "In the Forest of the Night," based on what I've seen (again, that's mostly on reddit or at gallifreybase) aren't demonstrating that they've tried to dig in to why the story has tried to weave Blake, faerie elements, and an apparent tearing down of the idols of Empire, into story based on dream logic. "There wasn't enough technobabble to make the trees scientifically plausible," strikes me as saying the same thing as, "We weren't spoon fed enough of the story that we could make any sense of it by simply recalling trivia from past episodes."

Not all the criticism can be easily dismissed, I don't mean to imply that, only that the hatred of this episode doesn't look like it tried very hard to find meaning in the symbols, or address the mode of story telling as appropriate or not for the moral.

One thing we all seem to agree on though ... how about that preview for next week?!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Douchebag The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For?

Douchebag: The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For — Human Parts — Medium

Douching is not only an anti-feminist practice pushed by male corporations on women using shame and insecurity as a weapon, but it is almost certainly dangerous to a woman’s health. And therein we find the link between the medical appliance, the outdated practice of feminine hygiene, and the white men we recognize today as “douchebags.” They are both, it bears repeating, useless, sexist tools.
It's a well-argued case for using "douchebag" to mean the blinkered, entitled fool who mansplains that his white male privilege ring should be kissed in every circumstance, while denying the ring exists.

That said, I'm not entirely comfortable with the article ... though I guess it may be my "liberal guilt" insisting that the proper authority for what the proper designation of this specific sort of asshole is should not be a white male professor?

Meanwhile, in post-racial NC ...

Bias in the Box | VQR Online:


“We have this whole system that has been corrupted by decades of admitted inequality and unfairness when it comes to the management of cases involving African-American defendants,” says Bryan Stevenson, a New York University Law School professor and founder of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, who was one of several national figures who applauded the North Carolina reform. “A lot of the bias and discrimination that people perpetrate in these systems is the kind that we perpetrate because we’re not actually aware of what it means to be biased and discriminatory. It’s not overt. I’m not saying anybody hates African Americans. I’m not saying they want to see lynching. They have undeveloped understandings of the ways racial bias manifests itself and plays out in the system of justice. They’ve thought very little about it.”
They're encouraged to think very little about it. In fact, they're encouraged to be dismissive of the idea it's even possible. Ask Bill O'Reilly.

It's hard to have a productive discussion about a problem almost nobody wants to admit, or is even capable of admitting, is a problem in the first place. Harder still when the moneyed interests that do know there's a problem don't see it as a problem, but as the natural order of things.

Everybody recognizes the apoplectic face of white supremacist thinking when they see it. When it's upstanding citizens in suits and ties, educated professionals, and otherwise non-threatening, reasonable-looking folks lying to themselves first, and then to society at large, about their ideology ... it becomes invisible to the people who aren't direct victims of it. The devil doesn't exist, so it's no trick us being convinced it doesn't. But evil is real, and it's greatest trick is hiding in plain sight, in the blind spots we all have that illusionists know how to exploit. No devils, but bad, bad men.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Flatline - "What are you a doctor of?" "Of lies."

Flatline (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #254) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Capaldi or else


Well, for those of us open to it, we (sort of) got our female Doctor tonight. Clara made an excellent Doctor; did goodness really have nothing to do with it? Is this more Moffat slight of hand? We were told we were getting a darker Doctor, but is it a darker Clara we're really seeing? At the end there, Missy seemed to be putting her stamp of approval on that idea.

It's saying something that the episode that had the stink of "Fear Her" (people trapped in drawings, the drab council estate setting) on it yields the following as my biggest complaint: Missy is monitoring Clara on an effing iPad?! That's the tech they're using in the Nethersphere, is it? Look, it's one thing for Clara to have an android phone, she's a contemporary human. Missy is a powerful enough entity to bring the dead back to life (apparently) and insert Clara into the Doctor's (apparently) while running a ... whatever a Nethersphere is. And the tech she uses is an iPad? That took me straight out of an episode I'd enjoyed tremendously to that point and made me think Apple greased the right palms to get that in there.

(I'm not even saying there's no place for product placement. A character drinking a Diet Coke, or taking a Tylenol for a headache doesn't have to be a distraction -- done right it's less of a distraction than some poorly designed fake brand-a-like, or the obvious attempt to hide a brand -- but having an iPad be part of some presumably futuristic, presumably alien villain's tech is pretty low.)

Apart from that, this one successfully shook off the taint of "Fear Her" by scrubbing itself through some "Web of Fear" tunnels and 2D to 3D conceptualization I'd probably be able to make a clever Flatland allusion to, if I were doing better on my reading -- it's on my kindle, I just haven't gotten round to it and with the latest Sandifer book out and already getting overdue notices for the copy of Master and Commander I've got out from the library it's still a few weeks off at least -- but instead have to make do with a reference to the aesthetic of A-Ha's "Take on Me" video.

So, this is the first Doctor Who set in Bristol and guess who's from Bristol: Banksy. I may be thick and have the cultural awareness of someone who comes up with an A-Ha video when they need cultural touchstone for discussing 2D creatures, but even I can spot when DW is celebrating a graffiti artist by putting a graffiti artist character with a similar name in a story set in that famous artist's home town and giving the character based on the artist a crucial part in saving the day. This is much more satisfying to watch then the sledgehammer Look At This Effing Genius And Give Him His Due approach that's been employed a bit too often by DW in the past. (Looking at you, "Vincent and the Doctor," for one ... )

Speaking of sledghammers, the Doctor passing Clara one from inside his tiny TARDIS inside her purse is one of my favorite comedic moments of the season so far.

This continues the streak of there not being a single episode yet this season that I didn't enjoy. There've been a few rough moments, sure, and I'm not putting this one up there with the all-time gems, but it's a solid entry with an intriguing monster and the Rigsy-as-Banksy tribute thing worked for me, so I'm still on the Series 8 Is Shaping Up To Be The Best Series Of Who Ever So Don't Tank It With A Shite Arc Resolution Moffat Train.

Speaking of trains, this new writer, who's penned the last two stories, should we suspect he's got a thing for trains?

Stray Observation:

Hmm. This may not be the first time Banksy has inspired Doctor Who?

Revenge of the Cybermen - "Who's the homicidal maniac?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Revenge of the Cybermen - Details

Season 12, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #79) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Mira-Sophia
Oft-maligned, not without cause, but an enjoyable watch nonetheless. Yes, we have to acknowledge this is not a well-thought story. Why the Vogans, knowing that gold is kryptonite to Cybermen, don't use the gold that is literally underfoot when it comes time to fight Cybermen instead of sticking with their useless firearms, which are only effective for killing one another, is beyond me. And, oh yeah, when you're being invaded by Cybermen, maybe you deal with them before getting back to shooting at one another? Priorities.

We also never really get the sense Vorus or Kellman were properly called out and held accountable for the murder of all those people on Nerva Beacon. Sure, they both end up dead, but Kellman gets a redemptive death saving Harry during the rockfall and Vorus is only shot when he tries to fire his rocket before the agreed upon time. Vorus, had he exercised a little patience, was still expected to be a political force in the upcoming Vogan elections, despite being a mass murderer.

Harry, I'm afraid, doesn't come across very well in this one either. His blundering nearly kills the Doctor a couple times over, and he's ditzy enough that he can't remember what the Cybermen are called?  No wonder Sarah is so impatient with him throughout. He's written out at the end of the next story, "Terror of the Zygons," so perhaps this was laying the groundwork for making sure he wouldn't be missed. It's a shame, Ian Marter had great screen presence and didn't need to be written out like a third wheel.

Anyways, with all plot holes and unsatisfying character arcs, there's ample reason to be down on this story, yet I'm not and I'm trying to give credible reasons why I still enjoy it, but it comes down to surface-level pleasures that ignore the problems. The Vogans are interesting looking and I actually like the fact that one of them has a cold for no plot-significant reason; the location filming in Wookey Hole gives this story great atmosphere (as well as some genuinely chilling -- Lis Sladen's near drowning -- and goofy anecdotes); and the Cybermen are back for the first time since "The Invasion" seven years earlier. They won't be seen again until "Earthshock" seven years later. (There's a Seven Year Cyber Itch joke in there somewhere ...) The Cybermen are a bit of a joke and the Doctor skewers them for it. I love that one of the series' iconic monsters are basically perennial losers and have to hear it when they come 'round making trouble. "You've no home planet, no influence, nothing. You're just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship," the Doctor tells the Cyber Leader. And he's right. And that's OK.

When the episodes are in tatters, at least the cliffhangers are well done. When they get those right, it erases some of the bad taste of the silly bits in between. Crucially, Tom Baker's in fine form with that infectious smile and plenty of opportunities to needle the baddies. Sometimes, even when things go wrong, you get lucky and it works out anyways. For instance, it's not meant to be funny, but the cyber neck massage the Doctor gets from that Cyber Leader when he returns to try to rescue Sara from the beacon is one of those moments you've got to rewind and watch again to revel in.

Following "Genesis of the Daleks," and sharing superficial similarities -- two opposing factions each trying to destroy the other from their fortified positions, one side having a bit of a civil war, the return of an iconic foe, a rushed attempt to get a giant rocket ready to solve things once and for all -- this one was bound to suffer by comparison. Not helping this story's reputation, I suspect, are some lingering hard feelings about it being the first to come out on VHS, so we all watched the shit out of it and really had to face up to it not being coherent while wishing a better a story had been chosen as the first home video release. If Tom Baker doesn't look like he's having fun, then this probably slips below the line and become unwatchable, even for me. And maybe that's all there is to it, I like this story because it's Tom Baker, my first Doctor, and he's on form so the failures can be largely glossed over.

Left overs:

What is it, anyways, with Cyberman stories and planets/asteroids drifting around the solar system?

That Vogan crest sure looks familiar ...

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