TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – There’s an Yssgaroth in my Tortilla: Notes on “Against Nature”

Writer’s note: I wanted to do a fun, short article about a cool Faction Paradox book I’ve read and it turned into this mastodon. Whoops. This might be a bit of a tough one if you’re not familiar with the book, sorry – partly because a lot of it was made from my reading notes, this is less of a regular article and more of an academic dissertation that doesn’t really introduce you to the subject and rather goes about dissecting it straight away. So yes, spoilers, spoilers everywhere, and also no context whatsoever. Don’t worry, I’ll write something a lot less cryptic next time – but also, I mean, I had a blast doing this. You should get onto that Faction Paradox thing, honestly. It’s fun.


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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Under the Silver Lake, the Bones of Gods: the Horrors of the Production Pipeline, Doctor Who and Faction Paradox

i. AN OWL WOMAN TOLD ME I WAS FUCKED

Under the Silver Lake is an American movie directed by David Robert Mitchell, which came out in 2018. It’s left, all things considered, a surprisingly small impact on the general consciousness. That’s probably the curse of coming after Mitchell’s own It Follows, one of the most impactful and best-rated horror movies – movies period? – of the decade. The difficult sophomore album.

It’s not like it’s hard to see why. It Follows is a tight, crisp screenplay: it uses ambiguity and the traditional trappings of Todorov’s teleology of the fantastic genre in a very savvy way, coasting on them without losing the audience. The mood and concept sketch out the outlines of the message well enough that you won’t feel dissatisfied by some grey zones. On the other corner, you get Under the Silver Lake, which delights in how obscure it is. I mean, it pulls out the Violent Femmes in its trailer, a band that made more than a few unlistenable songs on purpose, just to fuck with its audience, so that’s got to be a sign. The move from horror to the weird Lynchian-Pynchonesque wanderings probably didn’t help either, although that does give a solid angle to start tackling the film properly. It’s really not all that different from It Follows, actually, it’s just that the perspective is changed. That one was about interpersonal dynamics, and their toxic potential, taking form into an alien entity carrying its own system of rules and codes that the characters had to follow to survive. Here, the system isn’t an emanation of the characters, but rather something they are trapped within, incapable of understanding in any real way. A diptych of alienation, in a way: on one hand, the self and its secrets, on the other, the capitalist nightmare.

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GUEST POST – Adventures in Narrative Substitution #7: “Oxygen”

by Christa Mactire

[Revised 26/03]

This week’s entry is going to be a little more personal than most, since it deals with capitalism and I live in a country that is basically capitalism on steroids, the for-profit entity known as the United States of America, ruled by the President, Donald Trump. You might have heard of him. I’m not much of a fan, to put it mildly.

With that said, let’s talk about Doctor Who and capitalism. While the show has always had something of a penchant for standing against corrupt regimes since at least “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, its history regarding economic systems is a little more thin on the ground. 

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GUEST POST – “Kerblam!”: Can Unethical Art Be Good?

by Mark Laherty

Last month, Elizabeth Sandifer (no introduction needed in this neighbourhood) had a self-consciously nuclear take, one that she says expresses a core truth about her aesthetics: “Kerblam! > Rosa.” She continues, “I’d rather art be effectively distressing than poorly soothing.”

What’s going on here? Well, Sandifer is expressing her position on ethics in art, not for the first time. I’m going to argue against her on this (not, to be honest, with a view toward changing her mind, which I think would be quite a lift, but hopefully I can change someone else’s mind) by going through some of the academic discussion in film and philosophy studies about the relationship between the two. Can a moral flaw make an episode of TV worse? If so, would it necessarily make it worse, or could it possibly make it better? I will be working under the assumption that everyone who reads Downtime understands defending capitalism to be a moral flaw and that we all agree that it’s possible for art to be immoral.

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GUEST POST – Adventures in Narrative Substitution #6: “Father’s Day”

by Christa Mactire

Up until now, the main thrust of this series has been to explain how earlier eras of the show (mainly Moffat) have handled the Chibnall era’s ideas, usually in a better way. But that approach won’t work this time. How can it? Demons of the Punjab was a fascinating episode, a historical the likes of which has never really been done before. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story that is also educational, as the early Hartnell historicals tried to be. Given the Chibnall era seems to be attempting a contemporary version of that era, this makes sense.

Demons is a rare example of what this particular era of the show looks like when all the pieces come together in the right way. The script is fantastic, the guest cast and the regulars are given plenty to do, the score is sublime (recording the show’s theme as an Indian chant was an inspired move), it shows what this era can do when it really tries: tell a beautiful story about human problems and human concerns. If you took the Thijarians out, you’d have a convincing case for the revival of the pure historical, but focused on exploring social problems, like religious intolerance.

There is only one other modern Who story that has added to the list of story types that the show can tell, and it’s an episode that is virtually identical to Demons in terms of plot beats and set pieces if not in content or tone: Paul Cornell’s Father’s Day.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – A Case for You To Read Faction Paradox Books

[This originally was part of the next article to be posted on that blog, but it grew into a separate rant, and I thought it would be good to use what little #influencer power I have to convince people to give money to a good cause: progressive and good storytelling.]

There’s a vested interest in talking about “The Book of the Peace” on this site. It’s a book made, mostly, by friends of mine, friends that I interviewed on here before the launch. That’s why you didn’t see any review of it on the site: because the review format, whether I want it or not, does carry with it an implication of objectivity, and I wouldn’t want to have people misguided. But still, given that the thing hasn’t stopped wandering through my brain since I first read it, I think a write-up is required. So, let’s use this keyboard as a gun and drop some bullet points.

Because I see you. I know you have hang-ups about that side of expanded universe, about this looming esoteric threat in the background. You’re allured by promises of representation and cool sci-fi storytelling, but, well, the Faction repulses as much as it attracts. So, let’s make a case for it, alright? Obviously, all that stuff matters: Obverse Books is a really important creative voice in Who right now, and they need money to maintain this creative and experimental space, which is all the more important given the emphasis they place on getting new writers into the Who production circles, especially LGBT+ and BAME ones; and, if you have money to spare (if you don’t, no one will shame you for it, fandom classism is a bane, but at the very least hopefully the following should get you a bit more on board with the project) you should put your money where your mouth is.

But let’s not take that into consideration. Let’s be philosopher-kings, and make an abstract, intellectual case for why, indeed, you should read Faction Paradox books (and “The Book of the Peace” specifically. BUY IT.)

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SCARVES AND CELERY – The DoWntime Original Audio Drama Review, or Go Listen to Verity Weaver

Hey, you there! Do you like high quality audio drama? Do you like supporting independent artists making original content? Do you like supporting high quality original audio drama made by independent artists? Then I highly recommend you check out Verity Weaver, a new sci fi series produced by the recently launched Audio Hour Productions! Here at DoWntime, we think it’s important to promote original content, and this particular original series is a cracker.

Verity Weaver, starring Alena Van Arendonk in the title role, officially debuts on itunes and spotify on March 8th, and the pilot episode “To Catch a Falling Star” can easily be found by searching for “Verity Weaver” or “Audio Hour Productions” on either app. The episode is written by series creator David McCormack, script edited by Nina Sarkozi, scored by Pat Delia (with the brilliant Seeming contributing a wonderful theme tune), and is executive produced by David Holdsworth. The remaining five episodes of the six part series are set to go up later in the year, with a great deal more exciting talent set to contribute as both writers and actors.

So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss “To Catch a Falling Star”, the show’s pilot episode. The episode follows Verity Weaver, ordinary worker on a mining planet, who uses the experience machine, a virtual reality simulator that taps into a person’s deepest desires, to go on adventures with famous explorer Fable Ashwood for twenty minutes a day, the only good twenty minutes of her daily life. At its core, the episode is an exploration of the tension between the monotonous horror Verity’s real life and the all too brief thrill and excitement of her life in the simulation.

That’s one heck of a premise, and even as it echoes classic sci fi concerns about simulations and what makes an experience real and valid, it’s immediately some of the freshest and most evocative science fiction you could have the joy of listening to. This freshness stems from the fact that, like the best of sci fi, “To Catch a Falling Star” is deeply concerned with the human questions underlying its core concept: it very much has echoes of the best episodes of Black Mirror (especially the wonderful “San Junipero”) in that way. It explores the philosophical and ethical ramifications of the experience machine in a way that genuinely seems fresh, approaching subject matter that is often met with tedious moralising (like the worst episodes of “Black Mirror”, I’m looking at you, “Nosedive”) with a welcome amount of open-mindedness, an open-mindedness that stems from the basic respect shown for the different responses all the characters in the story have to the experience machine. The story is less interested in condemning people for wanting to escape into a simulation, that, from their perspective, would be an entirely real and valid life, and instead asks what situation someone would have to be in for that escape to be their most appealing option.

Because for all its big sci fi ideas, “To Catch a Falling Star” is deeply concerned with people. This is particularly evident in the story’s worldbuilding, which shows us a world rife with class inequality that is all too familiar to the world we live in today. We’re shown a world where the vast majority of people in the Nox System, the galaxy where the series is set, are forced to work backbreaking and tedious manual labour in minds to support the lifestyles of the wealthiest people at the centre of the galaxy, while the people in the middle of the galaxy enjoy lives of comfort that nonetheless are in danger of being snatched away by arbitrary forces beyond their control (in this instance, those forces are planetary movements). It’s a metaphor that’s wonderfully direct and biting. But this metaphor is backed up by human details that depict the horrors of inequality on a smaller scale: a three months pregnant woman is forced to continue mining, a father can only see his family (or a version of them) for twenty minutes a day in the experience machine, and genuinely kind managers can’t do anything to make their workers’ lives more than marginally better because sometimes the system really is the problem.

These big sci fi ideas, philosophical questions, and political commentary on class are held together by a wonderful cast of rounded characters, in particular the title character Verity Weaver, played brilliantly by Alena Van Arendonk. The structure of the episode sees full scenes where the characters interact interspersed with narration from Verity, and the transition between the regular scenes and Verity’s narration is so confidently handled you barely notice it happening. This is helped by the fact that Verity’s narration is wonderfully lyrical and evocative, in a way that echoes the narration of the driver in the brilliant podcast Alice Isn’t Dead. It also helps that the narration is used intelligently, giving background information where the character interaction scenes provide the heart of the story. And Verity is a fascinating lead: someone who is at once charismatic and self doubting. The episode explores how she can be these seemingly contradictory things in interesting ways, using the experience machine to illuminate the ways opportunity can bring out aspects of a someone’s personality that simply cannot thrive in other situations: Verity can be confident and charismatic in the experience machine because she leads a life of adventure free from the worries of her life as a miner. Verity is also a character who looks at her deeply unequal world with compassion and a desire to help others, something that brings out a fascinating dynamic with Fable Ashwood, the galactic explorer whose relationship with Verity forms the backbone of the story. Fable’s background contrasts with Verity’s in fascinating ways, and their dynamic has echoes of a Doctor/ companion relationship, although that dynamic is subverted in a fascinating way. The episode, through Verity and Fable’s relationship, becomes an origin story for Verity, one that’s a delight to listen to on its own, and also sets up an incredibly exciting series to come. I for one highly recommend you listen to “To Catch a Falling Star” as soon as you can, and then join me in desperately waiting for the rest of the first series when it is released this autumn.

THE BIG FINISH ROUND-UP – February 2019: Dick Zodiac, the Uncanny Valley, & Scottish Writers

Welcome to DoWntime’s monthly coverage of all the shiny new audios from the corporate overlords at Big Finish dot com. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it aims to be spoiler-free but will have to make sacrifices here and there in order to discuss with a critical eye – and it’s back after a few months of silence, spent working on some really cool projects that sadly are still hush-hush. Enjoy.

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GUEST POST – Adventures in Narrative Substitution #5: “The Girl Who Waited”

by Christa Mactire

One of my favorite classic-era Who stories is “The Edge of Destruction“. Part of the very first season, it was commissioned entirely to fill out the 13-episode order, most of which had been taken up by An Unearthly Child and The Daleks. Notably, it’s one of the show’s few Bottle Episodes, defined as an episode featuring mainly the regulars and one standing set, in this case the TARDIS console room and various other areas within.

This doesn’t sound terribly exciting on the surface; but the confined space of the TARDIS set, coupled with the fact that our main cast are just four strangers who’ve spent the last ten episodes wandering around pre-historic Earth and fighting off some art-deco saltshakers with a murder fetish and are only now able to catch their breath, leads to some pretty amazing character development work, thanks to David Whitaker’s script.

The template hasn’t been used terribly often in the intervening decades, but I’d argue that “Amy’s Choice from 2010 is close to a straight-up remake (since the Upper Leadworth stuff is just a shared dream, strictly speaking the entire episode takes place in the TARDIS console room), while “The Girl Who Waited and The Tsuranga Conundrum hew more closely to a general Bottle Episode rather than anything TARDIS-specific.

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GUEST POST – Adventures in Narrative Substitution #4: “Flatline”

by Christa Mactíre

The Curse of Fatal Death is surprisingly instructive for how the Moffat era would unfold. Produced for Comic Relief in 1999, the episode starred Rowan Atkinson as one of three eventual Ninth Doctors (or four, including the late Sir John Hurt) with a script by Moffat, it contained a large amount of concepts and ideas that would later appear when he took over as show runner for the BBC Wales revival of Who. There were things like the Master being stuck in a sewer, complicated time travel schemes, Doctor/Master shipping, the Doctor saying he’d put a lot of work into saving the universe, Daleks and the Master working together, and most importantly, the Doctor regenerating into a female form.

Just over ten years later, one of the Eleventh Doctor’s first lines is a surprised “I’m a girl!” Subsequently, the early scenes of “The Doctor’s Wifefeature the Doctor discussing a friend of his, the Corsair, a friend of his who had apparently regenerated into a female form at least twice. In 2014 we were given Missy, the first female version of the Master, and then in 2015, the character of the General regenerated into a black woman, establishing Time Lord regeneration can cross boundaries of race as well as gender.

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