THE TRUTH SNAKE – Science Leads: Contextualizing and Interpreting UNIT: Extinction

UNIT: Extinction is a brave new start for Big Finish. Except, it isn’t. Except, it is.

UNIT: Extinction is unavoidably beholden to so much that has come before. For one thing, it’s the third attempt by Big Finish at a contemporary UNIT spinoff, all even woman-lead affairs. What’s more, one has a predecessor to journalist character Jacqui McGee and the other with its lead UNIT figure a scientific officer like the modern version. And the narrative to Extinction finds itself serving as a synthesis of several starting point narratives. Most prominently, heavy shades of Spearhead from Space, Rose, and Everything Changes can be felt hanging over the story, governing how it starts a new series, coupled with a general trend toward deconstruction and critique that is the defining modern approach to UNIT and similar organizations.

But it is a new beginning, as well. It’s the official start to Big Finish’s new series coverage. It marks itself with several entirely new characters and themes. The plot is built more than anything around the dual arcs of Jacqui and Josh, who are the core new characters present, with the plot shaped around introducing them and other new additions to the world (disc two, for example, is a sidestep from the main plot mostly built around establishing recurring character Sam Bishop). New ongoing conflicts burst forth, new themes. This is a box set self-consciously built around navigating tensions of classic fanservice and new Who storytelling ethos to try to be something fascinating and new. And, perhaps against all odds, it succeeds in being something not just enjoyable to listen to, but with fascinating implications by the dozens.

Full spoilers for UNIT: Extinction, as well as minor references to the events of Shutdown and Silenced, to follow.

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SCARVES AND CELERY – “If this is the end, then so it shall be”: “Hallelujah Money”, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, and “In the Forest of the Night”

Sometimes, it’s useful to place Doctor Who in a wider cultural landscape, to see how the themes it explores are put to use in other pieces of popular culture. So today, we’re going to look at season eight story “In the Forest of the Night” alongside the proto-Studio Ghibli film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, and the Gorillaz song, “Hallelujah Money”, and see how the the themes of the three texts intersect and contrast to form an unsettling but powerful commentary on the world we live in today.

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ASSESSING STRESS #2: “Smile”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. And we still are here, through lightning, thunder, rain, pernicious timezones and computer crashes, to discuss “Smile”, the second episode of the new series of Doctor Who!

This week, Scarves, Scribbles & Tibère are joined by an oh so prestigious guest, Janine Rivers, from the blog The Diary of Janine Rivers (https://janinerivers.wordpress.com/ ), aka the founder of Doctor Who Fan-Fiction.com (http://doctorwhofanfic.weebly.com/ ), aka the person that convinced Tibère to get into this whole thinkpiece business, aka the spiritual mother of DoWntime.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Torchwood, series 3 – “The Dollhouse”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles kick off our Big Finish coverage by talking about one of their latest releases, “The Dollhouse”, by Juno Dawson, the second episode of the third series of Torchwood audios.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tibbles and the Daleks #2: Vintage Dalek

How does one represent the Daleks on screen?

They’re a mass. A crowd of shouting maniacs, a force of fascist destruction. But how do you convey the size and scope of this force? Doctor Who is trapped in an infinite continuity, stretching to infinity and beyond both forwards and backwards – a return to the status quo is always going to be necessary, at the end of the day, because the narrative integrity of the show must be left unharmed and untouched. Their most terrible deed, the destruction of Gallifrey, never actually happened. So, really, the best way to show their nature, on an episode-to-episode basis, is to have them shoot a lot of people. Lasers going off left and right, screams of horror, it’s an amusing spectacle. When Ben Wheatley films it, it’s even kind of beautiful – raygun gothic at its best, dread carried through neon lights. But it doesn’t pack much weight: it’s a tank rolling in a straight line, crushing enemy soldiers; it’s a cat playing with a mouse. It’s the “… of the Daleks” that pops up in the title of all their episodes – a blunt, but bland, statement of power. There’s no tension to it – the Daleks are gods of war, or maybe gods of fate if their victims have deserved their doom through some act of hubris: but Who is no Greek tragedy, its protagonists are not waiting for an inevitable demise, be it only because the presence of the Doctor introduces an element of deep, primordial chaos to the surface of the show.

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ASSESSING STRESS #1: “The Pilot”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. Because writing an actual, full-on review is a very difficult, and possibly pointless exercise when you haven’t seen the whole series and are thus deprived of critical context – and also because it’s very fun to rant in community. We could have rented a bar or something and recorded our conversations while drinking some pina coladas, but thing is, nobody here lives in the same country, so it’s a delicate process. Also, not everyone drinks alcohol. Terrible difficulties, I tell you. But still – we pulled through, and here we are. Yay us.

For series 10, Scarves, Scribbles and Tibère will be joined each week by a different guest. Because variety of opinions is key, and because we would eat each other if left alone, a little bit like in that story with the sheep, the cabbage and the wolf. This week: Z. P. Moo, our first guest contributor for DoWntime, who also writes for Warped Factor, and is an adept of the mysterious science known as poetry (or physics?).

And now, time for “The Pilot” talk.

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SCARVES AND CELERY – Turning People into Things: The Late Moffat Era and Animal Rights

When Sherlock delivers the line “This isn’t torture, this is vivisection. We’re experiencing science from the perspective of lab rats” in “The Final Problem”, I was willing to bet I’d spotted a piece of dialogue scripted by Steven Moffat, even if figuring out who wrote what in a co write is always a tricky job, as a subtle protest for animal rights has bled through a few of his scripts in recent years. The first example of such a line comes in “The Bells of St John”, when Ms Kizlet claims “Nobody loves Cattle more than Burger King“. There is a remarkably similar line in “The Girl Who Died” Jamie Mathieson’s most recent brilliant addition to Doctor Who that nonetheless features a Moffat co-credit: when gloating about his false Valhalla, Odin asks “What is a god but the cattle’s name for farmer? What is heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?“, a line that, given the similar lines in other scripts where Moffat is the recurring author (even if he is only the sole author of “Bells of St John“), I suspect was written by Moffat, not Mathieson. So let’s examine each line, their context within their respective episodes, and find out what we can learn both about the topic of animal rights, and of what we can learn about the ideas animating Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who at large.

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THE TRUTH SNAKE – The Mythos Makers (#2)

Note: this is the second part of an essay attempting to outline the formation of the ideology of post-2005 Doctor Who through examination of it and the spinoff content predating and surrounding it. I advise reading the first part first, which will provide much needed context for the more complicated arguments here. Click anywhere on this paragraph for the first part.

Generally progressive as they were, however, the political shifts ushered in by the Virgin New Adventures had losses along the way, and some radical and positive perspectives were neutered or erased in the transition from classic Doctor Who through the spinoff content into the new series. There were limitations and erasures, for example of queer representation (queer being the most commonly utilized academic term for explorations of non-straight/cis identities and thus the one that will be used here). For example, Ace found herself entirely wiped of queerness. It was limited in prominence in the show, of course, with the only clear case being Rona Munro’s Survival, for which she’s memorably on the record fretting “you’re killing my lesbian subtext” over the execution in the serial. [1] But the absence of this vision in the expanded universe is nonetheless striking. While other messages her era muted in the show came to fruition in the books, like the so-called Cartmel Masterplan, Ace’s queer sexuality is abandoned. She still gets some very radical political storylines in the Virgin books, such as a love story with a male anarchist in Paul Cornell’s Love and War, but never again did she show any interest in woman, with the whole incident generally ignored. This erasure continues to this day, with Big Finish upholding a very straight portrayal.

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GUEST POST: Dark Eyes Dissection #2

by Z. P. Moo

After the financial success of the first series of Dark Eyes it was hardly a surprise when Big Finish commissioned a follow-up boxset and so along came the creatively titled Dark Eyes 2. For this release Big Finish went more into the extensive back-catalogue of their Doctor Who stories and brought in a few more familiar elements alongside the 8th Doctor and Molly O’Sullivan.

One of these returning elements is the character of Liv Chenka, played by Nicola Walker, returning from an encounter with the 7th Doctor that was seen in the Monthly Range story Robophobia. Another thing to return to Doctor Who there is the Eminence, a universal gaseous consciousness that the 4th and 6th Doctors had both encountered – the Doctor’s previous confrontation with it had ended with a dormant piece of the creature inside his head (this will be a major plot point later). We also have some giant robots call Viyrans, which had featured in a handful of other releases. But the biggest headline has to be that Alex MacQueen’s Master is back. Following an acclaimed debut in UNIT: Dominion (he’s undoubtedly the highlight of that story), it was only a matter of time before he showed up again and this time we get some context as to where he fits into the timeline of that character. I don’t want to get into review mode here, since I’m aiming to analyse and not review, but he is so damn perfect for the part that whoever decided to cast him should be given an award. Anyone who has seen him in literally anything he’s ever been in would surely have had him pegged as a candidate for playing the role, and he totally delivers.

I’ll save more of my gushing praise for his performance until we get to Eyes of the Master and pretty much everything in Dark Eyes 3, but why do I draw attention to these things now? Because by including them Big Finish give a statement of intent: Dark Eyes 2 is going to be a much bigger story, the stakes are higher, and it’s more connected to the wider canon we’ve created.” One might argue that by your saying this you’ve set yourself up for failure, but we shall see.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tibbles and the Daleks #1: Dante’s Dalek

Hello there. Have you got a moment for our lord and savior, series 8?

I’m not really joking there, in all honesty. I do genuinely believe that series 8 is the absolute pinnacle of the show, modern or classic.  It’s down to a lot of things, really – the fact that the Moffat/Capaldi/Coleman team is almost impossible to top; the fact the whole series is focused around strong themes and arcs, with each and every episode having a genuine, interesting role in the wider scheme of things; … Really, it may just be because it proved Steven Moffat’s writing could really pay off, that his strategy of radically altering the show and its paradigm every series was actually a good idea. As much as I liked the Matt Smith years, and I did, and I’m not alone in this, they were a bit of a dangerous experiment, that sort of spiraled out of control around 2011 and never quite regained their poise – they also marked the rise of the anti-Moffat crowd, and of the onslaught of sometimes relevant, and sometimes asinine criticism that rained on the man’s head. And the 2014 series feels, maybe more than any other, like a direct byproduct of criticism, a reaction against something – not in a bad way, mind you. It still tells its own story, and, I’ll argue, it does so amazingly well. But that story is a dark one, based around constant accusations leveled at the ethos of Smith years, and really, at the show in general – it’s all about deconstruction, about toppling down the tropes and clichés of Who to take a peek at what lies underneath, this fragile, troubled core of wonderful humanity. “Listen” – outside of being, you know, the best Who story of all time, and that’s not just me and Scarves who say it, but also Paul Cornell, so we’re in good company – is all about that: going beyond the story, beyond the tapestry of Moffat mannerisms, to get to the point, the literal center and starting point of the Who narrative, the moment where the Doctor, as a character, is forged; and that moment is an act of pure compassion, an open, beautiful gift of human warmth.

I really really like it. As you may have noticed.

Interestingly enough, though, it does also feature a Dalek episode. A very, very good Dalek episode, actually – not counting Big Finish, I could make a serious case for Into the Dalek” being the best of them all; with only “Dalek” and “The Parting of Ways” standing as worthy contenders. Which is a bit odd, in a sense. Daleks are ideological creatures, see? In a fundamental way, they embody a message, a text. And that message … Well, it’s not always that interesting, for starters, but more than this – it doesn’t necessarily gel well with what series 8 wants to accomplish. And yet, it works. Let’s talk about it.

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