TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Game of Thrones, the Fantasy Ghetto and “To the Death”

Fantasy and science-fiction are misunderstood genres. Of course, they have their tropes and clichés – any sort of written or spoken production has. But they are extensively, and sometimes exclusively, defined through the prism of these tropes and clichés. They are not a niche market and a counter-cultural phenomenon anymore – even if some underground isles might subsist here and there –, because the mainstream narrative and the cultural industries saw in them a great source of creative ideas for big releases with a large target audience (which of course is not without creating a certain amount of tension and the always more important emergence of a culture of fan entitlement); but a deep engagement with these specific forms of storytelling might still raise a few eyebrows. Everyone’s going to see the next Star Wars movie, but there will always be, for the foreseeable future, a certain idea of emotional immaturity or whatever the hell attached to its narrative and people that attempt to engage with it at a more profound level that “let’s occupy my brain for a couple of hours” – even if those ideas and feelings are turned on their head and worn like a badge of pride by moviegoers and bloggers and hardcore fans everywhere.

And Who is hit by that especially badly. The famous “it’s a kid show!” argument, you’ve all heard it; there’s something fundamentally (and wonderfully) “uncool” about it. It is very serious and very important television that fundamentally rejects everything about the expected aesthetics of very serious and very important television – it’s serious because it’s silly, it’s deep because it’s ridiculous, it makes the most sense when it’s purposefully not making any. And of course, there’s the history problem – its legacy stretches back to the 1960s. Sure, Star Wars started in 1977, but 1) that original trilogy was only three, two-hour long movies, and 2) those movies received considerable acclaim. They might not have gained that much mainstream respect back in the day, but it’s a strong, clearly established and popular past (canon, we could say, were it not for the essentially problematic nature of this term when applied to Who). Whereas Who’s past is a huge, confusing mess, where some crucial pieces – the last episode of “The Tenth Planet”, for starters – are missing, and where no real critical consensus can be drawn. Sure, some eras will be heralded as the high points of the program (Hinchcliffe/Holmes/Baker is a sure bet), but that still leaves you with entire years that don’t really have a clear, immediately perceptible sense of identity. The Classics are a cultural entity that can only be understood as a whole by a fan, and a quite devoted one with that, writing his own internal, and sometimes external, story of the program – the Phil Sandifers and Tat Woods and Paul Cornells of the world –. And the 2005 show never did away with that continuity – sure, it re-establishes all the plot elements, it makes, in practice, the new content accessible to everyone, but, at a theoretical level, its aesthetics and themes are rooted in this huge, confusing spiral of contradicting continuity and ideological debates. I refer you to my colleague Scribbles’ excellent article on the subject – New Who is basically the result of a bunch of devoted fans, Gatiss, Cornell, Shearman, Roberts, Moffat, Davies, bringing back to life the corpse of the Classic show through a long, intellectually-driven necromantic ritual that spanned the whole of the Wilderness Years. And the show is not trying to hide that – it revels in the past, outrageous as the past might be, bringing back the Macra as a one-off monster, and channeling camp aesthetics as much as it can. Who’s built on monsters made of bubble wrap and condoms, that’s just a fact. You can’t get more “uncool” than Who – and yet it’s a massively popular show, go figure. That’s what is wonderful about it, but that’s also the source of one of the big, fundamental conflicts at the core of Who, the gun/frock distinction.

On one side, those that embrace the camp and comedy and want always more of it; and the other, those that see Who as a space to tell darker, more violent, more challenging story. Of course, it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. A lot of the best, most acclaimed Who stories are that way precisely because they manage to get challenging and difficult without losing the fundamental joy at the core of the narrative. Steven Moffat’s incredibly good at this, and probably doesn’t get enough credit for it – at the very least, people seem to agree on “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances” being great, and that’s a perfect example: it’s a story about sex and war and a creepy ghost violently turning people into brainless husks, but it’s also a shamelessly queer romp where a pansexual James Bond knock-off tries to shoot said ghost with a banana. The New Series writer that probably nails this the best, though, must be Jamie Mathieson. There’s a reason why “Mummy on the Orient-Express” and “Oxygen”, even while sitting in a comparatively unpopular era of the show, all earned general praise – they are dark, violent, even grim stories that contrast heavily with Moffat’s style, tongue-in-cheek even at its darkest (take “Extremis” – yes, it’s a gripping, awful tale of existential horror, but the conceit of the episode is explained to you through the idea of Mario committing suicide; or “Dark Water”, which is horrific but still finds time to crack jokes about Steve Jobs and organ donors). Of course, they also inject a strong dose of levity and humour into the proceedings, but in a way that’s much more subtle and discrete – the tension (both at the level of the events actually occurring and when it comes to the character dynamics) is paramount. And why the hell not, after all? Those are great episodes. The show works fine that way, does it not? It seems to have found a good balance.

Well yes. That’s not to say there is no problem here. Mostly, it’s a matter of cultural context.

Enters Game of Thrones.

 

It doesn’t need much of an introduction, does it? But nevertheless – it’s a fascinating show, that one. Note that I didn’t say “great”. I didn’t even say “good”. But fascinating, definitely. Mostly because it broke, or came as close as possible to breaking, the fantasy ghetto, this concept TVTropes defines – quoting TVTropes is one of my pet peeves, but I’ll indulge for once – as: “a long-lasting stigma which has been applied towards the science-fiction and fantasy genres, which frequently leads creators and marketers to shun “Sci-Fi”, “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy” labels as much as possible, even on shows that have clear science fiction or fantastical elements.” It has won two best drama series Emmys now; it has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to all the awards it has gathered over the years, for a total of over six hundred nominations; it holds the Guinness Book record of most pirated show of all time [1]. And above all, it airs on HBO, it positions itself in the same space as The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Oz and Six Feet Under – big, great, important prestige dramas. Sure, Ian McShane might come in once in a while going all “it’s just tits and dragons, calm down”, but it doesn’t change the facts, and the facts are that Game of Thrones has acquired a level both of cultural influence and cultural respectability seldom seen in the fantasy genre. Because it very clearly is fantasy, and more than that – fantasy that relies on well-known, tried and tested tropes, even if it is to subvert them later on. Star Wars or Star Trek were popular partly because they created universes that at the time, were unique – they were cliché franchises, but they, so to speak, invented their own clichés. But Game of Thrones, that’s fantasy. Gritty, realistic fantasy, sure, but that’s a genre that already existed, just ask Robin Hobb or Andrejz Sapkowski. Hell, if anything, the show removes some of the most abstract and unique elements of the book’s aesthetics – the many abstract dream scenes, for starters, or Martin’s love of repeated leitmotivs. But the point still stands – it manages to be both a prestige show and a genre show. So, of course, it gets copied, because who doesn’t want to replicate a success? And that’s where it becomes problematic.

Because, and that’s where I don the SJW asshole hat, Game of Thrones is a problematic show. And I’m not even talking about the many issues it has when it comes to representing persons of color, women, and LGBT people, although there are a huge, huge lot of those – mostly because talking about it would involve getting on a big, complex philosophical debate about the relationship between ideological content and aesthetics, and that’s hardly relevant to the matter at hand. No, what’s maybe the most difficult aspect of the show – and also, maybe, paradoxically, the most interesting, is the fact it seems remarkably unpreoccupied with, well, actually “being” a show, as a complex, multi-seasons unit of storytelling. Or at least, that’s the case now. The show has changed in a strange way, has reacted to its own success and fame through an awkward but somehow compelling process of mutation. The first three series were flawed, very flawed even (the second one, especially – the Jon/Ygritte plot that kicks in in the back half of the season is still probably the worst part of the entire show and kills the momentum of every single episode dead), but they still managed to retain a non-negligible amount of George RR. Martin’s thematic preoccupations, and, even when the pace was languid, there was a certain power to the moments of quiet. My favourite scene in the entire show – and that often comes as a surprise to people when I tell them – is this very quiet, understated conversation between Cersei and Tyrion in the series 3 finale. Two siblings that hate each other sipping some wine and contemplating just how tired they are of all those meaningless, neverending power struggles. But then, series 4 kickstarted a change, that definitely took hold in the last two years – the focus started to move further and further away from the themes, and more and more towards the plot. Of course, there’s the simple fact that the writers ran out of books to straightforwardly adapt (and that the way they adapted the first few series was flawed, wasting time on non-essential subplots instead of setting up what they knew was coming), but even their position towards Martin’s writing changed. What Game of Thrones became is essentially a machine that produces increasingly-vaguely-A Song Of Ice And Fire-shaped plot. Of course, you still have themes, and characters, but they are all subservient to one single, supreme principle: the law of set-up and pay-off. You are given an ensemble of facts, the way you interpret them creates tension, and then one by one, the events logically announced by these facts happen in big, impressive climaxes. The characters’ thoughts and motivations are shaped in a way that makes them fit into that system. In a way, the show has become the exact antithesis of Martin’s books: they were so preoccupied by their thematic concerns and by the deconstruction of classic tropes that they sometimes forgot to have a plot; whereas the show is so concerned by its plot it most of the time forgets to have any sort of meaningful story behind it. Game of Thrones is often heralded as an unpredictable show, but that’s not quite true – even its two biggest shocks, the death of Ned and the Red Wedding, are announced and prophesized well in advance: except that at this point in the narrative, you don’t expect them to actually go that far, and go through with it. That initial unpredictability comes from the same place as its tendency to kill tons of characters – it just happens to be utterly devoted to paying off every single thread that is set-up, and by defining every single character, leads or side figures, in terms of how they can be set-up.

Does that make Game of Thrones a bad show? Well, it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad viewing experience. Even at its most annoying and crassest, it can be a lot of fun, especially if you are – as I am – used to very exploitative media. It definitely has perfected its formula, especially with the last series: shows like The Walking Dead and what have you are not even close to reaching that sort of impeccable, implacable polish. But all that does make Game of Thrones, and here we loop back to the initial point, “not” a show, or at least “barely” a show – making some of the big critical debates surrounding it more than a little empty (aside: both the “it’s based on history, it has to be white and straight!” and the “it’s fantasy, it can be whatever it want!” arguments are bullshit that utterly misunderstand both Martin’s writing and fantasy as a genre, okay, bye). Truth be told, it has now much, much more in common with reality TV than it has with other HBO staples. Think about it: a bunch of people get eliminated one by one, and the series ends up in a huge, widely publicized climax that becomes a big event for viewers all around the world. You combine that approach to storytelling with the biggest budgets on television, and you have your recipe for success.

And of course, a success that huge is necessarily going to have a considerable influence over the cultural discourse. It’s not complicated, do the maths – Game of Thrones kicked in in 2010, just about the same time a curly-haired Scot named Steven Moffat took charge of Doctor Who. Of course, the HBO show is far from the only contributing factor to the anti-Moffat discourse, but it certainly had an influence – the constant criticisms of his handling of death, for instance. Moffat uses the spectre of death to up the ante, but always favors subversion into something more complex, and usually richer; it’s one of his defining traits as a writer, this constant love of rug-pulling. A possibly annoying feature, but not a flaw. The remarks that this trend is effectively depriving the show of tension is a bit strange, because it shows a context where the death of a character is not only seen as a viable way to build up stakes, but also arguably the best one. And the fact that the criticisms didn’t stop even when Moffat started to find new, more challenging angles to integrate death into his scripts (see “Face the Raven”, whose impact on Clara’s destiny is never outright cancelled, or of course “Dark Water” and the passing of Danny) tends to indicate that there’s definitely a bit of an overall cultural bias that has engrained itself in the viewer’s minds over the last few years. It doesn’t seem like an overstatement to say that some people want Who to be Game of Thrones, or be more like it.

And you know what, fine. Let’s humour those people for a while. Is there a lesson Doctor Who can get out of Game of Thrones? Well, I guess channeling the mass appeal of the biggest hit show of these past few years can’t be bad. The trouble is, this whole adherence to reality TV, this shaping of the show around the desire to be a cultural hit and phenomenon … Well, Who has already done that. Those were called the Russell T. Davies years. Jon Arnold, in The Black Archive #1 – Rose, makes a great analysis of the way mainstream pop culture, and especially reality TV, shaped the first series of Davies’ run: really, Roses’ arc mirrors the one of a reality TV candidate – she is selected (“Rose”), learns about the rules of the show (“The End of the World” and “The Unquiet Dead”), is placed in a difficult situation where she faces elimination (“Father’s Day”), and then, finally, wins (“The Parting of Ways” – which, you’ll notice, is set on a game station). That approach might have created some considerable issues with Davies’ writing here and there – mostly, Donna’s send-off, which gives Game of Thrones a run for its money in terms of arbitrary nastiness – but, most of the time, it succeeded and stabilized Who’s status as a crucially important and unavoidable phenomenon. But to simply sum up the success of this era as “it knew how to play on set-up/pay-off and how to be big” is a bit of a mistake. Because, first thing first, for all its wild, crazy forays into grandstanding epics, the Davies era is still deeply, unquestionably Doctor Who – it’s subversive, in a way, using populist tactics to better convey the deep madness of the show –. And, perhaps more importantly, you can’t separate these four series and a bit of television from the context they aired in: people don’t consume media in 2017 the way they did in 2007; the image of the family gathered in front of the television is becoming increasingly distant in a world where people have access to a plethora of options that let them pick what they want to watch, and in what conditions they want to watch them. The “return to a populist approach”, while not a bad idea, especially after the sometimes incredibly conceptual Moffat years, is not a miracle solution; and to want Doctor Who to ape another show, to bow down to big cultural trends, is a clear, definite mistake. Doctor Who assimilates, subverts and transforms the narratives that flow through the eras it airs in – it should never, ever be defined and delineated by the conventions of an entirely different franchise or mode of storytelling.

Of course, then we need to ask ourselves – what happens when Doctor Who tries to align itself with a  Game of Thrones-like ethos? Well, there’s a story that does just that. It’s called “To the Death.

Let’s hear about it from some reviewers, shall we?

 

To the Death rounds of this incredible season on a climactic, melancholic finish that proves this series was not afraid to take risks and make Doctor Who as exciting as it can be. Monumental: 10/10” – Doc Oho (http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.fr/2011/04/to-death-written-and-directed-by.html )

My Favourite audio story of all time. A bleak and wonderful tale of survival, and isn’t afraid to take risks.” – an user on The Time Scales

Just superb. I relistened to this entire fourth series recently. It’s a class apart, and the finale of “Lucie Miller/To the Death” is unsurpassed.” – an user on The Time Scales (https://thetimescales.com/Story/story.php?audioid=563 )

 

Of course, let’s not forget to mention that “To the Death” is garbage. It is easily one of the worst Who stories ever made, in any medium – precisely because it does have a certain level of competency and talent, and knows what it wants to do, but goes, in full, cynical knowledge, in the most vapid, ugly, superficial direction. It’s terrible, but it’s solid enough to allow a very specific fringe of the Who fandom to enjoy it – and not just to enjoy it, to praise it as a classic.

Some contextualization might prove necessary – “To the Death” is the finale of a Big Finish audio range, the Eighth Doctor Adventures, starring Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith as companion Lucie Miller. The fourth and last series see them reuniting with Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, of GRANDFATHAAAAAAAAAAA fame, and meeting Alex, the Doctor’s great-grandson, an insufferable brat. And the finale is basically a beat by beat re-telling of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, that sees Lucie crippled, recurring character Tamsin exterminated, Alex killed, and finally Lucie blowing herself up along with the Dalek fleet.

One might also add that most of those character deaths take place in little, five second scenes whose whole dramatic weight resides on a “they’re alive, oops now they’re dead” principle, that the ending of the episode shows McGann’s Doctor in angsty agony for an excruciating amount of time, going as far as to say he should be more merciless and embrace the “let’s bash cavemen’s heads with rocks” ethos originally seen in “An Unearthly Child”, and of course that you get to see Susan have a nervous breakdown when her only child dies, because who doesn’t like to see Susan suffer more.

And yet this is a beloved story. I once debated with someone that argued it was very much superior to James Goss’ “Lights of Skaro”, as far as Dalek stories go, so that’s saying something. But why is that? Well, the context is key – with a release date in March 2011, it stands at the crossroads of two complementary, if different, ideological takes on Who. First, obviously, the vision of Who as a vast legacy, a treasure trove of past, buried continuity that must be constantly called forth and summoned again to the present days – that vision defined by the idea that an idea is necessarily good as long as it’s Who. Big Finish, as a whole, is a bit of a schizoid company, separated between this very Nathan-Turner-esque, or Ian Levin-esque pathological nostalgia (embodied in the work of someone like Marc Platt), and a push for progress, more inclusive and modern storytelling (with authors like James Goss or John Dorney). “To the Death”, however, is a perfect embodiment of the former – it doesn’t have to do anything especially interesting with Susan & co., their mere presence is strong enough a justification for the story. It feels a bit like a fanfiction, really – and not a very good one; of course, the writer playing with his toy dolls is sort of part of the Who ethos at this point (see the Steven Moffat gag in Davison’s “Five-ish Doctors Reboot”), but here, there’s a grandstanding, dead serious atmosphere hanging over the proceedings, far from Moffat or Davies’ self-deprecating, ironic edge.  It’s a very Nicholas Briggs story that way, and showcases very well why the man, despite his great skills as an actor, producer and director, is incredibly problematic as a writer (other case on point: “Unbound – Exile”). But, and that’s the part where it gets interesting – it doesn’t just bring back lots of Classic stuff, it uses those elements to stage a long, grim massacre.

The EDAs always were a weak range, that often reeked of sloppiness and hastily cobbled together scripts (series 1’s abysmal “Immortal Beloved”, for instance, is a rewrite of a potential sequel for “Scream of the Shalka” Jonathan Clements was tasked to write [2]), but for all their flaws, and certainly, this brand of past-worshipping conservatism is one of the most important ones, they still had a unique identity, embracing a sort of joyful, messy, loveable fun, especially in the hands of Eddie Robson (“Human Resources”, “Grand Theft Cosmos”, “The Eight Truths” and “Situation Vacant” are all highlights) or Paul Magrs. Stirring them in such a different direction for the grand finale – with an ending that is very clearly positioned as a teaser for future audios, which would be confirmed later on as the Dark Eyes range – thus seems a very deliberate ideological move. A move certainly influenced by the execution of Ned Stark on television, one year before. Big Finish would grow up, but it would grow up by embracing a grimdark “maturity” built on arbitrary killing, long battles, loud explosions, and earth-shattering despair. What “To the Death” embodies, really, is the birth of a new brand of Who Conservatism. Let’s stop asking of Who to be always the same thing, and instead ask it to be something it is not and shouldn’t be. Well, that’s not entirely correct – it’s rather the exact point where the former brand of regressive Who ideology and the newer, Thrones-influenced one meet, revel, and fellate each other.

The worst thing is – if it indeed wants to be like Game of Thrones, then it failed. Because, as mentioned previously, Thrones has some razor-sharp storytelling competency – not good writing, mind you, it’s often incredibly forced and artificial, but it knows how to move efficiently from a point A to a point B, it knows how to set dominos up and to then knock them down in a way that will satisfy the majority of the audience. “To the Death” can’t even pretend to care about its big strategic deaths: they are not dwelled upon, they are not long, and most of all, they are not foreshadowed, which is a cardinal sin in Thrones-inspired writing, where the attention of the viewer is called upon every single relevant piece of plot well in advance. They just happen, and the story gets credit for doing it, rather than for doing it well.

And that’s the problem, deep down – it’s not that Who can’t be dark, but it needs to find this darkness on its own terms. When you actually get down to it, the show is a formidable tool for anyone that wants to tell dark, uncompromising, horrific stories – because it forces these writers to be creative, to innovate, not to rely on cheap gore and shock, but instead going to look in deep, unexplored places. Only one word: “Extremis”. But it’s a creative process, and a complex one. Searching deep in the past of the show is not the answer. And trying to ape the most popular trends without even understanding what made them worthwhile in the first place is definitely not the answer.

 


[1] http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2016/9/game-of-thrones-wins-three-emmys-and-breaks-two-world-records-444586

[2] Cf. Jon Arnold, Black Archive #10 – Scream of the Shalka, p. 88-90

4 thoughts on “TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Game of Thrones, the Fantasy Ghetto and “To the Death”

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