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.

SCARVES AND CELERY – Halfway Out of the Dark: “A Christmas Carol”

Jodie Whittaker’s first seasonal special airs tomorrow, and as such, I thought now would be a good time to revisit “A Christmas Carol”, my favourite Christmas special, and the first Christmas special of the Moffat era, before the end of the Christmas period. This is a collection of previous thoughts I’ve collected on the story, so those of you who follow me on tumblr, or read my blog when I posted regularly on blogspot, will recognise much of this essay, but I’ve added in a few new thoughts, so there’s new content here, too. Wishing all of you a happy new year, those of us here at DoWntime will see you in 2019!

 

I love “A Christmas Carol”. It’s one of my favourite Doctor Who stories ever. In typical Doctor Who fashion, it openly borrows from the Charles Dickens classic to create a story that is moving, funny and inventive. It came along at just the right time for me: although Series five’s now one of my favourite runs of Doctor Who, at the time, I was just beginning to get bored of the show (I was a sixteen-year old trying to convince myself I was too grown up for Doctor Who – in my defence, most people are idiots when they’re sixteen). Then this story came along, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was hooked on Doctor Who again. Socially, I was doomed. I regret nothing.

This episode is a huge Matt Smith charm offensive, much in the vein of “The Eleventh Hour”, giving the Eleventh Doctor plenty of screen time to be clever, heroic, and generally at his most fun to watch. My personal favourite sequence is the Eleventh Doctor’s entrance, which sees him being generally hilarious and stealing the scene, but also gives him some lovely dark moments that show Matt Smith’s gift for switching tone at the drop of a hat, and also show the building dark side of the Eleventh Doctor, that will start to be critiqued and rejected over the course of his era.

The fairy-tale nature of the Moffat era starts to pay off in a big way, in a beautiful and confident Christmas special, totally embracing its status as a Christmas story, with the opening pan through Sardicktown beautifully establishing the episode’s fairytale tone and aesthetic.

This fairytale tone and aesthetic gives us a particularly delightful concept that allows me to indulge my vegan agenda a little more: a planet of naturally occurring flying fish. Once agin, we see Moffat’s minor, but recurring, preoccupation with the mistreatment of animals emerge in this script: Kazran’s father spreads lies and misinformation about the fish being “dangerous” so that he can gain control of the planet. To quote Kazran: “Tame the sky, he says. The fish’ll be able to come down, but only when we let them. We can charge whatever we like.” Societal fear and mistreatment of animals stems from Elliot Sardick’s capitalist greed and accumulation of wealth: they become his means of controlling the population. And the Doctor’s disgust at this is expressed in fairytale terms: “Tame the sky. Human beings. You always manage to find the boring alternative, don’t you?”: Elliot’s actions rob his planet of its fairytale beauty and wonder through through exploitation of animals and people in the name of profit.

But as well as being disgusted by Kazran’s exploitative fear mongering about the mostly harmless fish, the audience is also invited to empathize with the one fish we see that does pose a threat:

“DOCTOR: She was trying to eat you. 
KAZRAN: She was hungry.”

Here we see an example of another point several Moffat scripts touch on: very few things are evil, but everything needs to eat, to paraphrase a Doctor line from “The Pilot”. We are asked to empathise with the predator, instead of viewing it as evil simply because we are at the other end of the cutlery, and see that it deserves to be saved, as a being that acts not out of malice, but of a basic need to live.

Another way the Moffat era aesthetic and approach is becoming increasingly clear and confident comes in the form of time travel being used as a source of fun and play that adds colour to the story, here in the form of the “7245” sequence, which is a cute paradox. The Doctor learns the code from older Kazran, who knows it not because of his father, but because the Doctor told younger Kazran after learning it from older Kazran. Clever and cute!

The metatextual elements of the era are becoming increasingly clear as well. The episode is explicit about the way it is simultaneously borrowing from and adapting the Dickens story, even in the narrative itself: the Doctor recognises that Kazran is a scrooge-like figure, is inspired by hearing the title of the novel, and takes the opportunity to perform his own twist on the narrative to save the day in this story.

The metatextuality is also evident in the episode’s imagery and direction: As Kazran watches the night he first meets the Doctor on a screen, becoming, like the Doctor, a metatextual figure as he becomes an analogue for the Doctor Who audience, reacting as a viewer would to the events of his changing past. Of particular significance is the moment where on Kazran’s orders, the Doctor leaves Kazran’s sitting room in the present, and steps back into Kazran’s past. Because the Doctor does this by stepping from the room into the recording superimposed on the sitting room entrance, this all occurs in one take, with no camera cuts for the Doctor’s time travel. The Doctor just moves from one medium – the narrative’s reality – into a new medium: a Doctor Who episode organized by the Doctor himself, as he travels to a miser’s past in the name of saving his soul. Past and present blur into one through the episode’s use of metatextual visual storytelling.

So Kazran’s final moment of redemption comes when he makes it clear that he also knows what kind of narrative he’s in: “I’ll die alone, and unloved”, but while Kazran is aware of the kind of story he’s in, the Doctor is able to subvert that story with his own anarchic twist on “A Christmas Carol”, using Doctor Who’s current approach to time travel to subvert the nature of a Christmas Carol’s use of time travel – the Doctor confronts young Kazran with the image of old Kazran, and this is when Kazran’s redemption is achieved.

Abigail is often called a literal woman in the refrigerator, which is a fair critique: she literally starts the story inside an ice box, and her story revolves around the tragedy of her terminal illness, but I think the episode’s invoking the trope to critique it.

I’ll assume that most people reading this know what I’m talking about, but it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to define the ‘woman in refridgerator’ trope. It originates from comics fandom, and was coined by Gail Simone, who compiled a list of all the times in comics women were either brutually murdered or subjected to degrading treatment, cutting off their character  arcs to further the (usually angsty) development of a male protagonist (who’s usually her lover or father). Although the term was coined in comics fandom, the trope can be seen across all forms of fiction. The trope is, in my opinion one of the worst and most harmful examples of the sexist treatment of female characters in storytelling.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the episode thinks the same thing:

DOCTOR: Who’s she? 
SARDICK: Nobody important. 
DOCTOR: Nobody important. Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.

Kazran tries to write off Abigail, the woman in the refrigerator, as unimportant. The Doctor disagrees. No one is unimportant. No one deserves to have their story cut short. That’s the episode’s attitude to fridging, summed up in three lines.

However, to engage with a trope, you do have to evoke it, and at first “A Christmas Carol” follows the trope as if from a textbook. In an attempt to save Kazran’s soul, the Doctor travels back in time to give Kazran a happier childhood. While doing this, the Doctor and Kazran release Abigail from her cryochamber, and Kazran and Abigail fall in love. But Abigail is dying, and when she reveals to Kazran that she only has one day left to live. This exchange follows:

KAZRAN: Good night, Abigail.

ABIGAIL: Good night, Kazran.

(Kazran seals Abigail in her cryochamber.)

This is the moment where the fridging happens. Abigail, doomed to die, is literally shut in a fridge, her story cruelly cut short. Her male lover grieves and angsts over her. But there are still twenty minutes of the story to go, and there’s nothing Moffat loves more than turning a narrative on its head. The Doctor, with his own twist on Christmas future, convinces Kazran to save the starliner, but Kazran can no longer work the controls to the cloud belt. The only way left to save the day comes from Abigail. To save the day, Abigail has to be brought out of the refrigerator.

And so, we get this scene:

SARDICK: Could you do it? Could you do this? Think about it, Doctor. One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?

ABIGAIL: Christmas. Christmas Day. Look at you. You’re so old now. I think you waited a bit too long, didn’t you?

SARDICK: I’m sorry.

ABIGAIL: Hoarding my days, like an old miser.

SARDICK: But if you leave the ice now

ABIGAIL: We’ve had so many Christmas Eves, Kazran. I think it’s time for Christmas Day.

“One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?”/ “Christmas. Christmas Day.” This brief exchange turns the narrative’s treatment of Abigail on its head. The perspective shifts from Kazran to Abigail, as we are shown that this is not just Kazran’s last day with his beloved, but Abigail’s as well. And she gets to define the terms of her death: stating that Christmas day is the day she wants to be her last day alive. She then critiques Kazran’s behaviour, in softer terms than the Doctor, at the start of the episode, saying he shouldn’t have been hoarding her days: the Fridging narrative is denounced by the woman set up to be the victim of it. Finally, she refutes Kazran’s protestations, stating that she’s ready for Christmas day. Any leftover desire he has to take control of her life is shut down. Christmas is saved by Abigail’s song, and we’re halfway out of the dark.

So yes, A Christmas Carol” does feature the woman in refrigerator trope. It uses the trope in order to critique it, and then replace it with a better story. This story is seen in the final shot of Kazran and Abigail, riding the shark sleigh and laughing as they do so. A story in which grief and death are sad, and therefore it’s all the more important that we celebrate life while we can still live it.

This episode is not the best Moffat will do this: it will be more central to future stories he writes, instead of being on the margins and easy to miss and take for an uncritical application of the trope, but this is the first time we see it appear in his Doctor Who work, and the subversion is, for my money, smartly written, if a bit too quiet a part of the episode. Most significantly, it’s an example of the continued emergence of some valuable feminist themes that become increasingly prominent throughout Moffat’s era, one that is consistently invested in critiquing bad stories and switching them for better, more useful ones.

SCARVES AND CELERY – Promoting Doctor Who Fan Fiction: “The Twelfth Doctor Adventures” is a Wonderful Thing

Something a little different today – this is not a regular column, but a bit of promotion for a fan series that everyone here at DoWntime has worked on – our very own Janine Rivers’ non profit fan produced audio drama “The Twelfth Doctor Adventures”. As part of the lead in to the series’ Christmas special, I’ve written this post, where, as one of the writers on the series, I promote the first series, and as a fan of the production, I talk about what it means to me.

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SCARVES AND CELERY – The System is the Problem: A Critique of “Kerblam!”

It would have been easy for Doctor Who to overthrow space Amazon.

In some ways, that’s what makes “Kerblam!” one of, if not the, best put together episodes of series 11 so far. That’s also why I hated it, and found it the most morally repugnant Doctor Who episode I’ve ever watched. Here’s where my take may just diverge a little: the things that make it morally repugnant might just make it the best critique of neoliberal capitalism Doctor Who has ever made.

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SCARVES AND CELERY – Crossing the Threshold: Looking Back at “Rose”

He already had, and would go on to, write better episodes of television, but “Rose” is RTD’s greatest ever achievement as a writer. Against all the odds, he successfully relaunched an old cult sci-fi show that hadn’t been regularly on air for 16 years, and according to all industry experts and media commentators, was out of place in the 21st century. To pull the show’s triumphant return off in that context is hugely impressive, and to write an episode that still sparkles in its own way, and carries the promise of further brilliance is no mean feat.

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GUEST POST – Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, resurrection, and the obligations of Doctor Who – Part 4: On the obligations of Who as a family show

by A.L. Belmont

 

With the last two companion departures, a great deal of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the argument against resurrection, so in this article series, I’ll analyze what I think are the five key assumptions.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series treat the death-resurrection combination in the abstract. Part 3 examines the specific cases of Clara and Bill, and part 4 looks at death and resurrection in the context of the show’s ethos. This fourth part evaluates the death-resurrection sequence in the context of Doctor Who as a family show that seeks to impart edifying lessons.

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GUEST POST – Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, Resurrection, and the Obligations of Doctor Who – Part 3: On Clara and Bill’s resurrections

by  A. L. Belmont

 

With the last two companion departures, a great deal of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the argument against resurrection, so in this article series, I’ll analyze what I think are the five key assumptions.

It turns out that a big part of the “should dead characters stay dead” controversy stems from Moffat’s “disquieting tendency” to revive dead characters (because apparently, though I learned in statistics class that two points make a line and three make a trend, in the Who fandom, two points make not only a trend but an extremely distressing one on par with rising global temperatures and political polarization). So this third part examines the roles of death and resurrection in Clara and Bill’s arcs and asks whether either was necessary.

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SCARVES AND CELERY – The Series Nine Finale Trilogy: Part Three, “Hell Bent”

Writer’s Note: I’m Afraid I don’t have any new posts ready this week – I’ve been working on some other projects, and getting things sorted in my personal life. However, I do have the last of my old blog posts on the series nine finale trilogy to share: an essay on the excellent, though contentious, episode “Hell Bent”. I think now’s an especially appropriate time to share this post, as it goes rather nicely alongside A.L. Belmont’s excellent continuing series of guest posts on death and resurrection in Moffat’s Doctor Who. 

 

I actually find “Hell Bent” more interesting (not necessarily better, but more interesting) than “Heaven Sent”, which I also loved, and was masterfully put together, but worked as you’d expect a Moffat puzzle box to work (the first time I saw the burnt hand in the pre credits, I thought “That’ll probably turn out to be the Doctor“). By contrast, I found it much trickier to figure out what this episode was doing, but once it became clear, I was delighted. Rejecting the epic for the personal is a Moffat era theme I rather love, and I think it’s one that’s done particularly well here, unfolding slowly but methodically over the course of three acts.

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GUEST POST – Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, resurrection, and the obligations of Doctor Who – Part 2: Death and emotional impact in fiction

by A. L. Belmont

 

With the last two companion departures, a lot of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the argument against resurrection, so in this article series, I’ll analyze what I think are the five key assumptions.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series treat the death-resurrection combination in the abstract. Part 3 examines the specific cases of Clara and Bill, and part 4 looks at death and resurrection in the context of the show’s ethos. This second part dissects the common argument that resurrection ruins the emotional impact and investment death creates by examining where emotional impact comes from and how resurrection affects it.

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GUEST POST – Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, Resurrection, and the Obligations of Doctor Who – Part One: On the nature and responsibilities of fiction

by A.L. Belmont

 

With the last two companion departures, a great deal of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. I’ve been following the controversy and find it interesting that the general anti-resurrection argument has shifted from “Moffat should not kill companions” to “If Moffat is going to kill a companion, they need to stay dead.” As one Redditor put it:

“People don’t care that he doesn’t want to kill his characters. People care that he keeps repeatedly killing them, and then bringing them back. Either kill them, or don’t, because what he’s doing right now is cheapening death entirely. It’s difficult to take any kind of death seriously when it’s so easily undone all the time.”

The Redditor also said that Moffat apparently doesn’t really understand these criticisms, and I’m quite sad about that because that means nobody has really mounted an effective counterargument to these (excellent and very valid) points. Not that that’s a problem, necessarily. Maybe this is all just gut feelings in the end, and I have a gut feeling that dead characters do not have to stay dead, but you have a gut feeling that dead characters have to stay dead, and we should all just take a deep breath and get off the Internet. Nonetheless, I’m going to be that person who insists there’s some deep reason behind everything. So let’s get to it.

I’ve noticed a lot of assumptions implicit in the anti-resurrection argument as represented here and elsewhere, so I’d like to dissect what I think are the five main ones. Parts 1 and 2 of this series treat the death-resurrection combination in the abstract. Part 3 examines the specific cases of Clara and Bill, and part 4 looks at death and resurrection in the context of the show’s ethos. This first part asks whether death in fiction has to work like death in real life, and whether resurrection is technologically possible in the Whoniverse.

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