TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #6: “Demons of the Punjab”

[CW – descriptions of torture, references to trauma and alcohol]

 

Let me tell you the story of a man. 

That man was born in 1926, in the North of France. Saw the war pass, and, no doubt, inspired by the tales of heroism that he heard during it, decided to try his luck in the army. And he had a decent career, as he entered the 1950s, met a lovely wife, and had a lovely little baby boy.

And then, things started to happen in Algeria. Bad things. It was not “a war”, that, everyone was very clear about. Even in the history books, it wouldn’t be described as such for decades – these were the “Events” of Algeria. What that man knew was that the nationalists there, after losing the latest round of elections, had decided to try their luck at armed struggled. Throughout 1955, grim tales were heard – dozens of European settlers and those who took their side being slaughtered with axes, machetes and pickaxes, in the little villages. Fair and proportionate retribution of course follows, with little planes dropping little bombs over the hamlets deemed guilty, those in which bad apples might be hiding. 5000, 7000 killed, about? A strong signal. Also, the start of a cry for vengeance.

Then, just as he was headed there as a soldier, leaving his newborn son and wife behind, things got really nasty. Fighting broke in the streets of Algiers. François Mitterrand, future President of France, then Minister of Justice, merged the police forces of the colonies and of the metropole, essentially allowing for a complete takeover of the colonial justice system. Which then, obviously, as the city was falling into chaos, descended into systematic brutalisation. A bunch of people, maybe 4000 – “General Bigeard’s shrimps”, as they were called – were thrown off helicopters and into the Mediterranean, their feet having been encased in concrete beforehand.  To hide the torture, you understand – can’t have brutalised bodies just be found by the media, that would look bad. Loads of people were just arrested and carried to very cozy little villas to be “interrogated”: not just locals or revolutionaries; if you were a white intellectual with communist sympathies, leaning a bit too far to the left, or a bit too pacifist, chances are you’d be questioned as well, by both soldiers and General De Gaulle’s informal, secret police services. One of the people working there was called Jean-Marie Le Pen; he later became the leader of France’s mainstream far-right party, which is still headed by his daughter Marine today.

In Paris, demonstrations were organised in support of Algeria’s independence. In 1961, the most important of those was repressed by chief of police and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon – his men and a number of far-right militias killing possibly up to 300 people, shot, beaten to death, or thrown in the waters of the Seine.

Of course, I don’t know what the man saw of all these things. I just know what he did when he returned home. Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #5: “The Tsuranga Conundrum”

“May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you home, as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and the next, and all the journeys still to come, for now and evermore.”

First thing first, there’s the complicated authorship question.

The Tsuranga Conundrum” is a Schrödingerian script, in that it’s both by Chris Chibnall and not by Chris Chibnall. As Doctor Who Magazine will tell you, it was originally supposed to be the work of guest writer Tim Price, still credited as the creator of the Pting, who subsequently dropped out, hence a slot having to be filled, probably quite late in the production calendar. While it’s hard to ascertain anything with certainty at the moment, this certainly feels like a casualty of the harsh contingencies of moviemaking – cue a cast that feels too big, with characters severed from their original purpose and left hanging about (here, the android, rather amazingly pointless), and a messy, confusing visual grammar. It’s very “Nightmare in Silver” that way – although, it doesn’t feel like a blunder of the same scale, which does speak rather highly of the skills of Chibnall and his team: there will be problems and issues on all TV sets, and, as damage control jobs go, this is honestly quite solid.

There, we encounter a bit of a dilemma. Ironically, a conundrum much like the one the characters face. This right here has a ton of issues – mostly technical, but not only. And it’s not nitpicking to point that out, because, through accumulation, the little things add up and form static that actively deters from the enjoyment of a non-negligible chunk of the audience. There’s a lot to be written about the failures of the visual storytelling here, especially regarding the use of space: a ton of shots just feel like they’re mostly made of white walls between which the characters wobble and oscillate, with no clear hierarchy of information; there’s no points of focus, with parasitic information everywhere (so many control screens!); the characters are framed in deeply artificial ways when they’re supposed to have naturalistic banter, which leaves a chunk of the cast struggling performance-wise.

But that’s only one aspect of it – and, with Chibnall pushing the scales towards a more serialized version of Who, it may not be the worst thing in the world. Direction problems are only an issue for the fifty minutes of the episode: if the story manages to do build enough thematic structures and meanings to connect to the rest of the series, then it can pretty much be shrugged off as the weaker part of a stronger whole instead of standing shamefully in a corner, a big dunce cap on the head. It’s an approach I happen to personally favor – so, let’s take it as a patient in dire need of a little redemptive reading, and see what we can administer.

Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #4: “Arachnids in the UK”

In its fourth hour, series 11 of Doctor Who is taking a bit of a turn.

It’s subtle, but it’s there – the first three stories, with their impeccable present/future/past rhythm, were very much establishing a vision. Now, we are pushing the themes deeper. Not that you’d necessarily notice it – more than any of the previous entries this year, this is a spin around a familiar genre. A nice sweet satirical monster runaround. And yet …

There’s still something odd, haunting the margins of the story. If Moffat was about making statements, Chibnall is proving to be a writer who finds purpose in incompleteness – the Doctor, in finding her vocation as someone who helps the little people from their own level, their own perspective, also loses the ability to wrap things in a neat little bow. Spiders still crawl under the surface of Sheffield. The Trump-like businessman figure waltzes off unharmed.

Of course, one can look at that and go “Chibnall is a mediocre writer who can’t tie a plot together to save his life”. And well, that’s their prerogative – and one that’s hard to disprove: I don’t personally know the guy. However, when faced with the choice of seeing something as meaningful or just arbitrary, I’m inclined to always go with the former, not just because it makes the internet less of a toxic wasteland, but also because it’s plain more interesting.

… Also, there’s the fact the episode mostly turns out to be about that.

Continue reading

GUEST POST – Enlightenment of the Daleks: a Theory of their History

by James Blanchard

 

“Temmosus: We’ve changed over the centuries. Why shouldn’t they? The once famous warrior race of Thals are now farmers.

Dyoni: But the Daleks were teachers, weren’t they, Temmosus?

Temmosus: And philosophers.

Ganatus: Perhaps they are the warriors now.”[1]

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (building on Hegel) posit that the earliest humans realised themselves as individuals, or separate selves from the rest of the world, when confronted with nature. The tree or mountain or waterfall becomes the Other, the thing which the Self realises it separate from. But more than that, the encounter with nature is awful and terrifying, for nature holds absolute power over the early human; it can grant them favour or destroy them entirely. For that reason, the worship of nature and the association of ancient gods with natural forces is common in ancient societies – the forces of life and death are transformed into gods and demons.[2]

Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #3: “Rosa”

Indispensable preface – this is written by a clueless white person. With that out of the way …

 

History is a matter of narratives.

There’s no such thing as an objective historical progression from point A to point B – history is framed by stories, by people interpreting the data and shaping it into a form that makes sense. And this is not something you can opt out of. You were born with privilege? Well, like Graham in this story, even if you “don’t want to be part of this”, tough luck. You’re born in a certain country? You’re going to have to deal with you belonging to this country, and to its historical weight and legacy. Your skin is a certain colour? Good luck escaping the baggage there – because people’s understanding of history is based on sometimes very crude constructs: if you’re a black person of Senegalese origin living in France, for instance, chances are Rosa Parks’ actions had a really rather limited effect on you and your family; but people will still put your existence, and the historical facts of your existence, in relation to her, because symbols are easier to understand – and by extension, you yourself are going to have to try and understand how she fits with your personal history and life.

Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #2: “The Ghost Monument”

Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?

(Mad Max – Fury Road)

 

Absence.

It’s a word, it’s an emotion, it’s an (absolutely wonderful) Bernice Summerfield audioplay by David O’Mahony. But, most importantly, it’s a key part of “The Ghost Monument”. Not just as far as themes go – but simply on an aesthetic level.

We’ve thrown some comparisons between Who and theatre before – a half-improvised, brilliantly messy performance that never ends. But that rather implies, in its own way, a form of absence – theatre as a medium is defined by absence just as much as by action. The viewers, from a wooden stage and some curtains, and a more-or-less elaborate backdrop, make up the antechamber of a palace, and from there, a whole empire; the off-stage happenings and the pauses in the trembling voice of an actor carry just as much weight as cues and gestures. The full is only defined through and against the empty, the light against the dark.

Continue reading

GUEST POST – Myth v. Reality: the Thirteenth Doctor in the Expanded Universe

by Z.P. Moo

 

She’s here and she’s hit the ground (well, floor of a train carriage) running, the era of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has finally truly got started! It’s an exciting new era and, as someone who really enjoyed “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and “The Ghost Monument“, it’s a good time to be a fan.

Except… that’s not really all true is it? If you’ve been closely following the expanded universe series for the last year and a half then you’ll have already encountered the Thirteenth Doctor a number of times before that episode had even had its title confirmed.

So the question is the following: What do these other appearances tell us about the Thirteenth Doctor’s role within the larger story of Doctor Who? And what do these things tell us to expect from her future episodes?

Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor – #1 – “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

You can learn a lot from where a writer sets the first act of his long, multi-series epic saga.

Rose”. People say Russell T. Davies’ Who is very grounded and down-to-earth, which is not untrue, but the places that dominate his first Who story embody a very particular kind of everyday. A shopping mall. The London Eye. They’re symbols, signifiers – of class struggle, of an economic system and social reality, of a place and a time. It’s realistic, yes, but its realism is rooted in the fictional.

The Eleventh Hour”. A house – a locked room, invisible and unseen, within the house: secrets, traumas, things hidden and concealed. An hospital – a place that’s, in theory at least, supposed to be defined by its exceptional nature: you enter and leave because of a very specific purpose. The narrative shifts – instead of a semi-realistic universe, composed, collage-like, of bits of symbols and experience, we enter the domain of the intimate and personal. Internal struggles getting exteriorised: an era where we ponder self-betterment, mental illness, power dynamics. If there’s realism – and there doesn’t have to be, purposeful style can be just as meaningful – it’s to be found within the workings of the human mind.

  1. The Woman who Fell to Earth”.

Continue reading

GUEST POST – Amy Pond, mental health and me

by Jonne Bartelds

[Content warnings: mentions of depression and suicide.]

 

But if you’re out there and you’re drifting in space, the one thing that I wanna tell you, the one just little transmission from my spacecraft to yours is just the thing that I wish someone had been there to tell me those two nights when I tried it. It’s the simplest and most powerful phrase in the English language, I think:

I understand how you feel.”

– Oliver Thorn (Philosophy Tube), Suic!de and Ment@l He@lth

I understand. Really, I do.”

– Amy Pond, “Victory of the Daleks

Continue reading