TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #11: “Resolution”

And so, the long journey of soul-searching the show has gone on over a few months ends.

Resolution” isn’t, of course, some kind of revolutionary masterpiece. But it is, very much notably, completely breaking away from the style Chibnall developed in his Whittaker episodes so far  – empty meditations about absence, a dramatization of the collapse of Who itself, call it what you want. As in the show, and its lead writer, had sort of decided to stop lamenting its inability to rise up to the task, and decided to go “eh, whatever, let’s try”; inverting the set-up of “The Woman who Fell to Earth” as to proclaim that this is the real beginning, that the previous statement of purpose of the era wasn’t quite the right one, and that now we can properly get to business. It’s quite like his work on Torchwood: broad, and kind of sloppy, but it has an energy and a truthfulness to it, bits of brilliance shining through.

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INTERVIEW – Jake Black, Niki Haringsma and “The Book of the Peace”

The worlds of Doctor Who have plenty of facets, but, of those, few are as obscure and enthralling as the mythic dominion of Faction Paradox, two words which elicit an equal amount of “ooooh yes” and “what the actual fuck” among the fandom. But, in its secret rooms and obscure boudoirs, the brainchild of Lawrence Miles is still growing strong at the hands of Obverse books and its team of elite canon-welders – their newest anthology, The Book of the Peace, which came out today!

And two of the writers published in it are here to talk about it! I didn’t blackmail them with pictures of my newborn kitten, I swear.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #9: “It Takes You Away”

Two things before we go – one, I’ve noticed I didn’t plug on here the article I wrote on James Wylder’s excellent blog here. So … There you go. It’s about the new Halloween movie, and if you’ve enjoyed last week’s “Witchfinders” essay, I’m sure you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

Second, and I’m very honoured to say so, I can now officially announced I will get to rant about Chris Chibnall’s era in a more formal capacity, since I’ll be publishing a book-length analysis of “Arachnids in the UK” for the Black Archive range of Obverse Books in November 2020. Mark the date, beloved readers!

Now, to the main attraction …

 


Run!

That’s how Doctor Who restarts, in 2005. One word, opening the floodgates, letting the wonders of the universe come in.

One word – and one paradox.

There is, after all, something deeply ambivalent about that idea of running: the Doctor “never stops, and never stays”, to quote “Last of the Time Lords”, but that can be both praise and indictment. They are a force of revolution, of upheaval, sending monsters back into the dark and toppling unjust regimes – but their actions are less of a continuous process, and more of a series of spectacular and explosive dots. It’s revolution, but without the boring parts: the struggle, the grind, the effort. It’s revolutionary politics as imagined by an aristocrat from a race of gods: more aesthetics than praxis.

Which is why writers have actively questioned that ever-present silent dynamic: including, which is relevant to the conversation is, Chris Chibnall in “The Power of Three”, when he has Eleven say that he’s not running “from” things, but “to” them. But of course, the main dichotomy is the one Moffat introduces at the tail end of his run: against “run, you clever boy”, he conjures up “where I stand is where I fall”. In front of a new political and human context, the Doctor needs to learn new modes of engagement with humans, and human affairs.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #8: “The Witchfinders”

It’s at this point in our analysis of series 11 that we must step back and acknowledge that it is very, very messy. This episode we’re discussing has had its airing order shifted around so much it’s basically impossible to ascertain where it originally fitted, for instance (the sixth slot? I think?). That’s undeniable. But then again: a lot of Who is messy – it’s just the issues this run has been experiencing feel all the more problematic given the structural strengths of the previous era and the way it very explicitly set up themes and avenues which are not all followed upon on one side; and the fact that it’s 2018, that Donald Trump is president of the United States, that the world sucks, and that it is incredibly easy for storytelling failures to become actual moral flaws in such a context.

The Doctor, as both a character and a concept, embodies this chaos well. The Thirteenth Doctor is, to put it charitably, complicated: she “loves conspiracies” (“Arachnids in the UK”) and also dislikes them (“Kerblam!”); she has a real love of material pleasures (be them the Kerblam! products, fried egg sandwiches, or apple-bobbing) while also basically acting as a tour guide for people who flee the horrors of materialist societies; she advocates for love and hope, but fails to shape these principles into an actual praxis or any form of political action.

And the Doctor, is, of course, allowed to be contradictory, with some writers even making a point of emphasising it: but these contradictions feel incredibly frustrating after the final Capaldi series, which felt like a very careful elaboration of a political agenda specific to the show, a (re)definition of its mission as a TV program; and with the first female Doctor. Because there is a problem there: in and on itself, having the Doctor adopting a privileged position is not unique, or even bad. It’s incredibly easy to rationalise their policy of historical non-intervention when you put it in relation with the fact they come from a society which is essentially the history police (and, according to the Wilderness Years lore, the creators of the concept of history itself, through Rassillon supervising the “Anchoring of the Thread”): there is a part of the Doctor which will always carry forwards that education, that sociological determinism, be it only in the way they experience time not as a linear succession of ordeals and sorrows, with actual effort required to structure a good life, but as what is essentially a highlights reel. But by changing the parameters of gender, you end up with what is essentially Schrödinger’s aristocrat: holder of privilege and subject of oppression simultaneously, and the series structures itself, consciously or not, around that paradox.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #7: “Kerblam!”

Order # 202-7639423-1748323: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, ed. Gallimard, translation in French and preface by Jacques Chambon

If I open this book, which is currently laying somewhere in my bedroom, I’ll find that sentence in there – a definition, by the translator, of what a dystopia is: “It projects a contemporary situation in the future, making it more impactful, zooming in order to turn it into an alarm bell for the present.”

That’s not what “Kerblam!” is, obviously. No, “Kerblam!” is something quite different, and genuinely unique. It’s not satire – it’s certainly not an utopia. It’s rather … An inversion of the dynamic of dystopia. Instead of current events and extrapolating from those a set of concerns which will structure a sci-fi plot, this episode takes a set of current concerns, and attempts to use science-fiction to essentially debunk them. It’s essentially a version of 1984 where George Orwell’s answer, in front of the rise of totalitarianisms, would be to show you a future in which we’ve made our peace with those and are living happily.  Anti-dystopia.

That, of course, will raise and has raised voices saying that it’s an absolutely fascinating subject for narrative analysis. And well, they’re not wrong, it is rather fascinating. In the same way someone deciding to shoot a movie through the singular medium of go-pros strapped onto tigers who are then sent to hunt down the cast would be fascinating. It’s a bit dangerous, the end result is probably going to have some “light” structural issues, and it’s just a fucking stupid idea through and through.

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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.

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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.

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