TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Last Word: Archeology, Politics & Who

Let’s talk about Indiana Jones for a bit.

Now, from a storytelling perspective, it might look like an arbitrary combination of cool bits. “Archeologist” + “whip” + “Nazis” + “traps” + “John Williams theme” = a franchise. But it goes a little bit further than this – there is a train of thought at work here. He’s not just an action hero – Indy is an archeologist, and that is not neutral. He’s a man that literally walks through history – a time-traveler, albeit a rudimentary one. A man that acts as an arbiter in the confrontation between “good” and “evil” sides of history. Because that’s an interesting point with these movies – he never actually defeats the bad guy. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom” both end with the antagonist executed by divine intervention, be that deity the Old Testament God or Shiva. “The Last Crusade” has the two evil guys dying because of their own greed and desire for riches and power, trying to seize the Grail no matter what. The Icons of ancient history are given new power to defeat another historical icon: because those movies are ideologically iffy as fuck, sometimes it is the Bad Native, the primitive sorcerer. But most of the time it’s the Nazis. Pop culture does so love a good Nazi. It’s just fact. HYDRA, the Red Skull, Hans Landa – that stuff sells. They’re a useful tool in terms of storytelling – they are so abject, so over-the-top in their evil that you can basically go anywhere with them and still not break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Magician Nazis, Mecha-Nazis, whatever. It’s no coincidence that the rise of the classic FPS game, with a healthy dose of blood and guts, was heralded by Doom and Wolfenstein – one where you kill literal demons from hell, the other where you kill Nazis. Both franchises still exist, with (very good) modern reinventions, by the way – when you need to go outrageously violent, be that violence destined to be a recreation or an exploitative spectacle (‘cause we could also talk about Dyanne Thorne and the whole Nazisploitation vague, but that’ll probably get a little off topic), you still can’t do much better than the Nazis. They have become a meme – not just in a comedic way, but rather in that they constitute a shortcut in communication. A swastika or a mustachioed despot are units of meaning just as efficient as the effigy of a god, or a painting on the walls of a cave. They’re icons.

Superposition is a form of storytelling science-fiction revels in – glue together pieces of past and future and present, make them hold together through technobabble. So it’s not surprising a number of narratives in the genre are based on that precise opposition, between two divergent icons. Take Stargate, for instance – the US military, in all its might, with its heroic soldiers, plucky scientists and men in black, versus the Pagan Gods. If we’re searching for an example within the Doctor Who canon, “Victory of the Daleks” is maybe the most blatant to date. Jack Graham’s very good “Victory of the Icon” essay says it all.

Mind you, I’m not accusing the Doctor Who production team of consciously taking on the roles of ideological commissars. That would be to credit them with too much self-awareness. In the minds of the production team, foremost seems to be the issue of Churchill’s status as a “British icon” (this being assumed to be self-evidently good and implicitly appropriate subject matter). The various interviewees on the ‘Victory’ Confidential episode do a lot of blithering on about how Churchill and the Daleks are both “British icons”. Indeed, so steeped in this kind of thinking is Gatiss that, when commenting approvingly on the redesigned Daleks, he describes them as looking “like Minis”. (…)

‘Churchill vs. the Daleks’ was the way Moffat supposedly described his requirements to Gatiss. So Gatiss delivers a story in which the evil Daleks deceive and then fight the good Churchill. The evil “British icon” vs. the good “British icon”.

Still, Indiana Jones, bar the last minutes of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, is not really science-fiction, more like a wish-fulfilling uchronic fantasy. Therefore, it’s pretty interesting to see what becomes of the archeologist figure, of this arbiter in the war between icons, once we put it in a science-fiction context. Once we have accepted archeology as a form of time travel, how can it be integrated in a universe where those kind of dimensional-hopping shenanigans are actually possible?

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Fall of the House of Ness: notes on “Class” (2/3)

[This is the second part of a collection of short pieces looking at Class through the very subjective point of view of someone both fascinated and left unsatisfied by the show – it goes without saying that reading the first, focusing on the initial three episodes, is advised! This week, I tackle (mostly) the central two-parter.]

[Also, it contains a slightly NSFW GIF of a lesbian sex scene – be warned]

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SCARVES AND CELERY / TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Extra post: DoWntime Responds – A few thoughts on Doctor Who “Role Models”

SCARVES: We’re back for another “DoWntime Responds”, but this time, we’re taking a different approach. Today, myself and Tibere are co-writing a response to “A Few Thoughts on Doctor Who “Role Models””, a guest article written for Doctor Who TV by Casey Riggins. Riggins makes a case against casting a female Doctor on the grounds of the importance of the Doctor being a positive male role model, in the context of Peter Davison making similar comments at a panel recently, and leaving twitter in the ensuing social media storm that followed. Unsurprisingly, none of the writers at DoWntime share the uncertainty Riggins has towards Jodie Whittaker’s casting, but more importantly, we had problems with the way Riggins makes his argument, and as such, felt a direct response was worth writing, especially as, at the time of writing this article, Doctor Who TV has yet to publish a direct response to Riggins, although the site has since hosted an article that is more positive about the casting of a female Doctor. As such, we’re going to be critical of Riggins’s specific arguments, and DWTV’s use of his platform, but we’re going to keep our criticisms to the arguments made only: we don’t want to resort to personal attacks, and don’t want our audience to do so either.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “Sir, I protest, I am not a Merry Man!”: Robot of Sherwood and narrative spaces

When things have gotten a bit political and complicated on here, you know what one must do?

Go and rave about series 8. Again. Be warned, it is not the first time, and it won’t be the last.

But not about the big, huge, dark setpieces. Not that I don’t have material on those, but let’s do something a little simpler and happier. “Robot of Sherwood”, here I come.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Fall of the House of Ness: notes on “Class” (1/3)

And so it came to pass, that in 2016, a new Doctor Who spin-off was launched.

It was a YA show, written by acclaimed author Patrick Ness, and Class was its name. And, as we all know by now, it was a failure. A PR failure, that is (assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the storytelling, that’s for later) – a project that was unclear for most of the non-hardcore fans, surrounded by silence until two trailers dropped essentially in the same week only less than a month before it aired, that’s not exactly bound for success. By the time this piece is written, it’s relatively safe to assume that the dying show, losing blood in some obscure English back alley, hasn’t been rescued by an American tourist and is now well and truly dead (although, I hope not, and if you know the address of a good necromancer, that could come in handy) – which means, of course, it’s time for a post-mortem. What was Class, what did it do, where did it succeed, where did it failed and what was it trying to say. Those are the action items.

Of course, an introduction might be in order, just so that my position as far as the show’s concerned is clear. I, personally, was eagerly waiting for the eight episodes to drop – the set-up sounded unconventional and intriguing, and, grabbing some books by the author, I very quickly found out I really, really loved Ness’ writing (seriously, Chaos Walking is the shit). Really, my take was that more Who, under any form, unless said content is seriously offensive, is always a good thing – more material, more experimentation, and if we want to be all crude and capitalist, more brand presence. But then the show actually happened, and I was confused, and grew all the more confused with the weeks that passed – and at the end, I was left intrigued and challenged, but not really satisfied. It’s not that Class is a bad show – it’s a very interesting piece of writing that, at its best, showcases some extremly ambitious storytelling. It has a vision. But at the same time, it’s also an extremly flawed piece of fiction – and it’s not the simple case where you can clearly draw a line between the “good” and the “bad” elements, no; with Class, the good and the bad are often one and the same. It’s a wild whirlwind of a show – one that demands, maybe more than any slice of Who before, to be analyzed and discussed. So let’s try to do just that, and to make sense of all the strange strange elements that make the world of Class.

Having a look at the show as a whole is not really possible, though, because Scribbles has already done it, and while he’s a lot more positive on “The Lost” than me, I don’t think I have much to add to his analysis. Go read it, it’s great. No, instead, this series is going to be an ensemble of micro-essays looking at different aspects of the show – different characters, different issues, different themes and motives. This post covers the three first episodes, and will be followed by a second tackling the Heart two-parter, and by a third focused on “Detained“, “The Metaphyiscal Engine” and “The Lost“.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Requiem in D-alek Minor

I’m giving in to the inevitable. Daleks, death, and taxes.”  – The Seventh Doctor

 

I’m putting forward a proposition: “The Lights of Skaro” is the best Dalek story of them all.

Some context is required, though, be it only because it doesn’t have the same fame as “Genesis” or “Power” or the New Show’s episodes. So. “The Lights of Skaro” is the last story on the first boxset of the New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, published by Big Finish in 2014, and written by one of the company’s greatest assets, the genius known as James Goss. I’ll do my best to provide a summary, but honestly, this is going to be spoiler-filled and if you still haven’t experienced it, you should absolutely do that right now, by any means necessary: while I can’t pretend to have the exhaustive knowledge of Big Finish that my dear co-editor Scribbles has, I definitely feel like (and he agrees, so here’s your appeal to authority) it’s one of the absolute best releases they ever did.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Extra Post: On Steven Moffat and bad criticism

Steven Moffat is not a perfect writer.

It’s obvious, really – no writer is. And, as an author with a very clear style and strongly delineated themes, of course there are going to be patterns and recurring flaws in his writing, and of course said writing is not going to appeal to everyone. I’m a fan, but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn a critical eye to his era and notice weak episodes, bad runs, and flawed storytelling in places.

But apparently, I missed a memo, because this man is a terrible writer, the devil, and also he shot my dog, ate him, baked him in a pie he then proceeded to serve to a bunch of Satanists in a black mass presided by Richard Spencer, Beelzebub and the ghost of Chairman Mao.

Silly me.

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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.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Moffat Era and three-dimensional screenwriting

Opening cliché statement: the Moffat era of Doctor Who is one hell of a marmite.

It goes beyond the simple outraged and simultaneous cries of “He’s a misogynist!” and “He’s a Social Justice Warrior!” of “He’s repeating himself!” and of “He’s changing the very fabric of the show, the gall!” – the very way he approaches storytelling is divisive. Intentionally so – he’s a media-savvy master ès trolling, that will never hesitate to purposefully provoke and antagonize. Which is why he’s also the best writer Who ever had (sorry, not sorry!) – because that’s what the show is about. Being chaotic and confusing and throwing the whole scope of the time vortex at the flabbergasted viewer. Sure, not everyone has to like it, and sometimes one can rightfully wish for a more subdued vision of the show. Still, he does “get” it; he taps into something that’s deeply, primarily tied to the essence and ethos of Who.

But let’s try a change of perspective, for once. Let’s try not to talk about themes – really, dressing a complete and accurate portrait of the man and his writing style is a bit of an impossible task anyway. There’s way too much to say – you could write books about it, and indeed, books were and will be written about it. Keeping things at a purely structural level: what does Steven Moffat adds to the show? What are the core ideas he brings to its basic skeleton – not the themes, not the writing mannerisms, but the pure, structural ideas – ?

Well, proposition: Steven Moffat has changed, and continues to change, the status of the Doctor Who writer.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Mirror Image: “The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion” and visual storytelling

[A short warning: due to some real-life commitments, also known as finals, I had to put some more elaborate articles on hold – so instead you’re getting this slice of very nitpicky analysis. It’s a bit more low-hanging and cheap that what usually fills my side of the website, I’ll be the first to admit it. Don’t worry, though that’s not what the future of this column looks like, it’s more a little aside. That hopefully will prove enjoyable!]


The one where we look into the eyes of the giant red squids.

 “I had this insane conversation with [director Daniel Nettheim] where he was saying ‘This bit doesn’t work. What am I going to do? I’m shooting on Monday!’ ” – Steven Moffat

Tomorrow, “Extremis” is going to air – an episode written by Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim. If you’re paying attention to the names of various Who directors, you’d have noticed Nettheim, who has worked a lot on British TV since the 1990s – doing some work on Glue, most recently – has previously helmed the series 9 two-parter, “The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion“.

I’m on record as being notoriously cold on that two-parter. It’s not awful by any means, but it’s inconsistent and riddled with weird quirks – an especially unfortunate state of affairs for an episode that tries to tackle extremly dark, difficult and contemporary subjects. But this is not about a complete analysis of that story (although I do have some folders full of notes about it and am intending to put those to good use) – let’s focus instead on one specific aspect.

But first, a proposition: the Moffat era is arguably the first time in Doctor Who’s history where visually-driven storytelling has been a consistent and important feature all throughout the series. Or, at the very least: a lot of Moffat’s talent rests on his ability to craft a cohesive nexus of meaning encompassing both the technical aspects of an episode and its script. The show looks good, very good these days, and has more than its share of absolutely stellar directors, from Rachel Talalay to Paul Whilmshurst.

Which makes it all the more obvious, of course, when someone is not exactly up to the task. If you assume as a starting point that the directing of an episode is a text that parallels and complements the actual script, with every shot and cut being a letter or a punctuation mark – then, well, if that text is not impeccably written, or if it contradicts the script in some key ways, well, we’ve got trouble, to quote Peter Capaldi back in his hotel manager days.

And, obviously, I think this episode has quite a lot of issues at the visual level. Let’s talk about those, shall we?

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