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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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.

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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.

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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”.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”, is, like, really good y’all

Or – “Tibbles & the Daleks #4: Capitalist Dalek”

 

Sometimes, there’s just a story that pushes you to reconsider a lot of stuff you took for granted.

See, one of the very first things I wrote for this humble blog was a contradictions-ridden series about the Daleks, their aesthetics, and their politics. Which arrived at the semi-sincere, semi-provocative conclusion that Daleks, as symbols and embodiments of fascism, had kind of ran their course, prisoners of a rather dated idea of totalitarianism, incapable of properly carrying a story in a post-Trump world. By othering fascism, they shift the blame away from the human race, away from our own potential for horror.

As it turns out, that might have been a really bad take. For starters, giving human fascists the benefit of “complexity” feels a tiny bit too centrist, in this day and age. But mostly – writers have adapted, and overcome, and found ways to connect the Daleks with sheer, raw political horror once again. The first sign came from Janine Rivers’ “Ghosts in the Machine”, a fan audio which came out a few months ago (1), and its very direct engagement with the worst of alt-right ideology, albeit seen through a sci-fi prism. And then, completely unexpected, the Big Finish writing debut of one David K. Barnes, award-winning audio writer and official recipient of the Best BF Barnes award (they have like, four of those now?) – “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – 2005 Didn’t Kill the Classic Stars: why the Who revival is good, actually

Some words before the article: as you may have noticed, the site hasn’t been update in a while. That’s due to two things: one, the fact that the people managing it, me included, have been insanely busy (I’m moving to another country! it takes time, and brainpower). Two: there are going to be some massive changes in how the site is managed, including columns being drastically altered or disappearing, and some arrivals and departures as far as the team is concerned. Normal service should resume, at worst, in October.

Thank you for the inquiries I have received about the fate of the blog, it is honestly heartwarming to see concern for us! We are, hopefully, not going anywhere, and we hope we’ll be able to provide you with quality content for many years to come.

Now, to the meat of the today’s discussion.


Not everyone can like all of Doctor Who.

I mean, I’m sure there are a select few that are able to embrace every single aspect of that weird, weird show and love them equally; but well, humans being humans, most of us are going to have favourites. It’s life. And there stretches of the show one can have an ideological bone to pick with, obviously – for most people, it’s the Pertwee era and its complicated relationship with the establishment, but really, your mileage may vary, and it’s generally a source for good-spirited and healthy debate.

Less healthy, on the other hand, is an increasingly prevalent trend in certain circles to consider that the 2005 revival is, on some level, fundamentally inferior to the Classics; that it betrays them on some deep, ideological level; or that it is deeply and irredeemably #problematic. That is a very different beast – because it postulates a change in the very way Who is supposed to work for people. You go from a cyclical process of rise and fall, of eras you like and you don’t, of confusing and divisive, but life-giving weirdness; to a linear history that is marked, at some point, by a betrayal of an original text, of an original creed.

Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and no one’s going to be naming names and starting a shit-slinging contest in this corner of the internet. But, well, writing contrarian and altogether overlong analysis about niche point of views is pretty much my raison d’être, so, here we are. Let’s discuss. Continue reading

TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “I wouldn’t have voted for the President, he’s … orange!”: In Defense of Series 10

A good year after the facts, what remains of series 10?

Well, the fact it went down pretty alright is noticeable. There was still the fair share of moaning one must expect when Doctor Who and Steven Moffat are concerned, but it was a pleasantly uncontroversial run of television. Which is also why it’s criticized – for being, quite simply put, a bit pedestrian. A bunch of competent, solidly put-together stories that don’t really push any boundaries or make the show more interesting – yes, there is “Extremis”, there’s the finale, and there’s Bill, who is a ray of sunshine (even though her characterization is purposefully a lot less layered than Amy or Clara before her), but as a whole, the series is, if not a failure, at least a dispensable appendix stuck to a Moffat era which was pretty much completed in 2015. Which, let’s not yield to the sirens of historical revisionism, it really rather was. You can’t look at the double whammy of “Hell Bent” and “The Husbands of River Song” without sensing the end. “Hell Bent” completes the deconstruction and analysis of the show Moffat carried through his entire run, and “Husbands” is a final moment of reconstruction and catharsis that literally concludes with a big-ass “and they lived happily ever after”. It’s as direct as you can get.

So, well, when you hear someone tell you that series 10 is their favourite Capaldi series, or their favourite Moffat one, it does sometimes feel a bit like someone saying “well, the concert was shit, but that one unfinished track that played during the encore was pretty sweet I guess”. And the idea that it’s basically entirely disposable has been gaining traction in the Discourse-generating circles – some of my own coreligionists on here share it, and maybe most importantly, it’s been enforced by El Sandifer, which basically, in the world of the Who analyst, corresponds to a giant “THIS IS THE ENLIGHTENED INTELLECTUAL CONSENSUS”.

So. Let’s be a pointless contrarian and examine why I think all of this isn’t true, shall we?

 

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Big Void at the End of the Universe: The Morality of “Last of the Time Lords”

If there’s one thing that I hate, it’s people saying that all fiction opinions are subjective.

Of course, subjectivity is important – but there are still, whatever importance you end up placing on them, criteria to measure the success of a story. They’re vague, because you can’t judge a narrative like you judge a poodle in a dog show, but they’re still there – how the arcs and plots come together, the thematic work, the direction, the acting. Complete relativism is always an annoying direction.

All of which makes it quite annoying for me to talk about “Last of the Time Lords”. See, I hate this episode with a passion. Always have, from the first moment I saw it from now. And, well, by all metrics, it’s quite a good episode, and I can’t just be an asshole and ignore that. It’s in many ways the best finale of the Tennant era (although being the only that doesn’t shoot itself in the foot by completely ignoring its own themes might have something to do with that …). The ending to Martha’s arc is a superb piece of writing, and easily the most deftly handled character exit in Who entire history up to that point. John Simm’s Master, in the same way, is by far the most compelling the character ever was until, of course, Michelle Gomez, mixing threatening theatrics with a real sense of emotion and character depth. Murray Gold is on fire.

And yet …

[CW – mentions of depression]

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