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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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tibbles and the Daleks #3: National-Socialist Dalek

The one where I say bad stuff about beloved stories and quote a lot of clever people to make it seem like I know what I’m talking about.

 

The most important feature of Who, one might argue, is its sheer size and scope. Hundreds and hundreds of stories, all woven together, interconnected in a complex, dazzling nebula. I made that point before – it’s hard to narrow down, even though narrowing down is sorely needed when it comes to interacting with fiction. We still need to apply concepts to it – canon, continuity – even though those concepts can’t entirely gel with the deeply strange nature of the show. And there are, well, problems with this state of affairs.  There are, of course, the divisions between the fans that believe in a strong series of mythos-related commandments, and those that embrace Who as a force of boundless narrative entropy – I could almost say conservative and progressive, really, if I were in a controversial mood. But, when we examine the specific issue of the Daleks, well, two issues arise.

First – the iconic status of the Daleks is a double-edged sword. It makes them a fascinating catalyst for metatextual commentary, granted, but it also paralyses them. We all know the beats of a Dalek story, the greatest hits reel. And there’s always something pleasurable in hearing the first “EXTERMINATE” of the series. Their legacy is a safe, treasured thing, but to linger in it is antithetical to the very nature of Who – there’s a tension there, nowhere better explained than by Rob Shearman in “Dalek“. Think about it – deep down, it’s a Dalek breaking down of a museum, a place of still, boring worship and witnessing, and killed, well, by emotions, by humanity. Really, it gets killed by modern storytelling: the story itself recognizes a sort of deep, strange absurdity at the continued existence of the Daleks in the twenty-first century. Nothing surprising from the part of someone who wrote the great piece on Daleks and pop culture, “Jubilee” – it’s the same process that makes you go from a severed Cyberman head under a glass casing in 2005 to that same head being thrown as a proud challenge by a competent, female leader in 2014. So, yes, the continual existence of the pepperpots is indeed a bit of an aberration. Not necessarily a bad one, mind you – but questions need to be asked. Why are the Daleks still relevant now – and how can you make them relevant now? Those are the essential questions, the key points: because without those, the Daleks’ only raison d’être is themselves, their past history. They become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a recurring pattern, a meme almost – and yes, they are a bit of a meme already and they always will be, there’s no denying that: be it only because they are one of the essential categories through which we see and understand Who, because they’re a symbol through which the legacy of the show can be filtered.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tibbles and the Daleks #2: Vintage Dalek

The one where the pepperpots rise.

How does one represent the Daleks on screen?

They’re a mass. A crowd of shouting maniacs, a force of fascist destruction. But how do you convey the size and scope of this force? Doctor Who is trapped in an infinite continuity, stretching to infinity and beyond both forwards and backwards – a return to the status quo is always going to be necessary, at the end of the day, because the narrative integrity of the show must be left unharmed and untouched. Their most terrible deed, the destruction of Gallifrey, never actually happened. So, really, the best way to show their nature, on an episode-to-episode basis, is to have them shoot a lot of people. Lasers going off left and right, screams of horror, it’s an amusing spectacle. When Ben Wheatley films it, it’s even kind of beautiful – raygun gothic at its best, dread carried through neon lights. But it doesn’t pack much weight: it’s a tank rolling in a straight line, crushing enemy soldiers; it’s a cat playing with a mouse. It’s the “… of the Daleks” that pops up in the title of all their episodes – a blunt, but bland, statement of power. There’s no tension to it – the Daleks are gods of war, or maybe gods of fate if their victims have deserved their doom through some act of hubris: but Who is no Greek tragedy, its protagonists are not waiting for an inevitable demise, be it only because the presence of the Doctor introduces an element of deep, primordial chaos to the surface of the show.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tibbles and the Daleks #1: Dante’s Dalek

The one where I give you hell. That’s a pun. It’s funny.

Hello there. Have you got a moment for our lord and savior, series 8?

I’m not really joking there, in all honesty. I do genuinely believe that series 8 is the absolute pinnacle of the show, modern or classic.  It’s down to a lot of things, really – the fact that the Moffat/Capaldi/Coleman team is almost impossible to top; the fact the whole series is focused around strong themes and arcs, with each and every episode having a genuine, interesting role in the wider scheme of things; … Really, it may just be because it proved Steven Moffat’s writing could really pay off, that his strategy of radically altering the show and its paradigm every series was actually a good idea. As much as I liked the Matt Smith years, and I did, and I’m not alone in this, they were a bit of a dangerous experiment, that sort of spiraled out of control around 2011 and never quite regained their poise – they also marked the rise of the anti-Moffat crowd, and of the onslaught of sometimes relevant, and sometimes asinine criticism that rained on the man’s head. And the 2014 series feels, maybe more than any other, like a direct byproduct of criticism, a reaction against something – not in a bad way, mind you. It still tells its own story, and, I’ll argue, it does so amazingly well. But that story is a dark one, based around constant accusations leveled at the ethos of Smith years, and really, at the show in general – it’s all about deconstruction, about toppling down the tropes and clichés of Who to take a peek at what lies underneath, this fragile, troubled core of wonderful humanity. “Listen” – outside of being, you know, the best Who story of all time, and that’s not just me and Scarves who say it, but also Paul Cornell, so we’re in good company – is all about that: going beyond the story, beyond the tapestry of Moffat mannerisms, to get to the point, the literal center and starting point of the Who narrative, the moment where the Doctor, as a character, is forged; and that moment is an act of pure compassion, an open, beautiful gift of human warmth.

I really really like it. As you may have noticed.

Interestingly enough, though, it does also feature a Dalek episode. A very, very good Dalek episode, actually – not counting Big Finish, I could make a serious case for Into the Dalek” being the best of them all; with only “Dalek” and “The Parting of Ways” standing as worthy contenders. Which is a bit odd, in a sense. Daleks are ideological creatures, see? In a fundamental way, they embody a message, a text. And that message … Well, it’s not always that interesting, for starters, but more than this – it doesn’t necessarily gel well with what series 8 wants to accomplish. And yet, it works. Let’s talk about it.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Hey little girl, fly away home: an analysis of “Fear Her”

The one where we talk about the reception of Who stories and the flawed genius of series 2 …

 

Maybe it’s a statement of purpose to start the hopefully long and lasting process of writing on that site by tackling one of the most, if not the most, maligned episode of the revival. Trying to ape the Doctor by defending the oppressed? I don’t know. Still – it’s an interesting topic to bring up, be it only because it’s not one that’s discussed often. If you go around the internet or your entourage, asking what episodes of Who people really hate, you will probably see “Kill the Moon”, or “Love & Monsters”, or “In the Forest of the Night” pop just as often as “Fear Her”, if not more – but the thing is, those episodes at least provoked a reaction: they sparked debates, controversy. They made people slap the door with grand proclamations. They proved rant-inducing, propping internet weirdos and YouTube analysts to deconstruct their many failings with an impressive amount of exclamation marks and swear words. And their memory, be it only as traumatic experiences, thus lives on – they’ve become part of the wide tapestry of images that erupts in one’s brain when Who is mentioned, part of the irregularities and unpredictable storytelling wrong turns and cul-de-sacs that make the show such a strange, unique, compelling experience. Whereas “Fear Her” proved similar to its central character: a lonely, forgotten child nobody cares much about. The consensus is that it’s a mediocre episode – more than this, really, the epitome of Who mediocrity: a crime that’s in a way much worse than simply being a bad piece of storytelling. The French title for the episode translates to “London, 2012” – it’s a pretty telling choice, even if it wasn’t motivated by any sort of deep understanding of the episode and its problems: at first glance, the only thing the episode has is a setting. It occupies a spot, it occupies a position in space and time and in the series, and that’s about it. Who, after all, thrives on craziness and change and unpredictability – what could be more antithetic to that than the dull stillness of a suburban street in a future that looks like past?

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