TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Prisons of Glass, Prisons of Steel: Feminism, Violence and Exploitation in Who

On a clear day, I can see for miles.

That’s because all the walls are made of glass. All except the walls I’ve built around myself, because I need strong walls that no one can breach.

– Jac Rayner, The Glass Prison, Big Finish, p. 6

 

World Enough and Time” is a controversial episode of television.

That’s not surprising. It is after all, three things: a finale written by Steven Moffat, a piece of television written by Steven Moffat, and a Doctor Who episode – three factors that almost assure some form of pushback is going to be part of its critical reception. What’s more surprising is “where” that controversy originated – the devoted circles of biased critics incapable of reading media properly did their job, of course, but that’s nothing surprising; however, the more traditional fringes of the Who community, which are not known for their overwhelming love of the Scottish showrunner, have generally greatly enjoyed it. A non-negligible share of the criticisms addressed to the episode instead came from the ranks of those who usually stand behind Moffat and have a great appreciation of his work – especially among minorities: while the episode was praised for the way it offered representation for disabled and chronically ill people, it was also severely critiqued (notably by Whovian Feminism, here) for hinging on several extremely iffy tropes. The sacrifice of a female, queer character of color to further the plot was immediately perceived as leaning into fridging, and the well-known “bury your gays” tendencies: now, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that these critiques cannot be applied stricto sensu to the episode, but many have argued, and I think it is a point worth considering, that the very fact of using these tropes as a cliffhanger, invoking them to create suspense and tension and tease the viewer, is in itself a questionable decision; especially in a series that, as we pointed out in our weekly coverage, seemed up to that point willing to provide a narrative “safe space” of sorts to discriminated groups.

Of course, a critical analysis of “World Enough and Time” on its own seems like an odd choice, in that it is only the first part of a twofold finale; and indeed, a lot of the problems with that initial episode are addressed in the second. There are two counterpoints to make here – first, an episode of television should stand on its own two metaphorical feet, regardless of larger continuity and overarching stories. If an hour of television’s only virtue is that it sets up another, then it’s not good. And then – it’s coherent with Steven Moffat’s own writing techniques: he has always aimed to make two-parters two different and complementary stories, with the halfway point being less of a cliffhanger and more of a radical re-organization of the narrative around different priorities. To quote the man himself:

My thing about cliffhangers is, it has to be a moment that changes the way you’re looking at it. It has to launch a completely different and hopefully unexpected phase of the story. It’s not just a movie cut in half.” [1]

That caveat out of the way, let’s throw ourselves into the rabbit hole and try to untie the intricacies of Bill’s messy, complicated fate.

[Content warning: this article contains detailed breakdowns of problematic media featuring the death of queer-coded characters and some acephobia]

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “The Mother of the Monster”: Alien Resurrection, Who and imagining the Transcendent Human

My mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones. But there are.

Let’s talk about something a bit different today. Well, actually, that’s not entierly true. This is going to be about Who, in the end. We’re just going to look at the show from a different lens, through another monument of sci-fi.

The Alien tetrology. Of course, that very qualifier is debatable nowadays, with Prometheus and its 2017 sequel Covenant screwing the continuity up – excluding them from our field of study today is not an expression of my personal opinion of them (although, you better believe said opinion is not positive), but rather a simple consequence of the fact that the four original movies answer to each other and present a cohesive narrative in a way that doesn’t allow for the organic inclusion of Ridley Scott’s metaphysical two-movies-long commentary on the ontology and theology of the franchise.

Of course, there are plenty of ties between the two franchises, from Ridley almost working for the show while he was still a BBC employee in the sixties, to the influences he arguably got from “The Ark in Space“, to finally the shameless winks, down to the line quoted in the title, Steven Moffat’s paid to the 1979 masterpiece in “Last Christmas“.

But if you ask me, one of the more interesting parallels to discuss is to be found in the ugly duckling of the franchise, 1997 Alien – Resurrection.

A movie which I absolutely adore, for the record, because I’m a hopeless contrarian. And also a movie that used Moffat’s style before Moffat’s style was even a thing.

Intriguing, isn’t it?

Well, if you are hooked, better stop reading and watch the movie, because there shall be spoilers galore after the cut.

 

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Case for Constance Clarke

If you have been following me and my colleagues’ writing, you have probably realized that we all hold the opinion that 2016 is a year of utmost importance as far as Who is concerned – as the Wilderness Years have proven before, it sometimes is when Who steps back that the most interesting explorations of its identity and possibilities take place. Of course, a fundamental question to ask when you have a postulate like that is “what is 2016”? Which is to say – what are the temporal boundaries you fix to the year as a cultural entity? It seems obvious that it ends with Christmas 2016 and the airing of “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” – but that’s not an entirely satisfying answer, considering how important Doom Coalition was to the ethos of Who during the break. Really, 2016 ends in March, with Doom Coalition IV and John Dorney’s “Stop the Clock”, and 2017 starts in April, with “The Pilot”. It then seems logical to make that stretch of media we’ve decided to study in October 2015, when the first volume of Doom Coalition came out.

But I would actually hazard another guess. For me, the turn Big Finish, and Who at large, takes in 2016 starts in September 2015, with the introduction of Constance Clarke as a companion for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, in the main range audio “Criss-Cross”, written by Matt Fitton (who, as a matter of fact, penned six episodes of Doom Coalition, including the opener to the whole series).

Now, that’s a bit of a controversial opinion. You might not realize that if you’re not bathing neck-deep into the swamps of Big Finish – and honestly, I can’t blame you, this is a chasm you’ll never climb out of –, but Clarke, voiced by the most excellent Miranda Raison, who played Tallulah in the series 3 Dalek two-parter, but who always will be Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast to me (Dragon Age rules and I won’t hear a word against it), is not especially well-regarded. The consensus seems to be that she’s a little bit of a stick in the mud, a rigid joyless character that just hangs in the background being dull.

Which means that, of course, as a hopeless contrarian, I love her.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Woman and the Trap: Who and the Myth of Pandora

Pandora! Imperiatrix! Pandora! Imperiatrix! Pandora! Imperiatrix!

First, let’s quickly talk about mythology.

The idea of a Golden Age can be found in many cultures throughout the world – a large part of our western understanding of it, though, goes back to the Greco-Roman conception of it, later coopted, as all the ancient-world traditions were, by the rising Christianity (here, in the form of the Garden of Eden and the Original Sin). In that context, the Golden Age was a period of harmony between humans and Earth, and between humans and gods, where the human life was considerably longer, the climate constant and pleasant, and survival easy. It ends with Prometheus the Titan bringing the gift of fire to men who have grown contemptuous of the gods – thus pushing the gods, led by Zeus/Jupiter, to punish both him and the whole of humanity. While he is bound in chains and has his liver constantly devoured by an eagle, the gods conspire against mankind by creating the first woman, Pandora – meaning “all-gifted”, or “all-giver” –, to whom they all bestow a gift: they give her guile, ruse and cunning – they make her a deceitful bringer of ruin for all. Yes, that’s a little bit sexist. We’ll get back on that later. Anyway – she bears with her a jar, which later became a box, containing all the Evils, which she then sets free upon the Earth, ending the Golden Age. And that’s a pleasant little myth over and done with.

Of course, Doctor Who is a story about stories – and about myths. “The Myth Makers” was one of its first serials; and later, Bernice Summerfield rode on the Pegasus while the Second Doctor and his companions faced Medusa in the Land of Fiction. But the way it tackles the myth of Pandora is especially interesting – because it’s a very politically charged narrative, seen with our oh so contemporary eyes. It carries deeply unsettling gender dynamics that still exist in our world – not only in diverse theological frameworks, but also as socio-political narratives: just take a deep dive in the world of the alt-right-ish “seduction community” or other “incel” (in-voluntarily cel-ibate) circles, you’ll see. Which paradoxically makes it a very useful tool in times where the show tries more and more to address gender dynamics and its own problematic dimensions.

So. Let’s open the box. Fair warning: the ending section countains some minor spoilers for the Gallifrey and Bernice Summerfield Big Finish ranges.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Tales of Metal Men

Warning: this article countains heavy spoilers for the Big Finish audios “Legend of the Cybermen” and “The Crystal of Cantus“. Proceed at your own risks.


You belong to us.

You shall be like us.

A great Doctor Who monster is not defined by its catchphrase, by its design, or by its ideological persuasion. Nor by the number of people it kills, or how efficiently it drives children to hide behind the sofa.

No – the best of the best, the most memorable antagonists the show are produced, are defined by how well they fit the very nature of the show. That’s part of the problem with the Daleks, really – they are embodying precisely everything that is alien to Who. They are an unknowable other. Which is why they’ve been increasingly retconned, as time went on, into symbols of the show’s history and past, a test that the Doctor must past, more than actual long-term opponents.

Who is a show about stories. It’s an infinite libraries of tales, stretching as far as the eye can see, across every dimension you can imagine. And the monsters it spawns are monsters that dwell within the storytelling itself. The Weeping Angels rewrite the life of their victims, and the narrative of the show. The Silence wants to erase the Doctor Who narrative altogether.

And of course, we have the Cybermen. A force of narrative corruption. That’s not the most original of observations – Phil Sandifer did some of his best work on the topic. But it remains true. Their mantra of transformation and replacement is not only applying to the humans they want to unify and cure – it’s also a threat addressed directly to the show. Who is plural – a whirlwind of ideas clashing against each other. To quote the Doctor, it is “forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond”. Unity and order are the death of a show that thrives on chaos: they destroy this strange space of storytelling, this dreamscape created by hundreds, thousands of different individualities.

That’s what defines a good Cyberman story. It has them going against the show itself.

Let’s go, then. Here are some tales of metal men.

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

[This is the third and last 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 and the second before touching that one is advised. That final entry looks at “Detained“, “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” and “The Lost“]

[If you prefer reading all the retrospective in one go, you can do it here]

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Goodnight Moon, I want the Sun

Kill the Moon“.

Now that is one hell of a mountain to climb. Not just because it is a key episode in series 8’ arc (and really, in character arcs that expand all the way to series 10 and the end of the Capaldi era). Not just because it is a complicated mess of jumbled thematic throughlines. But also because it is a little bit controversial. Tiny bit. Teensy tiny.

The amount of sheer, vicious hatred that story generated is kind of impressive. With a large chunk of the fandom also praising the episode, it degenerated into a not-so-civil war of rather impressive proportions. I was there, I saw it, it was brutal. Now, things have calmed down a bit. Maybe the broadcast of the possibly even more divisive “Hell Bent” soothed that rift. Then again, the conflict surrounding “Hell Bent” and the one surrounding “Kill the Moon” are very different. “Hell Bent” kickstarted something that is, at its core, nothing more than a war of aesthetics – the tradition, the mythos, the figure of the Doctor, on one side; the reinvention, the feminist subversion, and the problematic role of the companion on the other. Considering the ideological positions of this site, there’s not much point in telling you about which of these aesthetics we consider to be the best one for the show and the one that most accurately represents it, in spite of all the YouTube edgelords protesting that the episode is an unreviewable piece of garbage. But the point is that both sides have a relatively solid position – “solid” is not a synonym of “justified” or “valid”, but at least there are two sides with a couple of big arguments there. The text of the episode is not really the key feature of the discussion – unless you belong to this strange category of people that claim to have understood nothing about the episode while confessing they weren’t paying attention to it.

Kill the Moon” is unique, in that while it was and still is the subject of oh so many debates, nobody seems to be able to agree on whatever the hell it’s about. The battle, here, is very much about the text of the episode, and how to interpret it, and above all, what the fuck that text even is in the first place. That is, if you ignore those dismissing the story on the grounds of its scientific and chronological (within the show’s diegesis) inaccuracy. Which you should, because it’s the most boring argument one person can ever make about Who.

So here we have our question. What is “Kill the Moon” about?

Here’s a possible answer, from someone who loved the episode on first watch, hated it on second, didn’t understand anything on third, and now is back to loving it on fifth.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS: Rivers and Signs – a class in Riverology 101

There is a corridor. And at the end, there is a door.

The protagonist is drawn to the door. But she must not open it – there is something behind it, something awful. Awful, but awe-inspiring too.

The corridor wound downwards; there was an almost imperceptible ramp to the thickly carpeted floor. The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing. For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea.

A long, a winding corridor, as if I were in the viscera of the castle; and this corridor led to a door of worm-eaten oak, low, round-topped, barred with black iron.“

That’s how Angela Carter describes it in her short story, “The Bloody Chamber”. It’s an old fairytale trope – one best exemplified by the figure of Bluebeard, the man who kills his wives once they enter a closed room in his castle. The room where he keeps the corpses of his previous wives. It’s sex and death and horror all kept closed behind a door – and the protagonist, while she’s supposed to keep away, still longs for the big, frightening mysteries hidden behind.

That’s also the metaphorical conceit at the core of James Goss’ audio story, “Signs” – the third one in the first volume of The Diary of River Song, the Big Finish range devoted to everyone’s second favourite time-travelling archeologist from the fifty-first century (sorry dear, Bernice Summerfield takes precedent). Or, as I know it – the only good River story on audio. Which I’m gonna spoil, by the way, sorry about that.

Where does it succeed when other Big Finish stories have failed? And most importantly, what makes a River story? Those are the action items.

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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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