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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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]

[You can now read the entire restrospective here]

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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)

[You can now read the entire restrospective here]

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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