...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Day 4742: DOCTOR WHO: Silent Night

Christmas (Day not Town):

How can you have a duck pond if there aren’t any ducks?
How can you have Time if there aren’t any Time Lords.

The Time of the Doctor was everything you would expect from the capstone of the Matt Smith era: beautiful, touching character moments; ingenious, retrospective plot explanations; and ever so slightly not as good as he deserved. We got answers: what were the cracks, who blew up the TARDIS, where the Pandorica Alliance came from, the origins of River Song, what “Silence Will Fall” actually means. What we were missing, though, was a story.

Specifically, we were missing Kovarian’s story.

Who the hell is Kovarian, you may well ask? Because expecting you to remember is typical of Steven Moffat, even for a throwaway line to explain the Series 5 plot arc and a second to explain the Series 6 one, but: going back a couple of years (or a few hundred for the Doctor), Madame Kovarian was the Doctor’s murderer, with the eyepatch, with the Silence, with the psychopath River Song, in the study Impossible Astronaut and all that Demon’s Run. Remember? Okay, Moffat style, we’ll do it round the other way…

Somewhere on that flying Papal Mainframe there was a little, dark-haired girl, raised in the way of the Church, who believed, really believed in the goodness of the Doctor. Maybe she was even his “companion” in the town called Christmas. Who then had to grow up, and grow old, while the Doctor stayed, while the siege of Trenzalore lasted, stretched into “long, bitter war”. That little girl is Kovarian, and Kovarian is the mirror of Amelia Pond. Amelia – Amy – had her life turned upside down because the Doctor failed to come back. But Kovarian’s life was destroyed because he stayed. The Destiny Trap is her story. She goes back in time to change history and in so doing creates the very circumstances that shaped her life in the first place.

That’s a terrible and tragic story, maybe a bit too heavy for Christmas, and Francis Barber is a busy actor. But it must have happened pretty much like that, because we’re seen all the other bits. We rather deserved to see this bit too. And while the first half of The Time of the Doctor actually works rather well, the second half descends into more of a series of disconnected vignettes, with Orla Brady’s Mother Superis Superious Spuriousius… whatever… Tasha Lem narrating. But saying “and three hundred years passed” and sticking some glue on Matt Smith’s face does not a sense of passing time create. There’s a hint of a story going on with the young Barnoble – the little boy that the Doctor does come back for – with maybe a hint that the young man at the end is his son or grandson, but it’s not explicit. We really don’t see any kind of change, we don’t get to follow the live of the people of Christmas, we don’t see their village evolve at all, which undermines the idea that this siege last for ages. It’s like “State of Decay” with the Doctor playing the Three Who Rule. And that can’t be right.

In fact, there isn’t anything to suggest that the Doctor wouldn’t have been better off evacuating the human colonists, getting the Church to teleport the whole lot off them off Trenzalore and run for it, rather than leaving them in the firing line between all the monsters and the Time Lords. (Except that would have left him with a rather lonely vigil over the crack; but keeping them around as, well, pets would belie the “every life I save is a victory”. Oh look there’s the TARDIS; come on Doctor you can save everyone now!)

There’s a weird sense that Steven Moffat listens to the criticisms of his writing and rather than addressing them head on, almost tries to retcon them out. So the Silence aren’t an ancient race that’s been secretly ruling the Earth since forever, but are really just genetically modified priests (so that thing the Doctor does at the end of “The Day of the Moon” is ethnic cleansing not genocide after all. So that’s all right then). And I think Moffat probably doesn’t understand the point of confession if he thinks that forgetting you’ve done it straight afterwards would be any part of the practice. (Whereas Priests who would forget what you’ve told them when they’re not looking at you, they would be ideal for confession.) The whole way that they behave – the way they seem to live in nests, the whole Nosferatu hanging from the ceiling thing – does this make any kind of sense for a religious order? And I’m still not entirely sure why you wold want a priesthood who can shoot electricity out of their fingers.

It’s not the only way that Moffat cheats. When Dorium (or his head, anyway) told us the prophecy back at the end of Season Six, it was:
“On the Fields of Trenzalore, when no living thing can lie or fail to answer, a question will be asked, the oldest question in the Universe, hidden in plain sight.”
Or fail to answer: the Doctor spends at least three hundred years failing to answer that question. Or is that why he can’t leave? It holds onto him until he answers, and it’s only when the Crack moves itself that he’s free of the pull of Trenzalore?

And he’s pretty adept at telling lies inside the truth field by the end, too – when he says to the young not-Barnoble that he has a plan, and then tells Clara he hasn’t got a plan; one or other statement isn’t true.

Minor niggles: I would have liked to see the Doctor’s thirteenth regeneration leave the “scar in time” (from “The Name of the Doctor”) at the top of the church (ish) tower, regardless of his life continuing. And I’d have rather the Time Lords opened their crack in the Universe through that Dalek command saucer, blowing it up, than weaponising the Doctor’s regeneration to the point of absurdity. I thought that – in a moment of Chekov’s Gun – the appearance by young-again Matt Smith in the TARDIS would be revealed as the new Doctor wearing the hologram clothes, to comfort Clara and ease the shock of the transition for her. And, lovely as it was for Matt to be reunited with Karen again for the “Raggedy Man, good night”, surely for the Doctor it should have been River.

More serious niggles: more of Moffat’s trademark dubious sexual ethics and misjudged comedy. I’m all for normalising and accepting naturism. But the Doctor is naked here for laughs, but Clara doesn’t like it, but he still goes and exposes himself to her family, and then he makes her get naked, and is variously inappropriate, but it’s all working up to a wig joke… yes, it’s been an extended gag about Matt getting his hair cut for another role. And that’s before we’re introduced to yet another “powerful woman” with a sexualised relationship with the Doctor. Why not just save time and have the Papal Mainframe be the Library from Silence in the Library and River be the Space Pope after all. But I guess Alex Kingston is a busy actor too. You do think maybe Moff just doesn’t sit down and think these things through, though.

It’s like the way that the Daleks forgot all about the Doctor in the last appearance… only to learn all about him again this time (assuming any of them survived the latest wipe out). Likewise, at the end of “The Day of the Doctor”, the Grand Moff sets up what everyone expected to be a perfect “quest for Gallifrey” arc for Peter Capaldi’s season eight, only to immediately burn that plot thread by saying: “and the whole of the Eleventh’s story was how the Time Lords tried to come back… again… and they couldn’t because it would mean another Time War”.

It’s not that these are actually bad ideas, but – I hesitate to say this after the agony of the stretched-out Silence arc, but – might this not have worked better as a season arc? Or at least played over several episodes. Possibly Matt’s decision to quit meant Steven had to collapse several stories into one. Even at an hour, this is, ironically, too short. That might explain why this feels so… exposition-y. Or maybe it’s just Moffat’s habit of machine-gunning us with ideas, rather than ever developing and examining any of them.

On the other hand, he’s re-established the Daleks as the preeminent enemy of the Doctor Who Universe (and all Gold RTDaleks too, with not a Fatlek in sight this time, either! I suppose delivering flying Spider Daleks from “The Day of the Doctor” is enough to satisfy him.)

And the Silence arc does – just about – come to make sense. Admittedly it needed the Doctor and the Space Pope to sit down and literally explain it to each other… as Lawrence (you wondered how I was going to get a mention of him in) Miles once said: “who would have thought? After all that the enemy turned out to be two pages of technobabble”. That they might choose the victory of the Daleks over the recommencement of the Time War suggests that the Church’s logic was a bit pickled, but it is (sort of) logical that the Silence arc – like River Song, who of course comes from them – is backwards compared to the Doctor, his end is in their beginning. The Timey-Wimey of the Doctor, you might as well say. And so, having reached a point where a message from Gallifrey would actually mean something to him, he can finally understand what this is all about.

And there are beautiful moments, beautifully played, along the way. Some people say that small, beautiful moments are what life is all about. Sunrise on Trenzalore and the passing of Handles – whatever qualms I might have about the Doctor using bits of dead Cyberman to make a friend out of – managed to turn a joke about a reminder from a digital assistant into something moving. Clara’s gran finding just the right words at the right moment – in spite of Moffat having skipped over putting the work in to establish Clara’s family, and was Linda a step-mum? – was a lovely Christmas “family” moment, something true against the sentimental grain of the season. And Matt’s final speech – again, even though I dislike the “reset”, typical of Moffat undoing any consequences of the Doctor’s centuries-long sojurn – with his imagined seeing of lost companion Amelia (how like “Logopolis” or “The Caves of Androzani” that the past companions return to salute their Doctor) and his final casting aside of the bow tie. And bravely to accept that we all change; the final admittance that Ten was wrong to want to stay.

Oh, and “The Time Lords gave him a new regeneration cycle” is a rubbish way to get around the limit of thirteen. No, tossing in continuity references to “The Five Doctors” doesn’t make it clever. It’s cheap fan-fic. (Yes, we all know that the Time Lords offered the Master a new regenerative cycle in “The Five Doctors”; we all also know that most of us assumed they could do that because he’d stolen a whole new body. If he could just have another go, why did he almost blow up Gallifrey to try and prolong his life in “The Deadly Assassin”? No don’t say it’s because he’s a psycho.) It’s a “phew that was close” moment. It makes the Time Lords into Tinkerbell and the Fairy Godmother. And Clara’s speech to convince them to help him was done better – by Moffat – in “The Curse of the Fatal Death”. It makes the Doctor’s actual death less than the spoof version.

The Doctor’s life needs to be more important than that, more important than “of course we’re going to carry on”. If Moff had had a genuinely interesting idea for getting the Doctor off the mortality hook then I’d be delighted at his “cleverness” and go along with the “and now he’s not eleven he’s thirteen” guff. I like that Ten (who was actually Eleven) regenerated into himself (as Twelve). It almost makes sense of his regeneration blowing up the TARDIS when he changed into Eleven (who is really Thirteen); he’s trying to regenerate into himself again but doesn’t have a compatible container (i.e. a handy hand) to catch the regeneration energy, so it fries him and the TARDIS together. But discovering that Moffat didn’t have any idea better than that makes me think… he shouldn’t try to tell a story he doesn’t have.

Also, why does Clara now live on Rose Tyler’s estate?

Next Time… A new body… at last. Doesn’t Peter Capaldi have a beautifully interesting face, weird, expressive, and alive with possibilities? So, who’s up for “The Twenty-Five Doctors”?

And now, thanks to the BBC, that Christmas Special in full...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 4735: If the Economy Is Getting Stronger Why Are the Queues at Food Banks Getting Longer?


The latest figures show that unemployment has fallen to 7.4%, the lowest since 2009 (i.e. now lower than Labour left behind), and an email from Mr Danny Alexander arrives to celebrate that there are now thirty million people in work.

Inflation, down to 2.1% is also at a four year low.

So “Yay!”

But there’s also been a huge rise in people getting emergency food from food banks – as highlighted in today’s Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons.

We need to cast some light on this debate; we need some understanding of what’s driving this increase.

At the moment it’s all too easy for the Left to cry “Evil Tory Government” as though that was all the explanation necessary (and for some of them, all too often, it is); while the Right respond with “poor people have made poor decisions”.

(In fairness to Gove, he actually said “…so we need to help them”; that is, he meant to be patronising, not dismissive.)

The Tory responses in the debate – essentially to blame it all on Labour – won’t wash. Worse, they’re a cowardly approach, denying that the Coalition has changed anything.

The actual cold, hard, statistics – employment, inflation, interest rates, or my personal favourite the gini coefficient that shows that for the first time in thirty years, and uniquely among Western nations, inequality in the UK has actually fallen (as a result of the Coalition’s changes to taxes and benefits pushing the tax burden up the income scale) – all point to the UK having worked well together to mitigate the harm of the recession and to be moving into recovery.

But people don’t believe statistics.

Or rather, they’ll believe a statistic that says the use of food banks has trebled, but not ones that say the economy is growing.

And with inflation still running ahead of wages it’s easy to see why: a lot of people still have to live with their pay frozen – yes, including MPs’, despite what you’ve heard; IPSA’s recommendation still only being a recommendation so far, but massively unhelpfully adding to the prevalent (and probably untrue) “them and us” narrative. By spreading the pain so broadly we’ve avoided the horror of huge spikes of unemployment that the recessions of the Eighties saw – unlike the Thatcher governments, the Coalition hasn’t “written anyone off” – but at the expense of a whole lot more people feeling the impact of 2008’s economic disaster.

This is why Labour get traction from their “cost of living crisis” rhetoric. It’s a cunning way of turning the Coalition’s “we’re all in it together” into “we’re all hurting” (particularly when tossing in the odd sly reference to the “1%” who somehow aren’t in it together), while stealthily dropping that “Plan B” that they’ve been banging on about since 2010. (And how has borrowing more and super-taxing the rich worked out for France, by the way, Mr Balls?) What it doesn’t disguise is that Labour still only have one policy and that it won’t work. (Hence Ed’s… er… difficult time responding to the Autumn Statement.)

Hysterical commentary from Labour supporters, cherry-picking this food bank statistic and saying “we haven’t had food parcels since the Second World War so things are worse than they have been since the Second World War” simply is not credible in light of the overall picture. We can’t compare the use of food banks now to how they were used in the recessions of the Eighties (or Seventies) because they simply didn’t exist then. In fact, as an extra-governmental route for the “haves” to help the “have-nots” they’re a perfect example of Mr Balloon’s “Big Society” (though the Conservatories have dropped that as quietly as Labour dropped Plan B).

But we cannot in conscience ignore this evidence either.

It’s no good denying that some of the decisions of the Coalition government have caused genuine hardship, either directly by cutting people’s benefits (through the benefit cap, through the second room bedroom tax, through continuing to employ the evil of ATOS) or indirectly by the increase in decisions to freeze or stop payments (decisions often later overturned).

Actually, Mr Iain Drunken-Swerve’s DWP (the Department of Workhouses and Prayer, a ministry well known for their accurate use of statistics) does deny that decisions to freeze or stop payments have led to more people using food banks. Which comes back to begging the question: what does?

The most urgent question has to be are more people in poverty?

(Let’s not mess about with terms like Food Poverty and Fuel Poverty as though people have a meaningful choice between the two; if you’ve not got enough to meet your basic needs you’re screwed one way or the other so what’s the difference.)

There are a number of fairly hefty policies in place that are supposed to stop this: Labour’s minimum wage and tax credits; the Coalition’s triple lock on pensions; Liberal Democrats also managed to strong-arm the Chancellor into indexing benefits in line with inflation through the difficult years when it was highest.

So are these failing? If so which, and how, and how do we stop them failing?

How much of this increase in food bank use genuinely reflects an increase in poverty? Is it possible that there are other factors? I can think of a couple of alternative, not to “explain away” the rise, but to try to think about there being more to the picture.

The most obvious would be people who were previously choosing “eat” over “heat” now have another option: instead of deciding that they must have food and then shivering under a duvet, they can now pay for the heating bill and go to the food bank and get some emergency supplies. What has happened is that an “invisible” poverty has become a visible one.

Another is what you might call the “NHS” effect. If help wasn’t there, people wouldn’t use it. Since its inception, NHS use has grown almost exponentially even as the nation has become fitter and healthier. Similarly, as more food banks are introduced, and more people become aware of food banks, so more food banks are used by more people.

It’s possible that that interpretation is even supported by the authors of that “use of food banks has trebled” statistic: the Trussell Trust, a food bank provider – in fact they describe themselves as “a Christian charity that partners with local communities to provide practical, non-judgemental help to people in crisis”. (Although that’s not an interpretation they would put on it as they’re not as non-judgemental about the Government, whom they blame for the “scandal” of their own success.)

Their accounts (available on the Charity Commission website) say that they’ve demonstrated that their franchise model is “scalable and sustainable”, which suggests that they’re not so much answering an acute need as having found a necessary niche.

(Incidentally, almost all the stories of food banks seem to stem from an October press release of theirs. Though oddly, in researching this, I came across virtually the same story – same source, the Trussell Trust, same number, 350,000 people needing food parcels – but from May relating to 2012.

I’m not saying it’s wrong; it looks a bit weird but it’s probably just a coincidence when the October story compares April to September 2013 with April to September 2012, while the May story is comparing April to March 2012 with April to March 2011. As they say: they helped as many people in six months this year as they did in their whole 2012/13 year. I’m not surprised they have to help more people in Winter when the choice between heat and eat becomes acute.)

Stories about the increase in the use of food banks serve as publicity for food banks; so the Trussell Trust’s press release is not just impartially informing us of the situation, it’s also advertising their product. (Indeed, Tesco, for example, are now encouraging people to donate a shop – at Tesco of course – to the food bank, so turning them into advertising for Tesco!)

You could also say that if people in need are discouraged by shame from looking for “hand outs”, hearing that many more people are using the food bank reduces that disincentive, in a way “permitting” the people who need the food to go and claim it.

Let me emphasise though that just because I can hypothesise alternate explanations for some of the rise in food bank take-up, that doesn’t mean that they’re right. That’s why we need to be asking questions.

I don’t want to rain on the economic parade, but Labour and Labour supporters have latched onto this as “A Big Thing”, and I can’t say that they’re wrong to do so. I know that it’s a big cause for concern, for me and many other Liberal Democrats. We’re concerned for the human tragedy, obviously, but also because it seems to fly in the face of statistics that say the economy is getting both stronger and fairer.

Policy ought to be evidence-based (and unlike Labour I won’t just grab a statistic and say “so there!”), and we need to understand what this piece of evidence is telling us, so these are questions for which we need an answer.