...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day 3495: Nine Good Things About Saying YES to AV


1. It recognises that our VOTING SYSTEM is BROKEN

2. It gives MORE POWER to voters

3. It lets more people feel that they have an MP they voted for

4. It lets people choose HONESTLY with no tactical voting

5. It gives voters a choice between PEOPLE not PARTIES

6. It makes politicians talk to people who aren't in their "base"

7. It makes politicians talk to each other, encouraging grown-up politics

8. As far as what the voter has to DO goes, it's exactly the same as voting with STV

9. It's on offer and STV isn't

The time for grumpy acceptance is over. Let's stop looking for the ways that the glass is half empty and start looking at how it is half full.

The AV referendum ISN'T about getting proportionality; it's NOT about Fair Votes. So let's stop COMPLAINING that it isn't what it isn't.

But what it IS is about giving more POWER to voters, and showing more TRUST in voters.

Honestly, the First Pass the Port crowd are going to be campaigning on a platform of "we don’t trust you to count up to five". Do you REALLY think that that's an unbeatable message?

Liberal Democrats DO trust people; that's why we're going to ASK them what they want (and that's why Hard Labour's so-called offer of instant AV with NO referendum was really toe-curlingly EMBARRASSING!)

Anything that moves away from tactical voting is GREAT. At the very least we can see who the voters REALLY want to vote for by looking at their first preferences and that might give a real boost to the Parties that currently have no representation at all. And that's got to be a boost for democracy. People can vote for real policies that they want. People do NOT have to vote for EVIL parties as a "protest" vote.

Anything that moves away from LISTS imposed by parties is GREAT. AV is about choosing YOUR OWN list of people and the order that they stand in, not one imposed by anybody else. And that's why the second preferences and third preferences… and LAST preferences… also tell us the sorts of people that people want in Parliament. And remember, First Pass the Port is a closed Party list system with a list of ONE. (That ISN'T true for AV – you probably won't, but you CAN have more than one person standing from one Party… or you could, entirely hypothetically, have two people standing for "the Coalition"… and people can choose between them for themselves.)

And anything that moves away from the status quo is more than GREAT it is FANTASTIC. We KNOW that people want CHANGE; they VOTED for CHANGE at the general election, and – no matter how queasy the public might be feeling about the Coalition… no matter how queasy some of US might be feeling about the Coalition – change is what they got: a different kind of government that NO ONE quite understands yet.

It's EASY to be FRIGHTENED of change. It's EASY to listen to all those voices saying how all sorts of scary and nasty things are BOUND to happen because of what the Coalition is doing. It's EASY to LOOSE FAITH in people.

Because change is HARD. Freedom is HARD. Being a Liberal is HARD.

The EASY thing to do is to promise to wrap everyone up in cotton wool and tell them fibs about how everything is all going to be all right; the really difficult thing is to tell them that THEY have to make the choices and then to TRUST them to make the choices and to FOLLOW the choices that they make.

And yes, that means following their choices when people give the Conservatories SIX TIMES more seats than us, or rather when they give the Conservatories ONE-AND-A-HALF times as many VOTES as us. More people voted for Conservatory policies so, grit your teeth people, Conservatory policies ARE going to happen.

Sometimes you just have to hold hands with the CAT-MONSTER and hope that it doesn't BITE OFF anyone's head!

If you don't want that to happen AGAIN… tough. The only way to prevent Conservatory policies EVER happening is to institute a socialist dictatorship, and we KNOW how successful THOSE are. If you believe in co-operative politics, then SOMETIMES the Conservatories are going to have to get a go.

But if you want to make sure that they have to BEHAVE, that they have to PLAY NICELY and JOIN IN with everybody else… well THEN you have to support a change in the voting system.

It WON'T stop things being horrid – but that's because the economy is bad-worded beyond repair – but it will start to heal our democracy.

So enough with the blubbing over STV.

Let's go out and WIN this!


I wrote this BEFORE seeing that Mr Fred Carveup had posted quite the opposite view on the Liberal Democrat Voice. Great Minds, it seems, think completely unalike.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 3493: Sherlock aka Elephentry, Dear Watson


"Sherlock" is a new series from the BBC based on the famous novels of Mr Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Adventures of Professor Doctor Who, er, Challenger, er, What?"

It's a really classy looking production, sharply directed and edited, beautiful and clever to watch, and with an excellent cast: Mr Benedict Cucumberpatch emptying the cabinet of quirks as the original maverick detective and Tim from the Office stoically baffled as Dr definitely-not-his-boyfriend Watson.

But the trouble with writing for a genius is that you don't get any excuses.

So it's inexcusable when Mr Sherlock is slower than the audience.

He really SHOULDN'T fail to deduce that the killer is a cabbie at the point where he's extemporising about "being invisible in a crowd" and "hunting in the city streets". After all, his Eighteen-eighty incarnation worked it out! And so did Daddy. Mind you, it was probably the director's fault that the moment was intercut with enough TAXICABS to make it so BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS!

Nor should Mr Sherlock be so STUPID as to start deducing OUT LOUD who's just shot the killer dead, and then have to say "oh just ignore me"; not after all the trouble you've gone to to establish his internal monologue by clever means of on-screen text: surely, Mr Sherlock should SILENTLY deduce that it must be Watters and THEN say to Lestrade "I have absolutely no idea"!

And, of course, you really SHOULDN'T have the "master of observation" repeatedly overlook the obvious when Mrs Hudson is trying to tell him about the taxi that is waiting for him, and the killer is standing RIGHT THERE. Yes, yes, it's very funny, just like all those times Dr Woo ignores K-9 when he has a vital warning or clue, but Mr Sherlock is NOT Dr Woo… oh.

You could really tell that this was a realisation by the Mister Moffster, the man who is currently behind Dr Woo. A lot of the great detectives mannerisms were VERY Dr Woo, although actually rather more Mr Dr David than Mr Dr Matt – particularly the "wooo, she was sooo brilliant" bit, but also a lot of the "I don't mean to be rude but I'm more intelligent than your entire species put together" was doing the "rude and still not ginger" Doctor. Mr Sherlock describes his rudeness as being a sociopath not a psychopath – though in fact the words have the same meaning, and "sociopath" is just what you call a "psychopath" when you don't want to annoy them – but really, his obsessive observation, high-functioning intellect, and lack of social awareness rather place him somewhere on the autistic spectrum but I guess that doesn't sound sexy enough for television.

The brilliantly clever direction is, I had to admit, clearly school of "Hollyoaks". No, I'm talking about the use of onscreen text for text-messaging and visualising train of thought, not the "oh she's a sister"/"oh you're his brother" school of… hang on, they did those too.

Thankfully we guessed that Mr Mark Gatiss was laying it on so thick was because he was going to turn out to be brother Mycroft and not Mr Professor Moriarty. Because casting yourself as brother Mycroft would self-indulgent enough, Mr Executive Producer, but the thought – that you were CLEARLY trying to double-bluff us into thinking – that you could be Mr Professor Moriarty sends shudders up the spine. And not in the GOOD way!

As it happens, we'd just found ourselves wondering how Mr Martin Freeman could actually DO acting, when he is blessed or cursed with such a totally "everyman" face, only then we saw him in a scene with Mr Mark Gatiss and thought: oh yes, he IS doing proper acting, and doing it brilliantly; you can see it compared to "that thing that Mr Mark Gatiss does".

Tell me this: how is it possible for Mr Mark Gatiss to do "that thing that Mr Mark Gatiss does" when he's just STANDING THERE? I don't know, but he did it and booted all sense of naturalism right out of the window for a good few minutes.

It isn't as though he can't DO acting: there are LOTS of other characters from "The League of Gentlemen" that he can do, to start with, and they managed to wring a decent performance out of him in "Poirot", but most of the time he just wants to do "comedy sinister toff". Well I say "sinister"; he's about as threatening as air. And I say "comedy"; it's just not funny…

But that visual "trick" of placing "post-it notes" of Mr Sherlock's thought processes over the "real" picture is reminiscent of the "the Doctor working it out" sequence from Dr Woo's "The Eleventh Hour" (where a rapid sequence of stills tracks the Doctor's mind's eye as he goes back over what he's seen). Although it's also reminiscent of Mr Guy Ritchie's technique of having HIS Mr Holmes play out a fight-scene in his head to work it all out before implementing it in a flash.

A lot of this episode, "A Study in Pink", comes direct from the original "Holmes meets Watson" story: "A Study in Scarlet", including the horrible history repeating itself of Mr Watson being returned from the war in Afghanistan; occasionally inverting it as with the "Rache/Rachel" clue – in the Conan Doyle version: Lestrade wants to look for a Rachel, but Holmes identifies the word as German for revenge; this time around Holmes identifies and rejects the German possibility and reverts to the incomplete name.

The Mister Moffster is QUITE RIGHT to bring Mr Sherlock right up to date. The Holmes adventures were never written as a period piece, but were always "cutting edge". The character is genuinely timeless, as Mr Basil Rathbone demonstrated by bringing him forwards to fight Nazis in the Nineteen Forties. Indeed most Holmes adaptations up to that point WERE contemporary rather than historical; it's only later that the whole Victorian setting became a part of the fixtures.

And most of the updating works. Daddy laughed out loud at the self-aware silliness of "the three patch problem". But not all.

When it comes to the KILLER, Mr Jeffthecabbie, the fatal aneurism and the belief that Mr God loves him and his helping him beat the odds both come from the original Conan Doyle; but by getting rid of the "Study in Scarlet" backstory – and, to be fair, all that stuff about MORMONS that is probably racist or something – it turns the character into that most TAWDRY of modern TV TROPES: the motiveless serial killer. Who then sort of has a motive that he's taking revenge (even though "rache" was a red herring) for being dying by "outliving" the people he kills. And sort of has another motive that he's being paid to bump off people at random to give his sponsor a cheap thrill (or was there some connection between them after all, that Moriarty wanted them all dead?).

Anyway, Mr Jeffthecabbie's modus operandi is to point a (fake) gun at his taxi passengers and make them chose one of two pills, one of which is poison.

It's been widely suggested, by everyone from Daddy Alex onwards, that BOTH pills are poison and Mr Jeffthecabbie has taken an antidote or built up an immunity over many years, what you might call the "Princess Bride" solution.

Others have taken the analysis of language used by Mr Jeffthecabbie – make the RIGHT choice, get the RIGHT pill and you live, did you get it RIGHT – to infer that our cheeky killer is trying to Derren Brown his victims into picking the poison pill. (It's almost impossible to see how this could have been done WELL – it certainly wasn't done by the banal conversation between killer and detective that we saw. Perhaps a direct to camera monologue by Mr Jeffthecabbie, perhaps scripted by the REAL Derren Brown, making the viewer take the Mr Sherlock role, and leave you with a lingering shot of the two pills and deciding for yourself which you would chose…)

Or possibly he was genuinely just NUTS. And LUCKY.

Irritatingly, the play doesn't bother to give us an answer.

And it would have been so easy: it would have been nice to have Mr Sherlock SAY that "obviously" both pills were poisoned.

Or, uncomfortable as it might be to see Mr Sherlock using TORTURE – crude infliction of pain; it OUGHT to be beneath him – you could definitely see him ruthlessly saying: "well, you're dying anyway and I've got to know if I'm right…" and forcing the pill into Mr Jeffthecabbie's shocked mouth. Which would be a "modern updating" of the "he tries the pills on a dog" of the original.

When he gets up and walks away from the poison pill game it's BRILLIANT. But then Mr Jeffthecabbie tries to talk him into taking the pill anyway: "because he's got to know if he was right", which is a dreadful misreading of the character of Mr Sherlock.

I mean, if he genuinely WAS a sociopath (which he isn't!) then "playing the game" is exactly what he WOULDN'T do, anyway.

But at this point Mr Sherlock is ABSOLUTELY NOT going to risk his life on a game of "who's got the biggest swinging BRAIN" by taking the poison pill for one very good reason: Mr Jeffthecabbie has just giving him a MUCH MORE INTERESTING PUZZLE.

Now it COULD be a mistake on the part of the crazy killer.

Seriously, if Mr Sherlock's only reason for playing the game is that he's BORED, then saying to him "there's a name but I'm not going to tell you" is EXACTLY the wrong thing to say! Woo, look, great big mystery. But still, life's so dull isn't it. I mean REALLY???

But then Mr Sherlock goes and gets TEMPTED so it's clearly a mistake on the part of the WRITER.

So let's address the writing.

One hugely significant thing missing from the show – one that might, ironically, have helped the writer avoid his usual habit of making the male lead a gawky self-parody and the female lead into a Sue Virtue analogue – is the almost complete lack of WOMEN. Or "women who aren't dead" anyway. Yes, there's a token lady police officer, who is mean to "our hero" when he outs her liaison (wrong in SO many ways) with the police pathologist. But she's not really an IMPORTANT character, is she. And brother Mycroft's airhead assistant barely counts as a character at all. And all the other women are DEAD.

Yes, of course, the ORIGINAL Holmes adventures tend to be a little, you might say, "female-lite"; but THEY were written a hundred and twenty years ago by someone who had never seen Sarah Jane Smith. What is Mr Moffat's excuse?

But there is, if possible, an even BIGGER absence. By throwing away the backstory, that tedious second half of the novel, you are also throwing away Mr Sherlock's METHOD.

Detection by logical deduction depends on pattern-spotting. Holmes EXCELS at this because he has trained himself to the peak of observation (except where Mrs Hudson is concerned, clearly) and is a genius at making connections.

It's a "unique selling point" that hasn't really been matched since: Poirot uses his "psychology"; Colombo a sort of dogged determination; Morse seems to wait until all the other suspects have been killed off and whoever's left is the killer; Wallander may or may not solve the crime, I'm just too depressed to find out… but Holmes's one-man CSI trick of spotting the tiny but significant details and extrapolating meaning from them is unbeatable because it's basically REAL police work but with a superpower that lets him do all the hard dogsbodying of real police work in an instant.

In "A Study in Scarlet" he solves the case by working out what the connection IS between the two dead men and the killer; that's the whole point of the second half of the book. By getting rid of that connection you lose the heart of the story. It's not just BORING that Mr Jeffthecabbie is a serial killer; it misses the whole POINT.

Which is why the ending suddenly becomes rather contrived, relying as it does on the so-called genius serial killer NOT turning off the mobile phone that he knows can (and indeed DOES) lead his pursuers right to him but instead deciding that the most larks would be to abduct the person who's close to catching him from under the noses of the police. Like you do.

Don't get me wrong. "Sherlock" is a work of GENIUS. But that genius was Mr Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes and Watson are brilliant characters in their own right, and they are brilliantly realised by two hugely talented and charismatic actors. Holmes method of deduction is a brilliant hook to hang the detective stories on, and the story is vividly brought to life by clearly extraordinary and inventive creative people.

And so much of the writing, the characterisation, the nods to the source material, is spot on. There is a sense of humour and friendship and even reality to the proceedings that leavens some much-needed light through the darkness of a very dark story, in a way that, for example, the recent troubled "Luther" did not. (Yes, I said some nice thinks about "Luther" and the very next week they LITERALLY had a woman in a fridge. Sigh. Sorry.)

It's clearly a huge hit with the viewers and the critics and Twitter seemed alive with positive responses last night. And we'll definitely be watching again.

We'd just rather there were fewer of the, er, elementary mistakes.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 3490: Popping the Question


"Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?"


By which I mean: No! Not really. I want STV (Single Trunk Voting) not AV (Awful Voting). But that's not on the cards and this is a change at least vaguely in the right direction and better than a poke in the button eye, the like of which cannot be said of First Pass the Port, so grudgingly and grumblingly, oh all right then.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 3487: A Blog for Florence and Precious Mhango


Tonight (5.30-7pm) there is to be a VIGIL in Glasgow by people who want the British Government to behave like this is a CIVILISED country and allow a family from Malawi to stay here rather than deporting them to face separation and misery. Auntie Caron is among those attending and I will be there IN FLUFFY SPIRIT!

Glasgow is happy to welcome to Ms Florence and Ms Precious and we all should be too.

There are LOTS of good reasons for letting them stay, but I only need ONE: Great Britain is BETTER because people want to come here.

People want to come here because we have VALUES, values of generosity and hospitality to those who are in need, values of welcome to those who want to contribute to our society.

Let's not make this a mean and nasty place.

Please lend your support as well.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day 3481: Hard Labour Gets an "F"


So Harriet the Harminator suggested that Hard Labour's Election Campaign be brought to you by the letter "F"*.

Oh, how quickly Hard Labour went from DOWNING STREET to SESAME STREET.

Let's look at all the MUPPETS: there's Oscar the Grouch in Number 10; his predecessor as self-styled superstar Miss Piggy; the Millipede podlings are so Bert and Ernie; Lord Prescott of Flummery just IS Cookie Monster; and Mr Mandelbrot is the Count Von Count. At least I THINK they said "count"!

And… HOLY CREPE SUZETTE is that Lord Mandelbrot appearing as the Prince of Darkness in his own fairy tales???

Once Upon a Time…

[Rubs button eyes!]

The King Who Couldn't Smile…

If REALITY has a FOURTH WALL I think it's just been BROKEN!

Yes, this is the news – if you can call it "news" when we've already read all of this in Mr Andrew Yawnsly's "The End of the Party" – from the former First Lord of Everything Else that all was not cute and fluffy in the Hard Labour bunker.

Other "revelations" include that Captain Clegg told Mr Frown he had to go, and that Lord Blairimort thought Mr Frown was "mad, bad, dangerous and beyond redemption".

Lord Blairimort himself – busy between bouts of getting paid millions of pounds writing his own book, "The Journey" (no doubt destined for the "romantic fiction" shelves) – is said to have been FURIOUS at being GAZUMPED by his former spin doctor and is alleged to have tried to pull strings to get Mr Mandelbrot's book dropped, thus totally disproving any stories about him STEWING in IMPOTENT FURY and then DOING NOTHING.

None of which has prevented the Former First Fractal from getting his retaliation in first in "The Times". We can't link to his serialisation because it's behind the firewall; that's not Murdoch – it's the flaming River Phlegethon that wards entry to the Seventh Circle of HELL!

Lord Blairimort's OTHER hired killer media spokesperson, Mr Alistair Henchman, has been QUICK to open his OWN diaries claiming that these REFUTE the word of the Dark Lord. These of course would be the same diaries where the entry for 24 September 2002 reads:
"absolutely did not sex up any dossiers today"
So, a totally credible historical document there, I think we all agree.

And I am SURE that Lord Mandelbrot will have appreciated the suggestion that he should have cleared his diaries past Mr Henchman before publication in the spirit in which it was offered.

Of course, the MAIN fallout from these radioactive reminiscences has been the response from all the candidates to inherit the Crown of Frown (slightly dented; it may have been thrown across the room). Finally, the infamous five have something to unite them. As well they might. After all, as Mr Yawnsly himself points out, they're all implicated up to their eyebrows.

Well, except from Ms Diane Abbott-and-Portillo. Though as Hopi Sen – the "Iain Dale you've never heard of" of the Labour movement – puts it:
"She was not up to her neck in the battles of the Blair-Brown era […] She was up to her neck in the battles of the Kinnock era instead."

That's "hypocritical", "fratricidal" and "past it", all in one put down; finally someone on the left with a grasp of "economy".

I really AM going to have to stop shooting these fish in a barrel and talk about some of the RUBBISH things that my own side are doing – stares hard at the Home Office, and the gap where funds for the Green Investment Bank are supposed to be, and the VAT rate – but you just CAN'T pass up material like this!


*Insert your own jokes here. Mr Alistair Dalek certainly did.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 3478: DOCTOR WHO: A Fishy Tale


For anyone NOT watching the World Final of Footballing (if you're Spanish) or Kick-Boxing (if you're Dutch) – i.e. Generation "SQUEE!" – this weekend was VAMPIRE weekend, with the release of the latest in the TWIGLET saga…

…personally, I don't understand why "wait till you're married then he kills you" is a more CHRISTIAN message than Harry Potter's "love is better than power and murdering people tears your soul apart", but apparently angsty vamps go down very well with the League of Abstinence…

…so this seems like the right weekend to make Daddy do the Vampires of Venice review! Now available on shiny silver disc AND shiny blu disc, too! The, er, episode, not Daddy's reviews… RUN VT!
"C" is for fish, as the old pun would have it, and the first thing we see in Venice is the carved curved fish that forms the monogram "C" for Calvierri on the back of Signora Rosanna's throne. Essentially, the "answer" is right in front of you in that first image: this is, of course, a school of fish. And then the rest of the episode is a huge exercise in misdirection.

And jolly good fun it is too.

Almost in spite of the arc-ish framing device of taking Rory and Amy on a "date", almost in spite of the intruding mentions of cracks and silences, it feels the most simple and self-contained story so far.

(I'll allow "The Beast Below" on a challenge if you want, but to me that feels very much continuing Amy's story rather than wholly a story of its own, while of course the Mark Gatiss episode is obviously no more than laying the groundwork for revamped Dalek escapades and as I said before "Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" feel very much parts four and five of "Doctor Who and the Cracks in Time".)

The teaser clip shown on Jonathan Ross was rightly picked from this episode, showcasing the brilliance of Matt Smith as the Doctor as he is surprised and delighted by the "creepy girls with no reflections" and tosses in a fanboy-pleasing glimpse of William Hartnell on the Doctor's library card. (Yes, Alex and I were those fanboys.) I would contrast the Doctor's scampering glee at real living vampires, cavorting around them as though his body is going out of control along with the words coming out of his mouth, with his "woah, aren't you magnificent" reaction to the real living werewolf in "Tooth and Claw".

Helen McCrory as the wicked but tragic Rosanna is a captivating central performance, often holding the eye with her stillness – sitting in her throne, kneeling and "rehydrating" from a chalice: these moments are almost tableaux. And for all of her vampire trappings, she is really much more of a fairy-tale wicked queen, holding the city in thrall by her magic and putting the girls under her spell. Even the "glamour" of her perception filter – revealing the ugly witch underneath – fits. Mind you, "ooh grandma what big teeth you have" is also there in the mix.

She has some marvellous confrontations with Matt's Doctor. There's a lovely, almost flirtatious sense that the two of them are of an age, and that their age is ancient, particularly in the moment where she offers the Doctor an alliance with the hint that it may be of the matrimonial variety. "Think of the children," he whispers.

As a "grande dame" of Venice she is reminiscent, if not quite so grand, nor quite so dissolute, of the character Miss Eleanor Lavish from the early Paul McGann Big Finish Adventure "The Stones of Venice" by Paul Magrs.

("The Stones of Venice" is almost literally three parts lush, elegiac tragedy to one part "oh, they live". Yes, another Paul Magrs where he muffs the ending: he may be a genius and a lecturer in creative writing but you do occasionally want to bang him over the head with a book on "how to write". Funnily enough, it also features a breed of fish-men living below the canals and finishes with the city being cursed to sink below the waves. In honesty, though, they could hardly be more different: "Stones of…" is a lament for lost love, and the foolish and selfish things that people do even when it can and does lose them the most important thing in the world, with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance from Michael Sheard as Duke Orsino. Oh and never mind what Wikipedia says about essays by John Ruskin, "The Stones of Venice" is also the title of an episode of "Jason King" guest-starring Roger Delgado and don't think Magrs wouldn't know that.)

Meanwhile Alex Price, who's been voicing the Doctor Who Confidentials this year, has (forgive me) a whale of a time playing evil mummy's-boy Francesco. (Although since his appearance as a ghost in season one of Toby Whithouse's "Being Human", we ended up calling him "fish-Gilbert"; Gill-bert groans Alex).

Oh, and I must say I do like Simon Gregor as the obviously all-too-human Steward of the House of Calvierri who does a lovely boggle-and-recover when the mistress turns into a giant fish in front of him and is last seen skipping town dragging a sackful of looted gold.

The visuals are gorgeous, too. Yes, even the silly fish.

They've gone for a much more muted colour palette, lovely pale marble of Venice, a lot of sea greens, obviously, but perhaps more daringly some fluorescent purples as the Doctor waves around his ultra-violet light stick.

The "vampire girls" of the Calvierri school have a real "Hammer" vibe going on – I mean big blousy "Hammer Horror" dresses, emphatically not MC Hammer big trousers. As the Doctor says, fish from space have never looked so buxom. Those vampire teeth are a bit of a triumph, too, though I'm fairly sure they would leave rather more of a hickey than the traditional two puncture-wound bites that we see on Amy's neck with the Doctor sonic-ing them closed. And do fish really have teeth like that? ("Don't tell him Pikes," heckles Alex. "Stupid boy.") Oh but if I'm being picky… having gone to the trouble of explaining all the vampire attributes via the technobabble of the perception filter… suddenly we get vampire girls floating outside the window. Are they flying fish now?

Of course, if they'd surprised us with a reveal that the house was now under water, they could have used that scene to establish that Rosanna can sink the buildings of Venice into the lagoon one by one… oh, who cares, it's just a magnificent image, isn't it.

Trogir in Croatia, allegedly built by the Venetians, is a real find, standing in for Venice without any of that intrusive modern tourist tat. Incredibly, the ability to do this and the Van Gogh episode in the same location turns what might have been an indulgence into an economy measure and gives the series a more globe-trotting feel all in one. And, as mentioned under "Vincent and the Doctor", the illusion is greatly helped by not slamming the two location episodes in side-by-side.

This is, incidentally, one of those rare-for-the-new-series episodes set in the past without a celebrity (or at least "famous event" e.g. coronation and/or volcanic eruption) tacked on. I'm thinking that "Father's Day" and "The Next Doctor" would be the others, though Alex makes the point that "the Eighties" and "the Victorians" almost count as the celebrity guest on their own, and likewise "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" and "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" each evoke a World War.

Instead, Alex says "Daleks in Manhattan"/"Evolution of the Daleks"; I tentatively suggest either the Empire State Building as the "celebrity" or perhaps the Depression Era as the famous event, but he's almost certainly right: that one is much more about exploring a part of history we're unfamiliar with… at least until Dalek Sec starts exploring new careers as a hat…

That sense of exploring the unknown led Alex to feel that the nearest new series equivalent – in big frocks in European history – was actually Steve Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace", another story with disguised invaders as well. I'd have called that one a pretty obvious "celebrity historical", but Alex is right to say that, at least in Britain, Madame de Pompadour is one of the least famous "famous people" that the series has featured. After all, she was only responsible for bankrupting the country by starting a protracted, unwinnable war and then spending vast sums of money on a lavish royal court while the economy went down the Seine. After her came a revolution involving lots of cuts. If only I could make some kind of topical political comparison.

Really, if you want the true historical experience you have to look to the "classic" series. Here, the grande dame villainess, the medieval history, the location somewhere on the continent and the appearance of William Hartnell, not to mention the touch of light genocide at the conclusion, all give the story a feel of the "The Massacre". Though course the one story it's most like, with its aliens masquerading as local superstitions, sword fights, location filming and Italianate setting, is "The Masque of Mandragora".

And sure, in a year or so, no doubt we will look back at the CGI canals and scoff, but on first viewing they look "really there" good enough.

"Vampires in a school setting" almost seems to be writer Toby Whithouse having another go at the story he wrote for Russell: "School Reunion".

So perhaps that is why "The Vampires of Venice" is the most Russell-ish entry of Steve Moffat's series so far. And perhaps that is why, in spite of its flaws (and I'm coming to those) it feels so warm and welcoming after the cold logic of Moffat's precision-engineered puzzle-boxes.

Let's just have a quick look at those Russell tropes on show:
  • an animal-based alien (space-cats, space-bats, space-rhinos and space-spiders are now joined by space-fish);
  • refugees fleeing from a terrible something (for "Time War" read "the silence");
  • the lead villain is an empowered woman (see also the Lady Cassandra, Margaret Slitheen, Yvonne Hartman, the Empress of the Racnoss, Miss Foster, Mercy Hartigan etc);
  • and the Doctor saves the days by performing some extraordinary physical stunt in order to thump the technology till it breaks do something technobabblingly-clever to the technology… till it breaks (almost more examples than you can list starting from "The End of the World", but see in particular: "The Idiot's Lantern", "Evolution of the Daleks" and "The Next Doctor" – "The Next Doctor" doubled for the applause at the end).
This does also mean we get some of the "School of Russell" plotting as well.

Two of the most egregious moments stand out: Francesco the Fish-boy's unexpectedly explosive reaction to direct sunlight; and the Doctor's over-the-top heroics (literally over the top as he scales the roof) at the conclusion.

The problem with Amy blowing up Francesco is not just because it comes out of nowhere nor the blink-and-you-missed-it "explanation" that she's using a hand-mirror to reflect the sun, but that it appears to contradict most of the rest of the story. The fishy-people are clearly photophobic, but it's not ever established that it's to the point of spontaneous combustion! They do manage to stand in direct sunlight at other points (if nothing else, Madame Rosanna's final dive into the water is achieved without blowing up the wharf) and there's no reason to think Amy's mirror is a magnifying one (in fact, we don't do a "Chekov's gun" to establish the mirror, either) so why the sudden incendiary insanity?

Meanwhile, the Doctor saving the day at the end is one of those naughty moments of "if he does something spectacular enough maybe you won't notice that all he's doing is pushing the 'plot off' button".

It's almost by-the-by that if what the Saturnynians' device does is create an earthquake that will trigger a tidal wave that will drown the city, then just putting a spanner in the works won't actually fix that – the earthquake happens, so the tsunami has been triggered, you can't un-drop the bomb. But Doctor Who is always doing that sort of thing, and at least Matt Smith acts the Doctor's reaction as "wow, that actually worked!" rather than, naming no names, "yes, mortals, you may applaud my crowning moment of awesome".

No, the problem is that bonkers spectacular villainy like this does not fit with the rest of the episode. The fact that the device exists at all is pretty much pulled out of the air; disappointingly it's not really any more than an "end-of-level challenge", just there to provide the episode with a conclusion because forty-five minutes are up.

Rosanna has been demonstrating a careful, cautious step-by-step subversion of Venice, and so far she's got five girls. And now she plans to sink the city? Why not just run away to start again somewhere else? After all, that's how this began when she and the boys escaped from Saturnyne. Rosanna's flight could have led to a chase through the watery catacombs, perhaps, with the threat of the piranha-like boys in the water at every step. Even the "she slips and falls" cliché would have made for a more original ending than what we got.

If Rosanna had expressed any weariness at the slowness and the effort of her plan, the fact she's clearly bleeding herself in order to transfuse the girls (hence all the "rehydration"), then her suddenly going nuts and pulling the doomsday lever – not to mention her suicide at the end – might make some character sense.

It also makes her last accusation at the Doctor, that he's responsible for two genocides now, a lie. Not that lying to wound is out of character. But he's in no way responsible for the extermination of the Saturnynians. Arguably they were extinct from the moment they arrived on Earth anyway, as even if Rosanna's plan had worked, the next generation would have been hybridised with humans. And at the end, at least before momma goes swimming with the fishes, their position is really only as bad as when they first arrived.

One might also ask, if mommy was so keen on repopulating her race, why was her son stomping around the place with his grumpy-face on, when he should have been pretty permanently locked in the boudoir with one or more of the buxom fish-from-space girls? And why only one son? It's not like Rosanna doesn't have perception filters to spare, as she's clearly handing them out to her "gels".

Come to think of it, why can't Rosanna's ten thousand male offspring carry on the hybridising process for themselves? It can hardly be that only the female Saturnynians are intelligent – I mean Francesco is a bit thick but…

What does actually happen to the surviving male offspring? It's just a thought, but these are not the first "water vampires" that have appeared in Doctor Who. In "The Curse of Fenric", the Ancient One is said to have passed through Venice following the path of the trader who took the flask from Constantinople. It's almost tempting to wonder if the Haemovores didn't pick up some Saturnynian traits then.

Where Toby Whithouse's first Doctor Who script fell down was that while "School Reunion" featured a strong, and much admired, emotional "b-plot" for the Doctor – meeting Sarah Jane and what this means about the way he treats companions, the effect he has when he leaves them behind – the nominal "a-plot" – all that sub-Logopolis business with batty Krillitanes trying to hack the operating system of the Universe – was treated as little more than a throwaway framing device.

If anything, "The Vampires of Venice" has the reverse problem (making it much less of a problem): the main story about the vampires is actually treated as the main story, while the emotional sub-plot about the Amy / Rory / Doctor non-love triangle is given little more than a nod in passing. Amy as good as says "let's not do this plot this week", passing the buck to Simon Nye's "Amy's Choice", and then she and Rory get on with enjoying Venice.

Actually, watched again, it's nice that you can see that Rory does get it; he's genuinely "woo Venice!"; he understands and shares Amy's excitement in time-travel in a way that, say, Mickey Smith really, really didn't.

Alex points out the comparison with "The Girl in the Fireplace" again, saying that Rory gets the advantage of actually wandering around in history, seeing all the frocks and monsters, where Mickey gets left behind on a spaceship to be probulated while the Doctor gets the girls and the frocks and gets to disparagingly compare him to a horse.

Whereas it seems clear that the Doctor likes Rory, and probably for exactly the reason that Rory shows signs of being companion material. Notice that every dig the Doctor makes seems to be accidentally (unlike the ninth or tenth Doctor's deliberate sniping). And he's going to quite a lot of trouble to make sure Rory has a happy life with Amy and it's not just for Amy's sake. We will see later ("The Pandorica Opens") that the Doctor thinks of Rory as someone he has lost, not just someone Amy loses.

These are nice character notes, so it's a shame to undermine them with silly "yours is bigger than mine" jokes. And then Francesco gets to symbolically castrate him by chopping his weapon in half in the sword fight at the end! Having Amy save Rory is empowering for her, but much less so if you've just made her boyfriend look like a dipstick.

And as for the Doctor emerging from the stripper-gram cake… as the man himself says: "there are some things that just sound better in your head…"

I'm slightly in two minds about Rory's "you make people want to impress you" speech, though. It's a good speech, a strong and true accusation to throw at the Doctor. In the excitement of the conclusion, the Doctor throws the speech back at him: you've gone from "you make people dangerous to themselves" to "we won't leave you to die" as though this doesn't entirely prove Rory's point.

But on the other hand, does Rory know the Doctor well enough yet to make that accusation?

"The Eleventh Hour" is the only other time they've really met – no, Amy's cosplay games really do not count – and while it may not strictly be an "everybody lives" (Patient Zero probably slaughters the other patients in the coma ward, and is himself executed), no one else who meets the Doctor dies. Rory and Amy only end up in peril because Patient Zero happens to have come back to the hospital; the Doctor didn't actually send them into harm's way (for once). So although the accusation is true, I'm just not sure how Rory gets there so soon.

Having said that, in the context of a story about people being turned into something they're not against their will, it's an interesting time to flag up the way that the Doctor changes the people around him too.

Ultimately, "The Vampires of Venice" appears to be a proof that Russell was right, and that feel is more important than plot. The Doctor versus vampires in Venice feels right, no matter what hand-waving over the details you need. We invest in this idea emotionally and it rewards us with a story that starts with vampires (who want to drain our blood and turn us into things like them) who turn out to be aliens who turn out to want to drain our blood and turn us into things like them, so they are vampires after all. And they're in Venice.

Which, let's face it, is pretty cool.

Then there's just a moment at the end when Venice falls silent, and it's truly chilling. All the more so in retrospect, knowing that it won't be explained and is still hanging over us.

Next Time… ♫ Cold stars shining, frozen above you… ♫ In the future Rory whispers "I love you"… ♫ Birds twitter in the sycamore tree… ♫ Dream a little dream of me… ♫ Adventures with the Doctor or Happy Ever After with Rory? That's "Amy's Choice".
Don't sing, Daddy! DO NOT SING!

[silence falls]


Friday, July 09, 2010

Day 3477: An Education


Poor Mr Michael Borogove! He once said he would willingly give up his seat in the Cabinet so that Mr David Laws could get a place. Looks like this might be his opportunity…

It's been a bit of a week for the schools minister, cutting this, cocking-up that, and now getting a pasting from Hard Labour's Mr Bully Balls in a rant about all those cancelled school repairs.

What no one seems to have asked, though, is WHY, after thirteen years of "Education, education, education", do we still HAVE one in five school schools in desperate need of rebuilding?

If it really MATTERED to Hard Labour… why hadn't they done it already?

Of course, the funny thing about the "Building Schools for the Future" program is that it was a scheme to rebuild every single school in the country. Every single one.

Were they really ALL about to fall down where they stood, or was there some hint that this might in fact have been an enormous VANITY PROJECT on the part of a certain senior government figure known only as the then Chancellor who wished to remain anonymous? So long as he got all the credit. And none of it went to Tony.

Mr Bully Balls says that these cuts to school rebuilding are to be recycled to fund Mr Borogove's "unfair ideological experiment", as though there's nothing "ideological" about rebuilding every school in the country whether they want it or not.

How can these cuts fall "unfairly" on Labour constituencies? Why surely only if the building programmes had been unfairly dolled out to Labour constituencies in the first place.

Look, you do have to admit that Mr Borogove's Free Schools ideas are a bit WACKY! Just at the time when his Conservatory Chum Mr Eric "In a" Pickles has been saying local authorities should save money by pooling their support services, Mr Borogove is saying that schools should GIVE UP pooling of support from their local education authority and go it alone.

Still who said ideology had to be consistent so long as local authorities are getting less power – passing it down to schools, handing it up to efficiency savings, what's the difference?

But it's hardly fair of Hard Labour to criticise him for THAT. After all, letting parents and businesses set up "Free Schools" is not that different to Lord Blairimort's City McAcademies with the Christian Fundamentalists filed off.

Nor am I completely convinced by shrill protests that parents setting up new schools will be "taking away money from existing schools". Um, yes, but they'll be taking away PUPILS as well, won't they? Wasn't that kind of the POINT of Hard Labour's own choice agenda – money follows the pupils: bad schools get fewer kids get less money. Or is Mr Balls condemning the education policy of, um, Mr Balls?

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again: you can have CHOICE or you can have EFFICIENCY but you can't have BOTH. A perfectly efficient education system has exactly as many places for pupils as there are pupils. So imagine you are the last pupil to be placed: there's only going to be one place left – so you can't have a CHOICE.

Or if everyone's going to have a choice, then you have to have some spare places left over, and that's just not efficient.

And frankly, who WANTS to be perfectly efficient, anyway? Oh yes, sorry, worst recession ever blah blah blah, stick with the programme.

Hard Labour are really keen as mustard to pretend that we DON'T have to try and fix this great big hole that they've whacked through the bottom of the economy as though the cold waters of an over-extended metaphor were not already flooding in.

They want to say that the Coalition are offering a FALSE DICHOTOMY between cuts now or ruinous economic consequences.

But actually that's a FALSE false dichotomy.

For every year from 2001 onwards, come rain or shine, Mr Frown SPENT more than he RAISED in taxes. For every year, good or bad, he INCREASED the amount that we borrowed.

It's no GOOD saying: "It's not our fault, it was the bankers!" Sure, at the end, the bankers really blew the roof off, but we were on the road to ruin LOOOOOOONG before that.

(And it's not like Hard Labour policy – being "intensely relaxed" about the City getting "filthy rich" – contributed NOTHING to the whole "bet the farm on red and let her riiiiide!" attitude…)

We really DO have to do something about this, and BEFORE the election, even Hard Labour admitted it.

But now, every cut is a BAD cut, every choice is the WRONG choice. The escalating whines of "we wouldn't have done it like that" are only exceeded by the deafening silence about what they WOULD have done instead.

Hard Labour did actually LOSE the election and it would show a little GRACE if they would just accept that people chose austerity NOW rather than running up more DEBTS for LATER.

Instead, this refusal to accept that Hard Labour's policies have been REJECTED by the voters is making them sound like SPOILED BABIES.

Worse, when voters vote "YES" to "time for a change", it means "leave it the way it was" is really NOT a credible alternative. Which means that Hard Labour haven't actually GOT any policies at all.

At least not beyond spitting "TRAITOR!!!!" at the Liberal Democrats in a way that confirms everyone's suspicions about why we SHOULDN'T have had a coalition with selfish deluded THEM!

Mr Balls may THINK that brazenly honking about how "Mr Borogove will DECIMATE the education service" SOUNDS good, but it just doesn't make SENSE!

"Decimate" means "reduce by one tenth" (yes, I've seen "Last of the Time Lords"), and that's merely the LEAST of Mr Borogove's options.

Hang on, I'm not helping…

I think it would be a good idea to lower the rhetoric on BOTH sides a bit.

If the Coalition could maybe agree to STOP saying how Labour "spent all the money" and "there's none left" every five minutes, perhaps Labour could agree that they will stop saying that every SINGLE thing the Coalition does is BOUND to cause a double-dip recession and sixty-million people in perpetual unemployment.

Not least because what's the POINT?

I'm sure it makes THEM feel a lot better about being such BAD LOSERS, but it won't benefit them at the election in five years: if they're right they'll win anyway, and no amount of "we told you so" will make them look anything other than SMUG about the misery of people they're supposed to represent; if they're wrong, they'll no doubt deny everything anyway. And in the meantime, all they're doing is spreading fear and misery.

So let's all just drop it.

Then Labour could go away and have their leadership contest and actually decide some POLICIES; and the Coalition can have some time to see if the policies THEY are trying are any good or not.

And then we might ALL learn something.