...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 3949: Does Europe Make Referendum-dums of Us All?


"The people haven't had a say on Europe since before I was born," declared one so-called rebel Conservatory.

Or indeed for the TEN THOUSAND years before that, you might remark. And yet still the continent has refused to go away.

Why not have a referendum on the MONARCHY? The people haven't been consulted about that since, oh, ever. And Mrs the Queen has a big-ish role in our constitution. Or why not a referendum on POLITICAL PARTIES?

For that matter, why not have a referendum on TIES? Are, in fact, bow ties cool after all? A nation must know!

Why does the government not want a referendum on Europe?

This is what the Liberal Democrats' manifesto SAID about a referendum:
The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
This is what the Conservatories' manifesto SAID about a referendum:
We will ensure that by law no future government can hand over areas of power to the EU or join the Euro without a referendum of the British people.
and specifically:
We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a 'referendum lock'.
And this is what the Coalition programme for government SAYS about a referendum:
The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union, but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum.
and specifically:
We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a 'referendum lock'.
which, obviously, and if you are a Conservatory backbencher claiming to be on a moral crusade you OUGHT to be paying attention to this, is a direct quote from the Conservatory manifesto.

So let's be COMPLETELY CLEAR: BOTH Parties ACCEPTED the status quo, and ONLY said there should be a referendum if there was to be a CHANGE.

Has there been a change? NO. So let's not hear any nonsense about "broken promises".

Those Conservatories getting up on their high horses about "moral duty": THEY are the ones breaking their manifesto!

However, as has been noticed, people do not do NUANCE. Not even nuance as BROAD BRUSH as "when there's a change".

So since both Parties IN the Coalition have at least given the APPEARANCE that they were vaguely, notionally in favour of the IDEA of a referendum, some people – by whom I mean "Conservatory right wingers who've been caught out by the need to keep a parliamentary seat in the musical chairs brought on by their own plan to reduce the number of constituencies by fifty" – have CYNICALLY and DECEITFULLY rebranded this as "we were promised a referendum" (add sounds of toys being thrown out of pram to taste).

This is a story that has legs because, unfortunately, governments have FORM on this: Hard Labour promised a referendum on the European Constitution… which then didn't happen so we didn't get a referendum. Mr Balloon gave a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty… which was then passed anyway, 'cos it wasn't his to promise, so we didn't get a referendum… you see what it LOOKS like!

So why not just go ahead and have one?

Well, in the first place, there is no pressing NEED for a referendum now – beyond the "needs" of certain Conservatory backbenchers to, er, get their ballots off.

We NEEDED to do the AV referendum this year in order to decide what electoral system we were going to use in 2015 and have time to prepare for it. There is no such deadline looming over our relationship with Europe.

In fact, the reverse is true. Right now, we don't actually know what we'd be voting ON.

You cannot have failed to notice that there is a bit of a FLAP on to do with the Euro and the amount of borrowing by SOME Union countries.

Four countries, in particular, are a bit of a worry. Greece is the main one, because they are already over the edge and into freefall. Greece needs to be GIVEN money, not loaned money; they need their debt written off. Portugal is close to the edge. More worrying are Spain and Italy – they are more worrying because their economies and associated debts are larger and harder to wipe clean.

Not Ireland, though. Ireland, to whom Britain DID lend money, after their crisis last year appear – touch wood, wish for luck, pray to the nice blue lady – appear to be pulling out of their crash. So look, it's not impossible that these bailouts CAN WORK.

With all that going on, it is clear that the idea of "Europe" is very much in FLUX, which means CHANGING. We need to let things sort themselves out: either it will fall to bits with no help from us, or more likely just in the nick Germany and France will come up with a rescue package that will be just about acceptable to everyone.

What Europe doesn't need is Great Britain to start flapping on about in/out referenda when they need to be concentrating on fixing their economies. And, to appeal to self-interest too, WE need them to be concentrating on fixing their economies, because OUR economy is so bound up with theirs.

Mr Balloon talked about our neighbour's house being on fire and saying we should help. What he could have added as well was: what we SHOULDN'T do is rush round there flapping our arms shouting "look at me look at meeee!"

And it's not like we wouldn't like our own government to be concentrating on fixing our own economy.

The aim of the Coalition, first and foremost, has been to reduce the deficit. We also want a strategy to promote GROWTH. And it's increasingly clear – especially in prevailing economic World conditions – that the one is precluding the other.

Do we REALLY want the government to be committing a lot of its time and effort to negotiating an exit strategy from our treaty obligations and taxation agreements?

Or might that not be seen on both sides of the Channel as a MASSIVELY SELF-INDULGENT way to cause titanic damage to everyone's economies?

It's ALSO worth a remark that the people who are demanding a Europe referendum are many of the SAME people who spent last year WHINING that the AV referendum was an enormous waste of money at a time when we should be cutting back!

Time to update the dictionary definition of HYPOCRISY, I suspect.

Unfortunately it's all too easy to characterise these as excuses because we think we'd LOSE.

Obviously it doesn't help that I DO think we'd LOSE.

I don't think we would lose on the FACTS, but since when do FACTS come in to it?

We've just HAD a referendum on one bit of the constitution: the DEBACLE that was the voting reform referendum where people were clearly more swayed by a ruthless, reactionary, conservatory campaign than by the progressive hope for something better, even though almost everyone thinks that the existing system is utterly broken.

What on EARTH would make ANYONE think that a pro-Europe campaign would be any more successful than the shower who were in charge of the pro-AV?

And polling suggests that there is already a (small) majority in favour of LEAVING the EU; twice as many favour leaving as think they're happy staying in.

But the LAST thing that this country needs at the moment is to make 50% of our trade more difficult by leaving the single market.

People only hear about the COSTS of Europe without being told the benefits.

This is because, for years – no, for DECADES – cynical politicians have blamed Europe for anything that goes wrong and taken the credit themselves for anything that Europe puts right. And even-more-cynical newspapers have sold copies off the back of jingoistic little-Britain-ism while ensuring that they pay as little tax as possible IN Britain.

So-called "free trade" Americaland – so beloved of the very Europhobes who want us out of the Union – has EYE-WATERING barriers to entry, and Bush the Lesser actually INCREASED US Protectionism during his term, while on the other fluffy foot being in the Union grants us free access to a half-a-billion customers for our exports.

Explain to me where GROWTH is going to come from if we leave? Not so much cutting off our nose to spite our face as cutting off our BODY to spite our BRAINS!

Conservatories often bang on about the "small state". Well Europe is it! The whole EU is run on a tight budget (whatever UKIP may tell you), with a bureaucracy that is famously cheaper than the Scottish Office. And – post devolution – has more POINT.

Of COURSE there is a net transfer of money from Britain (and Germany!) to southern and eastern Europe. Just as there is a net transfer of money from London to EVERYWHERE ELSE in Great Britain.

There's a case to be made for France paying her fair share.

And a BLIND PERSON could see that the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy need reforming. But for all the inefficiencies and corruption, the CAP has contributed to the fact that we haven't had a famine in Europe in living memory. And the EU Fishing rules helps to PROTECT our fish stocks from Spanish trawlers in a way that we could not do outside of the EU without actually SINKING SHIPS and ending up at WAR.

We should judge things by whether they are a SUCCESS.

In contrast to the Euro – which is still very much in debate – I think that Europe and the Union have been a success.

Sixty-five years uninterrupted (Lord Blairimort aside) by war, famine or plague is unprecedented in European history. The rolling back of dictatorships in Iberia, Greece and Eastern Europe is a triumph of human spirit and freedom, and one that it is to be hoped might be a beacon to the newly-liberated countries of North Africa too. The affluence and well-being of hundreds of millions of people to a standard beyond anything dreamt of in the rest of the world or the rest of history is something to be treasured not tossed away.

It astonishes me… well no, it saddens me but I'm curiously un-astonished that Europe is now being scapegoated for our own economic crisis, even though European banks were better regulated than British ones (it's just a shame that some European GOVERNMENTS may have been as PROFLIGATE as British ones).

In hard economic times it's all too familiar to hear DOMESTIC woes being blamed on FOREIGNERS, the easy populist platitudes of why-do-we-have-to-pay-for and we'd-be-better-off-on-our-own rhetoric.

We were happy to be in the Union for the GOOD TIMES. Now times are hard all over and some people want to go all selfish and pull up the drawbridge.


Our position as a BRIDGE between Europe and the rest of the planet has always served us for GOOD. But nowadays, that position depends more on the CONCEPTUAL territory of treaties and agreements than it does on our island geography.

But let's look at the Euro.

I think that the Euro is a really good idea. That's think, present tense, not thought. A single currency improves transparency and reduces exchange risk promoting intra-Union trade, generating jobs and so on.

But clearly, there's a massive downside.

The Greeks' governments of many years standing have been spending money that they didn't have. Worse, money that they were NEVER GOING TO HAVE. And they were able to do this because they were issuing bonds in Euros, nice safe, reliable, German-backed, guaranteed or your money back Euros.

(Which, of course, is why leaving the Euro would be INSANE for Greece: their DEBT would STILL be denominated in Euros and would actually spiral UP as their own currency collapsed.)

(Sidebar: Great Britain, not in the Euro, can make OUR debts "cheaper" by devaluing our currency: if I give you an I.O.U. for one TRILLION pounds (*actual numbers!*) when the pound is worth two dollars, and I buy two trillion dollars' worth of, oh let's say sticky buns… mmmm, two trillion dollars' worth of sticky buns… I'm drifting… if I then devalue the pound so it's only worth ONE dollar… I only have to repay effectively one trillion dollars, even though I got two. The PRICE that I pay for this is INFLATION – all of my exports are now twice as expensive. Americaland (as a whole) STILL GET their two trillion dollars back – they just get it in different ways and it gets spread among different people.

Funnily enough, the HIGH inflation that we are experiencing AT THE MOMENT is caused not a little by the way that we devalued our currency through Quantum of Easing.)

Where was I? Oh yes…

It seems this flaw may be inherent to the Euro. And may be fatal. There is NO incentive for governments like the Greeks' – and on a bigger scale the Italians' – to control their borrowing and spending whereas there are MASSIVE incentives – or RIOTS as they are called – for them to carry on burning other people's money so long as Germany will back them at the baccarat table.

The only solutions to this appear to be: don't let irresponsible economies into the currency (too late!) or don't let governments in the currency decide independently on how much they will borrow and spend.

This, in a nutshell, is the deal that the Union are edging towards. Germany will pick up the tab for EVERYONE ELSE'S overspending and in return they will hand over control of their treasuries to Berlin.

The extremely serious questions that linger over this are (a) can Germany actually AFFORD to BUY the whole of the rest of Europe (sure, they did it with East Germany, but that was peanuts in comparison) and (b) in spite of what we are supposed to think of them, do they actually WANT to? Because, despite what the SHRILLER of our xenophobes may want you to think, the Germans are actually a remarkably easy-going bunch and taking control of sixteen recalcitrant economies might just be too much bother, even if it DIDN'T mean having to sit in a room listening to Mr Balloon blow hot air about "leadership" when he won't take ANY responsibility himself.

(seriously, the number of times Mr Balloon and Master Gideon have prated about the need for the Eurozone countries to work closer together while praising themselves for staying out of the Euro and NOT working together with the Eurozone countries, you start to think Monsieur Sarcastic, President of France, might have had a point when he told Mr Balloon to– [cue Blackadder theme])

Plus, the other countries involved might not really want to surrender their sovereignty to the Bundesbank.

(Sidebar 2: fiscal union really OUGHT to lead to political union, so that people have democratic oversight of the bodies controlling their cash. But it might not. Europe would be, in a way, recreating the situation as exists in Great Britain between Westminster and Holyrood/Cardiff. The Scottish Parliament is of course the HAPPIEST Parliament in the World, because it always gets to be SANTA CLAUS. Nasty Master Gideon in London raises all those HORRID taxes that people have to pay, but Kindly Uncle Alec™ is there to hand out bounty and largesse to all and sundry, and if he's not got enough money then it's all the fault of those thieving Tories to the South. All of the pleasure of power, none of the pain of paying for it. That might be an attractive model to e.g. the Greek government – oh, here you are, my friends, cash for all; oh, so sorry, we can't pay any more this month, the nasty German tax inspectors won't give us any more, etc.)

So where does this MANIA for referendums come from?

Parties – and the Liberal Democrats should put our fluffy feet up to this because we're as guilty of this as the other lot, if not more so – seem to call for referendums from Opposition quite a lot, because it's a way of making a populist point and by-passing lack of actual support in Parliament as much as a principle of democracy.

It's ALSO a way of side-lining policies that while central in importance to the Party membership are unpopular in the general public: "look, we know you hate this Europe stuff, so we'll give you this promise that we'll ask for a second separate mandate on that, so you can trust us with your vote on everything else!"

We all know that the ORIGINAL referendum on Europe was – ironically – a wheeze by the political pinball-wizard Mr Harold Wilson because – ironically – his Labour party was in government but split down the middle on the subject.

So he punted the whole business over to the public to avoid an EMBARRASSING parliamentary defeat.

How times change.

But why SHOULD people except to have a separate say on this subject, separate that is from the NORMAL run-of-the-mill say that people get in our REPRESENTATIVE Democracy, where for the last couple of decades they have expressed their total indifference on the subject by conspicuously not electing a single UKIP MP to Parliament.

Most people are not well informed on all the subjects that Parliament legislates on. That's why we elect REPRESENTATIVES so that they can be properly informed and look into the details for us.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Does anyone REALLY believe that that is a true description of our Members of Parliament?

And don't we really think that the reason UKIP don't have any MPs is because the electoral system is horribly rigged in favour of mainly the two over-represented Parties with a slight side-order of massively underrepresented Liberal Democrats and no/virtually no representation for other Parties?

And when it comes down to it, aren't we supposed to TRUST the people whether they are well-informed or not, and who are we – Westminster bubble elite – to SAY that the people are well-informed or not?

It's all very funny to have a laugh at the wingnut fringe of the Conservatory Party wailing and gnashing its teeth and tearing themselves apart when finally given an excuse to vent their frustrations about Mr Balloon – because let's face it, this IS about Mr Balloon, and the fact that he made them bury all their Nasty Party tendencies and STILL didn't win them an election, and that they're convinced that (in spite of all the evidence of successive election defeats in 2001 and 2005) they could have taken an overall majority if only they'd been MORE RIGHT WING.

(If the pie-faced lummox wasn't such a self-satisfied nincompoop you could almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Thanks to the Coalition, he might actually have a chance of being a decent Prime Monster, but his Party will never forgive him for it. Though if he HADN'T formed the Coalition they'd have never forgiven him for that either! Sometimes, as Mr Balloon proved in the election, you just can't win. But then he did WANT the job!)

But what if the loonies are RIGHT?

Parliament, and by large majorities in ALL THREE BIG PARTIES (and technically in the Green one too), kind of just voted to tell the people to SOD OFF!

I REALLY don't see how this is going to make things better.

It LOOKS undemocratic. It LOOKS like MPs are conceding the case that a referendum would be unwinnable (which it probably is!). And it LOOKS like we’ll be getting wall-to-wall Nigel Farrago telling us that we are being denied our basic rights to shoot ourselves in both feet with a pitchfork. Or something.

Is it any wonder that politicians have lost the trust of the electorate aka THEIR BOSSES?

Here's a CURIOUS COINCIDENCE about the number SEVENTY-NINE: seventy nine is the number of Conservatory backbenchers who voted against Mr Balloon AND seventy-nine is the year to which one of their leading lightweights, Mr Jacob Rees-Moggadon, wants to turn the clock back. Specifically EIGHTEEN-seventy-nine – the year in which he was accidentally pickled in formaldehyde only to be revivified again in the twenty-first century.

So HOW, can anyone please tell me, has it come to pass that this unreconstructed antediluvian fogey is able to stand in the House of Commons and pass himself off as the authentic MAN-OF-THE-PEOPLE?

Good grief I feel awkward saying this because I think that the benefits of being IN Europe are almost immeasurable and the consequences of voting to leave unimaginably dire (and they wouldn't have us back in if we changed our minds after a year out in the cold) and yet I still think that we would lose a referendum. But I might be WRONG.

If we want to win trust back, we need to show a bit of trust ourselves first.

But why should it be up to the Frozen Fogey to decide when we turn the country upside-down?

Given that the outcome of the current Eurozone crisis will almost certainly require a FUNDAMENTAL rethink of the Union, and a MAJOR renegotiation of treaties – and the Prime Monster as good as said as much in his speech at the start of the referendum debate – would it not have been as wise – or at least, better POLITICS – to ACCEPT the motion IN PRINCIPLE but with the reasonable amendment that the promised referendum would take place ONLY once the Euro situation was resolved so that people knew what they were actually voting on.

Because (…and it's in the Coalition agreement, the Conservatory and Liberal Manifestos and the words of the front benches of all three main parties…) THAT'S WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN ANYWAY!

But in the longer term, I think we really need to WEAN ourselves OFF this habit of calling for one-off referendums.

I really do.

We are in favour of EMPOWERING people and referendums, while they're GREAT for Conservatories who want to wave their electoral willies about, and for governments that want to duck decisions or kick them into the long grass, are actually one of the WORST ways of making people empowered.

Look at the AV referendum: the turnout was pathetic. Look at the confusion that arose among people who wanted PR but not AV. They're votes are being CLAIMED by the anti-reform dinosaurs, where actually AV wasn't reform ENOUGH! How has the AV referendum properly represented the will of ANYONE? Apart from the reactionaries?

Referendums LOOK like huge exercises in democracy, but actually it's all a TRICK, an enormous game of FIND THE LADY. You know, pick a card, any card… from these TWO I am offering you…

The public do NOT get input into policy. At best, they get an EITHER/OR question (or in this case an EITHER/OR/OTHER question) over which of the ALREADY DECIDED policies will be implemented.

By their very nature, referendums are DIVIDE-AND-CONQUER. Rather than a synthesis of good ideas, they promote cynical attempts to crush opposing points of view. Explanation and understanding are side-lined in the exchange of soundbites, and if knowledge is power then that ACTIVELY REDUCES people's control over outcomes. They INFANTILISE the public, by saying that all they can cope with is a simple binary decision, when most people handle far more sophisticated decisions all the time.

These issues are TOO COMPLICATED to reduce to a simple yes/no question. Even the "X Factor" allows more sophisticated voting than THAT!

They need NUANCE. But as we've seen, people do not DO nuance.

Remember, the Liberal Democrats plans for constitutional reform were never a single yes/no referendum. Not even for PR. We were and remain in favour of a Constitutional Convention where people together would develop the constitution and voting system. And THAT is the sort of model we should be looking for: town hall meetings, drop in shops, volunteer committees, suggestion boxes. Policy should grow from the bottom up, not be imposed from the top down.

Which, ultimately, is the same problem we have with Europe. We need a movement to RECONNECT the people of Europe with the policy-makers and power-brokers in Brussels and Strasburg and, increasingly, Berlin.

We need Europe to listen to her people, and the people to feel a part of Europe, not apart from Europe.

And no referendum is ever going to achieve that!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 3943: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: The Man Who Never Was


This wasn't how we'd have wanted it to end; we didn't want it to end. But if it had to end here, it was a good story to go out on: funny, moral, encapsulating the series' entire philosophy that the universe is wonderful, and by good fortune all Sarah Jane's family together at the end. (Except the dog!)

I read one person praising Sarah Jane because she "fought aliens and saved the world" and thought that was actually so wrong, so literally backwards. Because, as this episode proved, Sarah Jane was someone who fought the world and saved aliens.

Actually, I'm really glad that they did this story, getting it in just in time, because it's actually the first time in twenty-seven adventures where the main villain is unambiguously a human. We've had human accomplices before (e.g. "Warriors of Kudlak") or humans corrupted by an alien power (such as Russ Abbott's impressive turn in "Secret of the Stars") or acting bad under the influence of the Trickster (in "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" or "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith" or even Sarah Jane herself in "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith"). But the nearest we've had to an actual human baddie before was in "Mark of the Berserker" and that was Clyde's dad possessed by an alien device.

(And yes, we went through the whole series to check: Bane, Slitheen, Gorgon, Uvodni (Kudlak and his Empress), Trickster, Slitheen (again) and Xyloc; Sontaran, meteor entity, Mandragora Helix Ancient Lights, Clyde's dad!, Trickster (again), Bane (again) and Sontaran (again); Veil, Ship, Trickster (yet again), a ghost that turns out to be an entity from a distant galaxy, (deep breath) living paint made accidentally by Leonardo from a sentient meteor (yes, all right all right, The Mona Lisa), Blathereen; Extra-dimensional entity, Veil (again), claw Shansheeth (aka Muppet Vultures), robots, um… tricky… we don't know who the shopkeeper is (or his parrot, the Captain) and he's not really the villain anyway, Qetesh; fleshkind and metalkind, entity trapped in a totem pole, and at last a human!)

Actually, reviewing that list, it seems that you are more likely to be genuinely evil if you look human, or at least if you're pretending to look (or sound) human (especially if you're really a chunk of rock).

Of course, you can make excuses – since aliens aren't supposed to come to Earth, any that do may be a bit on the nefarious side already; or, we only see the thrilling adventures, missing out all those times where Sarah Jane and the Scooby Gang just have tea and poetry with a visiting traveller (well… aside from in their very first story!) – and given the Earth-bound nature of the show, the SJAs have got a lot more excuse for "invader of the week" stories than the parent series (where Russell's monster-obsession has nearly tipped the series over into a xenophobic crusade, with only episodes like "Planet of the Ood" and "Midnight" standing up for the "humans can be monsters" point of view). And it's not like there haven't been any nice aliens (a star poet; Captain Tybo of the Judoon; even Mr Dread turned out to be moderately on our side), but it was good to see the series firmly placing itself on the side of "not all strangers are bad".

(And coming on top of "The Curse of Clyde Langer" with its strong "homeless people are people too" subplot, it certainly seems season five is, or would have been, the "message" season. Done well – and it was done well – that's not a bad thing.)

James Dreyfus is rather wonderfully nasty, and more importantly, wonderfully petty as Mr Harrison, the human creep who wants to use alien slaves and a bit of alien hypnosis to cheat people into buying his nasty iPad knock-off.

Oh, yes, the plot involves an elusive genius performing solo at the launch of his revolutionary "device"… it's a timely piece of satire on the late Steve Jobs, all the more remarkable for having been recorded a year ago.

(And the same applies to Tat's observation that the steampunk-powered Serf hologram shows up the ridiculousness of a thing like Doctor Who's Tesselector… somehow getting the satirical digs in before Moffat wrote the conclusion to his death of the Doctor arc. It's another of those continuity errors in the real world.)

And of course "Mr Serf" (played with hilarious abandon by Mark Aiken – "no! proper smile, not sexy smile!") "Mr Serf" turns out to be operated by Serfs!

The Light Sculptors or to be honest Cyclops/Jawas were rather lovely – yes there was Dan Starkey back again, this time out of his Sontaran tights though – managing to be both sympathetic victims and quite funny. I don't care how obvious it was that the monsters were victims not villains (and to be fair, they did quite well disguising that for the first episode), it was a nice reversal and, as I say, about time.

And I should also say what a delight it was to see Peter Bowles turning up as Sarah Jane's old editor and basically just being charming all over the place. Like Nigel Havers a couple of years back, or Ronnie Corbett in the Comic Relief special, or Samantha Bond back in the pilot, or many others, this series has managed to get so many top notch actors, stars I should say, who ought to have been well out of its league.

And it's got to be because this really is the true inheritor of the mantle of classic "Doctor Who". It's not just the half-hour time-slots; it's not just that it's flagrantly done on a budget – achieving the extraordinary in the teeth of having no money just as the old series did; not having money to burn the way twenty-first century "Who" seems to. It's because this series has heart. It has joy. It has success.

Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde and Rani, and Maria before, time and again they unambiguously win. Too much new "Doctor Who" has concentrated on "the cost", "the price the Doctor has to pay". It's made the Doctor almost a selfish character, as he cuts himself off more and more. Sarah Jane has had almost exactly the opposite trajectory. She starts off alone, in a self-imposed internal exile, determined that if she can't have the Doctor she'll have no one. And gradually, between them, Maria and Luke and then Clyde and Rani open her up to the possibilities of family, and she reconnects herself to the world.

Yes, there are consequences. The kids learn and grow up. Maria moved to America; Luke went to university; Clyde and Rani look like they really are getting together ("Clani" shippers everywhere swooning with joy when the series itself made them canon). Everyone in the Sarah Jane Adventures changes – even K-9 and Mr Smith. But "consequences" doesn't mean things have to get worse. Luke and Sky's relationship goes from fearful and resentful to loving acceptance over the course of two episodes, a microcosm of the series as a whole.

In a way it's entirely appropriate that her last story should feature her old editor, a connection to the time when she was entirely defined by her job. Because for Sarah Jane, consequences mean more connections to people, complications, developments, evolution… in short, a life.

And that is the adventure that continues… forever.

I've not been very good at reviewing every Sarah Jane Adventure as they've come along, but holed up at home with an icepack wrapped around my swollen ankle, CBBC were broadcasting their "Ultimate Sarah Jane" season, and I watched most of "The Lost Boy" through "Mark of the Berserker" and you know what? They really stand up to repeated viewing. So I think we'll be going back to the beginning and watching the series through and I'll try and fill in some of those stories I didn't review first time around. Even the one with the Mona Lisa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day 3926: DOCTOR WHO: Crisis on Timey Wimey Earth!


Rule One: The Moffster Lies.

It's funny how many reviews for this have taken longer to come out. Life, obviously, got busy for a lot of us, but that also means that we let it.

In part I think that's got to be people rocking back on their heels thinking: "how the hell do I respond to that?"

I suppose the obvious, if important, thing to say is that Andrew is right: this was a magic trick, a conjuror's illusion, where almost the entire episode is an elaborate misdirection to keep our eye away from the fundamental bait-and-switch con on the beach at Lake Silencio.

Let's not suggest that it isn't a very good distraction. The idea of time zones colliding as history starts to implode is brain-bendingly intriguing; the visual imagery of steam trains and pterodactyls and pyramids is mind-blowingly spectacular; the development of any sense of consequence of all this is… soul-crushingly absent.

Churchill, for example, is present as apparently Roman Emperor and Holy Roman Emperor (two completely different crowns, separated by a thousand years of history, but you can sort of get away without doing the research if "all of history is happening at once"). But he vanishes completely from the narrative the moment that Pond, Amelia Pond enters. In other words, he serves no narrative purpose beyond prompting the Doctor to supply expository flashbacks. That and because Ian McNeice is a great character and much more fun than having David Cameron asking the Doctor to explain why the Coalition seems to be trapped in an Eighties time-warp.

We barely pause for breath and we're into the Doctor effectively waterboarding a Dalek and then breaking the Tesselector crew's spaceship. Again. Last time they met, he had Amy force them to abandon ship (and one wonders how they got back aboard without being killed by their own robot anti-bodies) and this time he fritzes the thing with a wave of his screwdriver. And after this the captain still lets him borrow it to get incinerated on a lake in Utah.

(Okay, let's assume that he time-jumps the Tesselector out of the hastily-arranged Viking funeral, but even so…)

Of course, the Tesselector crew do seem to think that they're the good guys. Even though the Doctor clearly thinks they're a bunch of schmucks. As he says to them in "Let's Kill Hitler": "You use time travel to punish dead people" and "I'd ask who you think you are, but it's fairly obvious".

In Dungeons & Dragons terms, I'd have said the Tesselector crew are "lawful good" whereas the Doctor is "chaotic good". But really, they're not even that. Their mission is pointless. And they're dangerously bad at it. Neither of which qualify them as higher than "wandering monster".

I assume, though, that every single person watching groaned on seeing the explanation of the Tesselector in the "previously" sequence, as it immediately said "and this is how he gets out of it". Having them appear as one link in the chain of the Doctor's mini-Bond adventure (like the opening of "Diamonds are Forever") where he traces the Silence nearly double-bluffed us into thinking that we'd guessed wrong after all and that Moffat had something cleverer in mind, though. Ah well.

It is unkind and, I think, wrong to suggest that Moffat thinks chess is too dull for television without explosions and shit, since this clearly has the whole scene backwards. The point is that the Silence's agent Gantok has to be in peril of his life. Moffat's joke is to have him imperilled by something as harmless and as connected to the lives of schoolkids watching as a chess match. I bet the chess club has never felt so cool, so good on Moffat for that.

And then from Bond to Indiana Jones and another design triumph for Michael Pickwoad – boy has he been the hero of this series – with the tomb of the Seventh Transept and all those skulls. That would have been unwatchable for me as a child; I was deeply afraid of skulls and I'd have totally lost it.

This of course marks the point where we've totally abandoned science fiction for horror fantasy.

Nothing about those skulls makes sense in a traditional scientific world. Never mind my hand-waving attempts to explain the headless monks back in "A Good Man Goes to War"; clearly this is done by magic. The monks may very well "behead you alive", as the head of Dorium Maldovar puts it, but beheading is pretty invariably fatal. There are some deep theological questions about whether your soul – should such a thing exist – hangs around with your mortal remains awaiting the Last Trump or skips straight to Judgement Day, but I'm fairly sure that no one outside of a ghost story suggests that it can animate your leftovers. Particularly not once the useful bits like muscle and cartilage have rotted away! Doctor Who's had walking dead quite often – but almost invariably with an alien explanation.

But remember that this is a ghost story, one being told to Churchill by the Doctor. Churchill himself scoffs at it, and, as we will see, we may have reason to believe that the Doctor is making all this up.

However, the imagery of a tomb of living dead is entirely in keeping with the theme of the episode.

I was almost tempted to point out that Moffat's "all history in collision" is entirely populated by dead people (also pterodactyls) but thought that that would be unkind to several breakfast TV presenters. Nevertheless, it's true that the significant figures we see – Dickens, Churchill, Dr Malokeh, and of course Amy and Rory and even River back in "Silence in the Library" – have all died.

The Doctor, caught between life and death by River's actions, is himself in Limbo, which is of course the outer circle of Hell, at least according to Dante. So who else but the dead should he expect to see populating his personal purgatory?

So the first half of the story is telling us two things: first that this is a story, one that the Doctor is telling us and it may not all be true; and second that it is about perspectives on the dead who might not actually be dead.

It would all be terribly clever if the "get out of dead free card" that the Doctor is going to play wasn't so utterly cackhanded.

But never mind that. You could, in fact, easily describe this one show as the traditional two parts of a season finale cut-and-shut into a single episode: the bit with Churchill in Roman-meets-Victorian-meets-Twenty First Century-meets-Prehistoric London and all the flashbacks being the first part; the stuff with River and Silence in the pyramid forming the second.

Whether that's a triumph of economy of writing or a sign of paucity of plot I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

The Eleventh Hour boys pointed out that Mr Moffat has a near-pathological fear of what we might call the "resolution episode": all the fun is in the set-up of the spectacular finale, pouring everything into a fantastic "now, get out of that" cliff-hanger; after which the actual getting out of that is an inevitable letdown.

Last year, the Grand Moff avoided this by having "The Big Bang" be a completely different story to "The Pandorica Opens", almost a completely different genre.

Here he goes one step further and bends over backwards to have nothing but spectacular cliff-hangers (the soothsayer is the Doctor… gasp; there are hundreds of Silence hanging from the ceiling… gasp; River in an eyepatch… gasp; etc) and then filling in the back story to how we got there afterwards.

All of which is all the more frustrating when we thought that Moffat was the man who could do resolution.

Russell T, famously, infamously, would leap to "with one bound he was free" by pulling god-like powers out of someone's bottom and covering with a lot of hand waving, tugging on the heart strings and turning the Murray Gold up to eleven.

(Most egregiously, the "and you're all dead" solution to the cliff-hanger in "Rise of the Cybermen" and the "nahh, I think I won't" cop-out to the regeneration crisis of "The Stolen Earth", though the void-vacuum-cleaner of "Doomsday" reused to get rid of the Cyberking in "The Next Doctor" and Dalek-geddon by supertemp – "Journey's End" again – come close.)

But Moffat, particularly in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (but also "The Girl in the Fireplace" and, obviously "Blink") demonstrated a talent for writing a complicated and intriguing set-up that was, like the best magic tricks, or more pertinently, the best mystery writing, just as good once you'd seen the conclusion. A well-delivered resolution to a mystery is a joy to behold and even rewards rewatching when you can see how the "trick" is being done, but the key to it is that the "oh, it's obvious" should only occur to the viewer after it's been explained to them, like Watson and all those "elementary" observations of Holmes.

What is becoming apparent is that that sort of plotting does not scale up to season arc length.

Having set up multiple interconnected mysteries, what Moffat has tried to do is keep the amount of material that the audience need to hold in their heads to understand any one set of explanations to a minimum (essentially to no more than can reasonably be stuck in a "previously on…"). He's done this by compartmentalising each "answer" to its own episode. This can result in occasionally bizarre decisions, like the one to keep the Silence out of "A Good Man Goes to War", making the motivations of Madam Kovarian impenetrable to anyone watching the episode because that episode was about answering the "who is River Song" question not the "who are the Silence" question. And of course fatally compromising the audience's sympathies with Amy by having her emotional response to Melody's kidnapping (grief, anger, murder) confined only to the 'relevant' stories, making her seem like an uncaring bimbo in otherwise fine episodes in between.

Seen as a whole, it's possible to work out what was supposed to be going on, but that doesn't make the individual episodes any more satisfying. Like constructing a Frankenstein's monster out of body parts, just sticking the bits together doesn't bring it to life.

Still, what are the questions we can now answer? Mike Taylor comes up with an excellent, though not exhaustive, list:

1. why the Doctor had to die;

2. why River had to be the one to do it;

3. why she had to do it in the form of an Impossible Astronaut;

4. why there was a Silent there;

5. why Present-Day River missed Old River with five shots from point-blank range;

6. why she said “of course not” after missing;

7. what the Doctor and the Astronaut said to each other;

8. how the Doctor could avoid death when Canton told us “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead”; and

9. what is the “first question” that the Silence believe must never be asked.

Despite what Mike says, I think we can actually answer all of these questions, so let's have a go.

1. why the Doctor had to die
"Why did the Doctor have to die?" actually contains two questions: the first is "why did somebody want the Doctor to die (and who were they)?" and the second is "why didn't the Doctor avoid dying?"

The first is definitely answered: the people who want the Doctor dead are indeed the Silence, and Madam Kovarian works for them. However, contrary to the impression given by her line in "A Good Man Goes to War" about their "long and bitter war", this isn't (or at least isn't just) about revenge for his genocidal act in "Day of the Moon".

The real reason they want him dead is because there is something seriously deadly about his name and they want to prevent him ever answering the question "Doctor Who?" (see question nine)

The second is, in some ways, trivial: it's like watching part two of "The Caves of Androzani" and asking "why doesn't the Doctor avoid sticking his hand in that Spectrox nest?" He can't because he's already done it.

What makes the question slightly less trivial, of course, is the fact that he knows what is going to happen before the fact. In fact, the only reason that he is there on the beach is because he knows it's where he's going to be.

He is, essentially, trapped by a predestination paradox.

And this is presumably why the Silence in the White House loos gave Amy the post-hypnotic orders to tell the Doctor what he must know – that she is pregnant – and what he must never know – that he's going to die.

(That's a hell of a Cluedo conclusion, though, isn't it: the Silence, in the White House loo, with the predestination paradox.)

As a Lord of Time, and a defender of the ongoing continuity, the Doctor is kind of sworn to make sure that what is supposed to happen does happen.

If the fifth Doctor knew that he'd die of Spectrox toxaemia before episode one of "Androzani" would he still stick his hand in the Spectox nest? The stupid nobility of the fifth Doctor's character suggests that he would.

But as a natural rebel, the Doctor is as likely to reject the inevitable because he believes in free will. We've seen him encounter a predestination paradox and tell it to get stuffed before, in "Day of the Daleks".

Which is why we come to the "fixed point".

The trap that the Silence set isn't just to tell the Doctor the where and when of his death; it's to make that point a fixed point.

And to be fair to Moffat, he's not playing fast and loose with the rules of fixed points as we've seen them in the series. The rules as we know them come from "The Fires of Pompeii" and that very story shows us that the actual events of the fixed point can turn out to be different to what they appear. In that story, the Doctor believes he cannot avert the destruction of Pompeii because it's a fixed point; but it turns out that he actually could, he does still have a choice, and he – and Donna – choose to maintain the original history.

So the Doctor's sneaky "getting out of being dead" here doesn't break any rules because he doesn't change the perception of what is happening.

That is actually more important than the understanding that the fixed point was "always" the Tesselector that was getting shot. The Silence – not to mention all those witnesses in orbit who River unwittingly summoned up with her timey-wimey distress beacon – all think they see the Doctor die. So that is what history records. And as we will see, history is a very unreliable narrator.

2. why River had to be the one to do it and 3. why she had to do it in the form of an Impossible Astronaut
Dorium here gives us the clue. Lake Silencio is a still point in time. Which means, apparently, you can make a fixed point in time there. Notice that, you can make a fixed point. Making fixed points in time sounds very much like a Time Lord power.

The Silence are building a weapon to use against the Doctor. But River isn't the weapon; the suit is. River isn't there as the brains of the suit; she's there as part of the engine. The Silence are using her to fix the still point so that this means that this event can only happen in the one way and that no one can go round rewriting it. She is, essentially, there as a shield for the suit against the Doctor's timey-wimey powers.

Why doesn't the Doctor just avoid being killed on the beach?

What has been increasingly clear since 2005 is that the modern series sees the Doctor as possessed of a Time Lord super-power to see and to an extent manipulate the entire probability-space around him. That is, he can look at the world and see all possible outcomes and to a degree choose which ones happen. Essentially, he as the super-power of coincidence. Or, if you want to be even more meta-textual, the writers are always on his side, and will write him a get-out clause.

Why would this be getting meta-textual? Have you seen the answer to question nine yet?

So how do you stop him doing that?

Well the obvious answer is to have another Time Lord running interference for you.

All of which begs the question, how much is River, with her backwards timeline – beautifully straightened out in the last ever (or if there's one at Christmas last-but-one ever) Confidential; like that version of "Memento" on the DVD that reorders it chronologically – how much is River part of the trap.

Not the Silence's trap for the Doctor; the Doctor's trap for the Silence.

Remember "The Day of the Moon" and River's massacre of the Silence at the end, while the Doctor stands around uselessly zapping them with flashes from his screwdriver? It's really not her fault. I mean really not her fault. The Silence raised her and trained her as the ultimate assassin. And then the Doctor stuck her in front of a telly and played that clip of a Silence ordering her "you should kill us all on sight". So she does.

The Doctor doesn't turn his screwdriver into a weapon against the Silence. He turns his wife into a weapon against the Silence.

Compared to this, anything that he does to Ace in "The Curse of Fenric" is charmingly innocent.

4. why there was a Silent there
The Silent witness (sorry, it was irresistible) was there to makes sure that their plan went down the way they wanted it to. And of course, the Doctor needed one of them there so that he could be sure that they thought that it went down the way they wanted it to.

5. why Present-Day River missed Old River with five shots from point-blank range
Well of course what Mike clearly means is "present day River" missed "young River" not "Old River". And if she'd actually shot her younger self it would have caused a grandfather paradox. With enough paradoxes on that beach already, it's probably safest to assume physics or the armour plating of the suit deflected her bullets.

Or if you prefer, then she subconsciously chose to shoot wide. Or even the Silence programming her to miss. Or ultimately, the "it was part of the act" explanation, which brings us to…

6. why she said “of course not” after missing
Because she is now able to figure out that it really was her in the suit. The Silence clearly mess with her memory to an enormous degree and even the Doctor tells her she probably won't remember committing the murder. There would always have been a gap in her life, an unexplained blackout covering the period when she is supposed to have murdered the Doctor, and only by seeing it happen can she realise that after all she did it.

Except of course that this probably falls into the category of "a clever lie" to convince the watching Silence that this is what she is thinking.

It is clear that, like her mother Amy, River is able to remember the events of alternative timelines, because otherwise she wouldn't be able to tell Amy what the Doctor really whispered in her ear.

As we've said above, this seeing alternative timelines is a Time Lord power, one that "A Good Man Goes to War" lets us infer is connected with exposure to the Untempered Schism; or in Amy's case, the very similar crack in the universe in the wall of her bedroom. In fact, Amy can remember alternative timelines because of a childhood growing up next to a crack in the universe even though that childhood itself now took place in an alternative universe since the Doctor retrospectively fixed the crack in "The Big Bang".

Of course it's quite possible, likely even, that that childhood exposure to – let's say it – artron energy didn't just give Amy a touch of Time Lordly power but mutated her chromosomes just enough to act as a starting point for her daughter's evolution into human+.

Amy's memory powers crop up again in this episode too, in fact are crucial to the Resistance understanding that time has gone wrong. Churchill sensed that time was out of joint – like Shakespeare he's got that bit of human genius that, at least in Doctor Who, lets some people see that little bit further – but he lacked the understanding that Amy has to comprehend what was really wrong.

It's fascinating, though, that Amy admits she has to keep drawing and redrawing her memories in order to keep remembering them. In effect, the entire universe has become the Silence.

And notice, also, that she gets bits wrong. Of course, her remembered Rory isn't right, even when he's right in front of her. But funnily enough, her drawings include a Dalek and even though it's red, it's a Time War Dalek, not a New Paradigm Dalek (although there is an NPD there too, though only its dome and neck – and while I'm on the subject, the dying Dalek unlucky enough to encounter the Doctor is carefully shot from only the "shoulders" up. Oh, and it's clearly grey, too).

7. what the Doctor and the Astronaut said to each other
As it turns out, they had rather more time to chat than was previously appreciated. Up to and including an improvised wedding ceremony.

Although, as with the Doctor's death, perception is everything. If the Doctor says "this is a wedding ceremony" and the universe is watching and believes him, then it is a wedding ceremony, even if he did just make it up on the spot as an excuse to whisper to River the one thing that would convince her to stop foiling his plan.

Did I mention "The Curse of Fenric"?

8. how the Doctor could avoid death when Canton told us “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead”
Well, clearly because it was a big fat fib. Aided and abetted by the older River scanning the "dead" Tesselector with her vortex manipulator and then lying through her teeth about the results.

If there's a disappointment this year… no, that's way too much of a hostage to fortune. But one disappointment this year was that the TARDIS crew didn't run into Canton Everet Delaware III for another adventure.

Morgan Shepherd's line "I won't see you again, but you'll see me" obviously refers to the events of 1969, but seemed to promise more, that that wouldn't be the only time in their future but his past that they would see him. And Mark Shepard's laconic portrayal of the younger Canton III (gay, American, secret agent – he's almost the anti-Harkness) was a nice addition to the generally overwrought mix in the TARDIS.

Still, there's always next year.

9. what is the “first question” that the Silence believe must never be asked
And here is where the meta-text becomes the text, as it were. Which means I'm going to start talking about Lawrence Miles.

Because, in terms of the Doctor Who universe, "Doctor Who?" is literally the first question ever asked in the series since it appears in the opening titles of "An Unearthly Child" before anything else happens.

Although admittedly it's missing the question mark and people – and by people I include psychotic proto-internet app Wotan and script editor Gerry Davis – often mistake "Who" for his name.

And on a meta-textual level, the Silence are right, because an answer, any answer, to "Doctor Who?" is the end of the Doctor Who universe.

It isn't as though Moffat hasn't been working towards this for a while, though. It first appears explicitly in "The Girl in the Fireplace", where Madam de Pompadour – passing the time between laying the groundwork for a century of European wars by playing the flirty minx – discovers that the Doctor's name is "more than just a secret".

"The Fires of Pompeii" (again) goes further when the seers' duel sees the revelation that the Doctor's name is hidden within the Medusa Cascade. Three years ago, I was speculating that Davros' new Dalek Empire would end up trapped in the Cascade by the younger Doctor and that he would use his name to seal it. So the revelation of the Doctor's name would unleash the full might of the resurrected Dalek Empire on the universe. That, of course, is not to be.

However, last year's conclusion as good as came out and said that the Doctor is made out of stories [link deleted].

Amy remembering the stories was enough to summon the Time Lord back into existence.

But beings made out of stories… we've seen those before. They're called "conceptual entities" and they appear in Lawrence Miles' "Alien Bodies" and all the following Faction Paradox works, most especially in the form of the Celestis in "The Book of the War" and "The Taking of Planet Five".

The Celestis are Time Lords who turn themselves into ideas, stories if you will, in order to avoid the Time War. Ideas being notoriously difficult to kill.

By turning themselves into stories of gods and monsters, the Celestis believe they have made themselves unkillable, immortal, all powerful.

But there is a greater and more terrible idea/story at work in "The Book of the War", the thing that is more powerful, more terrible than any gods or monsters is the unknown. And this is the story of the Time Lords' enemy.

The never-spoken question that runs through the Time War stories of the BBC eighth Doctor range and the parallel Faction Paradox oeuvre is "Who is the enemy?"

Let me rephrase that: "Doctor Who?"

At the end of "The Wedding of River Song", the Doctor "steps back into the shadows"; he chooses to abandon his legend, his story, and make himself the unknown. Embracing his "death", he becomes – to borrow from the best – more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

If the Silence style themselves the guardians of history, then they are setting themselves up as the new Lords of Time.

And the Doctor has become… their enemy.

But let's just look at the question as Mike has posed it, because Mike's question is based on a misconception that's actually quite revealing.

The Silence don't believe that the question cannot be asked.

Remember, back in "Let's Kill Hitler" (or the "previously on…" pre-title sequence): the Tesselector records told us that the core belief of the Silence was "Silence will fall when the question is asked." But later in the episode, Dorium tells us that this is a mis-translation; a more accurate one would be "Silence must fall".

So we know that we can't necessarily rely on the version of history we are told by the Tesselector.

For example, a thing – one on a long list – that could really have done with being spelled out: we only 'know' because the Tesselector crew tell us so that the Silence is a movement not a species – even though the Doctor himself refers to "the creatures that lead the Silence" (my emphasis).

It is important to remember that the Silence (the creatures) are memory-proof and therefore, bigger than that, they are history-proof. To the eyes of recorded history, and more to the point the Tesselector crew, the Silence are invisible. But their human servants are not. Madame Kovarian, Gideon Vandaleur, Mark Gatiss in a really big rubber chin… History can see these people doing things, following a set of orders given to them by invisible beings, and it looks very like they are following a religion.

Now think again about those scenes where the Doctor is explaining the plot to Churchill, in particular once he's noticed the first tally-mark appear on his arm. How can we be certain that he is telling Churchill the truth, given how particularly unwise that might be if there are forgotten Silence around to listen in?

And how do we know that that thing that the Doctor and River do on top of the pyramid is a wedding other than because the Doctor says it is?

These all point to the simple truth that the trope that Moffat is playing most heavily is "unreliable narrator".

Which brings us back to Rule One.

The reason why the cheat is most annoying is that Moffat told us explicitly – both in the series via the mouthpiece of Canton and in person on Doctor Who Confidential – that he hadn't. And of course it was a lie.

The reason why the cheat was tiresome was because – unlike the faux regeneration in "The Stolen Earth" – we never believed that the Doctor was truly going to be really and permanently dead. The cop-out in "Journey's End" was an appalling betrayal of the audience's investment in the drama and the narrative for the very reason that we could, just slightly, believe that it might be true. In contrast, this was merely a rubbish way of achieving something that was entirely expected.

Of course, Moffat has said that next year will be much more stand-alone episodes, much less arc-heavy.

And I don't believe him.

Rule One.

Because it ought to be fairly obvious that he's thinking – as a writer – in terms of a trilogy. He would, almost congenitally could never tell a story in two seasons. No one ever tells a story in two. The plan would always have been for three.

Season (Thirty) one: sets up Amy's story and lays the groundwork for the bigger mysteries.

Season (Thirty) two: answers to the questions who is River and who are the Silence which actually only show how much trouble the Doctor is in.

Season (Thirty) three: concludes the war.

Inform, educate and entertain.

All subject, of course, to how much fun Matt Smith is having in the TARDIS, because the Fields of Trenzelor at the Fall of the Eleventh is so his last story.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, of course – and who would want to when Matt is far and away the most brilliant thing in the series at the moment – but when he does go, is anyone else seeing The Fades/Psychoville's Daniel Kaluuya as possible replacement?

One last thing to say. In spite of it all, in spite of the tediously predictable cop-out of the Doctor's "death", in spite of the dreadful lack of development for the super-abundant ideas… that final scene, with the music building, and Dorium – furious, outraged, insane? – bellowing the series title over and over, and Matt Smith looks straight into the camera with his most enigmatic expression.

I loved it.

Next Time… Christmas in Wartime, in a creepy old house with Outnumbered's Claire Skinner and the awesome Bill Bailey. And Alexander Armstrong in a WW2 uniform. Harsh. Isn't it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day 3939: Fox Off


And so farewell then, Fantastic Dr Fox, the Indefensible Secretary, who's resigned following revelations about his Best Man.

It's been clear for a while that, whatever his capabilities, Dr Fox is an arrogant tool who thinks the rules don't apply to him, whether its collective responsibility and not leaking your letters to the Prime Monster during the spending review or the ministerial code that says you don't give your mates free access to your Ministry of Defence contacts and top secret diary.

Questions that will probably remain unanswered now surround Dr Fox's links with the dodgy charity "Atlantic Bridge" (aka the Special Committee for Electing Conservatory Rightwing Eejits or, er, "SpECTRE") and whether it was no more than an old fashioned Conservatory SLUSH FUND. Was the Defenceless Secretary secretly running a behind-the-scenes covert shadow-ministry in order to get round those tricky Civil Service rules and Freedom of Information requests?

It's not like those naughty Conservatories haven't got form trying that elsewhere.

What leaves a nasty taste in the mouth though is the way that that was all too COMPLICATED for the press to pursue. It was only when the hint of a juicy SEX SCANDAL was stirred into the mix (with no supporting evidence whatsoever) that the press pack went a-Fox hunting.

It seems that subverting the rules of democracy just isn't as interesting as the possibility that Mr Foxy might have been touched by "THE GAY!" or even worse, a bit of the BISEXUAL. I know we don't expect any better of our tabloids – though we ought to be able to! – but when even the The Today Programme starts salivating over the salacious – as Mr Humpy did on Wednesday this week – then something's gone very wrong with the meeja.

The speculation is already mounting about a reshuffle, as though who's in the Cabinet is Strictly Come Governing rather than a serious business.

Mr Balloon has – to his CREDIT – been pretty reshuffle-intolerant so far. And that's a GOOD THING because ministers ought to get on with learning the detail of their jobs rather than being swept cluelessly from department to department and letting the Sir Humphries retain the upper hand every time. It would be much better – much as we'd love to see Captain Paddy take over – for this to be a simple one-out-one-in for the Conservatories, just as it was for the Liberal Democrats when Mr David Outlaws fell on his sword last year.

Of course, it doesn't help that Oily Leftwin has chosen this morning to be caught having a "Hello Trees! Hello Flowers!" moment with his Cabinet papers.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Day 3934: Things Wot I Was Going to Write This Week


Having a job is a good thing, I suppose (I'm a baby elephant; I wouldn't know!), but it doesn't half get in the way of Daddy Richard writing up my diaries!

It's a bit of a BUGGER though, wot with having spent last week taking pops at Hard Labour for talking rubbish, that this week the Conservatories have been giving me JUST AS MANY opportunities to mock, but daddy's had no time to write 'em up.

It all LOOKS a bit PRO-Conservatory. Ugh!

So here, to set the record a BIT straight, is a taste of what we've missed:

Day 3931: Mrs May and the Cat that Didn't Bark in the Night


Our Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa Nuts-in-May, gave a perfectly HORRID speech at the Conservatory Conference saying how much she wanted to oil the delegates' soft spots by abolishing the Human Rights Act, but managed to make a fool of herself with a story about a cat monster that turned out to be FICTION.

But there's a serious point too.

Her "complaint" about Human Right is that they "get in the way" of the Home Office doing "its job" by which she means: "whatever it wants to". Well, NEWSFLASH Mrs Nuts-in-May: THAT'S WHAT THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO DO!

Human Rights law is the thing that defines our relationship with the STATE: it says what the state ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT do to people in its care (at least not without going through a proper procedure). That's things like "not kill you", "not torture you", "not lock you up for no reason".

And while we're on the subject, human rights are about our relationship with the state and NOT with other people. That would be CRIMINAL LAW.

So people saying "what about the human rights of so-and-so's victims" are talking HONK. It's NOT a "breach of human rights" to murder someone. It's a CRIME and it's called MURDER! And that's why we send murderers to JAIL.

You don't have to fulfil some arbitrary notion of "responsibilities" to receive your human rights (that's ANOTHER thing we have Hard Labour to "thank" for); you get them just for being alive because THAT'S how we say decent governments SHOULD behave.

You don't "give up" your human rights by breaking the criminal law; THAT'S why they're called INALIENABLE.

And one last thing, Mrs Nuts-in-May. It might be more CONVENIENT for you to deport terrorist subjects to foreign states where we have no friends and no controls, but PERSONALLY I'd much rather keep terrorist suspects WHERE I CAN SEE WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

And I'm sorry that you think DOING YOUR JOB makes doing your job harder.

Day 3930: Do You Understand the Paradox of Thrift? Neither Does the Prime Monster


Mr Balloon was going to tell people to pay off their credit card bills until someone brighter than Master Gideon pointed out to him that the fabled "growth strategy" depends rather heavily on people spending their money on STUFF in shops and NOT vaporising it by clearing their debts.

If your debt is UNSUSTAINABLE (i.e. more than you can afford to keep paying for in the medium to long run) then OF COURSE you must control it and pay it down. Like wot the government are trying to do. (To a certain value of "paying down" given that we are actually adding MORE to the debt mountain faster than ever; we're just trying to add to it less faster than ever than Labour planned to do. If you see what I mean.)

But if your debts are under control then ACTUALLY the government would probably rather you kept on spending. A bit. Please.

Which brings me to…

Day 3928: Why Plan A Isn't Working. Why Plan B Wouldn't Work Either


Astonishingly, the best speech of the week seems to have come from Master Gideon, with his upbeat, "we can do it together" mantra, suggesting that someone may have finally sat him down and told him that all the "we're doomed" dialogue may have been playing badly with CONFIDENCE in the economy.

Now, if we can just persuade him that that VAT rise was bonkers…

Really, though, there is a truth that no Chancer or Shadow Chancer will admit, which is that there is almost FLUFF ALL that he/she can do to stop the economy being in DOOMED mode.

I'm NOT saying it's gloom FOREVER. Something WILL come along. "The Next Big Thing". Whatever it is.

Look back at history and you will see that each period of recession comes to a turning point, a new idea or discovery or fresh resources, and people start to think that there is money to be made again and, almost by magic, they start to make money.

The early Thatcher recession ended when council houses started to be sold off. It wasn't Mrs T's PLAN, it wasn't in any manifesto, it was just a lucky strike that the wheeze seems to have started people making a FAST BUCK which in turn got the economy going. (Though it COULD equally have been something else, maybe the surge in confidence after winning the Falklands War.)

The nineties recession turned around after the Internet revolution. The dot-com collapse was turned around by the Federal Bank throwing open the taps of cheap credit (though that kind of deferred rather than prevented the crash, so we got a SUPER-CRASH in 2008).

And rather INFAMOUSLY the Great Depression is said to have been turned around when governments started rearming for another go at a World War.

So SOMETHING will come along.

But it's almost impossible to predict – let alone ENGINEER – what it IS.

You may recall that Mr Huhney-Monster has introduced the New Green Deal and is bringing in the Green Investment Bank and both of these ARE – at least in part – an effort to use the Green revolution as a kick-start for "the next big thing".

If it works, it's GENIUS. If it doesn't, you can't say we're not TRYING. But I bet lots of people WILL!

Day 3933: Appeal


Now, you might know (if you were paying attention during his conference speech) that Daddy Richard is trying to write a book. I know. Without my help! What does he think he's DOING?

He has convinced a couple of mugs volunteers who have agreed to have a bit of a read and tell him if it's any good at all. (To whom he's VERY grateful, and hopes they'll understand this is in no way about that!) Except, because they are excellent and busy people, they're a bit pressed for time actually to DO any reading.

So, if anyone would happen to fancy reading – including proofing and critiquing – a novella which daddy describes as "Casablanca if it were set during the Time War", then you might drop me a line and I will pass your message on.

He's a bit NEEDY so you'll have to be prepared to be NICE (but honest!).

Also, anyone who thinks they might be able to do some cover art...!


Saturday, October 01, 2011

Day 3919: DOCTOR WHO: Closing Time


"A BABY ELEPHANT needs two GAY DADDIES who LOVE each other!"

Hooray! Hooray! Mr Gareth Roberts once again uses ME as inspiration for Dr Woo!

(Having previously had me as a PUB in "The Shakespeare Code"!)

Sorry Mr Gatiss, but Mr Gareth gets MY VOTE for next showrunner!

I wonder if he could be persuaded that Dr Woo should be a fluffy elephant…

While I brush up my photo for SPOTLIGHT, here is Daddy Richard's latest review.

Well, with that cliff-hanger, and Moffat's history, it's certainly not going to be River Song in the astronaut suit shooting the Doctor.

No doubt much of the shenanigans in "The Wedding of River Snog" will be about getting her out of and whoever else it is into that spacesuit in time for a…

"…this is where it gets complicated!"


(My money, if you ask, is currently on the Doctor himself)

It was nice, though, wasn't it, of Gareth Roberts to write a forty-minute show just so that Moffat could have the last five minutes for a teaser for next week's season finale.

I do have to say special kudos to the director for the way that Francis Barber's Madame Kovarian appears, Cheshire-Cat-like, out of the shadows of whatever space-library River is studying in. First her mocking voice reciting the creepy nursery rhyme that Mark Gatiss wrote for "Night Terrors"; then just her pale pale face and wicked grin; then her slinky leather catsuit; and finally she steps forward into the light, just as the Silence materialise in similar style out of the darkness behind River.

And Alex Kingston is particularly good at doing the "oh my god! The Silence! What are they… [forgets] What are you talking about?" look.

As plots go, it does seem bafflingly over-complicated, though:

the Silence kidnap Amy from Twenty-First century Earth to Demon's Run in the Fifty-Second century in order to give birth to Melody…

…who they then take back to the Nineteen-Sixties and organise the entire Apollo programme to manufacture the spacesuit for her even though they must have access to fracking time travel technology and can just get one from anywhere in the future…

…and then they let little Mels escape to the Nineteen-Nineties to go and become young Amy's best friend and grow up together…

…so that at the first second (having inexplicably skipped Amy's wedding) opportunity she can hijack the TARDIS at gunpoint and make the Doctor take them to the Nineteen-Forties when she tries to kill him and then, for no adequately explored reason, changes her mind and saves him…

…after which he equally inexplicably dumps her (even more inexplicably is allowed to dump her by Amy and Rory) in some future time zone – although almost certainly, since she knows Dorium who dies at Demon's Run, not later than her own date of birth, so not strictly her native time either – where she becomes a student and eventually doctor of archaeology…

…and only at that point do the Silence drop by again with her old spacesuit and, we conclude, take her back to the Nineteen-Sixties again in order to have her kill the Doctor. Again.

Is Madam Kovarian is trying to outsmart Moffat himself, perhaps?

And why is the astronaut called "impossible" when, frankly, the whole plan is that the Silence have organised the space race so that 1969 is the earliest time that it would be "possible"?

Is it because River's head appears to be too large for the helmet in the CGI inset at the end? Or is that a cheap shot?

All this and no doubt much less will be made clear in the last episode of the series.

But, just as in "The God Complex", Moffat appears unable to tell his big story arc without intruding into other people's stories in blatant rather than subtle ways.

The fact that this story is very much about the Doctor having decided to go to face his death (or at least to go and try and cheat his way out of it) should be subtle enough a reference to the story arc without needing to have the Eye-Patch Lady almost literally making a song and dance about it.

Anyway, in the meantime we have a story that can't in all fairness be called a "Cyberman story" but one that does have Cybermen in it.

In a way, the Cybermen are completely appropriate for this adventure because, let's face it, they're a bit tired and past it.

Ironically, that has almost been their defining characteristic since they were introduced. The Cybermen of Mondas, who we first met in "The Tenth Planet", were always the living dead who had stuck around way past their sell-by date. And after their planet blew up, they were most often depicted as infiltrators and saboteurs, skulking around the Solar System hoping to infiltrate the sort of big space bases or space stations that the Sixties just knew were the future.

But as a metaphor, of course, they evolved as quickly as their appearance, from a paranoia about spare part surgery into Doctor Who's space commies – a, perhaps, necessary parallel to the Dalek space Nazis – the emotionless "other" seeking to undermine "our way of life" and turn us into them.

Maybe that's why the series since 2005 has found it so hard to use them effectively. With the fading of the Cold War, the collapse of communist Russia and the realignment of Red China as a sort of capitalist dictatorship, their underlying frisson has lost its edge.

Where the Daleks' representation of hate, bigotry, xenophobia and outright war remains an ever mutable but relevant threat, we no longer have quite the same existential fear of the communist infiltrator.

The nearest modern equivalent – if they even exist – is the home grown terrorist and they don't pose the same threat to our sense of self. Not least because they – be they separatist, or neo-Nazi, or religionist – self-define as other. So the terrorist bombers want to harm but not subsume us.

That was the quintessential threat of the Cybermen, and it's so odd how, in this age of individualism, that the loss of self has not been at the forefront of the Cyber stories, which have instead concentrated on the visceral, physical intrusion of – to put it crudely – having your brain scooped out and stuck in a tin can.

Really you have to blame Russell for this, because "Rise of the Cybermen" ought to have been a morality tale about consumer immortality, buying upgrades and "apps" for our physical bodies, but chickened out and muffed it. He almost pulled it back by having them be a metaphor for industrialisation or mechanisation in "The Next Doctor". But then there was that hilariously silly Cyberking.

So the new series stories have ended up trading on the Cybermen as iconic just because they are iconic.

Moffat has, actually, been even more guilty of this than Russell: having them turn up to fill out the crowd scenes in "The Pandorica Opens" (even though there shouldn't be any Cybermen – Mondasian or Cybus version – left in the universe by that point) and then having a whole legion of the beggars standing around waiting to be blown to bits by Rory in "A Good Man Goes to War" because, hey, if you want a big Star-Wars-y pre-credits explosion you better have someone baddass to blow up. Baddass and completely disposable.

(Though to be fair, the Cyberhead chasing Amy in "Pandorica" went a long way towards understanding what made them scary again.)

All of which is coming round to say that it is almost traditional that a Cybermen story won't be a very good story for the Cybermen.

And that Gareth is hanging a particularly shiny lamp on it by having them invade a shopping centre, of all places.

They invade a shopping centre because it's built on top of the crashed Cybership and that is just typical of the Cybermen's usual modus operandi. Just check out the "Doctor Who The Adventure Games" computer game "Blood of the Cybermen", out of which Gareth may be explicitly taking the piss. (Blood? Blood??!)

Given that the Cybus Cybermen didn't appear to use spaceships – just marching between dimensions, like you do – I suppose we can guess that these guys are leftover Mondasian/Telosian – i.e. native to our universe – Cybermen. Which means that their spaceship could have crashed during "The Invasion" (1970s ish) "The Tenth Planet" (1980s ish) or "Silver Nemesis" (1988, naturally) all of which see Cyberfleets destroyed in orbit – you see, they're always doing that sort of thing. Or they could be time travellers.

But if there's one thing about the Cyber-conversion process, it's that it really ought not to be very reversible. I can fully appreciate Gareth's desire for that "they're not really going to do that…" moment, but the price is letting Craig out of the Cybercontroller suit…

Yes, yes, it is a fat Controller, as per "Attack of the Cybermen"

…meaning that that fantastic sequence from "Pandorica" is now reduced to the amazing ziplock Cyberhead. Sigh.

And really, it could have been avoided. There are only a couple of things: one line of "begin full conversion" and a use of that whooshing/slicing knives sound effect they use to indicate the Cybbus scoop-and-serve Cyber-conversion. Drop those, and you could handwave about these Cybermen just having to connect up a controller to the brain machine because they're out of bits.

Does satirising the way that a classic monster has been undermined really justify further undermining them?

There isn't really even a cursory attempt to contrast the emotionlessness of the Cybermen with the emotional content of the story that Gareth is actually telling.

The crux of this story is that blokes don't listen to each other enough.

This is most obviously expressed when Craig (and baby) falls asleep on the sofa while the Doctor is delivering his deep and meaningful confession that he expects to die. But significantly, the Doctor does not listen to Craig either.

Because what Craig is saying is important, probably the most important thing and it's repeated in many different way throughout the story. In fact, it's so heavily stressed that it is almost as though Gareth is making his own case in reply to Moffat's thesis, as laid out in "A Good Man Goes to War" that the Doctor is distorting all of history, that his legend is too much, too powerful.

And what Craig says is this:

"It's not your fault, Doctor. You do good. "

The Doctor appears to have developed a death wish (again – see also Christopher Eccleston) this time based on the way that people around him have died or been left with shattered lives: Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy and above all Melody.

But Craig is right: people are safer stood next to the Doctor, safer under the eruption than waiting to get hit by the consequences.

And it's not like they don't have a choice.

"Offer a child a suitcase of sweets and they'll take it," says the Doctor in "The God Complex", even as Rita is telling him he's got a God complex; "offer someone the universe and they'll take that too."

Well, who's to say they wouldn't be right to? Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy and Melody: not a one of them would give up a second of what they gained by stepping into your mad old blue box. Not one second. All of time and space? Every star and every planet? Of course it's worth it. Of course it is.

In this equation, Doctor, we are all children. The TARDIS offered you all of time and space when she stole a Time Lord and ran away. And you took it.

But in the meantime, there's a lot of hilarity to be had with the bromance/gay agenda. The Doctor has a couple more nice fallible moments (he gets the shop lift working but hasn't worked out where the Cybermen are concealing the teleport; he assumes the ship is up in space when in fact it is buried down underground). And there is much fun with the return of the Cybermat.

It's a nice Cybermat too. Cute and then horrific. Though I notice they shy away from the suggestion – I think it's from "Bernice Summerfield: The Crystal of Kantos" – that the Cybermen make Cybermats out of humans that are too small for full conversion. I guess suggesting that the Cybermat had been someone else's baby was a bit too near the knuckle. Besides, its teeth are too big.

There were some nice turns from the guest cast. Jolly decent of Daisy Haggard to agree to do just two scenes, bookending the piece, and she was lovely in both. And all the staff in the store were lovely little character pieces, though I admit to sharing the slight disquiet that both Shona and George – the two black characters – got killed and cyber-converted and killed again at the end.

Special praise though to the wonderful Lynda Barron, lovely to see her in the show again too, as the sweet Val, with her noticing and her wonderful misconception of the "relationship" between the Doctor and Craig.

And then there was the cameo from Amy and Rory. Which was a shame. I mean lovely to see them, but the series couldn't even maintain the fiction that they'd left for just one week. Russell, if he'd still been in charge, when he had money to burn, of course, would have even changed the title sequence to Matt Smith and James Corden.

Though oddly, for me, this was the only thing to suggest a passage of time in the years rather than months. For Amy to have named the fragrance and come up with the advertising tag line, which she obviously has, then clearly a fragrance house has asked her to put her name/face to a product – like Kate Moss, Elizabeth Taylor or ahem Thierry Mugler (at which point I must declare an interest) – which means she must have become a successful and famous model. Which is a bit of a waste of her talents but at least shows her confidence has paid dividends and is a semi-logical progression from kiss-o-gram. But would presumably take time. At least a year from conceiving the fragrance, through testing to a full launch.

So time has passed for Amy and Rory to make a life, and time has passed for the Doctor to brood on his faults and change his coat.

Two hundred years, though? It's taken him two hundred years to bring himself to this point? Almost a fifth of his entire life? Really?

It makes the tenth Doctor's swanning about between "Waters of Mars" and "The End of Time", not to mention his protracted victory lap of companions, seem positively brisk.

It just doesn't seem credible. The whole of the season (and much of the tenth Doctor's arc as well) has been telling us that the Doctor just can't hack it on his own. The very last scene of "The God Complex" shows him destroyed to be alone in his beloved TARDIS. And all of this story is showing him as accepting, virtually serene. So how can it make sense that he's been putting this off for two centuries? He would have found someone else. He would have picked up more companions. Partners, I suppose we will have to call them now. He would have had more adventures. Look at him: he can't say "hello" to a baby without the Cybermen turning up!

And then to choose Craig Owens of all the people he's met to just drop in on. I mean why not Will Chandler from "The Awakening". Or Altos and Sabetha on the planet Marinus? Or Meglos? Or, to be honest, why not Susan?

He'd think of Craig because and really only because the adventure of "The Lodger" is recent. Which really it really isn't if this is two hundred years later. So obviously it's not.

Look, you can make of it whatever you want it to be, but for my personal canon I'm going to assume that at most a few months have passed for the Doctor since he dropped off Amy and Rory; that he is really about seventeen-hundred but has been claiming to be nine-hundred for most of the last five incarnations; and that when he says eleven hundred in "The Impossible Astronaut" he's not really two hundred years older, he's just being a bit more honest. A little bit.

However old he is, Matt Smith remains wonderful as the Doctor. Gareth writes him plenty of eccentricities – his air kissing, his new power of "shush", I particularly loved the way that the Doctor seasons Craig with the pepper mill before giving him a neck massage. But it is subtle and layered. The eccentricities themselves are a show that the Doctor is putting on, as you can tell from the moments where he drops them. It's never entirely clear, for example, whether the Doctor really can speak baby or if he is just making it all up for Craig's benefit. I mean, if he really knows what Alfie is saying, why can't he stop him crying in the scene where it's just the two of them?

So I'm pretty glad he's not going to be dead at the end of the next episode. Even if I'm quite wary of how he's going to get there.

Next Time… And they were all wearing… oh, you know the drill. It's "The Wedding of River Song"

Doctor Woo concludes tonight at 7.05pm!