...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Day 5060: DOCTOR WHO: Remembrance (Day) of the Cybermen*


There’s one central idea here done superbly well: the Master is just doing all this to get her friend back.

Alex once wrote a piece – one I fully endorse – titled “The Time Lords are Gits and Always Have Been”, chronicling their use and abuse of arbitrary power from “The War Games” on.

And suddenly, watching this, I realised that it’s the Doctor who is the fallen Time Lord, not the Master. The Master, Missy, just wants him to see that they are supposed to be ruling the cosmos and then he’ll come back and play with her the way they used to.

Michelle Gomez is really good at this. Properly bananas as her character says. Even in handcuffs. (Eat that, River Song!) The horrible brutality of killing Osgood the cos-play fangirl – for no reason – is exactly the sort of thing that the Master needed, to underline that she is not just some suave giggling loon, but really properly evil. And grounded in a solid motivation (and decades of “shipping”), the character is a better, more worthy adversary than she has been in years.

It’s not a novel observation to say that “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven” is Moffat doing “Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” his way. Ghosts or skeletons that are revealed as Cybermen; a global invasion; a twist halfway to introduce another old enemy (the Daleks even get a cheeky name-check); even the hand-brake turn last-minute twist to stop the heartbreak ending being too much.

Nor is it a secret that Moffat is not very fond of two-parters: he hasn’t done one since “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People”; hasn’t written one himself since “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang”; and even when he has, it’s usually to perform a big scene shift to a second part that is often hugely different in location or scope or tone.

But Russell clearly got something right when he minted the new series with a spectacular two- or even three-part finale at the end of every year.

The success of the individual stories is less of the issue here, than how they round out the seasons. For the record, we love the Mister Master in his “Last of the Time Lords” trilogy, and of Russell’s five finales, only “Journey’s End” and “The End of Time” bellyflop into disappointing us, but your mileage may vary. What I’m saying is that the Moffat era could be characterised by series – six, seven a and seven b – that come to an end without coming to a climax.

So it’s some sort of irony that Moffat’s here using the form to write what is ultimately a pretty good story that is also a seriously good capstone to the series arcs, for a series where those arcs have been based in character rather than plot. It seems that Steven is just better at re-writing Russell “but better” than he is at his own stuff.

The other fantastically good scene here is, of course, also a collage of Russell moments, which is Clara’s farewell (even though it isn’t… what is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?).

The way that it’s prefaced with Danny’s inevitable self-sacrifice (a voice from the other side, riffing on Rose’s summons to Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday”) and intercut with the raw emotion of the Doctor assaulting the TARDIS in grief that the Master lied and Gallifrey is still gone beautifully composits the information that the audience needs to understand what is happening.

Coleman and Capaldi have been brilliant all year, but never better than in this goodbye that caps off the emotional arc of (this year’s version of) Clara Oswald where all her lies have finally come back to bite her on the bottom, only for her to finish by telling the biggest white lie of all to spare the Doctor just as he does the same for her.

If only all the moments could be as good. Or at least not so cripplingly disappointing.

When I said last time that I thought I’d been spoiled, it wasn’t about the slow, careful, clever build up to the revelation of the Cybermen in “Dark Water” being blown in the teaser at the end of “In the Forest of the Night”. Although it was.

(Of course knowing there would be Cybermen, it was obvious that they were Cybermen, to the extent I didn’t even realise it was meant to be a surprise and so the slowly draining tanks reveal seemed a bit pointless. But I didn’t spot that the 3W logo was a Cyber teardrop until the doors closed to reveal them as a pair; I’d been thinking of it as a “map” of the Nethersphere touching the larger sphere of the real universe as it were as the City of the Saved.)

But I had a much bigger problem with “Clara Oswald has never existed”, because to me that suggested a retrospective redemption of the whole Impossible Girl arc and too-good-to-be-true Clara of season seven.

With Missy, as everyone guessed, turning out to be the Master and also, as everyone guessed, the “woman on the phone” who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number, along with the drop-in scenes suggesting that Missy “chose” Clara for the Doctor… the expectation rose that Clara was either a construct of the Master’s, like Seb, or maybe the Master’s TARDIS (remember how Clara and the TARDIS did not get on in series seven?), or even the next regeneration of the Master herself (Missy = Miss C Oswald… apparently, nahh). (Or was Oswald the Penguin!)

Having Moffat’s companion be the most specialist ever, who jumps into the Doctor’s timestream to save him and so meets him (and beats him!) everywhere smacks just a teensy bit of “Mary Sue”. But having the Master wrap him/herself around every point in the Doctor’s timestream because… “a Universe without the Doctor scarcely seems worth imagining”, now that would be properly epic. In fact, it would be an almost perfect reversal of the “they turn out to be the same person” ending that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had in mind for their “Final Problem”, and incorporate elements of the Reichenbach Fall ending that Saward and Holmes planned for “Trial of a Time Lord”. It would even be satisfyingly timey-wimey for a Moffat story.

Really, the only other way to go would be for Clara to turn out to have been the Doctor all along.


The twist with Clara turns sour because it is so obviously a fake-out, and such a waste of a terrific idea.

It would be such a great story to do, too: the end of season switcheroo reveal that Doctor and companion were actually the other way around. But having done it for false now, how can someone do it for real?

But you couldn’t have done it at the end of this season eight. You couldn’t have done it after seeing Matt Smith turn into Peter Capaldi, or after the scene in “Deep Breath” where Capaldi’s Doctor remembers the phone call made by Smith’s. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Listen” that expressly takes the present Doctor back to his childhood on Gallifrey. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Flatline”, a story about Clara trying to be the Doctor. (Though wouldn’t that have worked differently in retrospect if she’d turned out to be the Master!)

What you needed was to end “The Time of the Doctor” with Clara (or “Clara”) returning to the TARDIS and meeting Capaldi, and he knows nothing about who he is so she tells him that he’s this man called “The Doctor” and then season eight is about her setting out to teach him how to be this Time Lord, this hero.

(And – suggests Alex – we could have cast that jobbing actor, even though he’d been in it before, who’s been in tons of things and was very respected but really became well-known when he got a bit older and got all crabby and sweary and was in a sit-com. He meant “A Very Peculiar Practice” and “Waiting For God” of course…)

In order to work, it needs some things to be more ambiguous. The fake Doctor can’t fly the TARDIS alone, for example, so can’t keep materialising at Clara’s home to collect her. And he can’t rely on pulling knowledge or Gallifreyan superpowers out of his hat (though you could slyly imply that Clara does – perhaps having her seem to appear somewhere out of nowhere, the way Missy appears to shift at super-speed when she makes her move and grabs Osgood).

There was a chance there to have done something jaw-dropping. But instead, Moffat burned that idea. Tossed it away for a gag. It brings to mind his engineering the Doctor’s regenerations so that he could be the one to confront the “thirteen regenerations limit”, only to blow it off with “and the Time Lords gave him some more lives”.

Burning up ideas like TARDIS keys, Moffat is closing the box on other people using these ideas to tell much better stories, and I think that’s a real shame. Russell used to throw out ideas for people to tie up in better stories – the Fall of Arcadia, the Moment – so it’s a good job no-one’s used those up in half-baked fan-fic…Hang on…

The Cybermen were, obviously, totally wasted. Where exactly did all those metal suits come from, I ask? Gallifreyan technology, says Alex and fair play to him I’ll give him that. And I suppose you could say that just for once in her lives, the Master teams up with a monster menace only to betray them before they betray her!

But really, do we have to believe that every single human was willing to delete their emotions and turn bad, unless they were so specially-wecially as to be in love with Clara Oswald (or the Doctor… see below). Seb tells us the Nethersphere is emptying and we see the lights going out. And yet only two Cybermen out of all of humanity resist the conversion.

Again, it’s the better story not told. The Cybermen are never (apart possibly from “The Tenth Planet”) treated as individuals. They all just become an army of grunts. (Ironically, when the season’s been trying so hard to tell us that soldiers have personalities too.)

Whatever Danny might say about the Doctor being an officer and a general, he’s lying to himself if he thinks he’s not doing exactly the thing he condemns when he orders the Cyber-army to their deaths without compunction. Though to be fair, he’s probably had Clara delete his compunction.

As for his big soldier speech to the Cybermen – was anyone else just hoping they’d reply to “love is a promise” with “we don’t care; we’re Cybermen, you moron!”?

Still it could have been worse. Oh wait. It was.

I’d really expected that the Doctor would use the TARDIS to save Kate from falling out of that airplane – as he’s done to save River Song at least twice. It’s not like he was going to be late for getting to Clara in the graveyard in his time machine. And at least it would have spared us the Cyber-Brig. Oh for shame, they even painted his handles black to make him a Cyber-leader.

The Brigadier’s passing in “The Wedding of River Song”, the Doctor missing it, and learning a lesson about mortality, was understated, tasteful and a last nod to a beloved old friend. So why the need to bring him back? And as a Cyberman?! What is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?

(And while we’re at it, “permission to squee” is up there with burping bins and farting Slitheen as… something I will have to get used to.) I’m glad to say that Alex enjoyed it, though. Mainly because the Master immediately shot him.

If there’s one tiny sliver of redemption for the whole wretched idea it’s this:

“Who will save your soul, Doctor?” Well who is it who is always there to shoot the monsters so that the Doctor doesn’t have to?

But, having got all that out of my system, let me return to the story that was actually there, rather than the stories I thought might be there or hoped might be there, because the one that Steven does tell is still a good story.

The genius of it is this: all season we have seen Clara trying to be the Doctor, trying to keep up with his breakneck lifestyle, trying to match his moral ambiguities. And all season the Doctor has been asking the question that Clara should have been asking herself, practically shouting it in her face: am I a good man?

How often do we stop to interrogate our own actions? Or do we, like Clara, keep on doing what we’re doing – telling the little lies to cover the bigger ones – because it’s simpler to keep following the path rather than stopping to think, really think if it’s the right path.

We all like to think we are “good men/women/choose your own label or none”. We are all the heroes of our own story, as the saying goes; and as Moffat has said, Clara thinks the show is called “Clara”. But the Doctor’s answer is a good one: it’s too hard to be a “good man”; it’s okay to recognise yourself as a silly one, one just muddling through with a box and a screwdriver, trying to help. That’s actually quite liberating – the freedom from the obligation to “do good”; and the avoidance of the total harm that “do-gooding” can do (take heed, politicians of all stripes).

The Master thinks only in absolutes. She takes the logic of being good to the max: obviously you want an army raised from the dead and slaved to your will because if you are going to be “good” you need to do all the good, stop all the evil, destroy all the monsters.

And that’s bananas.

We, as a society, seem to have gotten ourselves stuck in a place where we are all expected to work harder, increase the productivity, deliver more. We are trapped in a World of “The Apprentice” where we have to give it 110%. And that’s the same logic that the Master uses. It’s not okay to be just okay.

I like that our hero, the fallen Time Lord, wins with the simple, welcome realisation that it’s okay to fall short.

So forgive me for demanding better stories. It was wrong, when the lesson of this one is so good.

Also, somewhere, presumably, Rory has just come back from the dead again as a Cyberman.

Next Time: Santa Claus? Santa Claus! Dammit we’re British! He’s Father bloody Christmas!

Start the Wham! It’s “Last Christmas”.

*May not contain actual Cybermen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Day 5098: You Can Prove Anything With Statistics Un More Temps


Ho ho ho Merry Christmas, and here’s Pollyanna Toytown in the Grauniad telling us that the Conservatories want to eat babies.

Polly’s clearly getting worried that Mr Ed won’t be delivering her cushy peerage a victory for social democracy anytime soon, as her language gets less believable by the day.

Today she’s claiming that “Only one in forty new jobs is full time”, citing the Workers Revolutionary Party(!) rather than the press release from TUC who came up with this statistic, presumably because the TUC use the word “Net” rather than “New”, a small difference but a significant one.

The TUC have arrived at their figure by taking the Office for National Statistics numbers for the amount of people in employment in summer 2014 and comparing them with the numbers from the start of 2008, before Mr Frown’s Government ran face first into the biggest crash in history.

The Coalition government like to do this too, because it shows that a million more people have jobs now than before the economy was wiped out under Labour.

And the figures do show that twenty-five thousand more people are in full time employment now than in 2008, which is indeed 25,000/1,000,000 or 1/40 of the total increase.

Think about it for a moment and see if you spot the flaw in the reasoning before I tell you.

Yes, that’s 1/40 is of the extra new jobs, not all new jobs.

This makes the TUC’s headline somewhat hyperbolic, but at least with a figleaf of honesty in that, pardon me, “safety Net”.

To switch the “net” for “new” makes the headline say a whole other thing.

So the question becomes, is Polly stupid or lying? I have to say that citing the Workers Revolutionary Party – when she is neither worker nor particularly revolutionary, and not much of a party animal either; despite her aspirations to influence, the defector to and then from the SDP usually ends up in a party of one – suggests that she was looking for the headline to match her prejudice.

For Pollyanna’s claim to apply to “one in forty new jobs” she would have to be saying that not one single full time job has been lost under the Coalition.

It seems unlikely that Ms Toytown’s message is that the Coalition are paragons of preservation when it comes to employment.

In fact, Polly – and the Labour Party – put it about rather a lot that the Coalition have caused the loss of a great many full time jobs (by implication “proper” jobs) and replaced them with part-time zero-hour (substandard) serfdom. And that is what this “one in forty” claim is trying to back up, to make you think.

But the figures actually show that just as many people (actually slightly more) have full time jobs now than before the Credit Crunch.

And there are a lot more people in part-time and self-employed jobs, who were previously without work at all.

Of course it’s not that simple. Some people who were in full-time jobs have lost them and not got new ones are now in part time work or unemployed. There’s genuine hardship and suffering about. And the real value – after inflation – of the wages from those full-time jobs may not be as much as they used to be in 2008 because we’ve been sharing the pain so that fewer people lose their jobs. We mustn’t forget that.

But Hard Labour cynically seek to capitalize on this politically by calling it their “Cost of Living Crisis”.

The recent cross-party report on hunger in the UK was remarkably fair and non-partisan. But again, almost immediately Hard Labour went for the self-interested spin and started crying crocodile tears over the “shame” of Britain’s Food Banks. (Germany, in fact, has more people using food banks.)

This point-scoring for their own ends undermines efforts to help end hunger. Labour don’t just put their own interests ahead of fixing things; they actually make things worse.

Polly Toynbee no doubt justifies her mendacity with the thought that Labour are “good” and so anything to get them into power, no matter how dishonest or harmful, must be “good”.

No doubt David Milipede justified British complicity in CIA torture with much the same reasoning.

Previously, Statistics Part Un

and Part Deux

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Day 5092: What Price Justice?


When members of Maggie Thatcher’s Cabinet are telling you “whoa, that’s a bit right wing”, you might just want to rethink your plans for Judicial Review.

Of course, since Mr Christopher Greything usually responds to people who disagree with him by trying to abolish them, we might finally see some Lords Reform.

But the Coalition, particularly its Lib Dem ministers, are supposed to be a listening government. Let our Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians take this opportunity to say they have listened to the concerns of their Lordships and of our own membership and thought again and drop this dangerous bill.

I was ashamed – once again – at the long list of Liberal Democrat MPs voting to strike down the Lords’ amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. People ask me to justify that. I can’t.

Was there some deal? Was it part of an arrangement to get Liberal Democrat priorities like infrastructure investment, apprenticeships or anti-tax-evasion measures through the Autumn Statement? Whatever it was, the deal’s clearly off now that past-master of the political attack George Osborn has “declared war” on the Lib Dems, saying taxes would rise if we’re in government (clue: this is not a secret, Master Gideon).

Heroically, the Lords – for shame, the House of Lords! – have once again ridden to the rescue. To lose one vote in the Lords may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose one hundred smacks of absolute bloody-minded stupidity.

But there is no shame in listening. We’ve been here before with the Snoopers’ Charter. (And look to be here again with the Snooper’s Charter II, but that’s another gripe.) Take on board that there are serious and well-founded concerns with the Bill and accept the changes. It’s not in the Coalition agreement. If you can’t bring yourselves to vote against it after you’ve voted for it, all that is necessary is to say Liberal Democrats will abstain.

This isn’t about defending our traditions of justice. Magna Carta, did she die in vain etc etc. People who insist on calling Judicial Review a “foundation stone” of our democracy are both overstating and undervaluing its position. Far from defending our traditional systems this is about enshrining necessary new ones. Our system is woefully short of checks and balances and far from being an ancient right, long taken for granted, this is a much-needed modern addition to our unwritten constitution, and not one to be tossed aside.

You might like to trace it back to the King’s Writ, but that’s a fig-leaf for a legal system that places much store on precedent. Really it is a judge-made development, taking off in the Nineteen Eighties, when somebody had to stand up to a government that was unrestrained by Parliament by dint of a huge majority, with much of its force added by way of the Human Rights Act, granting the courts the power, indeed the duty, to oversee the government’s compliance with our basic human rights.

In fact it’s not really compatible with Parliamentary Sovereignty – which is why Parliament keeps writing new and sillier laws to grant itself permission to ignore one judgment or another – but incorporating independent third-party review of legislation is a vital step towards properly holding the executive and legislature to account.

But that’s not the point.

And it’s not about humiliating the Secretary of State, Mr Christopher Greything, a Tory too dull to be described as a Sinister Minister of Justice, but who just won’t be told when he’s in the wrong.

It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for a Department of Justice facing the austerity squeeze, that’s already cut legal aid to the bone. The numbers of Judicial Review cases have tripled since 2000; they’re very expensive; and, given the large percentage that the government wins, you can see how someone might think they are often vexatious or at least time-wasting.

There’s certainly a case for arguing that justice is already far too expensive: the courts are a rich man’s playground (and I do generally mean “man”), because taking any kind of action is prohibitively expensive for anyone without thousands – if not millions, just ask former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell – to toss around. Most people cannot even think of going to court unless forced to by the most horrible of circumstances. Changing it from unthinkably expensive to impossibly expensive is surely address the problem in dramatically the wrong direction, though.

But that’s not the point either.

We came into the Coalition with a huge mandate for reform of Civil Liberties after years of Hard Labour eroding them. Detention without trial. Fingerprinting children. Almost the first thing we did, even before that Rose Garden Press Conference was nuke the idea of I.D. Cards.

Since then it’s been one rear-guard action after another, usually against Tin-Pot Theresa of the Home Office.

But Civil Liberties are not just some abstract legal discussion. Today’s revelations about the CIA only underline that unchecked power leads directly to abuse, and even torture.

So, the point is this:

Access to justice, standing up for the citizen against the bullies, protection against “The Man”: these are the things that my Party is supposed to be for!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Day 5053: DOCTOR WHO: Damp Water


That which is dead cannot die…

(Yes, we were in New England for the first broadcast of “Dark Water”.)

Re-watching the two-part season finale has helped me to appreciate it. My first viewing, I realised, had been overshadowed by expectations and inferences drawn from the previous week’s teaser. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I was, for the first time, spoiled by a “next time” trail. Not “spoilers” in the River Song sense, but spoiled in that the trailer constructed a story in my head that was better than the one we ended up with.

(I fear it’s not the first time – or the last – that I’ve thought of a better story– I remember doing it for a ‘Mr the Supreme Dalek’ back in Russell’s day, but I think it’s the first time I’ve done in in advance!)

Just to warn you, I’m going to range freely over plot points from both episodes, though I’ll generally focus on the Cybermen for this review and more on the Master in what I write about “Death in Heaven”. But maybe not in my titles!

I would have liked to say that “Dark Water”/“Army of Ghosts” (whatever) is the very definition of a Curate’s Egg, except that I recently learned, via comments on Mr Hickey, that this would actually mean it’s properly rotten but I’m finding good things to say in order to crawl to Steven Moffat.

So instead I’ll stick to saying that it’s “good in parts”, and mean it.

And I’ll start with the good parts, because that’s pretty much what “Dark Water” does. Because clearly, the best of the episode is the first ten minutes, up to Clara’s desperate face-off with the Doctor on the Star Wars volcano planet. That turns out to be a dream. Or (in context of this series’ themes) a lie that the Doctor is telling her.

And everyone knows the best line of the whole year was: “Do you think I care so little for you that betraying me would make a difference?” Probably best we didn’t use that in our wedding, though.

After that it descends into more ordinary larks with Cybermen. But larks that are very much informed by where we’ve just come from.

“Dark Water”, you see, is going quite a long way towards exploring just why people might turn themselves into Cybermen: it touches on Clara’s grief and anger and denial; it explores Danny’s guilt and regret; it glances at the possibility of life continuing after death and the fear of what that means for bodily decay and violation.

The death of Danny Pink, in an ordinary, boring car accident, is an incredibly powerful and brave way to open this story.

Whatever you think of Danny’s complex character, whether you think he was the abusive controller or the abused victim of Clara’s lies, he was a real, complicated, normal person trying to do what he thought was right. And the awful suddenness of his death is both terrible and true. He’s there and he’s gone. There’s more of a lesson about death in that silence at the end of the phone than any number of disintegrations or Daleks can teach.

Funnily enough, I’d been saying just that day that no one had really done a Cybermen story properly.

The Cybermen are the fear of death. They are people so afraid of dying that they replaced everything that makes life worth living just to carry on existing and then buried themselves in Tombs so that they would not pass on. It’s a well-established horror trope that the modern zombie is a death-metaphor: gruesome, shambling and inescapable. And, particularly in Steven Moffat’s interpretations – from “The Pandorica Opens”, but re-stated with a vengeance here – that is exactly what the Cybermen are: corpses in shiny armour; hi-tech zombies.

The first Cyberman story, “The Tenth Planet”, hints at this through techno-mummies wrapped in plastic bandages, but is tied up in fears of the machine, the intrusive penetrating replacement-part surgery taking away that which makes us human. After that they are quickly relegated to robo-commies – the faceless army of infiltrators who want to take away our freedoms and take over – as substitutes for the tin-pot fascists the Daleks for face offs against the second Doctor’s “destroy all monsters” crusade. Later Eric Saward will fetishize them as machismo incarnate, all “Man” and no “Cyber”. And Russell Davies’s scoop-and-serve brain-in-a-can versions seem to recognise the iconography without getting the idea behind it. To be fair to Moffat, at least he seems to “get it”.

And yet “Dark Water” still doesn’t tell that story. For some unknowable reason, it just skips the punchline, straight past it (well, straight-ish now she’s genderqueer, I suppose) to hilarious shenanigans with the Master…

(Not that they aren’t really good shenanigans – that reading the scrolling text is an hilarious reference to the opening of “The Deadly Assassin”; Missy pretending to be a robot is surely an insane in-joke about the robot Master played by Derick Jacobi in “Scream of the Shalka” – but even so…)

We almost have to infer that that story, that better story takes place. Sure, the Doctor gabbles something during “Death in Heaven” about the Master preying on the fears of the rich to set up the 3W tombs, but we’ve just missed all of that story entirely.

And that’s a shame because surely that was the whole point. If the Cybermen taking us unwilling from the grave is the zombie form of the Undead, surely the flip side is the vampire making the devil’s bargain: foreswear love (emotions) for eternal life. That is the deal that Danny is offered but it feels… unconnected to the 3W plot even though it’s central to their operating procedures.

It’s typical of why I feel I am ambivalent about these episodes. While they are pretty good, occasionally brilliant, they leave me with the nagging feeling they could, indeed should have been better.

And, of course, it’s typical of Moffat’s writing, to expect the viewer to fill in the blanks for him, whether that’s a sign of how much confidence he has in his audience or just an example of his flighty jumping from idea to idea without ever developing them to their potential. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The entire plot seems to hang on a kind of “voodoo”. (Maybe it’s Faction Paradox technology.)

Why bother with all the bones and the graves at all if you can just put any mind in any tin can? It’s clear that the minds of the dead have some genuine connection to their mortal remains through which they are able to animate their cyber-converted body.

Which means that Missy really has harvested the minds of millions of dead people.

The BBC were – for very good reasons – quick to come out and say that it was all a big fib by the Master, that this really isn’t what happens to people after they die…

…except, that’s really not what the episode is saying at all. We are presented by the Doctor with the possibility that the Danny that Clara is talking to is a fake, a projection from her own mind psychically scanned by 3W… but to the audience, Danny is clearly real: he’s been having an independent story of his own. Likewise, the boy who Danny is revealed to have killed while soldiering could similarly be a fake from reading Danny’s mind. But why bother when it seems that the dead can be found in the Nethersphere for real. And really, if you need a load of minds for your Cyber-army, what would be the point of faking them?

It seems very clear that whether there is a real afterlife or not, Missy has interposed her Matrix data slice between this life and the whatever or nothing that comes hereafter. And is torturing everyone she brings there with real or simulated post-death agonies to get them to agree to deleting their emotions.

Which brings us back to Danny.

Of course death is not the end. Not in a Moffat story, anyway. Thought if death was the end, there wouldn’t be a story. And while it may turn into yet another lurve-conquers-all schmaltz in “Death in Heaven”, at least the ending of “Dark Water” suggests a more interesting ambiguity that Danny’s guilt over the boy he killed is simultaneously pushing him towards deleting those emotions and keeping him from doing it, because to do so would be a betrayal of the very feelings that are driving him.

A better story – and I’ll look more at the better stories not told next time – a better story would have explored that ambiguity more. Because that’s the line that separated human from Cyberman.

When the White Guardian (aka God) threatened the Doctor with existing without changing I said that that was death: the icy, frozen death of cold logical perfection. And put like that, it’s obvious that that is what the Cybermen are. They bury their emotions and carry their own tombs with them in the form of that armour.

Of course, the Cybermen get thrown under the bus yet again, as they are turned into an army of boring robots once Missy comes out in all her bananas glory.

Next Time: “Death in Paradise” starring Ben Miller. No hang on, wasn’t he in a different one?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Day 5085: Master Gideon’s Mission to Mars – Some Thoughts on the Autumn Statement


Do we really want another stimulus for the housing bubble? Really?

Raising some taxes is good (bankers and Starbucks, though… well, how amazing brave to pick those targets).

But hasn’t Chancellor Osborn sworn he wasn’t going to raise any more taxes? I dectect the hand of Danny Alexander; it’s of a piece with his efforts to tackle tax evasion and reduce opportunities for tax avoidance.

The extra funding for the NHS appears to have come from… underspedning in the NHS. Master Gideon as Baron Munchausen will thus clear the deficit by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.

And there’s a distinctly Janus-faced feel to some of the Conservative’s pronouncements, crowing over our outpacing of other European economies while simultaneously whining about how this makes us too attractive to those waves and waves of immigrants, coming over here fixing our plumbing and so on.

Equally it seems very off to boast that our GDP is going up but our contributions to the European Union are going down in the same statement where you complain that Amazon’s profits go up but the tax they’re paying go down. Sauce for the Christmas Goose, you would have thought.

Ed Balls has some good questions, but no answers.

Why is it that the tax receipts have fallen short of expectations? Ignore the flashy rabbit-from-hat Stamp Duty give-away; this is the central question of the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor boasted that he’d be reducing the deficit in spite of falling revenue, but that’s not the same as having an explanation. Could it be that Mr Balls is finally right about something, and below inflation wage increases have hammered the Treasury’s income too?

I remain convinced that having more people in work but with lower wages across the board is a fairer way of sharing the pain of economic disaster than the ‘Eighties approach of dumping the bottom three million on the dole; nevertheless, it does point to Balls having a point, and it plays well to crosslink Labour’s “cost of living crisis” narative to the Tories failure on their own terms to cut the deficit.

And while it might be fairer, it might not be good politics to give everyone a resentment against the government instead of just a minority who you can marginalise. Labour have clearly been trying a number of formulae – “squeezed middle”, “one nation Labour” whatever it was Mr Milipede forgot to say this year – to try and saddle this resentment to their political cause.

(It’s ironic that the non-Labour left have largely undermined this by shreiking and carrying on that marginalising a minority is exactly what the government is doing – helped, it must be said, by the Tories’s rhetoric and Iain Drunken Swerve being allowed to continue to exist.)

But low wage inflation isn’t the whole story. The dramatic fall in the oil price – generally welcomed by the Chancellor as a good thing, not least because falling energy prices makes Labour’s energy price freeze policy look rather silly – has a knock-on effect in terms of treasury income as it reduces the fuel duty, VAT, petroleum tax, supplementary charge to corporation tax and even the climate change levy.

(And while we’re at it: building a whole load of new roads is hardly in line with the “greenest government ever” line, and rather more school of Mr Balloon’s “drop the green carp”. And, as Jennie reminded us, probably counter-productive – if you want to improve travelling by road… spend the money on public transport. The number of road users is a function of price and convenience versus the alternative, so you would reduce congestion by making it preferable for people to tavel by train. The government appears to be doing the opposite. I suppose it might drive receipts from petrol taxes back up.)

Plus the UK’s economic growth has not yet translated into a boom in consumer spending, again forestalling a surge in VAT receipts at HMRC. In fact, largely the growth seems to be being directed into the housing bubble, which brings us back to point one.

Even so, granted Mr Balls has some grasp of some of the cause of the government’s income not coming up to scratch, it’s still a bit of a leap from there to “and Labour will fix this by…[insert policy when we think of it]”.

George Osborn has some answers that need questioning

Which leaves us clinging to nurse in fear of something worse. Though what could be worse than nurse being revealed as Master Osborn in a pinafore?

The Chancellor’s promise to clear the deficit by 2018 – although more realistic than Labour’s “sometime” in the next Parliament aspiration – is undermined not so much by his already having failed at this once (seriously, giving the finite nature of British Parliament’s you have to start out with a plan for one term at a time; given the slow reveal of the scale of the problem, the Coalition’s cautious approach balancing cuts with stimulus – again at Danny Alexander’s urging – has trod a fine line that has ended up closer to the Liberal Democrats timescale for cutting the deficit than the Tory’s and seems to be paying off, at least at the moment), but much more by the frankly fantastical idea that almost all the remaining cuts can come from the benefits, largely in-work benefits, paid to working age people.

Employment is already at record high levels. (This is a good thing!) But without some unforeseen huge increases in wages – again, see Mr Balls point – it is difficult to see any substantial ability to cut the support we need to give to keep these jobs viable.

On Sunday, on the Andy Marr show, the Chancellor was challenged on the way that spending cuts have fallen largely on not merely “welfare” but specifically on working age benefits. Pensioners have largely weathered the economic storm protected by the Coalition’s triple lock. The Tory Treasury team have clearly war-gamed this one, as Master Gideon came out with a very convincing-seeming answer: “Oh but I have hit the pensioners – I’ve taken half a trillion out of pensions by raising the retirement age”. Well, that’s quite an impressive hit against your core vote, isn’t it?

But take a moment to think about it: raising the retirement age does not affect existing pensioners; it’s actually another blow to those of us in work saving money by putting off the day when we will be able to claim back some of the fortune we are currently paying in.

And of course these cuts depend largely on the Tories being in power after the next election. Vince Cable – who has been quietly getting on with the business of being business secretary: increasing investment to manufacturing and boosting apprenticeships (notice the National Insurance cut to help more there) – has written to the Office for Budget Responsibility to ask them to point out how the Tories’ “no tax please were the British Tea Party” approach is wildly at odds with the Liberal Democrats’ fairer, balance tax and cut policies.

Overall, this was a typically theatrical financial moment from a Chancellor who has learned all his lessons from Gordon Brown. The splash of largess to catch the headlines; the smoke and mirrors over where the money comes from; some nasty medicine in the details; the hidden hand of the Liberal Chief Secretary trying to steer us a little away from full-throated Thatcherism and a little towards more social justice.

This is the course we are committed to now: from here on it’s full tilt towards the General Election and (subject to Nigel Farage and the Tory suicide-squads on the back benches derailing them onto Europe again) this is the ground that the Chancellor has laid out. It is, as President Clinton used to say, the economy, stupid.

And believe me, George Osborn is the economy… and stupid.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day 5079: The Image over Rochester


This time last month, we were on our way to New England, setting for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by (unspeakably racist) HP Lovecraft, wherein it turns out the locals have been (spoilers) interbreeding with immigrants.

This time last week, the locals of Rochester and Strood were cheerily chucking out their incumbent Tory MP and re-electing him as a Kipper. This despite him revealing that his new Party’s policies are entirely as anti-immigrant as we suspected.

This time in July, Ed Milipede was giving one of his relaunch speeches claiming he “didn’t do image”. And on Thursday, he proved it.

Mr Milipede’s preposterously over-the-top faux-outrage firing of Emily Thornberry for her “Image from Rochester” tweet put the (probably tin-foil) cap on the whole ridiculous affair of a by-election win for “A Plague on All Your Houses”.

The tweet itself was a relatively innocuous picture of house decked in flags and white van, with neutral comment. It was only possible to interpret it as a passive-aggressive attack of snobbish contempt because of the febrile atmosphere that economic post-Armageddon has brewed, one to which Labour have contributed more than a little, encouraging the “us v them”, “Westminster bubble”, “plebgate” contempt for all things elected and establishment. As in Scotland, Labour’s taking for granted of the people they are supposed to most represent comes back to haunt them. As they reap so they sow.

Am I snobbish about the man the Sun has dubbed “White Van Dan”?


I’m repulsed by the policies he espouses and profoundly depressed by the ignorance that informs them.

Bash the benefits; block the immigrants; spend more; tax less; and bring back the cane. If these things worked we’d have solved all of society’s problems by now. And why the reactionary paranoia about burning the poppy when no one is even doing it?

But “point and laugh” tactics particularly from a Metropolitan Liberal Elite Minority like me, never mind Ms Thornberry, is not the way to engage with this kind of thinking. In fact, it’s massively counter-productive, lending “Dan” the fake credence of being “against The Man”, when in fact he’s expressing exactly the sort of white cis straight male privileged oppression that generations of genuine outsiders have been struggling to get out from under.

But while Ms Thornberry’s tweet may have been revealing, the response by Labour’s spin team was nothing short of astonishing. The suggestion that the Labour Leader was “more furious than he’d ever been” was beyond ludicrous.

More furious than over phone hacking, Ed? More outraged than by tuition fees? More angry than at the bedroom tax?

The sad thing is he probably was more furious over an incident that did damage to Labour’s image than by any of those things. There’s a reason why Miliband’s leadership is not seen as “genuine”. It’s because it’s not.

Maybe it was a typo: “The Labour leader is more fatuous than he’s ever been”?

And yet, in one way, he was actually right. The sacking of a shadow cabinet member over a photograph was a massive distraction from the appalling reactionary lurch of British politics.

It’s what the Tories used to call a “Double Whammy”, with on the one fluffy foot more ludicrous Security Theatre and on the other more Anti-immigration nonsense.

It is surely a co-incidence that the Metropolitan police are warning commuters to “Run, Hide, and Tell” and trying to convince the City that saw off the Luftwaffe that it’s facing its “worst threat ever” just as the Home Secretary is trying to sex up her TPIMS, exclude British citizens who’ve been to fight in Syria, and raise her Snoopers' Charter from the dead.

Only this week we’ve heard evidence that the Security Services had information on the killers of Lee Rigby and still failed to stop them. It’s no good trying to pin the blame on Facebook; demanding access and retention of even more data only makes a bigger haystack to lose the needles in.

And as for cancelling the passports of British terrorists who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq: washing your hands of a problem is a shockingly weak abrogation of responsibility, not a strong stance against terror.

And the Liberal Democrats’ principled opposition has… melted away.

Meanwhile, the Tories received a well-deserved humiliation for their failure to deliver on an in-so-many-ways stupid pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands.

And yet we hear Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary – surely that’s Michael Howard in drag not Yvette Cooper – saying: “It isn't racist to be worried about immigration or to call for immigration reform,” before announcing more guards on the frontiers.

While her counterpart Rachel Reeves at the Department of Work is saying she will deny benefits to EU migrants.

Only to receive support from Nick Clegg, for goodness’ sake!

It isn’t racist to be worried about immigration… UNLESS YOU GO ON TO BLAME THE IMMIGRANTS!

Please, I urge you, particularly if you happen to be Deputy Prime Minister, go read the inestimable Mr Hickey on why it’s both morally and tactically suicide to follow the other Parties down the road to UKIP-ised xenophobic populism.

People who think that UKIP are popular because of their policies are frankly morons, who make “White Van Dan” look like Aristotle.

UKIP’s popularity is entirely independent of any policy they may have from moment to moment, as amply demonstrated by the way Farage simply re-writes their manifesto every single time he finds himself on a sticky wicket without any apparent impact on people’s opinion or his Party’ poll ratings.

“Privatise the NHS? No, I meant preserve the NHS! Lower business taxes? No, I meant higher business taxes! Transitional arrangements? No, I meant concentration camps…er, is this on the record?”

No one seems to care that he’s winging it, contradicting himself, saying anything he thinks the voters want to hear, because after all he’s Nige, the bloke with the pint, and he’s sticking it to the Westminster elite, isn’ee.

There used to be a sense that the Westminster Parties were there to make things better for people, for you!

Labour would give you better public services; Tories would lower your taxes; Liberals would stand up for your rights and freedoms. What happened to all that?

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – and it’s well worth a read if you can get over the flagrant fears of miscegenation – the protagonist finds, to his existential horror, that (spoilers) he himself is of “questionable” heritage and is turning into one of the monsters.

Here’s the irony. In Britain we are all immigrants somewhere up our family tree. Unless you’re descended from a Woolly Mammoth! (I’m saying nothing!)

And yet, we have the choice: are we capable of being brave enough not to turn into Monsters?


For clarity:
“Two large and protruding eyes projected from sockets in chameleon fashion, and it had a broad reptilian mouth with horny lips beneath its little nostrils”
is Lovecraft’s description of one of the Deep Ones, and not, as you might think, of Nigel Farage. Who, if anything, is one of the Shallow Ones.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Day 5076: When is 1% not 1%? When it’s 4%, apparently


Today the NHS has suffered the indignity of a strike by thousands of nurses and midwives protesting that their pay has been frozen for years and all they are asking for is the 1% that was recommended by the independent review body and that the Government has reneged upon.

Except that’s not really true, is it.

The Government offered 1% to everyone who wasn’t already getting an automatic pay rise.

So if you’ve not had a rise in four years, it’s not the Government blocking the 1% on offer; it’s those people who want 5% rather than “just” 4%.

Nursing is a tough job. And a necessary one. Especially as we’re all getting older and more reliant than ever on the Health Service. And this year, we’ve been personally especially grateful to some good nurses, I can tell you. So who wouldn’t want to reward them well?

But it begins to look like their representation is, well, misrepresenting them.

Quite rightly, our nurses have the sympathy and support of the public, but they risk losing that if the public – many of whom have genuinely seen 0% increases, that’s a real terms (i.e. after inflation) decrease – discover that the NHS Unions insist on using such mendacious tactics as claiming that nurses have not had a pay rise when in fact nurses’ pay comes with a built-in increase every year.

More than a million NHS staff – except for doctors, dentists and some senior managers who are on a different scheme – are paid according to a system called Agenda for Change (you can tell it came in under Tony Blair, can’t you).

Under this arrangement, you are assigned to a “Band” based on your job and seniority level: nurses and midwives, for example, start from Band 5; sisters and senior radiographers are in Band 6; and so on. You then have “points” on the payscale and in the normal course of things you would expect to go up one point each year.

Here, from the Royal College of Nursing, are the current (agreed in 2013) pay bands.

So for a nurse in Band 5, you begin at point 16, which is a salary of £21,388 on the 2013 agreed rates.

Then in your second year you advance to point 17, and receive a salary of £22,016, an automatic increase of 2.9%.

In your third year this goes up to point 18 for £22,903, a 4.0% increase and so on up to your seventh year when you reach top of your Band. In fact it’s 4% increase all the way up to the top of the scale for Band 5 when a nurse can earn £27,901.

Similarly for Bands 6 and 7, the salary increase between different points varies from point to point but on average is 3.5% per year, to a top salary of £40,558.

(Bands 1-4, incidentally, who are assistants, secretaries and porters earning between £14,094 and £22,016, have average rises of 2.5%.)

The review body’s proposals, then, were to increase all of these pay points by 1%.

So the effect for a nurse going into their second year would be an increase from £21,388 (on the 2013 rates) to £22,436 (on the new 2014 rates) which is a pay rise of 4.0%. And pay increases of 5% for nurses in their second through seventh years.

The people who wouldn’t be getting an automatic pay rise are the people at the tops of the scales… to whom the Government is offering the 1% that they say they are striking for.

(So actually, the people affected by this are new NHS staff, coming in at the old starting rate rather than the new proposed one.)

There are 380,000 nurses in the NHS in the UK, earning at least £21,388 each or a total wage bill somewhere north of eight billion quid. That 1% increase will cost the NHS, will cost you because you pay for the NHS, at least eighty million pounds.

Or, in the emotive terms that people like to pitch this debate, 4000 nurses.

Not that nurses are paid brilliantly, but the £28,180 on offer (after 1% increase) to an ordinary ward nurse at the top of the Band 5 pay scale is above the median average national wage, and quite a lot more than quite a lot of people get, particularly people on sickness benefits who get hardest hit by NHS strike action, or people on minimum wage or zero hours contracts who lose money when they have to refuse work in order to turn up on time for their NHS appointments, and only get told when they get there that they’ll have to miss more work without compensation because their appointment’s been cancelled through NHS strike action.

Everyone is fed up with austerity. Everyone is tired of tightening belts. And it’s true that to get through the worst of the recession that they inherited, the Coalition did freeze all those pay rates that were over £21,000. The rates were kept the same for the first three years: 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13.

Although rates were increased for those lower paid NHS workers, on Bands 1 to 4, but not the nurses who were already better off than that. And, of course, you would still get an increase by progressing up the rates each year.

But, something I’ve just noticed from the RCN website: all pay rates were increased by 1% for last year (2012/13).

So that “not had a pay rise in four years” just cannot be true.

A nurse starting in 2010 on £21,176 would expect to be earning £24,799 in 2014, an increase of 17% or an average increase of 4% a year. Better than inflation in every year except 2010 when Alistair Darling’s devaluation and George Osborne’s VAT rise both hit.

In real terms, then, nurses are barely any better off. But try telling that to people who really haven’t had a pay rise in four years.

It’s said that the NHS is what the British have instead of religion these days. It’s an article of faith that we must preserve it, as much as it’s a standard mantra that the NHS is in crisis. Labour in particular have made a fetish of “their” NHS – “don’t let the Tories ruin it”, they cry when all other rational reasons to vote Labour fail them; any attempt to empower local people to vary provision to suit their needs is greeted with cries of “post code lottery” and results in power being snatched back to the Secretary of State; at the last gasp, any reform at all is answered with the desperate war cry of “privatisation”.

But locked-in inflation-busting salary increases are another reason, along with Labour’s privatization through the PFI door, why the “best health service in the world” is going to go bust in spite of having ring-fenced, real terms cash increases no matter what the damage that does to other spending commitments.

The NHS has been made a sacred cow by at least five major Parties (and UKIP) including, sadly, my own. And as with most cows, the debate seems to come with a quantity of bull.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Day 5075: Happy Endings and other Wedding Stories...

Sunday of the Doctor (one year on):

In celebration of my Daddies' four week anniversary, (and some little TV show being 51 today), by gracious permission of Uncle Barry, we bring you

"Alex and Richard in an Exciting Adventure with Doctor Who"

by Daddy Alex,

with some assistance from Terrance Versatile Dicks, Robert Holmes, David Whittaker, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaranovich, Simon Guerrier, Andy Lane, Paul Cornell and many many more.

and additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.

starring Mr Simon and Mr Nick. And the Daddies' Wedding Chorus.

Thank you all, so very, very much.


Full text and quote-o-matic guessing game to be found at: "Maius Intra Qua Extra"

Friday, October 03, 2014

Day 5022: Conference Season – Now Everyone Wants to Be the Liberal Democrats*


Welcome to Glasgow, Liberal Democrats (though for wedding reasons Daddies can’t be there).

What with Hard Labour out to steal our Mansion Tax and the Conservatories shamelessly trying to claim our raise in the Personal Allowance, it’s beginning to look a lot like the agenda for the next government is already being set by the Liberal Democrats.

Ah, Party Conferences – a Tale of Two Nitwits, as Charles Dickens very nearly had it.

“It was the worst of times; it was the most hilarious of times,” Mr Balloon might have said, or Mr Milipede might have forgotten to say.

So there were the leaders’ speeches: Mr Milipede promised to save the NHS, but omitted to mention the one thing he’d rather not talk about, namely the steaming great black hole of an economy we’re still left with; and then Mr Balloon promised to save the NHS, but managed to misspeak that he resents the poor, before going on to not leave a tip at the posh burger hut.

Somewhere the ghost of Dr Freud is having a chat about satire with Tom Lehrer.

There was the traditional roll-out of “tempting” new policies. For Hard Labour, a pledge to make employers pay minimum wage earners an extra £1.50 by about 2020. And a promise to sweep away the problems of the health service with a massive two-and-a-half billion in extra cash, totally dwarfing the extra, er, three billion pounds injected by the Coalition. Just this year.

Too little too late.

It could be Hard Labour’s next election slogan. The Country is crying out for a genuinely BOLD alternative to business as usual, a change from the Rich and the City doing very nicely while it’s austerity all round for the rest of us, but the best Labour can come up with is more of the same but a little bit less so.

Mr Milipede’s “don’t mention the economy” moment (he didn’t mention it once and didn’t get away with it), is just too perfect a metaphor for the emptiness of Hard Labour’s offering. It’s actually the sort of error that it’s impossible to recover from – because there’s no way the Tories or the Tory press are going to let him – but with six months to go, Hard Labour are saddled with him and he with them. If he loses, it will certainly have the fluffy foot of fate pointed at it as the defining moment of his failure.

But, if it is possible, what was worse than the TIMIDITY of suggesting a rise to a mere £8 an hour after five more years of inflation, was Mr Milipede trying to sell us this on the grounds that it RAISED MONEY FOR THE GOVERNMENT. The poor workers get to pay more in taxes and receive less in tax credits, so Mr Balls is quids in in the Treasury, but whatever happened to helping the low-paid?

Make the Minimum Wage £10 an hour. From 2015. And don’t tax people on it. That would be a GAME CHANGING, not to mention VOTE WINNING promise. Give the people who need it most MORE of their own money to spend and see if it doesn’t boost the economy AND lift people out of poverty.

I want to be EVEN MORE radical! I want to see an economy that genuinely shares its successes – a kind of John Lewis Partnership of Britain, with a British Dividend, a share of the GDP for everyone, so that you’re rewarded for work but not totally dependent on your job. Because success comes from companies that work together, not from bosses and workers trapped in a them-and-us conflict.

Labour just want to tinker with the already broken system that enslaves people in zero-hours jobs and poverty pay.

The Conservatories, on the other fluffy foot, want to abolish your Rights. And if that doesn’t persuade you, how about some money!

Seriously, though, if you ever wanted reasons to vote for the Liberal Democrats, you just have to tot up the Tories shopping-list of TERRIBLE IDEAS that we have STOPPED them thrusting down your necks in the last five years:

I’d say it was all an exercise in willy-waving, but, er

And finally, of course, there were the Party Games. Pin the Tale on the Dimbledonkey. Call My Bluff. Do the In-Out-In-Out Hokey-Cokey. And of course Hunt the West Lothian Question. First Mr Balloon managed to derail Hard Labour’s agenda, by making the talk of their conference all about English Toasts for English Muffins. Sauce for the goose, then, when Mr Froggage the Kipper managed to derail the Conservatories’ agenda, by making the talk of their conference all about which rat would be next to jump ship.

(You can probably understand the kind of crossness that prompted inept Tory Chairperson Shan’t Gaps to bawl from the platform: “he lied and lied and lied”, but it was… let’s just say UNWISE. You didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to foresee UKIP’s reply: “Mr Balloon promised a referendum on Europe, he promised to cut immigration; he promised to balance the books: he lied and lied and lied.”)

It’s not that there ISN’T a good answer to the “English Votes” question. The answer, OBVIOUSLY, is that England does not deserve SECOND-CLASS, SECOND-HAND MPs.

Why should people in England ONLY get one overworked MP when every voter in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland has BOTH an MSP/AM/MLA to address their devolved policies AND an MP to represent them at the national level? Mr Balloon is trying to SHORT-CHANGE the English YET AGAIN.

You do have to admit, the Pie-Faced – not to mention TWO-faced – Prime Monster… mmmm, two pies… I’m drifting… Mr Balloon is good at pulling a FAST ONE. His turn on the steps of Downing Street the morning after the referendum before was as cunning as fox coming out the henhouse claiming that all those feathers were because he’d been doing the dusting. Mr Milipede OUGHT to have shut that down FAST by WELCOMING the forthcoming SCOTLAND BILL and saying how much he looked forward to the discussions that would lead to an ENGLAND BILL to follow.

After all, the question of “devo max” has been very fully discussed in Scotland; the question of what the English peoples want has barely been touched upon. Certainly it’s not something that can be answered by Mr Balloon pondering it over his cornflakes and deciding, you know what, the answer must be what Tory policy has been all along and nobody wanted.

Instead Milipede Minor gave us his famous “Wallace-caught-in-headlights” look. It was as if he’d forgotten to think about something. Again.

For a so-called Political Wonk, he’s really not good on the issues very much, is he?

So in the Red Corner we’ve got a promise to be REALLY hard on skivers and you’ll get a bit more money, eventually, sometime, paid for by someone else, if they can afford it, maybe. And tears about the NHS. And in the blue corner we’ve got a promise to be REALLY REALLY hard on scroungers and you’ll get no Human Rights but a bit less tax, and more if you’re rich. And tears about the NHS.

It’s almost like they’re all trying not to win the next general election. Is it like getting the Defence Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts?

*Except, probably, for Theresa "British values will prevail against extremism and that’s why I’m abolishing them!” May.

Our Hoax Secretary would rather make an outrageous speech that tries to cover up for her own department’s inadequacies with a “won’t somebody think of the children” and a claim that Liberal Democrats protecting your Internet records were somehow responsible for her losing data and failing to act.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Day 5011: DOCTOR WHO: Crime Traveller, no, wait, come back!


Now that’s much more like it.

Superficially, a piece of stylish fluff after “Ocean’s Eleven” or TV’s “Hustle”, even to the slo-mo entrance and how-they-did-it flashback.

But, Saibra, a shape-shifter just dying for someone to see the real her, and Psi, a human computer who casts aside his memories and his past, could almost be wearing signs saying “we’re aspects of the Doctor”. And a descent into the Plutonic underworld, the minotaur-guarded labyrinth, to unlock the heart’s desire might just make this the most heavily symbolic episode yet in this series that seems intent on “unlocking” the Doctor’s psyche.

The much talked about “change of tone” for season eight seems less of a specific new direction and more a real effort to grasp the series defining ethos of change. With a different kind story every week, Victorian mystery to space war, historical romp to urban horror, they’re almost taking us back to the Hartnell era for diversity of story modes (and oh look, there’s a Sensorite between Androvax from “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, Captain John from “Torchwood” and Daffy Abslom Daak from the pages of “Doctor Who Magazine”). And they’re not so much defining Capaldi’s Doctor as any one thing, yet, but throwing a whole lot of things at him to see what he does with them all.

So let’s look at the Doctor’s psyche this week: a mix of seventh Doctor cunning, first Doctor scorn, and a dash of sixth Doctor braggadocio (“What you need right now is ME!”). And I forgot the eighth Doctor amnesia!

Let me toss a theory out there: each episode so far this year is looking at a side of the Doctor’s character, in fact one of his character flaws: “Deep Breath” represents his self-doubt; “Into the Dalek”, obviously, hatred; “Robot of Sherwood” is cynicism; “Listen” clearly fear; (and of course “The Caretaker” will be all about the Doctor’s jealousy); so, this week – well, given how secure the “securest bank in the Universe” turns out to be, it’s tempting to say we’re talking about his insecurities, but it’s pretty flagged up that really this is all about guilt.

The beautifully designed Teller creature feeds on guilt – and I love the twist of satire that I read on the Net that the bank is quite safe from their pet monster because bankers feel no guilt; harsh but fair. The reveal at the end that the escapade has been initiated by the guilt – as regrets – of the bank’s director, Madam Karabraxos. And the thing the Doctor desires most in the Universe, (or at least appears to) is to make the Teller not the last of his kind, the “survivor guilt” that has plagued the Doctor since Gallifrey, even if he now never foomed the homeworld after all.

Admittedly, the “monster actually pining for his mate” is a rerun of the ending of “Hide”, but rather than being a handbrake turn in a scary-movie story, this felt like a natural twist in a story mode where twists are the order of the day. And it’s not like it wasn’t flagged up ahead of time: the Guantanamo jumpsuit and chains, and the Doctor even asks what hold the bankers could have over the Teller.

And what sort of Teller would the richest bank in the galaxy employ anyway? Obviously a fortune teller.

Mind-reading you to death was new and grotesque. I liked that. And made a good counterpoint (and cure) to the reuse of the Memory Worms, previously established in “The Snowmen”. And the monster is still a monster, in the end – it still turned a whole lot of people’s brains to soup. The Doctor just found a way to deal with it that didn’t involve killing it. Interestingly, the Doctor doesn’t pass judgment on that either. Perhaps it’s not his place to mete out more guilt.

Okay, so “Time Heist” is yet another ontological loop: the Doctor becomes involved because Madam Karabraxos calls him on the number she only had because the Doctor became involved. Perhaps I minded it less this week because I didn’t really notice until I thought about it afterwards. It’s fridge logic: you only notice it when you think about it later.

(Unlike the “if he could set it all up, why couldn’t he have just used the TARDIS?” question I’ve seen on the net. They’ve thought of that one: the Doctor even says robbing a bank is easy if you’ve got a TARDIS. But the last lock on the vault can only be opened by the sun exploding(!) which is the one moment that they can’t use the TARDIS. And as for the complaint that the air vents with the “Do Not Enter” signs on are way too big and easy to get into… well of course they are: they lead straight into the Teller’s tank; they are very obviously a trap!)

Unless, of course, the Doctor, as a Time Lord, can just create ontological loops at will – which it certainly looks like he does, just to drag Clara away from her date, an interpretation reinforced by the last moment of the last scene.

Perhaps this one is about his jealous ego after all.

Actually, there are plenty of ways that it does fall apart – surely it’s a bit unlikely that Ms Delphox would leave the big door unlocked after catching the Doctor and Clara in the vault, so how did they get back in after being captured? But if they don’t need to get into the main vault to penetrate the private vault, then why break in there in the first place? And obviously the biggie: why does no one notice that the solar storm is going to destroy the bank?

I’d like to say I forgave it because at least Steve Thompson’s script was showing signs that he’d thought about some of the flaws and set up answers for you to pick up. But perhaps it’s just that I was just having too much fun watching this to notice or mind those as it went along.

And it’s a bit rude of me to just reduce Saibra and Psi to cyphers for the Doctor. In spite of their brief screen time, they both came across as distinct and interesting characters played with a proper sense of the fun that a heist story can be. It was a proper shock when Saibra was got by the Teller and her smart realization of what the “way out” would be. Psi’s decision to sacrifice his empty/forgotten life for Clara was perhaps a bit sketched because of the episode’s runtime, but came across. And for once the “no they’re alive” was less of a sentimental Moffat trope than a genre-appropriate “fooled you!”.

(Does it count as an “everybody lives” if the Teller’s victims are sitting around drooling with their heads caved in? I would say not, actually.)

And they are genuine Lawrence Miles-esque posthumans! The series very underuses the idea that the human race will have a future beyond homo sapiens and – sure, maybe because they borrow all the clich├ęs – these people felt like they were coming from a genuine future culture (or cultures). The bank itself, for that matter, with its mixed clientele and staff in African, Japanese and European couture – not to mention being a big old pyramid – came across as proper transgalactic, too.

Jonathan Bailey as Psi and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Saibra looked good in the roles and looked like they were having a good time doing it. I wouldn’t mind if the Doctor’s “call me” gesture to them at the end led to them returning.

Meanwhile, Keely Hawes is a wonderful and subtle actor playing both Ms Delphox and her boss Director Karabraxos, and managing to make the latter just slightly more human, ingeniously conveying the brittle, hollowness of the clone – again, online complaints that Ms Delphox is just a caricature, a typical Moffat “strong woman villain in black suit and heels” (to be fair, reinforced by Doctor Who Extra making the same point), fall down because that’s exactly what she’s supposed to be – it’s a choice that both confirms Karabraxos’ opinion of Delphox as a “pale imitation” while telling us that it’s possibly the powerlessness and fear of a literal firing that makes her a different person. It’s quite a clever take on the old nature versus nurture debate – Karabraxos puts it down to “nature”: she thinks the clones are by nature inferior to her original; she cannot entertain the possibility that she is not superior, merely lucky to be in the top position. Would she even have felt regrets if the Doctor hadn’t planted the idea in her head? Another paradox, but again, for me, a pleasant tease rather than an annoying flaw.

Anyway, if it is all about psychoanalysing the Doctor it might add some weight to the idea that “Missy” is indeed inside the Doctor’s head, and Clara’s references to the Doctor’s missing conscience resonate too. (Missy, missy, miss…ing? Nah.) This is the second week running without reference to the series arc – baring the briefest reminded about “the woman in the shop” who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number, and that more as a lead-in to the unlikeliness of the phone ringing… ooh, it’s ringing…. But then this is the “hiding in plain sight” episode, so who knows what might come back to bite us.

If there’s a downside to the “a different story every week” format, it’s that you know from the outset that you’re going to get divided reactions to all of them. And I can see why this wouldn’t be for everyone, just as I can see why “Listen” pushed so many people’s buttons but not mine. It makes for a roller-coaster of a series, but one with Peter Capaldi at its heart and always dragging us back to see how he reacts to the next trick out of the bag. His superpower, clearly, is to be the centre of attention. It’s the eyebrows.

Next Time: We’ve done horror. We’ve done heist. Let’s try… a rom com. The horror! The horror! All that stands between the Doctor and a fateful meeting with Clara’s boyfriend is a guy in a bow tie. Oh, and a sort of clockwork owl on castors. With really big guns. There’s been a spillage! Call “The Caretaker”.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 5004: DOCTOR WHO: Nothing at the End of the Plot


"Listen" certainly seems to have pushed the right buttons for most fans of the show, garnering near universal praise from the online communities: an acting tour de force, an intricate character study, and the rest. So I know I'm in a minority on this one.

And there must be some irony there, because "Listen" is a shaggy dog story to which the punchline is "the Emperor has no clothes".

"Why has evolution not come up with perfect hiding?" asks the man who lives in a machine that does – or at least is supposed to do – exactly that.

"Why do we talk to ourselves when we know no one is listening?" he asks when he knows his machine listens to every work he says… and broadcasts them in episodic chunks on the BBC(!)

The story opens with this typical piece of Moffat sleight-of-hand, and he proceeds to run through his usual playbook of directing you to think one thing and then pulling the rug from under you. He does it twice with the identity of the person in the spacesuit, for example.

This is the episode's biggest cheat: the "monster" on the bed. No, the cheat isn't the "did we just save him from a kid in a blanket" line, it's that Clara – who just climbed under the bed to show there was nothing there – does not just whip the sheet off whatever it is. Or at least call out the Doctor for stopping her.

And again we have non-linear intervention in childhood creating someone's future. Clara here is appalled to think that she is now responsible for Danny's past as a soldier which she clearly has trouble relating to as all the misfiring jokes attest.

It ought to be clever, this lifting the veil on how we all change each other by our interactions but rarely see the consequences separated from them as we are by time.

But this is all so familiar now, after Reinette, Amelia, Kasran Sardick, Melody/River Song, and Clara herself. So when Clara ends up doing it again to the Doctor himself, forgive me I stifled a groan.

(With all the repeats of Moffat tropes in this I was tempted to call this "Listen Again"!)

And it very much raises again the issue of consent: how can it be okay for Clara to change people's past this way, which we can explicitly link to her continuing to hug the Doctor even though he has said he doesn't like it. The message here seems to be it's okay for a girl to do that to a man because he has to change, or more bluntly grow up and stop being afraid of that thing that happens in the dark and in beds.

More interesting, potentially, is when we see it flipped when Orson hints to Clara that she is the one caught in a destiny trap now, as it's pretty obvious that if she is Orson's great-grandmother, then she and Danny have to... Does that mean Clara has no free will? Or is that her choices – getting Danny to ask her out for this drink – have set a train of events in motion. After all, if you exercise free will to jump out the window, you can't blame gravity for your lack of further choices in what inevitably follows.

In Marvel's "Days of Future Past" – comic not movie version – or rather the much longer follow up strip "Days of Future Present", knowing that their child from the future means that they have to be together actually drives a couple further part. Is Orson Pink, by telling her and potentially putting her off Danny, creating a Grandfather Paradox? Not every Grandfather Paradox has to involve killing your (great) grand-parent.

But anyway, and speaking of paradox, the answer to the mystery is that the Doctor, by investigating his childhood dream, sort of caused it himself.

All of the rational explanations could just be true. (As long as you ignore the big cheat of the possibly-child on the bed.) The Doctor wrote "listen" on his blackboard himself and forgot, as he later accuses Clara of forgetting her own childhood. When your coffee goes missing, it might just be the Doctor. The knocking sounds on the door of Orson's time capsule might just be the metal cooling and shrinking.

Do we infer that the Doctor being a Time Lord (eventually) the events in that barn on, let's say it, Gallifrey, somehow "imprint" themselves on the Universe so that the dream is repeated throughout time? Or that it's a coincidence that Clara causes the child Doctor to experience what a lot of people have dreamed? Perhaps it's just that I have never had a dream remotely like that, and it bugs me that – once again – Moffat has taken his own experience as universal, rather than subjective. (See also, though more entertainingly, Clara and Danny retreading the autobiographical relationship paths of "Coupling"). And Moffat's life experience comes across as boys need to grow up and have relationships with girls; which is why girls need to force themselves upon him.

Thematically, the Doctor causing his own nightmare feels satisfying, but irritatingly it's another ontological paradox, another Moffat sticking himself in as first cause.

Alex was particularly irritated by Moffat expropriating "fear makes companions of us all", reducing the first Doctor from a wise old man to a parrot quoting parables, which is at least up there with "Timelash" suggesting that HG Wells never had an original idea he didn't copy from a trip with the Doctor. (Does that sound familiar?)
What most infuriated him was Moffat, for the millionth time, being so arrogant as to make a continuity reference and get it wrong because he assumes he must be right in everything and not need to spend a moment checking (starting with the "Time Agents" in his very first story – Greel assumesdoes not work). It's actually "Fear makes companions of all of us," but Moffat just assumes he's right. He's saying he wrote these words and he can't even write the right ones.

But I'm even more bugged by Moffat's own "fear is a superpower" (which he'd already used in "The Time of Angels") ending up a paradoxical "gift from time", as the New Adventures used to have it. Clara hears it first from the Doctor, then tells it to the child who will become the Doctor. So where did it come from?

Well possibly the TARDIS, taking him "where he needs to go", but still.

And we're also doing fan service, tying up three (and more) continuity points: the Doctor's worst day as recounted to Jo in "The Time Monster"; the moment, as he tells Martha in "The Sound of Drums", when as a child of eight he gazed in to the Untempered Schism; and the unasked question of why the War Doctor chose that particular barn in which to do the deed in "The Day of the Doctor". (With a side nod to not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords and just a hint of "Lungbarrow" and a family of cousins in "all the other boys".)

So it's another copying from Russell with more attempted justification for "I never stopped running", which I've never seen as right. He stopped long enough to go to the Academy and take his exams twice, didn't he? He took a TARDIS and went adventuring; that's more than just running away.

And if I'm being picky… the end of the Universe is not going to look like that. There's still a star in the sky! The Stelliferous Era – the Age of Stars – is going to last a hundred trillion years, but that is an eye-blink to a Universe that is going to go on a hundred trillion times a hundred trillion times longer. When the last star burns out, the sky will be full of black holes that eat most of everything that's left, and then slowly evaporate into Hawking Radiation. And once they're all gone, all that remains is dust that escaped the gravity wells infinitesimally gradually, over eons and eons, falling to bits by proton decay until there are only scattered photons barely warmer than absolute zero. The long, cold dark is very long and very cold indeed.

(Enough time even for me to get a few reviews done!)

And I know it's really not the point, but it does bug me that the "things that come out in the dark" don't even get to wait for the real dark.

Unless, unless… could it even be deliberate – that though we're told it's things coming out of the dark, the truth is that things come out of the pink? And the message is don't listen – don't blink – to what you're told and instead use your eyes to make your own observations…

"Listen" is full of the Doctor and Clara making mistakes, but because they don't tell each other what they know, actively deny each other information – the Doctor orders Clara back into the TARDIS; Clara makes the Doctor take off from Gallifrey without knowing where he's been – then they don't learn from this. If Clara had just explained she'd been distracted and piloted them into in Danny's childhood, not her own… If she'd said something about what she suspects is her timeline's connection to Orson… if she'd just told the Doctor "I may have just accidentally caused your dream" then… well, the plot would have collapsed like a bubble of air.

And because the direction cuts away, we don't get the whole picture of either of their points of view either. Did the Doctor see anything when that door opened? Why does he seem to feel the plot is resolved at the end when he underlines the word "listen" on his chalkboard? (Particularly when he missed the key revelation to Clara.) Either he's just been a bit of an idiot or she has. Occam's razor: Moffat has.

These ambiguities are what the series is playing on at the moment, a more metaphorical take on "Who", perhaps, than the season six arc, but it's still all bit "ooh, I'm so ambiguous, I am. Or am I?"

Fear is more complicated than a super-power (and more common: we can't all fly. That's why that's called a super-power): it can paralyse as well as empower; it can make us procrastinate as well as set us running; it can be an incredibly conservative force – as we've seen in the Scottish referendum, only most recently. Clara's fear of embarrassment (perhaps to partially redeem what I said above) drives her failure to explain – and disarm – the plot to the Doctor. But not everything in life can be a farce. Part of the illusion of "Listen" is that it uses the series' history and quotes, and Moffat's usual storytelling gimmicks, to dress up Robert Holmes' riposte to Mary Whitehouse about scaring the little buggers as though it's something profound.

And "sometimes it's good to scared" is fine as far as it goes but it just isn't that profound.

A lot of it is very, very good. Jenna Coleman is outstanding, whether it's being brave for Rupert Pink when something sits on the bed or realising just what she's done when she grabs the child Doctor's ankle. The direction manages to take some shonky stock horror scenarios and make them genuinely tense or tender or even moving as required. Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink is much more interesting than your usual male Doctor Who companion – or male Moffat character for that matter – with a habit of emotional hand-break turns that suggests something broken and an interesting past even (or especially) before Clara starts messing with it. The one outstanding visual of the episode – the Doctor's zen meditation atop the orbiting TARDIS – will stay in the mind for a long time. And Capaldi himself dances a line between terrifying and hilarious, and continues to give his Doctor an alien, not quite getting it vibe, and terrible, aching yearning to know.

But still we end with the Emperor telling us that there was nothing under the bed, it was all just scary misdirection, he has no clothes on. Which is at least a cheeky admission of sorts, I suppose.

Next time: Let's do this properly by crashing the TARDIS into someone else's genre, or in this case Doctor Who does "Hustle". Take the money or open the box? In "Time Heist".

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Day 5007: Goddammit, We're BRITISH!


OK, nobody needs a fluffy elephant wading into the debate that Scotland is having over her future. Where do fluffy elephants even come from, anyway? I'm as British as a Tikka Masala! I don't feel English. English is small. British is about being part of something bigger!

But this referendum looks like ending in a dead heat and that's going to leave a lot of people unhappy. 50% plus 1 vote for staying is not going to settle the question for a generation; but equally it's no mandate for a brave new nation to cast itself upon fortune's ocean.

The campaign that started out so well appears, at least from a safe distance, to have degenerated into a lot of anger and name-calling and egg-throwing.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the arguments about dividing the country have proved divisive.

I want to see a world where there are fewer borders between people, not more. That's why I'm in favour of the European Union as well as the British one. The more we share, the lighter our burdens – only working together will help solve problems like climate change and energy shortages, or protect workers' rights or defend us from the threat of violent extremism.

And I am quite sure that Scotland can be, as "Yes" keep telling us, a perfectly successful small country.

But why be adequately successful as small country when you can be outstandingly successful as a BIG one?

People want the positive case for the United Kingdom, but Better Together did start with a positive case, saying: "look at all the benefits of being in Great Britain: a stable currency; membership of the EU; and NATO; jobs, trade and travel; sport; the BBC; the Queen!"

And Mr Salmon replied: "Oh but we will keep all of those things."

"No you won't."

"Now you're just being negative!"

"But here's why we can't keep all those things."

"Now you're bullying and scaremongering!"

Faced with that sort of thing, it's difficult to see how the "No" campaign could go any other way.

Meanwhile, the "Yes" campaign has been one of "nothing will change and everything will be better!"

If nothing is going to change, why do you want independence?

Obviously, it's the very BEST possible chance for the Scots Nats, when the Tories have ruined their reputation by their government in the Eighties destroying industry and jobs, and Labour have ruined their reputation by their government in the Noughties destroying the economy and Iraq, and we Lib Dems have ruined our reputation by the government in Coalition because… the Tories.

And it's so EASY for an independence movement to play the "let's walk away from all the troubles" card, rather than the harder – but right – thing to do of all mucking in together, sharing the pain to make it less. It's the nasty side of nationalism, that it's all about putting the blame – and the pain – on someone else. It's funny how "we only want our fair share" always means "more for us" and never for the other feller. Telling people that they are being shafted by the wicked rich "other" is an old, old lie. It's been "the Jews". Or "the Chinese". Or "the Poles". Or "the Asylum Seekers". Or "the Europeans". Today it's "the English".

It isn't the fault of the Englanders – or even of our pie-faced loon of a Prime Monster – that people in Scotland are having a hard time. By and large, the English are having a hard time too. As are the Welsh, and the Irish and gee look, everyone everywhere in Europe and beyond.

Only together was Europe able to save Greece. Only together were the British able to save those banks with "of Scotland" in their names. Together we weathered a terrible storm.

Personally, I think if Scotlanders do vote to go their own way, we in the rest of the UK certainly should share the pound, and the BBC, keep open the borders, and lobby the EU to continue Scotland's membership… we should look out for our friends and families, like good neighbours, as we did for Ireland recently when their banks got into trouble too… but I also think that will be a really hard sell to the 90% of UK voters left in the country, and I don't see any political party being able to stand on a "let's play nice with Scotland" platform.

That's the hard political reality that airy promises about a "yes" vote "forcing" Mr Balloon and Mr Oboe to the negotiations will run up against. And just how well-inclined do you think they'll be if you force them to the negotiating table? Might they not decide to play hard-ball with Scotland just to look good in the run up to a tricky general election?

But on the other fluffy foot, the voices of the people of Scotland have at least been heard enough to see the Westminster Parties scrambling to offer a new political settlement in recognition of the justifiable claim of a right to self-determination.

For far too long Westminster governments – Labour as well as Tories – have centralised more and more power to London, not just hoarding power away from the Scots, but also enfeebling the great cities of Northern England, disenfranchising whole regions from the Kingdom of Cornwall to the Empire of Yorkshire, and treating all four nations of our nation – yes, England too – with little or no respect at all. No wonder the peasants are revolting!

But now, both sides are asking the voters to make up their minds based on promises of what will happen, rather than on a concrete plan. Which is why I'm thinking, whatever side wins (unless it's unexpectedly decisive, and the polls don't point that way) both sides need to think very hard about a second referendum (I hear the groans already) in eighteen months' time to agree the outcome.

I say eighteen months because that is the timeframe for exit negotiations set out by the "Yes" campaign, and they should then put the outcome of those negotiations to the vote. If they've fulfilled their promises about the currency, the EU membership and the Queen then they'll have no problems. If they've got the best deal they can, short of that, they should still let the people decide based on what they'll actually be getting, rather than Mr Alec Salmon's slippery promises.

But by the same lights, if Better Together prevail – and I hope they do – we should hold a constitutional convention for Scotland, in which the "devo max" powers that have been promised by all the Unionist parties will be decided with the people and at the end of that process they can have a say on whether they have done enough to keep the United Kingdom's promise and to keep the United Kingdoms united.

And why stop at Scotland, when we should be doing the same for England and Wales and Northern Ireland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol…

Break the stranglehold of Westminster and set out a path to reform Europe, reconnect people to their regions and to the nation and to the EU by handing power back and making the institutions more democratic and accountable.

Let the cry go up: Home Rule for all!

It's catchy and it might just keep us together.