Defined by an Absence

arrow the grave season 4 laurel lance katie cassidy fridging marc guggenheim oliver queen stephen amell six months later defined by an absence

It is difficult for me to put into words quite how much it offended me – because it didn’t just offend me. It made me angry.

I knew it was coming, of course, because I watch the show in the UK, so that means I’m always a couple of weeks behind. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers at the best of times in that position, but this caused enough outrage across the pond that UK newspapers were reporting on it, just under a month before the episode was set to air here.

Even then, though. The death had been… not telegraphed, obviously. That implies a degree of foreshadowing had gone into it. That it had been planned out, considered, evaluated. That any degree of thought had gone into it.

It hadn’t. This death was not planned. The grave was empty when it was first shown to us – little more than a promise of angst, and darkness. Not an inspiring promise at the best of times, really. But the Powers That Be had decided it was a good way to get ratings. To inspire a buzz. Make headlines.

Shortly afterwards, they realised they would need to actually follow up on that promise. It was, it seems, a relatively easy decision for them to make, albeit one made very late in the day. The actress in question was informed, at most, just a few short weeks before the episode was to be filmed that she was to depart the series.

Organic storytelling at it’s finest, evidently.

Like I said, though. While it hadn’t been telegraphed, it had been eminently predictable. The character who was dispatched hadn’t exactly been getting much of a focus in recent episodes. Season four had seen her increasingly sidelined, with more and more focus diverted to another.

There was something cruel, then, in the way the episode was structured. After denying this character any real plotlines of her own for so long, the prospect of her receiving a greater focus was a welcome one. The suggestion of an ongoing character arc was dangled before us tantalisingly, with the implication of a greater role to come.

In some ways, then, it feels a mockery. Someone, somewhere, no doubt thinks they are very clever. They are wrong.

“Look,” they say, “we fooled them completely. What an intelligent twist! There was no way this death would be predicted, after we teased their future plotlines.”

It was a hollow plot twist. A hollow victory for a programme long since past its prime, with writers who have done better work, and actors who have long been denied material that befits their talents.

The death is self was far more egregious still. In some ways, it’s an achievement; the programme could well go down in history as having provided the most emphatic instance of callously stuffing a woman in a refrigerator ever.

Perhaps that was the aim. After all, it was at least the fourth time the show had engaged in such an offensive trope.

And yet, something felt different this time.

Certainly, it was compounded by the allure of change, the allusion to future character development, the promise of greater focus; all brutally cut down and dispatched. But the nature of the death itself. It was almost symbolic, really, in terms of how it was structured.

This character had come so far. Been there since the start. Developed, changed, progressed. (Up until the point she did not, of course; but then, no one did, bar one.) She had dealt with alcoholism. Built relationships with her father, her friends, her lovers.

She had become a hero.

And then she was stabbed to death. A simple act, which really has no reason to kill at this stage; it’s a program which has, after all, brought its entire cast back from the dead at least once.

Prior to that, though, she was restricted. The villain used his ill defined yet cheap magical powers to freeze the character in place.

To strip her of all agency. To strip her of all autonomy. To take away any control she had, to take away the development she was promised, and brutally cut her aside.

It was a death framed explicitly in terms of the male characters. The male villain wanted to get revenge on the character’s father, and this of course has the added benefit of providing that cheap, boring, generic angst that we were promised so many episodes ago.

Lovely.

Further still, the character was not allowed to have any real final words. Not for herself, of course; she was reduced to a soapbox, for the writers to speak through. An organ for their agenda. Denying this character a moment in character.

I was not sad. I was not surprised. I was angry.

For obvious reasons.

The sadness came later, though, because there was sadness. Not of the type that the writers had intended to elicit, naturally, but sadness all the same.

It was as early as the next episode. Not a bad one, as they go, but not a good one. A particular scene stood out. Two talented actors, working through their tragedy. Impressive. A tour de force in terms of their performance, undoubtedly.

But not a scene worth what we lost. Not a patch on all the impressive scenes we could, and should, have been allowed.

The sadness hit in the morgue, as is perhaps appropriate following a death. The programme felt the need to show us the lifeless, pallid corpse of the recently deceased. A questionable decision, certainly, but they felt the need to drive home the point.

It made me sad because that was when I realised, really realised, what we’d lost. Of course that was when I realised – that was when we saw her, quite literally, stuffed into a fridge. (Well, a freezer, which is perhaps worse, but at least serves to emphasise the point further.)

That was when I realised that the show – like this post – will now always be defined by an absence. By her absence. Not because she was the best character, nor because she was my favourite – because she was neither.

The show will be defined by her absence because of the shitty and offensive way in which it wrote her out. The way in which casually, brutally, tossed this character aside without a second thought, without any care or consideration, because the show did not care.

It did not care about how it treated a key female character.

It was cruel. It was poor writing. It was pathetic.

And it can never be forgiven.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Idiot’s Lantern

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss florizel street the wire maureen lipman eddie connolly euros lyn russell t davies

Are you sitting comfortably?

I wasn’t exactly very involved in fan circles when this episode came out – excluding the playground, of course – so I’m not exactly hugely in tune with the received wisdom of this one, or indeed a lot of the early Davies/Gardner era stuff. I have mostly just tended to take the view that it’s all brilliant; usually it is.

Gatiss in particular has something of a reputation for writing some clunky episodes. I always sort of resist that reputation, because I’ve typically enjoyed (or remembered enjoying) his episodes at time of broadcast. (I think I was one of the very few people who actually really liked Sleep No More.)

But then, there is the fact that a lot of these episodes aren’t stories I’ve ever really watched critically. The Idiot’s Lantern was never really one I opted to rewatch frequently, so the only impression I had of it was the initial enjoyment – but, to be perfectly honest, at the age of eight I loved every single episode, with very little else to say. It was Doctor Who, and it was the best thing on television, and thus that was that.

When I’m watching them now, though, ten years later, they’re all getting something of a reappraisal. And admittedly, it does have to be said, The Idiot’s Lantern isn’t actually all that great. (There is a part of me that is genuinely worried I’ll get to my favourite episode of the series, and it won’t live up to my expectations.)

Don’t get me wrong, of course – I think it’s probably clear that preamble is leading to a criticism of this episode. It is, because there are problems with the episode. But there’s a lot of good stuff here too, and I think that’s worth commending and commenting on.

Evil TV is a wonderfully, uniquely Doctor Who idea. Of course this show, of them all, is going to put forward the dangers of watching too much TV – it’s not just twisting the mundane into something frightening, like the plastic sunflowers or vinyl chairs, but it’s something that is part of Doctor Who. That is a fantastic concept; not entirely dissimilar from the Weeping Angels, in a way, where the whole point is that you can’t hide behind the sofa. (Though, on the subject of the Weeping Angels, I wonder if perhaps this episode would have been improved with a Blink-esque final sequence to suggest that all TVs, even in the present day, remain dangerous?)

The episode is also very funny – to be expected, perhaps, given Gatiss’ comedy background. (I mean, I’ve never actually seen League of Gentlemen, but they were funny when they were on Horrible Histories together.) Lots of very good jokes in there; the one typically picked up on is where Crabbe tries to wrap his fingers around his elbow after the Doctor’s flippant rebuke of the Detective Inspector. (I just tried myself. It is, I can confirm, impossible.)

So, you know, all of that is good…

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss david tennant billie piper motorbike scooter elvis hair mary poppins

… but the episode is sorely lacking in other places.

I think the main problem arises when the episode sidelines Rose from the narrative. (You can, of course, read a level of positivity from this, because Gatiss had done quite a good job of writing Rose up until the point when she was removed. Generally good lines all round, Billie Piper did a great job with the performance, it was all going quite well. Up until it wasn’t, really.)

On one level, it’s a shame because it means Tennant doesn’t have Piper to work with here. In the early part of the episode, their chemistry and interplay with one another really helped to enliven the episode – Tennant with DI Bishop and Tommy Connelly (more on whom later) just doesn’t have anywhere near the same spark. It is, ultimately, just a little less interesting with Rose gone.

But…

See, I just went and looked up some of the production history for this episode, on the Shannon Sullivan website. (It’s a great resource if you’re at all interested in how Doctor Who is made, and how the stories evolved from their original conception.) What I found out, then, was that this episode was in the fourth production block, and so was one of the later episodes in the production run.

That was a surprise, because from David Tennant’s performance, I could have sworn it was one of the earlier episodes to be recorded.

Saying that I feel a little guilty, because it just seems sort of… it doesn’t feel right to critique David Tennant’s acting. I mean, quite apart from the fact that he extremely well renowned and has received many an accolade, whereas I would have trouble as a non-speaking extra, there’s also the fact that he’s, you know, the Doctor.

But the fact remains that his performance just doesn’t quite work after Rose’s disappearance, because Tennant doesn’t seem to have figured out how to do an angry Doctor properly. Which is weird, I guess, because I seem to remember it working well enough in New Earth, but perhaps the difference is that here all he’s being given to do is essentially just be angry.

It is jarring, to say the least. Something which stands out to me is a point at which he yells in Tommy’s face, for no apparent reason – I think it’s supposed to be read as the Doctor feeling galvanised, because he’s just had a realisation, but it just comes across as deeply uncomfortable, on account of how harshly the line is delivered.

So, yeah. There’s not really any way of getting around this. Once Rose is gone, Gatiss just sort of writes an angry Doctor, and David Tennant can’t get that to work. It’s a shame, really, because it constricts the episode a lot.

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss eddie tommy conolly rory jennings jamie foreman father florizel street

The other big problem and point of contention is the issue of Tommy and his father Eddie. It’s worth unpacking this one a little, I think.

Eddie as a character seems complex, but I suppose in reality it’s more applicable to describe him as messy, or even bungled. There are certainly a lot of scenes, at least initially, which seem to be aiming at depicting him as being something of a weak man, who does the things he does out of fear, but despite this is still a largely good person. You can see this from the fact that he is quite blatantly terrified by what’s going on around him; it’s particularly evident early on, regarding Gran who has her face stolen. And there are moments where he is nice to Tommy, and appears to be caring towards his wife. So, maybe he’s not completely irredeemable?

Arguably, this is something of a theme within the episode: weak men who are limited because of their fears. You’ve got Eddie Connolly, who’s clearly insecure and frightened, hiding behind this veneer of strength and all the associated bluster. There’s Magpie too, who does what he does because he’s scared of the Wire. Even Detective Inspector Bishop could be considered to fall into this mould, given that he simply rounds up the faceless people rather than dealing with them, instead of going out and doing his job properly.

That’s why Tommy is such a sympathetic character, then; he’s scared, yes, but he rises above it and goes further and does more. It was the third Doctor who once said that courage is being scared, but doing what you have to do anyway – and Tommy exemplifies that really well. (Hence, perhaps, his being dressed in similar colours to the Doctor.) It even fits in with the general idea raised by the Doctor at the end, that this is a brand new nation, shrugging off the shadows of war, with no place for men like Eddie Connolly.

Because that’s the other thing. For all that you can make a redemptive reading of Eddie, there are some things you can’t get around – he is also a horrible person. We feel so triumphant when the Doctor and Rose take him down a peg, because he’s a bully. He’s just not a very nice guy. He’s shout-y and angry and aggressive (making the Doctor seem unfortunately similar to him at times) and it is certainly quite heavily implied that he’s abusive towards his wife and child.

It is worth noting, too, that Tommy is gay. That’s the subtext, here, but it’s not exactly subtle – references to “mummy’s boys” and Tommy saying he wants to be able to love anyone he chooses makes it clear enough what the intention is. He was at one point going to admit a crush on the Doctor, but RTD cut that as he decided it was too far.

So, you know, Eddie Connolly isn’t just a horrible person, he’s also abusive, as well as being sexist and homophobic.

The message is absolutely that he should be left behind, and that the episode should unequivocally end with him being cast off and left behind.

But then we have Rose convincing Tommy he needs his father in his life. Which is spectacularly wrongheaded, really.

I mean, how is that meant to be taken? Is it a clever indictment of the 1950s, with Gatiss actually levelling a criticism at this era, and pointing out that even despite the air of optimism and the fact they cast off the shadows of war, some archaic attitudes remained? Or is it suggesting that we should still treat horrible people with a level of decency, even if they don’t extend the same kindness to us?

Of the two interpretations, I prefer the former. That would go some length towards salvaging the episode, certainly.

At the minute, though, it just feels like there were a lot of clever ideas, which all fell apart over the course of the script. And that’s a shame, really.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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On Canon III

captain america hydra nazi nick spencer secret empire red skull on canon jack kirby

Note: Given that, since writing this, a lot more is known about Nick Spencer’s politics, I’d be less inclined to write it exactly as is. 

In something of a bizarre, yet oddly fitting, turn of events, I am now finding myself writing another post about comics, and canon. You can find the original two here; the debate as to the merits of sequels is one for another time, probably.

So, anyway. This one has been prompted by Marvel, rather than DC (though I was tempted to talk about the Rebirth comics, this one is a little more in my wheelhouse), which makes a change after the last two. There will be spoilers here for the new Captain America: Steve Rogers comic, which was published a couple of days ago… but if you’re at all active in comic-y, cult-y circle online, you’ve likely heard about this. (I mean, it was trending on twitter the other day, so it’s clearly reached a fair amount of people.)

At the end of the issue, there’s a shock twist reveal that Steve Rogers – patriot, symbol of hope, the original Captain America – has in fact been an agent of Hydra his entire life, predating his becoming Captain America. It was understandably controversial, for a variety of different reasons. (The panel in question is the one on pictured below, on the right.)

captain america nazi red skull nick spencer jack kirby hydra marvel

Quite apart from how ridiculous his ear looks (I, admittedly, seem to be the only person bothered by this), the most immediately apparent problem is that… well, Captain America is a Nazi. There’s no two ways about that – Hydra is a Nazi group, no matter what Agents of SHIELD says, and there are definitely problems and consequences inherent in depicting Steve as a Hydra member.

(Well, actually, before I go further – do we still take Hydra as being unambiguously a Nazi group? I am, as ever, unfamiliar exactly with the comics, and was under the impression that Hydra had shifted away from that somewhat, but I suppose if you’ve got Steve Rogers, WW2 flashbacks, and Red Skull running around in the background… then, yeah, they’re Nazis.)

The first, and most obvious, point regarding this change is the fact that Steve and Hydra have pretty much always been diametrically opposed to one another. I’ve seen this compared to a story where an 8 year old Bruce Wayne hires Joe Chill to kill his parents; while I’m not wholly convinced that the specifics of that are right, I do think it captures the same sort of absurdity that prompts an immediate and visceral reaction from people.

I mean, this is a character whose origins are framed explicitly in terms of fighting Nazis. He’s always been about freedom, and tolerance, and hope and optimism. (I say always; I mean “always, apart from when he’s not”.) It’s not for nothing that Captain America is described as akin to Marvel’s Superman, because he fits into that same mould – the hero motivated by compassion and idealism, striving for a better world.

So to turn him into a Nazi is… Well, in previous On Canon posts, I struggled to properly define “going against the spirit” of a character, but it is probably fair to say that this is a pretty good example of that.

And yet, I am not feeling quite so… condemning of Nick Spencer and Marvel. At least, not yet.

It does seem quite clear to me that this was probably written with one eye on the headlines. Something like this – particularly in structuring it as a cliffhanger reveal, rather than putting it in the middle with a bit more explanation at the end – does suggest that it’s very much got elements of shock value. And, while that’s arguably a little crass, these things do still have to sell.

I also think it’s worth bearing in mind that this is the first issue of an ongoing story. This is like, say, judging the entire morality of the Doctor in terms of the Time War based only on Rose. To say the least, there’s not exactly a full picture here. There are a lot more details – and presumably a resolution – which is yet to be revealed. (The prevailing theory currently that has emerged is positing that Red Skull is using the cosmic cube to change time. This is as good an explanation as any, really, and could be quite interesting if done well.)

More to the point, though… obviously, it’s entirely possible this could be awful. Disrespectful and offensive, or even just plain bad. But I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near enough to dismiss it out of hand – Captain America as a Hydra agent is not an idea that is immediately inherently devoid of value.

Today more than ever, I think there’s a value to this story – though Captain America is a symbol of hope and idealism and justice, he’s also inextricably linked to… well, to America, obviously. That puts him in an interesting position in terms of providing commentary on America, and indeed American society. To my mind, there is a real and genuine chance for this story to do something really important; with the rise of certain individuals dominating American politics, now is a particularly apt time to use a popular archetype to deconstruct the manner in which fascism can take root, and the manner in which it co-opts symbols which previously represented something else.

What I’m seeing, I suppose, is this story being a new way for Captain America comics to combat fascism, in the form it takes in the 21st century – much like how Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wrote the character to challenge fascism in the 1930s.

That, quite neatly I suppose, brings me onto the other main complaint which is being levelled at the new Captain America comic – that it’s anti-semitic, and inherently disrespectful to the two Jewish writers who originated the characters, Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber) & Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg).

It’s difficult to unpack this one. That is mostly on account of the fact that I’m not Jewish, and as such my perspective on things is not going to be informed by any first hand experiences of anti-semitism. (Or, indeed, discrimination of any kind.)

The argument thus far has essentially been “a character, created by Jewish writers as a challenge to Nazism, is now a Nazi, and that’s hella messed up”. And obviously on the one hand, yes. On the other hand… well, it gets a little bit death of the author, doesn’t it? How often do we ever hold these characters to the original interpretations as set out by their creators?

Rarely, really. As established in On Canon II, I suppose. Like I said last time, it’s very easy to find a panel from a comic that’ll support any point you want – pictured above is an example of a comic where Captain America is saluting Hitler. It was written/drawn by Jack Kirby. That’s not the only one, of course; there’s an image of Steve with a swastika on his shield rather than a star here.

So, you know, applying Nazi iconography to Captain America is not a new thing per se. Nor is using Captain America to address and combat fascism and racism – it’s something that writer Nick Spencer is apparently deliberately considerate of, building in parallels to modern day white supremacists and Daesh and so on. Ultimately, I am not sure that there is anything here that does really disrespect the legacy of the creators – or at least, nothing immediately evident from a single line, given the potential for it still to be handled in quite a nuanced fashion.

(But! These things don’t exist in a vacuum, and the general trend of whitewashing characters has lead to a lot of Jewish erasure. Even though I am inclined to take the approach of “wait and see” with regards to this specific instance, the general erasure of Jewish identities should still be addressed. This is a really fascinating article I read recently about Superman and Jewish traditions, which I’m linking to… just because it’s interesting, really.)

Anyway, to conclude:

Steve Rogers as a Hydra agent is not necessarily the worst choice in the world. As with every avenue a story explores, there is potential for it to be compelling and worthwhile; it’s ultimately too early to judge just what this story will be like.

And, I mean, it’s not like it won’t all be undone soon anyway.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Age of Steel

doctor who the age of steel review tom macrae graeme harper russell t davies cybermen parallel world john lumic

We think of the humans. We think of their difference and their pain. They suffer in the skin. They must be upgraded.

The biggest thing about this episode – and the episode beforehand, really – is the question of the Cybermen. I am not actually wholly convinced that they work, as a concept.

Originally, they were borne from a fear of organ transplants and body modifications; we’re a long way past that now. So where do you go to modernise the concept, and make them relevant? Arguably you could invoke transhumanism, but that’s not exactly the most pressing concern for… well, for basically anyone. Which in turn makes you wonder just what, exactly, you’re meant to do about the Cybermen, because otherwise they’re just stomp-y robots.

In the previous episode, they were a post-industrial, capitalist force; taking the homeless and the vulnerable, transforming them into the perfect worker, exploiting them for labour. (It’s an idea that Russell T Davies will return to, to an extent, in The Next Doctor – but it’ll be a few years yet before I get to that.) There was also the idea that they were cutting edge technology, however… well, that doesn’t work, simply by virtue of writing the Cybermen in a pre-Apple world for a post-Apple audience. They were dated on transmission, let alone now.

Here, though, Davies and MacRae (because, you know, it was essentially a team effort) focus more on the tragedy angle, which I think is a far stronger manner from which to approach the Cybermen. It’s particularly effective here, with two key moments that stand out from the rest.

The first is the reveal of the upgraded Jackie Tyler, and the scene where we lose her in the crowd; it really demonstrates the loss of identity faced by the Cyber victims – but also, of course, the fact that it just doesn’t matter to them. Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall sell it, of course, through their horrified response, but it’s also a rather cleverly directed scene; Graeme Harper has blocked it out in such a way that it’s actually very difficult to follow which Cyberman Jackie actually is. (Every time I watch this episode, I try to figure it out. It’s only now that I’m starting to realise that she walked offscreen and didn’t come back.)

Following this, you’ve got the scene with Sally, the converted Cyberman who’s emotional inhibitor is broken. It is, obviously, a very poignant scene, but it’s also a very clever one in terms of how it’s written. It starts with “he can’t see me”, which you initially assume to be because of her conversion to being a Cyberman; a simple fear and disgust at what she’d become, as the Doctor had suggested they’d feel a few moments beforehand. But then, in a rather deft piece of writing, it’s revealed that Sally isn’t worried about Gareth seeing her as a Cyberman, but seeing her in her wedding dress. It’s a really poignant moment, and it does a wonderful job of selling the tragedy of the Cybermen.

But then, because this is a story with a limited run time – even despite the fact it’s of two parts – there’s a need for a neat resolution, and a way for the Doctor to more or less destabilise the threat. So we end up with explosions and… that’s kind of it. I mean, it’s probably missing the point a little to ask for Doctor Who to examine the long term consequences of an episode, but it does sort of undercut what had been established about the Cybermen.

doctor who age of steel review tenth doctor cybermen graeme harper tom macrae reflection distortion emotion chip parallel world john lumic

Also picking up from where we left off last week is Mickey, and his development as a character. This is essentially the culmination of what was set up last week, and I think it pays off quite well.

Key in this is the death of Rickey; it’s Mickey’s primary motivator, because he’s seen this vision of what he could have been. Interestingly, and perhaps more importantly, Rickey is also the only one who really offers Mickey any genuine approval prior to his death. That, I think, is why it’s such a transformative moment for him – Rickey, mirror of all his potential to be something more, thinks he’s alright. And that means something to Mickey.

It isn’t, admittedly, actually very subtle in terms of how this is depicted, and I think more to the point, it’s not necessarily earned. The previous episodes showed Mickey integrating with the Doctor and Rose reasonably well; I think, if anything, Mickey proved himself to them a long time ago. As early as World War Three, the Doctor offered to let him travel with them, and during The Girl in the Fireplace he’d slotted into the team quite well.

The only way it works, really, is in terms of Noel Clarke’s performance. He really is that good, he’s able to sell it and make it feel naturalistic, even though it… well, even though it sort of isn’t. I think a key moment here is when he turns back to look at the Doctor and Rose, but they’ve already forgotten him; it quite clearly parallels a similar scene in the previous episode, but here and now it’s the final deciding moment when Mickey realises he has to stay behind.

Rose’s reaction to all this is quite interesting I think, because it’s quite selfish in some ways. Even though she’s been quite dismissive of him for some time, Rose still doesn’t want Mickey to actually go; particularly following the let-down she just received from the alternate Pete. It’s a really interesting facet of Rose’s character, and it’s always nice to see this explored, however briefly.

doctor who age of steel review mickey ricky smith noel clarke parallel world preachers tom macrae graeme harper series 2

There’s other weaknesses here, too – or, perhaps more accurately, other limitations.

You’ve got great quasi character arcs here for Jake, Mrs Moore, and even Mr Crane, but they’re all somewhat restricted by a lack of development; none of them really get the required level of focus to feel like they’re anything more than perfunctory. It also doesn’t help that Andrew Hayden-Smith is something of a patchy actor; the performance is quite rough, with varying levels of quality throughout. Don’t get me wrong, of course – I like the three characters, and I appreciate the fact that these moments were included at all. I just wonder if perhaps they could have been handled better? It’s difficult to say, of course, because even despite being a two parter, this is quite a busy pair of episodes.

The eventual confrontation between the Doctor and Cyber Controller Lumic is quite weak as well. It’s difficult, I suppose, to write a proper polemic against emotions, and it’s similarly difficult for the Doctor to respond, because you end up with dialogue about “well cooked meals” and whatnot. It’s great to see the Doctor championing the small moments of beauty, because that’s a philosophy which is integral to the heart of the program, but it is difficult to write dialogue about this which seems genuine, and still manages to find some level of truth. They do pursue something of a post Time War emotional narrative, I guess, but not much is made of it; I do wonder if perhaps that’d work better with the Ninth Doctor, because I think you could genuinely believe he might have at one point considered relinquishing all emotions to free himself of his guilt and grief.

Last week, after I’d watched Rise of the Cybermen, I was left feeling a little meh. It was all just a bit… average. Very middle of the road, turning the wheels, perfectly median Doctor Who. But as I was writing my review, I was able to pick out lots of interesting little attributes and distinctions which gave the episode a lot more nuance than I initially credited it for.

Here, though, I feel like almost the opposite happened. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but having reflected on it, there were definitely some pretty clear flaws, which stood out increasingly as I thought about it more.

Which is kind of a shame, I guess.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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On Canon II

the flash jay garrick teddy sears henry allen john wesley shipp season 2 zoom hunter zolomon mark waid canon pissing on a legacy greg berlanti

So, we’ll consider this to be something of a sequel to my previous post On Canon, because I’ve been having some more thoughts about it. This time, though, rather than Arrow and Marc Guggenheim, it’s Mark Waid and The Flash.

There’s spoilers, incidentally, for The Flash past… episode 18, I think it is? There’s discussion of the identity of Zoom, in any case, so if you’re not caught up and you’d like to preserve the surprise, this is your opportunity to jump ship.

Mark Waid, if you’ve not heard of him, is a comics writer. Predominantly, he’s known for having written for the Flash, and also Superman; certainly that’s where I know him from, anyway. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page reveals that he’s also spent some time doing Captain America for Marvel, and also apparently did Kingdom Come, which is quite a well respected comic story.

I haven’t ever actually read any of his work; that is worth stating upfront, I think. As will become apparent, as much as I like comic characters and their stories, I’ve read very few comics. But, even so, Mark Waid is a big enough “name”, as it were, that I’ve still heard of him and know good things about him.

But he recently tweeted these, and I have had some thoughts.

mark waid twitter the flash jay garrick man in the iron mask pissing on a legacy greg berlanti

Probably there is a lot to be said about why a creative individual considers things like this to be “pissing on legacy”; surely he knows that stories grow and develop and as part of this change over time? Similarly, I take issue with the idea that someone is “actively punished for being a fan” if a comic story isn’t adapted to the letter.

But I don’t want this post to be a criticism of Mark Waid; frankly, that’s unfair. He apologised to Greg Berlanti about an hour afterwards, so that’s that, and I think more important is the fact that he likes just doesn’t want or need some random blogger on the internet harassing him and trying to provide some psychological profile.

I do want to talk about the idea he’s put forward, though, which is somewhat linked to the idea of the spirit of the source material that I mentioned in the previous On Canon post.

This is, I think, actually quite a complicated issue, largely because different characters mean different things to different people – all interpretations are valid, right? It’s difficult to put a pin in something as nebulous as the “spirit” of a character, because you’re not really going to get one single cohesive vision of this. Sure, the author will have one idea, and sure, there might be a majority view… but that doesn’t mean it’s the view that everyone shares.

For example! Man of Steel, as well as Batman vs Superman, and indeed the DCEU as a whole, is presenting their timeless and well loved characters through a “gritty” and “dark” veneer, one which is proving to be quite controversial. Personally, I hate it; I hate the fact that Zack Snyder has rejected the idea that Superman can be a symbol of hope, or a character motivated by compassion. I wrote about it at length here, actually, in what I think is one of my better pieces of writing. There are plenty of other people who have spoken out against it – the aforementioned Mr Mark Waid wasn’t a fan of Man of Steel at the time, and there are plenty of people who are decrying the fact that Batman killed people in Dawn of Justice when he really, really (probably maybe) shouldn’t actually ever do that.

But, of course, as soon as the detractors spring up, the counter detractors (attractors?) rise up in full force as well. And that’s where it gets difficult, really. Because these characters are nearly 70 years old, and they’ve been through so many different iterations, that it is actually not very difficult for people to pull out a variety of different comic panels wherein Batman has, in fact, shot someone.

Don’t get me wrong, I do this too, though somewhat in reverse. Whenever I’m arguing about the possibility of a gay Spider-Man or whatever, and someone tells me that’s not “in the spirit of the stories”, my favourite thing to do is pull out a list of things Spider-Man has done that don’t fit the spirit of the character.

You’ve got Spider-Man eating someone’s face. You’ve got Peter Parker revealed to actually have been a clone, except maybe not. You’ve got Peter Parker fighting mystical omnipotent travellers, rather than petty crooks and mad scientists. There’s Peter Parker backhanding MJ.

And, you know, those are just the weird ones; I pull those out because of how absurd they are, and how well they highlight what I’m getting at. Even the sort of thing that people now accept to be a fairly standard part of the Spider-Man mythos, like Venom, would at one point have been unthinkable. It wasn’t even Uncle Ben who said “with great power comes great responsibility” in the first place, you know?

But then, does it break the spirit of the thing? If we stick with Spider-Man for a moment, consider the implications of “with great power comes great responsibility”: Spidey has always been a pretty normal guy, who ended up with superpowers through a freak accident, and because of that he has a responsibility to do the right thing. To be a hero.

Does that not then mean the Andrew Garfield movies, which have a pretty substantial role for Peter’s parents, and posit that he was genetically modified as a young child to allow him to gain powers, breaks the spirit of Spider-Man? That’s not a normal guy rising to meet his responsibilities, but someone confronting their destiny. It’s a fundamentally different story.

Likely you can make similar arguments about the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies to some extent, though; with their slavish devotion to the early Lee/Ditko stories, there’s plenty that they don’t pay heed to. They are, after all, just one interpretation of a character.

This is true of any character that has existed for this long. It’s not just a matter of creator (with Stan Lee’s Daredevil and Frank Miller’s Daredevil being pretty different), of course, but also of time; the Adam West Batman is rather distinct from Alan Moore’s iteration, after all.

So what is consistent? What can you consider your throughline here? What is the spirit of these characters?

I have literally no idea, to be honest. That’s quite a copout answer, isn’t it? But yeah, I have literally no idea. There is likely an idea literary study to be done here; what remains consistent about these characters across time, and what doesn’t? Does it even matter?

How can you respect the spirit when there isn’t really any one, single, coherent spirit to respect? We’ll go back to Jay Garrick, since that’s where this all started. He’s a decent example, really. Does the existence of Barry Allen piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Barry was a replacement Flash, after all.

Does the existence of the speedforce, and the idea it comes from Barry, piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Some depictions of Jay Garrick posit he’s from Earth-2. Others suggest he’s from Earth-1, but in the 40s, so he’s a true golden age hero. Who’s pissing on who here? The one that came first? The one that was commonly accepted for longer? Where’s the piss, guys?

(Lex Luthor probably knows. But only the Eisenberg version, Spacey and Hackman and Rosenbaum have nothing to do with that.)

At this point, it’s easy to just say you have to ignore all of that, and just tell good stories.

That’s the conclusion I reached with the former Arrow post, after all. Fridging Black Canary, regardless of the comics, was an utterly terrible choice; it was banal writing in the truest sense of the word, and continues a worrying trend of Arrow doing a disservice to its female characters. To decry that because of the comics is to miss the point – this isn’t bad because it doesn’t follow the letter of the source material, it’s bad because it’s lazy and even offensive writing.

But that’s an easy conclusion to make. It’s ignoring the subtleties and nuances of all this. I mean, I thought Batman vs Superman was awful, and although it wasn’t my sole problem, the fact that it wasn’t true to the spirit of the characters was indeed part of my complaint. So clearly on some level I think this is a valid criticism.

Similarly, it’d be easy to dismiss it as good stories/bad stories, but even then, that’s not quite right. I mean, the current Jay Garrick/Hunter Zolomon arc on The Flash isn’t really doing anything for me – not because I think it disrespects the legacy of the comics, but because I just think it’s kinda crap. There are a large number of people who disagree with me, and love it!

By the same measure, one of my… more unique opinions, I guess, is the fact that I actually quite liked the most recent Fantastic Four movie. I thought the body horror angle was an awesome idea… but I’ll freely acknowledge that it isn’t really in the “spirit” of the original characters. (Or isn’t it? Certainly it’s not the traditional view, but equally, I don’t know that much was ever made of the experience of getting their powers in the originals, so is there room for the body horror, as well as the fun and the humour of the originals? Perhaps.)

So again, we’re getting back to a place where I don’t really have any useful concluding points to make, and this whole post has gotten far too long for anyone to actually read it.

Let us say this, then.

When telling a story, the utmost aim is to tell a good story. When telling a story based on an archetype, it is worth considering what has made the original so enduring – be it a nebulously defined “spirit”, or a truly innovative concept, you should at least attempt to understand what makes something so good in the first place.

From there, feel free to remix or invert that which is in front of you; add to it, take things away, or shift focus. But be certain that your vision is one worth presenting; be certain you’re telling a good story. Consider whether you need this archetype to tell your story – are you better off approaching this from a different angle entirely, with your own original creations?

After that…

… well, after that, there’s no accounting for taste.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Rise of the Cybermen

doctor who rise of the cybermen review tom macrae graeme harper russell t davies david tennant billie piper noel clarke cybermen

Every citizen will receive a free upgrade.

We’ve reached the annual “bring back a classic monster episode”. There’s one during every series of the Davies era, and this episode is when we first see the Cybermen!

Except, you know, not really. Despite the title, there’s actually very little of the Cybermen here; they’re largely limited to hints and references, and clever camera shots to obscure how they look. It’s an effective device, which makes their eventual reveal at the party all the more effective, but it does leave me with similarly limited commentary to offer! The design is rather great, I think.

What did strike me was how… 2006 it was. I mean, obviously any piece of television was going to be of its time, but it’s particularly apparent here. During the writing process, Russell T Davies rejected the idea of “body shop” modification places, because he felt like the original organ transplant paranoia concept that had been the original inspiration for the Cybermen was outdated. Fair enough; we’ve come a long way from the 1960s, and organ transplants are a lot more commonplace than they once were.

But they didn’t exactly do a very good job of making their new concept particularly timeless. Or rather, they almost did, but it’s been done in such a 2006 way that it can’t help but feel demonstrably dated. You’ve got your Bluetooth headphones, and John Lumic, and that’s fine… but there’s a very clear sense that, if this were made even a few years later, it’d be based around Apple and Steve Jobs. The whole thing ends up feeling weirdly basic, when it’s clear they’re trying to aim for a sense of cutting edge technology.

I did like the idea that this was all being attributed to the oppressive onslaught of capitalism, though. The machine (driven by business, in a world that’s already stratified with a very literal “upper” class) is eating the homeless, chewing them up and spitting them out as the perfect worker, reformed to suit the purposes of the rich man, with little consideration for their wellbeing. It’s an interesting concept, and I’m looking forward to seeing it explored in more depth next week.

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Another interesting concept put forward in this episode is that of the parallel world – usually a staple of science fiction, but one oddly eschewed by Doctor Who. There’s only really Inferno from the classic series, and these Cybermen episodes from series 2. Likely there are plenty of extended universe stories, of course, but it’s still a little odd that we’ve never seen them particularly often.

What I find particularly clever about the depiction of this parallel world was the manner in which the reveal was layered – not entirely dissimilar from the Cybermen, I suppose. Rather than throwing us into a world which was immediately and evidently strange (like on The Flash, for example, where Earth-2 has a clear 1940s aesthetic, and a slight yellow tinge to the camera) this is one where we’re gradually introduced to the differences.

It starts simple, with Mickey insisting that this is in fact our London – but oh wait, hang on, those are zeppelins. (Those are such a strange and idiosyncratic little inclusion. Never really understood it, but they certainly do a good job of immediately stating how this world is.) It’s then furthered, of course, with the reveal of Pete Tyler, the lack of Rose, the President of Great Britain, and so on and so forth. Interestingly, at one stage this world was supposed to have been a result of Queen Victoria being killed by the werewolf in Tooth and Claw; you can see, perhaps, how that idea influenced the very capitalist, post-industrial origin for the Cybermen.

My favourite details, though, are the far subtler ones – those that hint at the underlying class divide that seems to lie at the heart of this society. I’ve already mentioned the capitalist themes with the first cyber conversion, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One interesting thing that stood out to me was the mention of a curfew, and the soldier who speaks about the rich people in the zeppelins. That was fascinating; it’s such a small detail, but it speaks volumes about the sort of world this is. It’s eminently forgettable – I had no idea it was coming. But that also meant it was a real surprise, and it actually made me appreciate Russell T Davies’ worldbuilding efforts a lot more.

Jackie Tyler, though, is where the parallel world aspect is most evident, and indeed the best of a parallel world character that we see. Ostensibly, there’s a lot about this Jackie that’s the same as the one we’ve come to know and love; she’s brash and loud and she loves a party, and there’s just a hint of the materialistic in her. That’s not so far off from the Jackie we know. But then she’s so utterly vile to Rose, completely dismissing her as just “the help”, that it becomes painfully evident that this Jackie is very far from the one we know. It really sells the parallel world aspect, though, because the differences are so firmly juxtaposed against the similarities, in a very effective manner.

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Most notable about this episode, though, is neither the Cybermen nor the parallel world.

It’s Mickey.

I’ve always liked Mickey, as a character; he’s very much the everyman, representing the average guy, brought into this fantastical world. We’ve seen him develop a lot over the past two seasons, and I think Noel Clarke deserves a lot of props for this; he gets a little criticism at times for leaning into slapstick a little much during the first series, but I’m always impressed by his portrayal of the character.

We’ve seen him moving from the normal guy on the estate – a little scared, maybe a little rubbish – to becoming a fully-fledged companion in his own right. (Mostly). He’s saved the world more than once, playing an important role in the resolutions of various different episodes.

Rise of the Cybermen, then, gives us the next instalment of Mickey’s character development; right from the beginning, he’s beginning to realise that he maybe doesn’t fit in here entirely. It makes sense, after all – part of the theme of this series so far has been about how close knit the Doctor and Rose are becoming. What place does Mickey have, then, if all he’s ever going to be treated as on the TARDIS is the awkward, slightly forgettable, third wheel?

It’s particularly interesting to get the backstory on Mickey in this episode – even though we’ve got to know him quite well over the past few years, we’ve never really seen the details about his own family sketched out quite like this. He’s always very firmly been one of Rose’s supporting characters, but now in this episode he’s starting to… not get a life of his own, as such, but develop independently of Rose, I suppose.

This gives us one of the best emotional moments of the entire episode, and one that really makes the whole parallel universe aspect worth it – when Mickey meets his grandmother. It’s interesting, really, that this resonates so much more so than when Rose meets her father (the wonderful Shaun Dingwall) even considering the fact that we saw him last year during Father’s Day. There’s just some extremely poignant about that brief shot of the torn carpet, and Noel Clarke brilliantly sells the moment.

Ultimately, then, Rise of the Cybermen is a pretty decent episode. I think, after I’d watched it, I wasn’t actually all that fussed – it was the middle of the road, firmly “for kids” monster runaround two parter. Not something to expect a lot from, really. But I think as I’ve been writing this review, I’ve been able to highlight some of the stronger aspects of the episode – to myself, primarily – and I’ve come away with a much greater appreciation of the episode. So that’s nice! Never let it be said that these reviews are for nothing.

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Girl in the Fireplace

doctor who the girl in the fireplace review steven moffat euros lyn david tennant sophia myles billie piper noel clarke ar

One may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel.

With a degree of hindsight, this episode is in fact rather fascinating – the lens of history gives it a whole new meaning, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the time windows of The Girl in the Fireplace.

Steven Moffat, who wrote this episode, is something of a big deal. You may have heard of him? He’s been the head writer of Doctor Who since 2010, and is now preparing to embark on what will no doubt be his final victory lap, with the 2017 series being his last in the role of showrunner. Moffat has been an undeniably controversial figure, and while I’ve not enjoyed every aspect of his tenure, I’d be one of the first to attest that he is an undeniably talented writer as well.

Looking back, a lot of the key themes that he was interested in are on display here – you can almost consider this as something of a trial run. The first episode of the Moffat era, right here in 2006! True, some of it is pretty surface level (for example, the three person TARDIS team is an idea he returned to), however I would argue that there’s a lot more to it than this.

Take Moffat’s attitude towards the Doctor. I’ve often seen it stated that where Davies was interested primarily in the Doctor’s impact on other people, Moffat was fascinated by the Doctor himself, in terms of his character and his reputation. It’s certainly an oversimplification, which disregards a lot of the nuance in their respective approaches, but you can certainly see the echoes of Moffat’s developing vision of the Doctor.

To Moffat, the Doctor has always been the coolest person in the room – you can see that in the way Tennant effortlessly commands the ballroom in Versailles, with everyone focused on him. He’s charming and charismatic and the centre of everything that goes on around him. The Doctor is also the fairytale hero and imaginary friend – but he’s not left behind with childhood, not at all. The Doctor can and will remain a part of your life, always there when you need him. (One wonders if there’s a personal level to that!)

It remains more nuanced, though. Because the Doctor is wonderful – after all, one may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel. And that’s what’s at the heart of Moffat’s vision of the Doctor, I think; the idea that he is a wonderful, wonderful man.

There’s a lot of other trademark Moffatisms, to coin a phrase, across the course of this script. It is, obviously, extremely funny; any instance involving Arthur the Horse is more or less guaranteed to be gold, and Mickey gets some pretty great lines too. The dialogue throughout is inspired, of course, it’s not just limited to the jokes. Something that stood out to me was the Doctor saying to the Clockwork Man “I’m not winding you up”’; it’s the sort of thing that’d be overlooked, given that it’s not the funniest or the most quotable lines, but I thought it was a really clever piece of writing in terms of how the language was structured, and the general implications of it. (This is the English student in me talking.)

You’ve also got an effective villain with a suitably creepy motif (how clever was that scene with the broken clock?) and a subtle puzzle box structure threaded throughout, with a wonderfully clever reveal about Madame De Pompadour. It’s classic, classic Moffat.

And speaking of Madame De Pompadour…

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The backbone of this script is the relationship between Reinette and the Doctor – and this, of course, is what The Girl in the Fireplace is best remembered for. Russell T Davies always liked to talk about this one as having really pushed the boundaries of the Doctor’s character, and providing David Tennant with the opportunity to really demonstrate his range as an actor.

It is, generally, quite well handled. Obviously, 45 minutes is in fact not a lot of time, which can make it quite difficult to effectively write a convincing love plot – particularly when you’ve got to include subplots and spaceships and horses and monsters – but I think that The Girl in the Fireplace does a very good job of it. The time windows aspect helps; in exploring Reinette’s character across different stages of her life, there was a greater level of depth to her character.

Admittedly, it’s not perfect; for all that the Doctor talks of her being a wonderful actress or artist and suchlike, we don’t get the opportunity to actually see her talents in play. Unlike Dickens or Queen Victoria, you can’t really rely on the knowledge the audience already has of this figure, given that Madame de Pompadour is in fact a relatively obscure figure. More focus is placed on her position as mistress to the King than her own skills and attributes, to the extent that at times it feels like she’s being framed as important in terms of her relationship with him, rather than herself. (Even then, there’s limited explanation of the social context, and why this is important. There’s a funny joke about French people though, so we’ll call it a wash.)

Sophia Myles does a fantastic job of drawing it all together, though, and her performance is what really makes this work. There are a lot of fantastic scenes, all intended to endear us to her character; one of Myles’ best, I think, is during the ‘mind meld’ scene, as she gives a brief insight into the Doctor as a “lonely little boy, lonely then and lonelier now”. It’s rare that anyone gains such an insight into the Doctor, and you can understand why their relationship develops from this. That, and the fact that Reinette is a very elegant, and at times commanding figure; Myles gives a very mannered and complex performance, which suits the story very well!

In the end, though, the story is marked by tragedy. And it is a tragedy that the slow path robbed Reinette of another final meeting with the Doctor – but more than that, it’s simply a tragedy that this woman died so young. Everything has it’s time, and everything ends, but this should not have been her time. Her final letter to the Doctor is a poignant scene; it’s certainly one of Moffat’s most moving moments, with a real and genuine sense of pathos to it.

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It’s not just Moffat’s writing and Myles’ acting that makes this episode work, though; a concerted effort from all parties involved really makes it work.

Pre-revolutionary France is genuinely beautiful here – Ed Thomas did a stunning job on the design, and Euros Lyn did a similarly wonderful job with the direction. (The washed out, dull colours during the Doctor’s final trip to France are a particularly nice touch, in contrast to the warm yellows and oranges of his previous jaunts.) It’s a really well made piece of television, with an effective juxtaposition of the 51st Century spaceship and the 18th Century French palace. Really reminds you of the scope of Doctor Who; I think this is probably a wonderful episode to show someone if you want them to start to get involved with the programme.

Murray Gold has written some of his best music for this particular episode as well; certainly, it’s amongst his best scores during the RTD era. The Madame de Pompadour motif is a very moving melody, which really heightens the emotions of the scenes. Don’t take my word for it, though; the piece is here on YouTube. Excellent stuff – I’ve been playing it on a loop ever since I finished watching the episode a couple of hours ago.

There’s further advancement of Mickey and Rose; both Noel Clarke and Billie Piper do a fantastic job here. I’ve sort of neglected to mention them in previous weeks, largely because the focus has been on the new Doctor. That’s unfair, of course – both of them are very good at what they do, and they’re a huge part of the reason why Rose and Mickey are such compelling characters.

Ultimately, then, this is a particularly strong episode; it’s one of the highlights of the second series so far, and I think it’s one of Moffat’s strongest episodes to date. (I include the later aspects of his oeuvre in that statement – this is up there with other masterpieces like Heaven Sent!)

There is one word I keep coming back to, though, in describing this episode. Exquisite. Every aspect, every tiny detail – it’s exquisite.

9/10

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