Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let's Kill Hitler

27/08/11 “Let’s Kill Hitler”
Melody Pond/River Song: Are you serious?
The Doctor: Never knowingly.

If you subscribe to the idea that successful drama confirms and subverts expectations, as I do, then your opinion of “Let’s Kill Hitler” might have been as mixed as mine. Very few of my expectations were confirmed and instead most were wildly subverted—sometimes in a way that dazzled me with the audacity of it, but mostly in a way that left me shaking my head with the thought of lost opportunities. Let’s look at the most obvious element: the title. Plenty of Doctor Who has dealt even superficially with this theme, and in a less obvious but quite thematically-linked way, so has the short story “Categorical Imperative,” in which successive versions of the Doctor kept coming to a coronation to kill a child he knew would grow up to be a monster, but each time he couldn’t do it. So if you were expecting some kind of moral dilemma for the Doctor along the lines of “Genesis of the Daleks,” you were proved wrong. Or if you were expecting some kind of 1930s caper of supernatural dimensions, à la The Scarifyers, you were proved wrong, too. The setting was more or less incidental; there was one scene of terrified Berliners fleeing in their underwear from a café (which for some reason was playing Pachebel?!) which very much reminded me of The Master and Margarita. If you like that kind of history-lite, then you’ll have been satisfied. Certainly “The Girl in the Fireplace” was rather of that genre, and while I thought it held together much better than this did, it introduced a historical setting without making that setting the be-all and end-all in the way many Doctor Who pseudo-historicals do. (“The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” I would certainly argue was much more connected to its setting.) I have mixed feelings about “The Girl in the Fireplace,” as you won’t be surprised to learn. But you certainly have to admire Moffatt circumventing the constraints of the genre (ie budget). (I have to confess to being quite distracted by the use of the Brangwyn Hall and Temple of Peace as filming locations again.)

On to the futuristic tessellating doppelgangers, the Justice Department vehicles. As I said to Jamie, the Master must be really pissed off that someone has stolen his tissue compression gun; equally, the idea owes much to the comic strip “The Deep Hereafter,” and “The Invisible Enemy” (again, I’m sorry to say, not one of my favorite Doctor Who stories). But, let’s be fair: it’s another one of Moffatt’s solid ideas, because it takes something that fascinates kids. At first, I was quite excited: I thought these might be Time Agents. When it was revealed they were in fact searching out war criminals throughout time and space I quite liked the idea of the Doctor being equated with Hitler, just as Davros brought to light the Doctor’s less savory achievements. I may not have liked “Waters of Mars” very much, but it did take that comparison one step further, which is significant. I liked the idea that the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and “Mels” saved Hitler’s life by accident, and you have to admire a show that locks Hitler away in a cupboard to transact its business, rather than physically or even verbally assaulting him: triumph but taking away his arena and literally sidelining him. Jamie made the interesting suggestion that since I had written a fan fic about Donna in the toilets for nine hours during “Partners in Crime,” I could do the same for this situation. I honestly thought it was going to become a plot point: Hitler was going to overhear something crucial and upon his escape, alter the course of history (though perhaps he did, if you look at the concurrent plot lines in Torchwood though that was set in 1928 (1) ). This may yet be another trick up the Vast Toffee’s sleeve; I hope it is, otherwise it does make rather an anti-climax.

You know, I was honestly thinking that Mels was another Captain Jack character resurrected out of the ether to fulfill the gun-wielding purpose, and how lazy, but I really should have realized what was going on. Let’s just say that River Song is irritating in any incarnation (except perhaps as Jefferson Adams Hamilton little girl)—I have moments when I like her, but my first assessment still perhaps accurately registers my mood. Okay, perhaps her excuse is, as she herself says, “I’m a psychopath, I’m not rude.” I was enraged when suddenly this Mels character was introduced into the narrative, stitched in like some convenient revision who was supposed to be Amy and Rory’s “best mate,” and I’m still not happy with its introduction, unless she has only existed in the rewritten post-Crack timeline. Ouch, my head hurts already. The only enjoyment derived out of those flashbacks was Rory’s insistence that he wasn’t gay. I loved the precedent Mels/Melody/River’s regeneration set; perhaps Paterson Joseph will be the next Doctor.

I guess River/Melody’s behavior upon regeneration wasn’t that dissimilar from Romana II’s, who wanted to try on not only outfit in the house, but try out every species and body type. Nevertheless, when River was enjoying being more “mature” in her body, I was thinking she was becoming completely the opposite. Quite frankly, with her poisonous lipstick (Judas tree? Is that related to Janus thorn?) she felt like a larger-than-life comics villain, Poison Ivy for example, which is fine if you’re in the mood for that. I couldn’t get behind it 100%, I’m afraid. I’m guessing post-Time War regeneration has given Time Lords (well, just the Doctor and the Master) interesting new powers during their “regenerational cycle,” which used to be characterized by stress and mood swings, now full of hand-growing and vortex energy.

The Doctor, who for some unexplained reason was not wearing his normal tweed but a slightly more 1930s-type frock coat of brown leather, crawled into the TARDIS, dying, and proceeded to have a rather repetitive argument with the TARDIS-generated ghost of Young Amelia (a voice interface). The Doctor had to get guilt piled upon him with the successive images of Rose, Martha, and Donna (“there must be someone in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet”). (It would have been interesting if the TARDIS—ie Idris from before—had appeared!) I can’t keep buying this “regeneration disabled” bit. For me personally, this just have the Doctor the excuse to appear in his snazzy ‘20s tails, tie, and top hat. We at last get some insight into what River Song might have whispered to the Doctor in “Silence in the Library,” things get a bit “Parting of the Ways,” and River/Melody imparts her remaining regenerations to the Doctor to save him (though strictly speaking shouldn’t he regenerate?). In 5123 we get some insight into why River took up archaeology, the Doctor leaves her a present in the form of a TARDIS diary, and I’d like to think (and am fairly sure) that Moffatt has this all worked out in a timeline meticulously. But . . . eh.

The revelation of the Silence as a religious cult rather than a species reminded me more than ever of the language used thus far into Torchwood regarding who “they” are who knew enough to pre-empt PhiCorp, “they” who persuaded world governments to build ovens, etc. It would be interesting if they all knitted together, but frankly I can’t see how they could do so without some overlap which might confuse and/or alienate viewers of one show or the other.

The Power of Kroll

21/08/11 “The Power of Kroll”
The weight of history is against you.
--The Doctor

Power of Kroll” starts off promisingly; all of the location filming contributes to atmosphere and setting to a degree that almost makes the execrable appearance of Kroll believable. However, when you get down to thinking about it, there just isn’t much of substance to this story. It’s a pleasant enough run around, but in comparison with the more enjoyable romps that preceded it, it’s a bit forgettable.

For one thing, “Kroll” makes a striking contrast with its male-dominated cast (Romana is the only female) and the more female-balanced “Stones of Blood.” Certainly this is symptomatic of the refinery base being male (which is plausible), but I was shocked and rather dismayed to see no female “Swampies” in the settlement. I just don’t understand the reason for this rather egregious neglect. The whole depiction of the Swampies is muddled, and in the end I feel like the viewer can only few sympathy for them as victims; as characters, especially as represented by Ranquin, they are superstitious fools who sacrifice “Dryfoots” for no logical reason. Their motivations to take over the refinery are understandable up to a point, but they seem more like vehicles for the plot rather than actual characters.

I can’t think of a huge number of Doctor Who stories that tackle the idea of imperialism (“Kinda” being the notable exception that proves the rule), but having been recently reading a great deal about the Western motifs, I couldn’t help viewing this story through that lens. The Swampies look like Edward Lear’s Jumblies to me; they’re green, male, and nearly nude. (Though I do wonder why the verdigris; if they were “rehoused” from Delta Magna, does that mean Delta Magna is covered in swamps? Or have they been on the moon long enough to acclimatize so well to the swamp environment that they have turned green?) Some of the design work in their settlement during the “Kroll!” dance looks vaguely tribal African, but in general I think that if one wants to draw the parallel, the Swampies are Robert Holmes’ version of Native Americans. I draw this parallel especially because the word that’s used is “reservation.” The Swampies get moved to the moon to get them out of the way on Delta Magna, because the dominant regime of humans can, and as soon as something valuable is discovered on the moon, they are to be shoved out of the way again (like Oklahoma Territory being the ultimate reservation in the nineteenth century American West). Also, the costuming reminded me of the breech-cloth controversy during the filming of Last of the Mohicans, in which activist Russell Means was playing Chingachgook and told the costume department that the Eastern tribes would never have worn breech-cloths that small.

However, Holmes must then have been channeling “The Aztecs,” for the Swampies seem to really have an ingrained desire for blood sacrifice. Even so, at least in “The Aztecs” it made a bit of sense; what was the point of Romana getting menaced by a faux Kroll-monster (other than the clever fake-out—“he probably looked more convincing from the front”)? If she was supposedly going to die anyway, why go to all the trouble of dressing up? Theirs is also not an oral history society (apparently), as in a sewer somewhere the Doctor and Romana stumble upon a sacred book (in actual book format!) that describes the mysterious comings and goings of Kroll, the giant squid. I couldn’t believe that the Doctor would just dump the book back down the chute, as well—where’s all the reverence for the written word that I talked about in my Unsilent Library essay?

As I said, Ranquin is the biggest problem, for his pigheaded stubbornness. Certainly the chip on his shoulder against the betrayal of the Dryfoots (and later, Rohm-Dutt) is understandable, but a Cochise or Geronimo he is not. The Swampie cause, supported as it is by the Sons of Earth, seems to get sidelined midway through by a criticism of religion that so often shows up in Doctor Who. In what must have seemed to Holmes a fitting bit of dramatic irony, in part four Ranquin gets murdered by his own god, which is actually a sentient beast, neither good nor evil. (Slightly less pointed than the vicar getting murdered by the Haemovores in “The Curse of Fenric,” but not by much.) Even as Ranquin’s own followers protest in Kroll’s complete absence of morality, instead recognizing that he (it?) strikes at random because he is an animal, the Swampie leader can’t be persuaded to see the truth—much like Reverend Matthews in “Ghost Light.” Two cases of panning Christianity in the 1980s; one case of panning a sort of pagan monotheism in the 1970s. Science, science must always be seen to come out on top in Doctor Who; in “The Aztecs,” while Barbara despaired of the Aztec blood sacrifice, she had nothing but approbation for the rest of their culture. The Swampies seem to have some very complicated rituals for killing people (including vines that stretch people out, which sounds more like the Spanish Inquisition)—one wonders how they find the time to dream all this up, especially when their sacred Kroll dance has such monotonous lyrics.

Thawn is the other side of Ranquin’s coin. He represents everything wrong with the British imperialist/Anglo-centric Roosevelt-Custer view of progress and native civilization. He is a caricature, one more outrageous in its single-mindedness than Todd from “Kinda.” The point is made with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but perhaps in the 1970s it needed to draw attention to itself. Nevertheless, there are more shades in the characters of the other refinery crewmembers, less black-and-white than those at the outpost on “Kinda”—Fenner and Harg basically share the same view point as Thawn, but less fanatical. We never find out how far Harg woud have gone to follow Thawn’s leadership, as he gets pulled down the pipes by Kroll as Fenner and Dugeen watch in rather impotent shock. Fenner ultimately redeems himself with a more than one-dimensional character, and while it is traditional to lament that Philip Madoc should have rounded out his Doctor Who career in this secondary villain role, he actually is the most interesting thing to watch on screen while the camera settles on the bleak and bleary set of the refinery. Dugeen is a sympathetic, rational character with perhaps hidden depths (if he wasn’t sleeping during his rest period, what was he doing?) who gets killed for his trouble and called a “plant for the Sons of Earth” and a “Swampie-lover.” Despite the range of character among these four, I find the scenes in the refinery quite tedious to watch, and it’s not helped by the Blake’s 7-esque lighting. Gun runner (a specialty of Holmes’!) Rohm-Dutt is similarly disappointing, a rather boring recycling of the Garron character from “Ribos Operation” and ultimately expendable.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like in the story. As I said, the location work is truly formidable. It makes the interior of the refinery look like “cardboard,” but it’s still wonderfully atmospheric and makes such a welcome change to the endless quarries and leafy forests. Attempts are made to get Kroll himself up to snuff, and they are about as successful as those in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” The idea of a refinery producing protein which it shoots into the atmosphere is great, and the Doctor twigging that the methane projections do not compute with the lake of that size is similarly solid. In fact, all the “hard” science seems to work quite well. It’s an environment that reminds me of the refinery in “Terror of the Zygons” as well as “Robots of Death.” The ending climax with depth charges doesn’t make as much sense, but the final resolution is an interesting one, forcing the imperialists to go home without causing major bloodshed. (Fenner is the last one left, at loose ends, though the Doctor’s suggestion to stay and “go native” seems a bit half-hearted.) The humans’ costumes are dull (were they made out of bathmats?).

Romana’s costume, on the other hand, is inspired—and has inspired, one would think, as it looks rather similar to the one Emma wears in “Curse of the Fatal Death.” In any case, she and the Doctor are eminently practical this time in their Wellies. Romana has less to do in this story than in some of the others. She gets captured a lot, and being tied up in the power of Rohm-Dutt seemed a lot scarier to me than anything Kroll could have done to her. She gets to make lots of witty retorts, showing even more how her character has progressed into breezy blasé having spent so much time with the Doctor. But that’s more or less it. Even the Doctor, though he makes daring canoe trips across the waters and achieves the final acquisition of the Key to Time (once again, a great flourish just bordering on deus ex machina), seems to be trying to keep the two factions from killing each other long enough to get Kroll to settle back down.

Nevertheless, one wonders what would have happened if the Doctor had never come to this moon and never retrieved the segment. Would the Swampies have been wiped out? Would they have risen against the humans and drove them out? Would Kroll have gotten too large and exploded, meaning there was an end to methane?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

White Guard

I’ll be honest—I had never heard of Bulgakov until a friend/former teacher gave me The Master and Margarita as a gift. What a wonderful introduction to what has become one of my favorite books of all time. However, I didn’t get to his first novel, White Guard, until just now . . . for no particular reason. Part of Bulgakov’s appeal, I feel, is his juxtaposition of deep, personally-held spirituality with the absurd (represented in The Master and Margarita by the earnest account by the Master of the historical Christ’s last days in AD 43 versus the satire of the Devil and his black cat in Moscow of the 1920s); and his beautiful, distinctive language, which is at times as close to poetry as prose can get, at other times, surprisingly cinematic. I don’t know if Bulgakov was a fan of cinema, but White Guard features cuts, splices, and dramatically visual flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem extremely ahead of his time.

The history of the novel is a bit strange. Begun as a novel, then adapted by the censors as a play which in its final cut became extremely popular (it was a marked favorite of Stalin’s), the original novel was ignored when finished and then hidden away for its political content until it was released in the Kruschev era, reinterpreted to suit the communist politics. White Guard tells the events of a few months in Kiev (always called The City) between 1918 and 1919 when the Germans, who had held the City during the War, flee along with their puppet Ukrainian governor the Hetman, in the wake of Ukrainian nationalist/socialist Petylura, whose reign lasts a few months, and is eventually to be pushed out by the feared Bolsheviks. Bulgakov’s political and ideological leanings are never entirely clear in this mystifying and atmospheric work; yet he tells the story of ordinary people, most of them part of this doomed traditionalist/czarist “White Guard” who would eventually disappear under the heel of Bolshevism(1).

The samovar is actually rather an important feature in the domestic interiors of the book, which take a place of precedence in part of the depiction of the doomed way of life of the White Russians. As all Russians novels seem to share this convention, there is a family at the heart of this story. It’s the Turbins, Dr. Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka. Elena’s husband Talberg is, as the introduction says, probably the least sympathetic character, and abandons his wife and her family to flee before Petylura arrives. Alexei and Nikolka are military men in the White Guard, joined by Myshlaevsky, Carp, and Shervinsky. In fact, most of the important characters in White Guard are, understandably, officers—Colonel Nai-Turs is another. Women in Bulgakov I have found somewhat problematic; they seem to be there to suffer stoically and support their men, and Elena is no exception.

As ever in Bulgakov, events don’t go in pure chronological order—there’s a wonderful dream sequence of Alexei’s with Sergeant-Major Zhilin in heaven. Sections are terrifically exciting, even if I’m not sure I understand all the political manoeuvring and chronology. Much is said about honor, and while some of the characters act in ways that are cowardly and sub-human, many of the characters act selflessly to save their colleagues and innocent people. The aftermath, where Nikolka goes to seek a body in a makeshift mortuary, is eerie and a terrible prologue to what’s to come.

(1) When I was researching my long poem about tea, I read an anecdote about how the White Russians drank vodka and lost; the communists drank tea and “won.” At the time I thought that showed how tea is a much better drink, but now I’m not so sure.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Company of the Courtesan

I’d been meaning to read something by Sarah Dunant for a long time. “Italy” (it wasn’t organized as that until the 19th century) in the 16th century isn’t a period of history I know very well, and since the book was a gift, I thought, why not? I have seldom read a book of historical fiction that is terrible; as a genre they tend to be a cut above other novels (at least to someone like me who has a predisposition for them in the first place). Likewise, it is untrue to say I have read many novels of historical fiction that were flawless (but Patrick O’Brian is a safe best). All of this is to say: I enjoyed this novel, and while the characters and the setting were engaging, the plot itself was a bit . . . let’s say, meandering, and like so many novels, it quite fell down on the ending.

The characters include the historically verifiable (poet and pornographer Pietro Aretino, the painter called Titian) and the obscure, the fictional—the heroine, Fiammetta Bianchini, and the narrator, Bucino Teoboldi. These two are selected from the ranks of the sordid and often ignored: Fiammetta is a courtesan (a Cardinal’s courtesan when the book begins in Rome) and Bucino is her business-partner dwarf. Both are appealing, interesting, and empathetic; their struggles are down-to-earth, and Bucino finds much about the otherwise otherworldly beauty of Venice to gripe about. There are wonderful period details about the codes of courtesans in Venice, and it is strictly of its time: Bucino befriends both Jews and Muslims but thinks, with regret, that they are going to Hell. He is not sure about himself, either, as being a deformed dwarf most people think he is a demon—or at least morally reprehensible—anyway.

Though the 18th century Venice of Scherzo could not be called prudish or refined, by comparison with In the Company of the Courtesan, it seems quite vanilla. The language here maintains, to quote a review on the back of the book, “gusty vulgarity.” There’s plenty of graphic slang and swear words and much remarking on bodily functions and conjunctions (that is, after all, Fiammetta’s trade). If you revel in that kind of thing, you won’t be taken aback, but to be honest it was a bit jarring at first. Bucino and Fiammetta’s road is likewise tough, barely escaping with their lives when they flee the sack of Rome (having swallowed jewels, and Fiammetta having had her hair hacked off by fanatical Protestants); they get conned and hoodwinked in Venice and find it challenging to practice their dishonourable but lucrative trade.

The secondary characters are less successful than the leads, and the plotting is not among its strengths, but for a solid and historical character study, you could do much worse.