Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Four Richards

The Four Richards

I kinda like English guys named Richard.

On the most facile, aesthetic level, I like a Leicester-born actor named Richard Armitage (who is in fact a bit of a Ricardian himself, and who admitted in a 2009 interview that The Sunne in Splendour was one of his favorite books).  His role in the BBC Robin Hood helped me become quite a fan of that show and even more interested in that period in history than I already was.  Through that, then, I turned to the first historical Richard, Coeur de Lion, “good King Richard,” and the book The Three Richards by Nigel Saul.

Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Richard I?  According to Michael Dobson, Shakespeare was attracted to write about crises of succession because he was living through one.  Richard I’s reign was unusual in many ways and passed, eventually, to his brother John.  However, this either doesn’t qualify as a crisis of accession, or the Renaissance idea of Richard I wasn’t sufficiently attractive, for in the other two Richards, Shakespeare paints very nuanced portraits.  Richard II and Richard III are deeply flawed individuals; the historical Richard I was, I believe, also deeply flawed but quite fascinating.  So it’s a shame Shakespeare didn’t have the time or inclination to follow the Plantagenet tree backwards (unlike Mike Walker, whose enjoyable radio epics on the Plantagenets and the Stuarts are among the best BBC Radio 4 has to offer). 

Richard III and Hamlet are my two favorite Shakespeare plays and, perhaps not coincidentally, the two longest.   I really love Richard III.  I completely fell in love with the villainous Richard as portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1955 film, the love of the damned for Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the one you love to hate and hate to love.  But I’m also very interested in the historical Richard and was quite excited and moved when they found his remains last year.  I was not disappointed to find out that he did have a spinal condition; somehow the pathos of the heroic (if you’re a Ricardian) historical Richard fighting and riding around on horseback despite what must have been intense pain and dying at 32 just makes me admire him more.  Recently on a trip to the Tower I insisted that Henry Tudor had the most to gain from killing the Princes. 

Richard II is less the out-and-out villain in Richard III nor is he the beloved Lionheart received in popular culture as gospel truth.  I remember reading the play for the first time nearly 10 years ago and feeling a great deal of pity for Richard II.  I’m a great practitioner of empathy, and trying to imagine what it must be like to be toppled from your birthright always seemed a pretty bitter fate for Richard II.  Dobson has argued that Shakespeare, in his portrayal, is saying that the taking of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, is justified because it gives us a Lancastrian and then Tudor dynasty:  the ends justify the means?  Helen Castor is also at pains to suggest to us that Richard II’s headstrong flouting of his uncle John of Gaunt’s advice, his taxation strategies, and his misuse of favorites contribute to the justification for his usurpation.  The ends justify the means?

The historical Richard III is censured (never mind the Shakespeare one, whose crimes are myriad) because it is widely believed he murdered his innocent nephews in attempting to secure his succession.  If the rest of his actions are not considered to be reprehensible in the great medieval field of war, then what makes Richard II, in choosing poor advisers and being an advocate for peace, and Richard III, no more bloodthirsty than your average Yorkist, bad kings and Richard I a good king?  As the play Richard II is at pains to point out, medieval kings were believed to be anointed by God.  Therefore, as Saul points out in The Three Richards, advisers and council were key to the reign of a medieval English king.  However, if the advice was poor, the King was not to blame—it was the advisers who were shunted off-stage.  I don’t know enough to comment on Richard I’s court, but I expect it was his own counsel that sent him off to the Crusades and in the meantime, led him to stage a revolt on Cyprus and have a whirlwind wedding to Berengaria of Navarre there, and to take incautious measures as regarded Leopold of Austria, which is perhaps why he ended up in Leopold’s dungeon.  However, none of this is ever regarded as Richard I’s “fault.”  As a stirring leader of men and no doubt a superb strategist and warrior, he was perhaps most like Shakespeare’s Henry V.  But the perception is that Richard I went it alone, without advisers, and very little is ever said of his rather stupid decision not to wear armor as he walks the battlements of a castle in France, which ultimately leads to his death. 

The Shakespeare Richard III, at least, keeps his own counsel, and even when he speaks to the audience, he’s putting on a performance.  Only in his nightmares is he really, perhaps, for a few moments, himself.  So his evil deeds can’t be shunted off to advisers; it wasn’t Buckingham who told Richard to bring down the Lancastrians.   Yet Richard I is deemed heroic, Richard III is deemed evil, and Richard II is seen as vain and easily swayed by hapless favorites (who get murdered anyway, not unlike all the Woodvilles in Richard III).  Moreover, both Richard I and Richard III were warlike.  Richard I was, as far as we can tell, more cultured; he came from a southern French background and therefore loved tourneys and troubadours.  Richard II was cultured and resplendent.  He was by far the best-dressed king of his era and extant portraits of him make him the most depicted English monarch before Henry VIII.  For whatever motives, the historical Richard II was not a war-mongerer.  He sued for peace.  What’s more, he loved Wife #1 and Wife #2.  That in appearance he was effeminate is well-known; what is less well-known is that when his remains were measured, he was found to have been over 6 foot and strongly built.  Moreover, it’s Richard I whom XX believes may have been bisexual, rather than Richard II.

So what makes a good king?  And what makes a good human being? 

I may not like the historical Richard III getting the bad rap or Shakespeare’s Bolingbroke getting away with ousting Richard II because the ends justified the means, but that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the play. 

David Tennant, is, by the way, over 6 ft, but there the physical resemblance to the historical Richard ends. The director (Gregory Doran), the designer (Stephen Brimson Lewis), and/or Tennant himself have decided to emphasize Richard's effeminacy by giving him long lustrous auburn locks that, coupled with Tennant's angular face and slight build, seems very strange at first. It made me wonder, in I, 4, as Richard was changing his raiments, if his favorites Bagot, Bushy, and Greene employed themselves at brushing his Rapunzel-like hair every night. I jest; it was also that scene, as Richard held out the long carpet of hair to change clothes, that I found it all rather sexy.

Nice clothes were important to the historical Richard, and the costumes here reflected that. The historical Richard's robes dazzled with gold and jewels, but the Tennant Richard, in I, 1, looked positively radiant in white. He had other memorable costume changes, wearing a light aquamarine in III, 2, and presaging the Sun King in a dazzling golden breastplate and shining crown as he literally ascended from heaven in III, 3.

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out of the fiery portal of the East,
When her perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident.
Yet he looks like a king. (III, 3, 61-68)

It's no coincidence that all of these moments resonate as emotional highs. The opening scene of this play was unimaginably well-staged. A chorus of absolutely amazing a capella singers entered stage left from a level high above the stage and set the sonic stage for the medieval world. Trumpeters entered from the same level stage right. In the middle, Westminster Abbey—made of light, looking both luminous and substantive—appeared like a dream. The wafts of incense, however, were what did it for me (though apparently they caused the audience to all start coughing). This was time travel: we entered the medieval world in that scene.

The singers and trumpeters helped with further scene transitions. None of the other sets were as impressive as Westminster Abbey, but scudding clouds and blood-red moons did help to set the tone in the later acts. The dungeon cell in Pomfret Castle emerged from the bowels of the stage floor pretty impressively. Minimalism was the name of the game in III, 2, though this was easily one of the finest scenes. Like many parts of the play, it surprised me with its humor. In reading the text, I got very little sense of laughter in this play. However, having no doubt pored over this, the cast made every effort lighten the mood even a little by drawing our humor in unexpected places. The bittersweet quality of this scene, as Richard lands in Wales from Ireland to find out his country has crumbled beneath him, gives what Doran sees as the essence of Shakespeare: “a passport through life—a 360 degree view of what it is to be human.” Tennant acted beautifully here.

There was certainly a sense of a journey, from the Richard who began in Act I with a voice taken up half an octave higher than Tennant's normal voice, to his pawing, crawling, rocking, bewildered acting in III, 2. It was here, too, that this production decided to make its mark. Shenanigans with Bushy, Greene, and Bagot aside, Richard's cousin Aumerle is his solely loyal ally in the play. Cast as a young, attractive man (Oliver Rix), Aumerle's devotion to Richard and vice versa is explained—perhaps too easily—as mutual romantic/sexual love. What does their kiss mean to them?

The producers have decided to run with their idea, however, and symbolically conclude it by changing the identity of Richard's murderer from Sir Piers Exton to Aumerle, literally stabbing his best beloved in the back. I suppose this has more dramatic satisfaction than Exton, who had not yet even appeared in the play until V, 4. Unsurprisingly, Richard's scene in prison is very moving; his jailers not content with incarcerating him, they have also chained him up (though I mistook for the tune Richard hears for a mobile ring tone).

Sometimes am I king,
And then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king . . . (V, 5, 32-35)

But to backtrack slightly. Probably the most dramatically satisfying scene was IV, 1, when Richard at last submits the crown to Bolingbroke. For me, it was hard to sympathize much with Bolingbroke, though he was well-played by Nigel Lindsay as quite a no-nonsense guy. This quite physical staging of the scene ended with Bolingbroke stepping upon and grinding to powder the glass Richard asked be brought to him. Tennant really used the stage, by then attired in a white robe and with bare feet, clearly evoking a martyr. Like all of Tennant's costumes, the cut was roughly historical but the fabric and the details were not, resulting in a not-unpleasant “no time or any time” feel.

Although, as most of the plays are, this was a man's play, there were some good if small roles for women. Marty Cruickshank brought desperately needed humor as the Duchess of York. Although the Duchess of Gloucester's speeches on paper seem quite beautiful, I don't remember much about the distingushed Jane Lapotaire's performance. Reading the Queen's speeches in print, I found her to be a very sad queen, prophesying doom but genuinely loving and standing by her husband. Emma Hamilton's performance filled her with a warmth I had not seen on the page. Her absolutely beautiful costumes, though subject to the same conditions as Richard's, underlined her role as regal but ultimately powerless consort to the ruler. The scene when the Queen is sent off to France was heartbreaking.

QUEEN: Banish us both, and send the king with me.
NORTHUMBERLAND: That were some love, but little policy.
QUEEN: Then whither he goes, thither let me go. (V, 1, 82-85)

Richard II is odd in some ways as its structure allows for very few of the clown scenes that you come to expect with Shakespeare. The only one that approaches this is the Gardener and the Servants, which even then is tinged with pathos; I thought Joshua Richards did a great job with this small but crucial role.

This was a very interesting and enjoyable play. Now I'm very curious to know how Tennant would play the other Richard, Richard III.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Day of the Doctor (SPOILERS!)

30/11/13 “Day of the Doctor” 
I’ve had many faces, many lives, some I don't admit to.” –The Doctor

I watch few Doctor Who stories more than once if they are available on iPlayer. I'm uncertain why. I don't want to spoil the magic? Ruin my first impressions? Whatever the case may be, I made an exception with “Day of the Doctor” because my feelings toward it verged on the manic depressive. I was so excited during broadcast that every single thing made me gasp for breath (even the things that, right off the bat, annoyed me). I missed things because I was watching with another fan and had to express whatever I was feeling. Immediately after it finished, I felt depressed, not necessarily because of the story itself (though a few things disappointed me, naturally enough!) but because a year's worth (or more) of anticipation was over. (That's how I get with Christmas, too.) This turned into a general malaise with the story, which I thought was probably unfair. The only way to give it a fair hearing, and express myself with some fluency and intelligence (though, perhaps, saying nothing new) was to watch it again.

My general impression after the second viewing is positive. There are several logistical problems and some matters of taste, but overall, I consider it a success, especially when one remembers the enormous pressures on this to be the “be-all, end-all,” once-in-lifetime multi-Doctor special. I suspect we will look back on it with increasing fondness, though, like all stories, there will come a period when we all despise it!

Day of the Doctor” knew its strengths and its limitations. Its limitations included complete practical inability to fit eleven (twelve?) actors who once played the Doctor in any meaningful sense into one, slightly-longer-than-an-hour family-friendly special with any kind of coherency and intelligence (not to mention, three of these actors were dead!). It tipped its hat to this ritual, but was not self-indulgent to do more (however much that disappointed me, on the fannish level). In the end, its approach to this was remarkably like that of Big Finish in The Four Doctors, which is one of the best, if not the best, multi-Doctor story yet produced. It could not either—despite fanciful stretches of my imagination to the contrary—fit in every single companion the Doctor ever had. Therefore, it played to its strengths: a comparatively big budget for CGI; two well-beloved, keen actors willing to share with a third guest star and recreate “The Three Doctors” all over again; tastes of the show's mythology (some might say a bit too much of that, and a bit too much rewriting!); and snappy and concise in-jokes in dialogue for the fans that wouldn't bother the casual viewers.

I will try to keep this review more sophisticated than an “ooh I liked that, I hated that,” though this story is more personal than most.

The first twenty seconds were inspired and guaranteed to make a fan wet themselves. Thank you, O Lord, for giving this anniversary special the original theme tune and opening title sequence rather than that monstrosity that had been lurching from our screens last year. The fade-in from black-and-white, the policeman, Totters Lane, Coal Hill School, all of it was an enjoyable summation of going home from where we'd started—though the inner fan was naturally disappointed when (as far as we can tell) nothing more self-referential was going on other than Clara had a new job at Coal Hill School (what was she teaching, anyway? You can quote Marcus Aurelius in just about any context). This was the first of my logistical “huh?” moments as, forgive me if I missed something, I thought we ended the last cliffhanger with the Eleventh Doctor and Clara in Trenzalore? I confess to being completely confused. That is not a comfortable vantage point from which to sit.

More pros and cons awaited me. I loved the visual reference to the TV Movie as Clara rode her motorbike into the TARDIS where she was met by the Doctor. I hated that she could click her fingers and close the TARDIS (I have never liked that, dare I say it, trope). Fortunately, things improved vastly with the distinctive notes of Murray Gold's UNIT theme tune. If Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart wasn't going to be in it, then damn it, at least Kate Stewart was! She is a charming and wonderful New Who character, with faint traces of Harriet Jones (before “The Christmas Invasion”). I have mixed feelings about her daughter Osgood. (I was confused when she first appeared on the scene at the Tower and thought she was Kate's younger sister.) On one level, I feel I'm being made fun of. Osgood is the prototypical fan girl. She has a Tom Baker scarf; not Tom Baker's actual scarf, not a handknitted one, the commercial one you've been able to buy for the past few years, presumably since cosplay and younger fan girls became more mainstream. She's got a lab coat but she's no Liz Shaw. She's got glasses and is clearly dorky. For one thing, it seems a bit nepotistic for Kate to have her daughter working with her in UNIT. What is Osgood's function? To “wish” for the Doctor to come and save her! She's his fan girl! Many of my friends (who happen to be female and have been fans for thirty years) have often daydreamed about being whisked away in the TARDIS. Somehow I feel the inclusion of someone who's supposed to represent “us” is mocking rather than inclusive. Maybe I'm being oversensitive and not taking it in the correct generous spirit. And the name implies that like Clara/Oswin, she's another of the Vast Toffee's feminine puzzles to unravel. When the Zygon double mentions that Osgood's sister is prettier than her, I wondered if she was actually, secretly, Clara's sister? I have a feeling this is another sleight-of-hand that's going to come back to haunt us.

But back to the positives. The overhead shots as the UNIT helicopter transports the TARDIS to the National Gallery were duly impressive (and I'm just kicking myself that I wasn't in Trafalgar Square to see this filmed). (I thought the Doctor was going to fall out of the TARDIS and that was going to be the major dilemma of the story—the Eleventh Doctor's life flashing before his eyes before he regenerated??) As the Doctor and Clara are explained away as a Derren Brown stunt, Clara is incredulous that the Doctor ever had a job (aren't we all?).

One thing that I have to rave about in this story is its elevation of visual artwork and the written word. Great stuff for the watching multitudes of teeny kiddies. It's set in the NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, for crying out loud! Mind you, there is a precedent: the Sarah Jane Adventure story “Mona Lisa's Revenge” which I found extraordinary at the time, giving, as it did, real life and soul to oil paintings, via alien mineral pigments. The Vast Toffee takes this in a slightly direction, personifying in No More aka Gallifrey Falls the Fall of Arcadia—“a slice of real time.” This was where the budget was well-spent, giving us a beautiful and wholly convincing 3-D image. Well-done.

I about had a heart attack as we went into the painting because inside I was screaming, “Nooooooo, I want the Time War to be a mystery, no no no no!” (And in GARAMOND, too!) Fortunately, despite the unashamed chance to blow the budget once more on scenes of cinematic sophistication that would have made Waris Hussein cry in 1963, the Vast Toffee restrained himself and only gave us a bit of the Time War. Phew. It's still (mostly) a mystery. Who are all these Gallifreyans, by the way? They don't seem to be Time Lords. They don't seem to be Shobogans.

Last time we saw the War Doctor (that's what I'm calling him; sniff in distaste if you will), he looked a bit like Ian Holm playing young Bilbo in Fellowship of the Ring with his forehead taped back not to show the wrinkles, reflected in the Ring. Countless years later, his costume has changed from the one McGann gave him, and he looks even more war-torn than the Ninth Doctor (with good reason). Arriving on Gallifrey, the War Doctor used words once again as his weapon, which totally made me geek out. “NO MORE.”

Now someone, please tell me where this bit of the Fall of Arcadia fits in with what we saw of Rassilon and the Master and the Doctor's mother (or whoever she was) in “The End of Time”? In the Time Lord War Chamber, the Time Lord generals (with interesting costumes) note a break-in in their weapon storage. “We've used them all against the Daleks.” (That Doctor, always breaking and entering.) The War Doctor has stolen the Galaxy-Eater, and he's taken it . . . to a barn? To Trenzalore? WTF?

I was incredibly careful about not spoiling myself on the special. The only facts I could not shield myself from where I knew that David Tennant was back, and I was pretty sure Billie Piper was back. However, I did not realize—nor did anyone?--that she was playing the interface to the Galaxy-Eater. For those who hate Rose (I am not one of them), satisfied? It's not bloody Rose, she's gone all Idris-like (which annoyed me, quite frankly, at first). Then I quite liked the idea that the interface took Rose's shape. I liked it on several levels. I remember waaaay back in 2006, in my review of “The Parting of the Ways”--well, I was then and am still a hearty Nine/Rose shipper. There was something burning and sacred in their unspoken love (in my opinion), manifest in the kiss and her incarnation as Bad Wolf. I speculated in that review on why the Doctor had fallen in love with Rose (the most obvious example of his espousing romantic love; shippers have drawn their own conclusions, of course, about previous pairings). I said something about why did Heathcliff love Cathy? Because she was Cathy. She wasn't a very good person, neither was he, but there was something linking them. Now I feel a bit vindicated, because if “Rose” was implanted into the Doctor's subconscious, the Bad Wolf is there somewhere, and that's why he fell in love with her. I also like it because it means they got around having to write Rose back into the series (and I think that character's gone as far as she can go). “The interface is hot.” “Well, I do my best.”

I confess, once all the literature kept telling us, “And introducing John Hurt as the Doctor,” I wasn't sure if I would like him as the War Doctor. I know he's a good actor, but I just wasn't sure he would fit the part. Approximately when he told the Interface “I have no desire to survive this,” I realized he would be fine, great, even. “Then that's your punishment,” the Interface told him, as Murray Gold's “The Doctor's Theme” played softly in the background. SOB. Then the Interface said, “I'm opening windows on your future,” which felt very A Christmas Carol as the Interface is a little bit of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (that Charles Dickens, influencing science fiction for centuries to come!).

Back in the present-day (?), the Eleventh Doctor, the Doctor has seen Elizabeth I's credentials (and a rather underwhelming portrait of her and David Tennant), been told he's the Curator of the Under Gallery (what is it with the Vast Toffee and Under-things?), and I find it a bit hard to believe that in more than four hundred years, Elizabeth's private art collection has not needed the Doctor before now? Also, what does Elizabeth I deem “too dangerous” art-wise? Isn't that like censorship? We have a flashback (or flashforward, or something?) to 1562. “Why am I wasting my time with you?” asks Elizabeth I. “I'm not English,” says David Tennant. I wondered briefly how easily we could shift back into Tenth Doctor mode, which, let's be honest, was written mostly by Russell T Davies not Steven Moffat. The answer is: very easily (“It's a machine that goes ding!” and the parody of his speech from “Voyage of the Damned,” “ . . . basically just a rabbit, aren't you? . . . carry on . . . just a general warning . . .”). The other question is, why does the Vast Toffee like to have David Tennant riding horses? (Unless that was written in as a response to certain quarters of fandom and their reaction to “The Girl in the Fireplace”?) The real problem is the characterization of Elizabeth I. I don't know that New Who has had a good track record with female historical celeb of the month (unless it's just me). I disliked the portrayal of Queen Victoria, and while Agatha Christie was okay, Elizabeth I really disappointed me. I think I could have almost believed her to be the flippant, lovestruck flibbertigibbit presented here if she was still a princess. 1562 is still relatively early in her reign, but I think the portrayal owes more to BlackAdder than to anything else. That version of “Queenie” is hilarious but not good for promoting even very vague historical accuracy! Sure, you can argue we'd all be melting goo if dating the Tenth Doctor, but I had higher hopes for Elizabeth after the hints we were going to get them getting hitched. (I can't tell you how many pieces of artwork I saw on deviantART by fans, and they were really good. I'd much rather believe in their interpretation of events than what we saw here.)

After realizing Elizabeth wasn't a princess, I thought maybe she was acting strangely because she was a Zygon. Oh, yes, by the way, Zygons! How happy must David Tennant have been to find out he was facing off against Zygons?! Although they are not my favorite monster, this was an excellent surprise, even better than the Macra in “Gridlock” (after all, the Macra were only glimpsed). I was impressed at how little updating the Zygons needed. Come to think of it, I've enjoyed every Zygon story I've ever heard and/or read (Sting of the Zygons, The Zygon Who Fell to Earth, etc).

Back at the Under-Gallery thingee, the Doctor has met Osgood, whom he doesn't recognize as a fan girl despite her scarf-- “I've always wanted to meet someone called yes.” He wants reports from her about the dust in the gallery (my first thought was Weeping Angels!) in TRIPLICATE! :-D I practically had a spasm when Kate showed the Eleventh Doctor and Clara that something had gotten out of the painting. Total freak-out! Now, why did Kate stop Clara from going into the time portal? Was she already a Zygon duplicate? Codename Cromer and “ the '70s or the '80s” certainly raised a chuckle.

The Tenth and Eleventh Doctor together are charming (except for the bit with the sonic screwdrivers. Just STAAAAP). “That is proper skinny,” Eleven says of Ten. “That's like a special effect!” At this point, Ten has the two Elizabeths. “I'm not judging you,” Eleven says. Very enjoyable was the Mounting of the Specs. The addition of the War Doctor was hilarious and very poignant as his frustration with his successors' flippancy seemed very natural but also a rather touching way for the production team to address real criticism from some fans on the youth and levity of the more recent Doctors. The War Doctor has a point. The other Doctors also have a point. Why can't we all just get along?!

Are you his companions? They get younger all the time,” the War Doctor says cheerfully. “Am I having a midlife crisis?!” he asks, very understandably, once he realizes he is seeing his future selves. He criticizes the constant sonic screwdriver use that has become common. “They're not water pistols! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?” There is a brief and rather disappointing run-in with the Elizabethan authorities which gets the Doctors taken to the Tower. The War Doctor is also aghast at “timey wimey?! . . . Are you capable of speaking without flapping your arms about? . . . Grandad??!” Put in the same cell in the Tower, the three Doctors are having a moment not unlike the Tenth Doctor and Jack in “Utopia.” Certainly the Eleventh Doctor is scoring a code into a stone pillar.

In the present-day, Kate (not real Kate!) is taking Clara to the Tower, the Black Archive, where it seems she's been before and had her memory erased (Captain Jack, eat your heart out). I thought “Americans, with the ability to rewrite history? You've seen their movies” was a bit of low blow! Kate is producing Captain Jack's vortex manipulator, the Black Archive is alien tech that the Doctor is not supposed to know about (did Torchwood Canary Wharf and Torchwood Cardiff have their collections, if there was anything left, transferred here?). There's a very graphic transformation from Kate into Zygon as they wait to get the code to the vortex manipulator, which the Doctor knows they have and is even then (even then?!?!) scraping into the stone pillar for discovery four hundred years later). There's a tiny glimpse of companions (including Kamelion?!?).

The War Doctor wants to use his sonic screwdriver to open the low-tech door, “help to pass the timey wimey? Do you have to talk like children?” The Eleventh Doctor says some garbage about his age, “1200 and something—I can't remember if I'm lying about my age.” “I don't know who you are,” the War Doctor says to his future selves. The Interface has followed him, unseen by anyone but him. Clara then arrives and opens the unlocked door? Or something? She has outwitted the Zygons and taken the vortex manipulator, but it's only good for a one-way trip. Elizabeth Zygon arrives and finally earns a bit of respect from me, having actually killed and outwitted her Zygon double and allowing the Doctor(s) and Clara in on the plan. Then Elizabeth wants to get wed to her Doctor, as he promised her (“the Virgin Queen, so much for history!”). Elizabeth has been kissing the Tenth Doctor a lot, which is a bit annoying but I don't think the Eleventh can really talk considering he's kissed a lot more people (and with less consent) than Ten. “Is there a lot of this in the future?” asks the War Doctor. Methinks when the Tenth Doctor says, “I'll be right back,” he probably never sees Elizabeth again until the meeting (was it 1591?) with Martha and Shakespeare.

We get an enjoyable trip down memory lane as the TARDIS goes into different modes due to the different Doctors. “It's his grunge phase, he'll get over it.” “The round things—I love the round things!” I was disappointed, though, as I thought they were going to go back all the way to the first Console Room. “You've redecorated—don't like it,” said Ten to Eleven. The Doctors speak, via space time telegraph, to Kate Stewart at the Black Archive, along with her associates and the Zygon doubles. Osgood was able to rescue the real Kate who now wants to put on the self-destruct for the Tower which will, of course, destroy London. The War Doctor has the great idea to be transported in through the Gallifrey painting via the cube things that create the slice-of-time paintings. “What is Cup o' Soup?”

Clara is the only one immune to the power of three Doctors. “Show-off.” The Doctors try to convince Kate/Zygon that it's not right to “murder millions to save billions.” I thought this point was beautifully illustrated in Deimos/The Resurrection of Mars. They cause Kate and Zygons to have to work the situation out peacefully by making them all forget who is human and who is Zygon. As a diffusion of self-destruct, it seemed a bit feeble, but at least it was non-violent. Meanwhile, the War Doctor was resting (and drinking Cup o'Soup? Tea?). There's something about a Cyberman head that's significant . . . I read a review that said the person wasn't convinced that Clara knew the Doctor well enough to have moral authority she asserts here over the War Doctor and later over the Twelfth Doctor. Sure, she's somehow been split through his timeline, but likewise, I'm not convinced. I like Clara, but it doesn't wash for me. “You're the Doctor, too” (causing a million headaches for fans). “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” The War Doctor is very loveable because of his humility (not something the Doctor is known for), which yet seems like it could have very easily be born of the Eighth Doctor.

The War Doctor goes off to hit the big red button, but the other Doctors and Clara follow him. (How??) “Make it worthwhile,” the War Doctor pleads with them. The other Doctors, somewhat sappily, have come to join him so he doesn't have to make the decision alone. “Never cruel of cowardly, never give up, never give in.” It did rock my sox to hear that! “We change history all the time,” notes the Eleventh Doctor, thus the incredible conceit takes place that the Doctors are going to hide Gallifrey inside one of these cubee things so that the Daleks fleet will annihilate itself and it will look to the outside world as if Gallifrey has been destroyed. This plan irked me exceedingly on first watch, but now I accept it as an okay solution to an extremely distressing problem that might have seriously screwed up some kids' minds if they'd actually watched DR WHO destroy his own planet to save the universe. “We'd be lost in another universe”--E-Space? Or something? It's audacious, and I admit it still rankles a bit because it makes some of the power of Eight, the War Doctor, and Nine diffused by their fixing this problem (yes, I know they said they wouldn't remember, but I REMEMBER, DAMMIT).

Anyway, off the Doctors go in their TARDISes to enact their magic, irritating the Time Lords in their War Chamber a bit. Then there's the truly WTF moment, multiplied by thirteen. I accept that the War Doctor, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors are doing this (I even accept that the Twelfth Doctor is doing it). HOW do the other, earlier Doctors know and how are they even allowed to? I can't write this one. I can't explain it. Can someone, please? Anyway, I admit I did have a heart attack with the Capaldi teaser, and while I was disappointed at the minor inclusion of the other Doctors (why do it at all, if that's all you've got), as I said at the beginning of the review, it kinda ticked some boxes. “Geronimo!” “Allons-y!” “For God's sake, Gallifrey stands!” They don't know if they've succeeded, however.

They defuse the tension by drinking a nice cup of tea back in “present-day” in the Under-Gallery. We still don't know how the painting got to Earth, but I suspect it's another Vasty thread that might someday get tied up. The Tenth Doctor leaves by saying, “I don't want to go,” which is rather hilarious. “He always says that.” The War Doctor creates the the manic depressive spike in mood o' all time for me when he gets into his TARDIS, announces he's wearing a bit thin, and proceeds to regenerate. Then. There. To Nine. WHAAAAA? And then you have to dangle this carrot in front of me, this ever-so-beautiful carrot, that, as an extra-special, even-better-than-Paul-McGann-in-the-mini-sode surprise, Christopher Eccleston was actually going to come back for thirty seconds. DAMN YOU.

Clara asks the Eleventh Doctor if he wants to be alone with his painting and shoves off, while there's another surprise in store. The Eleventh Doctor meets the Curator, who is Tom Baker looking dapper and extremely mysterious. Good Lord! That was a good surprise! “I never forget a face.” “I can only tell you what I would do. Perhaps I was you. Perhaps you were me. Who knows, eh? Who knows?” Right, I know I was talking about excessive cheese. The Fourth Doctor is by no means my favorite Doctor (though I don't have favorites). Yet I LOVED THIS and cannot say it stunk of cheese. I don't care if it's explained in story terms (the Watcher is still suitably vague); this moment was like “Time Crash” when David Tennant told Peter Davison (before he was his father-in-law!!) that “you were my Doctor.” Doesn't make any sense in the story, but it was real. So is this Curator scene. The chemistry is uber-out-of-this-world. Thank you, Tom, for coming back in a big way. Err, and yes, the Curator tells the Eleventh Doctor that the title of the painting is Gallifrey Falls No More.

Home, the long way round,” is a wonderful coda to this piece. I kind of hope the Doctor doesn't find Gallifrey, but maybe home means something else to the Doctor, even if he doesn't know it?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Day of the Daleks

23/11/13 “Day of the Daleks” 
I'd heard good things about this story, especially its short running length! Unfortunately, I've got to relegate it to the ever-increasing pile of somewhat tedious Pertwee stories. Not his fault, really. There's still a lot of affection for Pertwee era stories, and I wonder if that will change as those who watched him in original broadcast age?

This is an unfortunate story for Jo, who really gets to do nothing of value, and rather a depressing story for the Doctor, who gets to be a glutton and a violent killer. It's also not a particularly distinguished story for the Brigadier or UNIT in general. It casts Yates in a particularly bad light as he uses his rank to banish Benton, who is quite sweetly flirting with Jo Grant and also just wants to have a little wine and cheese. The Doctor sitting around in a country house pigging out (and drinking wine!!) is quite uncharacteristic behavior (Gorgonzola?!).

Jo being frightened by ghosts is demeaning, especially since this follows “The Daemons” where the Doctor annoyingly keeps going on about “science, not sorcery” in a patronizing fashion and then teases everyone with talk of ghosts. Jo seems ill-informed (she should know who Styles is and shouldn't need the Brigadier to exposition-ize for her). She is disappointingly trusting of the Controller in the future, deciding to bide her time by eating grapes. Her wardrobe malfunctions are hardly her fault, but then again, why did she leave her house dressed like that?

Sir Reginald Styles, the UN diplomat and peacekeeper, is not allowed to become interesting, so his stand-offish behavior becomes a mere plot contrivance and another one in the annoying list of Pertwee obstructions. His behavior is believable enough in context, but we never get to know him. I like the Ogrons, and they are introduced here, though the need for the Daleks to use them at all is a bit mystifying.

The central idea is an interesting one (predictably Jo believes that the guerrillas are horrible people). The beginning in the Doctor's lab feels a bit “Inferno,” though this time it's Jo and not Liz, but the time distortion Jo experiences is never really explained. The guerillas themselves have little to distinguish them from their counterpart Thals in “Genesis of the Daleks” some time later, but the fact that a woman is given a prominent role feels like some progress. The on location filming is a nice touch though extremely obvious in the switch between film and video. The updated special effects seem to have been integrated seamlessly.

As the return of the Daleks not seen for many years in Doctor Who, it's at least nice that this adventure comes in a merciful four parts (and I prefer it to “Planet of the Daleks”). “Hide” appears to have been modeled directly on this story and so, to a lesser extent, does The Doll of Death.

The Happiness Patrol

23/11/13 “The Happiness Patrol”

So, that's it, the last McCoy story I hadn't seen before. “The Happiness Patrol” tends to polarize people, but then all Doctor Who stories go in and out of fashion. I think I liked this story less than I did “Paradise Towers,” which was similar in many ways, but then again, it took me awhile to appreciate “Paradise Towers.” Like “Paradise Towers,” “The Happiness Patrol” has an obsession with studio sets and go-karts. Although the city on Terra Alpha is supposed to be artificial, the studio sets and the bright lights—always the bane of the '80s—make it quite unconvincing. The “teaser”--the scene with Daphne S being arrested—strikes one as an immediate candidate for the successful application of the film noir techniques the director wanted to use. However, I don't know if the whole thing would have succeeded in this way without drastic changes to the costumes, which would make no sense in black and white.

These things are, let's face it, largely superficial to the story (though many fans didn't see it that way). And as a story, I think this proves that McCoy era Doctor Who does unfortunately suffer from condensing together of what can be confusing or at the very least challenging material. It's not often you say that a story from Classic Who needs another episode, but “Happiness Patrol” and “Ghost Light” are desperately in need of same. Although its problems are not nearly as bad as in boring, repetitive, interminable “Terminus,”' there are some very imaginative ideas that just don't gel in execution. The Pipe People actually look quite cool, I thought, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying, and there wasn't enough background on them to make them particularly sympathetic. McCoy era Doctor Who seems to have a monopoly in “cool” American characters who for me are far more glaring in their falseness than Peri not really being American. Earl, for example, screams disaffected Cartmel Masterplan to me, and the fact that the actor is not particularly good robs the idea of any permanence. Even Pex seemed more believable. And the parallels were also rampant with “Dragonfire,” with the rather grating philosophers being transferred to a discussion on consenting to violence:

The Doctor : "Of course he will. That's what guns are for. Pull a trigger. End a life. Simple, isn't it?'"
Sniper 1 : Yes.
The Doctor : "Makes sense, doesn't it?"
Sniper 1 : "Yes."
The Doctor : "A life, killing life."
Sniper 2 : "Who are you?"
The Doctor : "Shut up. Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life."
Sniper 1 : "No."
The Doctor : "Why not?"
Sniper 1 : "I can't."
The Doctor : "Why not?"
Sniper 1 : "I don't know."
The Doctor : "You don't, do you?”

These characters and their drop-ins via Beckett are okay singly, but crop up so frequently as to be annoying. I prefer these guys to the Alvaro and Tulloch ones.

The Kandy Man is a mixed bag. Not being familiar with Bertie Bassett, I can't comment on that level of design, but it is a very bold design and, as mentioned by the writer, Graeme Curry, it has a sheen of fairy-tale-like quality to it that wouldn't be out of character with Moffat-era Doctor Who. Kandy Man's voice is freaky in the extreme, but the fact that the costume hinders his movement so visibly, and the fact that he's disabled so easily and repeatedly by the Doctor using fizzy lemonade—it really detracts from any real menace. That said, the candy kitchen set is amazing, and the Kandy Man's underexplored relationship with his creator, Gilbert M, is thrillingly sinister. The fondant surprise mode of death is actually disappointing for being such a favorite of Helen A's.

Obviously Doctor Who at this stage could not depict the kind of uprising from the factories that was implicit in the script (it could barely depict a town square and a forum). Its ideas are a bit too big for its frame. The factory drones (killjoys) who remove their black top hats and diaphanous coverings seemed to be referencing the Batcave a bit too late!

Surprisingly, this is not a great story for Ace. She threatens a lot but doesn't do much. She gets to be incredibly outraged, but due to the shortness of the story, she does a lot of escaping and then getting drafted back into the Happiness Patrol, which diminishes her effectiveness—why even bother with her character if that's all she's going to contribute?--and also lessens how much you might fear that the Happiness Patrol mean business. They were disappointing overall. Despite the fact they carried guns, their mobile prison idea didn't quite work as there never seemed to be real consequences. And there was obviously some kind of scene missing when Ace met Susan Q. The costumes are a car crash that I feel I can't look away from. How interesting would this story be if it was made for Eleven and Clara? What would the costumes look like then? Would it be a dose of “The Beast Below?”
I had mixed feelings about the Doctor in this story, too. His power in this story was quite frightening in a way. He brought down a regime in 24 hours, but he did so (at least as far as we know) based only on a few hours' observation. Of course, as he told Ace, he had heard rumors about Terra Alpha, so perhaps his mind had already been made up. The Doctor's attempt at “As Time Goes By” and his encouraging laughter at the Happiness Patrol rang dispiritedly false. It was one of the few times I've felt close to cringing when watching Sylvester McCoy act.

Despite the acknowledged critique of the Thatcherite government, I didn't see it as being all that obvious. Perhaps it's historical or geographical distance, but I didn't feel bombarded with that interpretation. On the other hand, the culture created here is very intriguing because, like most tyrants, Helen A believes she's doing the right thing. The opening scene and its fascist overtones linked up very nicely for me with The Master and Margarita, and that Bakhtin-esque tone suffused “HP” in its best moments. Harold P's betrayal of Helen A is up there with Krau Timmen's betrayal of Morgus in “Caves of Androzani.” I did not see that coming.

I felt a lot of sympathy for Fifi, actually, for surely she (he?) is only fulfilling her nature when she is sent down the pipes to chase and attack people? I was actually quite sad when Fifi died, though of course it was the ironic end that justified the entire story. Helen A only got a bit miffed and perhaps fearful when Harold P left her; her love for Fifi proved she was human after all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mutants: On the Form, Varieties, and Errors of the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi

WARNING:  If discussions of sexual anatomy disturb you, please skip paragraphs 16-18.

I really enjoyed this “popular science” book—in a sense, it was very like the territory covered by Bondeson, and like Bondeson, Leroi comes from a science background. However, where Bondeson is (I think) a practicing consultant as well as a university lecturer, (I think) Leroi’s background at Imperial College (at least when he wrote the book) was more clinical research-based.  Bondeson, too, is more interested in the narrative and “characters,” and while Leroi has an excellent humanist wit, there is something a bit less approachable, a bit darker, about the way he builds up his argument.   Though I struggled with some of the higher science, I did learn a lot about subjects that, as a non-scientist, I could never dream to grasp without Leroi’s guidance. 

Leroi’s argument is that we are all, in lesser or greater degrees, mutants of the perfect human genome.  We don’t know who that person is—“Who among us has the genome of genomes, the one by which all other genomes will be judged?”—and in a sense, it doesn’t matter.  The book is about exploring the degrees that make us less perfect that the model human being.  Most mutations, he points out, destroy meaning—these are called “loss-of-function” mutations.  This is why you can examine mutation as being less perfect than the ideal or normal example of the type.  Thus it seems the X-Men are the exception to the rule . . .  Leroi even comments that “red hair is not good for anything at all,” pleasing, no doubt, all those ginger-haters out there.  “Whether a given genetic sequence is a mutation rather than a polymorphism hinges on two issues:  its global frequency and its usefulness.”  Red hair, he concludes, is neither frequent enough nor useful enough to be considered a polymorphism. 

There is still something slightly sleazy about the “common” fascination with “freaks,” and something still slightly elevated about examining them from the scientific viewpoint.  At least, I think so, and I believe that quality informs why Leroi put one of the daughters of Petrus Gonsalvus, a hairy family (with hypertrichosis) originally from the Canary Islands, on the cover (she has a pleasing aspect and inside the book, Leroi compares her to a friendly cat).  (On the back cover is a painting of a pair of female conjoined twins with long red hair, which Leroi comments are rather beautiful.)

In fact, Leroi seems rather taken by twins.  He spares a few sentences for my “favorite” pair of conjoined twins, the Biddenden Maids, but misses out others like the Tocci Brothers.  Anyway, he uses Ritta-Christina Parodi (born in 1829) to illustrate his main points (twins known as xipophages in France and parapagus dicephalus tetrabrachius elsewhere).  As in the case of their unfortunate countrywoman Caroline Crachami, Ritta-Christina’s body was acquired for science by dubious methods.  Leroi is more careful about stating fact than Bondeson, whose authoritative authorial voice made the vagaries of science seem safely corralled.  Leroi tells us that current scientific research suggests that conjoined twins are considered nearly always monozygotic—originating from a single egg fertilized by a single sperm (monozygotes also account for identical twins—one embryo that has accidentally split into two).  Conjoined twins share a single placenta and a single amniotic sac; separate twins share a single placenta but each usually has an amniotic sac of its own.  It is quite interesting to know, as well, that while 50% of separate monozygotic twins are female, 70% of conjoined twins are female.

Perhaps the two-but-one relationship of conjoined twins (upon which we, as individuals in individual bodies, can only speculate upon) lends itself to poetry.  Parasitical twins, however, do not.  “Some forty cases have been described of children who have dwarfed and deformed parasites growing from their palates . . . In 1860 a child was born in Durango, Mexico, who had a parasite growing from his mouth to which two others were attached.”  Teratomas, such as one described in a Roman woman in a recent edition of Archaeology Today, are tissue that are masses of hair, teeth, bone and skin.  “A Dutch child born in 1995 had the remains of twenty-one foetuses (as determined by a leg count) embedded in its brain.”  Frankly, this makes me both incredibly grateful to have been born as well-formed as I was, and furthermore makes me less likely to attempt to have children.  Leroi gives no explanation for what causes parasitical twins—probably because no one knows for sure.  Now, who has ever watched the Doctor Who TV Movie and wondered at the likelihood of a fictional hospital in San Francisco destroying the evidence of a patient—who died on the operating table, so they think—having two hearts?  It was always going to look like a fairly moronic and cynical thing to do, but even more so in light of Kartagener’s syndrome, the earliest known example being of an old soldier who died at Les Invalides in 1688.  “Those rare people—the best estimates put them at a frequency of 1 in 8500—who, despite being born without a twin, have internal organs arranged the wrong way around.”  Meaning, they have a heart on the right side (but, unlike the Doctor, no mirror image on the left side). 

Leroi is very keen—as a clinical researcher would be—on animal-based lab experiments and their insights into human mutants.  Some of the experiments seem excessive, even for the time they were performed in—Hilda Pröscholdt’s fascinating experiments with newts in the 1920s, for example, were able to produce “conjoined-twin newts, oriented belly to belly,” by transplanting a piece of blastopore lip, which seemed to have the power to instruct a whole new creature.  (Though contrast this with Étienne Geffroy Saint-Hilaire’s attempt in the early 19th century which rather lacked subtlety:  “If monsters were caused by accidents in the womb, he reasoned, it should be possible to engineer them . . . he systematically abused developing eggs” in the Nile Valley hatcheries “by shaking them around, perforating them, or covering them in gold foil.”)  One luckless salamander “had a leg amputated twenty times—and grew it back each time.”          

Like a scientific journal article beginning with its literature review, Leroi begins his treatise on mutants by surveying teratology. Partly this is to trace societal attitudes toward mutants and highlight how difficult it can be to diagnose cases retrospectively (that does not prevent him from trying.  He makes a good case for the Monster of Ravenna, born March 1512 and starved to death by order of Julius II, to have been a child born with Roberts’ Syndrome[1]).  Some examples are too obscure to pinpoint.  The Monster of Cracow, born in 1540, “with barking dogs’ heads mounted on its elbows, chest, and knees” died “declaiming ‘Watch, the Lord cometh.’”  Leroi finds a great deal of beauty and sometimes even sympathy in the heretofore-categorized-callousness of our ancestors; for example, Sir Thomas Browne wrote Pseudodoxia epidemica, or, enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths (1646) and Religio medico (1642).  Browne sees “the works of nature—all of them, even the most deformed—as the works of God, and if they are the work of God then they cannot be repugnant.”  Furthermore, Leroi has great sympathy for Charles I as he witnessed experiments into the biology of deer; “England lost a monarch with a taste for experimental embryology, a thing not likely to occur again soon.”

I’d heard it long claimed that the origins for the Cyclops of Homer’s myth were from prehistoric elephantoid skulls on Mediterranean islands such as Crete; it’s been a long time since anyone suggested to me that Cyclopic people existed.  However, as Leroi has found out, “the ease with which fetuses become cyclopic is frightening.”  It has to do with the fusing of what should be bisected; it happens in animals as well as humans; “the single eye of a cyclopic child is the external sign of a disorder that reaches deep within its skull,” in fact, to the two halves of the brain.  By starting from cyclopic embryos, Leroi demonstrates the ways in which mutants of all stripes can be made from varying doses of retinoic acid from vitamin A.  He cites a 1932 experiment, “when a sow at a Texas agricultural college that had been fed a vitamin A-deficient diet gave birth to eleven piglets all of which lacked eyeballs.”  Furthermore, too much retinoic acid can causes problems. 

Leroi often takes surprising starting points to eventually work his way around to a scientific principle or breakthrough.  For example, a small marble statue from the ruins of Herculaneum of the god Pan raping a nanny goat brings him to discuss supernumerary ears, because these are common in goats and show up occasionally in humans; the sculptor, whoever he was and whatever his propensities, knew enough about goats to depict both Pan and the rape victim with them.  A girl in 1858 displayed just such appendages and when they were amputated, they were found to be ears (though not functioning ears, of course).  This is an example of homeosis, “in which one part of a developing embryo becomes anomalously transformed into another.”  Extra ribs are surprisingly common—one in every ten adults has them (no less frequently in women than in men!). 

Although, as we said earlier, the majority of mutations are “loss-of-function,” life often seems to find a way, such as with a group of people colloquially known as Cleppies (nothing to do with, as I first surmised, the Blue Fugates of Kentucky).  Here, too, is Leroi pulling story from disparate sources that seem, at first, to have nothing to do with the subject at hand.  The Cleppies’ legend begins in 1685 in Wigtown, Scotland, where two religious dissenters, Margaret McLaughlin and Margaret Wilson, were drowned in the River Bladnoch.  A man named Bell was said to shout at them as they perished, “Clep down among the partens and be drowned!”  Bell’s descendents, then, were said to be cursed with “claws” instead of hands—they were known as the Cleppie Bells.   A family living in London in 1908, possibly related to the Bells of Wigtown, possessed “hands moulded from birth into a claw-like deformity.”  Now called ectrodactyly, the children of the family wrote, drew, did needlework, and most other tasks; some of the parents were cab drivers and bootmakers[2].  Mammals, as Leroi states, have a good ability to compensate for lack of limbs. Since we’ve just mentioned the Blue Fugates, “it is impossible to keep a good myth down.  In the mid-1980s two South African journalists claimed that they had stumbled across a whole tribe of two-tod people in the darker reaches of the Zambezi.  Now websites assert that that Wadoma worship a huge metal sphere buried in the jungle and rare, in fact, extraterrestrials.”    Our fingers and toes, meanwhile, are formed by cell death—much as water might carve shapes into rock.  We don’t know why, however, most vertebrates have less than five digits per limb. 

Willem Vrolik occurs somewhat earlier than the discovery of the Wadoma, his collection being bought by the University of Amsterdam at the turn of the twentieth century.  “In a fine display of Dutch rationalism they have decided that all who wish to do so should be allowed to see the worst for themselves,” unlike, for example, the Gordon Museum at King’s College, upon which uneducated gawking is frowned.  “And the worst is terrible indeed.  Arrayed in cabinets, Vrolik’s specimens are really quit horrifying.  The gaping mouths, sightless eyes, opened skulls, split abdomens and fused or missing limbs seem to be the consequence of an uncontainable fury” or Eddie Campbell’s illustrations for From Hell, perhaps.  “Many of the infants that Vrolik collected were stillborn.  A neonate’s skeleton with a melon-like forehead is a case of thanatophoric dysplasia; another whose stunted limbs press against the walls of the jar in which he is kept has Blomstrand’s chonododrodysplasia.  There is a cabinet containing children with acute failures in neural tube fusion.  Their backs are cleaved open and their brains spill from their skulls.  Across the gallery is a series of conjoined twins, one of which has a parasitic twin almost as large as himself protruding from the roof of his mouth.  And next to them is a specimen labelled ‘Arcadia amorphous,’ a skin-covered sphere with nothing to hint at the child it almost became except for a small umbilical cord, a bit of intestine, and the rudiments of a vertebral column.”             

I don’t think I’ve seen a specimen with “Arcadia amorphous,” but I have seen, in specimen jar, the foot of someone who suffered from elephantism.  Leroi, however, doesn’t believe that Joseph Merrick suffered from elephantism; he prefers PTEN protein deficiency which causes Proteus syndrome.  An illustrative example, though not of Proteus syndrome but fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, was Harry Eastlack.  He “requested that his skeleton be kept for scientific study, and today it stands in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.  Bound in extra sheets, struts, and pinnacles of bone that ramify across the limbs and ribcage, this skeleton is, in effect, that of a forty-year-old man encased in another skeleton, but one that is inchoate and out of control.” 

There isn’t room for Leroi to discuss every kind mutant manifestation, so the second half of the book focuses on disorders that have affected a relatively large number of people over the ages.  Achondoplastics like Joseph Boruwlaski—a celebrated dwarf of the European courts—continue growing into their twenties, long after most people have stopped, and suffer from a growth hormone failure.  Giants like Charles Byrne also suffer from hormone problems; his pituitary gland was the size of a small tomato.  Did P.T. Barnum know he was cloaking tragedy with fairy tale fantasy when he publicized the wedding of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in the 1870s?  “Should a foetus inherit two copies of the achondroplasia mutation (by virtue of having two achondroplastic parents) it, too, will die shortly after birth with all the symptoms of thanatophoric dysplasia.” 

One is tempted to suppose, however, that man proved infinitely more cruel than nature in the case of the Ovitz Family, who had pseudoanchondroplasia.  The patriarch Rabbi Ovitz “was renowned for his wisdom and compassion,” and his ten children, seven of whom had pseudoanchondroplasia, became a jazz troupe after his death in order to support themselves.  Yoshko Moskovitz “wrote to his sister that he had met a woman, small in size, but well-endowed with talent, wisdom, and industriousness.”  He and Elizabeth Ovitz soon married.  However, when the family was forced to Auschwitz, “they paid for survival by being given starring roles in [Josef] Mengele’s bizarre and frenetic programme of experimental research. . . . As with all he did, he reasons for doing so remains unfathomable.” 

One group of people who we think of as rooted in the past are castrati.  From drawings we know they were tall and somewhat oddly shaped.  We know anecdotally that they suffered from kyphosis, symptomatic of osteoporosis.  We can be fairly sure that they never went bald and never had prostate cancer.  “Testes, then, are not only the source of hormonal signals that regulate gender; they are also the source of at least one hormone that in late adolescence instructs bones to seal their growth plates and so cease growth.”  Therefore, in 1994, a Cincinnati man’s hormonal problems were corrected when he sought medical help:  he had been 5’10” on his driving license and at the age of 28, had shot up to 6’8.”  There was a mutation in his estrogen receptor.  The last Chinese court eunuch, however, was only buried in 1996 (along with his testicles preserved in a jar, as the Khanum threatens to do to Erik in Susan Kay’s Phantom).

If we can’t relegate eunuchs (or people with eunuch-like symptoms) to the past, nor can we people with indeterminate physiological genders.  Through the example of Alexina Barbin, who in 1857 became an assistant teacher in a girls’ school and began an affair with another young schoolmistress, Leroi gives quite a tour-de-force on proving all that you think you know about sexual organs is wrong.  “Alexina was a hermaphrodite.  Medicine may have recognized hermaphrodites, but not so the law or society.  A choice had to be made, and those ovoid bodies [the doctor discovered in Alexina] decided it.”  Alexina became, to all intents and purposes, a man, a male pseudohermaphrodite, writing an autobiography before killing himself.  Leroi comes to a stunning conclusion:  the vagina is unique to females:  it has no male equivalent.  If you think that sounds like an obvious statement, think again. 

For example, female spotted hyenas are female pseudohermaphrodites, in which the pathological has become normal.  They copulate and give birth through the clitoris (painfully, I might add)! Renaldus Columbus in 1559 “discovered” the clitoris, which he called the “Sweetness of Venus,” but placed it in the uterus.  If we accept that the clitoris is part of a larger structure called the vestibular bulbs, the anatomical corollaries between male and female make more sense.  For example, by day 28 after conception, the human embryo has for small limb buds and a tail, and a small bump between the lower limb buds.  This is soon surrounded by two sets of folds, one inside the other.  This bump eventually makes all of our external genitalia.  Differences only appear by day 63—in the male, the genital tubercle expands and becomes the penis; in the female, it remains small and the labia minora and labia majora form around it. 

If this is all that stands in the way of, on the one hand, making the embryo female and on the other, making it male, it seems less remarkable that some fetuses get “caught in between.”  For example, in testosterone synthesis mutations, usually the effect is in making the foetus female at birth; the symptoms are only picked up at puberty when the girl fails to menstruate.  “The combination of feminine looks and male height means that women without testosterone receptors are often strikingly attractive.  In the 1950s at least one French woman with defective testosterone receptors made a living as a catwalk model.”  

Leroi is also quite interested in hair.  As I said, he is slower than Bondeson to diagnose hypertrichosis languinosa for people like Petrus Gonsalvus or Schwe-Mong or Maphoon (and doesn’t mention Julia Pastrana, possibly because she doesn’t fit the languinosa phenotype).  But, because baldness is close to Leroi’s heart (if his author’s photo is anything to judge by J), he tries to get to the bottom of male pattern baldness, which affects 20% of American men in their 20s, 50% of 30-50 year-olds, and 80% of 80-year-olds.  “Balding is truly a white man’s burden.”   He discusses two quite interesting studies:  one from 1999, in which a married pair of scientists excised a piece of dermis from his scalp and put it on a hairless region under her arm, thus proving that the dermis “has a voice, one that tells the epidermis:  ‘make follicles here.’”  The second study was done by James Hamilton in 1942, featuring 54 eunuchs, some of whom had been born without testes, some of whom had been castrated as boys out of medical necessity (inguinal hernias, etc), and, Leroi suspects, some of whom were “mentally retarded men who had been castrated as boys in Kansas medical institutions, a legacy of eugenic programmes that ran in the United States until the 1960s.”  “Women who acquire, for whatever reason, abnormally high levels of testosterone not only grow beards but tend to go bald as their baldness genes, hitherto silent, manifest themselves.”

The last chapter treats aging as a disease and that we mutate physically and mentally with old age.  Leroi highlights Alexander Graham Bell’s eccentric idea to create a race of gerontocrats (ie, a database where the longest-lived recorded their children who should then marry and reproduce with other lineage from long-lived groups in order to make humans live to Biblical ages).  This scheme “was visionary and only slightly mad.”  There is evidence, however, that these gerontocrats would have an ever-dwindling fertility.  So would it be worth it?  “The only reliable way to extend the general physiological life of a mammal is to give it no more than two-thirds of the daily calories that it wants.”  Again, though, is it worth it?  “A thousand calories is about the minimum number needed to sustain the life of an average-sized man, though not enough to sustain his sex drive (or, to judge by pictures, his sex appeal).”

Mutants was an absolutely fascinating read, and I applaud its author.      

[1] “It seems likely that it was simply a child who was born with a severe, rare, but quite unmysterious genetic disorder . . . That, at least, would account for the limb and genital anomalies, if not the two serpents on its waist and the supernumerary eye on its knee.” 
[2] I saw a woman with ectrodactyly just the other day in a London theatre.