Tuesday 30 October 2018

Must-reads: George Godwyn

I don't know George Godwyn. I don't follow him online. However, his post on the trans rights crisis in the US has gone viral, and it sums up my feelings, and my fears, very well.

I'm in the UK, of course, but that doesn't mean that I'm not concerned about what happening in the States, or that I'm not worried about what will follow elsewhere. The UK hangs off the USA's coat tails and the rise in hate politics is spreading everywhere.

Content warning for trans rights and assault.

George Godwyn
Something happened on Facebook awhile ago that I’ve never written about and only shared with a few people. I kept it to myself, mostly, because I didn’t want to upset the people in question, but I guess it’s time. (And for probably the first time I am going to put a content warning on a post, because this post probably requires one. So, here's a CW for violence against trans people.)
For a long time I wondered about the understanding of gender on the far right, the Trump right. The bathroom controversy, in particular I thought bizarre. I can understand the basic conservatism and fear of new ideas, but the bathroom conflict seemed odd to me. It was extremely important in the minds of Trump supporters, even though it can’t possibly be a common problem in most of the areas these people live. The position on the right seemed precisely the opposite of what it should be. Why do you want someone presenting as a woman in every respect using the damn men’s room, or vice versa? Isn’t that going to be more socially outrageous, in most situations? I didn’t get it. So I decided to ask the Trump supporters.
I posted a picture of Buck Angel, a transgender adult film actor, in a few of large, sometimes huge (nearly half a million), Trump groups. The picture showed a very buff, ripped Mr. Angel from the waist up, shirtless, with a shaved head and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. He is an extremely masculine looking guy. With the picture I included the question “This person has a vagina. Which bathroom should they use?”
I thought at least some of these people will realize how silly it would be to want this man to use the ladies room. How socially awkward and alarming that would be, in so many situations. Putting aside how dangerous it would be for the man, simply on the basis of the the immediate, practical effect on the other diners in the given Applebee’s or wherever it was happening.
The post got hundreds of comments, finally thousands. Immediately. The Trump supporters had a very clear answer and they were adamant about it. Almost no one answered with “the men’s room”. A few said things like “if they’ve got a vagina, they use a woman’s room, if they have a penis, they use the men’s room.” But the majority of the of the commenters had an answer I hadn’t considered at all. These people had worked out a very simple solution to the problem of transgender people and the norms revolving public restrooms.
They wanted transgender people to die.
They were quite explicit about it, very blunt. “They should die.” That simple. That concise. “They should die.”
Let me be entirely clear about this – they knew what they were saying, they knew exactly what they wanted. They didn't want a trans man in the men's room and they didn't want a trans man in the woman's room. They wanted the trans man to be dead.
Of course some of them were more loquacious than that. They had reasons they should die, preferred methods, they expressed their feelings about the fantasized the deaths, but death or something similar was the most common answer. "Stop being", essentially. A lot of other people answered “they should stay home”, maintaining the status quo without having to deal with the problem while still allowing transgender people to, you know, live, but mostly death or some sort of violence was the preferred option. Comment after comment, they should die, fuck them, stay-at-home, don’t use the bathroom, I’ll kill them if I catch them in the bathroom with my daughter, they should die, they should die, they should die.
Oh, and in case That's not plain enough, it wasn’t just death they were threatening. They were threatening anything they could think of. Torture, castration, humiliation, at adults and children alike. Any brutal, vicious insult or threat imaginable. I’ve watched these groups for years, dozens of them. Anyone who watches the news, who’s seen our president make a speech, knows how mean, how grotesque, how petty and ugly these people can be. The things they say about Mexicans, Muslims, about women, gay people, immigrant children. Even if you haven’t been in one of these groups, it’s not hard to imagine. Jesus, our president publicly mocked a disabled man. But I still wasn’t prepared for the comments in this thread. Just sheer, stark, gut level hatred, unencumbered by the slightest empathy. Loathing. Disgust. Raw hate.
As much time as I’ve spent in these groups, examining these people, I didn’t think anything could shock me. I was wrong. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did.
There is not one single issue that brings the evil out in Trump supporters the way trans-people do, there is no class of people more loathed. More than anything else, gender self-determination symbolizes precisely the social progress that animates the Trump right. They despise it and the people who embody it. Understand this. This issue is central to these people on the right, there is nothing they feel more deeply about. The Trump right does not want a solution to the social problem of trans people and restroom use. They simply do not want trans people to exist. That is what they want. What they demand. Nonexistence.
Today the New York Times reported that the Trump administration is now in the process of redefining the administrative understanding of gender as simply a matter of biology and nothing more. Gender would be determined solely and entirely by birth assignment – as male or female, immutable and unchangeable, a fact. They are already rolling back numerous civil rights guarantees instantiated in the Obama years, policies that allowed a significant portion of our nation to live their lives with some basic dignity and safety. Essentially the Department of Health and Human Services intends to define transgender people out of existence.
This is happening now. Right now.
Like I said at the beginning, I never really talked about that little test I did in the Trump groups with Buck Angel’s picture much before this. I know so many trans people and I know how difficult it can be for them, sometimes, just to live their lives, what a scary place the world can be. I felt like it was all too awful, I didn’t want to scare people even more. I guess it probably wouldn’t come as a shock to most of my trans friends, it’s a reality they live every day, but I just didn’t want to pile on. But it's too late for all that now.
I haven’t heard people talking about the Health and Human Services attack on trans rights all that much, so far, and I’m a little surprised, because we should all be clear about something. The changes they are making don’t mean a little inconvenience for a few trans people.
They mean death. It’s that simple. It’s going to mean withdrawal, seclusion, humiliation, violence and death.
Think about the Trump supporters I described, think about the thousands of comments I just told you about. Now think about the reinforcement this sort of decision makes for their worst instincts, think about a trans man, presenting as a man, being forced to use the ladies room in some Podunk, red state, Trump voting shithole.
Now how do you suppose that goes down with the rest of the folks in the having dinner? And how do you suppose the teenage trans boy using the ladies room goes down with the parents of the teenage girls at the high school? And how does that make the teenage trans boy feel? Or the teenage trans girl having to share a bathroom with the testosterone jacked 17-year-old jocks at the high school? And what do you suppose happens to the trans girl forced to onto a man’s prison block?
Humiliation, violence, rape, suicide, and murder. Death. Trans rights are a matter of life and death, in a very real, very palpable way. The definitions change, and people die. The rules change, and people die. The laws change, and people die. Immediately.
This is happening because the people in the White House get it. They know their base, and they know exactly what their base wants. They got it 100% right this time. They are defining transgender people out of existence because they know their base wants transgender people to be gone. Disappeared. Non-existent.
Trans rights, opposition to gender self-determination, hatred for trans people, as I’ve already described, are at the heart of the Trump phenomena. There is nothing that evokes the hatred and fear and violence on the right the way the simple existence of trans people does. It is stomach turning to see, horrible in its blind ferocity, and I don’t know how the fuck my trans friends have the strength and poise to live every day in the face of that horror, that hatred, but they do. I suppose they have to, and that’s where the fight is now.
I don’t care who you are, I don’t care where you are in the political spectrum, I don’t care how fucking liberal or leftist you are, I don’t care how feminist you are, if you don’t support trans-rights, you are not on my fucking side. I don’t give a fuck about your bio–essentialist arguments, I don’t give a fuck about your history with men, I don't care about your pissing eight year old or your bigot grandmother. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck about your traumatic sexual assault if it means you’re going to take it out on some fucking teenage girl who doesn’t want to have to use a bathroom with a bunch of frat boys and have the same fucking thing happen to her. Fuck you.
If you want to know where the battle lines are drawn most clearly and unmistakably, between decency and the dark, right now, in the United States, in 2018, it’s here. Trans rights are the battlefield and trans people, like it or not, are in the vanguard of that battle. They are the front-line in a fight they never asked for, every fucking day, every hour, every time they leave the fucking house.
There is no fight more important as this, now, today. There are no people so vulnerable, so marginalized and there should be no fucking doubt among anyone on the left, any liberal, any libertarian, about this.
The fight is here now, it’s happening. An entire marginalized community, federally defined out of existence and set up to be victimized by a segment of the population too fucking backwards and just plain, willfully dumb to bother to try and understand what the hell is going on in the world, or empathize with another fucking human being.
If we don’t stop this, people are going to die, killed for something they can’t change, for who they are in the deepest part of themselves. Not somewhere down the road, not in five years, but now. They’re going to start dying now.
We can’t let that happen. Those of us who still live in the modern world still own this culture and we need to do what we can to make sure it doesn't. We cannot go back to the 1950s, we cannot watch more people die for their gender. We cannot let that happen. We can't lose this battle.
This isn't temporary, this isn't going to go away tomorrow, the last two years is only the beginning. Gender self-determination will be the civil rights battle of the 21st century. If we have to fight this for the rest of our lives, we cannot allow these fuckers, this raw hate, to win.
So be shocked for a second, cry about it for a minute, and while you're at it, maybe today is a good day to hug your trans friends, tell them you got their back. Because we do, a lot of us. America isn’t just Trump supporters. Remember that. For what it’s worth, some of us got your back.
Then get over it and get ready, because this is a fight and you're in it. We all are, all of us, left, liberal, libertarian, right, if you're a decent human being and you care about basic human rights, you're in it up to your ass and the water is rising fast.
Hatred is a powerful emotion and it is temporarily ascendant, but hate can't beat the future, and that future is an America, a world, where every single trans person lives their life safely and with the same dignity any other human being enjoys, because ultimately, as badly as they want to, they just can't turn back the clock. Not when so many of us stand in their way, not with so many lives on the line. They just can't.
And that really is immutable, unchangeable. That really is a fact.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

REVIEW: Venom (2018)

This review will include spoilers. Isn't Spoiler the name of a symbiote? Sounds like it should be.

I'm still surprised this film even exists. After over a decade in development hell, with successive attempts at both standalone films and franchise entries, Venom finally arrives on the big screen. Bizarrely, after all this time, Sony fast-tracked this production, which suffered from considerable last minute rewriting and heavy editing in post-production. Unfortunately, it really shows. Tom Hardy says that the best forty minutes ended up on the cutting room floor, so just possibly, there was a good film here before it was hacked apart.

It's not that Venom isn't entertaining. It's pretty OK when just approached as mindless fun, which is fair enough, and I can imagine sticking this on Netflix to watch with a beer or two in future. Nonetheless, this is a hard film to love. There are two major, fundamental problems: firstly, no doubt due to all the last minute monkeying around, is the sheer incoherence of the plot; secondly, there's a crippling inconsistency of tone.

To address the first issue, it's painfully clear that rewrites and re-edits were made with very little consideration to the overall plot. While we're used to early trailers showing somewhat different versions of scenes than those that eventually appear in the final cut, there are scenes with Venom that have completely different dialogue dubbed over them. Some of the scenes, such as the closing moments which see Eddie pop to his local convenience store only to unleash Venom on a thug who's robbing the place, seems to have been moved from much earlier in the film. There are baffling changes in character motivation, with only the slimmest explanation, if any.

To begin with, the film starts out as a fairly earnest sci-fi thriller, with the extraterrestrial symbiotes being used as the basis for new biologically-altering treatments to allow colonisation of other planets. Lead scientist/businessman Carlton Drake is well portrayed by Riz Ahmed, and has a clear motivation, as someone who believes his own hype and whose ambition has overreached his morality. He very quickly descends to become a moustache-twirling villain, though, viciously sending people to their deaths because, well, that's what villains do.

Tom Hardy does everything he can as Eddie Brock, a reporter who is determined to expose corruption and illegal activity regardless of what he's assigned to do. It inevitably bites him in the ass, he loses his job and his fiance and his swanky apartment, dragging him down into apathy and depression. This characterisation, held up by Hardy's performance, is about the only believable element of the film. Hardy convinces both as the swaggering, cocky early version of Eddie, and the broken, isolated version later, giving him a likeable everyman quality in both periods.

A series of unlikely events see the Venom symbiote fuse with Eddie, and unfortunately it's once Venom comes on the scene that things go south. Venom works Eddie like a puppet, except where he's speaking to him and goading him on. Venom's never been the most consistently explained character in comics, and while the final act sees the man and the alien unify into a working duo, there's no consistency concerning how much control Eddie has on his actions. Venom works well when it's a force that emphasises the worst aspects of a person, and can be an antihero that is always on the edge of going too far. Given Eddie's disillusionment in the film, there'd be a lot to work with here, both in his isolation from humanity and his rediscovery of his need to do good. There's no sense of any of that, barring a couple of hastily appended lines to set up a sequel.

The symbiote is also killing Eddie, except when it's suddenly not, for vaguely defined reasons. Drake is possessed by his own symbiote, because the symbiotes can only bond with those they are compatible with, except when the plot needs otherwise. He then moves from moustache-twirling villain to unstoppable killing machine villain, becoming a bigger, nastier version of Venom, and it turns out the symbiotes are now invading. Then Venom decides he likes the Earth and being stuck on Eddie, so he's a good guy now and is going to save the world.

Meanwhile, we have a few supporting characters. Michelle Williams plays Anne Weying, Eddie's fairly unsympathetic ex-fiance. She's surprisingly bad in it, but in all fairness she has very little to work with. There's also a brief moment where she becomes She-Venom (which is basically Venom, but with tits), but this is, thankfully, fleeting. Her new boyfriend is Dan, played by Reid Scott, who's a surgeon and is instrumental in keeping Eddie alive in the bit of the plot when the symbiote is killing him. Pleasingly, there's virtually no rivalry or animosity between them, since they're actually both pretty decent guys who could probably do better than Anne. Jenny Slate is pretty brilliant as Dr. Skirth, a scientist working for Drake who takes a stand against his amoral actions, a character that I'd actually have liked to spend some time with. Unfortunately, she doesn't last long.

I was never quite convinced that Venom could carry a film completely divorced from Spider-Man, since so much of the character depends on their antagonistic relationship, but the set-up used here could work if they'd actually had the guts to go for it. It's pretty clear that early intentions were for an R-rated film, allowing genuine bloodshed and selling the horror side of the concept. Instead, Sony bizarrely opted to make the film a PG-13 (it's rated 15 in the UK), neutering it and leeching most of the power of the concept. Again, you could do a Spider-Man film and introduce the more family-friendly version - this is a kids' cartoon character after all - or you could let rip and make it stand on its own as an adult-oriented superhero film. To start with the latter and then cut the film apart to try to try to make it into the former, in the apparent hope that it could lead to crossovers with Marvel movies in the future, was always doomed to failure.

As it is, we end up with an entertaining but dimwitted mess, that has no clear idea of what kind of film it is or who it's aimed at. By the end, it feels almost like Men in Black, only without the humour. At least Woody Harrelson's cameo as Cletus Kasady has promise.

Monday 22 October 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-3 - "Rosa"

Some supposed fans are decrying this episode, calling it "deliberately PC," among less polite terms. Talk about missing the point. Yes, it's deliberately PC. That's the idea. The fact that some angry viewers (every single one I have seen being a white male, of course) are upset that Doctor Who would take a political stance and use one episode's worth of runtime to look at the horrors of racism and the legacy of a black activist demonstrates exactly why episodes like this are important.

While Doctor Who has dealt with racism, and its cousins xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, before, it has generally done so in allegorical fashion, with the Daleks more often than not. While the expanded media have occasionally tackled the issue head-on, on television it's been like that with some fleeting exceptions. When the topic of racism has been explicitly remarked upon, it hasn't always been handled well: the twelfth Doctor punched a racist Victorian last year, and sheepishly accepted that he wasn't the person to ask when it came to allaying Bill's fears of being in that environment, but a few years earlier, the tenth Doctor advised Martha to "just act like (she) own(s) the place, it always works for (him)," in a spectacular moment of tone-deafness. And that's without delving into some very dodgy choices in the classic series that wouldn't have been so noticeable against the background of the time, but stick out when viewed now.

Things change, though, usually, but not always, for the better. This is exactly the sort of thing that Doctor Who should be doing. Chris Chibnall has stated that he wants to take the series back to its roots in some respects, engaging in more educational material than it has done since the earliest series. This is certainly light years away from the celebrity historicals of the Russell T. Davies or Stephen Moffat eras. The Doctor gets the odd name drop, but this is far from being a glamorisation of an historical event, or a sci-fi adventure set against the backdrop of one. Rosa Parks isn't so much a character here, but a portrayal of a real person. Necessarily dramatised, of course, by two writers who almost certainly never met the woman, but working from historical materials and real footage of interviews.

It could have horrendously wrong, of course. The finished episode isn't perfect, by any means, but it's a fine hour of television and for the most part is pitched just right. I had my concerns before watching it, though. I mean, it's co-written by Chris Chibnall, who's just about the whitest guy ever. There was a definite risk of a well-intentioned embarrassment. Thankfully, he writes this with Malorie Blackman, former Children's Laureate, who is one of the most celebrated writers of children's and young adults' literature today, and who has previously explored racism through science fiction in her acclaimed Noughts and Crosses series (one of those book series on my list of "things I really, really ought to have read by now"). As a black woman, Blackman is clearly going to have a different and more immediate perspective than Chibnall. Even watching and reviewing this, as a white man, is going to be different to how a black viewer would experience it. Of course it is, because I've simply never experienced the sort of treatment that is portrayed here.

There are certain moments when it's clear that the reception of the episode has been considered very carefully. The Doctor very sensibly asks Ryan and Yaz to stay in the TARDIS, knowing full well the danger they're in just by being out in public in 1955 Alabama. It's different for her, she admits that, and to attempt to ignore that or even leave it unsaid would have been catastrophic. A scene that worked particularly well sees the young companions hiding behind some bins, in fear of being found by a police officer. They note how much better it is in 2018, but how it's very, very far from perfect. Ryan, in particular, has dealt with the kind of discrimination commonplace in this era, being a young black man and being viewed as a criminal by dint of his appearance. He notes that he's stopped far more often by the police than his white mates. Yaz, on the other hand, is a police officer, and being of Pakistani descent experiences her own share of racist abuse, usually from people she's trying to help. It's an even-handed conversation that shows that this kind of thing can hit people in any position. Yaz talks about how in fifty-three years there'll be a black President of America, but the unspoken follow-up is just look at the shit that followed. Things are better in the US than they were in 1955, but they're worse than they were even in 2005, and there's the ever-present risk that things will slide backwards. After all, it's already started.

This is the closest Doctor Who has come to a purely historical story - where only the Doctor and co. provide any kind of sci-fi element - since Black Orchid in 1982, and that was an outlier. It's a brave move, and allows much more focus on the events and issues than bringing in an alien threat would ever have allowed. The inclusion of the villainous Krasko (Joshua Bowman) almost seems like a misstep. It would have been just as workable for the mere presence of the Doctor and her friends, bumping into Rosa Parks, to have derailed history by interrupting such delicate events. I think, though, that the inclusion of a racist villain, whose motive is to "put your kind back in their place," is actually a necessary inclusion. While it's a deeply depressing idea that we'll still be dealing with white supremacists in the 79th century, it's also a very important reminder that this is a problem that will not go away without a fight, and that the fight has to continue any time it rears its ugly head. Krasko's insistence that "this is where it all started to go wrong," and that things would just be better if there weren't black people around causing problems, is a familiar rhetoric. It's not unlike the (more common in Britain lately, but these things come in waves) tactic of lazily blaming immigrants for somehow causing all the problems in a society. Some commentators have pointed out that Krasko, artificially made incapable of violence like Spike from Buffy, is a weak villain and is dispatched too easily. Again, though, isn't that the point? He's pathetic, but sometimes pathetic men can do a lot of damage.

It would have been so easy to fall into the trap of having the Doctor and/or her companions be the saviours here, and that would have been terrible. Instead, they do little things to keep pushing events back on track, but do not actually cause any of the vital events. Rosa still makes her stand herself, triggering a series of events that have lasting impact on the Civil Rights movement and the rights of non-whites in the US. It was essential that this be maintained, or the point and purpose of the episode would be lost. Equally, though, the time travellers had to be affected by the environment. Most obviously, this is evident in the treatment of Ryan, forced to sit at the back of the bus and almost attacked for innocently trying to speak to a white woman. The most frustrating moment is watching him, trying desperately to get people to wait for the bus and just being dismissed, before aggressively chastised. Yaz's experiences in the episode are illustrative as well, being essentially uncategorised in the segregation system, uncertain just as to what she is allowed to do, which is potentially even more dangerous than for someone who has clear-cut rules to live by. I particularly liked how the locals called her Mexican, lumping her under the general category of "not black, not white, but brown and foreign-looking" that sees almost any other background as interchangeable.

With all the necessary attention on Ryan and Yaz, it would be easy for the Doctor and Graham to be given little to work with. However, both characters fare very well, with the Doctor balancing flippancy with deadly seriousness when required. Again, it could have been very easy for her character to be overbearing here, but instead, there's the sense that she's dragged down by her responsibility to history. It's handled better than the "fixed points in time" approach though, more an understanding of the delicate nature of important events, and how history could have proceeded very differently if circumstances and choices had been slightly different. Graham also fares extremely well, with another excellent performance from Bradley Walsh, portraying incredible discomfort as the scenes of history unfold around him. As a white man, Graham is of course the safest and least constrained in the setting, but is still affected. Indeed, he doubtless received his share of abuse due to his mixed marriage, even in 2018.

All the good work of the episode would have been wasted if it weren't for the right casting of Rosa Parks. Thankfully, Vinette Robinson is more than capable of giving the role the dignity and power it deserves. It's a very respectful, understated performance that underpins the episode. There's some question as to whether Parks's story is the one to tell in a British series. After all, we never had official segregation in the UK, and the very idea of it seems bizarre to us now. However, the themes resonate throughout our culture and the problems we have and have had in the UK are not divorced from the Jim Crow Laws and the oppression in the US. As Yaz says, it was Rosa Parks and "people like her" who made a measurable difference to people's lives today. While there were other people who could have been the focus of the episode, Parks is an emblem of the Civil Rights movement and as such deserves this episode (not forgetting the huge following the series now has in the States). On a related note, I applaud the decision to include Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ray Sesay), but not make the episode about him. He was, after all, the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement and led the Montgomery bus boycott that followed Parks's protest, but to give him more than a short part of the story would have drawn attention away from her character. Again, it's a tough balance, and it's possibly a mistake to suggest that Parks was so important to the Civil Rights Movement that it would never have happened without her specific actions on that night; however, the event was a catalyst for change and Parks was hugely important to the ongoing struggle; and it's probably wise not to overcomplicate a 50-minute family drama too much.

Some have said that this is too political for children, which is of course rubbish, and frankly, the treatment of black people in this episode is significantly less horrific than a more adult-intended production might. The little we do have is limited to mention of Emmett Till, whose brutal murder (and the subsequent acquittal of his killers) also contributed to the anger of black Americans. And please, let's not forget that this is an episode that was broadcast on the same day footage was released of a British flight where a white man verbally abused a black woman and refused to let her sit next to him, while the white staff failed to effectively intervene. While reports from the southern states of America see local government changing voter registration laws to disenfranchise black citizens and make it impossible for them to vote. And filmed in South Africa, which had its own segregation laws until 1991, and is still one of the most racially divided countries in the developed world.

Hopefully, there will be a time when this sort of behaviour is just history, but for now, we truly need television like this.

Title-Tattle: The episode title is, of course, only one letter away from the first episode of the revived series, "Rose."

Continuity points: This is the fourteenth attempt by the Doctor to reach Sheffield after leaving Desolation, so there's a nice big gap for future novels, fanfic and Big Finish audios to slot in.

Space and Time: To that idiot on Facebook in the Geek Asylum, asteroid 284996 is indeed named Rosa Parks, an honour that bestowed four years ago, and the idea that it was a step too fair in making her "seem important" is spectacularly ignorant. Admittedly, a lot of people have asteroids named after them; it might have been better to show more of Rosa's life, such as her receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, to represent how she was honoured.

Saturday 20 October 2018

The History of the Doctor

Very happy to see E. G. Wolverson's archived website "The History of the Doctor" back online again. There are many, many reviews of Doctor Who and related media by Wolverson, Joe Ford and myself on there. I'll gradually be adding links to my reviews back to the index pages over the next couple of weeks.

The State of the Universe

I didn't even realise that there were such things as gamma ray constellations. NASA's Fermi telescope team are creating a map of the sky that groups gamma ray sources - pulsars, black holes and blazars - into handy, recognisable images, just like we have with stars. The difference is that the Fermi team are naming their constellations after pop culture icons, among other recognisable things, including Godzilla (above), the TARDIS and the Starship Enterprise.

This is just one of a number of fascinating developments in astronomy and the space sciences. The wonderfully named BepiColombo has been launched on an Ariane 5 rocket and is headed towards Mercury. This new mission to visit the woefully underexplored innermost planet of the solar system is an historic joint endeavour between the European Space Agency and its Japanese equivalent JAXA. The ship is going to take over five years to spiral towards Mercury (the ESA website has a handy video illustrating the multiple flybys it will take to get there). The long, looping journey is necessary to avoid being pulled into the intense gravity well of the Sun.

The surface of Ryugu
JAXA is on a role, with their asteroidal survey ship Hayabusa2 now happily exploring near-Earth asteroid Ryugu, sending back data, images and even video of the surface. After four years travelling to the asteroid on its orbital path between Earth and Mars, Hayabusa2 will return to Earth carrying samples collected from its four robotic rovers. Three, of the MINERVA-II project and named simply ROVER-1A, 1B and 2, were developed by JAXA, while the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) currently charting the unusual geological and magnetic properties of the asteroid was built by a joint German-French initiative. ROVER-1A has taken the first ever images from the surface of an asteroid.

The Planetary Society also worked with JAXA to include messages to be imprinted on a marker that will be left on the surface of the asteroid. There was an opportunity to submit names to be included - my name, along with my brother's and sister's names, are now on Ryugu!

Wednesday 17 October 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-2 - "The Ghost Monument"

At last, we get a new title sequence, with Segun Akinola's new theme arrangement in all its glory. I love it - unsettling and unearthly in a way it hasn't been since the earliest days of the programme. There's still a bit of percussion there to give it some bombast, but it's an eerier, less orchestral version than we've had in a long time.

At the other end of the episode, the TARDIS finally arrives, spruced up again and with a brand new interior for a brand new Doctor. Overall, I like it. It feels somewhere between the antique McGann version and the organic Eccleston/Tennant one. I particularly like the porch area that forms the police box shape, the cogs that make up the walls (very Invasion of Time) and the coral central column, although I'll need to see some motion there before I can truly decide whether it works. Not so keen on some of the details, like the little crystal police box, although maybe that's a reading of the chameleon circuit? I do like the custard cream dispenser. Why not? Matt Smith had ketchup and mustard on his console.

And in the middle, a story, in the most straightforward of terms. Having the characters split into two pairs, each accompanying a dodgy character on a race across a dangerous planet, both lots trying to reach the finish line, stay alive and find the other side works. To set this up and then immediately bring all the characters back together... it's just a bizarre storytelling decision. For the second week running, this was a very simple story, quite literally a journey from a to b with the minimum of mystery or complexity. That's not a bad thing, per se, but I'm pleased that the next episode looks like it'll be something a bit more challenging.

Given how straightforward the story is, it's disappointing that the main characters don't get fleshed out a bit more. There are some nice emotional moments, but it never feels like they're developing as characters, or even being explored much. Yaz barely even is a character in this episode. Ryan remains likeable, and it's good that his dyspraxia is going to be running concern, although given that condition he is astonishingly on target with his blaster shots. Still, that was one of the best bits of the episode, with his hilariously girlish scream when the droids got back up again.

Bradley Walsh, as Graham, is probably the best of the companions for this episode. I don't think people are appreciating what a good performance he's giving, because Graham is such a deliberately ordinary character that it be swallowed up in all the sci-fi. Graham works better in this episode than the opener, because there's more to contrast him against. Just an Ordinary Bloke in Sheffield is one thing, but Just and Ordinary Bloke on the distant planet of Desolation is quite another. Still, there's a definite feeling that the larger team is struggling for room a bit in these two episodes. It's hardly the first time we've had a four-strong team since the revived series arrived - "Boom Town!" had Rose, Mickey and Jack join the Doctor, and there are a number of episodes with Amy, Rory and River, and that's excluding stories featuring UNIT or the Paternoster Gang. It's not like it can't work. Nonetheless, with the larger set of regulars being likened to the early Hartnell or Davison teams, it's worth noting that those groups had a lot more screentime per story. A bit of room to breathe as characters.

Guest cast-wise, Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley were both good, Lynch particularly, although to be fair she had a lot more to work with in her character. Angstrom was far more rounded than the cliched hard-bitten, trust-no-one Epzo, but even so, both characters worked well, fitting the setting and rubbing against it each other entertainingly. Art Malik was perhaps a little wasted, but if you want someone to drop in and appear classy, enigmatic and a little sinister, you can't really go wrong in casting him. The mystery of the planet of Desolation is a bit overplayed, given that the eventual reveal is pretty obvious, but the various hazards keep everything ticking along and it never gets the chance to be boring. I especially liked the "remnants," clearly based on the ittan-momen, a Japanese yokai that exists as a roll of cotton that smothers its victims in the night. Rationalising these as bandages that clear up the dead and dying is a wonderfully sinister variation on a bit of folklore that most people in Britain likely won't have encountered before. Still, I was expecting that the planet would be revealed to be a far future Earth. A hoary old cliche in itself, but given the continual mentions of an inexplicably lost civilisation, the noting of its being in the wrong place in space, and the completely humanoid but apparently not human characters, one of whom had an inarguably human name (Swedish, in fact) seemed to make it obvious. But no, it was just some nasty old planet.

At the end of the day, a linear-as-hell storyline and bleeding obvious plot devices (Chekhov's cigar, we shall call this) aren't a problem when the point of the episode is simply to be thoroughly entertaining for fifty minutes, and under those criteria this succeeds. The decision to film in South Africa allows for some breathtaking vistas, and the episode is visually amazing from start to finish, from the impressively realised spaceship crashes to the desert plains of Tatooine Desolation.

At the centre of it all, Jodie Whittaker continues to be wonderful, with a more mercurial, less dominant Doctor than we've had for a long time. She's more than capable of taking control of a situation when it's needed, but exists largely on the sidelines, watching and learning. She's as much of a hypocrite as the other Doctors when it comes to weapons (really hammering that one home here), and has a surprisingly defeatist streak. I'm interested to see how Whittaker and Chibnall's take on the character develops. Not so enthused by the hints of a plot arc, but so far it's background stuff that isn't threatening to take over the narrative.

Kisses to the Past: The Doctor uses Venusian aikido, a martial art introduced by the third Doctor and used by the twelfth as recently as "World Enough and Time." This is the first time we've heard that it was taught to the Doctor by nuns though.

The Doctor's line about redecorating goes back to the second Doctor's appearance in The Five Doctors and has been referenced many times since, but this is the first time the Doctor's actually liked a decor scheme.

Dr. Namedropper: The Doctor pulls out some shades that she says belonged to either Audrey Hepburn or Pythagoras, which is impossible, because her pockets were empty before she picked up her new clothes in the charity shop. So the new Doctor talks arse just as much as her previous selves.

Sunday 14 October 2018

TREK REVIEW: "Runaway" (Short Treks 1)

While we wait for the second season of Discovery (and very interesting it's looking to be too), CBS is tiding fans over with a short run of short episodes, called, naturally, Short Treks. Disappointingly, these aren't going to be released on Netflix (at least not as of yet), meaning that anyone outside of the US or Canada can't watch them. Well, not officially, anyway. Suffice to say it's very easy indeed to find other sources for these programmes.

These are going to be fifteen-minutes episodes, released monthly, each one focusing on a different character and situation. The first episode, "Runaway," stars Mary Wiseman as Tilly, newly promoted to ensign after the final events of Discovery season one and on the command training programme. It's a slight but fun story that sees Tilly dealing with an alien intruder on the Discovery which helps develop her confidence.

There's a lot to like about this little story. A story about a runaway from an alien society, facing up to her responsibilities, with an environmental message about the folly of over-taxing resources, is very Star Trek. Mary Wiseman is as likeable and relatable as ever in the role of Tilly; it's reassuring to see someone on a Starfleet ship who's doing well for herself but isn't superhumanly competent and assured. (She does, of course, have issues with her mother. No Trek character is allowed to exist without some kind of parental relationship issues.)

The main guest star is Yadera Guevara-Prip, playing the runaway of the title, an alien girl known as Po. She's also very likeable and gives an impressively physical performance as a member of a new alien species, the Xaheans. I love the make-up and design of the Xaheans. Po is pretty much humanoid, but has intricate skin markings, blue claws for fingers, viscous orange blood, and a retractable set of quills on her back. She can also become invisible, which is cool and helps her hideout on a starship.

On the other hand, and this might be a consequence of the truncated runtime, there's a hell of a lot in this episode that doesn't make sense. Po is invisible, sure, but it's unlikely the Discovery's sensors wouldn't pick her up (OK, the Suliban on Enterprise could do that, but a line of dialogue to explain it away would go a long way). Po trashes the mess hall, and Tilly makes up a bullshit excuse about an escaped space rabbit, but while it's a fun scene it's completely unbelievable that the crew would buy it. Strangest of all, at the end of the episode, Tilly beams Po home to Xahea, in spite of the fact that there's been no indication so far that the ship is anywhere near the planet. Indeed, the dialogue suggests that Tilly has barely even heard of it besides a brief bit of news about the Xaheans achieving warp recently. They're certainly not in orbit.

With a little more running time, or just a serious redraft to produce a tighter script, this episode could have made a lot more sense and stood up rather better to scrutiny. Still, "Runaway" is a nice diversion to keep us going for the new season, and maybe we shouldn't treat is as a strictly canonical episode of the series, but rather as a throwaway side step. Either way, it's silly but entertaining, and it works well enough that I'm looking forward to the remaining four Short Treks.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-1 - "The Woman Who Fell to Earth"

I love Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor.

Straight away, she's endearing, exciting, and 100% the Doctor. She doesn't get to do much with the character yet beyond some pretty basic Doctoring, and that's perfectly fine - this is her first episode, and more in-depth exploration can come later. She has a puckish charisma that steals every scene she's in, and she absolutely nails it from the outset. Refreshingly, she doesn't have to spend half the episode dealing with regenerative fallout. Aside from one collapse and a nap, and struggling to remember her name, she's straight into the action. Indeed, the name lapse isn't an example of the Doctor forgetting her identity; it's purely there so she can have a triumphant "I am the Doctor!" moment.

The multiple companion characters don't really stand much of a chance against Whittaker. They're all quite well drawn and performed but being consciously realistic and ordinary means they make less of an impression when there's this remarkable alien charging around. Still, it's a breath of fresh air to have recognisable characters again; aside from Bill, it's been a long time since we had an ordinary person on the team. I particularly like Ryan (Tosin Cole), who comes across as a believably frustrated but likeable young man. I'm interested in the reaction to the dyspraxia angle; I'm hardly an expert in the condition, but my girlfriend and several of my friends are dyspraxic and it's rare to see it portrayed on TV. Feedback from them suggests it's pretty positive so far, with Suz pleased that he's a pretty cool character and that it's not just being used to cheap laughs (although she did point out that there's no way he'd be going up that ladder so fast).

Yaz (Mandip Gill) is also very likeable, but her character is very sketched in so far. I get she's the capable one, who wants to prove herself, and having her in the police is a potentially interesting set-up, but nothing's really done with it. I'm hoping she gets to develop as the series continues. Other than Whittaker, the one who had to prove himself was Bradley Walsk, unfairly labelled as just a gameshow host when he's an established actor. As it is, he's perfectly good here, portraying perhaps the most real of the three companions; just an ordinary bloke who has believable reactions (although how anyone can possibly doubt the existence of aliens in Doctor Who at this stage is hard to credit).

The character I liked the most, though, was Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Ryan's nan and Graham's wife, who's the most likeable and positive character in the episode. She brings everyone together as a team moreso than the Doctor, in fact), but she's not part of the companion group, so I guess she was doomed. However, this is a more personal, character-focused script than we generally got in recent Who, and the death of a character is genuinely saddening, even though we've only known her for a short time. Even dorky Karl (Johnny Dixon) is a sympathetic character.

It was never Whittaker or Walsh that made me worry, but Chibnall's past form. He's not, to put it politely, a writer who has provided consistently strong material. His strengths seem to lie more as a showrunner than a scriptwriter. I've never seen Broadchurch, and now it'll seem like the weirdest multi-Doctor story ever, but I've heard very positive things, but the first two seasons of Torchwood, which would seem like the most obvious point of comparison, were all over the place in terms of quality. On the whole, though, some clunky dialogue aside (and there's plenty of that), this is a pretty decent script. Utilising the industrial North provides a different feel to what's gone before, although still thoroughly British, and the grim night setting, along with more understated music than we're used to, intensifies this. If anything, it has the air of early Torchwood, which perhaps isn't surprising, albeit without the painful attempts to seem "adult," which is a mercy. It's an odd mix of the real life procedural, kids' telly sci-fi and some gruesome horror, but it works. 

It's a straightforward story, to be sure, but that's no bad thing when it comes to an introduction. The almost complete lack of references to the past make this a sharp break; even "Rose" featured an old monster, and lately the series has become very inward-looking. There's hardly anything here that calls back to what's gone before. There's a reference to having been "a white-haired Scotsman," and she's running around in his clothes (I love it when the new Doctor is still in their predecessor's clothes, and Jodie actually looks amazing in the battered suit), but otherwise that's pretty much it. Even mentions of the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver are pretty much standalone. It really does work as a jumping-on point for new viewers, and I have a few friends who sat down to watch it with their kids for the first time ever and loved it.

 A fairly standard runaround with a monster or two is a safe bet, and that's what we got. I liked the electrical cable beast a great deal - it'c clearly alien but almost unrecognisable as a life form, a very uncanny effect. I wasn't so sold on Tim Shaw - although that joke was great - but again, a generic Predator-esque alien is a simple concept to put across in an episode that's busy introducing other things. The tooth-face thing was horrible though - I'm not alone in finding that genuinely disquieting. If he was such a massive cheat, though, why didn't he just pull all the teeth out of his victims and stick them in his head to make it look like he had loads of trophies?

Tooth-face Tim might have been a step a little too far for the kids, but this otherwise hits the right balance for a family show. It's accessible and a lot of fun, and although it lacks the colourful verve and newness of “Rose” and the sheer bold skill of “The Eleventh Hour," it's just different enough to successfully kick off a new era of Doctor Who.

Some observations about the Doctor:

I'm pleased that not much was made of the Doctor's change of gender. A couple of jokes, but barely a mention really. A nice line about change and how it's just something we all have to deal with. Plus, the costume choosing scene. I love that the Doctor picks out her clothes from a charity shop - is this the first time she's ever actually got her clothes from a shop, rather than already owning them or just nicking them? It would be even better if the costume actually had been collected from charity shops instead of being the result of an intensive design process. Also, when does she get her ears done?

The new Doctor is more immediately compassionate than her predecessors. She says sorry an awful lot - not the dramatic "I'm so, so sorry," of Tennant, but genuine concern for people having to see terrible things. On the other hand, she's exactly as holier-than-thou as her forebears. She lays into Karl for kicking Tim Shaw off the crane, after the guy was hunting him and after she just tricked him into liquefying himself.

Is it me, or does the Doctor have a serious Holtzmann-from-Ghostbusters vibe when she puts on the goggles and apron and builds her own screwdriver?

Some general observations:

This is the first time on TV that we've had an Asian British companion, and the first time we've had a regular companion who appears considerably older than the Doctor (although Tennant had several one-offs). Am I right in thinking this is the first disabled companion in any medium? Correct me if I'm wrong.

So far, the music is a big improvement. Not to say I didn't like Murray Gold's work, but god, it was relentless sometimes. It's nice to have something you can hear the dialogue over. I like the theme too, but it'll be nice to get a title sequence next week.

The aesthetic is a bit weird when compared to the promotional material. That was colourful, the episode itself is dark and sinister. The promotional reel after the episode is strange as well, focusing on the actors rather than monsters and exciting visuals.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Doctor by Doctor 12

Scotch on the Rocks

Peter Capaldi, 2013-17

When I began these Doctor by Doctor articles, it was 2013, running down to the series' fiftieth anniversary. I had originally intended to continue with the twelfth Doctor in 2014, but decided that I wanted to see more of him before I wrote about him in depth. Now, with the thirteenth Doctor's debut series imminent, it's time to do the old boy justice.

Peter Capaldi is the second Scottish fanboy to achieve his life's ambition to play the Doctor. A man who once, in his teens, headed the Doctor Who Fan Club and used to write in to the Radio Times about the series. Capaldi had, almost twenty years before finally becoming the Doctor, been one of the many who auditioned to be the eighth Doctor, and it's entirely possible to imagine him in that role. He's one of the very few actors who could have played the Doctor as a young, dashing romantic and a cantankerous old man, and he brings tremendous charisma to a version of the character that could very easily have been quite unlikeable.

The odd thing about the twelfth Doctor is that he is characterised quite differently throughout each of his three seasons. Of course, there are flashbacks and forwards to other elements of his character throughout, but it's still possible to divide the twelfth Doctor into three distinct periods. In series eight, he is angry, harsh, unapproachable. In series nine, he's the rock and roll Doctor, punky and spiky and unpredictable. In series ten, he's older, a fatherly figure and teacher. Humour and anger and extraordinary grumpiness comes and goes throughout his long, long life, but that's the general pattern.

This could be seen as an inconsistent characterisation, but the fourth Doctor had distinct phases to his character as well. In fact, the gradual shift from the exceptionally prickly Doctor of series eight to the more likeable, more compassionate Doctor of series ten could be seen as the sixth Doctor's journey done right, or even a return to first principles for the Doctor, the same journey he went through in his first few seasons back in the monochrome days.

Let's go back to the twelfth Doctor's beginnings, in the closing moments of “The Time of the Doctor.” To begin with, the twelfth Doctor is over-the-top and silly, much like most of his incarnations in the moments after a regeneration. As usual, his new brain takes a little while to settle down. Acting on some subconscious impulse, he takes the TARDIS to London in the nineteenth century (via an awkward encounter with an oversized tyrannosaur) to where he feels safe, with his trusted allies the Paternoster Gang. While there, he pieces his new personality together while piecing together the mystery of the half-faced man.

An immediate mystery to the Doctor himself is his new choice of face. By now aware that he is selecting his own faces, albeit subconsciously, he is baffled as to why he's picked this scowling, gaunt visage, with its attack eyebrows. We're given two explanations, both valid and true, and both go back to his previous incarnations. During the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” the Doctor faced up to his past as the Warrior, and finally stopped running from his past. He finally stopped pretending to be a fresh-faced young man, and accepted that he was an ancient being with terrible things in his past. Perhaps more importantly, Clara had seen him as this: an old soldier with blood on his hands, and had accepted him as such. Finally, he could let the mask slip. The eleventh Doctor had revelled in his youthful looks and had embraced his flirtatious, and often quite shallow, relationship with Clara.

It may seem odd that the Doctor would regenerate to become physically older. As Clara says, “he doesn't look renewed.” However, it's easy to forget in the hullabaloo of the regeneration that the Doctor spent nine centuries on Trenzalore, growing old and infirm, watching those he protected age and die around him. We only see the tiniest glimpses of the Doctor's life on Trenzalore, and almost all of these moments are in the presence of Clara, for whom he puts on his mask. The Doctor grows ancient in Christmas Town, and has finally accepted his own mortality, only to have a last moment reprieve from the distant Time Lords. After all those centuries, the Doctor was prepared for his final moments, ancient and withered, and Clara was there at the very end. Apart from his brief “reset” before fully regenerating, the Doctor becomes considerably younger in his new incarnation, but still allows himself to appear middle-aged and mature. He can be forgiven for thinking Clara will accept him like this. Of course, she does in time, but to begin with she is completely thrown. It's understandable, of course; every time she saw the Doctor as old and grey, she got her young Doctor back. This time, the old man is there to stay.

You don't see me, do you?”

Of course, we later learn the other reason that the Doctor decided on the face of Peter Capaldi. In “The Girl Who Died,” there's a sudden and jarring flashback to “The Fires of Pompeii,” a then eight-year-old episode in which Capaldi played the Roman citizen Caecilius. The twelfth Doctor barely remembers much of his time as the tenth, if his tenuous recognition of the clockwork robots and the SS Madame de Pompadour is anything to go by. And yet, this one experience with Donna in Pompeii is etched into his memory. The face of Caecilius, the man he saved, is there in the mirror, as a reminder to be compassionate, to think of human lives when history is on the brink. Because the Doctor knows, as well as his companions know, that without that reminder, he can so easily become a monster.

To begin with, the twelfth Doctor is a particularly difficult person to be around. Given how hard Clara has found it to adjust to his new appearance, you'd think he'd go a little easy on her, but no, he's spectacularly hard to love early on. There's an understanding, though, between them, and she copes with his abrasiveness as long as it isn't directed at her too much. Clara acts as a buffer between the Doctor and everyone else in the universe. To the outsider looking in, it would like he just doesn't really care about anyone else, but it's quite the opposite. The Doctor cares intensely about everyone he sees, suffering or in trouble. So, he puts up barriers: his attitude, his anger, his face, those eyebrows. Everything is designed to keep the rest of the universe at bay. However, get past those barriers, become someone the Doctor cares about, and he'll become fiercely, even frighteningly loyal.

She's my carer! She cares, so I don't have to.”

It's no surprise, really, that the Doctor has started to put these barriers up between himself and the universe. He's just spent centuries in one place, far longer than we've ever seen him stay put before, doing his best to defend a town from a war arguably of his own making. He's seen countless people grow old and die, while he himself has carried on, and even when death seemed certain, he regenerated again. Is it so strange that after all that he has become unapproachable, even a little callous? Equally, he has begun to seriously question himself, asking Clara if he's a good man, concerned that he's grown cruel during the centuries. Of course, we know the Doctor is a good man, albeit one who has the capacity to turn the wrong way at any moment. He needs people with him to keep him thinking clearly; too much time alone and he can become cold, alien, and obsessive. He has a distinctly odd morality: he'll speak passionately about how he hates to hear pigs crying over their fate, but will happily eat offal. He'll lecture of remaining detached, then punch a racist in the face. He'll go to the end of time to save his friend, then shoot an ally in cold blood. He'll express sympathy for Davros, one of his most hated enemies, but use his plans against him and destroy his creations horribly. It's never quite clear what he'll do next.

His aggressive dislike of the military perhaps stems from his time on Trenzalore as well. He still carries immense guilt for his actions in the Time War, even though he no longer has the burden of Gallifrey's destruction on his back, but there's more to it. After the events of “Day of the Doctor,” the Doctor had finally begun to come to terms with his actions in the War, and he was suddenly pitched directly into another. On Trenzalore, he was mayor and general at once, standing over those who went into battle. Danny Pink isn't wrong when he identifies the Doctor as an officer, one who gives orders and lords over the lower ranks. The Doctor's hatred of soldiers is his own self-hatred turned outward, and Danny's observation cuts him to the core.

Perversely, this comes in the episode at which he is most like the eleventh Doctor, with a lot of his previous self showing. The Doctor is daffier when he's pretending to be the Caretaker than at any other time since his regeneration, and is still prone to occasionally forgetting, it seems, that he no longer looks like Matt Smith. Fittingly, he's hilariously convinced that Clara has fallen for a teacher who bears a passing resemblance to his former self. Instead, she falls for a former soldier, someone who the Doctor disapproves of on principle, and unfairly mocks because of it (unfortunately, the fact that Danny is played by black actor Samuel Anderson adds a racial subtext to the Doctor's superior attitude, that was surely unintentional).