Monday, 30 June 2008

DOCTOR WHO SERIES FOUR (Part One)



PARTNERS IN CRIME

It would be less than entirely unreasonable to assume the brief for this episode was 'Supernanny turned into Alien Villain'. As I would rather New Who reference current trends than just recycle old monster outfits, I don’t consider that a bad idea. Plus, if they're going to 'do' other TV shows I'd rather they did it this way, than actual parodies of Trinny and Suzannah or The Weakest link. (The author is here thinking of no previous episode in particular.) But... Davies, we have a problem.

The problem isn’t the lightweight tone, whatever was cried in some fan circles. (With Catherine Tate previously known as a comedian, fans may have feared she marked a permanent resetting of the series.) Who is hardly stuff to take in deadly earnest, it normally features some comic elements and has featured out-and-out comedies before now.

The problems are much more specific. It’s largely an attempt at the ‘screwball’ comedies of old. These don’t normally have much of a socially important theme to get across. They’re more like watching tapdancing or ice skating, you don’t expect innovation, what you hope for is that the predictable is done with style and panache. Consequently they don’t tend to be just okay, they either come up with a chemistry which reacts or one which just falls flat.

This episode does perhaps achieve this at times (for example the Doctor and Donna’s mimed conversation across a room), but only intermittently. Worse, the problem was not that the episode was lightweight but that it was indecisive about how lightweight it should be. Was it a dramatic episode with comic moments, the reverse or neither? A telling feature is that it can’t really decide how evil the Adipose or their Nanny are supposed to be. It’s nearest neighbour would be Boom Town, though admittedly it wasn’t as risible as that particular low point.

And one final complaint, call me a fundamentalist, but I don't like the
idea of the Doctor as some sort of Cosmic Detective going on
missions and investigating irregularities. The true Doctor should be a wanderer, and trouble should find him. He’s a personality, not a job!

Undoubted highlight: surprise reappearance of Rose. Even though you knew she was coming…

FIRES OF POMPEII

After the first few scenes, this put paid to any lingering fears that we were now watching a comedy show. Which was cleverly done, except the joke anachronistic dialogue worked against them when they wanted more gravitas later on. "These people are going to die? But they're only characters from a toga sitcom in the first place!"
But overall this was a quite strong episode. I'm not sure the intervention thing made much sense beyond "the Doctor can intervene when the scriptwriter says he can, just not when he doesn't". But the emphasis was on the emotional effect that had on the characters. You naturally assume the eruption was just being hidden from the soothsayers by the sinister aliens, stopping you seeing the twist coming. Equally, returning to rescue the family makes little sense. Is the worth of a human life measured in screen time? But it’s dramatically effective!

And were the two conceptions of time borne out by the sides? Were the rock-based Pyrovile intended to represent a fixed, linear perspective on time, while the Doctor introduces chaos and flux?

PLANET OF THE OOD

I suspect this won't go down well with Who fandom in general, who seemed to take against the upfront political allegory in Aliens of London. It’s quite clearly (at one point explicitly) an analogy for slavery. The references to the Circle, for example, presumably come from 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' while the Great Galactic Empire… well, I expect you got that one yourself.

Some elements did seem to be present purely to stop it getting too literal, as a kind of self-denying schema. (I’d guess it was set somewhere icy to make it as much the opposite of Africa as possible.) But it also understood the point of using analogy is that you can deliberately distort the mirror to make your points the more sharply. Making the Ood a kind of telepathic hive-mind contrasted them against the single-minded entrepreneur who would enslave them.

It seemed to give the Doctor very little to do, bar witness events then switch off the bombs as an afterthought. This may have come through political correctness, wanting to avoid a ‘white-man-frees-the-slaves’ plotline. But again, it carried with it its own effectiveness. On a story—function level you’re waiting from the off for the Butler Ood to go all red-eye, then are caught out by the twist. And the twist itself, if not carried out by the Doctor, fitted well in the Whoniverse – a piece of poetic justice and an ironic twist on the ‘all men are brothers’ saying. Was there a kind of underlying contrast between the red-eye Malcom X Ood and the more patient Martin Luther King Ood?

SONTARAN STRATEGEM/THE POISON SKY

If we accept that Partners in Crime tried to do something a bit different just not very successfully, this was Who so formulaic as to be generic. Worse, with decades of back-history to raid, and just about any other film or series fit for plunder, why recycle things we’ve only just seen? Aliens hiding their sinister machinations in modern technology – what a novel and innovative idea, I wonder why no-one’s thought of that before! Ho hum…

At times it even felt like a remix of other episodes, scenes we've seen rearranged into a different order. Telling indeed was the extended 'mystery' of who was behind this plot, complete with cut-to shots of malevolent hands, rendered slightly less mysterious by being given away in the title. What happens here is the sort of stuff that's supposed to happen in Doctor Who, with no need to give the matter further thought.

Worse, while I’m not an old-show fundamentalist nor have some sentimental attachment to low budgets, in the Radio Times they contrasted the modern Sontarans against the first appearance…and really gave the game away. (Similar examples below.) One looks more realised, less thrown together, while the other draws it appeal precisely through looking rough and unfinished. As Timothy Hyman argued in his essay A Carnival Sense of the World “such grotesque figures may be best understood as conscious repudiations of the closed body of the Renaissance, in which all protuberances will be smoothed down, all apertures closed.” These Sontarans looked smoothed, and there is no better way of summing up this storyline.




Best bit? The Doctor deducing from the off who the interloper is, but not bothering to say.

THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER

As mentioned under Fires of Pompeii, it’ s possible to ignore lapses of logic in favour of dramatic truth. There are limits, however…

i) If both sides in this war can just keep cloning themselves for extra infantry, why get so excited when some
strangers pass by to clone? If they materialised inside the Royal Mint, would everyone look up and say "look, people with a bit of cash on them?"
ii) Why were the Hath there anyway? It might have made some sense if it was a water-world but no mention of that. As soon as one comes across anything resembling a liquid he promptly drowns in it!
iii) How come Time Lords understand any language in the universe apart from bubbly ones?

As soon as you get the 'two warring sides' set-up there's no real doubting where all this is going. And how's it all fixed? The Doctor scattering more bloody magic pixie dust!!! Can't we have a pixie dust embargo for the rest of the series now?

There were however, some counterbalancing nice bits:
i) The generations-not-years twist. (Even if it didn't make much logical sense it served to underline the horror of war rather than just repeat it - "Yeah, gotcha! War bad.")
ii) The Doctor arguing with his daughter about whether he's a warrior or not. It’s cool the way the series can sometimes questions its own hero.
iii) Martha's first scenes with the Hath where she's not sure what to make of them.

UNICORN AND THE WASP

If Partners in Crime confused itself over which tone it was using, this episode got similarly indecisive about a bigger question - what genre it was employing. It’s the difference between not knowing what mood you’re in and not knowing what you’re doing. It simply couldn’t decide whether it was a pastiche or an example of the Christie genre, while either option might have done.

There were plenty of examples of parody (the lead piping, the Doctor milking the ‘revelation’ scene). But we also seemed expected to take the whodunnit business seriously. For that to work, it has to be conceivable that we could get it. The best whodunnits aren’t those where you say “what a brilliant unguessable twist”, they’re where you kick yourself for not having got it – “oh of course it was him!” That doesn’t square well with shape-shifting carpet-pulling alien who can bend the rules of reality and do impossible, unguessable things. You can combine whodunnits with SF, but they tend to go with hard SF (Asimov etc) or somewhere where you canna bend the laws of physics. They don’t tend to go well with Doctor Who and it’s “timey wimey stuff.”

The story was so clearly retrofitted around the Christie cover you didn’t cry “of course” so much as “so that’s where all this nonsense came from.” (Contrast this final revelation with the one from Girl in the Fireplace.) The only exception seems to be the title. It’s not clear where that came from, but it was clearly invented before it had grafted onto it the pointless appendage of the Unicorn subplot – not so much a red herring as stinky.

But what really rankled was that it seemed permanently on the edge of exploring something interesting. Why is Christie still so popular a writer? Why is The Mousetrap or Cluedo so enduring? Is there some part of our brains that keeps wanting to go back to the Conservatory accompanied by the Candlestick? By metafictionally signposting that it was inserting itself inside that landscape, the episode was perpetually starting to ask what lies there which our minds find so appealing. As it was, instead of offering any insights in the genre, it failed to understand its most basic rules.

Compared to this, those Sontarans weren't smooth at all…

Saturday, 21 June 2008

SEVEN SONGS

I never respond to those internet meme things, I’m far too much of a misanthrope. I mean, what would come next, saying hello to the neighbours? But when Rol Hirst succumbed to the lure of listing Seven Songs, somehow I got infected too. Here’s the instructions in full…

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.”

I have left off the curse bit where it explains if you don’t do this your knees will knock, your teeth fall out and you’ll turn up as an extra on Torchwood…and those 7 other people? Tag! You’re one of them. Get to it.


BIG A, LITTLE A by Jeffrey Lewis

The question is - is what we really want right now a whole CDs worth of songs by anarcho-punk ranters Crass, only covered in the new folk idiom? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer turns out to be yes. Whilst performing the invectives with absolute conviction, Jeffrey Lewis manages to find toe-tapping tunes long hidden inside the turgid dirges! If you actually bother listening to the words (and there’s enough of them) you’ll soon discover an ideology mired in contradiction. But Lewis also reveals why so many found Crass to be such a transforming experience. Perhaps his secret lies in knowing exactly how much to polish up the diamonds and how much to keep them rough. The voices of Lewis and his collaborator Helen Schreiner may sound musical against Steve Ignorant’s shouting (there is no kinder word), but they’re pitched at an abrasive enough level to still convey Crass’ sense of outrage.

It’s hard to pick a favourite. The slower songs may be more audacious (Punk Is Dead becoming a soft piano-and-guitar lament), but Big A Little A feels like a keystone of the album. Typically it’s not a complaint about this policy or that event, it just plonks the whole of society centre stage and opens fire…

“External control, are you gonna let them get you?
Do you wanna be a prisoner in the boundaries they set you?
You say you wanna be yourself, do you think they’ll let you?
They’re out to get you…”


You will, I promise, be humming those words!

SUZANNE by Fairport Convention

“You don’t hear much from this era”, I thought as I availed myself of Fairport Convention’s Heyday compilation – BBC session tracks largely from before they turned to electric folk. The reason for this, I was to discover, is that they were actually pretty run-of-the-mill back then. But their superlative cover of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne beamed out from the rest like a lighthouse amid rocks.

Now my normal reaction is to reach for the fast-forward as soon as a cover comes on of Cohen, early Dylan or similar. Bands tend to assume the pared-down original is some kind of demo tape magically recorded just for them, and that the world will thank them for rocking it up. It’s as if every pencil sketch was thought to be aching to become an oil painting, every speech an opera. But here it’s changed enough to be worth doing, whilst staying true to the spirit of the original.

Much of its effectiveness comes from the simple device of splitting the verses between boy and girl singers. This is effective partly just by delaying Sandy Denny’s entry, thereby making it more of an event. But it also emphasises the song’s theme of unfulfilment, the boy singing hopelessly of Suzanne and the girl of Jesus. Despite the song’s name I’ve long regarded the Jesus verse as key, depicting a purgatorial earth we wander like the ancient mariner, deprived of the divine spark we seek. (‘All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”) From those few words I find my mind constructing a whole alternate theology, where Jesus descended to earth to rescue us but instead finds himself trapped among us – “forsaken, almost human,he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” Like the man said, ain’t no getting out this world alive.

AFTER THE GOLD RUSH by Neil Young

Neil Young’s regarded by many as a guitar god, but me - I take to his ballads every time. Perhaps it’s partly that their plaintive quality best suits Young’s high-pitched, almost strained singing. But it’s not least because a rocking-out Young had a typically Seventies taste for self-indulgence.

…and so it came to pass that the great songwriter’s greatest song was either Needle and the Damage Done or After the Gold Rush – four minutes of voice and solo piano with no choruses, and the only ‘solo’ coming from a passing trumpet. (And even that’s not really a solo, the trumpet just stands in for the vocals on one of the verses.) The result is one of the most elegiac songs to the end of the Sixties ever composed. The stuff about aliens coming to rescue us is hippy bollocks of course, the sort of thing Jarvis Cocker parodied, but you can overlook that. Young can sing about fanfares to the sun in such a way as to make you feel he’s demonstrating them.

Over the years Young has had cause to change the line “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.” It’s now standing as “in the 21st century” and counting. Though clearly born from post-Sixties disillusionment, the paradox of the song is that it takes on a more universal aspect – posing today as an impasse between a golden past and perfect future, like a cloud temporarily passing over the sun. Perhaps today will always feel that way, no matter what time we’re in.

BEVERLEY PENN by the Waterboys

Pounding pianos, pummeling drums, swirling organs, soaring vocals and resounding sax solos that all sound not so much anthemic as hymnal – we’re back in Waterboys country again. This track was left off the original release of This is the Sea, and now belatedly appears on an extended CD of out-takes. By now we’re used to all sorts of slush being dredged up by marketing departments of course. But this time the song’s so good it’s curious why it was ever missed out in the first place. One rather prosaic answer is that a lot of tracks were recorded for that album, and in the time-truncating days of vinyl many had to be passed over.

But it perhaps lost the limelight for being too much its own thing, not quite fitting the more metaphysical, allusive style Scott was crystallizing for that album. Like Medicine Bow (a track which did make the cut, albeit an edited version) it conjures stormy skies. But Medicine Bow takes place in a heightened, idealized world –painted broadly so as to be beyond detail. You’re not supposed to be in a place, but the place, which wouldn’t appear on anything so petty as a map.

Beverley Penn paints much more of a picture. “Wrapped she is in furs and sable” is a specifying detail, allowing us to frame the scene in our minds. It even has named characters in it. (I can’t think of a single example on the released version – Pan excepted!) This song feels much closer to literature than symbolist poetry.

Turns out, the song’s based on a novel – Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The significance of that comes from an apparently throwaway line – “tell me the story again.” Scott reaches more of crescendo at other points, such as:

”It was dawn and it was December,
And Peter Lake loved Beverly Penn.”


…as if human emotions were just as physical and as powerful things in the world as the seasons and elements. But the purity of Peter Lake’s love comes from the fact he’s a fictional character! In Scott’s romantic vision, he exists entirely to express this love, never distracted by tawdry or hundrum matters. It’s perhaps significant he is never involved in the events within the song, we’re just told of his love at the end of every verse. For Scott, characters in literature are not sparklers, bright but short-lived distractions, but beacons, blazing the way for the rest of us to follow.

I’ve never read a word of Helprin in my life, but I know Scott was a CS Lewis fan. There’s a scene in The Silver Chair where the Emerald Witch traps our heroes in a cave, and convinces them that not just their mission but all life outside the cave was merely a delusion. But her spell’s broken by the lowliest of their party, Puddlegum the Marshwiggle, who insists that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones."

”I would dive in a freezing river,
Set fire to a hundred men,
If I could for just one time,
Love somebody the way that he loved Beverley Penn.”


COME ON IN MY KITCHEN by Robert Johnson

And talking of stormy skies… Johnson’s chiefly known for his devil songs of course, but from his collected works it was the understated menace of this much more domestic track which I kept coming back to. “Well can’t you hear that wind howl?” As conjured by a few spare chords, you can – it feels like ice water down your back. In fact my favourite sequence may well be the hummed opening, before a single word is said.

Marc Bolan once said songs were spells with the power to change our mood. Johnson’s songs, even the ones without Old Red, are all black magic. Here the pathetic fallacy is operating at the height of his powers, the oncoming storm a projection of the singer’s rage. It’s as if he’s vested the whole world with his vengefulness then, in a sinister twist, presented his own home as the only refuge from it. You don’t need to keep banging on about the devil to have an effect. Would that many a black metal band had learnt that lesson…

HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW by Mahalia Jackson

From Satanism to Gospel in one simple bound! “I sing because I’m happy”, Jackson cries here, “I sing because I’m free.” But what would undoubtedly be zippy and exuberant in a pop song is here slow and measured, an accumulation of held notes, in front of the most minimal backing. Jackson isn’t merely singing at a slower tempo than we may be used to, she’s so self-assuredly unhurried it feels like a foreign tempo to our rushaday world. This must have sounded timeless the very day it was recorded!

While Marc Bolan was talking about spells, David Byrne claimed the appeal of music was that it created its own time, outside of clock time. The tempo here reminds me of a passage in Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop where the heroine Melanie meets two Irish lads in a bustling Victoria station. “Her attention was caught by two young men who leant against a hoarding, drinking tea from cardboard cups with unhurried, slow, rustic movements. Their stillness attracted her. They created their own environment around them…They were country people in a way Melanie was not, although she had just come from the green fields and they might have lived in London all their lives. They were brothers…They drank their tea and did not talk to each other. They kept quite still, although all the commotion of the station swirled around them.”

Devoutly religious, Jackson wouldn’t have approved of many of the goings-on in Carter’s novels of course. I, to put it bluntly, take Carter’s side. But when she sings it feels an outpouring of love, the certainty without the fanaticism, the Christianity that stood for civil rights not the hate-filled fanatics who gloat when a gay man dies of AIDS.

LAST DAYS by Max Richter

Richter was wont to record with Future Sound of London, a fact which sometimes comes to the fore on his Memoryhouse CD. But it was the neoclassicism of the closing track which won me over. I’m not even particularly keen on the genre, which can often feel like mere pastiche, but here it’s pulled off with magnificence. The track gleams as it bounds along. Listening to it is like watching a piston-powered steam engine, it’s energy only matched by its grace. An electric train might run faster, but never with so much style.

Obligatory one complaint – neo-classicism has almost become a byword for film composition, something Richter himself has dabbled in. Of course film scores have to be epic but brief, expressing themselves in short bursts between the dialogue. This is probably a good discipline for composers, for short is often harder to achieve than long. But the downside is that everything is then obligated to come in at film or pop song length. It’s like adverts have set the pace of our lives. This track runs for four-and-a-half-minutes, but it’s not enough! Had it been the final movement in a symphony it could have won itself more elbow room.

PS Not sure the last one is strictly speaking a song, so maybe if you don’t want to be tagged that’s your get-out…

Monday, 16 June 2008

TONY CONRAD AT THE TATE

Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective, Turbine Hall, Sat 14th June



Tony Conrad’s place in official history may be down to his inadvertently naming the Velvet Underground. (It was his copy of the book they took their name from.) But for some of us Conrad is a legend, a pioneer of drone music through his involvement (with John Cale and La Monte Young) in the Theatre of Eternal Music – whose ritualised minimalist improvisations would run on for hours. Soon becoming interested in film and other media, Conrad has produced or even performed little in recent years – with the result I leapt at the chance to see him appearing at the Tate!

That the Tate’s Turbine Hall is not designed as a gig space just added to the sense of a special event. Oversized and full of extraneous lighting, it would be a terrible venue for just about any other type of music. For this it was like it was built for it! Its cavernous size made it the ideal acoustic home for the resonating sustained tones, while the industrial heritage of its architecture (as the former Bankside Power Station) could not have been more fitting.

While we sat around the extensive lower floor like a festival audience, the musicians occupied the upper mezzanine. Huge sheets were hung before and behind them, then single lights used to project vast silhouettes before us. This simple device perhaps started life as a ‘get around’; minimalist musicians don’t do a lot of rocking out, after all. But it was brilliantly effective. By blowing up the smallest of their gestures into vast size it provided the perfect visual corollary for the music, focusing in on micro changes like a magnifying glass. Moreover, the silhouettes were fittingly depersonalising. The focus wasn’t on the man, for drone music isn’t about someone selling their personality like in pop music. We weren’t invited to scour his expressions or biography for tidbits of information to try and decode the music. Similarly, neither Conrad nor anyone else spoke for the duration – the nearest to direct communication we got was a wave when he left the stage. (By which point I found even that gesture a bit rockist!) Notably though, many in the audience chose to just lie flat out and ignore the visual element entirely. Which is perhaps fitting too…

In the brochure Conrad had this to say about audiences: “I had observed how, when we started to play for an audience, people became restless, and I had the idea that this was a favourable pattern of response; namely that one third of the audience would be antipathetic, one third would be enthusiastic, and one third would not really have any idea what was going on… That was, and remains, what I consider to be the optimum cultural outcome for work.”

This left me wondering if the introductory segment was deliberately pitched to drive the lightweights out. Indeed, if not the desired third, perhaps a quarter of the audience didn’t make it through the sound of two drills drilling. At this point the silhouette of the permanently hatted Conrad did take on some of the aspect of Freddie Kreuger. However the ‘noise’ was much closer to music/noise than noise/noise! Formally it worked in the way many dance tracks divide into high-register lead synth and pounding bass/drum synth – it’s just that this was achieved by a whirring hand drill and a heavier power drill. Berlin noise scene stalwarts might have even walked out over the lack of noise!

From what you could ascertain from the silhouettes Conrad next attacked cymbals with phonograph arms. Both these segments were effective enough, but it was when the musicians switched to Conrad’s patented bowed strings that the evening truly hit the stratospheric. The music became timeless and mesmerizing and quite impossible to describe in words. There’s a recurrent theme in folk tales of a place which exists outside of time, where the hubbub of the world is held outside, a feeling almost exactly conjured up by this immersive music. It would be wrong to say the evening moved from the abrasive to the sublime, for even the sound of power drills has its beauty. But the juxtaposition of the two elements was surely quite deliberate, first finding beauty in the noise of the world then concentrating on the thing itself.

The one frustration of the evening was a problem of programming. Some of Conrad’s videos were shown earlier in the evening. However these were videos he made during the Eighties while working at New York State Uni’s Department of Media Study. Though not without humour these were mostly academic and pat exercises – once told the evening was titled ‘Who’s Watching Who’ you could probably picture everything about them. (Authorship, Identity, the Masochism of the Spectator – blah blah blah.) Conrad’s Sixties films, thematically if not chronologically linked to the performance, were shown the previous night when us out-of-towners couldn’t make it. Putting the two together would have been a dream ticket! Alas, all we have to go on is a few juicy stills from the brochure.

What will quite possibly be the live performance of the year – and all for free!



Post script! Perhaps not worth a special visit, but if you’re in London between now and August 25th the Tate’s Street Art exhibition is worth sampling. This includes not only huge figures painted upon the building itself (and visible from right across the river), but a street art trail to follow. The quality of the work is varied (though Nano 4814 alone is excellent), but it’s almost worth following just as a device to make yourself meander the streets rather than march purposefully through them. Perhaps the coolest thing is that I kept coming across examples of street art that weren’t even part of the trail!