Monday, 28 June 2010

'THE PANDORICA OPENS', 'THE BIG BANG', UNCLE STEVE MOFFAT AND ALL



Funny how things turn out really.

It wasn’t the World Cup that was the proverbial game of two halves, but Steven Moffat’s two-part finale to Doctor Who. Russell Davies’ finales always felt like a film chopped in half. (Albeit spliced together with a contrived cliffhanger.) But here the two parts felt strangely unlike each other, like jigsaw pieces crammed together. The first was much closer to the Davis finales we know, all galloping horses’ hooves and spaceships filling the sky. And, as with Davies, it often felt like a shopping-list of set pieces put on film. Take the Doctor’s big speech to the amassed space fleets. Even if we are to accept they would bugger off simply from being barked at by him, what has this got to do with the rest of the story? Isn’t their plan to get the Doctor to open the Pandorica? For that matter, why is a Cyberman on guard?

There’s been much fan comment over the Axis of Evil Aliens. I’m wondering if its source was the cover of the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary special. Certainly the image of the Third Doctor recoiling from all kind of baddies boggled my young mind. It was a long time before I realised that this wasn’t some episode I somehow hadn’t seen, but a specially composed photo-op. Whereupon I immediately wished it could be one, with all the monsters, all at once, surely the greatest ever. Yet of course it’s a fannish notion. I may well be wrong about this source, but they appear within the story much like that photo-op cover. You line them up and then there isn’t a lot for them to do but pose.

The second part was much more like a “time travel farce”. (In a way that even other “timey wimey” tales weren’t, for example ’Girl in the Fireplace.’) The standard farce trope is of course someone getting mistaken for someone else, repeated until convoluted. Here characters get mistaken for somewhen else. It was very similar in both tone and content to  ’Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban’. With his fez and broom, the Doctor even resembled a Potter character. His appearance to the grieving Rory at the very beginning seemed to sum up the lurch. “Don’t worry. She’s dead now. But we’ll just turn this into a completely different kind of show!”

But then the second part turns into a game of two halves all by itself, the frenetic zipping about is over and we’re left with a much more intimate, more psychological story. In fact we’re pretty much where we began, at the start of the season.

Here the oft-made comparisons of Moffat’s work to fairy stories really come into their own. Pandroa’s Box becomes kind of merged with the Tardis, and the girl opens the box to let all the good stuff back in. It also works like ’Sleeping Beauty’, again in reverse. Instead of Beauty and all in her castle being put to sleep they’re the only ones awake, it’s the rest of the universe which needs Amy to remember it into life again. There’s a wedding instead of a christening, in which the uninvited guest arrives to complete the festivities.

Of course it’s a metaphor for Amy remaining connected to her imagination, not throwing it away in pursuit of the adult life we saw in ’Amy’s Choice’. In a potent image the stars are no longer in the sky but only in her mind, and as any SF fan knows stars stand for imagination. But there’s also a strange association of imagination with memory. Amy states almost in the same breath that the “raggedy Doctor” was her imaginary friend and “raggedy man, I remember you!”

After not one but two strange leaps, it’s inevitable that much got left behind. We don’t know what became of the Axis of Evil Aliens, and I don’t suppose we ever will. But in the sudden shift to Amy’s mind a lot of plot resolutions are conspicuous by their absence. We still don’t know River Song’s “spoilers”, or even what caused the cracks in time. As with the note Amelia finds on the Pandorica, we’re supposed to “stick around.” The suggestion is that the chief villain, and cause of the Cracks, lies unrevealed. In fact he even gets forgotten for the whole second half of the episode. After all that hard work scheming, he must surely be seething at the affront!

Of course continued serials live by the rule of tease. But there’s more to this than simply feeling strung along. Moffat’s first story, the one that got us all excited about him, was ’Empty Child’, almost completely devoid of ”timey wimey stuff” and mostly remembered for the titular kid with the sinister catchphrase. Even after his embracing of time paradoxes, we still most commonly thought of him as the deviser of sinister adversaries – the Clockwork Robots, the Weeping Angels.

This time we got the Weeping Angels back, if somewhat streamlined for mass production. But he’s given us no real additions to the pantheon of creepiness. (Unless you count the Smilers. Which we don’t.) To merely dangle a Big New Foe and deliver no goods on him whatsoever leaves a hole. The reveal that the Pandorica was empty, if great at the time, feels all too telling in retrospect. Has Moffat’s cranium simply ceased producing creepy foes, and he’s holding off delivering in the hope that lightning will re-strike? What is the Doctor without his monsters?

Instead of the sinister, Moffat’s subsequent works have shown a greater and greater reliance upon time and all that ever wimed with it. After ’Big Bang’ we are surely gorged on all that, even if it once was a good thing. To follow this with some ever-more-tangled criss-crossing of timelines would just be like Davies’ device of having an even bigger Dalek fleet at the end of every season. It’s time for a clean break. Yet these two running plotlines are inextricably linked to the timey wimey stuff, which does suggest more of the same. (I’m assuming that neither plotline will be resolved in the Christmas special, but right at the end of the next season. An “Egyptian Goddess loose on the Orient Express in space” sounds too much like River Song to be her, particularly so soon after she’s done Cleopatra.)

Ultimately, if the empty Pandorica was a telling symbol, so was the Doctor zipping here there and everywhere. There were some great moments along the way, but the overall experience was disjointed - bitty. It was great in parts, weak in whole. I’ve commented before how Davies’ finales worked to his worst instincts for ‘event TV’, when it was always the smaller moments that stayed with you. The Tardis pulling along a planet was groansome. The Doctor walking out in the rain, unremembered by Donna, was heartbreaking. Similarly, I will remember the Doctor being late for Amy’s wedding above all the time paradoxes. Or the headless Cyberman above the whole amassed Axis of Evil Aliens.

One final niggle was summed up by the Doctor’s line “your girlfriend isn’t more important than the whole universe.” Which of course, by the standards of ’New Who’, means that for some reason she is.

Though it started in the Sixties, ’Old Who’ was still a product of the post War era. As dull as the endless Nazi analogy stories sometimes got, there was an upside to this. Life was about responsibility, about doing the right thing. This led to an almost obsessive focus on sacrifice, on ordinary people fighting and even laying down their lives if it led to a greater good.

Moreover, the ‘companion’ was always the audience identification figure, the one who saw and responded to things the way you would. Their selling point was that they were an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Now they are always ‘special’. In fact poor Martha is the only New Doctor companion not to have been (at some point or other) The Most Important Being In the Universe. It smacks of our me-first society, as if we have become infantilised - not quite learnt that the world in our head and the world out there are separate places.

There’s an equally observable shift in War films. Old War films typically start with a cast of quite ordinary people who step up, often quite reluctantly, to fight for freedom. They’d often feature a helpful voiceover at the end explaining that it was these men, and the thousands of others like them, who stopped fascism. Modern war films are almost always about crack bands of troops, embarking on a mission on which the whole War might turn.

Of course it’s a waste of time even talking about things like this. People will just shrug out of confusion and disinterest, or tell me I “don’t get” it. (Much like I “don’t get” why poor people have to pay for the bankers’ screw-ups.) But the way that, of all things, Doctor Who has turned so ego-gratifying seems supremely indicative.

Coming Soon! More of this sort of thing...

Saturday, 19 June 2010

WHEN NO-ONE SEEMS AT HOME...

Whenever there are not updates here, it is because I am busily posting comments elsewhere that are extensive, sharply written and insightful.

That is normally two lies. At the moment it's only one.

(Andrew's comments are well worth reading in their own right. But you knew that already.)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

DOCTOR WHO 'VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR'


“Have you heard about the writer Ritchy Curtis?
Who wrote the Doctor and did miss
No point sitting on the fence
That was bad in the English sense.”

(With apologies to Jonathan Richman)


Every now and again a long-running genre fiction series will decide to splash out and get a Proper Writer in. Healthy cynicism aside, this can sometimes work. Harlan Ellison wrote well for both ’Star Trek’ and Marvel comics. But he had half a foot in genre fiction to start with. More normally, this very drive will propel them into getting a Real Proper Writer – someone with no previous on their record.

At which point the results are almost inevitably lose-lose. It’s like bringing in a master chef to flip burgers. His Egon Ronay training isn’t going to help him flip any better, in fact the guy they just deposed, who knew how to flip burgers, he did it better. What people tend to be good at is the thing that they are good at.

This notion then married the New Who fixation with wheeling in Big Historical Figures. These have not worked well in the past. By bringing in someone to impersona... sorry, play this figure, some of their gravitas is supposed to rub off. But it’s like sticking a statue up, then trying to cast it in your drama.

Combining these two is a perfect storm of good intentions and bad outcomes. You end up with a historical drama about the last years of Van Gogh’s life with a monster turning up and running round at arbitrary points. It’s like the ’Red Dwarf’ episode where a tank turns up in a Jane Austin adaptation. Except risible instead of funny.

Before anyone rushes to the Comments section, yes I got the idea that the monster was some Bunyanesque manifestation of Van Gogh’s despair. In fact I got it with the full force of his stabbing easel. Only he can see it! He kills it with his art! But if the monster’s there to do anything, it has to give us some insight into that despair. So if you want to argue that a giant, badly CGI’d chicken is an illuminating metaphor for manic depression, then the Comments section is now open.

The monster was such a poorly conceived afterthought that it didn’t really work on it’s own terms. Desperate to make it not just a giant, badly CGI’d chicken they launched a late-in-the-day campaign to portray “evil when I see it” as suddenly lost and alone. But the more they gave it it’s own identity the less it became Van Gogh’s embodied despair, there for him to slay and vanquish. It was lose-lose. (And was there any internal logic as to why only Van Gogh could see it?)

In fact, his despair is brought home much more in the scene where he’s unable to leave his bed. We all have moments a little like that, so we relate to him just as we realise his are so much more magnified. After such scenes, do we need all that stupid chicken chasing? I couldn’t help but think how much better it would have worked with all that rubbish removed, as a return to the old ‘true’ historicals.

Perhaps the time travellers are unable to give away their origins, and become convinced that if they could just explain how they know his art to be important... Perhaps there could be a left turn, when they realise they have just labelled his art “historically important” but when pressed can’t articulate exactly what is so great about it. Perhaps they finally desperately admit where they’re from and he just dismisses them as bigger absinthe drinkers than he is.



Alternately, the monster could have been made to actually mean something! There’s two all-too-brief suggestions of this, which might have worked if they’d been built on. One comes right at the beginning; as Van Gogh paints a wheat field, it rustles mysteriously amid the stalks. Later he part-enthuses, part-rages at the Doctor that nature calls him to “capture my mystery.” The appeal of his art is that it portrays nature not as a pretty scene for our contemplation, gardens assembled like a still life, but as a wild force, an entity in its own right. Trees thrust up through the ground, skies convulse. The monster could have become the nature he fought to capture in his art, a Captain Ahab always after the white whale.

But I’m forced to concede that, over at Behind The Sofa, Neil Perryman had the best idea. What if the Doctor had it right the first time? The invisible monster really was just in his mind, a for-real creature of the id. Used to encountering the real thing, the Doctor tests for it with ever-more-elaborate scanners fished from the Tardis’ closet. Finally he bleakly concludes that this is the one kind of monster he could never hope to defeat.

This might have even fixed that sickeningly schmaltzy ending. Some are those who have seen the particular soundtrack choice as a step too far. (A band called Athlete, whose market demographic seems to be anyone who finds Coldplay too edgy and challenging.) But the terrible truth is that it was all too terribly appropriate - it fitted right in with what was on the screen!

Yet the basic premise, underneath that Euro-mountain of saccharine, is actually quite a good one. Depression is a medical condition to be distinguished from a grumpy head day. It can’t be cured by buying the sufferer some nice things, any more than an evening out cures typhoid up.

So instead imagine this. Amy alone in the gallery, sobbing uncontrollably for the man she couldn’t save. Finally Bill Nightie happens by and agrees that, yes, these paintings really are quite moving. Or perhaps his despair is in some way cured, and Amy races to see the extra works only to find the room empty – with no demons to struggle against, he had no need of art and chucked his old easels on the fire.

Let’s gallantly close with some plus points about this episode:

1. It does try to get into the head of it’s historical subject (“hold my hand, Doctor, try to see what I see”) rather than just stand him up reverentially and have him say the sort of things he’d say. He becomes a character in his own episode.

2.The Doctor’s new-found fallibility was in evidence. He’s a genius at extemporising his way out of a crisis, but not someone you’d want by your bedside as you were beset by depression. His railing against waiting, and time dully passing “in the right order”, was masterful. And, thank heaven for simple mercies, his sonic screwdriver didn’t work!

3. Rory’s absence was well handled, alluded to but never laid on.

4. When they travel back to the future, the Tardis is plastered with handbills. As it rematerialises they immediately burn up. Yet Van Gogh’s art survives. It works precisely because the image is not laboured over.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

GIG-GOING ADVENTURES 1: WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM/ TIM HECKER/ WOLF EYES

I seem to have been attending a surfeit of gigs lately, at a rate too fast to write them all up – and now there’s a bit of a backlog. Looking back at this list, I seem to have perversely decided to ignore chronology and post them in pairings which just seem to suggest themselves. This also means posting two of the most recent outings first...

(At least this proves I don’t only stay in and watch ’Doctor Who.’)

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM
(The Engine Rooms, Fri 21st May)


A band composed of radical environmentalists from Washington state, were even formed at an Earth First gathering and live together in a rural commune outside of Olympia. The track title ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots’ might suggest their sound, which tends to longish soundscapes based in doom drone and even black metal. Partly, I was interested in the idea of political opinions being expressed through the music, rather than channelled into words shouted over some generic backbeat (aka the anarcho-punk trap).

You could certainly see their music as reflecting a view of nature apart from the pop music view, where it’s mostly held to be a twee place to snog in. Yet, though it would be true enough to say their sound reflects the elemental wildness of nature, there’s more to it than that. If you were in a fanciful mood, you could even describe it as having an ecology!

What really compels is the harmonics between the guitars, which bisect and throw up patterns which are so much more than the sum of their parts. You could try and reduce the resultant sound back to the constituent instruments, but it would be like reducing a forest back into the trees, birds and animals. The wood is more than the trees, and all that.

But for all the fantastic guitar harmonics my ears hit a huge stumbling block in the growelly grindcore vocals. (You know, the stuff that goes ‘MWUUUUUURGH! URRRRRGH!” a lot.) Though the set had long instrumental passages, whenever those vocals recurred I found it hard to do much except for wait for them to stop again. Yes I know they’re supposed to sound unmediated and irrecuperable, but by this point they actually sound about as generic as a Ritchie Blackmore guitar solo.

Ultimately I found myself wanting something more to happen. This may have partly been due to it being something of a short set, lasting an hour at most. Though it wasn’t just one-note heavy, their first album (available on Spotify) branches further into ambient and even folk passages. (Plus has a second, more folky vocal to counteract the grunting.) I’ve no idea whether they’ve now nixed those elements from their sound, or whether they just prefer doing the louder stuff live. Legend has it they prefer playing outdoors, so maybe it all works better in that setting.


TIM HECKER
(The Free Butt, Mon 17th May)


I did, at first, have my doubts. We’re past the era where rock music is the default mode of music expression, but most venues are still set up like it’s the Seventies and Nine Below Zero are in town. This problem is actually more manifest in smaller venues, for larger ones often double as arts centres and the like. An intimate space like the Free Butt is a great place to see a band. But Tim Hecker’s an electronica artist. You don’t want to feel like you’re part of a sweaty, heaving crowd. Because you won’t be, for one thing...

As it happens, things worked out well. This was probably in no small part down to the venue judiciously dimming the lights, as if tipping us off to focus on the mind’s eye.

Everything that was good about this set simultaneously makes it difficult to write about. It worked precisely as a soundscape, to envelop and transport you. It didn’t raise any issues, coin any concepts or do anything that might be rationalised into words. Some prefer to see that as a limitation, as art for art’s sake. But art isn’t a newspaper, it doesn’t always have to be telling us something. I see it more as music doing something only music can do. A song can tell a story, but so can many other mediums.

It reminds me of a panel transcript from an old ’Comics Journal.’ Complaining about that newfangled abstract art, some curmudgeon grumbled he’d once asked a painter what his work was about – “and he couldn’t answer me.” A slightly wiser soul pointed out “well that’s why he painted it.”

Here’s a video of Hecker not doing very much...


WOLF EYES
(The Engine Rooms, Tues 1st June)


Wolf Eyes, conversely, worked precisely because of what they were able to do with a rock format. It felt right seeing them in so ‘rocky’ a venue as the Engine Rooms, for they walk and talk (well, swagger) as much like a rock band as a noise outfit. They strike up a deranged cacophony which feels as elemental as being caught in a wildstorm. Yet at the very same time they’ll lay down what’s hazily recognisable as rhythm tracks over which the vocalist will intone - the CD I bought even came with a lyric sheet! By the very act of disdaining the strictures of rock music they feel just the way such music used to feel in days of yore – full of attitude, abandon and unconstrained by tradition, able to make up its own rules as it goes along.

We can of course want things both ways. Rock theatrics now feel tired, even ‘alternative’ rock may as well be Judas Priest. So we turn outside of it, only to find ourselves missing its visceral vitality. But every now and then our contradictory wishes get rewarded, with sets of such gut-punching physicality that chinstrokers would be thrown off like chaff!

Each member ‘triples up’ on stage between traditional rock tools, power electronics and home-made and extemporised instruments. (Including something which looked like a metal stool, down the legs of which they promptly started blowing!) But this didn’t come across as any kind of eclectic blend or statement about virtuosity.  Each new item, as soon as picked up, would simply shape to their hands. It was as if they were audaciously able to make their music out of anything. At times this might be something so apparently archaic as a guitar. Another, a contact mike dragged down a packing case would be all that was needed for a rhythm track.

This willful shaping of anything into their sound may sound very Faust-like, but there’s no sense of Faust’s devilish pranksterism.  Wolf Eyes seem more steeped in the in-your-face tradition of New York noise, such as Swans or Suicide, only pushed still further into the maelstrom. (At times they even blurted some Throbbing Gristle-style cornet.) While Faust provoke and antagonise their audience, New York noise would cow them into submission through the blunt instrument of their music.

But you might strike closer by calling them the Stooges of noise music. (Both band being Ann Arbor residents, after all.) Instead of adding influences, both preferred to boil (things down – only once having stripped the flesh from the ‘bones’ of chords and song structures the Stooges would stop while Wolf Eyes then boil down still further. There’s something gloriously unfinished about their raw slabs of sound, as if they’re first stirring up some blocks of noise then extemporising what to do with them. Rather than playing us their compositions, it was like they were unleashing forces they could themselves barely control.

It was like looking at some cut ‘n’ paste collage. Every element is in itself almost lumpenly simple, and the bold and jagged way they are sewn together part of the picture.

... in fact, let’s pursue that metaphor. I swear at times I felt that it was the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, and everything I thought I knew was been remorselessly stripped away before me! This has felt like a good year for gigs already, not yet half-way through and the reformed Swans still to appear. But Wolf Eyes must surely rank high amongst them...

PS I have no idea about the sudden congruence of wolf-derived band names. Last year it seemed every other band was called Deer-something, now its all gone lupine. Psychic TV always had a thing for wolves, maybe it’s all down to them...