Sunday, 28 October 2012

DYLAN CARLSON/ LED ZEPPELIN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES... SORT OF)



DYLAN CARLSON
The Hope, Brighton, 18th Oct

Early on into this gig, Carlson makes a comment which sets the tone - about being “a metalhead who became a folkie.” As a boyhood Led Zeppelin fan I never felt that was a choice I had to make, but it still sounds an intriguing journey to take. Regular readers... oh, however many times I make that joke it never tires... regular readers will know I saw Carlson's day-job band Earth this spring, and was suitably impressed. True, it was blues and country rock I detected in them more than folk, but there was still a pointer towards things nonny-nonny which might reward following.

Though for the most part what's being revived here is the folk revival – songs from Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, even the Kinks' 'Wicked Annabella'. (Which Carlson suggests was what primed him for his conversion.)

The instrumentation is pared down to guitar, vocals and a single drum, but rather than taking things back to a folky simplicity, all are overlaid with multiple effects. There's so much reverb on the singer that when she clicks her fingers she's as loud as the drummer. She sings in the 4AD style, all drama and allure, topped off by some Rapunzel hair. (A sense probably accentuated by her never speaking to the audience, and quite possibly not even looking at us.) Through the treatment and affectation I'm not sure I'd have recognised she was singing in English had I not known so many of the songs. Meanwhile Carlson does pretty much what he always does – slow, laconic guitar riffs, only one step away from drones.

Needless to say, I am not some folk purist who objects to those who raid the folk tradition for their own ends. Generations before have done that very thing, in fact what we now look back upon as the folk tradition is that very thing. There's no reason to imagine it was ever static beyond people's lack of imagination and slightly perverted wish-fulfilment. These things are like coral, it can grow bold and tall, but the only living part of it at any point is the top.

Yet I find myself wanting to like this more than I actually do. For all I say above it feels like it stays on the outside, noses pressed against a window which never opens. They feel like folk songs through a distorting glass, given warped reflection, rather than next-generation folk songs, mutated into new life. Perhaps significantly, I tended to like most the smaller number of self-composed songs.

If the folk influence on Earth is more buried, it's perhaps all the more effective for all that. Putting Carlson's expansive guitar lines inside song structures doesn't add to them, it corrals them, fences in their borderlessness.

File under 'interesting effort.' And remind me next time he's back in town with Earth.

Two tracks from London a few months ago, but pretty much the same set minus the drummer. The first track with the voice-over rather than vocals... I wish the whole set had gone more in that direction. If I recall rightly, for some reason in Brighton he did that against a recording.


LED ZEPPELIN: CELEBRATION DAY


Okay, a disclaimer! I didn't actually see Led Zeppelin live in the last few weeks. This is the film of their one-off reunion gig performed back in 2007, as a tribute to Atlantic records boss Ahmet Ertegun. But it was a chance to see one of the finest bands of the Seventies, quite possibly of all time, a band of whom I've been a huge fan since my early teens. And that feeling seemed infectious in Brighton's Duke of Yorks cinema, with people clapping and cheering after numbers and generally behaving as much as possible as if we were really at a live gig. (With that inevitable staple of gigs, a few choosing to behave like total assholes, but never mind that now...)

The reviews from the time... turns out, they were pretty much spot on. Not only do the band still have it, they may even be better live now than before – for they've finally cut those uber-long guitar solos and twenty-minute drum workouts which drew so much punky disdain. The result is a band who press the right buttons and then just keep pressing them.

But there's something more. When singer Robert Plant introduced a song they've never played before, I briefly wondered if they'd written a whole new track. In fact it was 'For Your Life' from the album 'Presence.' Which was actually their least well-receive album. (Wikipedia notes without irony it was “the slowest-selling studio album by the band... only managing to achieve triple-platinum certification in the United States.” They never toured it at the time (though they did perform subsequently). And there's a sense of unfinished business here – for that album's sound dominates the gig, even when they're playing tracks from other times.

It's truly great art when it can straddle apparent contradictions. The classic Zeppelin fanzine was called 'Tight But Loose', (inevitably now a website,) which gives us a clue which particular contradiction the band were able to overcome. While they could pound out heavy riffs with the best of them, they were of course never confined to that. Yet that masks a more important point. And even when they were doing that they never sounded regimented or plodding, the way it did with so many copycat bands.


Except 'Presence' pushed things towards that tight end like they'd never been before. Any fan can tell you why it couldn't be toured, Plant was laid up following a bad traffic accident. And that sense of confinement, combined with problems booking studio time, produced a strange mix of desperation and urgency which came to characterise the album. At a time where there was a virtual competition to stay in the studio as long as possible, 'Presence' was done in a mere eighteen days.

It was leaner, punchier, less flamboyant than anything before. When I first played it in my teenage bedroom I had the same confused reaction as anyone else, and didn't listen to it again for months. But I gradually came to understood it simply was doing what it wanted rather than what I had come to expect. Nowadays, I think of it as second only to 'Physical Graffiti.' (Ironically it was succeeded by 'The Song Remains The Same', the double-live album dedicated to the uber-long guitar solos and drum workouts which 'Presence' cut against, the only Zeppelin album I didn't keep hold of.)

It's possible that the much-delayed performing of 'Presence' has as much to do with the gig's new sound as changing popular tastes. Certainly 'The Song Remains the Same', from the band's most prog-friendly album 'Houses of the Holy', is the nearest thing to a misfire in the gig. (Though admittedly the version of 'No Quarter', from the very same album, is superb.)

The only downside of this domination of 'Presence's sound is that, like the album itself, it cuts out the softer, more acoustic side of the band. Early tours had a midsection where the band would don barstools to get folky. The only comparable tracks here alternate folky with rocky sections such as 'Ramble On' and the inevitable 'Stairway to Heaven.'

Despite all this adulation, I am happily agnostic over whether the band reform again or not. Their final album, 'In Through The Out Door' was already pushing in a post-Zeppelin direction, and notably is the only album not be get visited in this gig. Drummer John Bonham's death, however tragic and untimely, may well have just accentuated the inevitable. Plus I saw Plant's new outfit, the Band of Joy, at the Electric Proms last year, and thought them excellent. Should they ever play again, I would certainly have no complaints. Should they all be too busy with new business to look back at the old days... well, we have our memories and this film.

Tracklist for the gig is here. (And yes that's right, they don't actually play 'Celebration Day'!)


Thursday, 25 October 2012

“THE EXTRACT YOU THOUGHT IS THE EXTRACT YOU GOT” - THE DERANGED ENERGY OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART



This time YouTube Junkies strike gold! The utterly awesome Captain Beefheart live in Paris from 1980, a mere two years before he gave up music. The man of which John Peel exclaimed “there was never a greater, not even Mark E Smith!”

Most commonly, Beefheart fans prize the early 'Trout Mask Replica' and regard his Virgin era as naught but second helpings. But, perhaps because this album ('Doc At the Radar Station') was the first of his I ever owned, I've always held it close to my heart.

The deranged mutant funk, the stop-start structures seemingly obeying some higher calling than conventional song composition, the sound as if each instrument is a spring permanently coiling and uncoiling, it all seemed a fellow-traveller of post punk. (In much the way Bowie's Berlin trilogy did.) Perhaps partly because, however off the wall it gets, it never stops being a really catchy dance number!

There's five tracks uploaded from the gig, each with their own page. (Check out the links from the clip below.) But not only is this a particularly fine version of 'Dirty Blue Gene', including the (ad-libbed?) line “I hope Reagan don't start a fight”, it contains the great man's credo - “if you got ears, you gotta listen!”

Sunday, 21 October 2012

LIS RHODES' 'LIGHT MUSIC'

Tate Modern, to 28th October


I like the idea of installation art. In fact I tend to like it a good deal more than the reality. In the idea, you immerse yourself in an entire environment. Rather than standing before a framed picture hoping it has some effect upon you, you're already there – inside the flows of the artist's imagination, like some 'Fantastic Voyage' trip.

But all too often the reality feels gimmicky and unfocused, a grab-bag of pieces which don't really fit together or show any signs of having been thought through. It's like a collection of phrases masquerading as a novel.

Take for example 'The Tanks', the programme of “art in action” in the new wing of the Tate Modern. Things can be inventively eye-catching in the way that adverts can. You can wander through them quite happily. Just don't stand and look or, whatever you do, stop to consider any of this. That would be like paying attention to the little man behind the curtain.

What the works are most like is the space they're in - just not as good. For this new wing, with it's industrial-megalith look, is both assault on and tonic for the senses. It's the standard thing with contemporary galleries. The building is more stimulating than the works it's supposed to house.

Then, just when I was writing the whole thing off as a non-event, I tried out the final room. The room that feels such an after-thought you even have to walk through another piece to get to it. And encountered Lis Rhodes' 'Light Music'.

Where everything else was a non-sum of its parts, this was elegant in it's simplicity. Two light projectors at the ends of the room point at screens behind each other. The black-and-white abstract images they project actually become the score, read by the projector as a kind of notation which produces electronic sounds. You see exactly what you hear. And you see everything - unlike the projection box at the cinema, the projectors sit in open sight. Even the beams of light, which we normally think of as a kind of pipe, tramsitting information which only gets decoded once it hits the screen, become objects in themselves. The images are often so simple you can see them replicated in light.

As the projectors simply sit on the floor, it's pretty much impossible to check out the work without crossing the projected beam. Though the other pieces in the Tanks used projections, whenever someone wandered in front of one it felt intrusive – like someone jumping up in the cinema. Here it felt very much part of the process. I stood and watched the new arrivals. Some hugged the edges, only tentatively stepping forward. Others plunged straight onto the dancefloor, interacting with the projections. It worked like a kind of discotheque for modernists. Rhodes has commented she wanted to see “the audience engage with the film, rather than being outside of it.”

Remember the sales line for the game 'Othello' - “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master”? This piece works something like that. You can see each of the few elements straight away. But add them together, find an audience and the combinations then become limitless. The more you stay, the more you become aware of the changes and shifts, of the different effects different attendees bring with them. “The concept of cinema has always tended to straighten things out”, Rhodes has said. “'Light Music' does not meet this prescription. It is more or less different every time it is screened.”

In all honesty, I'd never even heard of Rhodes before. Apparantly she's been at it since the Sixties, with this piece dating from 1975 and is still up to stuff today. Here she is, describing her work and berating the lack of women composers...

Monday, 15 October 2012

WHAT THEY SAID!

...another entry in a series where I basically agree with someone(s) else, this time round it's Bob and Roberta Smith...


Friday, 12 October 2012

JEFFREY LEWIS/ PATTI SMITH/ THE FLAMING STARS (FURTHER ADVENTURES INTO GIG-GOING)



JEFFREY LEWIS + THE JUNKYARD
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 6th Sept

Lewis starts things off the way he intends to go on before he's even begun his first number. Which was all to the good, for that first number was made to wait awhile. Treating us to his theory that anticipation is better than realisation, he reasons that to eke out this supreme moment of anticipation would give us the best of all possible words. So he spins off into elaborating his theory with endless anecdotes, several of which seemed to feature Donovan's father, all seemingly off the cuff.

...which really is the ideal way to start the show. If I told you Lewis was good at making stuff up, you might comment that was a common feature among songwriters. But Lewis looks like he's making stuff up, he foregrounds it, gives everything a freewheeling discursive quality. His patented performed comic strips and 'low budget music videos' often end with the line “...that's all I've found out so far.” One guy standing nearby seems to be writing down what he says. That's nerdier than I am!

That troubadour element to folk music, that combination of describing life as it is while lurching off into the frontiers of the imagination, is usually the first thing to go. Folk becomes enlightened individuals treating us to their elevated thoughts and rarified feelings. With Lewis it's the first thing you find. The combination of sharp observation with free association and crazy flights of fantasy is probably something we now associate more with stand-up comedy than songwriting, whose rhymes and meters is supposed to even everything out. But with Lewis the line is thin.

Though I've never seen two subsequent nights of one tour, I'd like to imagine they differ a fair bit. Some bands you can love seeing, but once it's done and over and you don't necessarily need to see them again. Much in the way you don't always need to see a film, read a book or visit a city a second time. Lewis I've seen several times over already, and keep coming back for more.

Lewis has said he's happy with the anti-folk tag he's commonly given, but only because no-one really knows what it means. So here's a stab at it. Lewis' schtick is to collide folk with apparantly irreconcilable elements and then harvest the sparks. The most obvious of which is punk. He made a whole album of Crass covers (with added tunes), and tonight gives us a slideshow lecture (yes, really) on the history of punk in the Lower East Side.

...but it's more general than that. Lewis is sharp and witty in that detached hipster way, but however self-referential his lyrics get there somehow remains something genuine and affecting. This is true, I kid not, even of the song about eating alone in a restaurant, then having to persuade the waitress you're not leaving, it's just that you have to take your backpack with you to the bathroom. Perhaps it's the happy ending. (The waitress offers to look after the backpack.)

There's no Crass covers tonight but us oldies are treated to a rollicking version of the Fall's 'Kurious Orange.' And he even draws comic strips! If he didn't exist, I might have to make him up...

Not from Brighton or even a genuine live gig clip. Just go with it, okay...



PATTI SMITH + HER BAND
Brighton Dome, Wed 12th Sept

Regular readers, should such a thing exist, will know I have been to and enthused over Patti Smith gigs before. Last time I commented “there's nothing you can possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other, so we may as well get started.”

We may as well get started.

I find the events to have such a strong and heady atmosphere about them that it's palpable. She must be met by of the biggest ovations I've seen for simply coming on stage, and she has each time I've seen her. You don't feel anyone is there because they've fancied a nice night out, or they've heard it's a cool thing to do. People wave and sing along with little prompting, but without it feeling like some cliched rockist ritual. She waves back, not regally or like a rock star, but for all the world like she's catching up with some old friends. It might sound somewhat hyperbolic to describe the feeling as love. But on the other hand, I can think of no other word which fits better. With Smith there's no dodgy mid-career filler albums, no celebrity endorsements to contend with. The real deal? I'm not sure they come realer.

This was most similar to the time before last, which was coincidentally in this same venue. But that was more of an all-star affair, a career celebration. Last time she took mock umbrage over being asked about a new album.This time there's a new album, 'Bhanga', to unveil. I'm not sure whether that's the first time that's been the case, but it's certainly the first time it's felt the case. (Alas I'm yet to hear the new album. Tracks from it sounded good in the main, but I'll focus here on older stuff just because it's easier to talk about.)

Perhaps the key word is 'smooth'. Tracks often varied from the recorded versions, including a version of 'Babelogue' which paid tribute to the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. But they didn't feel like they varied much from the rehearsed versions. Not only the extemporised, free-form breakouts were absent but the longer, earlier numbers which originally spawned them, 'Birdland', 'Land' or 'Radio Ethiopia' were unvisited.

In that sense it was almost the antithesis of the home family band I saw last time. This was a unit pumping out classic tracks like they could do it all night. Yet while that previous night had been a little too rough to always be ready, this time you sensed edges which once existed were being smoothed down. The lows were gone, but with them went some of the highs. Some of the instrumental breaks bordered on the slick, such as a guitar into to 'Free Money', absent from the original. (Yet an instrumental section added to the middle of 'Southern Cross' was nothing less than exhilerating.)

But all my comparing and contrasting will ultimately come to naught. I don't think there's a best gig to have gone to, not in the sense of some Platonic ideal reached which meant you could skip the rest. The gigs work more like here albums do, with each having it's own character and appeal, like facets of a larger shape which can only be presented one side at a time. She's now 65, and I don't think those facets are used up yet...

There seems a dearth of decent footage from the European tour for some reason. So instead here's 'Gloria' from Detriot...



THE FLAMING STARS
Green Door Store, Tues 2nd Oct

“My world fell apart, brick by brick,
My guardian angel took the day off sick,
It takes one hand to hold the bottle,
The other to pour,
But I can't seem to get up off the floor”

When fliers for this gig first appeared I'd have to admit to having no idea these Festive Fifty stalwarts were still around! But it was, you know, one of those pleasant surprises. And indeed though dating back to '94 it seems their brand of garage rock, tinged with German Expressionism then laced with sardonic humour,  is still around.

It occurs to me that these days they may only play irregularly, for it takes them a little while to get into their stride. But soon, instead of merely starting and finishing, tracks start to surge ahead, filling with outbreaks of swelling organ and thumping drums. The vocals remain restrained throughout, less sung than muttered beneath the frontman's breath, but take on an undercurrent of feeling. Indeed, my thought may have been on the money, for afterwards I read they've not released a record for six years and as of now have no further gigs lined up.

But that slow, ease-in sort of a start... it's also kind of appropriate. The archetypal John Peel band took on a whole host of influences, often as much European as American. But by the time they'd distilled them it always ended up sounding somehow uniquely British, never a paler imitation of anything else.

Of which the Flaming Stars are a classic example. They're simultaneously expressive and reticent. They're not a band that leaps on stage and commands attention. They're more like a mumbling drunk seated sullenly at the end of the bar, fumbling with his glass, not meeting your eye, who only gradually draws you into his orbit – hooking you in with his sharp observation and even sharper wit.

It's tribute night to John Peel (who died this month in '04), and frontman Max Decharne quietly but decisively tells us the band owe everything to him. But it's only afterwards that I read that, doubling as a journalist, he was actually the last person to interview Peel. Not some assignment-meeting hack, not even someone who knew and appreciated what Peel had done, but someone who'd been a direct beneficiary of it all. If Decharne doesn't show up very often, it's not because he doesn't know his timing.

”Well, you look down as things look up
No-one comes to wish us luck
Well, you can close my eyes and shut the door
And I can't seem to get up off the floor”

Not from Brighton, not even a live clip. But worth watching nonetheless...


Coming Soon! Um.... stuff....

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

THE YARD SALE OF OUR RIGHTS BEGINS HERE...


George Osborne has told the Tory Conference "Workers, replace your old rights of unfair dismissal and redundancy with new rights of ownership."



And why stop there? I'd surrender my right to appeal to Trading Standards for a teasmaid, provided they threw in an extended warranty. But I'm not giving up the presumption of innocence for anything less than an iPad.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

DOCTOR WHO: 'THE POWER OF THREE'/ 'THE ANGELS TAKE MANHATTAN'



'THE POWER OF THREE'

Techno-fear has long been a staple of science fiction, so perhaps it's not surprising it's more modern offshoot gizmo-phobia has been a recurrent feature in New Who. There's been mobile phones that controlled people's minds, SatNav systems that have tried to take over the world, that DVD recorder that grew teeth and chased the Doctor round the Tardis... actually, I may have made that last one up, but there's been a lot of them. They're based of course on the unfamiliarity of supposedly everyday objects, gadgets we yearn to own but then can never quite control. They've also become something of a cliché and we've grown to yawn at them.

But this Chris Chibnall episode finds a clever twist. Here we have black boxes, that ubiquitous term for something too technical for most of us to understand. But they're alien from the outset. They arrive unannounced and we just find ourselves getting used to them. And isn't it like that? Technology just arrives one day, in such a way it may as well have fallen from the sky. And pretty soon you've forgotten what life was like before it. Which is an ingeneous premise. (If, as Mike Taylor points out, one that owes something to Nicholas Fisk's novel 'Trillions.')

It's a premise, it should be conceded, that leads precisely nowhere. Years from now, the resolution to this will be a quiz question to which only the nerdiest of all will remember the answer. Well you'd guess the gist of it, it's another bog-standard alien invasion. Except these aliens are boogiemen aliens who want to destroy rather than enslave us. For reasons... well, probably there are reasons. Even Stephen Berkoff's performance as Boogieman Number One (out of an ensemble of one) can't stop the whole thing feeling less than half-hearted. Finally, he conveniently pops out the way in a puff of plot contrivance. (While his hospital orderly underlings seem to just plain disappear.) Leaving the Doctor free to press the 'stop' and 'reverse' buttons on the 'kill all humans' console. It's not even a weak ending to the episode, because it's not even an ending to the episode. It's just a generic one ordered through the mail then coupled onto the main storyline.

(My idea would have been to seed in some more straightforward alien invasion, duly noted and neuteured by the Doctor. Then at the end someone picks up a cube, asks how they were involved and everyone realises they weren't. Whereupon the cubes round the world simultaneously jack-in-the-box. They were only ever someone's idea of a cosmic jape, the equivalent of ringing Earth's doorbell and running away.)

But never mind all that. If its perfunctory its not really the focus of the episode. Formally this is actually quite similar to 'The Lodger'. The point is actually the waiting about. Or more precisely, the Doctor waiting about with humans. Time passing slowly. And in the right order. Except this time, there's a reason for the waiting. (It's the only way to figure out what the cubes are up to.) And instead of hanging around with some wet bugger nobody bloody cares about, this waiting's with Amy and Rory.


We finished the last series on the announcement the big new theme is the Doctor being Marvel dead. Which, you can't help noticing, it hasn't been at all. The last episode went by with that getting nary a mention. Instead it's been about Amy and Rory realising they'll soon be taking their separate road from the Doctor. Was it a plan, or did they fall backwards into the idea that the couple now live at home, in domestic bliss, with the wheezing groaning noise only breaking in at intervals in their lives? That mate who just won't settle down, who you'd like to imagine you'd stay in touch with even as you know in your heart you won't. (Rose has a subplot over the infrequency of her visits home, and her Mum's fear they'd one day stop.)

Whichever, it works well. (Which most likely means they did fall backwards into it.) It's the question presaged by 'Amy's Choice,' those long seasons ago. There's real life, here at home, and there's the other life aboard the Tardis. The Doctor inserting himself into their real life for a bit doesn't bridge the two, it accentuates the clash. The power of three is set for some long division.


'THE ANGELS TAKE MANHATTAN'

Sometime, in the years this show was off-air, it reached it's perfect midpoint. It doesn't really matter when it was, as no episodes were being made at the time so there was no-one there to see it happen. But it means we've been left with an excluded middle.

Take the pacing. Time was, the universe would be placed in peril from some imperceptibly slow source, possibly from imperceptible slowness itself. Daleks would threaten to get round to exterminating you in a minute, but had a couple of other things to get on with first. You'd forever be checking the remote, thinking the pause button must have been pressed by mistake. Even though remotes hadn't been invented yet.

Then, by the time the show was back, it had already hit the other extreme. Daleks didn't get time to exterminate you before being replaced by something else in the ceaseless whirlygig of change. The Doctor would quickfix everything while speakingsofasthiswordsrantogether, quite possibly by speakingsofasthiswordsrantogether. (I'm not really sure which, it all went by so fast.) This time it was the fast forward button you'd check. Which had been invented by then, but it still didn't seem to be much help.

Also, and more to the point here, Old Who was something which happened on the surface. A man in a rubber mask who wanted to take over the universe normally represented a man in a rubber mask who wanted to take over the universe. There seemed little scope for subtext. Which, given the times, we would probably have imagined was some pet monster of the Silurians, dragging the unwary down into unexpected layers of meaning and allusion.

But with New Who, it's not like you can now find a subtext by digging into the text. Like in volcanic activity the below-ground pushes the ground around, sometimes erupting to overtake it completely. At first glance, there's all the familiar elements of an SF show. But they're never lined up in even an approximation of a coherent plot structure. It's themes and symbols in search of a storyline they can hang off. Actually, it's more like themes and symbols who have given up on a storyline ever showing up, so drape themselves as widely as they can to cover over the whole question of what they're hanging off. New Who effectively reversed Old Who, went straight from plot-driven to theme-driven. It's like we can choose whether to have the word or the meaning, just so long as we don't want both.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest every image is just there for its symbolic value. A whole bunch of them are there just so they can be images. The guy in the rubber mask who wants to take over the Universe, he's there so the Doctor had someone to struggle against. But the Statue of Liberty as an Angel... it doesn't really do much, does it? It doesn't advance on you if you turn your back, as had previously seemed something of a custom among the Angels. It's there as a photo-op. It's there simply to look cool. But let's accentuate the positive and focus here on the images which actually do something.

This episode, what was it all about? Ostensibly it's a story about the Angels abandoning their hunter-gathering ways and setting up a people farm. Which is an intriguing notion. But of course no-one can actually be bothered with any of that. It's so thrown-together you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the decoy for the actual plot. Why can the Doctor never visit New York again? Are Amy and Rory permanently stuck there now, and if so how? If they are so cut off from the Doctor, how come Amy can publish River's book? Even the Angels can't be arsed with following their own rules, such as the one where they can't look at each other.

Because of course creating a workable plot would be pointless busywork, like hoovering behind the sideboard. Because of course we've all known for months what this episode is really about – this is where Rory and Amy part ways with the Doctor. Everything else is built around that emotional payoff. Not in the sense of steps leading up to a point, so much as figures arranged around the centrepiece of a diorama.

Back in 'The Chase', in those distant Sixties, the Empire State Building ranked alongside the Marie Celeste, haunted houses and other planets. It was an honorary alien setting. This time our heroes go to New York and hang out in Central Park just like carefree youth, because that's the sort of thing carefree youth do nowadays. The juncture, the leap into the fantastical, happens when they get transported to a Thirties New York of gumshoe detectives and flophouse hotels, explicity coded as something out of a pulp novel.

Oh, and Angels. Moffat may regard the Angels as his Daleks, his legacy to the show. While the Silence hung around a bit (actually quite a lot), the Angels are the foes he chooses to bring back. But he's bringing them back here and now for a more specific reason. In the 'Radio Times' he described them as “more than monsters... agents of fate.” (6-12/10/12) The Angels, at least in their appearance here, represent mortality. They take you to a hotel, a parody of a home, virtually a temple to impermanence, and confront you with your own death. (In a scene clearly inspired by the ending of '2001', but then this show has always liberally borrowed from other sources.)


Rory and Amy, they're getting older. She needs reading glasses now. They're aging faster than their friends. That last point makes no logical sense. We've only just seen in 'Power of Three' how the Doctor can whisk them away, then take them home at the very point they've left. But it's there to make symbolic sense. The Angels only seem interested in people-farming Rory, but will take Amy if she comes their way. They pay little attention to River, the Doctor none at all. Which makes no logical sense. But it's there to... oh, you're ahead of me.

There's been a Peter Pan and Wendy element to Amy and the Doctor from the beginning, the eternal boy crashing into her life and taking her away. The underlying sense that Doctors live forever, but not so little girls. As early as 'Amy's Choice' she was asked to take a side between life adventuring with the Doctor and a life at home with Rory. Then the choice turned out to be a false one. This time it isn't. Both times she chose Rory.


...which, perhaps oddly, is another feature of the Angels that's been there from the start. In 'Blink' Sally Sparrow receives a letter from her friend Kathy Nightingale explaining she'd been thrown back in time, but had led a rich and happy life, merely in Sally's past. An almost exact precedessor of the letter Amy leaves the Doctor. The Angels are some fuzzy symboite of a foe to be defeated and an acceptance of mortality.

Even the confusion over where Amy and Rory actually go - that kind of works symbolically. Some thought they went back to the Hotel. Others they only went back in time, and were somehow cast adrift from the Doctor, but together. For my part, I doubted Moffat knew any better than the rest of us, so speculation seemed somewhat beside the point. But, in some literary variant of the Heisenberg principle, they're both. They're trapped in a hotel room, a box that quite definitely isn't bigger on the inside. Life outside of the Tardis is a kind of imprisonment. But they're also together, free to live out their natural lives the way they wanted.

In 'Who', it almost goes without saying the companions are us. And there's an 'extended gap year' element of modern culture, which may well be epitomised by jaunts to Central Park. We're not expected to have “settled down” by the age of twenty-five any more. We're told that the Thirties are the new Twenties, and the rest of it. Women have children later. So yes, we can play with Peter Pan for longer now. But that point when the eternal statue touches you, that was only ever deferred. Our responsibilities aren't a book without an ending. They're a hotel room you can never run from.

So, lift up the hood and we have a coherent and even quite effective piece of work. It's just that you can't slam down the hood and drive it anywhere. Somewhere, in some parallel reality, there was a show where you didn't have to choose between those things.

...AND SO, TO SUM UP...

River is forever telling us “Rule One”, then giving us a different rule. My Rule One for this series was “have low expectations.” Which kind of worked out. This series did give us what we least wanted, a through line. But it was an 'emotional journey' through-line, seen through the peepholes of a row of separate adventures, not an overwhelming clutch of clues and conundrums. Mapping your way through it is entirely different proposition. In that sense the show was trying to dig itself out of the hole it's been in, and was for the most part digging upwards. Chris Chibnall wrote two episodes in a row I felt vaguely positive about, words I never expected to find myself typing.

But, even so, you can't dodge that eternal finger.

People have often complained when episodes have been solved through pressing a 'scenario reset' button. For example, I have said that. But this show's longevity rests on it's own inbuilt reset button, it's ability to tear out the last page, regenerate and morph into something new.

And now's the time to press that button. Forget this talk of a “second half” to this series, like that made any sense anyway. Not just no more Ponds. Thanks for everything to Steven Moffat, to Doctor Eleven, the logo, the Heath Robinson Tardis and all the rest. The fact that there were good times is the very reason to end things now. The first rule of showbiz isn't “leave 'em wanting less.” And I know because I checked.

What we need now is new New Who.

Monday, 1 October 2012

DOCTOR WHO: 'DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP'/ 'A TOWN CALLED MERCY'




DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP

Okay, this is a classic example of scripting as reverse-engineering. Start with a snappy title. Then dream up a list of photo-op events, such as the Doctor riding a Triceratops or robot guards plundered from 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', and then string them quite casually into some semblance of order. Take explorer Riddell and Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, hitching along for ill-explained reasons, adding little to the mission bar colour and banter.

...which is precisely the way they should be playing it right now. Okay there are some strange plot holes. The opening cliffhanger would seem to suggest dinosaurs can operate lift buttons. But remember when they tried casting long lines ahead of them on this show? Those lines just got tangled in some terrible cerfuffle, until we neither knew nor cared where we were. At this point I am quite happy to sit and watch the prettily coloured beads shine, and not worry so much over how they're joined together. Through-lines? I'm through with the things. This was like every pulp adventure you've ever read, all happening at once.

Besides, the show has a history of simply throwing up strange and surreal imagery, like an Advent Calendar of oddness. It has never really done that scientific kind of science fiction. And some of us like to see beaches on spaceships, or workmen opening their lunchboxes in space. (That image of Rory's Dad was clearly based on the classic 'Lunch Atop a Girder' photo of Manhatten construction workers, as well as an update on the earlier image of Amy floating outside the Tardis. But it works better for both those things. It's juxtaposition of the everyday English with the fantastical is virtually the epitome of the show. And what could be more mundanely English than a workman with a thermos?)




After the Doctor's Marvel death didn't really seem to be going anywhere soon, it was nice to have a reference to it which was integral to the story. Solomon can't identify him, so goes after Nefertiti to enslave instead. It's like an anti-through-line. Somebody is not after the Doctor. The fate of the universe may not be at stake. He's back to simply being a mystery man who shows up, just like he was in the old days before we had to pretend we were clever. (Though admittedly the story is contingent on UNIT calling him in.)

If things didn't seem to bode well after Chris Chibnall's previous Silurian escapade (dissected here), in a way this reversed everything. One of my main prior complaints was that they grafted a gravitas and significance onto an old Third Doctor story, while functioning less well than the original. Here Chibnall seemingly serves up a mere escapade, and yet beneath that whizz-bang title there's something of a green metaphor going on. Look at those two crossed spaceships. The Silurian ship, wave powered, made of interlocking pods is a visualisation of an ecosystem. It's not just an ark aimed at the Earth, in a sense it's also a metaphor for our home planet. (Which is almost the final image.)

...while Solomon's ship, much smaller and dependent on the larger entity, represents the predatory world of commerce. He looks at the genesis of life and sees only a sale. Though within the plot a raptor cripples him, this is of course the real reason for his hobbling. Genre fiction likes to scar or disable it's villains, to portray them as some distorted reflection of good. But this is something further, the crippled Solomon is placed outside of life, dependent upon others. He's reliant on his only companions, two rather disgruntled robots.

Though let's not get too hung up on this. For one thing, most viewers will be oblivious to all of this. (Assuming it's not merely in my head to start with.) And making Solomon a piratical black marketeer more easily dresses him as a villain, sidestepping rather than confronting the usual defences of capitalism. (His business plan involves neither making anything nor providing any employment, unless you count the two robots.) And as Mark Fisher has argued,an apparant anti-capitalism can come all too easily to the mass media. “It is capital which is the great ironist, easily able to metabolise anti-corporate rhetoric by selling it back to an audience as entertainment.” The main reason to appreciate it may be that it adds a dimension to the surface story.

Alas, however, every silver lining has a cloud. What has crossed many about this episode is the Doctor's final slaying of Solomon. (See for example, Andrew Hickey's or Mike Taylor's response.) Now it may seem excessive to 'civilians' to see grown men get so worked up over such a thing. Yet we are aware, thank you very much, that nobody is actually dead. Just as we're aware that, in this sort of thing, when the hero is unwilling to fell his foe the job is just delegated to some script contrivance. (Not much of an option in real life.) And it does seem strange even to myself that, after making one passing reference to the explicit and quite possibly excessive violence in the new 'Dredd' film, to get all fired up over a bad guy tastefully blowing up off screen.

But one of the attractions of this show is that it's (more or less) avoided making it's protagonist a conventional two-fisted hero and has (every now and again) taken a questioning approach towards violence. (Unless you count the Sixth Doctor. Which we don't.) This would seem something worth hanging on to. And what's really the problem here isn't that the Doctor resorts to the ultimate sanction, it's that he does so so casually. There's no “have I that right?”, there's “let's have a big explosion for the finale.”

People speculated at the time that this was intended to set things up for a new round of 'dark Doctor', and was just being introduced clumsily. Yet we've had all this 'dark Doctor' stuff before without it really going anywhere. Besides, writing with the benefit of hindsight, there seems little sign of this being taken up in further episodes. What seems more likely is a fumbled attempt at a throw. Chibnall intends to make Solomon a return villain, so feigns at killing him off to try and make the reappearance a surprise.


'A TOWN CALLED MERCY'

This just in! Some people neither entirely good nor bad!

...well let's not be too harsh. It's not a bad idea for a genre show to question it's own polarised presumptions and moral absolutes from time to time. And a Western is a traditional setting for a morality tale. In the days of the Wild West, you couldn't just phone justice up. If you wanted to see it happen you had to make it happen. For all the snobs who scoff about white hats and black hats, Westerns were the arena where all those questions were set loose. A good writer could do something with that.

The only trouble is, they got Toby Whithouse to write this.

Well, let's try to give him a fair trial. From the title, 'Dionsaurs on a Spaceship' was telegraphed as a big rollicking adventure. For the title this was telegraphed as an allegory. Which is, you know, fine. Westerns were rarely about recreating the world of the Wild West, any more than pirate stories were really about pirates. They were a way of framing questions in an arena which made them seem more live and direct. But the setting needs enough of a sense of solidity, or we fail to relate and lose any interest in what goes on. (Unless you're aiming to highlight the way the Wild West is now a received image, like the Star Trek episode 'Shadow of the Gun.' Which they're not, so I don't know why I bother to mention it.) It's a balance creators of Westerns don't always make. For every 'High Plains Drifter' there's a 'Quick and the Dead.'

And there were some promising concepts thrown in along the way. Such as the line of stones that surround the town. In Westerns, towns are far apart with plenty of wilderness between them. Outlaw gangs come a-shootin' out of that wilderness, then need driving back into it. The line of stones just enshrines what's already implicit, a magic circle to keep out the bad spirits, like home base in a game.

But actually, let's just forget the trial. Let's just grab the guns and drive Whithouse out of town. Though all his previous episodes have been (to put it kindly) trite rubbish, so wild did his aim seem from capturing the tone or characters we know, it was hard here to believe he'd ever written for the show before.

Plus it failed repeatedly to maintain it's own premise. The Cyborg for example is only after the war criminal Jex, and won't endanger innocents. Except for when he does. (I would list more, but that would involve having to spend longer thinking about this episode.) It pulled off a remarkable combination in in being both simplistic and incoherent, acting sophisticated while doing dumb.

Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as bad as 'Unicorn and the Wasp'.

Coming Soon! The other two episodes. Just as soon as I get five minutes...