Friday, May 29, 2020

Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

After my post on Kingdom Come, a shrewd friend recommended me Alex Ross's earlier work, Marvels, originally published as a four-part mini-series in 1994. Written by Kurt Busiek, Marvels revisits apparently well-known events from Marvel Comics storylines, but from the perspective of an ordinary human. Phil Sheldon is an ambitious news photographer, torn between wanting to be an active participant in history and the debilitating sense that superheroes leave the rest of us impotent.

It's a brilliant idea, beautifully presented with high quality painted artwork on high quality paper. The endnotes show how cleverly the plot weaves between events established in decades-worth of comics - though much of this stuff was new to me, a sporadic comics reader. More telling, I thought, was the way the story acknowledges the contradictions in the history: Human Torch and Sub-Mariner battle as mortal enemies, then are friends, then battle Nazis together, then battle one another again when Sub-Mariner for some reason turns on humanity... I guess readers - fans - familiar with the original stories would know what occasioned these abrupt switches of loyalty and motive, but Sheldon's distance from the heroes means it is here left unexplained.

Sheldon never gets close to his marvels - there's no exclusive access as when Lois Lane interviews Superman, or when Peter Parker tells us what Spider-Man is really like. The closest encounter, when Sheldon is near Spider-man at the time of Gwen Stacy's death, is still at a remove. The result is that for all the years he studies them, the heroes remain out of reach, aloof, and Sheldon can offer little insight or perspective.

That is probably the point. At the human level, Sheldon can intercede, such as when he calls out the hypocrisy of the newspaper editor Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man stories:


Or there's the moment he turns on the population of New York for their (and his own) fickleness, praying for salvation in times on crisis and then turning on the superheroes the moment danger has passed. What with everything at the moment, the following panel struck a chord:



That feels just as real and innovative for the medium as the extraordinary artwork, and I can understand the impact Marvels had on its original release. Stan Lee, no stranger to hyperbole, speaks in his foreword of it being, "a new plateau in the evolution of illustrated literature" - that last word a claim to respectability, high art, the canon.

Such pretensions are of their time. Marvels is solemn and portentous in that 1990s comics way. The engaging, playful wit of the Marvel movies is seriously lacking. It's an impressive, arresting accomplishment, but feels more DC than Marvel.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Beautiful and Beloved, by Roderic Owen and Tristan de Vere Cole

On twitter a few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that Tristan de Vere Cole, director of 1968 Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space, was not only the son of Mavis Mortimer Wheeler but also co-wrote a biography of her. I sought out the book.

Back in 2011 I was much struck by a sketch of Mavis in the National Museum of Wales by Augustus John - believed to be Tristan's father. At the time I saw the portrait, I was reading Michael Holroyd's exhaustive, 600-page biography of John, and followed that up with Mortimer Wheeler's autobiography Still Digging - though in that Wheeler makes no mention of his second wife at all - though it was over Mavis that John famously challenged Wheeler to a duel; Wheeler consented, suggesting they fight it out with field guns.

Things never got that far, the quarrel was settled, and John was best man to Wheeler when he married Mavis - a newsworthy event given that Mavis was sister-in-law to the Prime Minister (her late husband's sister was Mrs Neville Chamberlain):


Beautiful and Beloved certainly doesn't shy away from that mix of celebrity, sex and wild goings on. Much of the later part of the book details the events of 1954 when Mavis shot her lover, Lord Vivian. A range of sources are used to piece together the night of drinking that led up to the shooting, the shooting itself - as best it can be understood - and the subsequent trial. The authors are in no doubt of Mavis' innocence - yes, she shot Lord Vivian, but they're sure she didn't mean to hurt or kill him. Despite this, the four different versions of events given by Mavis that suggest she wasn't entirely honest about what happened. They seem surprised that she went to prison for it but I didn't think there was much reasonable doubt.

In fact, Mavis' different accounts of herself were nothing new. Born Mabel Winifred Mary Wright on 29 December 1908, Mavis kept reinventing herself, changing her name to Mavis and then Maris, with other names such as Faith and Xara along the way. She was also horrified that news reports of her trial gave her real age. That constant reinvention helped her escape her modest background - she was the daughter of a grocer's assistant, and worked as a scullery maid and waitress before she met and married society prankster Horace de Vere Cole. He was much older than her and had already lived quite a life: the book includes a photograph of a blacked-up Virginia Woolf alongside Horace as part of the notorious Dreadnought hoax in 1910 (when Mavis was aged just one). By the 1960s, Mavis has risen so high through the social ranks that she could accuse her daughter-in-law of being bourgeois - for not being classy enough.

The book shares details of Horace's other pranks, but doesn't tell us exactly which rude word he contrived to spell out in the audience of a theatre by buying tickets for a bald-headed men. That's not from prurience. For one thing, details are sparse for this particular legend: Wikipedia says it was either BOLLOCKS or SHIT but can't name the performance, either. For another, the book isn't shy of f-words and c-words when it quotes the endless, bad poetry Mavis inspired from her various lovers. Or there's this, about John in 1957:
"To Mavis he wrote about an exhibition of drawings he was thinking of having, drawings of what a convention of the day would have had him refer to , in print, as c--s; but such evasions were not for him. He warned her that he would shortly be calling on her to provide the crowning feature of the lot, and he sent love from himself and [his partner] Dodo for good measure.
He wasn't just being shocking, in the time-honoured, intimate manner. John was known to have made a number of studies of private parts. And since Mavis came so easily to hand he was bound to have used as a model, even after a lapse of so many years, the girl who'd won the competition at the old 'Eiffel Tower' [restaurant] for the finest concealed charms." (p. 257)
The book is strikingly candid, and includes one of the nude photographs she sent to John in the 1930s. In fact, she sent such photographs to at least one other of her lovers - and each time the photographs were returned with a horrified response. John wanted to know who had taken the pictures and how she'd got them developed, and the authors add a footnote about practicalities here:
"It wasn't until August 1972 that the Boots chain consented to develop and print snapshots showing full frontal nudity. 'The interpretation of what is obscene has changed in the minds of juries and public opinion,' stated their spokesman, quoted in the Daily Telegraph. 'A normal naked woman is not obscene." (p. 78n)
The obvious candidate for photographer is Bet, the "local and very Cornish woman" who looked after Doll Keiller's cottage at Woodstock St Hilary near Marazion in Cornwall, where Mavis stayed while pregnant with Tristan in December 1934. We know Bet was taken by Mavis on first sight:
"But rushed round to spread the news [of the arrival] to her neighbour, Mrs Allan. 'You wait 'til you see what's in my cottage,' she boasted. 'Six foot of beauty, that's what I've got.'
But even Bet was taken aback when Mrs de Vere Cole opened the door to her next morning, completely naked. 'Look here, Bet, you'll have to get used to this,' said Mavis. 'You'd better begin now.' Even in December, if she could remove her clothes, she would." (p. 72)
She's back in Cornwall with Bet in 1958, though Doll had died three years before:
"They took photographs. On returning to London she [Mavis] prevailed upon a manager to co-operate. She wrote to Bet, 'I told him that some were taken unawares, when I was getting out of my bikini. "Oh," says he, "I'll attend to the matter myself and will get them through by Saturday morning." So--Bet--what fun!" (p. 260)
For all the detail of the letter, the dates and the brazenness, for all the honesty of the book, I find myself wondering what her relationship was with Bet.

Yet given her vivacity, the image of Mavis that really struck is the one from the opening chapter: in the last year of her life, in 1970, venturing out each day into the streets around Sloane Square with her Yorkshire terrier in her shopping basket, to buy tins of cheap food and a half-bottle of either whisky or brandy (or, sometimes both). This daily intake procured, we follow her back to her home in Cadogan Estates, dirty and full of junk as well as a stack of valuable pictures by John, the plumbing not always working, a huge mirror by the bed. It's tragic but honest, and this version of herself is entirely her own creation.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

An Unearthly Child takes place on a Tuesday

I've just rewatched An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of Doctor Who, and noticed something I don't think I've noticed before. On the blackboard in Ian Chesterton's room, it says "HOMEWORK TUESDAY".


Below this, in the bottom-right corner of the blackboard, it says "FOR THURSDAY":


So the homework has just been set, and the episode takes place on a Tuesday.

We can narrow things down a bit further. In the second episode of Doctor Who, Ian says that he and the others were just, "in a junkyard in London in England in the year 1963."

When in the year might this be? The episode was broadcast on Saturday 23 November 1963, and recorded in studio on Friday 18 October, but that doesn't necessarily tell us when the events depicted are set. But the daylight depicted - or not - in the episode can give us a clue.

In the first episode, it's dark by the time Susan reaches the junkyard after the end of her school day. It is dark enough inside the yard - which is open to the sky - that both Ian and the Doctor use torches. What time did it get dark?

Before leaving school, Susan tells her teachers, "I like walking through the dark," which implies it is already dark. The episode also begins with a policeman walking through the already dark lane outside the junkyard, picking out details with a torch; we then dissolve to the school just as the final bell rings. The implication is that the dissolve transports us in space but not in time - that it is already dark enough to need torchlight before the end of the school day.

But schools usually finish mid-afternoon and, as I know from collecting my own children, it's not dark at the end of the school day, even in the midst of winter. I checked at timeanddate.com, and the earliest sunset in London predicted for December 2020 is 15:51 - the sunset between 8 and 16 December.

The ringing of the school bell suggests that Susan hasn't stayed later than the end of the school day, for example at an after-school club. So if An Unearthly Child is set on a Tuesday in London 1963 where it's (almost) dark by 3.30, it must be 10 or 17 December.

In other words, the first episode of Doctor Who is set a little in the future.

PS: the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child was not the first version made. The earlier, "pilot" episode, included on the DVD, was recorded on 27 September - and there the blackboard is blank:


PPS: 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks returns to the school and junkyard in 1963, and a calendar on the wall in the school says November - but its broad daylight at tea-time, which doesn't seem quite right. 2013's The Day of the Doctor suggests that Totters Lane and the junkyard are in the immediate vicinity of the school.

ETA: Wise Jonathan Morris points out that the story could just as easily be set in January or February 1963. Wise Paul MC Smith, author of the exhaustive new book The TARDIS Chronicles 
suggests March, and points out this detail of the day of the week had already been discussed in Cornell, Day & Topping's The Discontinuity Guide (1995). Bother.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Turned out nice again in the Lancet Psychiatry

The June issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry includes my essay on David Storey's play Home. You need to pay to read the whole thing, but the first paragraph goes like this:
"50 years ago, on June 17, 1970, the Royal Court theatre in London (UK) debuted Home by David Storey. This “sad Wordsworthian elegy about the solitude and dislocation of madness and possibly about the decline of Britain itself” (according to the Guardian) won the Evening Standard Drama Award and, after transferring to Broadway, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. In January, 1972, BBC One broadcast a version featuring the original cast, and there were soon productions in the Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa and it is still often revived—a huge success for a small-scale and understated drama..."
Here's the BBC version with the original stage cast: Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne and Warren Clarke:

Monday, May 18, 2020

How to Build a Universe, by Brian Cox, Robin Ince and Alexandra Feachem

This book accompanying Radio 4's science panel show The Infinite Monkey Cage is largely a collection of debates addressed on that programme, resisted with further detail and insight. I should declare an interest having been a panelist on the 2015 Christmas special - though unlike Robin's I'm a Joke and So Are You, there's no reference to that episode here.

There are six chapters - Introductions & Infinity; Life, Death & Strawberries; Recipe to Build a Universe; Space Exploration; Evidence & Why Ghosts Don't Exist; Apocalypse - but the material is peppered with asides, footnotes, illustrations and pull quotes. The chapter on building a universe is by far the longest and hard-going, Robin advising us to wade into it as far as we can then stop and start again, hoping to progress a bit further on the each subsequent attempt. At the end, we're presented with illustrations of badges as rewards for making it that far. For all the equations and technical language, I don't think it is (only) the degree-level physics that makes the going tough. The book offers less a single thesis as per a bullet shot from a gun, so much as a range of ejecta shot out of a blunderbuss.

If I'm familiar with a lot of the material - even if I don't wholly comprehend it - there was lots that was new, and loads I'm very taken by, such as this:
"This is the beauty of books, they are secondary human fossils. We may leave behind bones, skin preserved in a peat bog, perhaps eventually a fossil, but books are our mind fossils, the fossils of our thoughts that are left after we are gone. We appear to be the only creature that can interrogate minds even after the owner of those thoughts has died." (p. 242)
There's some fun stuff, too, on the credibility of the science in sci-fi - the subject they quizzed me about when I was on the show.

It's interesting to hear that Brian and Robin argue. When they revisit some of those arguments here, there's a sense that the good-natured discussion in print follows a less amiable row. I'm not sure I agree with some of the assumptions made in the book, either. For example, here's Brian citing a case for greater exploitation of space.
"I recently spoke with Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, at his Blue Origin rocket factory in Seattle. His vision is to zone Earth as residential and light industrial, in order to protect it. We've visited every planet in the Solar System, he said, and we know with absolute certainty that this is the best one. That's why his company is called Blue Origin, after our precious blue jewel of a world. Spaceflight does not increase pressures on our world by consuming valuable resources; it is a route to protecting our world by enabling us to grow in a richer and more interesting civilisation whilst simultaneously consuming less of Earth." (p. 152)
I think the first part of that paragraph is a sales pitch and the final sentence is wrong. After all, how do we get into space to access this bounty of resources? Rocket launches produce 150 times as much carbon dioxide as a transatlantic flight - when it's argued that rocket launches have low environmental impact it's because they are infrequent. They also seem to damage the ozone layer and leave space junk in Earth orbit. Are we also to assume that the resources mined in space and the people who fly out to mine them will not be returned to Earth?

But then I think that's the point of the book: it's the book of a panel discussion show aimed at provoking further debate. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

I'm struggling a bit with reading at the moment - one day last week I started four different books and couldn't hold my concentration beyond the first page of any of them. But looking through the shelves, this beautiful thing caught my eye. It's the collected edition of a four-part comic book series originally published in the mid-90s.

The chief attraction here is Alex Ross's extraordinary, beautiful painting. I remember the impact this had on me - and I think everyone who saw it - at the time. The story feels epic enough to meet the standards set by the art. A vicar has premonitions of impending apocalypse. We're in a near-future world where the children and grandchildren of classic superheroes spend their time beating each other to pulp, and Superman has retired. Unfortunately, him being persuaded to come back and knock heads together seems to be what starts us on the path to apocalypse.

Though there are jokes this is often heavy, portentous stuff - people punching each other overlaid with biblical quotations. It's fine, it's superhero stuff, but it wouldn't be nearly so bearable if it didn't look so good. There's some fun stuff when the vicar, observing events unfold from some ethereal plain, gets noticed but the superheroes and asked to explain himself. But largely he's passive, a bystander, until the very end, when he stops Superman from taking revenge on a load of politicians. The Man of Steel turning on humans seems completely out of character anyway, whatever the provocation. Can we really believe he'd have butchered them, that no one else could have stayed his hand?

Otherwise, the apocalypse plays out as predicted and a huge number of people are killed. In the aftermath, we're told not enough superheroes died to really change the balance of power so there's a sense nothing much has changed. I find that especially disappointing because this was released under the Elseworlds label - meaning it's a sidestep from the officially sanctioned timeline of superheroes. Couldn't they have been a little braver and really shaken things up?

I've never been won over by the superhero thing that when heroes meet up they must fight. Grow up. I'm far more intrigued by the promise of the coda: Wonder Woman pregnant, Superman the dad and Batman agreeing to be godfather. I want to see that kid grow up, get in trouble at school, fall in love...

Friday, May 08, 2020

ST:TNG 3.16 The Offspring

This is the third of 12 episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation recommended to me. First there was 1.13 Datalore, then 2.9 The Measure of a Man.

We start with a very effective trick: Geordi, Troi and Wesley walking and talking through the corridors of the Enterprise, making the place feel big and busy and real. The dialogue isn’t as crisp and effervescent as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing - but then that started nine years after this episode was broadcast. The point is how fresh and exciting the direction feels here. I looked it up, and this is the first episode directed by Jonathan Frakes, better known as the actor playing Riker. That explains why the captain’s log at this start feels the need to tell us that Riker is away on personal leave. Frakes js still directing episodes of Discovery and Picard, and clearly has a knack for sci-fi given this panache with corridors.

Since the last episode in my list, there’s been a makeover of the Enterprise wardrobe. Uniforms now have collars, are more formal and less like gym-wear, and seem to zip up at the back. I wonder if that means the crew need assistance putting them on, and imagine them having to pair-up before breakfast, the pairings carefully coordinated around their rostered shifts.

Anyway, Wes, Troi and Georgi are the three people Data trusts enough to confide what he’s been up to: making himself a child. This he presents as a fair accompli rather than at 12 weeks, directing our attention to an odd-looking small person in a machine. The being has neither clothes nor gender, but Data is clear that this is, “my child” and calls the process “procreation”. Apparently, this new project - and progeny - is the result of Data having just been at a cybernetics conference where a “new submicron matrix transfer technology” was introduced that Data “discovered could be used to lay down complex neural net pathways … I realised for the first time it was possible to continue Doctor Soong's work.” No one else has been able to make this leap because it needed Data to transfer stuff from his own brain into the child. For reasons we’re not given yet, and which no one asks at the time, Data has named his child “Lal”.

Our heroes report the matter upwards to Picard, who is not does not delight in the news. Yet, as Data tells his captain, no one else on board is required to ask permission to procreate. There’s an implicit, insidious question over Data’s right or worthiness to have children, a moral judgement based solely on the fact that for him procreation is more complex than a fuck. It brought back the cruel interrogations the Dr and I went through during IVF and adoption. Anyway, Picard’s response is in stark contrast to the position he took in 2.9 The Measure of Man - just note his use of pronouns:
“I insist we do whatever we can to discourage the perception of this new android as a child. It is not a child. It is an invention, albeit an extraordinary one … I fail to understand how a five foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of a ten men can be called a child.”
Data is, understandably, surprised by this denial of personhood but Picard goes on to explain that a “real” child is not just for Christmas and can’t be deactivated simply. Given Picard’s previous empathic management style, this is massively tone deaf is not outright offensive. I suppose there’s a case that Picard is just wary of the consequences of this “stupendous undertaking” and knows the trouble it will bring; his reaction comes of trying to help and protect his friend. But it’s a fundamental right that he’s daring to question.

Meanwhile, Lal can identify crewmembers as male and female, and says, “I am gender neutral [which is] inadequate.” Data, meaning well, responds, “you must choose a gender, Lal, to complete your appearance.” He has always tried to emulate humanity but this conversation sounds a lot like it’s making a moral judgement: that it is wrong to be different. Data also tells Lal to, “Access your data bank on sexuality, level two. That will define the parameters.” But gender and sexuality are not the same thing. When Troi says that whatever Lal chooses will last for Lal’s lifetime, that clearly isn’t true either - even if Star Trek fails to acknowledge transitioning, Lal can evidently choose once so why not choose again? “This is a big decision,” says Data - and it is, which is why it’s so alarming Lal is so badly advised.

They narrow the options down from several thousand composites to four physical specimens, which Lal then seems to be expected to choose from based on visual appearance. Yes, it’s Naked Attraction but with clothes on, which doesn’t seem the most brilliant idea. There are three different species represented by the four specimens on show and it’s meant to be Lal’s free choice. Yet Troi can’t chipping in that she finds the human male attractive and likes the human female. We’re told that Lal taking the form of an Andorian female would make her the only one on the Enterprise, while as a Klingon she’d be one of just two (“a friend for Worf,” says Troi, dictating how Lal should behave and bond). It’s concerning these made the final four given that the point of the exercise is to help Lal better integrate with the rest of the crew. How much less suitable were the other composites?

What Lal has decided to be a human female, Data attempts to home-school her. This is (he says, staring wearily away into space) not easy, but getting Lal to define the meaning of “home” is uncomfortably like the students groomed by Thomas Gradgrind to define a horse. Victorians reading Hard Times were horrified by such crude, old-school education. As well as learning the facts by which to judge the artistry of a painting, Lal is taught to blink so that she can better fit in with the flesh lot onboard. That’s stepped up when she goes to the school on the Enterprise, where things are handled in what Offsted would surely deem inadequate. The other, fleshy children are wary of this much new student who looks so much older than them but is so far behind them. They are mean and laugh at her. But the schools of the future don’t seem prepared for students with special educational needs, and when Data is called in to discuss what has happened, the teacher - Ballard - clearly feels that Lal is the one at fault. The new girl excelled academically but, “Lal couldn't understand the nuances of how [the flesh kids] related to each other.” For this first offence, in a crime so heinous as social etiquette, she is invited to leave full-time education.

The emotionless Data fails to be outraged by this. Unlike his tribunal, there are no fleshy friends to defend him or be angry on his behalf. There’s no sense that perhaps the “normal” children need educating in etiquette, and the adults, too. Lal doesn’t even get a formal warning. There’s no tribunal, no sense of the dangerous precedent being set, and that’s traumatic for Lal. This tyranny of normalisation is especially concerning given that the next episode on my list is all about the horror of assimilation. We can’t all be individuals if we must all be the same.

Data claims not to be affected, and says he’s incapable of love - but Beverly Crusher doesn’t believe him and there’s evidence that she’s right. The name he’s given his daughter is, we’re told, a Hindi word meaning “beloved”. But unlike her father, Lal is affected by emotions - and the difference between her and Data is underlined by the fact that she can use contractions. I mentioned my misgivings about this cliché of sci-fi last time, but now wonder what else Data can’t do: does he insist on pronouncing the “h” in herb, too, and is it “a” or “an” before “hotel”? But it’s a shame to be distracted from the point of this difference between them, which is profoundly sad: Data was unique and alone so built himself a daughter, but she is alone, too.

Since they’ve been failed by the educational establishment, Data instead enrols Lal in work that might teach her something, in the bar on the Enterprise where she can observe the behaviour of humans and other flesh-based life forms. This meets with surprise and resistance from Data’s friends, and he asks if they're questioning his ability as a parent - and, in effect, his rights as a sentient life form. That there are concerns at all made me wonder what kind of den of iniquity they think Ten Forward is. That line of thinking isn’t helped Riker’s makes a cameo appearance and cops off with this child. It’s fun to see Frakes direct a scene at his own expense, but blimey. As a general rule, don’t do light comedy about grown men hitting on children.

Then Data and Lal talk together, and Lal takes her father’s hands, trying to copy the behaviour of those round them - and, in doing so, to please him. We’re told that Data has already, “Mastered human behavioural norms.” Has he? So often the joke is that Data hasn’t understood an idiom or behaviour, that he isn’t normal. It’s still an issue decades later in the series Picard, questioning Data’s ability to love.

Just as in 2.9 The Measure of a Man, an admiral turning up on the Enterprise can only mean bad news. This one, in rather fetching gold braid to show he’s either someone important or on his way to a disco, underlines the puritanical view hinted at before, that it’s really not suitable for a young woman to be work in a bar, even the corporate-feeling one on the Federation’s flagship? I hanker for Guinan’s reaction to this slander. But I don’t think Admiral Haftel is one for considering the views of woman. When Lal tells him he’s not very respectful, Haftel ignores it to talk about her - while she stands there - with Picard. He then tells Lal that Data hasn’t taught her enough selective judgment, and when she responds he starts to say that he hadn’t meant to ask her opinion. Picard now cuts in: “In all these discussions, no one has ever mentioned her wishes. She's a free, sentient being. What are your wishes, Lal?” It’s about time someone asked.

This is, then, a return to the moral debate in 2.9 The Measure of Man, which was clearly not settled in the finding of the tribunal. In that episode, the discomfort was felt by Data’s crewmates while Data - for all he protested his rights - was unaffected emotionally. Here, though, Lal is a victim, made so anxious by her predicament that she seeks help from the ship’s counsellor. “I feel it,” she tells Troi. Troi, I think, she be the one to defend Lal to the authorities, reminding the admiral that feelings matter in this version of the Enterprise. Sadly, she doesn’t get a chance.

Meanwhile, the boys are still arguing about Lal’s best interests - without her. There’s another curious argument when Haftel says it is dangerous for Data and Lal to remain on the same starship together. The implication is that the Enterprise is a precarious place forever facing the risk of destruction. True, 26 weeks of the year it does seem to have some crisis going on, but it’s weird to hear that acknowledged - especially when there’s a school with young children on board. Again, I find myself wondering about Star Fleet’s duty of care. (Note, too that Haftel says Data and Lal are the “only two Soong-type androids in existence,” meaning everyone assumes Lore is dead and gone.)

Really, Haftel wants Lal for himself to study, just as Maddox did with Data. All this philosophical footwork is about depersonalising her, making her an it, a thing. Data argues against this persuasively, expressing his and Lal’s wishes clearly but politely. Picard backs him, and will go over Haftel’s head if need be. “You are jeopardising your command and your career,” Haftel tells him, which seems odd given the precedent of the tribunal. But Picard holds his ground:
“There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience but you ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I am his captain.”
Surely, surely, Haftel doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and I wonder what his superiors would make of his predatory interest in this child. As before, Data is willing to work with Starfleet on research into the workings of his own brain, if only they’d proceed in less unseemly haste.

But it’s not to be. Troi calls Data and the others to an emergency. Lal’s anxiety - exacerbated by the admiral but as much the result of the Enterprise crew - has caused her to malfunction and break down. Haftel has literally broken a child and realises his mistake, offer to help Data try and fix the problem. He’s the one who tells us that Data’s hands move too quickly to see in his efforts to save his daughter. Haftel is clearly devastated by the loss of Lal but his words - “It just wasn’t meant to be!” - hardly acknowledge his own role or culpability. I wonder if the death of Lal will jeopardise his command and career. (I checked, he’s not seen again in the series.)

Everyone is upset except Data, who absorbs his daughter’s memories and goes straight back to his job on the bridge of the Enterprise. It’s a really affecting ending, but I think because it’s so wrong. Star Fleet has (again) badly served Data. It failed him. The most haunting thing is that emotionless android expects nothing else.

Next episode: 3.26 The Best of Both Worlds

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Matt Smith Doctor Who trailer for Turkish television

In 2012, I wrote this trailer for Matt Smith, advertising Doctor Who on Turkish televisions CNBC-e:



At the time, I was freelancing at BBC Worldwide, having a lovely, daft time on kids' magazine Doctor Who Adventures. My deputy editor Paul Lang was asked by his colleague Kate Bush (no, not that one) to recommend someone to help out another team at Worldwide and, since he couldn't think of anyone good, he suggested me.

The brief was to keep the trailer short and fun and exciting, and work in specific props and references provided for me that would make it relevant to Turkey. I was briefed in April 2012 and sent in a final, revised version at the beginning of May. Then nothing happened, and just over a month later I left BBC Worldwide and was off being a new dad. When I returned to Doctor Who Adventures later in the year it was now part of Immediate Media, at new premises and without the same links to BBC Worldwide. I asked if anything had happened with what I'd written but no one seemed to know.

I assumed that if the trailer had been recorded it would sooner or later turn up as a DVD extra or get a mention in Doctor Who Magazine's exhaustive coverage. And since it didn't, I assumed it had never been made.

Then, this morning, I was talking to DWM archivist Andrew Pixley about something else entirely and happened to mention this trailer as a what-might-have-been. And he said, "Oh, but I've seen a call sheet for the those trailers..."

So lo and behold. I'm delighted.

ETA I'm reminded by Paul Lang that one reason he put me up for the job was that at the time Doctor Who was dictating his editorials for the magazine to me, such as this example from Doctor Who Adventures #261 in March 2012:
"Can’t stop! Being chased!
By things that look a bit like lobsters, only each one’s the size of a house.
They’re not really lobsters, they’re Snee. ‘Hello” I said to them, all nicely.
But of course in Snee, ‘Hello’ means something quite rude.
So, you keep reading, I’ll keep running.
Deal? Waaah!"
(That signature kindly provided to the magazine care of Doctor Who's friend Matt Smith.) 

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Coda, by Simon Spurrier and Matias Begara

This thrilling, 12-part comic is a journey through a High Fantasy landscape sometime after a terrible war. The surviving people and creatures now squabble over the last traces of magical power, and Hum - a former bard with a false leg and faltering morals - is prepared to do unsavoury things if it means acquiring enough magic to save his wife. But does she even want saving?

Having collected each issue as it came out, I'd been saving this until I could enjoy it in as few sittings as possible. It presents such a richly realised world, somewhere between Jabberwocky and Krull, that's joyously messy and violent and strange. The artwork is beautiful, and the story full of twists and turns. Yet the revelations at the end all based on things that have long been set up.

What really makes this strange world work is the well-drawn characterisation - myriad people whose wants and humour and loss we readily comprehend. Hum is an unreliable narrator of someone else's story, chafing at the stock conventions of quests and heroic valour. As a whole, Coda has fun playing against cliche, though two leading women just so happen to not wear many clothes. In all, it's exactly the kind of wild, imaginative epic I'd have loved during my teenage passion for comics. It's a pleasure to revisit that lost world.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Amma's new play is opening at the National Theatre; she's torn about being part of the establishment after years of railing against it. Yazz is Amma's daughter, just as passionate and campaigning but of a different generation. Dominique used to be Amma's business partner but got caught up in an abusive relationship.

Carole has a senior role in banking after a troubled childhood; her husband invested in Amma's play. Bummi is Carole's mum and struggles with what she sees as her daughter's abandonment of their heritage. LaTisha was a school-mate of Carole's and has also turned her life round, but in very different ways.

Shirley was Carole and LaTisha's teacher and is Amma's boring friend. Winsome is Shirley's mum, who worked hard to give her children opportunities. Penelope is a colleague of Shirley's and was initially hostile to her but they've become allies over time and through adversity.

Megan/Morgan is a young trans man with a huge following on social media, has met Yazz before and - by coincidence - is in the audience of Amma's new play. Hattie is Morgan's 93 year-old grandmother who has - we come to realise - a connection to Penelope. Grace was Hattie's mum, who overcame numerous tragedies but died young.

After chapters devoted to each of these 12 women in turn, we catch up with some of them at the opening night of Amma's play, and then an epilogue makes a further connection. Following these myriad connections, the same events can seem completely different. But the real revelations are in understanding how these people got to where they are. There are secrets, abuses, horrible and haunting stuff, and yet this is a book about struggles that overcome difficulty, prejudice, tragedy.

Evaristo makes each of her characters vivid and real - not only the 12 principle players but the supporting characters, including the legion of men who shape these women's lives. I felt I knew these people, and there's a thrill of excitement when a connection is made and a window opened on the life of what we thought was a passing acquaintance. These people are complex, contradictory, some hold objectionable views or do awful things. Most are just trying to get by. And because we come to understand them, we admire their resilience and we share their joy.

Along the way, Evaristo covers a lot of ground - the history of feminism, changing attitudes to race and sexuality, stuff about class and property and entitlement, a whole miso-mash of culture. Many of her characters rant, but she frequently punctures pomposity by having other people yawn or answer back. The result is it feels deceptively light and agile, but is heavyweight.

I admit I was deceived to begin with and couldn't understand the fuss. But by halfway I was hooked, and can see why this won last year's Booker Prize (along with Margaret Attwood's The Testament.) It's made me think a lot about identity, my own and other people's, and how what we are - or think ourselves to be - can define how others see us and what we are able to do.

This is also a perfect book for lockdown: 12 separate people, thinking over their lives in isolation but connected to each other. They flourish when they communicate, when they are honest and kind. It's a book about tolerance, acceptance and how we endure. The struggle is long but we'll get there.

Friday, May 01, 2020

ST: TNG 2.9 The Measure of a Man

This is the second of 12 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation recommended to me. The first one was 1.13 Datalore.

We begin 2.9 The Measure of a Man with a game of five-card stud, our heroes discussing the mechanics of poker as if they’ve never played before - at least not together. Like the stilted joke about sneezing last time, there’s something awkward and unnatural here. It’s not just the nerdy conversation, but also that I’ve seen the Bond movie Casino Royale where the poker game is full of tension and excitement. In Star Trek’s post-money utopia, this game has no stakes, an intellectual exercise without much feeling. The point of the scene is that Data doesn’t comprehend that he is being bluffed - he lacks the psychological insight that his neurotypical crewmates take for granted. It underlines his Difference.

Meanwhile, Picard is in a space cafe meeting an old flame he’s not seen in 10 years. Phillipa Louvois suspects that Picard would, “Like to bust a chair across my teeth,” and informs him - because he did not already know - that she was forced out of Star Fleet as a result of their last encounter. That was when she prosecuted him in the court martial following the loss of a ship called the Stargazer. She says now that she was just doing her duty, following the procedure when any ship is lost but Picard says she enjoyed it. Louvois calls Picard a “pompous ass”.

My sense from all this was that Louvois knew a younger, more reckless and perhaps even violent version of Picard, in line with the revelations of his past from 6.15 Tapestry (which I’ve seen). But looking up the details, the events on the Stargazer were played out in 1.9 The Battle (which I’ve not seen), and Picard was not only faultless but saved the lives of his crew. If we know that previous episode, we immediately take against Louvois here: she is prejudiced against Picard, rather than the wronged party. I was wrong, but I think the central wheeze of this episode depends a lot on how much we’ve seen of the series so far, especially how much we’ve warmed to Data.

The Enterprise is visited by Admiral Nakamura and, trailing in his wake, a cyberneticist called Bruce Maddox. I already knew Maddox from his appearance in Picard (where he’s played by another actor), but you wouldn’t think he was important in his first scene here, where he doesn’t even speak. That means it’s a surprise when we learn he and Data have history. Maddox is sneeringly antagonistic, not only disputing that Data is sentient but also now wanting to dismantle him. Who is this murderous racist - and why the hell does Admiral Nakamura nod along to his proposal? It’s shocking because we’ve grown to like Data as a regular character in the series: we have history with him, too. But it’s also shocking in the fiction of the series because Data has served with Star Fleet for 18 years, working up the ranks to his current position as Lieutenant Commander. In all that time, has no one really ever considered this serving officer’s status and rights as a person? Did it not get addressed when he signed up, or each time he was promoted, or at his regular appraisals? It’s a massive oversight by Star Fleet HR, who surely wouldn’t award promotion to a something they considered a machine.

As with 1.13 Datalore, there’s a telling thing in the use of pronouns, Maddox insisting - big old racist that he is - on referring to Data as “it”. The word objectifies Data, but it’s not clear how consciously Maddox is using it as a ploy to exert ownership and rob Data of the right to self-determination. The less threatening argument made by the admiral is that he respects Data and simply wants to reassign him/it to a new experimental project. But Maddox is vague about the risks involved and doesn’t seem particularly concerned that Data should survive. It’s chilling.

Yet Data then has to explain his objections to his captain (and friend) before Picard attempts to help him. When Picard goes to see Louvois, she also struggles to understand the problem: when Picard says that Data has rights, she responds, “All of this passion over a machine.” If this were a standalone drama, we might sympathise with that view but we’re 35 episodes into the series and we know and like Data - largely, I think, because actor Brent Spiner is so charismatic even playing a man with no emotions.

Meanwhile, Data is in his quarters packing to leave the Enterprise in what’s surely a case of constructive dismissal. Among his possessions are a 3D hologram of the late Tasha Yar - who was killed off in 1.22 Skin of Evil (I vaguely remember that one from its broadcast on BBC Two on 6 March 1991). The hologram effect is nicely done and I wondered if actress Denise Crosby had come back for it especially - but apparently not. The hologram is subtly deployed in the scene but important: the emotional connection we feel to Tasha, and to her relationship with Data, means that it’s even more of a violation when Maddox brusquely strides into Data’s room without asking - declining to afford even the most basic respect he would presumably show to any other serving officer. Again, Data says that Maddox’s experiment is dangerous - an existential threat to Data. Maddox counters that Data is a found object, the property of Star Fleet. His “life” is unimportant.

Picard gets Louvois to agree to a tribunal to judge whether Data is a person and therefore has rights. It’s astonishing that this question should even be asked of a long-serving and well-regarded officer. But then, ahem, I sat in on a recent tribunal where it seemed astonishing there was any question to be probed. Louvois agrees to the tribunal on condition that Riker acts as prosecution - just as she was once required to prosecute Picard. This is really odd. It’s some kind of revenge on Picard, or point-scoring, or proving a point. But Riker is Data’s friend, and Picard - as defence counsel - has a history with Louvois as the judge. It’s hardly impartial. I believe the phrase used by my learned friends is that it would open to challenge.

Yet I was hooked by what follows. There’s a spectacular moment as Riker builds his case and finds something he can use - Jonathan Frakes perfectly conveying without words his thrill and then his guilt. In the tribunal itself, it’s brilliantly horrible when Riker asks to remove Data’s arm as evidence that he’s not a person and then uses the off-switch from 1.13 Datalore to show he’s not a real boy. “Pinocchio is broken,” he says of the friend and crewmate slumped across the desk. “Its strings have been cut.” Note the pronoun, used to devastating effect.

There’s then a break in proceedings and Picard takes solace in the bar. Here, wise Guinan makes explicit what this story is about: removing Data’s personhood and replicating him will mean, “an army of Datas, all disposable, [so] you don't have to think about their welfare.” When she speaks of, “whole generations of disposable people,” Picard responds, “You’re talking about slavery.” Guinan denies it, though of course that’s the allusion. I think this is all sensitively done but Guinan then says this connection to slavery isn’t the issue anyway - and Picard seems to agree.

Back at the tribunal, Picard makes a case for Data’s personhood, using as evidence his possessions, his friendships, his intimate relations with the late Tasha Yar. In fact, Data doesn’t want to be drawn on that relationship having given Tasha his word not to speak of it. His loyalty and manners, all of this stuff, make a compelling case appealing to our emotions. But Picard then pivots to confront Maddox’s central argument that Data is not sentient and therefore can be treated as property rather than a person. As Picard argues, sentience is a difficult thing to define - I thought of Alan Turing’s imitation game, predicated on the idea that we assume intelligence on the part of people we talk to. There’s a good argument here: that Maddox should have to prove his own sentience before casting aspersions. But that’s not where Picard goes.

He argues that Data is the first of a new kind of android, one that Maddox and others seek to replicate. The judgment of this tribunal will define how all those androids are treated in the years to come. Picard makes the link to slavery explicit here: “Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?” The point is not what Data is but the behaviour of Star Fleet and the precedent set for the treatment of a whole new class of life. Picard quotes from the the mission statement of the Enterprise - and the series, since it’s given at the start of each episode - is “to seek out new life and new civilisations.” So the discussion here is fundamental to Star Trek. It's not about Data specifically but a wider-reaching principle of tolerance and respect for the different. It is fundamentally wrong, Picard argues. to treat some others as if they matter less. Cor, I thought, that’s really something.

Two things still bother me. First, this determination so fundamental to the series and to the Federation’s future is made by one judge with a personal score to settle with the defending counsel, while the prosecutor she appointed is a good friend of the defendant - known to socialise with Data, such as in the opening scene of this episode. It would surely be easy for Maddox to demand a retrial with more objective participants. As they acknowledge here, he very nearly won the case. Rather than settling the matter, the fact that the question was even asked about Data’s personhood is unsettling.

Then there’s Louvois’s concluding remarks:
“We have all been dancing around the basic issue. Does Data have a soul? I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.”
Why bring in a spiritual dimension at all? It’s not the point Picard has made and puts the onus back on Data. It lets Star Fleet off the hook for treating him so badly by forcing him to go through this grisly business at all.

After the judgment, Data says he is still intrigued by Maddox’s research and may yet help him if they can mitigate the risks. Maddox is surprised by this gesture, admitting, “He’s remarkable.” That pronoun is important but it’s a shame our attention is drawn to it explicitly, as if the production team doubt that the sentience of their audience. The use of “he” suggests Maddox won’t be back demanding a retrial (and he's not seen again until Picard). Data and Riker are also reconciled, again the onus on Data to make it all okay when he's done nothing more than have the temerity to exist.

Then Picard and Louvois head off for drinks, reconciled themselves. It's a happy ending all round, the matter of Data’s personhood settled for good. Isn’t it?

Next episode: 3.16 The Offspring