Wednesday, July 22, 2009

 

Make Some Of It Happen (This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never…?)

This is an exciting day for Liberal Democrat campaigners, with publication of a very short new set of our priorities for these tight economic times and an interview with Nick Clegg in which he tells us which priorities got dropped (highlighting at least one major blunder). Our new approach in two Twitter-style bites: And a more populist go at it added a bit later in the day: Libdemologists’ main source of intrigue today will be in reading between the lines of the new extremely-mini-manifesto A Fresh Start For Britain, trying to work out what the very few commitments mean and what’s left out… And their task will be made easier by this morning’s interview in The Independent, in which Nick Clegg explains the strategy rather well, while also offering a couple of hostages to fortune and serving up a handy bullet-pointable list of major priorities which are still very, very important… But which no longer have a budget or start date attached, because we probably can’t afford them right now. And it’s those that Liberal Democrats are most likely to be up in arms about, rather than what A Fresh Start For Britain actually says.

Now, I spent many long years on the party’s Federal Policy Committee, so I’m just about as experienced in reading between the lines of a policy statement as anyone. Having stood down from the FPC last year through ill health (and I’m more than a little peaky today; pass me another bacon sarnie!), it’s fascinating to read through A Fresh Start For Britain and work out what the arguments over it were. Because, of course, although it’s all in the name of Nick Clegg, he didn’t write it all and he’s very unlikely to have got it all his own way. Our Leaders don’t.

So, before this comes for debate at Conference in September – and you may be thrilled to learn that there’ll be a ‘part 2’ coming soon, spelling out the status of major policies in more detail – it’s already gone through the Federal Policy Committee, in a meeting which I’m told went on for five hours, which’d make it one of the longest since the final meeting on the 1997 Manifesto, after which fourteen of us crawled out alive at a quarter to one in the morning. And I’d love to know what went on at that meeting, so if any of my former colleagues fancy giving me a ring… All of which, of course, means that although if you’ve got a pet peeve with what’s in A Fresh Start For Britain (or, more likely, what isn’t), you should not only send a probing e-mail Cleggwards, but put a rocket up any members of the FPC you happen to know. Particularly as I’m not on there any more, so it’s not my fault (ha ha, ha ha ha ha).

A Fresh Start For Britain

A completely new, bold and fresh (and a little bit patriotic) title, which tells you… Er… Um… Well, all right, it’s not the most exciting title in the world, but it does tell you one of the key themes for the Liberal Democrats now – with both the economy and the political system more infuriatingly rubbish than they’ve been for half a century, that we’ve suddenly become less afraid to say, ‘Look, the whole thing’s been really buggered up for ages, hasn’t it? Let’s chuck it all and start again (and you won’t get that from the other two)’. Ironically, this was the message of the first draft of last year’s Make It Happen, but it was felt that a wildly anti-establishment tone was too scary in what was starting to look like might be a recession, so the tone was made more reassuring. Now that the economy’s much more fucked than anticipated and politicians are being spat at in the streets, ‘tear it all down’ suddenly has a more mass appeal. In line with Lib Dem statements of principles always having too many titles, there’s also the subtitle “Choosing a different, better future,” which includes the “Future” I’ve been using to imply “Green,” but sounds even less bold and distinctive than “A Fresh Start For Britain”.

A Fresh Start For Britain is not, of course, to be confused with 1981’s statement of principles commended by a joint working party of Liberals and Social Democrats and attributed (though probably even less written by them than this is by Nick) to David Steel and Shirley Williams, a set of priorities for an economic and political crisis with the entirely different title of A Fresh Start For Britain. Though some of the ideas in today’s fresh and exciting new approach are, of course, so fresh and exciting that they were there twenty-eight years ago, the new one’s better – at least as far as I can remember. It’s a while since I’ve read it and, despite getting dusty and sneezy excavating some of my thrilling collection of old SDP literature, I couldn’t find a copy. I’m peeved that though my old university promises an online pdf, the link’s dead. We should drop our commitment to university funding as a punishment! No, hang on…

A Slightly Fresher Start For Britain is, however, available as a pdf. Slightly confusingly, it’s not on the admittedly rather fresh-looking A Fresh Start For Britain website; instead, you have to e-mail them and ask for it. Still more confusingly, if you read the pdf you’ll find that this swish new statement of our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government has been slimmed down to just seven absolutely essential short sections… But, if you read it on the website, there are only six of them. Yes – even one of our key priorities isn’t always a key priority, though I suspect that may be a mistake [update: it’s all on there now].

So, What’s In It?

Having been mean about A Fresh Start For Britain, actually… It’s pretty good. If you’re going to pick out eye-catching headlines rather than make a compendium of all known policy, this is pretty good – though I’ll come to two key things that aren’t there later. If you read it, you get a pretty good idea of what we’d do, and a pretty good impression that we’d actually be able to deliver it. And you’d be able to remember both of those points five minutes later.

In comparison with many election manifestos, that’s not to be sneezed at.

It’s phrased – as these things usually are – as a personal message from the Party Leader, and reads rather better than these things usually are. Whether or not it captures Nick’s ‘voice’, it comes across as a person (I remember writing an introduction “by Charles” for a manifesto in 2001, which was partly cobbled together from something attributed to him in 1999, etc, etc). Still more importantly, though I’d use even more vehement language, it’s the nearest to an angry, anti-establishment introduction I think I’ve ever seen in a Lib Dem manifestoish. It recognises people are angry with politicians and bankers – and sets out a narrative where a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to tell the old parties, the greedy bankers and the whole old way of doing things they’ve got it wrong.
“Many people believed they would get change for the better in 1997. Instead, under Labour, the gap between rich and poor has got bigger, our politics has got even dirtier, our civil liberties have been eroded, the environment around us is in danger and our international reputation is at a new low. Labour let us all down.”
But, as well as pointing the finger, this is about choosing the right answers. And before you can provide them, you need to analyse the problem. Well done again, then, for succinctly putting it:
“Britain is in the teeth of three crises: a huge banking crisis and recession, a rotten Westminster system abused by too many MPs for personal gain, and the threat of climate change.”
I agree that those are the three biggest crises – though I’d emphasise a crisis of freedom as part of that crisis of politics – but, of course, not everyone would agree with that analysis. What you choose as the problems ought to determine what your solutions are… And you can see that, with the other parties afraid of taking action on the solutions the Liberal Democrats want, they’re afraid to admit to some of the same problems. That far, the narrative Nick’s telling hits home with me.

I’m less sure about where it goes next. Yes, we need big changes, and they need action. Read the problem, but see if you can spot my wariness at the alternative:
“We need big changes to fix our economy, our discredited politics and our environment, yet both Labour and the Conservatives are letting the City, the House of Commons and polluters off the hook. No action against bankers’ bonuses. No action to give people the right to sack MPs guilty of breaking the rules. No action to slash emissions. They say just enough to get in the headlines, but when the spotlight moves on it’s back to business as usual.
“I believe there’s a better way. This country can be fairer, it can be safer, greener, and stronger in the world.”
Despite the party deciding again and again that, when it comes to our philosophy, “It’s About Freedom,” I worry that freedom is, again and again, the bit that drops out of our priorities. Remember “Free, Fair and Green”? That was a good list of our aims, not always met in the detail – but, as so often, while we have “fairer” and “greener,” “safer” and “stronger in the world” convey a very different message. When the British and world economy’s in turmoil, “safer” has to be part of what we offer – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. When the political system’s in turmoil, too, playing it safe isn’t an option; safety for people in trouble, yes, steadying the financial system, but by freeing up the political system and having people bossed about much less. And the tone of A Fresh Start For Britain really isn’t all about playing it safe. In fact, it’s the furthest from that that any statement of our priorities has been for decades.

Add “stronger in the world” to “safer,” and I get actively worried. The detail here is about choosing our commitments more carefully; the rhetoric of “stronger in the world” just doesn’t match. It sounds like we’re desperately trying to butch up to cover up, say, dropping Trident. And that merely sounds confused, not strong. After Iraq, after ID cards, after any amount of Labour bossiness and politicians saying ‘We know best’ that’s got us into all this mess, I don’t want a Liberal Democrat Government to be butcher still, actually. I want us to have the courage to say, government’s done too much, and too much of the wrong things, and you should have more freedom to live your own life rather than throwing a new law at you for every hour of the day. And that will strike a chord with people even if for no other reason than because enforcing stupid laws wastes money, too.

Where I’d say Nick’s introduction does go for freedom at the end, he doesn’t frame it as such.
“Above all, we must do everything to protect the next generation from the mistakes made today. For me, how we treat young children is the most important measure of what kind of society we want, what kind of values we hold dear.
“Even in these difficult times, giving all children from all backgrounds the life chances they deserve will always be my personal priority.”
And I believe he means it. That does indeed come across as a personal priority, and all the more powerful for it. But – and particularly for all those of us who don’t have kids – he also misses a huge opportunity. What kind of society do we want? What values can be seen in a commitment to education? Because just ‘awhh, kids’ is going to leave a lot of non-parents cold. What about tying our priorities together, and showing our approach to kids as the key to our approach in general, as the importance of education has come back round (as it was in the ’90s) to being our USP?
‘Giving all children from all backgrounds wider life chances is the single most vital part of building a fairer society. It’s about helping every child grow up having the freedom to live their own life. And we need to tackle both climate change and the debt crisis today – because if we leave it to our kids, they won’t forgive us the rocketing financial, social and environmental costs we’ve dumped on them.’
“Change for real, change for good” is the punchiest bit of politics in A Fresh Start For Britain:
“Britain is in crisis, the worst in modern times. People are right to be angry. There is a great deal to be angry about.
“The economy is in a mess, but the people responsible are still in charge. The political system is rotten, but the establishment is still blocking change. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing, making British society so unequal that everybody suffers. Dangerous climate change threatens us all, but world leaders won’t act.
“…The two old parties have had their chances and failed.”
It frames the problem as one that only the Liberal Democrats can tackle – because only we understand the mess the country’s in, because only we have the ideas to tackle it all, and because only we’ll be honest enough to tell it like it is. And, rather than using headings like “Trust” and “Honesty” as we’ve rather unwisely done in the past, this section uses one of the simplest, most effective ways of communicating political honesty. As I said yesterday, if you want to tell people what you stand for so it actually means something, it’s got to put some people off:
“If you are happy with the way things are, the Liberal Democrats are not the party for you. If you want business as usual, choose Labour or the Conservatives – we know they won’t really change anything.
“But if you want things to be different, really different, choose the party that is different – the Liberal Democrats. There is hope for a different future, a different way of doing things in Britain, if we’re brave enough to make a fresh start. The Liberal Democrats are ready to make it happen.”
Another curiously familiar turn of phrase, there.

That – well-structured, this thing – leads naturally into setting out what our principles for government would be. And here they are! There are two key points that mark out our different approach… Different from the other two parties, and from what we’ve said before: Over this decade, the Liberal Democrats have moved increasingly towards fiscal neutrality – but, while it looks like these two points are upholding that approach, they aren’t. Each of those two commitments sounds balanced, but is actually one-directional. The reason in both cases is that Britain’s balances are in a deep hole: tax takes down as people fall out of work; spending up to look after them; and debt rocketing most of the way to a trillion pounds. We quite literally can’t go on that way. So, look carefully at those two pledges: there will be spending on our new priorities, but always paid for by cuts elsewhere, and that means public spending won’t go up overall. But, with government finances in crisis, will there be cuts that don’t pay for other priorities, but instead aim to cut public spending overall? And all tax cuts will be paid for by tax rises elsewhere… Careful readers will realise that the Liberal Democrats have for some time promised that all tax rises will be paid for by tax cuts elsewhere, and that those two clauses have now been swapped – so the corollary may no longer be the case.

In other words, even according to what information Labour lets out, the public finances are in a bloody disastrous hole and need filling in. But if we’re elected and actually get to see the proper books, we may well find out they’re even worse, and if spending cuts or tax rises are needed to fill in the hole, while we’re ruling out extra taxes for extra spending and ruling out extra spending cuts for tax cuts…

Having set out the Liberal Democrats’ values, analysis and approach, it then turns to what many will consider the meat – our specific priorities for changing things. And it’s noticeable how very few of them there are, published here as cast-iron commitments. It means that everything here can be delivered – though what’s here isn’t all we would deliver, it’s all that strict honesty means we could say for certain. That’s quite a risk, and there are, for me, two glaring omissions, only one of them for obvious financial reasons…Usually, I advise people to read the small print in any Lib Dem pre-manifestos. That this one doesn’t even have any small print tells its own story. And because the strongest underlying message of A Fresh Start For Britain is that only the Liberal Democrats will be up-front about the terrible mess the economy’s in meaning no government can do everything it wants to any more, it finishes with our approach to public spending – a short-term priority of maintaining investment to see us out of the recession, and a long-term priority of being far stricter with the public finances. And it outlines some of the major spending areas to be cut as the centralised state of quangos and databases, Trident, future public-sector pensions, deliberate expansion of higher education and tax credits for high earners. And there, at last, is the implication of more freedom.

As I put it yesterday in a Tweet-limited line:
“Can’t afford Labour? We won’t boss you about. We won’t knacker the environment. & We won’t waste your money on nukes, invasions or ID cards.”
So, What’s Not In It?

If you’ve noticed a lot that wasn’t in A Fresh Start For Britain and were wondering why, or how much more was missing, Nick Clegg helpfully gave an interview to this morning’s Independent which, as published, is about fifty-fifty underlining the new narrative and, er, being a bit iffy. Though I suspect rather less than 50% of the iffier bit is Nick’s fault.

The main strength of the article is that it positions the Liberal Democrats as making the tough choices up front about public spending that the other parties are petrified of admitting out loud.

The main weakness of the article is that it frames setting new priorities that can definitely be delivered as a great big retreat on all the other policies that might not be.


That strength is very obvious as the key aim of A Fresh Start For Britain; that weakness is partly in how a newspaper decides to spin it, but also reveals some weaknesses in the manifestoish itself. Perhaps the one that most gets in the way of a stronger narrative (there, even I’m butching up now) of a fresh, bold start is that the fresh, bold start is, er, a great big retreat, with nothing much to show for it. I can only guess at the even more eye-watering belt-tightening that would have been required to do it, but there’s an obvious ‘…but this is what you get instead’ positive message that’s missing that might have taken the place of ‘oops, bang go all our goodies’: to make cutting debt explicitly one of our priorities. To say that, if you’ve maxed out your credit cards and then your pay’s been cut, you need to start paying it off before you buy everything you want to.

Instead, the message The Independent delivers is far less about what Liberal Democrat priorities are, than about what they aren’t:
“Nick Clegg will today jettison many of the Liberal Democrats' long-standing policy pledges in an attempt to convince voters they would make the deep spending cuts needed to fill the hole in the public finances.
“In an interview with The Independent, Mr Clegg revealed that many of the promises cherished by his party will be downgraded from official policy to "aspirations" since there would be no money to fund them. They are expected to include flagship pledges to scrap university tuition fees, provide free personal care for the elderly, and bring in a higher basic state pension.
“The Liberal Democrat leader will ask his party's conference in September to make firm commitments in just three areas at the general election: a boost for education, the creation of "green jobs", and constitutional reform.”
You see, even they don’t fit in the bit about tax cuts, do they? But, still, there’s an impressive level of seriousness to the bulk of the article, where Nick talks about asking the difficult questions, and says clearly that while policies aren’t being dropped, we can no longer say for certain we’d implement them, and certainly not implement them immediately, because Labour’s totally fucked the economy. I paraphrase.
“Some of these might be retained as policies that we could not honestly place at the forefront of our manifesto, because we could not honestly claim they could be delivered in the first few years of the next Parliament.”
I know, I know. Saying it’s not the top priority isn’t the same as dumping a policy altogether. But if I were a Parliamentary candidate again, I’d be very careful indeed about what I said about policies that weren’t ‘on the list’. Getting politically involved when the Liberal Democrats were being up-front about what exactly we would spend, if necessary by raising taxes to do it, and when Labour were making mealy-mouthed noises to every interest group going that implied goodies, but termed them all “aspirations,” I learnt to treat every “aspiration” as something that will never happen. So, while in practice I know that governments usually find the money to do more than the few cast-iron promises they’ve pinned themselves to in advance, I can’t apply any less rigour to Liberal Democrat somewhere-down-the-line policies than I did when I was rubbishing Labour windbags. And that’s why it’s so important that the party debates what is, and isn’t, on that list – because if you want a reputation for honesty, you have to stick only to the bits you can be absolutely honest about.

One wince-inducing moment that I’m willing to bet is down to The Independent, not to Nick (note the lack of quote marks):
“Mr Clegg issued a wake-up call to a party which has traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them.”
I very much doubt that is what Nick said, but it still needs stamping on. A Fresh Start For Britain is by a long way the toughest ‘spending round’ the Liberal Democrats have ever faced – but I’ve sat on the party’s Federal Policy Committee for three separate General Election Manifestos (and one that never was), and I can tell you that not saying how we’d pay for our commitments is a pile of bollocks. Every single time, we’ve said how we’d pay for every promise, always causing great distress to those wanting more spending, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies has given us a clean bill of financial health – unlike Labour and the Tories, who have never, ever published their manifesto costings, and always been frowned at for not saying where the money comes from. And, no, ‘I told you so’ is rarely an attractive line – though it’s not doing Vince any harm – but rubbishing a record of consistently getting it right is no way to build up trust for the future.

And another wince-inducing moment that suspect means Nick and the FPC should have thought a bit harder:
“Could the NHS, protected by both Labour and the Tories, face cuts? In theory, yes, because no area would be immune. In practice, Mr Clegg admitted, he found it "almost impossible" to think his party would not maintain health spending.”
This is, I’m afraid, the worst of both worlds. The Tories, terrified that Labour’s single campaign message of ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but, ooohh! The Tories! Scary!’ actually has some bite on the NHS, have tied themselves in knots saying that they won’t cut a penny from the health budget (which, as it’s such a massive proportion of public spending - over £100 billion out of around £700 billion – means Labour are gleefully talking up the concomitantly bigger slashes to everything else). Do the Liberal Democrats avoid that political danger by saying ‘Not a penny cut from the NHS’ too, or do we get the ‘honesty’ gain by saying, ‘We hate cutting anything, in fact, but look – the NHS is vast and do you seriously think every penny’s well-spent? Let’s look at how every single bit of public spending adds up’? It appears we’ve decided to fall between the two stools.

Whether these came from Nick himself, from our background briefings, or from The Independent looking at our previous big spending commitments and simply circling the missing ones with a big red marker, the article concludes with a handy list of bullet-points summarising the priorities that were – and that might not be any more:
“Mr Clegg has grown in stature in recent months, winning over doubters in his own party with high-profile and timely interventions on the Gurkhas, the former Commons Speaker Michael Martin, the Trident nuclear missile system, and Afghanistan. Now his call for "candour" and a "grown-up" approach to public spending will test whether his party is prepared to grow up too.

Safe policies
  • Education £2.5bn "pupil premium" for a million children from disadvantaged backgrounds, smaller classes and extra tuition.
  • Tax Raise personal allowance to £10,000, reducing bills for most earners by £705 a year, funded by £17bn package of tax increases including abolition of top-rate tax relief for pension contributions and closing tax loopholes.
  • "Green jobs" Package to create zero-carbon homes, insulate existing homes, schools and hospitals, and expand rail network.
  • Political reform To clean up politics after MPs' expenses scandal, including proportional representation for Commons, elected House of Lords and state funding for parties.

Under threat
  • Universities Free tuition for first undergraduate degrees for full and part-time students.
  • Care Free personal care for those over 65 at cost of £2bn.
  • Pensions Higher "citizen's pension" with immediate restoration of link between state pension and earnings.
  • Disabled £200 a year winter fuel payment.
  • Post Offices £2bn pledge to keep open rural post offices.”

So, What Are The Two Big Misjudgements?

A Fresh Start For Britain has the right idea, and most of the right detail (that is, not much). But it makes two serious mistakes, in my view. One of them I’ve mentioned several times along the way already – it needs to punch up freedom as well as security. Because by keeping the balance still towards “safer” and “stronger” and not towards “freer,” it misses a key reason for doing much of what we do, and sabotages its own narrative by making us sound just like the two old, failed parties that boss people about and think they know all the answers. It wouldn’t have taken a major redraft: thinking about the rhetoric; adding the Freedom Bill to our list of priorities (a repeal of some of Labour’s thousands of bossy laws, something which in itself adds no extra public spending, and instead takes a lot of burdens off government departments, the police and people alike)… A major missed opportunity.

You might expect the other big problem I have with all this to be that it doesn’t make paying off the debt a big enough priority. Well… Actually, I’m torn on that one. It makes for a clearer narrative, but blimey, to make a really big impression there’d need to be so much cash paid off that almost all the spending we’d shift couldn’t be to other spending but just to keeping the interest down. So I suspect we just have to pay it off over even longer, as the final section on public finances implies, because there are some things so vital they simply need paying for.

No, the other serious misjudgement in A Fresh Start For Britain is one of its relegated priorities. It means finding more money – but not doing so would simply do us too much damage, in terms of narrative, in terms of practical aims, and in terms of hard-headed politics. While I wish we could find the money for all of those bullet-points The Independent this morning reports us putting a bullet into, dropping – I’m sorry; indefinitely postponing – free tuition fees for first degrees is the killer.

It cuts across our narrative. What are our priorities? Education is back to being our biggest issue… Yet we’re dropping one of our two biggest commitments on it. We’re firm on protecting government spending to keep jobs up and the debt down… So what message does it send to explicitly add to massive student debts, at the very point when graduate jobs have gone through the floor and everyone who’s just been to university realises they’ve got a mortgage-sized hole in their pocket and none of the promised salaries to make it worthwhile? We’re committed to investing heavily in early years education, which I accept is the key place to increase social mobility – but making university the place for the richer and richer clamps down on it too.

And then there’s the hard-headed politics of the issue. Tuition fees and Iraq were Labour’s greatest betrayals. This has for so long been a Liberal Democrat USP that we will be absolutely clobbered for dropping it – I’m so sorry, de-prioritising it into the unguessable future – and, looking at those other big-spending commitments we can no longer afford, to be cynical about it, for all the money we’ve kept down every other priority to throw at them, old people don’t vote for the Liberal Democrats, while students do. Despite the fact that I hope to get help in old age eventually, and have nothing direct to gain from making tuition fees free again – though I believe the economy and society as a whole will gain. And, of course, for those who say that a lot of the cost of tuition fees is a middle class pay-off… Yes, it is. And with taxes rising, pips squeaking and every kind of job looking insecure, with tax credits for the better-off one of the Liberal Democrat targets for cuts, tuition fees are a crucial way to persuade the people who pay most of the taxes that they get something out of it. And on top of all that, free education – at the very least, the education itself – is one of the clearest principles in public spending. Like being a little bit pregnant, this is one of those that’s an absolute.

On grounds of our political message, then, and on the fairness we’re trying to achieve, and naked political calculation, and even – good heavens, I’m so old-fashioned – of sheer political principles, the Liberal Democrats can’t afford to say ‘We can’t afford to pay for tuition fees’.


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 63 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

 

Liberalism For Short Attention Spans

How would you sum up what the Liberal Democrats stand for in, at most, 140 characters? That’s Darrell’s Twitter-inspired question today. Though I admit I read some people’s Tweets, regular readers will realise that extreme brevity isn’t really me – but, always up for a challenge, here are my first two bashes: What would you say? And, Darrell, what’s yours?

I’m sure I can come up with better, but those are just off the top of my head. I’m happier with 140 words, of course. Or 140 paragraphs. But that’s for another day.

Darrell got his idea originally from Conservative Home; I have to say, I like one of their entries, “Dislike of stuff does not equal a law against that stuff. Humans more important than machine algorithms. And love; always.” Send that man a Liberal Democrat membership form, because that bears no relation to any Conservative Party in history.

A poster called resident leftie, whom I subtly suspect of not being a member of the Conservative Party, suggests, “If you believe that the Britain is broken, that the past is better than the future and that poverty is fault of the poor, vote Conservative.” Less flattering, but more accurate.

Spot-on for Mr Cameron’s policy agenda, davidtbreaker sums up the next election campaign from the largest Opposition party: “Conservatives, we aren’t the Labour Party”.


Updates: Despite being known for ten-hour Budget speeches, Mr Gladstone very nearly made it to Tweet length with one of his most famous couplets, and one that’s easy to edit down to fit Twitter:
“The principle of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified by prudence. The principle of Conservatism is mistrust of the people, qualified by fear.”
I’d say that the principle of the Labour Party is mistrust of the people, qualified by the tabloids, but of course the Labour Party doesn’t actually have any principles left.


Last year, Lib Dem Voice asked a similar question – “Can you sum up the purpose of the Lib Dems in a sentence? (Or ‘The Quest for the Lib Dem Holy Grail’)” – which is almost at the Twitter limit on its own, and I came up with several suggestions, all of them improbably under 140 characters. Search the thread for what I said there, but my suggestions fell into two categories. Most of them were after something that gets Lib Dems nodding, but puts some people off – because if you can’t disagree with it, it doesn’t mean anything important or different – and the last one, which wasn’t very good, was trying to think of ‘the sort of thing you might say in conversation, rather than in a speech or a slogan’: And the Labour Party’s core message – which you’ll be seeing an awful lot over the next year – is blatantly:
“We’re shit, and we know we are, but, ooohh! The Tories! Scary!”

And another new one I’ve just thought of, this time a bit less positive: That’s not a million miles from the Nineteenth Century Liberal Party’s “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform,” is it? Which reminds me that, particularly these days, I should probably add something populist about cleaning up politics, given we’ve been talking reform for a hundred and fifty years…

Labels: , , , ,


Monday, July 20, 2009

 

Sex and Swine Flu: That Government U-Turn In Full

Andy Burnham has just given a rather muted interview on Today in which, immediately after a doctor’s medical advice on swine flu, he was desperate not to give any recommendations at all. Here’s the full transcript: ‘Mmmwah wah mmmwah wah mmwah don’t ask me mmmwah wah mmwah it’s not my fault mmmwah wah mmwah medical professionals mmmwah wah mmwah you’re not getting me like that Tory who force-fed his kids the Burgers of Death…’

Combined with this morning’s ash and sackcloth from Damian McBride (“The Prime Minister was so angry he could hardly talk…” ‘…But he could still throw things’), we can now reconstruct with confidence the discussion Mr Burnham had with Mr Brown over the weekend that led to the Labour Government suddenly changing its mind on whether having children right now was dangerous or not.
The Scene: Downing Street. GORDON and ANDY are having a meeting. A giant plasma TV screen in the background is showing a montage of pregnant women in facemasks and ill-looking people all criticising the government.

ANDY: But, Prime Minister, with pregnant women at increased risk, the medical advice that people should consider not starting a family just now was entirely sensible…

GORDON: So, Burnham. With Labour at 23% in the opinion polls, with the economy going down the toilet, with people all over the place losing their jobs and with nothing else to do, you took it upon yourself to boost our popularity by saying that THE LABOUR PARTY WANTS TO BAN SHAGGING?!?

GORDON picks up the giant plasma TV screen and smashes it over ANDY’s head. ANDY’s face is seen poking through the frame’s crackling remains, looking even more dazed than usual.

Fx: ‘wah wah wah wahhh’ sound.

Cut to U-turn.
Mr Quist, as ever, has a more serious consideration of the “farce” over health advice.

Labels: , , ,


Saturday, July 18, 2009

 

DVD Detail: Remembrance of the Daleks

With even the Today Programme – which often sneers at science – excited by the rapidly-approaching fortieth anniversary of humans first landing on our Moon, I’m ranging from a big grin that we did it to a sigh that we stopped bothering. For me, the first Moon landing was one of the greatest achievements in human history, and I hope all the attention on 1969 rekindles a space programme. In the meantime, Monday’s Doctor Who DVD release opens with a look back at the ’60s from space…

That Golden Moment
“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air…”
Deliberately echoing those extraordinary pictures of the Earth seen from space – pictures impossible before the 1960s – and evoking both the period and the many peoples of humanity with overlapping speeches by John F Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Martin Luther King and others, the pre-credits teaser that opens Remembrance of the Daleks is a beautiful moment… That changes to evoking Star Wars as, above the Earth, an enormous spacecraft slowly hoves into view. Though most stories use them these days, back in 1988 this was only the third use of a pre-titles sequence in Doctor Who, and blimey, it looks good.

The whole first episode is a superb piece of Doctor Who, easily the most successful twenty-five minutes for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor up to that point, packed with ideas, characters and thrilling special effects, but its two finest moments bookend it. First that attention-grabbing introduction – then the surprise cliffhanger in which the Doctor, having just sabotaged Dalek machinery to destroy one incoming Dalek, abruptly becomes less pleased with himself when another comes round the corner. “Stairs!” he barks at his friend Ace, and they leg it… Only for the Dalek to float up the stairs after him, his panic-stricken face seen in close-up on the Dalek’s computer-enhanced view as the end music screams in. Flying Daleks are something else that Twenty-first Century Doctor Who does all the time; this was the first time that a Dalek did just that on TV, unaided and unequivocally. And I cheered.
“You are the Doctor! You are the enemy of the Daleks! You will be exterminated! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!”
Something Else To Look Out For

I’ve spoilered the first episode ending, but the third cliffhanger is almost as arresting – and in some ways beats even today’s Doctor Who for sheer ambition. If you haven’t seen this story before, don’t look at all the online trailers; they tend to show off some of the thrilling Dalek vs Dalek battle scenes, the most action-packed special effects the series had ever delivered to that point, but give away some of the twists and tricks along the way that are best appreciated as you watch it.

If you’ve seen the story already, though, I’ve written a piece before now looking at the Doctor Who by its brilliant but occasionally morally dubious author, which explains just why, as the first episode of this story was for me easily the best episode Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor had had by 1988, the final episode was the most deplorable. So this is a terrific story, but along the way I have more than a few problems, and its climax is one of the ones I’ll most harshly criticise in the series’ forty-six years.

Despite that – and, you never know, you might take a different view of the ending to mine – there’s still a freshness and excitement about this story, and it takes a firm stand against racism, most importantly in threading that through the Dalek psyche and in taking a sympathetic character and gradually making you feel queasier and queasier about them as you realise their complicity in the Doctor Who original sin of fascism. Sylvester McCoy is very physical and inventive as the Doctor, while Sophie Aldred’s Ace really comes into her own. There’s a superb guest cast, from major parts being played by the likes of Simon Williams and Pamela Salem to even minor characters being cast with actors like Michael Sheard and Peter Halliday. And you might recognise the undertaker as someone horribly murdered in Doctor Who in 2005, too.

Remembrance of the Daleks was in fact one of the first Doctor Who stories released on DVD, back in 2001, but this new release is a Special Edition with far more in it – which you’ll already have, too, if you picked up The Davros Collection box set in the last couple of years, but here it’s available on its own – and a significantly improved picture transfer. Thankfully, it also adds the key special effects accidentally left out of the previous release, as well as (thanks to a new copyright deal) the Beatles’ proper Do You Want To Know A Secret playing in the background of one scene.

Special features still include an amiable commentary, but now have twelve minutes of extended and deleted scenes and intros (presented in a great wodge), two excellent new half-hour documentaries, with depth, enthusiasm, and attention to script, direction and acting all knocking most Doctor Who Confidentials into a Dalek dome. Highlights include writer Ben Aaronovitch, who’s a great interviewee (enthusiastic, informative and perceptive), Sylvester making the same point I always make about the Daleks – that they’re scary because they’re one-person tanks – and that not just Simon Williams but the two women in the cast who fancied him have all aged very well. There’s a 5.1 stereo mix, an isolated score (not one of the series’ best, but not bad, and probably the best by that composer), full text notes throughout and, on a second disc, a detailed documentary about the creator of the Daleks and all the stories that feature him, Davros Connections.

The best anecdote in the package is still the hilariously terrifying story, presented with video footage, of just what happened when they set off an enormous explosion in Central London on an infelicitous date.

And finally, back to the rockets. Although the British space programme never quite reached the heights in real life that it did in fiction, today is the 56th anniversary of the beginning of The Quatermass Experiment, one of the BBC’s greatest and most influential dramas. Appropriately, like more than one story in Twenty-first Century Doctor Who, this one has a direct reference to Quatermass, amid all the other touches looking back to 1963:
“I wish Bernard was here.”
“British Rocket Group’s got its own problems.”
Remembrance of the Daleks Special Edition is released on DVD on Monday the 20th of July. Which is in itself, as many Who fans know, the forty-third anniversary of the day that a computer developed sentience, invented the Internet and attempted to conquer the world (an event that has a curious crossover with Remembrance of the Daleks in Simon Guerrier’s first novel).


Update: This was originally called a “DVD Taster”, as I started off trying to write these short – by my standards – and just to pick out a few things to interest you. But they got longer, and longer, and by late 2011 I gave in and renamed them all “DVD Details”. Even though, compared to the ones I wrote later, this isn’t that detailed.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Friday, July 17, 2009

 

New EU Tory Leader “Essentially A Fascist” Says Tory MEP

There are some “F-words” that you hesitate to use in politics for fear of offence, but David Cameron’s new European Parliament Conservative Group, bodged together with sticky tape and suspicious armbands, has already had a rebellion, an expulsion and a putsch. Much more of this f-wording about and they’ll be completely F– ascisted. Newly re-elected, newly expelled Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott described the Polish extremist who seized the Group’s Leadership as “essentially a fascist,” and on last night’s PM programme, you can hear what the Conservative Leader said about “fags” that made one of his staff exclaim, “Oh my God!”

I’ve often criticised David Cameron for not having the honesty to make any policy commitments, merely asking people to vote for… Something that he hasn’t thought of yet. The Liberal Democrats make it clear what we’re offering, but Mr Cameron has been desperate to avoid doing any such thing. And, this week, it’s hard not to have some sympathy with his approach. In the three and a half years since he stood to become Conservative Leader, Mr Cameron has made a whopping two cast-iron unbreakable commitments, and both of them are causing him terrible difficulties. At home, he’s absolutely committed to one policy, one tax cut… But unlike the Liberal Democrat commitment to close loopholes on the ultra-rich and raise green taxes in order to raise allowances, helping those on middle incomes and taking millions of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether, Mr Cameron’s one tax pledge is to slash the inheritance tax paid by millionaires (even Ken Clarke, a man who knows his populism and his political poison, was forced to apologise for trying to back down on that). Unsurprisingly, now all of us non-millionaires are finding it harder than ever to make ends meet, Mr Cameron and his millionaires’ club are taking a lot of flak for getting their priorities greedily wrong.

Even that out of touch, self-serving tax disaster seems like wisdom, however, when measured against Mr Cameron’s one other promise – made when he was struggling for the more extreme voters in the Conservative Leadership race – to leave the largest, most influential group in the European Parliament and set up a ‘Billy No-Mates’ sect of their own. Not only has this alienated all the major centre-right governments in Europe – the ones Mr Cameron would have to work with should he be elected – and relegated the British Conservative MEPs from the largest part of the most powerful group, able to get things done, to a tiny squeak at the sidelines (dropping instantly from the biggest Group to the, er, fifth-biggest, and shrinking), but several of their new bedfellows are extremists of the most disgusting kind. And, to cap it all, on the new group’s very first day together in the Parliament, it was already straining at the seams. Was it worth it?

Conservatives Held To Ransom By “Essentially Fascist” Fruitcakes

The big problem is that the “European Conservatives and Reformists Group” is made up of only 55 MEPs from eight countries, only just enough to qualify as a “Group” within European Parliament rules – by contrast, the major players that can actually get things done, the European Socialists, the European Liberals and the European People’s Party that the Conservatives have just flounced away from all each have between two and four times as many MEPs, from three times as many countries. This isn’t just a matter of voting strength and influence, though obviously that’s important: the unfortunate fact for Mr Cameron is that if one or two MEPs from the ‘wrong’ country drop out, he suddenly ceases to have a Group at all.

Unlike any of the three major groups, then, Mr Cameron’s new Conservative Group can be held to ransom by most of the crackpots within it. And guess what? It’s already happened. On its very first day, Mr Cameron’s extremist Polish partners threatened to pull the plug unless their man became leader. So the brave British Conservatives instantly surrendered. If that’s his idea of standing up to Europe, I’d be interested to see what difference he can find between that and complete collapse of all negotiating positions.

Who knows what demands the smaller parties can get the British Conservatives to cave in on, when almost any one of them can nuke his Group on a whim?

And how did Mr Cameron get himself into this corner in the first place? Because the promise was forced out of him in surrender to the most hardline anti-European extremists among the British Conservative MPs. If Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister, how many of them will he be forced to surrender to, how often, and on what scarily right-wing policies, now that he’s proved that his instant response to being held to ransom is to give in completely?

The catalyst for this week’s first row of many was a longstanding Conservative MEP, Edward McMillan-Scott – just re-selected by the Conservative Party, just re-elected by the voters – who refused to support the new Group’s nominee for one of the European Parliament’s Vice-Presidents. Yesterday he called Polish MEP Michal Kaminski “essentially fascist” and an unsuitable person to be a Vice-President, or to lead a Group. Now, it’s possible that Mr McMillan-Scott may not have opposed Mr Kaminski on grounds of entirely selfless principle – his preferred Vice-Presidential candidate was the successfully elected MEP with the strangely familiar name of Edward McMillan-Scott – but he made a clear case yesterday about the “essentially fascist” background and “essentially fascist” voting record of Mr Kaminski.

Mr McMillan-Scott, it should be noted, stood by the Conservative manifesto on which he’s just been re-elected, and by the allies that the Conservatives had announced before the European Elections… But didn’t see why he should be committed to an “essentially fascist” Polish party and others with “links with extremist groups” that the British Conservatives did deals with only after the results had been declared. If even Conservative MEPs think they’ve been forced to buy a pig in a poke, what choice did their voters have?

And, of course, on the pretext of Mr McMillan-Scott’s one-man rebellion – though you can’t help wondering if this was their plan all along – the British Conservatives’ Polish partners announced that their man was to become the Group’s Leader, or the deal was off. So he is. Yes, the British Conservative MEPs are now led by a man who one of their own – just expelled for it – described yesterday as “essentially a fascist” and as unsuitable a person to lead a Group as he was to be a Vice-President.

What a success, Mr Cameron!

As Liberal Democrat Voice reports (and is it just me who’s getting a weird effect with LDV at the moment, where the pages won’t load and I have to read them in cached form?), the Financial Times has said Mr Cameron’s decision
“to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion. The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.

“To meet the requirement that an officially recognised faction should have at least 25 MEPs from seven countries, the ECR has been cobbled together out of 26 Tories, 15 Poles, nine Czechs and a solitary politician each from Belgium, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands (a Finn was also supposed to be in, but dropped out a couple of weeks ago). The Tories are bound to spend half their time nursing the egos of the last five individuals, any two of whom could destroy the group by leaving it.”
Conservatives In Bed With “Essentially Fascist” Homophobia

The “essentially fascist” extreme nationalism of most of the parties within Mr Cameron’s new sect includes a Czech party that opposes any action to stop climate change, a Polish party that says “homosexuality threatens to bring about the downfall of the human race” and calls President Obama’s election “the end of white man’s civilisation,” and of course the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party, who have a suspiciously swastika-like logo and hold ceremonies celebrating the SS (the British Conservatives explicitly denied before the European Elections that they would do a deal with this party – and, once the elections were over, instantly broke their promise, as widely predicted). Liberal Democrat Ed Davey wrote to the Conservatives challenging them about these “essentially fascist” bedfellows before the European Elections but, of course, they only came clean about them once the elections were over.

In a week where reports of homophobic hate crimes are soaring in London, the British Conservatives have teamed up with parties whose members call for gay people to be locked or beaten up.

I don’t know for certain what David Cameron’s personal views on equality are. He first stood for election as an MP on a viciously homophobic platform, and started his Parliamentary career with solidly homophobic votes; since he became Conservative Leader, however, he deserves praise for some of his personal actions. He’s appointed out gay MPs to his Shadow Cabinet and, when votes on gay rights have come round in Parliament, he’s generally voted for them or abstained – though most other Conservative MPs have voted against, so he’s a Leader without many followers. My gut instinct is that Mr Cameron has no very firm views on gay equality, which is how he could be so opportunistically homophobic just a handful of years ago, and now makes opportunistically gay-friendly noises as part of “detoxifying the Conservative brand”. Make no mistake – I’m extremely happy for the Conservative Leader to be making gay-friendly noises, even opportunistic ones. When I first got involved in politics, the Conservatives made vicious attacks on lesbians, bisexuals and gay men one of their main campaign tools, Liberal Democrats took the flak for supporting equality and Labour were gutless abstainers. I’m glad those days seem to be over for Mr Cameron and at least some of his party.

But if he strongly believed in equality, he couldn’t have formed an alliance with Europe’s biggest bigots. He couldn’t be held to ransom by any one of those bigots. And he couldn’t have his own Group, the one he promised to form and personally made happen, led by a man with an “essentially fascist” record of viciously homophobic policies. While Mr Cameron may personally have a ‘live and let live’ attitude, it’s now been proved beyond doubt that, if the choice is between standing up for equality for lesbians, bisexuals and gay men and another priority, lesbians, bisexuals and gay men will get dumped.

There are signs, of course, that Mr Cameron is worried about what a PR disaster this is, and has asked his Polish playmate to tone down his statements for UK consumption; in interviews with the UK press this week, Michal Kaminski made clear that, while he doesn’t agree with that sort of thing (carefully only hinting at his extreme homophobic policies), he certainly has nothing against “them” and has never used any sort of homophobic language.

How unfortunate, then, that last night’s Radio 4 PM programme, about 43 minutes in (it’ll only be available for a few days, so if anyone captures that item and makes it available on their own site, I’ll happily link to it), dug out a Polish interview in which Mr Kaminski kept using a Polish homophobic word which translates as “fags” even after his interviewer twice challenged him on it, and that, when PM contacted him for a statement on his having told an obvious lie to cover up his homophobia, Mr Cameron’s new Leader in Europe… Refused to talk to the BBC, while the one of his assistants they played the interview to exclaimed, “Oh my God!” The British Conservatives must be so proud.


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 95 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

Labels: , , , , ,


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

 

Spearhead From Space on DVD

A review from the days when there were just three Doctor Who DVDs available rather than sixty-odd…
“Rather amusing, don’t you think?”
Spearhead From Space has a lot of baggage. Surely one of the best-known stories, it was the first novel created for the Target range, one of the first videos released, one of the first re-released, one of the few recent terrestrial analogue repeats, and now one of the first DVDs. It’s highly entertaining, but still something of an oddity – one of the series’ most significant relaunches, it’s both highly derivative and a taste of things to come.

The first colour story, it looks better than BBC colour did for years afterwards, through the happy accident of all-film, all-location filming denying us the soon-to-be-usual harshly videotaped studios. The first story of the Doctor’s new exile to Earth, it’s also startlingly similar to Quatermass II, or any number of episodes of The Avengers, or even a pared-down version of the previous season’s The Invasion, with the same factory and all the trimmings. Regarded now as a typical, reliable Bob Holmes ‘film homage with witty dialogue and exaggerated character parts’, it was actually his first of these, following on from two little-regarded late Troughtons. It’s the first story for Pertwee’s more ‘serious’, haughty Doctor after Troughton’s ‘clown’, yet Pertwee spends much of his time clowning instead. It’s even a four-part story before such economy became fashionable, set in a season of seven-part epics, and perhaps because of that, perhaps because it was Pertwee’s first story, perhaps because of that terrific high street invasion scene, or perhaps just because the book was so good, it was remembered and talked about for years, alone from the ‘forgotten’ Season 7. Even Doctor Who and the Silurians tended to get overshadowed by its flashier, emptier sequel, but somehow Spearhead From Space never did.

So, is it any good? Familiarity has bred a little contempt for some fans, but although suffering from the usual Pertwee problem of much better books than TV, in this case it’s because the book is fantastic, not through any deficiency in the production. This is really good, if perhaps only on the edge of my top twenty. It’s a cracking action tale, basically, with dabs of horror to scare the kiddies, and loads of comic bits to say that it’s all right really – and only one horror bit that’s unintentionally funny. So, a pretty good recipe for Who.

People often say how “grittily realistic” this is. It isn’t. While generally more ‘realistic’ than the previous season, it’s far less ‘gritty’ than the rest of the famously dark (for Who) Season 7. Had it been made on video, some of it might have looked much sillier; as it is, the convincing visuals really help make the funny bits entertaining rather than seem mistakes. Much of its reputation must lie with the Autons themselves, which are fantastically creepy monsters, and of course Hugh Burden’s eerie boggling eyes. Even so, it’s not such a big change – horror stories a couple of years earlier like The Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep had far less in the way of comforting comedy to defuse the tension.

This being such a collection of firsts, the regulars are decidedly irregular. Pertwee is generally comic and – with the aid of some rubber tentacles – renders the climax rather silly, but has a fresh appeal in many scenes. Caroline John’s Liz Shaw is a bit too mannered to begin with, but shows huge promise that was to blossom into probably the best TV companion after Barbara. The real star here is Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, a relatively familiar face and an assured performance that is constantly delightful. It’s almost a shame when the Doctor gradually evolves as ‘the star’, with Nick playing the lead so well in the early episodes. By the end of the story, the three are working together awfully well, and while there is a fair bit of scientist-soldier tension, they all get on well from the start.

Liz, in fact, has a lot more problems with the Brig than the Doctor does, largely because he’s just kidnapped her. The Doctor getting her on side with a great piece of eyebrow acting actually brings her into the UNIT fold. That’s not the only exciting thing about this new character – she wears such a stunning array of plastic coats and dresses that you’re surprised the Nestenes don’t seize control of them and strangle her with them. Oh, well, maybe in the X-rated version. Have you noticed, the ’70s begin with a woman in charge (of the tracking station, in the first scene), and probably the strongest woman companion so far… You’d hardly know what was coming next, would you? The new Doctor also betrays some of his more unpleasant character traits early; his ‘escape attempt’ shows he’s a ruthless git. Let’s face it, he uses Liz, and as he can’t fly the TARDIS straight (The Green Death, still years in the future, is the first time in the show’s history he manages that unaided!), we know he’d be leaving the Earth in the lurch here and never be able to get back to sort out the Autons. And is there a little touch of the famous Pertwee Moral Message? You heard it here, kids – automation is evil! People who sack their workers are aliens!

It all looks like it cost about a hundred times more than The War Games. And even though that had loads of soldiers, here they seem like the main characters. It’s a different series! Despite The Invasion the previous year, it’s a bit of a shock to have the serial open with some modern soldiers. It used to be an eccentric traveller in time and space, and suddenly it’s gone all macho. You’d think with the advent of colour, they could find a more exciting one to start with than beige… On the other hand, the horror elements are distinctly anti-beige in their excitement; the shocking splash of red for the soldier in the car crash, the Auton tearing its way into a tent to kill Ransome and terrify the kiddies off camping, and Ransome becoming a gibbering wreck. We should get that more often – in the following story, too, people see things and lose their minds. Shame the series had so few such Lovecraft and Quatermass and the Pit-style reactions, but perhaps they would have caused too many nightmares. There’s more for parents and teachers to disapprove of when it comes to the Nestene energy unit, too. Either the Doctor’s or the designer’s maths is terrible, as the Nestene energy unit is much bigger than his guesswork. And who’s the woman with the world’s largest eyepatch in the hospital waiting room? What’s she waiting for? A head transplant?

On the production side, the Bob Holmes script is well-paced to slowly introduce the new Doctor (though attempts by the director to hide his face after he’s already toppled out of the TARDIS just, er, fall flat), then pick up with the scary Autons, and leavened with some great dialogue and, of course, those splendid stereotypes Mr and Mrs Seeley. As well as the obvious Quatermass borrowings, Holmes seems to have lifted much of the early set-up from Invasion, a rather poor sci-fi film he co-scripted in the mid-’60s (though the hospital scenes are also reminiscent of Adam Adamant Lives: A Vintage Year for Scoundrels and The Avengers: The Forget-Me-Knot). The crude-faced, unstoppable, homing killers are very like The Avengers’ Cybernauts, but no less impressive for that, and it’s a nice twist that they’re more interesting than just another robot. Dudley Simpson’s incidental music – particularly for the ‘Auton invasion’ – is awfully good, as we’ve fortunately come in just before he goes quite dreadfully mad with a synthesiser for a few years. Derek Martinus turns in some great pieces of direction, with super zooms in on and out from hunting Autons, and even for the episode titles. Two dazzling scenes in particular stand out – first, the Brigadier’s impromptu press conference at the hospital. I defy you to watch Nick Courtney calmly insisting, “I know nothing about a man from space” while pursued by a camera, and not have a little part of your brain think it’s real. The other scene, of course, is in Episode 4, and involves the most aggressive January sales windows you could imagine…

Anyone who brings Doctor Who back to the TV really must give a thought to some great visual set-piece. Get people talking afterwards about ‘The one with the dummies coming to life / The one with the Dalek in the Thames / The one with the Daleks climbing the stairs / The one with the maggots, or spiders, or monsters walking out of the sea’; high-quality pretty images aren’t enough. Everyone does pretty these days. It’s got to be a memorable image, with any luck rising out of a memorable plot.

This being a DVD, though, it’s not just the show itself that’s there to be excited by (well, it would be if it were issued by Revelation, but fortunately the BBC have learnt better). The extras are very jolly; for example, a UNIT recruitment film, sadly missing the phone number at the end it used to display (they could have updated it!), some terribly hammy Pertwee publicity stills, and the BBC2 ads from 1999 – the second of which sadly has different music after copyright problems, is way too loud and doesn’t work nearly so well. At least they’re much better than the ad for Genesis of the Daleks… Which reminds me, shame there’s no BBC2 Dalek on here. Oh well.

That’s not the only boon on DVD, however. For my money, the best thing about it is what else you can have playing while the show’s on. First, there’s the option to display little text factoids on the screen in random scenes. It sounds terribly dull, and admittedly it tries very hard to be written that way, but actually they’re so surreal, we fell about laughing (this effect does wear off as they become more and more boring with later releases). Some are appropriate to the scene in question; many just pop up out of left field. There’s one long set of items about Jon Pertwee’s career that appears mid-way through Episode 2 for no reason at all. We just sat and imagined Richard Molesworth strapped to a chair, being hit with electric shocks every 2 minutes 37 seconds to come up with something (very faintly) interesting, and tapping out all this foolishness.

But that’s not all! The best is yet to come. While the earlier release The Robots of Death boasted an interesting, informative and serious commentary by the producer and writer, Spearhead does none of this. Its commentary is gloriously irrelevant, but pricelessly entertaining. Actors Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John appear to have been locked in the sound booth for a few hours with nothing but a microphone, a video and a tanker of gin. It’s clear that there is a break in recording before Episode 4; by the end of the marvellous Episode 3 track, they’re talking such enchanting gibberish I’d swear they’re paralytic.

Courtney is a fabulous old pro, reproducing every tiny detail and no doubt sending fanboys wild by talking about how the Brigadier’s wife Fiona left him (in spin-off Downtime). Ooh! If it wasn’t canon before, is it now that it’s been released as part of Spearhead From Space? I don’t know. I don’t care. But it’s lovely to hear! He announces that Zygons were “very funny,” complains that the uniform “Doesn’t flatter my bottom at all!” and steals the show. So, how can Caroline challenge him? By knowing nothing at all! Ah, it’s bliss. She knows that there were no loos and it was cold, but spends the rest of the time regaling us in her Mrs Doyle Oirish accent and saying she’s a nauddy nauddy girl for telling us the plot (which she doesn’t actually remember anyway – in fact, her recollections give away a whole different plot!). It’s as if they’ve decided to play it in gender-reversed character to the old song, I Remember it Well. Bless her, she promises “I shall spend my dotage watching every episode,” and draws our sympathy as she recalls, “I never got to go in the TARDIS. So sad,” or “Nobody ever said I was any good.” Oh, Caroline, Caroline, you were fabulous! I almost wrote my first ever fan letter to an actor on the spot. Still, she gives the game away in the end; “You were never averse to being in a pub a bit, were you?” she tells Nick, and finally proves she knows the world of Who far better than she pretends with her response to Nick’s “Now there’s a useless piece of information”: “Not at all! I should think some people are really thrilled!” Yes, Caroline. We were.

Spearhead From Space is a highly enjoyable slice of Doctor Who, and this DVD makes it better than ever – nine out of ten. So, even if you’ve got this on tape already, it’s a real treasure – not just for a far, far superior picture quality, but for the enchanting uselessness and sheer entertainment of the Caroline and Nick show. My only niggle is that it doesn’t give a proper time counter display, but with a package this good, I’ll live.

Lastly, it’s odd that both the early 2001 DVDs (this and Remembrance of the Daleks, if you can’t cast your mind back that far) have a solid claim to contain the series’ best-staged fight sequences ever, and are famous for looking terrific – yet both are thoroughly upstaged by their novelisations, for me the best two books Target ever did. Who says action scenes don’t work on paper?

It’s a strange experience, reading back through a DVD review I originally wrote in 2001. Looking at How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal yesterday, I could write almost the same thing today, but while my politics haven’t changed, my expectations of DVDs certainly have. Though I allude above to my dislike of completely bare-bones, no extras, crummy-pictured DVDs – I’d just bought a very disappointing copy of Quatermass and the Pit released by Revelation at the time, which has since been issued as part of the BBC’s The Quatermass Collection with the other stories, fantastic picture restoration and documentaries – if a Doctor Who DVD were to be released with so few extras as that early edition of Spearhead today I’d be just as irate. The standard has climbed since to a remarkable degree.

It’s strange on other levels, too. Now that my Summer holiday repeat season from Outpost Gallifrey reaches a proper story, I thought it would need very little thought in reprinting before this link disappears forever. I was quite wrong. Obviously, my attitude to DVDs has become much more discriminating, as I’m comparing them now with the very best of DVD rather than just VHS. But I was also surprised to find that the version of this review that I wrote in 2001 isn’t the one I sent in to Outpost Gallifrey. The original draft I have on file went to a Doctor Who e-group when the DVD first came out; the one I’ve reprinted above is cut-and-pasted from OG (aside from minor ‘house style’ changes), which I clearly must have amended and submitted a year or two later, as I’d added a couple of lines and a new paragraph in the middle as well as trimming one bit, clearly having seen a few other Who DVDs in the meantime. And, perhaps most significantly, it’s now difficult to talk about this story without looking at its influence on the series’ return in 2005, as I’ll come to in a moment.

Despite all that, I still rather like that old review. It was written in a rush of enthusiasm (I can clearly spot some of the more critical lines I inserted a year or two later), and it was the only piece of my writing that the late Craig Hinton ever praised… Though that’s not quite as proud a memory as the only speech of mine that Paddy Ashdown ever congratulated me over, in which I had been bold, radical and risky, outlining our principles to move party policy forward, but also – summing up in a debate in front of a couple of thousand people – as then Chair of what-Liberal-Youth-was-then-called, a speech in which I brutally swatted down an executive member who’d spoken out of line. I never had the nerve to ask Paddy if he more agreed with the principles involved or the ‘leader tersely nuking a pesky colleague’ aspect of the speech… But back to Doctor Who.

Spearhead From Space and Russell T Davies

I mentioned the series coming back in that review far more in hope than expectation but, when it did return in 2005, they did indeed give the first story a memorable image like dummies coming to life and going on a killing spree on the high street – by the simple expedient of bringing the Autons back, so that dummies came to life and went on a killing spree on the high street. Good choice, though other elements of the relaunch were more original (and it rapidly found its own image that everyone remembered: ‘did you see the one where the spaceship crashed into Big Ben?’).

Looking at Spearhead From Space with Twenty-first Century Who on TV eyes, it’s striking how familiar it is. 1970 saw a massive overhaul of Doctor Who, for the first time in colour, with an entirely new regular cast and a new writing and visual style. It was the biggest reformatting the series had ever had until the still bigger 2005 relaunch – and even that was in some ways a less radical change to the series’ ethos, with 1970’s stories the ones in which the rootless, anti-establishment wanderer starts working with the military, and still the series’ only season in which a lead character defined by his travels in time and space is so Earthbound that he never once gets into his TARDIS and flies off.

So it’s no wonder that Russell T Davies chose to borrow much of this story for his own relaunch. Of course Rose restaged that Auton invasion, as did Love and Monsters (rather more stylishly), as well as at least three pop videos and even a Pringles ad, but there are other touches, too. The story starts off with a woman from ‘our world’ gradually introduced to strange happenings, only meeting the Doctor and aliens bit by bit to get used to them with the audience, luring you in with normality as a pilot for the new series. There’s a shifty character part who’s almost the first ‘ordinary’ person to appear in the series and certainly the first to do the vacuuming or sell his story to the tabloids, making him uncannily like a piece of Russell T Davies in the countryside. And in what we’re told is Essex, he’s Welsh, too. It’s a sign! Going right up to last week’s Torchwood story Children of Earth, the UNIT set-up here is not merely the seed of modern-day UNIT stories, but – in making the Doctor Earth-based and working for a secret alien-fighting organisation – plainly of Torchwood, including some form of government conspiracy that gets in our heroes’ way, a small alien incursion in the past that returns here on a much larger scale, an alien encounter threatening a man’s sanity and a half-seen alien roaring and spitting against a glass tank. Even that scene I mentioned that scares kids off camping, though Russell hasn’t borrowed it, got a grislier echo in the later story The Stones of Blood – which Russell’s described as his favourite “hopeless” death in the series. And, coming full circle from 1953 to 1970 to 2005, the week after Rose was first broadcast the BBC remade The Quatermass Experiment live, which had a strange look of Spearhead From Space by shooting many of its scenes on location in exactly the same sort of echoing warehouse as the inappropriately enormous UNIT lab.

Though it may be worth waiting for the rumoured ‘Special Edition’ reissue of this story in perhaps a year or so (if you want to see it with an improved picture transfer and what’s now the usual host of extras, as well as probably restoring a piece of music omitted from Episode 2 for copyright reasons which have since been resolved; the other early DVD I mentioned in the review, Remembrance of the Daleks, is actually getting a ‘Special Edition’ re-release next Monday!), right now you can probably find this DVD for a third of the price it was released at in 2001, and, as I say above, it’s a very impressive story to enjoy. Most of it looks like a rather well-shot film from the end of the ’60s – given that it’s very well-shot, on film, and made in 1969 – and has great style about it, but having to shoot the story on location rather than in studio corridors gives a lot of it a very modern-seeming immediacy. I praised the Brigadier’s jostling impromptu press conference above for looking like a real news report, while scenes of the Brigadier and Munro pedeconferencing, brisk and businesslike with the camera walking back in front of them, would probably be shot just the same way today (and decades before The West Wing). Though Mr and Mrs Seeley are outrageous stereotypes, they’ve got some great character touches, too; there’s Russell-style gossip, and she’s as real worrying about her dog and facing off against an Auton as she is when, in a brilliant moment, she suspiciously re-opens Sam’s shed door a moment after he ‘disproves’ her suspicions to try and catch him at it (whatever ‘it’ may be), and her husband’s still ready for her! And though Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is far more likeable here than he becomes later, his sneering to the Brigadier at the end that he has no use for a salary is worth scoffing at. As my lovely Richard put it last time we watched the story:
“Of course he doesn’t need money… Merely a car, and clothes, and equipment, and a building, and an assistant, which of course money could play no part in obtaining.”

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

 

The Reign of Television

Today is 25 Messidor, or Bastille Day in the old calendar, and one of the week’s most gripping pieces of TV was Saturday’s part-documentary, part-drama on the Reign of Terror. Spend your evening watching Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution on BBC iPlayer, but have lots of chocolate to hand. Or, if you want a bit of politics but the lessons to learn for today from mass-murdering tyrannies are a bit heavy for a weekday evening, why not explode homeopathy with Mitchell and Webb? Or just have some nourishing Triffids with the Supersizers. I may have mixed two dishes there.
“Men who loved humanity so much, they felt entitled to exterminate the human beings who stood in its way.”
Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution followed Robespierre’s time directing the Committee of Public Safety – and yes, that English translation of the French is very reminiscent of the English translation of the Russian Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or the English translation of whatever the Home Secretary’s coming out with this week about having to sacrifice our liberties, our justice system, huge wads of our cash and the odd few people that we know are baddies for some undefined element of security. Unless the government doesn’t like you, or you don’t pay enough, or there’s a mistake in the system, or all your personal details are accidentally left on a train, in any of which cases you had it coming to you and don’t deserve to feel secure.

As you may have guessed, this programme (available through the week on iPlayer, and repeated tomorrow night at 1.30 am, signed on BBC1) focused on the end of the Eighteenth Century but cast a long shadow, particularly into totalitarians of the Twentieth. Simon Schama was there to be aghast at the moral horror of those who’d sacrifice so many for the sake of “higher truth”; for balance, a communist historian vividly put the case for the Terror. Disturbing, but important – because it’s much easier to ignore people who believe that you can do anything to anyone, as long as things will be fine in the future, “when humanity is perfected,” when they’re safely a couple of hundred years in the past than when they think it’s a good idea to do it to you. I knew a fair bit about the French Revolution (the historical instruction of Doctor Who), but realised watching this that I was mainly familiar with what happened in Paris; accounts of the near-razing of Lyons shocked me. As did the revelation from Robespierre’s private correspondence that even he realised it would never end: the man who almost personified the idea that the ends justify the means told himself and his inner circle of the time when all would be perfect and they could stop. The time will be “never”. Then why did you carry on, you obsessive butcher?!

And, once again, the reason why Liberals don’t believe in utopias is that every individual is important; if you see them only as means to some future perfection, you can discard anyone you like. If you see any system as necessarily imperfect, but doing its best along the way because everyone matters, you realise that the ends and the means are inseparable. It was finding out that Robespierre, the ultimate in starry-eyed fanatics, didn’t even believe the ends were attainable that really appalled. Then what’s it for?

Mitchell and Webb and the Homeopathic Quacks

Fortunately, Mitchell and Webb are on hand, the best in rather a good recent line-up of Thursday night comedy. Yes, I’m quite enjoying Psychoville (though last week’s seemed very like a tribute night to both Alfred Hitchcock and the League of Gentlemen, to the extent that it was mildly surprising to find the corpse wasn’t played by Jeremy Dyson), and even laughed at Krod Mandoon. Last week’s was all right, with a pointed attack on self-styled ‘dieticians’ (“I’m going to go online now and get you another doctorate”), another on Billie Piper’s main post-Who vehicle and an interview with Brian Paddick about police community support officers, but they don’t seem to be spacing out those deliberate “hits” and “misses” as well as they might. The previous week’s outing, the fourth in the series, was far better. I laughed at a deconstruction of online kissing – hmm, doesn’t seem so good when I type it – and celebrity cookery that was almost exactly like my old boss’ way of computer training (a bunch of trainees he’d bludgeoned at high speed once gave me a box of chocolates when I taught them half as much in twice the time but so they could actually learn the skills, because I was “much nicer than that scary man”).

The real highlights, though, were the sketches inspired by last year’s season of Doctor Who – the unfortunate Hennimore (a one-joke series of sketches which I quite enjoy, though they’re not a patch on last year’s bawdy 1970s hospital) facing off against the same giant bee CGI, or not, and a Pompeii soothsayer with a great punchline – and those laying into the credulous on all sides. Trying to lay off the chocolate at the moment, the advert for crisps made out of cress was dead-on:
“Cressps. Once you cressp, you just can’t splesp.”
“…Oh, Christ, they’re horrid!”
Did you see last night’s Supersizers, by the way? The Supersizers Eat… The 1920s seemed to miss the point for the first time, with fabulous music, fabulous lesbians… Really, almost everything about their depiction of the ’20s was fabulous: Sue’s fabulous fringe, fabulous frocks, fabulous fonts, even, but just not much fabulous food. Instead, fads. Far too many diets. I mentioned last week’s on the French Revolution yesterday, which – before the guillotine came down on the cooking – looked far tastier. If I hadn’t already given in to chocolate cravings and crashed out of my diet in spectacular fashion yesterday, I’d have plunged my head into that already empty box of chocs on principle. I wish they’d repeat BBC4’s original Edwardian Supersize Me, in effect the pilot for it all where almost everything bar the pressed duck looked rather enticing, as it’s the only one we didn’t record…

But back to Mitchell and Webb. A very testy vicar trying to pass off an atheist revelation was quite sharp, almost as if irrational one-offs shouldn’t be entirely convincing, but the best of it was undoubtedly the serious, high-energy drama set in Homeopathic A&E. Stephen Fry’s brilliant one-liner slashed homeopathy a couple of weeks ago, but, sorry Stephen, this was even better. And, gosh, who’d have thought treating homeopathy as if it was proper medicine would make it look like an expensive dangerous lunatic absurdity?
“I just can’t stand losing them. I don’t know… Sometimes I think that a trace solution of deadly nightshade or a statistically negligible amount of arsenic just – isn’t enough.”
“That’s crazy talk, Simon. OK, so you kill the odd patient with cancer or heart disease, or bronchitis, flu, chicken pox or measles, but – when someone comes in with a vague sense of unease, or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense, you’ll be there for them with a bottle of basically just water in one hand and a huge invoice in the other.”
Stephen Tall picks out that outstanding sketch, though the whole programme’s still available on the iPlayer until the end of the series. Go for the whole thing, and that one’s also got another round of the post-apocalyptic game show, which I’m afraid I’m finding far too funny. Perhaps I’ve just watched too many horrible dystopian dramas of plague, nuclear armageddon, hideous rampaging giant plants… Some of them even written by people other than Terry Nation.

Triffids, Newfangle and Quack Schools

Speaking of which (and three quick daytime TV links coming up in a rush here), BBC4 is currently repeating perhaps the best of these, The Day of the Triffids, on Sunday nights. Survivors is impressive in each of its incarnations, but I can’t help feeling that it’s lacking something when it omits the poison-slapping killer vegetation and sticks a bit of The Archers into the monsterless void. This 1981 adaptation, easily the best among the various TV, radio and film versions of John Wyndham’s novel, has Triffids which are an extraordinary piece of design: not just scarily plausible rooted, rattling or striking, but even when they’re chopped in half – you see that sort of stringy vegetable breakage you get when you bite a piece of celery. Those strands that get caught in your teeth. How do they do that? And John Duttine was one of the first guys on TV I didn’t admit to myself but knew at several levels was rather hot.

In other news, I discovered an inspired Radio 4 comedy, Newfangle, too late into its run to get round to recommending it, but its prehistoric sit-com covered evolution, war and religion superbly from what I heard of it, and should it be repeated or released on CD, look out for it; it’s stolen by Maureen Lipman and, particularly, the incredibly talented Russell Tovey as the early hominid with all the ideas but not necessarily the wisdom to implement them to his best advantage. With soon-to-disappear Doctor Who website Outpost Gallifrey (current subject of my Summer holiday repeat season) usually known as “OG,” the meaning the series gives to the word “og” is particularly entertaining for Who fans. And so appropriate, as the site is shortly to og off.

And finally, though that poking of the credulous from one end of the human story is no longer available to listen to, you can still read Ministry of Truth’s attack on the ludicrous superstitious rubbish infesting our education system that the Conservative education spokesperson is lauding and that the Labour Government is paying our money towards to inflict on children. Good grief.


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


 

How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal

Of all my articles once published on Outpost Gallifrey, this, from 2004, is the one that anybody read. The amazing Jennie quoted it before we met; a US Republican sent me a vitriolic e-mail; Liberator published an alternative version… So, before this link disappears forever, here it is.

“2003 sees an important anniversary for a great British institution. It has inspired countless young people to stand up against conformity, bigotry and oppression. It has fostered individual liberty, internationalism and human creativity.
“But as well as being the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who, it’s also the centenary of the Young Liberals.”
That’s how I opened a rally in September 2003 to celebrate the Young Liberals, and while I did it mainly to get a laugh, the comparison’s crucial to my political life. I’ve always been driven by political ideas, since long before I realised they were ‘political’, and many of them came straight out of how I grew up with Doctor Who. These days my ideas and philosophy have led to becoming the Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee, the main body that puts together policy proposals for the Liberal Democrats. Inside the party, more than a few people know I’m a fan, so when a set of Doctor Who-related questions came in to party HQ from a fan group during the 2001 British General Election campaign, I was given the role of answering them (making the Lib Dems the only major party to do so [I did the gay ones, too, marking me still more obviously as a Doctor Who fan]). This started me thinking…

I don’t think political parties give people a decent enough idea of their political philosophies, and I think that matters (when parties spend so much of their time ‘playing by ear’, it’s only fair to tell people what sort of tunes you like). When Lib Dems talk about our philosophy, it’s usually in dry, academic terms or in soundbites shortened for a headline or a campaign leaflet. That’s not how many people outside parties see their beliefs, though. Most people would express beliefs in terms of their religion, or in examples of how they affect people or things that are important to them; probably not a coherent philosophy, but rather referring to moral codes and ideas from which they’ve borrowed bits that appeal to them. If I was writing a political ‘how to…’ article, I’d probably say the best way to get your beliefs listened to is by relating them to the way they come out of things your audience cares about.

I’m not going to do that here.

No, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who instead, because it’s something I really care about. It’s A Good Thing, and to me it’s a Liberal one, too. I know scientists, actors and authors who all readily claim Doctor Who as their inspiration, though politicians are a bit rarer. However, while what triggered me getting involved in politics was working out I was gay, listening to Weekending, and my English teacher being a bastard and / or pushing me to stand up for myself, my early political instincts were formed by three outstanding influences.

The first are my parents, with a family habit of bolshily standing up for what you believe in; according to my Grandma, my first political act came naked on a beach at the age of four, challenging a teenager who’d arbitrarily kicked over a sandcastle. One parent being Scottish and the other American probably made me a bit less insular, too. My upbringing in Christianity also played a part – half-Baptist, half-Catholic, so again having to make up my own mind – particularly in the notion of individual worth and in a semi-anarchist reaction to Catholic institutions. Then Doctor Who probably did more than anything else to inspire my political interests. It fostered a free spirit, encouraged me to start reading, instilled a passionate internationalism, made me think about ecology, and give me a lasting hatred of prejudice; green scaly rubber people are people too. And, of course, it made me want to change the world, and believe that an individual can make a difference. No, I don’t think Doctor Who has a lot to say about individual policies, and no, I’m not going to write an article setting my own view of Liberalism to compare (though I’ll tell you if you mail me) – but the bits of Who I pick out should be able to give you an idea.

I can’t claim that everything about Doctor Who has a Liberal message – it would probably be very dull if it did. Some series are written for a particular point, or all by one guiding genius; Doctor Who has never had an Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon or J. Michael Straczynski, and all the better for it. When the new series comes, it will be under the guiding hand of Russell T Davies, creator of Dark Season, The Second Coming and Queer As Folk, but – much as I admire that work – it’s an enormous relief that he’s not been tempted to write every one himself, with four other writers for the first season and many others asked. One of the things I like about Liberalism is its celebration of diversity and freedom of thought, so my first (slightly cheeky) claim for Doctor Who‘s Liberalism is its variety, a variety of viewpoints, times, settings and solutions. No other political philosophy could point at the fact that something is all over the place and cry, ‘Look! That proves it’s one of ours!’

The series’ celeb fans include Ken Livingstone (Labour) and Tim Collins (Conservative), so assuming they’ve occasionally thought, ‘What would the Doctor do?’ it’s obvious you can get different views to mine from it – though perhaps there are odd creatures who may have watched the show, but haven’t bothered to listen to its values. Although Doctor Who had two periods when it ‘got a bit of politics’, the early ’70s on TV and the early ’90s in the New Adventures novels, it wasn’t even consistent within those times, and certainly not between them. The ’70s probably leant towards the Liberals, though the most political author was a communist, while the ’90s tended towards the New Age socialist, yet both have an essential ‘Whoishness’ founded on the freedom to live your own life that I can’t help but interpret as Liberal. These days, there’s BBCi’s animated story Scream of the Shalka, where the Doctor makes disparaging remarks about finding weapons of mass destruction, and interviews with Russell T Davies or Christopher Eccleston make it clear that they’ll join other periods of the series’ history by looking at social issues through Doctor Who‘s prism. Good for them, and I hope I’ll agree with them, but even more so I hope they’ll make all of us think.

In over 150 TV stories and over 200 original novels, let alone CDs, comics and other media, it’s possible to find support for pretty much any point of view (to think some people say Lib Dem policy papers are bad). The series must have inspired other politicians, though sadly Tim and Ken would be bound to charge too much to write an article. Still, I’d be interested to read an alternative political case for Doctor Who, but this is how I find the series. One of the few themes that is absolutely consistent, and born of its time, is a deep-rooted anti-fascism, yet even this can seem at odds with its equally strong predilection for scary monsters whose nastiness is evident from their appearance. While the series often preaches against violence, it’s always trying to square the circle of being for or against the military; some cite The Daleks or The Dominators as attacks on pacifism, while in the DVD commentary for the macho Resurrection of the Daleks Peter Davison gleefully claims a higher body-count than Rambo – First Blood. Remembrance of the Daleks is perhaps the most controversial story for mixing up-front anti-racism with the Doctor making a Dubya-like strike to commit genocide on the Daleks themselves (a mixed moral message on which even the author later changes his mind in The Also People).

The series is frequently revolutionary – but monarchies are usually a fairy-tale good thing. Religion is usually dubious – but while a scientific approach is praised, scientists themselves are usually madmen out to destroy the world. ‘Political’ stories are hostile satires: The Deadly Assassin anticipates by two decades both political ‘spin’ of events and, funnily enough, The Matrix; Tragedy Day lays into Kilroy and Children in Need; The Happiness Patrol is a blatant attack on Thatcherism, but is just as harsh on state as on private control. However, where socialist and conservative fans see contradictions, Liberals would recognise that distrust of the controlling state and bureaucracy is hardly incompatible with often making big business, too, a villain, as in The Caves of Androzani, and endorsing no one system is a much more fluid, Liberal approach than if the Doctor imposed the ‘perfect’ answer on everyone.

With so many stories, by so many authors, you can see that claiming one viewpoint may be a bit silly, yet there is a very Liberal and very British dislike of any big battalions that’s rarely contradicted. The Doctor prizes knowledge and individuality, and doesn’t like despots. There’s an ingrained repulsion from fascism from the very beginning that’s one of the most crucial ideals of the series. I means almost any Doctor Who story carries the belief that conquest and control is a bad thing, whether of a planet or of the mind.

The first political pamphlet I wrote (‘The Human Factor’, in Kiron Reid’s Riot and Responsibility) took its inspiration and several quotes from arguably the ultimate Who story, and one of the most unambiguously Liberal: 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks. The climax features the Doctor and the Daleks each attempting to instil in the other “the Human Factor” or “the Dalek Factor”. The definition of what makes humans Human is my sort of Liberal; it starts with ‘being a bit silly’, and graduates to ‘asking awkward questions’. Freedom of thought and expression is something Dalek society cannot stand; as the Doctor tells the Dalek Emperor:
“Somewhere in the Dalek race there are three Daleks with the Human Factor. Gradually, they will come to question. They will persuade other Daleks to question. You will have a rebellion on your planet!”
This comes to pass, with furious Dalek commanders exterminating their underlings merely for the unheard-of intellectual rebellion of asking “Why”, which on its own is enough to undermine everything Daleks stand for. In contrast, the Doctor defines the core of “the Dalek Factor” as “to obey,” even before “to exterminate”. While from the first and in many subsequent stories the Daleks have been metaphors for the Nazis, here they are broadened to encompass all enemies of free thought who simply do as they’re told.

This message is perhaps the most explicit statement of the anti-establishment ethos that its original producer Verity Lambert saw as the core of its appeal to children and a particular kind of adult. While authors like Paul Cornell, Malcolm Hulke or David Whitaker may have written particularly political stories, it was creator Sydney Newman and his team that made the Doctor inescapably Liberal from the start – a curious traveller in time and space, by definition unbound by rules and by instinct dismissive of authority, to a petty bureaucrat “the most subversive and anarchic figure of his entire career, a shabbily dressed little man known as the Doctor,” able to say that “Bad laws are made to be broken” and to change the world to get rid of them.

It’s from casting the Doctor as an individual and not an enforcer that the consistent Liberal feel of Doctor Who comes, whatever the views propounded in any one story. Others have been inspired by the utopianism of Star Trek, for example, but my own favourite series is about a person, not an organised group, with a wariness of militarism, no ‘one size fits all’ utopian solutions and a deep-seated mistrust of those in authority. Perhaps this is down to what sort of totalitarianism different series are against ‘first’; UK sci-fi tends to oppose fascism, while US sci-fi is more afraid of communism. A hero that isn’t a cop or a soldier or a secret agent or motivated by money, who doesn’t obey rules, who is individualist rather than collectivist but looks out for the little people, is a Liberal hero, on just the right side of anarchism. The Doctor is not a pacifist, but while caught in violent situations, he’s not a man of violence – he tries to find other ways to resolve them, and doesn’t possess a gun. As the novel Human Nature (now on the BBC website) puts it:
“There are monsters out there, yes. Terrible things. But you don’t have to become one in order to defeat them. You can be peaceful in the face of their cruelty. You can win by being cleverer than they are… It’s about not being afraid.”
That’s why I loved the Doctor as a child and found my political ideals inspired by him as an adult. The Doctor travels from place to place doing what he likes, demanding the freedom to go anywhere, see anything and talk to anyone, but never harming others unless it’s to stop them harming people, fighting injustice rather than merely being employed to fight, and if there’s a greater champion of freedom from conformity and ignorance I’ve yet to see one. He finds it all huge fun, too. So, liberty, eccentricity, kindness, standing up for the underdog, not being po-faced about it, and a bit sceptical of politicians – which, when I grew up, sounded a lot like the Liberal Democrats.

As I started watching Doctor Who in 1975, aged 3, we didn’t have videos, so I got the books to keep up my ‘fix’. That meant I had to learn to read much earlier than I would have done otherwise – ‘proper’ books at age 5 – and feeding the instinct for thinking and finding things out is a consistent theme of the series, too. Most of the early stories published were novelisations of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Ironically, when I saw him later on screen his persona seemed more of an old-fashioned Tory than the anarchic Tom Baker, so I probably had it the perfect way round. I saw the more freewheeling Doctor on TV (whose stories had few deep messages, other than to scare small children, much to my delight), but read the more Liberal stories without getting the feel of a more establishment personality.

If the message of the series is a Liberal one of ‘think for yourself’, the messages of more than a few Pertwee stories are only a step away from cheerleading for particular Liberal issues. The Third Doctor was exiled to Earth and, unusually, worked with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – a Liberal internationalist idea, if ever I heard one, and not too far from an idea you’ll find in the 2001 Lib Dem Manifesto Freedom, Justice, Honesty (at the same time as something that suspiciously resembles International Rescue. Go on, look it up). Even his rarer time and space travels were like Liberal propaganda – The Curse of Peladon was about a hidebound planet with a monarchy whose ruler wanted to join the Galactic Federation, but was threatened by conservative isolationist villains. Among the members of this Federation were the Ice Warriors, who of course had twice appeared as evil monsters, but were now reformed and peaceful. This was broadcast in 1972, and I’m sure the book had more of an impact on my developing Europeanism than any number of EEC spokesbeings.

Ecological themes pop up in a great many stories, including Robot, the first I ever saw, but the most blatant is The Green Death and its villainous, polluting oil multinational that wants to take over the world in a literal ‘command economy’ that will give freedom from all material need – at the cost of “Freedom from freedom”. Set a vague few years in the future, this 1973 show had a Prime Minister referred to as ‘Jeremy’ just as Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party was rising in the opinion polls (even more outrageous than having a novel in which Liberal Prime Minister Asquith turns out to be one of the Doctor’s mates). Despite the series usually having the dramatic convention that ugly monsters = wicked, I got the message of Genesis of the Daleks, one of the first I saw and in which the Daleks are unsubtly created as a genetically pure super-race in mobile tanks by a charismatic madman in a bunker, surrounded by his black-uniformed elite (some of whom, er, wear iron crosses and carry Lugers).

The single most influential book I read was Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, a somewhat luridly titled novelisation of the TV story Doctor Who and the Silurians. I wasn’t born when the story was first transmitted, and didn’t actually see it until the unimpressionable age of 21, though I can vividly remember where and when I finally did see it – released on video in mid-1993, it was 5am and I was crashing in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor (ooh, the glamour of politics), blearily determined to watch it all before another day’s trudging the streets to canvass and deliver leaflets in the Christchurch by-election. Ironically, the story had already long been a life-changing experience for me, and without having read the book, who knows? Perhaps I wouldn’t have been there at all…

Most readers will know that the story concerns some super-evolved reptile people being accidentally woken from the hibernation they entered to escape the destruction of the dinosaurs. Naturally, they have a prior claim and want their world back. Some of the reptile people are good, some bad; some of the humans are good, some bad. The situation escalates to near war, and the humans end up worse; they kill all the reptile people. The Doctor comes to a crisis point with the Brigadier on the other side of the argument - but that he can still work with him afterwards shows hope that peace can be made, even if not within that one story. Although I never quite took to the Doctor being semi-connected to the establishment and I know the Doctor doesn’t care for politicians, I suspect that story buried within me the notion that working ‘inside the system’ can sometimes be the right thing to do. I read that when I was 5 or 6, and while ‘nasty monsters invading’ never made me worried about ‘foreigners’, two sets of really very similar-acting people who had the same rights to live peacefully, one group different people to those I was used to, had a lasting effect on me. So, that’s the point at which I became a Liberal, even if it was years later before I put a name to what I believed.

Of course, even if you’re not interested in the many political facets of Doctor Who, you could always try and work out what your own political inspirations were. Did Doctor Who ever inspire you to change the world? And if it didn’t, shouldn’t it? Most people I know in politics get jaded from time to time, not just disinterested voters and non-voters. It can be a disillusioning experience, so it never hurts to remind yourself why you really believe in what you do believe in. Things as varied as the shock of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal murder or a Doctor Who story pitching me into an impassioned argument about pre-emptive strikes have, at different times, roused me to get back into political action, so next time you see the Doctor overthrowing a tyrannical regime, why not at least register to vote, if you can’t fly off in the TARDIS and do it yourself? Sure, it’s much easier when the Doctor changes the world in an hour and a half, but that’s no excuse not to find him an inspiration. And if you think politics is too serious to compare to a TV programme… Well, you should get out more. Not everyone’s way of life comes out of things that are Terribly Important, and when politicians sound terribly self-important, a lot of people just prefer telly. Besides, in its heyday, Doctor Who regularly had twelve million people supporting it, and any politician could do with a bit of that.

This idea for an article started out in the Spring of 2001, with a few paragraphs in reply to fan group “The Wolves of Fenric” on behalf of the Lib Dems – a piece that was online for a while, but has long since disappeared. I can, however, reveal that Charles Kennedy’s favourite Doctor was Patrick Troughton. Looking at the rewritten version from Spring 2004, I decided I’d rather not have what might be the most-quoted article I’ve ever written go the same way when the plug’s finally pulled on Outpost Gallifrey in a fortnight. I suppose it’s ‘the one to read’ of my old school BBC-style Summer holiday repeats!

The issue of Liberator in which a version of this appears is still online as a pdf, the differences mainly being that I tweaked it for Liberals who might not necessarily be Doctor Who fans (the one above’s vice versa) and other members of the Collective chopped it about a bit for space, but used the Best! Dalek! Photo! Ever! on the cover. If you’re not familiar with Liberator Magazine, incidentally, despite what you might think, it was actually founded and named about seven years before Blake’s 7 was a glint in Terry Nation’s bank account.

More than any of my other pieces under the looming threat of deletion, I was tempted here to rewrite it, or at least add some observations – as opposed to mere speculation – about Twenty-first Century Who on TV, but I decided to leave the article as originally published (save my ‘house style’ on italics and quotation marks, and putting in some links), with just one small addition in brackets and retaining all the bits I might have got wrong or changed my mind on. This is what I thought in 2004 and, skim-reading it this morning, I’m happy to say also mostly what I still think now.

Since I originally wrote this, Doctor Who and the Silurians has been released on DVD as part of the varying-quality Beneath the Surface box set. That brilliant story, though, features arguably the best single extra in the range, a BBC4-quality documentary on politics in the series, What Lies Beneath, including interviews with several politicians – what an extraordinary idea! And though I’ve still yet to write a full-scale review of The Evil of the Daleks (though there was, of course, a small one that appeared in Liberator a good decade and a half ago and which I probably couldn’t lay my hands on in a hurry), if you read what I have to say on its early Patrick Troughton Liberal stablemate The Macra Terror, you might find very much the same point of view. Of all the Doctor Who stories which are political not just in the series’ overall tone but fiercely so in detail, that’s one of the best places to start.


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 16 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?