Monday, April 05, 2010


Quatermass 2, Too! Plus Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour, Sex, and A Harry Potter Legal Opinion

Want something groovy on the telly – yes, obviously, Doctor Who’s back, and something on that below – want something groovy on TV tonight? After BBC2 was splendid enough to show Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment on Friday, tonight at 1.50 they’re showing the even more splendid Quatermass 2, probably the best and tautest of all the Quatermass film remakes. It was also a major inspiration for Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space, large chunks of which you may recognise in last night’s The Eleventh Hour. And I’ve got a Harry Potter question for you: who do laws against underage wizardry protect?

Time To Watch Quatermass 2

1953, 1955, 1958: the three original BBC Quatermass serials, as I’ve said before, granddaddies of all UK TV drama and of Doctor Who in particular. Each were such successes that Hammer remade them for the big screen – the first two promptly, but with one each title randomly one character short and with a terrible ‘big name’ American lead. Ignore him, and tune in to BBC2 tonight at 1.50am (come on, it’s a bank holiday, you can sleep in). Monsters on an industrial scale, possession, conspiracy theories… It looks terrific, it’s scary, it’s intelligent – after the first film was exciting but pretty much lobotomised, original writer Nigel Kneale helped script the second one and did a far superior job of trimming the plot while retaining the point – and if you know your Doctor Who, you’ll recognise more than a little of it. Then, when you’re done, buy the proper BBC versions. Go on, go on, go on. They’re brilliant.

Underage Wizardry Laws In Harry Potter: Protection or Protectionism?

If you’ve read the Harry Potter books… Why? What started you? Richard and I, having resisted the bandwagon for the first couple of years, were driving back home from our parents on Boxing Day 2000 when we discovered that Radio 4 had given over eight hours of the day to Stephen Fry reading the whole of the first book. I ask you, what could be a better introduction (though still, to this day, I prefer us discovering the strangeness along with Harry, as we did after missing the first couple of chapters)? It helped, too, that we were hearing it together – all the better to make us laugh – and that we were pleasingly wrong-footed on a couple of the twists. Having read all the books since, Richard recently bought the whole set of Stephen Fry’s unabridged readings (7 CDs for the first book, 812 for the last, that sort of thing), and we’ve made a start on listening to them. So the other night, we found ourselves discussing a couple of questions…

You probably know that, in Harry Potter’s world, there are laws against the “Improper Use of Magic” – particularly against using magic in the presence of non-magical people. In theory, this is to protect Muggles, though it’s often hinted that it’s more to keep magic secret and safe for the users (as carelessly wiping Muggle minds rather than actually helping them is the usual response). The best known law about not using magic is, however, the Decree For the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875. If you’re a young and unqualified wizard, doesn’t it make sense to say you can’t use magic except under controlled conditions, to protect both yourself and any Muggles within spellcasting distance?

Anyway, the other day Richard raised a curio about underage wizards, which I’ll come to in a minute. But along the way, I thought of this particular law. Because, when you put it in the context of the rest of the wizarding world – and especially in the context of who makes the laws – it suddenly strikes me that the people who do best out of this law aren’t the ones it’s ostensibly there to protect at all. Because who tend to have the power and influence in the wizarding world? “Pureblood” wizards with money and power who don’t tend to care for Muggles and definitely don’t care for “Mudblood” wizards born to ordinary people.

So why not look at a law that saves Muggles from the “Improper Use of Magic” by underage wizards… When there are already laws protecting them against any wizard doing anything nasty to them? Why single out underage wizards for additional, unnecessary punishment if they perform any magic at all outside of school – and isn’t it convenient that, because enforcement relies on detecting the use of any magic by anyone in the area and not just the ‘accused’, that this law can only ever be enforced on young wizards living in Muggle homes?

It’s easy. The purpose of the Decree For the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery is to protect the interests of “pureblood” families and give them a leg-up against Muggle-born wizards (who, it appears, are more often than not more talented than families that have been wizarding for generations). If you live in a wizarding household, then… Hooray! You can use as much magic as you like, because the Ministry of Magic expects magic to ‘go off’ in your home and won’t notice if you add to it. But if your parents are Muggles… Oh dear. All that practicing magic that would be so handy for honing your skills for at least one-sixth of the year – longer if you go home for Christmas – is not just more difficult without other wizards to help you, but actively illegal. And if you break that law, you’re in danger of being expelled. Handy to keep those “Mudbloods” from being top of all the classes, eh? Wonder who thought that law up?

The question that Richard actually came up with was about magic without wands, and look away now if you’re offended by wandwork. If you’re very young and no-one knows you’re a wizard, you can do all sorts of thrilling things like fly, make panes of glass vanish and so on. Once you start learning to be a proper wizard at Hogwarts, you have a wand, and you can only do most types of magic through it. How come, asked my beloved, young wizards can unknowingly do all these fantastic and surprisingly powerful things, then get taught in such a way that they no longer can? Well, it’s possibly to do with social control, and stifling individuality, and making everyone just like everyone else – which is not impossible. But, personally, I think it’s rather like moving from having wet dreams to wanking. Once you’ve worked out how to, ah, perform your magic when you want to, you stop exploding at awkward moments without realising you’re doing it.

If you think it’s terrible to look for sexual innuendo in a children’s book, you really need to get out more read them. Why, in the second book there’s even a running joke about Percy wanking, which is cleaned up at the end of the book for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t get it. But, seriously, what are we meant to think on hearing that Percy spent all Summer locked in his room “polishing his Prefect’s badge”?

After The Eleventh Hour

OK, OK, I know you’ve been waiting to find out what I’m going to say about the new Doctor Who. Well, in short: I loved him; I rather like her; I thought some of the early bits were a bit iffy but liked it better as it went along; I quite like the new titles but I’m not sold on the new theme music.

The trouble is, you see, that while Richard writes brilliant guest reviews on Millennium’s blog – here’s the link for Millennium’s Very Fluffy Diary, and here’s the link which, through time travel, will very shortly become his review, which I’d urge you to read as it will be far more well-argued and comprehensive than the following jumble of impressions – because Richard is good at getting his thoughts into coherent shape quite quickly, I like to sleep on my Doctor Who reviews for a couple of decades before saying something insightful.

There Now Follow A Couple of Stream of Consciousness Paragraphs About Sex Which You May Wish To Skip Because I’m Not Certain I’ll Agree With Myself In the Morning

Though, following on from the Harry Potter bit, there were a couple of elements in last night’s Doctor Who that I should bring to your attention: first, it may be just me, but the Doctor’s clearly enunciated capital letters for “Amy Pond – The Girl Who Waited” immediately called to mind Harry Potter – “The Boy Who Lived”; and second, my favourite series’ own wanking gags. In fact, what appears to be new Head Mekon Steven Moffat’s whole attitude to sex. I love his Press Gang, his Chalk, his Coupling, and much of his Jekyll, but I have more mixed feelings about his incredibly popular Doctor Who. Here’s where, incidentally, one of the 493 blog pieces I meant to write in the last couple of months but didn’t, provisionally entitled ‘Fear of Moffat’ in my head but marked to have a better title before I wrote it, might have come in useful. Anyway, the thing about Coupling is that it was a brilliant sitcom about heterosexual couples and male sexual embarrassment. And much as I loved it, it’s not the only perspective on sex (leaving aside for a minute whether you think Doctor Who should be about sex or not).

So… The Doctor notices what’s obviously porn on a laptop, and tells us so with his reaction and the embarrassed owner’s. Fine, liked it, funny. Then tells the owner to get a girlfriend, words straight from Steve, as the Doctor’s never been remotely interested in telling people how to make their relationships before. Then tells him to clear his Internet history, which could be about the Doctor’s top-secret science things, but comes across as Wanking: Point #3. Writer protests too much, I think – Steve likes wanking jokes but has the Doctor tell us off for wanking. Better point: Russell did ‘what’s on my hard drive’ more subtly, wittily and not preachily in his far less polished but far more inspired (and inspiring) Who re-launch Rose five years ago last week.

And if you claim the Doctor being suddenly censorious about people’s private lives might just be a one-off, what about his reaction on finding out Amy’s a kissogram: “You were a little girl five minutes ago!” So, more of the author having his cake and eating it: the new companion’s not a real woman, but something titillating – but just to make sure we don’t dwell on the author liking his women titillating, the Doctor tells her (and by extension us) off. Which has the effect of making her seem ‘naughtier’, and also not letting her own choices just go by as her own choices without an authority figure chiding her. She does get some plenty of good moments of standing up for herself, no doubt about that; I just winced when she’s thoroughly ‘put in her place’ about what she does for a living. And what about this Doctor, who suddenly acts like a censorious straight man, or possibly maiden aunt? He then does something more laid-back and alien, and – like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor before him (or indeed occasional Doctor Paul McGann in tonight’s Jonathan Creek with two of his Doctor Who co-stars) – strips off without any worries because he’s interested in trying on new clothes. Cue Coupling-style sexual embarrassment from bumbling implied-heterosexual man, and determination from spunky young woman: “Are you not going to turn your back?” “Nope.” I like the Doctor’s lack of concern about his own nudity (a subtle code that he’s not human; from a human perspective, he’s got a great face, and if he gets his kit off in a few years, when he’s had time to put on a bit of weight and a bit more chest hair…), but it simply doesn’t square with his ‘sex – oh, dear, it’s a bit naughty, I must chide you!’ attitude earlier in the episode, which is funny in a sit-com but wrong in a Time Lord’s mouth. Doctor, you don’t get embarrassed or disapproving about that sort of thing; you barely notice. Unlike humans, you don’t, if you’ll excuse the expression, give a toss.

…And I’m Back In the Room

If – and there’s no accounting for taste – you do want to see Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, just post-regeneration, in the buff in a hospital in mid-clothes-stealing, and if you think that sounds strangely familiar after last night’s episode, pick up a DVD of the excellent Spearhead From Space; you’ll spot that the bits of it that Russell T Davies didn’t use in Rose (and he used plenty of it) have now been used by Steven Moffat in The Eleventh Hour. It’s not just me that likes it, then. Even the hospital looks like it might have been picked to resemble the one in Spearhead. And it’s not just Pertwee’s first story that rang little bells in my head last night: as I watched Matt Smith’s debut, and wasn’t he brilliant, I thought, hmm, The Girl in the Fireplace / Castrovalva (even with a direct quotation) / Silence In the Library / Partners In Crime (or even The Stones of Blood, but more of that story later in the season, apparently) / The Empty Child / Aliens of London… And that criminal was very Zygon, though I loved the multiformness of it. If several of those earlier stories are Steven Moffat’s, well, that’s only to be expected. I’m not against Doctor Who writers who use the same themes and motifs over and over again – Robert Holmes and Russell T Davies spring to mind as among my favourites, among the most prolific, and among the most recyclable, but I am just slightly wary at how few stories Mr Moffat’s written before they start feeling samey-wamey. Come on, Steve, you wrote how many series of Press Gang all by yourself? You’re a brilliant writer; no-one can fit together an intricate plot like you do. Just try and fit together one that’s a bit less familiar once in a while. I do like your definition of Doctor Who as fairy tale, though – best ‘tone’ you could set for it. Keep that up!

Richard is currently sitting eleven feet in front of me writing something far more coherent, and I’d like to read it, so I’ll cut myself off before I wander over the entire episode. But here are a few more random thoughts. Lots of lovely character actors in the village (and back to a very traditional Doctor Who village; I loved the Doctor’s reaction to suddenly not having all the tools of a new Russell city about him – “No nuclear power station? Not even a little one?” Of course, even villages had nuclear power stations in the Pertwee days), and I bet we’ll be seeing them again. The one you probably didn’t recognise, but who had me cheering, was the old bloke with the car: I’ve met him, he’s a lovely chap, and he was once an overaged teenage rebel in a frock in a Doctor Who story in the 1960s. Points for getting which one. I greatly enjoyed the Doctor’s food-tasting and his shark-infested custard, but someone should have hit Murray Gold with the frying pan after doing the bacon in it. “And stay out!” No, no, mostly I love him too, at least when he’s not smothering a scene in ‘comedy’ plinky-plonks. I like his rousing new ‘Eleventh Doctor theme’ (if strangely un-strange), but think the new main theme arrangement’s a bit of a mess, like the different ‘moods’ released on ill-fated CDs in the late ’80s. And the Atraxi looked way cool. If also slightly like the Nestenes should have looked in Spearhead From Space

Oh, look, what I’m trying to say is, I really liked it, but my head’s still full of too many impressions to nail it all down yet. I was instinctively prejudiced in favour of a much older Doctor, but Matt Smith’s first TV interview in the role won me over 15 months ago with his wild hands and dislocated but fiercely excited manner, and he’s really delivered with a Doctor that seems almost as strange as he does. Karen Gillan’s got real potential, and I hope she’s not always written in Steve Moffat’s ‘sexy woman’ niche. I cheered, fan that I am, when the new Doctor stepped out of the other Doctors to prove he’s exactly the same man – and while I groaned at the self-satisfied, ‘I can’t beat you so I’ll just tell you how hard I am’ ending of Silence In the Library, it worked for me to set up a new Doctor. That’s the one time you’re allowed it. Oh, and if you were looking at that endearingly eccentric (that is, not really thought through in a The Mind of Evil cut-outs sort of way) set of monster flashbacks, when I was suggesting an Eleven Faces of Doctor Who season the other day, I nearly but not quite chose The Two Doctors and The Sea Devils as options. Why not sit down and watch them now? I’m sure you want to find the exact couple of seconds each have just had repeated from their two and a half hours’ worth. And, oh! I nearly forgot! “Brand new TARDIS! Bit exciting.” All that metallic orange – doesn’t it look like the Dalek City from the Dr Who and the Daleks movie? But I’ll get used to it. Twelve years ago, I went off to the States for three weeks. When I came back, Richard had painted several of our walls bright orange. I love it now…

The most important thing is, it’s back, and I’m excited. That’s five ‘season openers’ this century in a row that have been lots of fun – and I can’t wait ’til next week. And, if you thought that was a late-night incoherent babble and a waste of your time, at least I wasn’t paid for it. Not a fairy tale, but a cautionary tale: the lovely Mr Simon Guerrier brings news of why paid reviewers simply aren’t worth the money

Half-midnight update: I need sleep, but fortunately many, many Cadbury’s mini-eggs are sugar-rushing me to the finish. I must have prayed to Santa at some point (hopefully not a robot one).

Richard’s review guesting for Millennium is, of course, utterly clever, and insightful, and well-written, and well-structured, and, well… Fun. For all these reasons, you should scamper off and read it; for all these reasons, I’m very glad that I didn’t read it before I fired off my random observations. His pointing out that the Doctor may have unwittingly created his perfect companion, though, reminds me that Amy’s set up as the polar opposite of Rose and the other family-set Russell companions – the traditional orphan with an aunt who doesn’t care very much (though, unlike many of the Doctor’s past companions, her tragically deceased father was not a lord. As far as we yet know). And then, in as perfectly-falling-into-place a closing image as Steve Moffat wrote last time he did The Girl in the Fireplace, he overturns the whole thing. Or does he? Rory will hope so…

In other and still immensely exciting news, I’ve now just spotted two other reviews by dear friends of mine and incredibly clever people popping up: Jennie’s, who wasn’t much of a fan of Russell but loves this and makes a perfect point about the Lib Dems (no, no, it is on-topic); and Andrew’s, who hated Russell’s with a fiery passion, but likes this up to a point, tries not to “ruin your squee,” and is only slightly cheesed off about the similarities between The Eleventh Hour and a story he’s just written (and I’ve read Andrew’s story; I’m not sure if I prefer it to this one of Steve’s, but I definitely like it better than his last one…). Read them too! Now, time to up-end another tube of Mini-eggs (5 for £4 at Waitrose – bargain!).

Further update: the lovely Caron and Count Packula, Prince of Markness have also given their views on the new Who, while Simon Goldie wonders why Doctor Who has an appeal for so many Liberal Democrats (I have an idea). Wonder if any non-Lib Dems have any thoughts?

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I winced at this Doctor's apparent sex-negativity, too, but I got the impression we weren't really supposed to side with him over it. Particularly in Amy's case, I felt Moffat was giving her another legitimate reason to be annoyed at the Doctor. I don't think he generally expects us to sympathise with his characters when they're being sex-negative - I was reminded of the moment in series 4 of Coupling where Patrick, whose sex obsession is taken to such an extreme that it normally does feel offensive, suddenly redeems himself by being the only one of the three guys (and indeed the only one in the room) who's capable of recognising pregnant women as sexual beings.
I hope you have a point on it being another reason for Amy being annoyed, and ta for the Coupling reminder...

I may be being unfair to him, but the impression I often get from his writing is that he believes all young women are scintillating and exciting in some mysterious way, while all young men would be much better if they got a girlfriend. And Saturday's very much came across that way - I'd just love to see some evidence that he can think himself into a different point of view.
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