Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Liberal Wednesday 6: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” #LibDemValues

This week’s Liberal Monday is on a Wednesday: the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most celebrated speeches of the Twentieth Century. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s speech to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom still has tremendous power both for in itself and for its place in history – the right person, at the right time and place, with more than the right moral clarion call in its inspired oratory. The BBC marked the occasion with a tribute on Radio 4 at 9am, plus a documentary to come on BBC2 at 9 tonight.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”
What is there to be said of this great appeal for equality, justice and fellowship that hasn’t already been said? Well, there’s this morning’s tribute, for a start. I was a little sceptical of Radio 4’s I Have a Dream this morning – reminiscent of the BBC’s 1997 recording of Perfect Day, the main part of the programme was a ‘cover version’ of the speech performed by a wide array of different people from different countries. It seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But on listening to the collage, ranging from John Lewis and Joan Baez, who were both part of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that day, to the Dalai Lama, to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student shot by the Taliban for being a girl who went to school, I found it incredibly moving. With a full speech, the reading doesn’t just switch reader on every line, instead segueing between Dr King and impassioned stretches by so many other people it had touched with enough time for each different person to get a sense of how much it means to each of them. And unlike the original line-up of speakers after the 1963 March, this version of the rally’s showstopping final number has women in it, without which it would seem odd today but shows that not only racial attitudes have changed in the last half-century. It’s repeated on the World Service at 3.30 this afternoon and on Radio 4 this Sunday at 1.30pm.

You can also listen to the programme for the next week on BBC iPlayer here; you can read about it and the many contributors here; you can read the text of the speech here; and, above all of those, you can watch Martin Luther King delivering the original speech here.

I’d heard the whole speech before, though much more often excerpts from it – most of all, the extraordinary “I have a dream” peroration of the second half that echoes down the decades. But listening to it fresh this morning, without the thrilling cadences of Dr King whose voice gave perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, though the multiple performance had much less power than the original, it made me concentrate more on the words.

The speech itself is fascinatingly constructed, an appeal to America’s history and heartstrings with astonishing moral force. I think of the passion, the imagery, the repeated refrains, but it’s far more than that. The speech comes to us now with the power of fifty years of Dr King being proven right and becoming a lasting symbol on its side, but in itself it cascades back through history.

Dr King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and made his own and the marchers’ demand for the fulfilment of Lincoln’s promise an integral part of President Lincoln’s own history; I remember going to Washington in my twenties and wanting to visit that Memorial as soon as I could, looking up at the great graven face of Lincoln but seeing and hearing King in my head. And his speech grounds itself firmly on Lincoln’s own promise, deliberately opening between the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the hundredth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a championing of one and the echo of the other: “Five score years ago…” Dr King samples Shakespeare, economics, current affairs and a host of other touchstones, but in speaking for a new America rising irresistibly on the deepest feelings of the old, there’s no mistaking the other great stream pouring through the speech – religion. It’s not just in the words, testifying to the equality of all God’s children, but coming through his own preacher’s experience and oratorical style. The American Dream is only real for any American if it’s shared by all Americans, and that’s because God created all equal. And in that shared language, he was speaking to many who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear him.

For me the most fascinating thing about the speech from my own experience of watching and making a great many different speeches is how it’s essentially two speeches, Dr King’s extraordinary gift making them appear seamless. I know that my own best speeches have been ones delivered without a prepared text, but my worst ones, too: it’s a risk to try to fly. What he does here is start in the safer, meticulously prepared style as a run-up, then suddenly lifts off. There’s the carefully crafted written word fixed in American history, a reasoned argument. And then, apparently spurred by Mahalia Jackson’s cry of “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” he switches from his written text into the part that everyone remembers: the repeated rhetoric beamed straight into the heart through Biblical words and a million-watt charisma, every phrase resonating with the American Dream and with the Gospel call. And that, clearly, is the powerful spiritual appeal of the preacher.

That’s not to say that the “I have a dream / Let freedom ring” extended climax was entirely off-the-cuff. Dr King had had three years of honing that exact metaphor, from his 1960 speech “The Negro and the American Dream” onwards, but clearly it was on the day that it was most needed that suddenly the theme came together and, inspired and inspiring, helped transform America.

There’s much more to the speech – embracing both the more timorous and the more militant sides of the Civil Rights movement, the uncompromising demand to make brotherhood a reality, passing sometimes shocking judgement on the segregationists and the shameful, but then not just rising but soaring above them, preaching against hate, the realisation on his part and on “our white brothers’” part that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”. But I still get teary-eyed reading or watching it for myself, so watching or reading it for yourself is going to have much more of an impact than reading about it.

It’s a sign of how far things have come that under the institutional bigotry of the times, in 1963 twenty-one US States prohibited mixed-race marriage. That’s almost impossible to believe, fifty years later, when Martin Luther King’s speech has become one of America’s great moral foundations. Today, thirty-seven US States prohibit same-sex marriage. I wonder whose soaring rhetoric will transform the next fifty years?

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Broadchurch and How To Spot A TV Murderer

Did you guess whodunnit in Broadchurch? Having saved it up, Richard and I binged on the whole series over the weekend, and I have a few thoughts on its themes and surprising quality below (with implicit spoilers if you’re good at clues). Or what about other murder mysteries? Have you ever wondered how to spot the murderer in a TV detective series? Or specifically whoprobablydunnit in Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Father Brown, Inspector Morse and more? I reveal Richard and my (almost) infallible Rules of Suspicion: what’s the number one biggest giveaway of the TV murderer attempting to divert suspicion?

Richard started this long ago when he told me the three general and specific rules for spotting whodunnit in Agatha Christie. He’s right about them, too. Though I did correctly predict Broadchurch’s in Episode Two (albeit after wrongly being convinced Mark and the Rev Paul were shagging, particularly when the former stormed into the latter’s church as if in personal betrayal), I’m usually not a patch on Richard for spotting the murderers. What I am pretty good at is spotting themes in particular authors’ writing. Between us, we’ve come up with three rules that catch bang to rights an awful lot of whodunnits’ off-the-shelf attempts at misdirection, and several more specific ones after watching too much of particular detectives…

Richard and Alex’s Rules of Suspicion

Whoever throws around the most vicious accusations is probably the murderer. Any child will be able to tell you the rhyme that warns of this.

Whoever is too nice is probably the murderer. But you don’t come to a murder mystery to stoke your faith in human nature, do you?

Whoever is the victim of a murder attempt but manages to survive when all around them fall is almost certainly faking it to divert suspicion.
If anyone manages to survive an ‘attempt on their life’ while the detective is there as a witness, the chance of their being innocent approaches zero.

Richard and Alex’s Detective-Specific Suspicions

Sherlock Holmes
*Except in terrible adaptations that turn Irene Adler into ‘a villain’ because the terrible writers are threatened by an intelligent and independent woman, so she has to be evil.

Agatha Christie

Father Brown


Inspector Morse

SS Sturmbannführer Kessler

Midsomer Murders


Implicit spoiler warning: in case you’re just skimming across this article and might pick up something vital at a glance, I’m not going to mention names of suspects when I say something that implicitly implicates or clears a particular person, though you can probably work out who they are if you’re reading more closely.

I have to admit that I came to Broadchurch with some wariness. It was an ambitious drama series with many good actors in it, so I wanted to give it a go; but on the other hand, police procedurals aren’t really my thing (particularly horrible depressing Daily Mail-ish paedo-scare misery-porn), most ITV drama I’ve seen over the past few years has been deeply unimpressive, and Chris Chibnall as a writer has often been much worse than that. I have in the past been so critical of Chris Chibnall’s writing (Torchwood Series One being its nadir) that I came to Broadchurch fearing the worst, though with a little hope from his two Doctor Who episodes last year which while no triumphs for me felt conspicuously like he’d been trying harder and, despite having serious problems with the end of each, I’d quite enjoyed until the last five minutes. In Broadchurch, remarkably, his writing seems to have grown up, even down to a dramatically and morally satisfying conclusion.

The obvious part of the series’ success lies in telling two overlapping stories well: a whodunnit police investigation; more importantly, the harrowing emotional effect that has on a community. And it achieves the latter with generally very effective writing and in letting the various characters in that community breathe, as well as giving most of the recognisable suspects their own moments of suspicion and plenty of what on the surface seem like red herrings. The two leads were, of course, strong performances, with David Tennant seeming like he’d not slept since giving up Doctor Who and Olivia Colman moving from Hot Fuzz to everywoman in much darker places, but none of the actors and few of their actions struck false. The emotional realism reinforced the well-plotted mystery, with almost all the clues feeding back into the eventual pay-off from the in-your-face damaged characters to the intriguingly off-key early question of the deleted messages. For me it made the right choice, too, in the ending being all about the effects on the people, rather than just catching the murderer (something achieved through a combination of chance and, at the last, choice, rather than brilliant policework). It meant the writing was both straightforward in terms of how we understood and empathised, and shot through with ambiguity in no character being plain good or bad – that is, going some way to capture the complexity of life, even if that occasionally led to mixed messages (hugging is fine and natural and you should be ashamed for being suspicious of it / but also a danger sign of suppressed evil, for example).

And yet there were other, slightly postmodern touches for people wanting more layers: references such as naming Wessex Police’s DI “Alec” “Hardy” for Wessex’s Thomas Hardy and one of his best-known characters, Doctor Who quotes in the dialogue (to match the large cast of Doctor Who actors) and the faintest whiff of Twin Peaks that ITV would let you get away with; genre-aware – up to a point – DS Miller hanging a lampshade on her superior’s stereotypical broody detective schtick; the recognition about the viewer that we will recognise certain actors and say ‘Ooh, it’s them – they must be significant’, which the first episode foregrounded by giving us opening minutes of the soon-to-be-bereaved dad’s happy tour of all the famous faces in the village, then closing with a montage of those same faces in the dark, alone, troubled and suspicious, all but slapping on subtitles ‘FAMOUS SUSPECT #1…’

For me, though, the most interesting – and the most successful – extra layer was the thought that had gone into giving it a moral outlook that underpinned the drama without being overpowering.

Broadchurch – The Underlying Themes

What most impressed me about the series was that it dealt with a horrible, tabloid-friendly, always-reported-black-and-white sort of story as a much more thoughtful narrative. Even as the show drew me in, I was sceptical that it was trading on a fictional form of rubbernecking misery porn even as it had its cake and ate it with ‘…But of course journalists are evil reptiles’ to show false piety. But by the end, Broadchurch had shown itself to be something much deeper than that, and perhaps even with a touch of genuine piety.

Rather than just take the easy road of saying how shocking Daily Mail Daily Herald hacks are but subscribing to their worldview, it offered two more unusual turns. Though of course the Daily Mail Daily Herald journo was indeed a repellently cynical parasite, it not only gave her a redeeming feature – in days when even some of the media are strapped for cash, wanting to put the work in rather than just regurgitating or twisting words from press releases (though I scoffed at her apparent shock that her story was sexed up for the front page). More strikingly and more bravely, it implicitly (but no less strongly for that) critiqued not just the form of the Daily Mail Daily Herald but its values. The ‘paedo scare’ was shown as an irresponsible witch hunt that claims an undeserved life; and the ambiguity of the eventual repressed killer leaves further questions hanging, even the possibility that the climate of fear contributed to the killing. And, going back to the main body of the series, it showed throughout how tomorrow’s careless chip paper can harm many people along the way. We’re spared most of the feeding frenzy at the end, but we already know how horrible it will be.

There was a deeper morality to the series than media ethics, however. Broadchurch was at the same time a very modern story and very old-fashioned in its underlying themes, to such an extent that I wonder if the writer has a Christian faith informing his work. Part of it might be the name of show, in plain sight. Part of it was that the vicar for once seemed more or less credible as a vicar – at least in his two sermons, after a piss-poor attempt at the Problem of Evil (perhaps he just bottled giving the line on that to a grieving mother, which you might take as extra motivation to find courage to do the right thing in the penultimate episode even when faced with the worst threat someone can make today). But it was also that as every character’s secrets peeled away, all of those ‘red herrings’ echoed and reinforced each other until at the end it wasn’t just the grammar of whodunnits that made the killer’s identity clear, but the morality of the series that led inevitably to it. Over and over, we were told how destructive adultery was (even in the heart) and that betrayal by your partner was the series’ original sin. It was a murder mystery where you don’t work it out from the clues, but from the themes, asking the viewer by the end: how can you not have known? While the characters themselves weren’t black and white, it’s hard not to see the overwhelming near-universal guilt and the way that almost anything a character vindictively slags off rebounds to be found unwittingly in their own lives as a stern morality from the omnipotent author.

So Broadchurch Wasn’t Perfect…

There was one suspect who, though a decent performance, I found so improbable in concept and their red herring so unconnected to the themes of the rest that their only proper dramatic function appeared to be to illustrate DI Hardy’s gradual collapse. Conversely, we didn’t see enough of Tracey Childs’ rather fabulous police boss with her cool pedeconferencing sporting shades and ice cream, but she was saddled right up front with one of the minor mysteries so awkward that I wondered throughout if it would ever have a payoff (a practical rather than a thematic one): why didn’t Ellie get the job? The series starts with DS Miller returning from three weeks of holiday, scattering presents among the jolly coppers, before being abruptly called away by the Chief Superintendent to be told that she’s not been promoted. Despite being told before she left that they needed a female DI, that she was local and that she was a shoo-in, in her absence the situation had changed and someone else had already been appointed a week ago. A male DI with an apparently conspicuously awful record about which no-one would speak. For a minute, I thought that the explanation had to be that the murder had taken place a week ago, they’d had to get someone in fast, and so Ellie would be the viewer’s point of view in a town suddenly gone horribly wrong – but, no, it was all still to come and there was no motivation at all for dumping on her. That made Hardy’s appointment such a bizarre turnaround that it suggested psychic powers not for Will Mellor but for Tracey Childs, with her able to see into the future of the case or indeed into the minds of TV bosses who might have said, ‘I know we promised the lead to a woman character actor but really we need a big name male star’.

DI Hardy belatedly explaining the missing link (and pendant) in the infamous Sanbrook Case was in many ways necessary – for the drama, for the viewers, giving his motivation, showing he’s a good copper really (or was: seeking redemption through doing another job he’s literally not fit for suggests he no longer is), and to put in place the last major piece of thematic reinforcement for the series’ underlying original sin. But, as he’d been silently taking the blame until now to protect two other people, and as even without naming the guilty party the press are going to find it bleedin’ obvious, why come clean now and ask only for a couple of days’ delay from the local rag? This was so clearly a deathbed confession that, the viewers having heard what we needed to, there was no dramatic need for it to be published as well: you expected his caveat to be not ‘give me a couple of days’ but ‘after I’m dead [in a couple of days]’. Was he scripted to keel over at the moment of triumph, as many earlier scenes had hinted, but then the producers realised they might have a hit on their hands and asked for a rewrite to preserve the unlikely but now promised sequel?

All in all, though, Broadchurch was a surprisingly impressive and thoughtful series, and once again proves the old Sherlock Holmes adage that I’m glad I don’t live in the countryside.

[Oh, joy, Blogger’s doing its thing where it either prints all my text in one splat or gives random massive gaps if I force in breaks again]

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Monday, March 25, 2013


Total Lack of Thought For the Day: Cristina Odone Vs TV Ratings and Truth

Religious spin-doctor Cristina Odone has today used what she calls “a huge hit”, US TV mini-series The Bible, to attack the BBC, secularism and, basically, the whole 21st Century. Her propagandaggrandisement in today’s Daily Telegraph, the journal of pre-Enlightenment fantasy, rests on the twin absurdities that 13 million US viewers is “a huge triumph” and tells us anything about British religion or TV viewing.

Ms Odone’s bigging-up of the so-called “History” Channel ignores three important facts.

First, though she claims the BBC ignores religion, in fact the money of all licence-fee-payers by law has to pay for making religious programmes. By choice, happily, almost none of us watch them.

Second, she fails to mention that by any measure you like – church attendance, church buildings, opinion polls of belief – the USA is vastly more religious, and even more vastly Christian, than any country in Europe except the Vatican, and certainly has a wildly different religious make-up to the UK. Despite our having an established Church, again by law. It seems that on two for two, Ms Odone’s demand for people to be forced into religion in law not only irks the silent majority of us who the screaming zealots seize cash from and boss about, but it’s clearly doing no good for religion, either. So perhaps she should pause in her authoritarian diktat that the US so-called “History” Channel’s Bible series should be “compulsory” here, in schools, on the BBC, and presumably by strapping every viewer to A Clockwork Orange-style eye-restraining chairs.
Before introducing the third and most absurdly abused fact that will fisk Ms Odone on her own shaky ground, I should point out that I do not believe TV ratings to be any guarantee of quality, just as I do not believe majorities should be able to push around minorities (or, in this case, vice versa), even when by her own argument we should ignore the Godly Torygraph’s tiny readership in favour of the Satanic BBC’s many millions, causing her entire vindictive rant to disappear in a puff of logic. But as Ms Odone wants to command her beliefs to be “compulsory”, and as she’s using the dubious testament of television ratings as her foundation, this is the appropriate ground around which to march to bring her ludicrous fabrication tumbling down.
Third, like any good spin-doctor Ms Odone cherry-picks the top viewing figure of 13 million for one “huge hit” episode (not telling us how far ratings have dropped since then) for the so-called “History” Channel’s Bible-story mini-series, just as the programme itself cherry-picks only the most popular bits of the Bible. She exalts this, again in her words, “huge triumph” to disprove the spooky, invisible US atheist conspiracy which televangelists and the lunatic far right make up stories of to raise so many millions. And yet, it surprises me by suggesting that, against all other evidence, perhaps big-budget Christianity in the USA isn’t looking that healthy after all…

The Facts – Ms Odone, Look Away Now (oh, she already has)

The USA is a country of 316 million people (I’m doing Ms Odone the favour of assuming that her pet series’ top rating only included the USA and not world-wide ratings, though as with all her ‘facts’, she isn’t clear). 13 million viewers is a “huge triumph” of, er, just 4.11% of the population. Ms Odone will no doubt tell you that’s an overwhelming majority. That doesn’t mean you should believe her.

By way of one simple factual comparison, the UK is a country of 61 million people. Cherry-picking one huge hit episode, Doctor Who – Voyage of the Damned (guest-starring Kylie Minogue), that was watched by 13.3 million people in the UK alone. That’s 21.11% of the population.

Much as I love it, Doctor Who is not my religion. In my view, it would be absurd and wrong to suggest on the basis of this factual like-for-like comparison that Doctor Who (or Kylie) is far more important than the Bible to the people of the UK, let alone extrapolate that Doctor Who – were it not for the evil conspiracy against it by US TV – is really, deep down, five times as big for the US population as Christianity.

Yet that absurd nonsense is exactly the way that Cristina Odone has extrapolated US viewing figures to scream that everyone in the UK should be ‘compulsorily’ bossed about. It seems that while UK schools’ compulsory religion does no good for most of us, sadly UK schools’ compulsory maths lessons did even less good for Ms ‘Dunce’ Odone.

Of course, it’s unthinkable that she knows that what she’s saying is a nasty, cynical lie to justify her outrageous authoritarianism, because, after all, she mentions the Ten Commandments. Though she claims no-one knows them any more, I do. And “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is one Ms Odone should know, too.

Ms Odone will no doubt point, scream and call for me to be burnt – ‘compulsorily’ – as I’ve just noticed that, as luck would have it, this is my 666th blog post on here.

Update: I’ve been fact-checked in an especially embarrassing way for a chap who bristles every time people misspell my own name. I apologise to Ms Odone for my mistake, and have corrected her Christian name from “Christina” to Cristina each time I used it.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 40: The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… This one’s from 2011 and the Twenty-Second Century, and it’s one of my favourite moments for Matt Smith’s Doctor – an almost perfectly formed cliffhanger. So expect rather large spoilers, deep themes, and the enemy within…?
“This is insane. We’re fighting ourselves.”
“Yes, it’s insane, and it’s about to get even more insanerer. Is that a word? Show yourself, right now!”
“Doctor, we are trapped in here and Rory’s out there with them. Hello? We can’t get to the TARDIS and we can’t even leave the island!”
“Correct in every respect, Pond. It’s frightening, unexpected, frankly a total, utter splattering mess on the carpet, but I am certain, one hundred per cent certain, that we can work this out. Trust me. I’m the Doctor.”

Doctor Who 50 – The Rebel Flesh: The Doctor

It’s the answer to accidents at work. Working in a dangerous environment? Worried you might fall into a pool of seething acid and bubble to a hideous dissolution? Robots too expensive and covered by pesky artificial intelligence regulations? Then meet the Flesh: reformable, reusable, disposable, and you. Just sit back in comfort and control your Flesh “Ganger” self through all the sticky bits, and if you’re a bit more careless than you would be with your usual body and it happens to die in screaming agony, just withdraw your consciousness from it and form another from the vat of gloop. It’s not as if anyone’s hurt, right? And if you get it wrong, you can just be born again. Again.

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People is the 2011 Doctor Who story that felt most traditional to me – that is, of all the many, many thematic traditions of Doctor Who, this chimed with those that most deeply speak to me. Traditional, then, though not at all reassuring. The Flesh vat from which life can rise at will – eventually, its own, after a spark from the heavens – is only the font of the religious imagery, housed, of course, in the old Chapel. Free will and the created rebelling against the creator? Frankenstein is positively a modern influence in that context, here given a kick by a solar storm as its lightning. There are existential crises, cruelty begetting cruelty, conflicts between people who are basically (and never more so here) the same, all shot in dark, shadowy corridors. And with Matt Smith’s Doctor arriving to investigate and the actor’s love for Patrick Troughton’s time in the role, it’s not inappropriate that the story evolves into one of base under siege.

The cliffhanger brings all of this to a head in a way that’s predictable if you’ve been watching, yet deeply satisfying, a terrific ‘What’s going to happen next?’ moment of horror, revelation and just a little of challenging the viewer. On arrival, the Doctor (Matt Smith) scans the Flesh pool and finds himself disconcerted – as if it’s scanning him in return. It pulls his hand down to touch it, and they share a moment of understanding when
“I felt it in my mind. I reached out to it, and it to me.”
There’s no such awe for the creators. They simply don’t care. They pile their personalities and lives directly into it, yet they don’t expect it to be alive. Naturally, the Doctor’s feelings are with the exploited Flesh, urging one of the team whose face suddenly slides into incoherence – revealed as Ganger – to trust him, appealing to bridge the gap between natural and new human as the differences between the bodies and personalities of each become ever more indistinct, only for the ever-careless human team leader to do what she’s always done and ‘dispose’ of Gangers in her way… Prompting the Gangers to decide on the same strategy of “us or them”. Where once they touched, now he’s guilty by association of betrayal and death, how can even the Doctor become an intercessor between creators and created? Though, racing about the place as he does, he did pop back into the Chapel alone to scan – or prompt – the pool of Flesh once more, the vat forming lips in reaction, and practicing the words: “Trust me.”

Events approach crisis. The humans see the Gangers as nothing. The Flesh rebel. The TARDIS sinks beneath an acid mulch. The greatest solar storm of all is building to baptise all with fire. There’s a thrilling, throbbing, backwards pulse of music as people run down dark stone passageways. And a figure staggers from the vat, muttering “Trust me…” as its clammy hand holds itself up against the wall…

The TARDIS crew splits apart as Rory rushes out in concern for the team member-Ganger-person he’s been talking to – perhaps showing himself (while everyone here clearly passes the Turing Test) the only ‘human’ of either creation capable of passing a Voight-Kampff Test – while Amy’s left behind, fearing the unlike and the too-alike, shocked that Rory is with another woman. And the Doctor can’t hold her together now, because he’s heard a voice from the shadows of the Chapel, asking “Why?” “Show yourself!” the Doctor commands, but whose self is it (and hasn’t a son of the Doctor asked “Why?” before)? His face the bloated Flesh of a not-quite-controlled Ganger, the Doctor (Matt Smith) steps forward to reassure Amy just as he always does, characteristically straightening his bow tie and giving that crooked smile. Trust him. He’s the Doctor.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Amy’s Choice

I did warn you there were spoilers, didn’t I?

Doctor Who 50 – Amy’s Choice: The Doctor

In this especially fine sci-fi short story of a Doctor Who episode, the Doctor (Toby Jones) is much less friendly an other Doctor than the Doctor (Matt Smith) above is going to be to the Doctor (Matt Smith). Introducing himself as “the Dream Lord”, he flits between the Doctor, Amy and Rory’s confusing, conflicting realities of the happy, domestic life that Rory’s always wanted, settled as a doctor, or of the scary, exciting life in the TARDIS, settled with the Doctor. He tells them to pick the real one, or die. But which is Amy’s dream outcome? And what a sly other self the Doctor has – where Rory dreams of at last drawing equal as a proper doctor, this one promotes himself to Consultant to put him down again:
“Now then, the prognosis is this: if you die in the dream, you wake up in reality. Healthy recovery in next to no time. Ask me what happens if you die in reality.”
“What happens?”
“You die, stupid. That’s why it’s called reality.”
Toby Jones is deliciously bitchy as he sneers that he could always see through the Doctor; Matt Smith matches him secret smile for secret smile, knowing only one person could hate him that much. But is he a person in his own right, like both Doctors above? I think Richard’s talked me round, in his review for Millennium’s Fluffy Diary. And what about the next one…?

Extra Bonus Great Not Doctor Who Quotation – Human Nature / The Family of Blood

This is arguably the best Doctor Who story since it returned to TV in 2005, but not for John Smith (David Tennant). He spends the first half of it happy with his life as a teacher, his burgeoning relationship with Joan the Matron, and his exciting dreams of adventure, though his faithful maid Martha seems to be getting a little strange. But in his Journal of Impossible Things we see for the first time all his past selves, and everything turns inside-out when he finds those dreams are real and his life’s become a nightmare. The local dance ends in death. People he thought he knew become an uncanny Family led by a pupil with wild eyes now styling himself Son of Mine, and they want something from him he doesn’t know he has. Martha’s become an unsettling mixture of protector and threat, and she, too, wants something from him he doesn’t know he has. To him, he’s an ordinary man, with unreliable memories but real feelings. To both pursuers and protector, he’s a walking placeholder, not the Doctor but just an inferior mind and body walking around in exactly the form and place the Doctor would usually occupy, all of them for different reasons looking forward to his erasure. He despairs that even the woman he hoped to marry thinks he’s not enough – though she’s the only person who sees him for who he feels he is. At the story’s half-way point, as people suddenly demand the Doctor of him, there’s a “Next Time…” trailer in which he declares “I am not the Doctor.” It’s a sign of how little control he has of his life that he doesn’t get to say that in the second episode – even his denial just gets written out. And yet his plight prefigures not only the sinister echoes of his role (and Martha’s) in the three-part season finale, but the existential crises and self-loathing of the other Doctors above.

Doctor Who 50 – Human Nature: Not the Doctor

John Smith runs from the Family, but they call him back, holding the TARDIS the Doctor loves as hostage. Martha loves the Doctor and tries to wake him into his dream to save them – and doom him. Joan loves John Smith and tries to reassure – but can’t lie to him. And poor John breaks under the responsibility all of them put on his human shoulders.
“You recognise it, don’t you?”
“Come out, Doctor! Come to us!”
“I’ve never seen it in my life.”
“Do you remember its name?”
“I’m sorry, John, but you wrote about it. The blue box. You dreamt of a blue box.”
“I’m not – I’m John Smith. That’s all I want to be. John Smith. With his life – and his job – and his love. Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”
“Yes. Yes, he is.”
“Why can’t I stay?”
“But we need the Doctor!”
“So what am I then? Nothing. I’m just a story.”

And there might just be more dodgy Doctors to come (though another, much as I enjoy this scene half-way down, doesn’t quite make the Fifty). The next scene up’s not just a but the man who is not the Doctor, though…

Next Time… Hiding behind… Oh, no, hiding from

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Saturday, February 09, 2013


What Is the Point of the Church of England?

What an unfortunate week for former oil baron and newly unelected baron Justin Welby to become the last Archbishop of Canterbury. The week he screamed ‘Gays! Know your place!’ and ‘Ex-kings! Know your place!’ The week that the Church of England looked more like a useless and vindictive relic than any week since, oh, the last one (‘Women! Know your place!’). With the established church wielding vast power and money but refusing to do its few jobs as a minor nationalised industry – births, marriages, deaths – how long before the country says ‘We know your place – the scrapheap’?

I don’t imagine that unelected Lord Welby will be any worse than his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, that hypocritical, canting bigot-fancier Rowan Williams, but he faces a church in an even worse state of decay. Church attendance continues to decline, while the only issues on which the Church of England speaks with passion – or shrill desperation – and consistency are as the BNP’s vicars on Earth.

The Church of England – Moral Evil Moderated Only By Love of Money and Power

The Church of England is on the wrong side of history, but still screams with privilege – not to mention power and the love of money. The only thing the establishment of the established screams louder about than upholding vicious evil bigotry is upholding its holdings. The less influence it has on society and the less interest anyone has in it, the more they hold onto their unearned goodies.

No-one votes for their bishops, who must on pain of death never be women or gays, but they get to sit in their palaces and in our Lords to literally lord it over the rest of us.

Major church decisions are made not on theology or faith, but on what will get through Parliament and retain their cash and comfy red leather benches.

While other churches without all the state money and power can choose who they perform services for, the established church is meant to be the nationalised industry that has to do the cheap and cheerful ceremonies for anyone who asks. But though their talk is cheap, can anyone call them cheerful? Not when they put up snobby block after snobby block to prevent people they disapprove of from calling on their increasingly narrow ‘love’.

This isn’t just a lazy bunch of pampered bigots trying to get out of doing any work for their power, wealth and prestige. It’s shrivelling the pitiful excuse for a moral sense that the established church still pretends to, their very establishment nature gnawing away daily at Christianity in this country while they blame everyone else for it.

Does anyone – does even any bishop saying it – not cringe as they bear false witness about their vicious campaigns of hate?
When thirty seconds’ online search on Hansard proves the bigot bishops liars who screamed against and voted against every liberal move on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights that they now mendaciously claim they always supported, just no further? That they now ‘support’ the civil partnerships that they warned were the end of the world?

No wonder they screamed so much about civil registrars not having to perform civil partnerships – the ones they loathe and fear but feel compelled to lie about now approving, and which they made sure had nothing to do with religion? They protect evil bigots who want to take all the money but not do the job. Can anyone be surprised, when that’s exactly what the Church of England itself does, writ large? Has anyone on Earth previously had a special law passed in order to ‘protect’ themselves from doing the only job they’re meant to do?

And does anyone think for a moment that anything will get easier for them?

Two Predictions For Within the Next Ten Years – More Marriage, Fewer Lords

More ‘redefining’ marriage:
An elected ‘House of Lords’:
The Monarchy – An Embarrassment to the Church of England (or vice versa)

Many of the bigot bishops will surely be praying for a swift end to the monarchy. Not only is it a constant reminder to everyone in the country to point and laugh at the church founded on the one holy aim of Henry VIII having a divorce (and more) explicitly forbidden by the same Jesus who never mentioned gays pretending that their never, ever redefining marriage is the pretext for their bigotry, but it’s only a matter of time before we have a gay or bi heir to the throne who wants to marry their same-sex partner.

With the monarchy falling in public esteem at a far slower rate than the crash-diving established church, there would be no faffing about with abdication next time. Imagine the public outrage if the Church of England tried to insist that the princess or prince could not marry and could not become monarch because of the bishops’ bigotry. No; once again, the reality of money and power would collide with the Church of England and it would suddenly find that it could accommodate a change in the law when the alternative is having to take a vow of poverty and political impotence.

The bigot bishops might, with straight faces, say that all is needed is a special exceptional law, so that the Queen or King can marry someone of the same sex but no-one else can. Oh, sorry, I apologise. I’m being too cynical. That would be like the Church of England having a woman Supreme Governor but saying that, at the next rung down, women bishops were icky and silly flibbertigibbets that no right-thinking man could tolerate. No, wait – bad example.

This week, of course, Richard III’s body was dug up in Leicester. He was a Catholic King, whose power base was at York and who wanted to be buried in York Minster. Obviously, the only question should be whether to honour his spiritual or his temporal wishes, and bury him either in a currently Catholic cathedral or in York Minster, with a possible outside bet of Westminster Abbey to honour a monarch. Equally obviously, the Church of England insist that he’s theirs to do with as they wish, that they refuse to have him at York, and that he’s to be kept in Leicester. Where he was dragged by the Tudor usurper with a slim claim to the throne whose son founded their usurper church with a slim claim to Christian tradition. No wonder the Church of England want to keep him as close to under the car park as they can.

Jesus is an embarrassment to them, too. He called the Church his Bride and he the Bridegroom; Justin Welby in his private prayers must no doubt scourge himself for those many more than thrice public denials before the cock, every time he insists that he’s only the deity’s civil partner.

Not Today, Not Tomorrow, But, Inevitably, Disestablishment

The only job the Church of England has that most people see in their everyday lives – and even then only at infrequent points in them – is officiating at births, marriages and deaths. And they’re so determined to avoid doing even that tiny thing for the people of England to justify their money and power that they’ve had a special law passed exempting them from their only point.

There’s no point to the Church of England for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

There’s no point to the Church of England for women generally.

There’s no point to the Church of England for honest believers.

There’s not even any point to the Church of England for the monarchy.

Beyond the point of no return, it’s time to disestablish the Church of England. Obviously.

This is the only point at which I regret that the Liberal Democrats are in coalition with the unstable Tory coalition of half rudderless Cameroons, half ungovernable loonies, and not with the 1980s Conservative Party of Mrs Thatcher. If she were the Prime Minister we were dealing with, then we’d be able to break up the last and most failed of the nationalised industries. The Coalition could disestablish the whole wreck, sell off the vast wealth and use the money to help the people left in the cold by the church’s gold-plated empty words, and let every local believer-franchise decide on its own genuine theology rather than have to present one-lie-fits-all compromises for Parliamentary approval.

Win-win, surely? But, as obviously as it’s time for them to go, the Church of England will no doubt carry on as a zombie establishment on the wrong side of history for another century. How much more harm will it do before it’s put out of our misery?

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Thursday, January 17, 2013


One-Day Doctor Who Fandom Challenge: Favourite Season Countdown

To start their celebrations of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary year, Jennie and Caron have embarked on a thirty-day “Fandom Challenge”, daily choosing their favourite and least favourite aspects of the series. I’ve not. Aside from my inability to get my finger out (and Richard and my both being rather ill at the moment), I don’t really like answering ‘least favourites’… So, to make up for that, here are my top ten favourite seasons (if you want me to answer another question from the meme, suggest it and I’ll think about it). And this isn’t a countdown of my favourite Doctors… Not least because Matt Smith, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker might all be nipping at the heels of my favourite, and none of them get a look in. While the Doctors may have a quite a bit to do with it, this is much more about the stories, with of course quite a bit about me, too (my top two will be predictable as ever). And although it was reading about Jennie’s favourite season and Caron’s favourite season that inspired me to think about this, I completely disagree with both of them. Hurrah!

10: Season Seven – Exiled to Earth (1970)

Possibly Doctor Who’s most consistently strong season, where I could stick every single story in front of you and say, ‘There, that’s really good, that is.’ The Doctor has suffered the egregious fate of being exiled to Earth as Jon Pertwee, and ends up semi-working for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. This means we get the awesome Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), at pretty much his most awesome and, to start with, very much the lead, and Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John), the companion so brilliant and capable that she could only last one year. On the downside, it can be rather too consistent: in theory, it’s virtually all on Earth in the same period (the 1980s, probably. What? What?). I say ‘in theory’, because perhaps surprisingly, what you might think of as the UNIT paradigm of day-after-tomorrow Earth (probably being invaded) lasts precisely one story before they start undermining it. Still, with the Doctor all mouth and no TARDIS and with not much sense of playfulness, there’s something vital missing. Still, if you like your Who with a bit of a Quatermass flavour and a strong moral centre yet also lots of shooting, this is a bold, terrific relaunch for the series.

Great stories: Doctor Who and the Silurians, Spearhead From Space, The Ambassadors – SPROING! – of Death

9: Season Twenty-Nine / Season 2007 / Series Three – You Are Not Alone (2007)

One of the two Twenty-First Century seasons that really stand out so far, this captivates me with a powerful through-theme about what it means to be human, running alongside the Doctor’s story as ‘last of the Time Lords’. In both themes, after a fun but less focused season in between, this is from lead writer Russell T Davies’ natural, more reflective, more pessimistic successor to 2005’s return. From the mirroring of the last of Boekind and the last of the Daleks, then the last of humanity, to the ‘A Deal With God’ mirroring of the Doctor’s watch against the Master’s, the themes are carefully intertwined. This season’s favourite horror trope is more thematically consistent again, too: where Season 2005 was all walking dead but 2006 packed in a wide variety of horror / fairy-tale tropes, this time there’s a strongly vampiric feel, with repeated transformation and consumption of humans – starting with the Empress of the Racnoss, who feasts on us, transforms Donna and has a history much like that of the Great Vampires and the Yssgaroth, and carrying on through the plasmavore, the Carrionites, the various Dalek-human hybrids, Professor Lazarus transforming to give himself more life then sucking the life from his victims, the crew sucking the life out of a sun and possessed by it in vengeful turn, the Family wanting to consume the Doctor’s long life, the Weeping Angels leeching life and time from their victims, the cannibal Futurekind and the “Toclafane” prolonging their lives but losing their humanity, to ultimately – and most disturbingly – the Buffy vampires-as-demons-entering-a-human-body-and-giving-it-superpowers-while-overwhelming-the-personality idea inherent in the way that both John Smith and Professor Yana meet their ends… With the bonus of David Tennant finding his feet as the Doctor in suffering (and possibly through Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones giving him a kick in the arse).

Great stories: Human Nature / The Family of Blood, Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, Gridlock

8: Season Thirteen – Body Horror (1975-6)

Tom Baker’s second season as the Doctor, and his second in one year – and what a year! – sees more horror, but of a very different kind to Season Twelve. The Doctor himself is at his most grim and brooding; Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith really comes into her own; and where the previous season had strong underlying themes emphasised by its own largely monochrome colour palette, here it’s as if the colour leads the stories – but what colour! The most visually startling of any Twentieth Century season, it explodes into rich, visceral, organic colours for stories which are, appropriately, the series’ most consistently horrific, with a recurring motif of body horror and possession and scientists changing from the previous season’s fascists to dangerous meddlers who disturb something horrible. Science was the sterile future; now it awakens the dark past and the all-too-fertile body. This time, there are very few references to Doctor Who, but an awful lot to famous horror stories: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man / Jekyll and Hyde, Mummies, Triffids, zombie android body-snatching pod-people… Plus starting with the Zygons, the series’ best one-off monsters between the Quarks and the Reapers. While in theory the season returns surprisingly often to UNIT, paradoxically it’s only to emphasise how far away the series has moved, and the defining stories are the ones with the fabulous historical setting, dark god and glorious score, the stunning alien world and nightmarish sci-fi burial alive, and the series’ own myths and black humour that herald what’s to come. This season establishes what feels like the most settled old Who pattern – five four-episode stories followed by a big six-parter that takes what’s gone before to its natural conclusion – but its vivid, thrilling tone has its own weaknesses: everything tends to get blown up at the end, there are very few women, and there’s little playfulness to leaven the mood. For all those reasons, it’s a terrific though flawed season, and perhaps the very best ever to show to small boys.

Great stories: Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, Planet of Evil

7: Season Twenty-Six – New Games (1989)

Doctor Who’s last TV season of the Twentieth Century draws elements from many earlier ones – echoes of the very first story in its earthly child, of Season Seven’s almost entirely Earthbound setting and a world destroyed in the finale, of early Tom’s horror stories – but has an assured, mature confidence of its own. And though the BBC brought Doctor Who on screen to an abrupt pause, Season Twenty-Six looks forward, too, inspiring one of the greatest eras of Doctor Who, though sadly most of the New Adventures weren’t on the telly. That’s a fitting legacy for one of the most intelligent, innovative and impressive years in the history of the series. Sylvester McCoy had already become a darker Doctor; here, he and lead writer Andrew Cartmel add more subtle shades, with a more complex character and morality than the judgemental destroyer of the previous year. This gives his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) more focus, with female empowerment another running theme (as the current DWM explores), and she brings the recognisable world in whatever strange setting she finds herself. There’s still often a dark feel, with a hint of magic – every story has something unearthly and unexplained, and each of them is packed with ideas and, looking forward to post-2005 Doctor Who, passion too.

Great stories: The Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light, Survival

6: Season Sixteen – The Key To Time (1978-9)

If Season Twenty-Six has a hint of magic, this marvellous season revels in it, the series at its most fairy-tale, fluffy and fun. Tom Baker’s enjoying himself as the Doctor, Mary Tamm’s Romana is icily fabulous, and this is easily the best season for K9 (John Leeson), all now collected together in a DVD box set for the show’s first serious ‘story arc’. Which, despite impending doom for the entire Universe, is rarely serious at all. The sheer entertainment of the actors and the style is massively boosted by some of the best writers ever to work on the Doctor, who include Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes and David Fisher (the most underrated, but who for my money gets the best balance of character and wit here, and is rather grown-up about sex). A compelling Doctor and companion having masses of fun, witty scripts, love, magic, a story arc, vivid women characters and even filming in Wales… It could almost be the series in the Twenty-First Century, if you stepped up the pace and budget and added all the old enemies. While the sparkly magical themes of quests, citadels and evil queens appear very cohesive on the surface, the battles between or rejection of gods underneath keep pointing in different directions – perhaps because producer and writers had different ideas about all-powerful superiors. And the stories themselves feature the Doctor sent on a mission from God, at which point he gets involved in a small-time scam and ignores the ‘important people’; the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare – young people today who are gay hoodies; a fabulous killer lesbian and sausage sandwiches; a summer holiday running around the countryside, playing at swordfighting with a moustache-twirling villain; more buttocks and tentacles on show than Torchwood; a skull on a stick, and the most Doctorish possible answer to absolute power…

Great stories: The Androids of Tara, The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet

5: Season Eighteen – Decay and Change (1980-1)

Tom Baker’s final season is something wonderful and strange, not the dry science it’s often dismissed as but a much older sort of story underneath: I may be the only person who loves both this and Season Sixteen to bits equally, and sees that amid their very different tones, both are making, in their own way, sci-fi fairy tales (just as Mr Moffat says he’s making today, and just as distinct from each other as they are from his). The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ from lead writer Christopher H Bidmead, this is one of those seasons that work best when you watch all the way through. Events cast shadows before them, and with Season Eighteen the long shadow of Tom’s departure, no wonder it’s so often hymned as “Change and Decay”. But it’s really the other way round – just as it’s wrong to see regeneration as a funeral, in a season of Decay and Change, every story features things set in their ways before collapsing, then ends in rebirth, whether people, societies or ultimately our heroes. By the season’s end, everything has changed, but with an irresistible sense of hope. Sombre yet still wittily quotable, beautiful but scary again, with gorgeous music and every penny seeming well-spent on great design thanks to new producer John Nathan-Turner, five stories out of seven brilliant and only one a bit saggy, I’d call it a triumph were it not for the sober tone. It makes for two striking bookends, as well: though all of Tom’s seasons have an unusual degree of thematic unity, this one closes his reign more coherently than any other since his first; and, the first season broadcast in the ’80s, it’s way ahead of any other season of the decade until the final one.

Great stories: The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, Full Circle (Warriors’ Gate, The Leisure Hive)…

4: Season One – Wanderers in the Fourth Dimension (1963-4)

Several brilliant people invent the best idea ever invented in the history of the world and Verity Lambert and David Whitaker put it on TV with the impossibly brilliant William Hartnell as the Doctor to take us on adventures in time and space. And it’s not just a cracking concept, but a cracking start, nailed from the very beginning with perhaps the greatest single piece of television ever made, and the pieces rapidly come together with that theme, with the TARDIS, then with the Daleks and their world. The sound and visual design is inspired, and unlike anything else: weird and disorientating; dark and atmospheric; busy and terrifying; gleaming white and mind-expanding. The stories find their way into shaping the Doctor and the series in a diverse but strangely discrete assortment – for the only time, strictly split into either Earth and history or sci-fi and otherworldly – that set an amazing standard with five of the first six adventures simply superb. The great line-up of companions, especially teacher and goddess Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), do as much as the Daleks to prompt the Doctor into becoming the hero. And everyone involved creates what, fifty years later, is still an astonishing launch for a series that’s still being carried forward today on the ever-expanding edge of that first explosion of imagination.

Great stories: The Aztecs, An Unearthly Child, The Daleks

3: Season Twenty-Seven / Season 2005 / Series One – The Trip of a Lifetime (2005)

At last, Doctor Who was back on television, and more fantastic than I’d dared to hope. This is still the most coherent of the Twenty-First Century series so far, just beating 2007, with its strong running story of Christopher Eccleston’s war survivor and Billie Piper’s shop assistant journeying together and bringing out the best in each other. Yet though the key themes are of the Doctor’s journey from suicidal survivor guilt to new life and love and Rose’s from shopworker just going with the flow to deciding the fate of all time and space, with underneath it all the looming and receding shadows of the Bad Wolf and the Time War, there are two other underlying ideas with very different tones to them. On the one hand, keeping all the stories within our solar system, from human history to the end of the Earth, makes the series not just down-to-earth but about the wonder of humanity… On the other, there’s a recurring motif of the walking dead. The Autons are plastic zombies; the Doctor and Cassandra, last survivors who ought to be dead; the Gelth zombies; aliens walking round inside dead humans; the Dalek is another last survivor who should be dead; zombies staff the Satellite 5 control room; Pete, dead but walking; gas-masked zombies; Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen as Margaret Blaine, another sole survivor, again walking around in a dead person; and a Dalek army made entirely from the dead. A bright and optimistic series, then, but – as Russell T Davies said – steeped in death. The first three episodes together (or simply that trailer) are just about a perfect introduction to Doctor Who, and it’s notable how many seasons since have started off with the same present-past-future template all covered within three weeks – and it’s not just those: there’s not a single weak story in all ten. While the music and visual design (barring the TARDIS) is no longer alien and bizarre, it still looks different to anything else on TV: matching the thematic consistency, this season simply glows, beautifully. Oh, and it’s all eerily (and, given Russell’s love of it, surely deliberately) reminiscent of Season Twelve, too, in both the structure and content of the stories…

Great stories: Father’s Day, Boom Town, Rose

2: Season Twelve – New Birth and Cold Science (1975)

This was the first Doctor Who season I ever saw, and I’ve always loved it. Yet if anything I’ve only grown to appreciate it more over the years. Striking out in a bold new direction, in come Tom Baker as the Doctor, Robert Holmes as lead writer, Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and the greatest titles ever. Here are companions intelligent, capable Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and adorable, pretty Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). And it’s one of the most thematically unified seasons in the show’s history, on top of obvious links to get you from one story to the next. On screen, it’s the cold, monochromatic style that hits you – the vibrant new Doctor in red and a swirl of scarf often the only dab of colour – but the design theme reflects the scripted themes of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, a mixture of sterility and rebirth. These cold abusers of science include: the nuclear blackmailers out to ‘reform’ society on scientific lines; the chosen survivors set to resettle a world; the alien mechanically testing humanity to destruction; thrilling new villain Davros devising the ultimate form of scientific ‘progress’ overwhelming individual feeling and decision; and the battle between humanity and its half-machine ‘descendants’ (though the last story falls to bits on delivery, hey, not even everything Holmes and Hinchcliffe touched could turn to gold). With other recurring motifs such as compelling speeches, disturbing torture, and even great big phallic missiles, this is an amazingly coherent season. I was coming up to three and a half when I started watching this, and I’ve got no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn’t. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are written through me like a stick of rock, and the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane seem as natural a team as I could imagine. I love this period. It scared me as a kid, inspired me growing up, and I still find new ideas in it today. What more does a television series need?

Great stories: Genesis of the Daleks, The Ark In Space, Robot

1: Season Fourteen – Dark Religion (1976-7)

Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes – and Doctor Who – reach their height in a season with a sense of history that both builds on and goes way past what’s gone before, in style and substance, theme and design. Motifs of survival, vengeance and possession continue; colour palettes of sterile monochrome and visceral colour give way to darkness; rebirth and scaring small boys evolve into growing up; and science as fascism and science as dangerous meddling give way to science as sheer intelligence, for good or evil, pitting rationalism against dogma. You can still see them borrowing from horror, but there’s also much invention and experimentation, with a greater variety of settings and styles than in any season since the ’60s now the Doctor’s at last fully a wanderer again. Most of this season features rich, dark design aiding literate scripts in building believable societies, with the Doctor a Renaissance man in a dark Universe of ancient secrets and fallen glories, the stories often taking place at the fringes of or as codas to great events. The horror is both more full-blooded than before and leavened by vivid characters, much black humour, more satisfying conclusions than just a big bang and the Doctor finally coming out of a year-long sulk. I was five for this season, and during it Doctor Who was making my mind pop with ideas and inspiring me to start reading: I think it was Isaac Asimov who said the stories you loved the best are those you come to when you’re fourteen. Well, I wasn’t, but Doctor Who was, and made me feel like it (and did an Asimovian murder mystery here into the bargain).

The season’s key themes are laid out in The Masque of Mandragora like a manifesto. Enlightenment-set, it puts the importance of intellect and making up your own mind centre stage, pitching it against intrigue and dogma – so from here, the season unfolds into three main underlying ideas. The mind is this year’s battlefield, whether championing intelligence and rationalism or delving into the darker themes of mental domination and madness, with not just the human mind at stake but computer, robot, pig and even electronic group minds. That’s complemented by the running theme of growing up, from Marco trying to outgrow both superstition and his uncle, to the Doctor returning home before finding himself another world’s absentee dad (then saddled with heretic ‘granddaughter’ Leela). And on a personal note, I had a very religious upbringing, so I felt this was speaking my language: it’s impossible to miss the religious elements throughout the season, usually in opposition to intelligence and individuality (imagine!). Everyone’s in a cowl, even the TARDIS looks like a chapel, and if you split the season into two halves (as they did, on first broadcast; how modern), both have the same structure: a Catholicism-inspired society where an evil god sets religion against science and it’s the Doctor’s fault, taking the role of Adam or Prometheus; then the Doctor faces a self-styled scientific messiah; then a masked, post-death villain from another time mixes technology with religious trappings. This has been my favourite season since it first aired, and I’ve got more out of it as I’ve got older, as good as Doctor Who ever gets – so far… And to complete this Fandom Challenge, watch a fan-made Season Fourteen trailer here.

Great stories: All of them. Obviously. But in particular, three that stand out as among the best the series has ever produced: the Art Deco character study in psychological horror and extraordinary worldbuilding; Doctor Who in the inner city, with gangs, guns, stabbings, drugs and prostitution – which, ridiculously, turns out to be one of the most quotable and sheerly enjoyable works of television ever made; and the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, not least because it tells so many stories and fires off so many ideas in so much style – so that, to take just one thing about it, after Part One you’d pin it as ‘just’ a brilliant comedy horror driven by satirical dialogue, but it then overturns expectations into first nightmarish surrealism and then an action epic where hardly a word is uttered. Isn’t that the very definition of Doctor Who, that nobody should know what’s coming next?

And if you don’t know the stories that were coming last, they were, of course, this time in ascending order, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and – if you watch only one from this page – The Deadly Assassin.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)

Something exciting came out of that Olympics closing ceremony after all! Kate Bush re-recorded her second-biggest hit for the event and, astonishingly, Running Up That Hill shot up the charts to become her fifth-biggest hit as well, zooming in at Number Six, with lower but still improbable chart placings for the likes of the Who’s Baba O’Riley, the Kinks, ELO and Annie Lennox Vs Cthulhu (all discovered last week while laid up with painfully inflamed ligaments in my left ankle, a change from the occasional tendonitis: running up that hill? If I only could). But what’s the song about? Well…

All right, so she’s now running down the charts again this week, but it still seems miraculous that a twenty-seven-year-old song from Kate should suddenly be a smash all over again. And, this time, making a point of subtitling it “A Deal With God,” the original title refused by the record company for fear of airplay-death back in the ’80s, when it was the lead single from what turned out to be Kate’s most critically and commercially successful album, Hounds of Love.

Hounds of Love

Now, I have to admit that Hounds of Love isn’t quite my favourite Kate Bush album – I’d put The Sensual World ahead of it – and nor is Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) my favourite single from that album – I’d put Hounds of Love itself above it. All right, so Hounds of Love is a less complex, less ambiguous track, but its melodrama always thrills me, and between Kate’s famous two ’80s Doctor Who TV scripts and all her New Adventures it has more than a little Doctor Who feel, too – quoting from an old horror film, not entirely convincing monsters out to get you and an awful lot of running. Listening to her more recent work, I do wonder if Kate’s a particular Troughton fan, doing the Yeti with King of the Mountain and Wild Man, and on her Fish People label, to boot. But that’s another story. And Running Up That Hill is still a terrific, and a very powerful song.

Another minor miracle is that Kate’s new vocal on her remixed Running Up That Hill is a change from but if anything more gripping than the original; I’ve been a bit disappointed with most of her recent Director’s Cut revisitings of old songs, feeling they lack the power and excitement of the previous versions – and, heretically, I’d have said that the harsh, bombastic, very ’80s production on the Hounds of Love might have stood more revisiting than the more inviting sound of The Sensual World (though I don’t know how she’d unpick any of her Arthurian odyssey The Ninth Wave, a continuous piece making up the whole second half and a tour-de-force, much like her later Aerial’s A Sky of Honey).

Ironically, Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) may have had so many requests from people who weren’t born when it first charted and become a hit all over again because its powerful beat and chorus sounds like it symbolises the Olympics. I say ironically, because such a prosaic explanation runs against arguably Kate’s most layered and ambiguous lyrics for one of her hits.

Deeper Understanding… Yeah, Right

On the surface, it might sound like it’s about athletics – and it might be, of a sort – but Kate’s previously said when pressed for an explanation that it’s about a wish for a woman and a man in a relationship to reach greater understanding by literally changing places, and that she went for a deal with God rather than the traditional deal with the Devil because, obviously, that would be more powerful. So the meaning presented at the time, to ward off music-burners outraged at the mention of God, was a tender prayer for a more perfect union between a man and a woman. What could possibly be more praiseworthy for lovers of traditional values?

And yet… Some of the words may say that, but the music doesn’t. I’ve read people saying it’s an even more tender wish for a partner, that the “bullet” is about taking on his pain, a song of self-sacrifice. But it doesn’t sound like, say, Deeper Understanding or This Woman’s Work. This isn’t Kate in her tender, frail achingly beautiful mood; this is Kate sounding raw and powerful, and all the more so for not being as fabulously bonkers as she often seems in that style (though bonking may come into it). No – this isn’t a love song, but a march. Listen to those drums, banging away; watch the video, where Kate and a male dancer writhe hip to hip while miming shooting a bow and arrow. If the meaning’s what Kate said it is, then read between the lines and listen to the music: it’s Kate saying ‘How would it feel for me to fuck you for a change?’
“Come on, angel, come on, come on, darling,
“Let’s exchange the experience, oh…”
That’s the less ambitious version. But with Kate being so insistent that she wanted it called A Deal With God, and the ambiguity of some of the lyrics, on top of the pounding music…? This is about power. And it’s not just saying, ‘If I were a man, I’d make so much more use of that power than he would,’ though the physicality of the lyrics might well stand in for other goals. No, to me some of it suggests that Kate merely wanting to take a man’s place would be a chronic lack of ambition. You can read the chorus more than one way – is the “our” referring to an ‘us’ of Kate and her partner, or just Kate and the Almighty? It’s always sounded to me that Kate’s fed up with the lack of ambition on a cosmic scale, and if she only could, would swap places with God.
“And if I only could,
“I’d make a deal with God,
“And I’d get him to swap our places…”
But it’s probably about shagging.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012


Equal Marriage Consultation – Supporting Equality Before the Law and Personal and Religious Freedom

The Coalition Government’s consultation on making marriage more equal closes today. If you’ve not supplied your own response, don’t leave it to the massive vested interests of the bigots, their money and their lawyers to enforce discrimination on everyone else. Back equality before the law and personal and religious freedom instead.

You can respond to the consultation here until later today (either 5pm or midnight according to different sources, so better make it 5); here are the consultation paper and the impact assessment; if the Home Office website crashes, email your answers to before the deadline. Here are mine.

Question 1: Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?


Question 2: Please explain the reasons for your answer. Please respond within 1,225 characters (approx 200 words).

In 21st Century Britain there’s simply no justification for the law discriminating against people – it should treat everyone the same. It’s wrong for the state to decide that some citizens are second class and must be forced to use separate facilities (no-one who talks about “separate but equal” in order to exclude people ever wants to be on the “separate” side). We wouldn’t countenance banning mixed-race marriages today; same-sex marriages are exactly the same case.

Marriage – and civil partnerships – should be based on the principle of equality before the law. That makes the law simpler as well as fairer, and stops such awful ‘anomalies’ as forcing transsexual people to divorce in order to be pushed into the right ‘category’, or UK law not recognising people married in other countries.

It should be up to any couple (same-sex, mixed-sex, same-race or mixed-race) to decide how to celebrate and protect their relationship, and the law simply to recognise that. Both marriage and civil partnerships should be open to all, on the same basis, and there should be simple legal procedures to convert either into the other.

Put simply, it’s no-one else’s business but a couple’s to decide if they get married.

Question 3: If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would you wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?


Question 4: If you represent a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would those you represent wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?

This question doesn’t apply to me

Question 5: The Government does not propose to open up religious marriage to same-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree?

Disagree – religious marriage should be opened up to same-sex couples

Question 6: Do you agree or disagree with keeping the option of civil partnerships once civil marriage is available to same-sex couples?


Question 7: If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual and were considering making a legal commitment to your partner would you prefer to have a civil partnership or a civil marriage?

Civil marriage

Question 8: The Government is not considering opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?

Disagree – civil partnerships should be opened up to opposite-sex couples

Question 9: If you are in a civil partnership would you wish to take advantage of this policy and convert your civil partnership into a marriage?

This question doesn’t apply to me

Question 10. We would not propose introducing a time limit on the ability to convert a civil partnership into a marriage.

Agree – there shouldn't be a time limit
(This question and answer was contradictorily worded in the paper, but has been clarified on the site).

Question 11: Do you agree or disagree that there should be the choice to have a civil ceremony on conversion of a civil partnership into a marriage?

Yes, there should be an option

Question 12: If you are a married transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage while obtaining a full Gender Recognition Certificate?

This question doesn’t apply to me

Question 13: If you are the spouse of a transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage whilst your spouse obtained a full Gender Recognition Certificate?

This question doesn’t apply to me

Question 14: Do you have any comments on the assumptions or issues outlined in this chapter on consequential impacts? Please respond within 1,225 characters (approx 200 words).

Rules for pensions should be equalised between marriages and civil partnerships, men and women.

In particular, the law should recognise a continuing relationship for pensions and other benefits any civil partnership that converts to a marriage (or vice versa – both should be made simple), and provide recompense for the financial harm added to the emotional harm in forcing trans people to divorce because of the current discriminatory marriage laws.

Question 15: Are you aware of any costs or benefits that exist to either the public or private sector, or individuals that we have not accounted for? Please respond within 1,225 characters (approx 200 words).

Your own quoted research suggests that more LGBT people would wish to marry than currently take up civil partnerships; many civil-partnered couples would wish to change their status to a marriage; if civil partnership, too, was made gender-neutral, many mixed-sex couples who do not wish to marry might still want the legal security of a formal partnership. All of this implies a significant gain to the Exchequer and to the many industries which make money out of marriage ceremonies, particularly in the first few years after a change in the law.

I do not agree with setting a time limit on conversion from civil partnership to marriage (or vice versa) – how can the law set a clock on people’s changing feelings? – but there should be a major discount on registration fees for people currently in civil partnerships converting to marriage within, say, the first year, as they were previously denied the right to marry and paid for the only option legally available.

Question 16: Do you have any other comments on the proposals within this consultation? Please respond within 1,225 characters (approx 200 words).

The proposals do not go far enough, and are unnecessarily complicated – likely to lead to further changes in the law in future. Why not take the opportunity now to simply enact equality before the law?

Let every couple choose for themselves whether to enter a civil marriage or a civil partnership, without the state laying down extra gender-limited rules.

Further, the state should be neutral on religious marriage. Many large religious bodies wish to enshrine discrimination. Well, that’s their business for their own churches, but not for everyone’s. All churches should be given religious freedom to marry people or not on their own doctrines. The proposals would stop religious freedom for denominations (such as Quakers or Reform Judaism) who wish to recognise equal marriage, and allow bigger religious special interests to bully them. It’s religious discrimination by the law. That can’t be right.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012


Seven Days To Noon

OK, any Londoners reading; before you sit down with a cup of tea and this cheering tale of your city facing nuclear destruction, have you voted yet? No? Then get out and do so (and here’s why)!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll try to put a stop to that with this cosy catastrophe. It’s a thoughtful, understated but tense 1950 political thriller, so it may threaten London’s complete annihilation but, on the plus side, doesn’t have Boris or Ken in it. And though not science fiction, it was hugely influential, not least on Quatermass, The Avengers and Doctor Who, as well as films as late as, well, 28 Days Later.

BBC4 is at this moment cheering us all up at the end of election day with The End of the World? A Horizon Guide To Armageddon, so Seven Days To Noon sprang to mind; a film full of ‘firsts’ in the Armageddon genre, from the spectre of nuclear doom to an eerily deserted London, I’d been thinking about reviewing it for a little while, having recently caught it again on one of its frequent outings on Film4 (keep an eye out, if you don’t own a copy). While Advise and Consent and The Best Man, the early 1960s political thrillers I wrote about last week, were utterly American, this is incredibly British – though it mixes a queasy satire of World War II evacuations and Blitz Spirit with a looming dread of American, Russian and our own new nuclear capability. And while they had plotlines about intellectuals, this not only makes a scientist and thinker its central character, but forces the audience to consider the issues he raises. Though the conspiracy thriller rather than the lone actor comes later, and on the surface this is all stiff upper lip with a government that sternly protects the people, too, there is the subversive undercurrent that asks, like its main character, whether that government in fact wants to make us all complicit in mass murder and then see us blown to bits more comprehensively, just further down the line, which is a less reassuring subtext. While I won’t spoil the end, the way that the authorities simply abandon the plucky everywoman while the military rush about doing their thing is surely telling.

Seven Days To Noon was produced by the Boulting Brothers, perhaps best-known for their terrific version of Brighton Rock, with the story by Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and more) and, perhaps surprisingly, his partner, top Hammer composer-to-be James Bernard (another Quatermass connection). The film opens, quietly, with a letter posted to the Prime Minister from top British nuclear scientist Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) – and if you thought the storyline of a terrorist walking around a big city with a nuclear bomb in their suitcase was new to the Twenty-First Century, think again. He’s come to the conclusion that the work he does is profoundly wrong, and gives the Government an ultimatum: give up nuclear weapons in one week, or have one explode at Westminster. Hence the title. And the film is all about the fallout from that ‘simple’ demand: why did he do it? How can he be stopped? And what will the effect be on everyone else, physically and philosophically?

Joining Jones’ excellent, tortured Willingdon among the stars are André Morell, at the end of the 1950s the definitive Professor Quatermass with a remarkably similar moral quandary, but here playing stern, serious and exceptionally well-spoken Superintendent Folland, who’s put in charge of the manhunt; and the other standout character is Olive Sloane’s Goldie Phillips, there as the spirit of London, a good-time girl a little past her best, sympathetic to those in need but distinctly stroppy at the thought of being blown to bits. She’s hugely endearing in an old-fashioned way, but also has some striking undercurrents to her for a film made in 1950: not only is the ‘everyman’ character a woman, but we’re meant to identify not with the genteel young lady but one for whom every implication is used to get past the censor that she’s been around a bit, and good for her. Though I’m not convinced by Goldie picking up Willingdon in the first place – she doesn’t know how vital he is until he’s much later and more threatening, so he doesn’t seem much of a catch for her. Don’t fancy hers much.

More Betrayal, Vicar?

The crucial scene for me is one that in most films would be a flashback, but instead is a previous conversation with Willingdon related by a friend when Superintendent Folland comes calling in search of information. And the friend betraying a confidence happens to be the Professor’s local vicar, who’s caught doing some manual work and so for a moment presumed not posh enough to be among the clergy (ho ho. Look, most of the humour in the film’s better than this).
“And I’m going to be quite frank. His disappearance endangers – the national safety.”
“What is it you want to know?”

“…What would you do if you were convinced the results of your life’s work were being put to an evil purpose?”
It sets out clearly the moral argument without having to have Willingdon himself confronted by Folland early on, and is a powerful moment, though one of the film’s more dated. It also makes me curl my lip rather at the Church of England; I was brought up Catholic. A Catholic priest wouldn’t let a little thing like nuclear Armageddon pry a confession out of him, still less when only hinted at by a police officer. It’s notable that Barry Jones’ portrayal of a mild, gentle man driven to extremes carries almost all the different notes of religion in the film, with the vicar’s established religion coming across far more as ‘establishment’ than ‘belief’; there’s an element of the more modern depiction of any passionately religious person as slightly mad (or at least of the caricature British view that you should be wary of anyone who believes in anything too much), but he also confronts you – if you were involved in a threat to kill millions of people, what should you do? And is it any more wrong to mount that threat on your own behalf rather than the government’s? Willingdon’s overwhelming guilt, at least, is very recognisable to a Catholic (though his despair is a sin). The film does pull its punches slightly in suggesting that Willingdon may just be mad – everyone’s first conclusion – rather than making a coldly sane decision; is he having a breakdown from the start, or is it only the pressure of his having to sustain his crushingly heavy decision for a week, alone, that causes him to start pacing all night, whispering Bible verses as a trailer for the film’s ultimate climax in a church?

Also dated is the convention that the Professor has a pretty daughter with no noticeable character of her own but a boyfriend who’s a leading character, though at least here he’s only a younger scientist there to provide exposition, rather than a square-jawed hero in a ripped shirt (I’m not certain he even loosens his tie).

From this point on, the film is in essence a race against time to find a lone man in London, with first an attempt to keep it all quiet, then the city eventually put through total evacuation – save for Superintendent Folland, and the army – as it becomes clear that he means it, and won’t be easy to find. The stark black and white and frequent night filming all around London, some of it still bomb-damaged by much less ferocious ordinance in the last War, gives it all a tense atmosphere, but some of the film is also surprisingly witty.

There aren’t a lot of jokes in the script, with Goldie too plucky to be just a ‘comedy character’, though two characters do stand out – a man with a “The End Is Nigh” sign who keeps trying to get on his evacuation bus with it and being told to leave it behind, and who to add to the incongruity looks far too like Ronnie Corbett for an actor in 1950, and Joan Hickson’s Mrs Peckett, Willingdon’s temporary landlady. One of the few people less posh in this film than you’d expect – a gossipy Londoner with a fag surgically attached to her lip, a far cry from Miss Marple – she’s the most overtly comedic character, snooty, intrusive and paranoid, a caricature landlady. Suspicious when “Mr Richardson” (or is it “Mr Richards”?) doesn’t want to hand over his ration book, she manages to miss all the “Missing Scientist” posters, but runs to the police after “Moon Maniac” “LANDLADY KILLER AT LARGE” headlines in the Express!
“I thought you might be an actor, and of course I won’t have theatricals in the house.”
Most of the wit is in the cinematography; just as the camerawork prowls the shadows and shows us tormented faces, it can also brush past a petty crook or an inappropriate Atomic Racer game, or juxtapose The Garter and Slipper club with God Is Love, then listen to the Prime Minister’s broadcast under a dinosaur skeleton – before, along with “The End Is Nigh” signs, whole piles of items there’s no room to bring on the evacuation transport, from pets to sporting equipment.

To add to Joan Hickson, who was never young, there are many young faces in early roles – look out for Joss Ackland as an eager junior copper, or John Stratton (another to get a major role in Quatermass and the Pit at the other end of the decade) as a not eager at all young soldier, and at the end Victor Maddern as another young soldier at the end of his tether. And then there’s Geoffrey Keen, the thuggish, flag-waving, bomb-cheering ‘man in the street’ (or the pub) who decades later is the perishing Minister in the James Bond films that not even a change of government can get rid of, and Willingdon puts him (and the audience, who he’s almost speaking to direct when he angrily tells the man that he should be made to think about the things he says) down flat:
“You don’t understand what you’re saying… What you’re suggesting would mean the total destruction of mankind.”

After Noon – An Influential Film

As I noted above, Seven Days To Noon had a remarkably wide influence on British cinema and television – most obviously in a host of nuclear blackmail stories, but several more particular and noticeable scripts, especially those more science fiction than just setting topical concern two years ahead. Here are a few of the most striking ones, and two which I hope to review quite shortly (but which?)…

The Quatermass Experiment (1953, and 1955 film): in itself massively influential, but also borrowing a scientist chased through bomb-site London, a scientist lead and moral grappling, a finale in a big church, an apocalyptic threat and, at one remove, André Morell.

The Avengers – November Five (1963): another nuclear bomb threat to London from within the establishment.

Doctor Who – The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964): similar scenes of pursuit through a deserted London, though this is more of a Nazi than a nuclear parable (but Terry Nation always likes his countdowns and his radiation threats).

The Avengers – The Morning After (1969): a small town rather than London is evacuated under nuclear threat by a figure of trust, though the manhunt isn’t for the ‘villain’. This one (as Tat Wood pointed me to in his revised Doctor Who guide About Time 3) even uses footage shot for Seven Days To Noon as part of its own evacuation scenes. And Joss Ackland.

Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974): though very much by way of The Morning After for its conspiracy elements, this still recognisably borrows from the original source, as well, with London evacuated under a different sort of terror threat, and once again has people in positions of trust claiming to do good, by their lights, by means of mass murder.

The New Avengers – Sleeper (1976): London asleep rather than evacuated, though less interestingly than the very similar two immediately previous variations.

And films continue to use both the imagery and the moral complexity, from 28 Days Later to Watchmen

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