Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 2.5

It was around the time “Saints of Imperfection” was being filmed, as production on the first six episodes of Discovery’s second season neared completion, that writers’ room discontent boiled over and showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts were unceremoniously fired – their ashes launched into space, one day to be found by an advanced alien species who’ll reconstitute them, build a city around them, and send them home to avenge themselves on whatever corporate entity CBS has then become.

Berg and Harberts, if rumour is to be believed (and I believe everything I read) got cremated because they were in the habit of aggressively bullying Discovery’s hacks, conscious that each new episode was meandering and shapeless, the season’s overarching theme of science vs. faith crudely inserted into each story like a bone dry colonoscope. This was easier than firing all the writers, who unlike B&H could not be replaced at a moment’s notice. And besides, someone, somewhere had, er, faith, despite the scientific evidence accrued thus far, that the assembled company could yet produce Star Trek episodes of reasonably quality, given the freedom to do so.

Exhibit A – episode five of season two, written, in the traditional sense of the word, by Kirsten Beyer, who unlike almost everyone else connected with this show, has a good, solid Star Trek pedigree, having authored numerous franchise novels. What does she bring to the space table? If this episode’s anything to go by, a conspicuous structure and a story that was almost self-contained, despite the serial tapers at both ends.

Beyer’s misstep was to try and give her story a hard set of bookends (suggesting that all Discovery hacks wish they could do the same) in the form of cod-philosophical reflections from Mick – statements like, and I’m paraphrasing, “the friendships we make in the empty of space resonate throughout our own interspatial voids, like a lapsed memory, or an old joke, or…”. Suffice to say, these were dreadful, but the writerly impulse behind them, to make “Saints of Imperfection” a story with a clearly delineated beginning, middle and end, was the right one.

Beyer went on to make her soon to be managed by Alex Kurtzman colleagues look very ordinary indeed, as she told a batshit crazy story about a mission to rescue Tilly from the mycelial network. In order to do this, the ship had to execute a half in, half out Spore jump, which thanks to some nifty and often beautiful visual effects, effectively caused it to gradually sink into this dimensional plain, evoking the Titanic’s slow plunge into the Atlantic.

Is the Titanic an association you want to push on this particular show? No. But the Spores attacking and eating the hull provided a ticking clock that added tension to a story that wisely focused on Tilly and Stamets – a.k.a. the characters we like. In short, this was an episode that employed Discovery’s greatest assets – its most sympathetic characters, its unique technology, to good effect. Perhaps Beyer alone understood these were the family jewels, which begs the question, why the fuck isn’t she in charge?

She’s not in charge of course, so was obliged to include what we’ll call the serialised assets, that Kurtzman decreed from on high should be pushed forward and developed, with a view to the unwanted Section 31 spinoff. Thus, in the bait and switch opener, Spock’s shuttle was finally captured but it was Mirror Georgiou, a character with no charm or intrigue whatsoever, who emerged. It turns out Spock’s cleverer than all these idiots and had already made his escape to continue his Red Angel quest. Thus, with Section 31 on board, we were forced to relive the worst of last season – Mick’s disdain for the Empress she suggested should be freed to potentially commit genocide against the Klingons, and Voq’s surgical appropriation of Ash Tyler, who’s now been accepted as the real deal – a dead man walking, and will be helping the Discovery with its understanding of transspecies politics from now on.

These threads were turgid but there was an important dramatic reason for Tyler’s return to the fold. You’ll recall, as Voq, he snapped the neck of Doctor Culber – the nice but wet lover of Stamets. Thus, with the kind of timing that can only occur in a pre-planned universe, Tilly and co. found none other than a Spore reconstitution of the dead Doc desperately trying to survive in the mycelial forest, complete with overgrown hair and beard.

We learned Culber, thanks to some dubious science, had arrived in the network AFTER his death on Discovery, when Stamets, acting as a conduit between worlds, had kissed his man’s corpse and, er, inadvertently transported his DNA to the other plain, where he was regrown. Look, this is Star Trek (probably), so we’re perfectly happy to buy into this shit. All that really mattered was whether the episode could sell the resurrection, and thanks to a bit of technobabble and a sincere and committed performance from Anthony Rapp, as the accidental cave to Culber’s space Jesus, it just about held together. There was even time for a good end of act twist, in which it looked as if the dull Doc would not be able to re-join the crew because of his new dimensional profile. Ultimately, he was funnelled through the same cocoon that had ingested Tilly, cutting her link with May the fungal parasite, and arrived naked and new with his original haircut. Man alive, it’s exhausting to recap this stuff – can you imagine what it must be like to plot it?

Ultimately, this was one of Discovery’s better episodes. Its most compassionate characters got to exhibit their best qualities – intelligence, selflessness – while Mick, as ever the awkward glue binding the various plot strands, was used, for the second week running, as the woman who finishes other’s thoughts and ponders the crew’s adventures in broad, philosophical terms. If the plan is to reinvent her as an observer and thinker, albeit one that can’t say anything coherent, then she might just be rendered harmless. Well, at least until she catches up with Spock and apologises for wanking him off all those years ago.

Anomalous Readings:

  • Lots of TOS Easter eggs this week, which is what Discovery’s hacks do instead of creating original ideas and motifs of their own. Spock’s shuttle entered the nebula to the words “if he goes in there, we’ll lose him” – echoing the Mutara scene in Wrath of Khan. Cestus III was mentioned by Pike and with it a racist allusion to the Gorn who live there – “up to your ass in Alligators”. And Empress Georgiou aggressively bit into an apple, just as Kirk did when talking about the Kobayashi Maru – effectively signalling to Mick, and to us, that the Discovery’s dealings with Section 31 was a no win scenario.
  • Culber’s return also marked a reprise of the doubling/mirroring theme from last season. So was it any surprise that Stamets quoted a lyric from the Arcade Fire album Reflecktor when anticipating Culber’s return to our universe, “I’ll see you on the other side”. No, it wasn’t. It now looks like we’re going to get a reference to the writers’ favourite music every week.
  • The big takeaway from this week’s episode was not the tachyon epilogue, which suggested the Red Angel might be either a cloaked ship or a time traveller, or both – we’ll return to that I’m sure, but the way the mycelial network reacted to Culber – attacking him like a cancer. Here, one hopes, is the bedrock of the explanation for why Spore Drive technology can’t be pursued. It’s environmental, or biological, or both. Anyway, let’s hope somebody in the writers’ room knows.
  • For those on death watch, there’s now three resurrected dead people walking Discovery’s corridors – Tyler, Culber and Georgiou. If no one dies on the show, what hope of getting back someone we actually miss, i.e. Lorca?

Mick’s Second Crack at the Galaxy

The Maiden Voyage 

Foreboding

Advertisements

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 2.4

This week on the good ship Discovery, in an episode entitled “An Oboe for Ariel Sharon” (note to self: check title before publishing), it’s if as the writers suddenly bolted upright in bed, saturated in sweat and urine, and cried, “we’re losing our audience, we better do something like a traditional Star Trek episode!” One imagines a hastily arranged screening of a random selection followed.

Thus, an instalment was crafted using dynamics that would have been very familiar to fans of Trek’s previous incarnations. Discovery, warping its way to find Spock’s stolen shuttle (he’s a madman on the loose, you’ll recall), with Mick absolutely insistent that she wouldn’t be the one to deal with him when they caught up (because she’d forced him to masturbate in front of her) encountered a sphere in space and all hell broke loose.

The alien transmitted a virus that overloaded the universal translator (hint, hint) and triggered an actual biological transformation in Saru – a species specific illness that signalled to his servile people that it was their time to give up and die. The ship’s momentary breakdown also meant a crisis for Tilly, as the fungal blob from last week broke out and attached itself to her arm, leaving Stamets and Reno, who’s apparently been on board all the time, to loosely debate the virtues of Spore technology.

The intent here was clearly to deepen and develop the relationships between clusters of characters, a tacit admission that this crucial aspect of the show had been hitherto neglected. On Treks of yore the writers might have picked a couple to concentrate on, conscious that they’d have many future episodes to do the others. But Discovery is a plot driven series, not a character-focused one like its modern predecessors, and consequently, with one eye on the whiteboard reminding them there was an awful lot to get through in just ten episodes, “An Obol for Charon” acted like a pause, with not one but two pairs of characters hurriedly attended to.

This worked reasonably well when it came to Tilly and Stamets, as their relationship has, in a cursory way, interested Discovery’s hacks for some time. One could even be touched by the engineer’s attempts to save his ditzy friend using, er, trepanning, while having to put up with the wry cynicism of Reno the interloper.

Irritant though Reno is, her presence did allow the focus to switch back to the Spore Drive and how dangerous it is. Yes, we’d thought the hacks had abandoned this crucial subplot, but Tilly’s parasite problem facilitated a discussion in which the mycelial network was likened to clean, renewable technology and dilthium to fossil fuel. What then is the fatal flaw in Spore? Turns out the network is a fully-fledged ecosystem for life and jumping around in a starship destroys such life. Tilly’s parasite, “May”, was revealed to be a vengeful alien with a political agenda to take the fight to unwanted Federation tourists. At episode’s end, it consumed our favourite redhead entirely, so expect it to be a lot less cogent next week.

Marking the Spore Drive as an engine of ecological disaster isn’t a bad idea – because its use has to end, though it’s one borrowed from the TNG episode “Force of Nature” in which warp was discovered to harm space, necessitating speed limits. At the time, this eco-story was considered a terrible mistake, as it effectively curtailed the use of one of the franchise’s prime technologies, but repurposed here in a bid to kill some tech that must be killed, it just might work.

Would a threat to our universe have been more interesting? Possibly. But at least now Discovery’s characters will have a moral dilemma on their hands as they debate whether the Prime Directive extends to a hidden network incubating a myriad of below the radar species. Personally I’d say fuck ‘em for the chance to teleport anywhere instantly, but this being a prequel, and one that could even be retconned as canon one day, there’s little choice.

Great as it was to see Tilly on a magic mushroom bender, the episode’s primary focus was on Saru and Mick, reprising the relationship that turned sour in the pilot but apparently blossomed in extremis thereafter, when Saru had to defer to the woman who’d lost her rank and started an interstellar war.

These are two characters who we’ve always been told have a close bond, without the show doing the donkey work of actually presenting it to us in meaningful moments. Perhaps I’d forgotten, but I couldn’t think of any significant Mick and Saru scenes, bar the episode when he went insane and attacked her on the planet with an interstellar communications array. Yet here was a story that relied on our identification with the friendship for its emotional impact.

For many, however, this would have been the first evidence the two had such a deep and meaningful relationship. This, and I’m sorry to harp on, is collateral damage from the show’s plot-driven, serialised approach. When every episode is about pushing the story forward, not building stories around characters, often the cast are too involved in the action to speak to each other in anything but an expository way.

Still, Doug (autocorrects to Duncan) Jones, who we like, and who appears to be the only refugee from a real Star Trek series, did good work as the dying alien, trying to solve the mystery of the sphere while getting his affairs in order. The scenario also brought out Mick’s human side – that untapped reservoir of emotion that might make her seem less of a pious know-it-all. Ultimately, with the mystery of the sphere’s attack solved as the attempt of a dying alien to impart its epoch spanning knowledge, in the best Star Trek tradition, Saru had a lie down and prepared to do the same, only to learn that everything he knew was wrong.

Here, for the first time, Discovery made a call with a character that was potentially intriguing. Saru survived the illness that would usually prompt his people to sacrifice themselves for food, and in doing so learned that his fellow Kelpians were fucking idiots.

Saru had to go back and tell them, he said, though the Prime Directive forbade it, and we were left to reflect, with the newly empowered alien attempting to make sense of an enlightened world – like a priest who’d learned there was no God – how incredible it was that not a single Kelpian had ever ridden out the delirium and acute mania on the off-chance it might pass, and with it their fear of death and acceptance of their place in the food chain. Speaking of food, anyone for salt and pepper squid?

Anomalous readings:

  • We finally met the Enterprise’s No.1 and learned she likes cheeseburgers. Pike’s instruction to her, that the ship’s holographic interfaces should be ripped out, as they were ghost-like, will be read as a one-line attempt at further reconciling Discovery’s incongruous tech with that seen in the Original Series, but the suspicion remains (not least because of the seldom discussed rights issues) that the show is set in its own timeline and that consequently, any definitive, cast-iron identifiers, that would finally, irrefutably make it impossible for anyone but the most deluded fan to deny it – both to themselves and others – will be kept off screen.
  • Tilly’s favourite song is David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Well of course it is.
  • “I love you, Saru”. Nice try, Discovery hacks, but this is the first substantial conservation Mick’s had with Saru for ages, maybe ever. I’m sure they’ve enjoyed a lot of great moments together off screen which they’ve never spoken about with a camera running.
  • This attempt at adding substance to Mick and Saru’s relationship was further sullied when it became apparent it was a proxy for that other great unseen kinship, Mick and Spock. Mick’s arc for the episode was to face losing her on-ship brother, thereby reminding her of the importance of reconciling with the real thing. Two pivotal, character defining bonds for Mick then, for which only anecdotal evidence exists.

Mick’s Second Crack at the Galaxy

The Maiden Voyage 

Foreboding

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 2.3

Critic’s log, supplemental.

This week on Star Trek: Discovery viewers were treated to a condensed example of everything that’s rotten about this half-baked show. When cultural historians attempt to unpick its unpopularity, relative to its forebears, “Point of Light” will be the episode that gets the top hit on journal searches. There was the provocative attack on canon, or rather the not quite fully-throated threat of retconning – a series trademark, plot developments that bricked off promising avenues and replaced them with cul-de-sacs, and obnoxious characters given undue prominence; further evidence that what gets this writers’ room off is agitating its audience.

If we didn’t know better, and we don’t, we’d have to say that either a) the hacks that Crayola this thing are idiots or b) they hate Star Trek fans. The latter makes no sense of course, but Alex Kurtzman, the black hole at the centre of this universe, that pulls in and crushes all the creativity around him, is the man who destroyed both Vulcan and Romulus, and thought a character called Khan Noonien Singh should be reimagined as a white, upper-middle class Englishman. His other hits include turning Spock into a street brawler, making Scotty a casual murderer, and wiping every episode of every Star Trek series except Enterprise.

The A-Story is this episode was an unwelcome revisiting of the relationship between Klingon Chancellor L’Rell (installed by the Federation under the threat of genocide) and trans-species favourite Ash Tyler/Voq (autocorrects to Clem Fandango). Since we last saw them, the couple have been aggravating the High Council with their interspecies sex and audacious stewardship of the newly consolidated Empire; an idea you’ll recall, sponsored by the puppet masters of the Federation.

It wasn’t clear their handlers had endorsed the creation of the iconic D7 battlecruiser, tech that will strengthen the Klingon’s military might and prolong the cold war, but L’Rell had improbably appointed Tyler to project manage its creation regardless, creating an unwanted bridge between Mick’s ex-squeeze and this classic TOS ship. Discovery’s hacks, apparently, believe that everything in the original series should be linked to Burnham by just a few degrees of separation. I wouldn’t be surprised if she puts Pike in that bleep chair, thereby paving the way for Kirk’s captaincy of the Enterprise.

Heads were initially scratched across the world as this Q’onoS psychodrama played out – L’Rell’s enemies rightly labelling her a Federation stooge and vying to replace her, Tyler rightly singled out as a walking, breathing symbol of the Klingon’s enforced supplication.

There was no talk of the bomb that L’Rell had used to guarantee her power, but spending time with these characters was an unwanted reminder of how badly the war arc in season one ended, and the absurd plot contortions required to tie it up.

It was bad enough having to relieve the Tyler/Voq saga, with its batshit crazy talk of species assignment and psyche grafting (the Klingons had to physically alter Voq and imprint Tyler’s brain into his body, rather than just programming Tyler to, er, beat neural scans?) but the introduction of the couple’s son – the non-pregnancy of the previous season covered with the concept of “ex-uteral gestation” and talk of the Tyler side of the equation feeling violated, raised the ugly spectre of rape talk and a father who can’t love his son in future episodes. Interesting perhaps, but not the optimistic utopianism Trekkies crave.

Fortunately, this being Discovery, the albino baby was a throwaway plot complication that existed to provide the pretext for Mirror Georgiou, now a Section 31 operative, to arrive and, CIA-like, intervene in the direction of the regime. This cold and lifeless character, a former Empress and mass murderer, and proposed lead for a new Star Trek spinoff, affirmed her leading woman credentials by insisting L’Rell kill her boyfriend and child to guarantee her authority and recast herself, ludicrously, as the mother of the Empire – a sort of virgin queen, offering a teat to a grateful gaggle of Head of House warriors.

Instead L’Rell threw mockups of their severed heads into a fiery pit, while the real baby went to the Klingon monastery on Boreth – ticking off the show’s weekly obligation to provide an Easter egg for stupid fans impressed by such namechecking, and Tyler got recruited by the Federation’s shadowmen to do its evil work. We were left with a nasty taste in the mouth – the prospect of the Federation covertly manipulating political actors in future episodes, spearheaded by a former dictator and schizoid double agent. But don’t say Discovery’s hacks hate their audience.

Speaking of which, the B-Story involved nothing less than the wholesale retconning of Spock’s life and, potentially, his character, as Amanda arrived on the Discovery, hoping for Michael’s help in decrypting his medical notes to explain his self-committal to a mental institution. One scene later we learned Spock had escaped and possibly killed – yes KILLED, three Doctors. What followed, before our very eyes, was Mick’s insertion into a beloved character’s makeup; a Canon Alert that could be heard across the galaxy, accompanied by the screams of broken fans.

That’s right kids, Mr Spock, your favourite Star Trek character, may now be a psychopath, and not just any psychopath, but one abused by his human step-sister as a child, in an act so deplorable, that Mick couldn’t bear to articulate the specifics. Not only that, the Red Angel – this season’s mystery, had appeared to our beloved Vulcan since childhood, fundamentally shaping the man we’ll later grow to love. From now on, when you think of the character’s backstory, you’ll be forced to consider this season of Discovery – not just a show content to jump the shark, but fuck it on the beach. Somewhere in TV land, perhaps in an old writer’s retreat, they’ll be debating the difference between having the legal right to use a character and the moral right to overwrite one. We’ll return to this in future episodes as the full horror unfolds.

Speaking of horror, the C-Story – yes, there was a lot of plot to get through in this instalment, continued Tilly’s post-accident trauma which last week we speculated could be the acorn that would grow into a galaxy-threatening story that explained why Spore Drive technology had to be discontinued ahead of TOS. Potentially, this was fascinating stuff – the prospect of a phenomenon so dangerous that it broke down the barriers of reality itself. But Discovery’s hacks, apparently, thought this was too far-ranging and interesting an idea, so made May – Tilly’s ex-schoolmate and ghostly apparition, a sentient fungal parasite who’d hotwired itself into her memories. That’s right – it’s the thing you have in your toenail, only with a mind. So instead of an arc that would explain the Spore Drive’s redundancy as a viable technology, which needs to be addressed by the way, we got a blob trapped in a force field. Will it prove to be an unstoppable and dangerous ball of goo? On this evidence, I doubt these hacks had any idea. We’ll see what they invented on the hoof, next week.

Anomalous Readings:

  • Does L’Rell really expect all Klingons to call her mother from now on? What are they supposed to call their real mothers?
  • There was a lot of ostentatious direction in this episode, following Jonathan Frakes’ showy, sweeping camera shots last week. We might speculate that the instruction from on high is to give each Discovery episode that “J.J Abrams feel” – the producers apparently oblivious to the toxic association such cinematic camerawork produces. Do they really want fans to associate this show with those terrible movies? It’s enough to make you nostalgic for TV lighting and simple, functional blocking. It also makes you concerned that Discovery will eventually synch up with the Kelvin timeline in some unspeakable fashion – the threat that looms over every visually incongruous episode.
  • When Command Program candidates do a half-marathon around the ship they flicker the lights. To make it more likely they’ll run into crew members and test their ability to handle arguments?
  • So what DID Mick do to Spock? Suck off Sybok in front of him? Strangle him with a kolinahr necklace? Force him to line up his Vulcan salute with her V? We’ll find out I suppose, and it will be awful.
  • Amanda gave Mick all her joy, apparently. Something you can see in her good humour and warmth.
  • In the 23rd century you can hide motion tracking granules in paint. Makes you wonder why this has never been done subsequently.
  • We’ve waited 20 years but finally Voyager’s “get this cheese to sickbay” has been usurped by a new line in the competition to be Star Trek’s worst ever. “I hear, post-war, the Klingons are growing their hair again.” Imagine being a writer on this show and realising the only way to reverse a creative decision you made a year ago, which went down like a Klingon double-cock, was to put in a line like that. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking harder about the choices you’re making, kids.

Mick’s Second Crack at the Galaxy

The Maiden Voyage 

 

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 2.2

Critic’s log, supplemental.

The thing about episodic television – that archaic form of storytelling that’s fallen out of favour in the era of prestige drama, is that it conferred discipline on those responsible for pumping it out. In the Treks of old you had five acts and between 42 and 47 minutes to tell your story. During this brief window you had a teaser, an act to set up the story, a couple to develop it, complications abound, and an act to tie it off. Formulaic perhaps, but structured.

“New Eden” directed by Johnathan Frakes no less (and no more), took a gamble by teasing the audience with an old fashioned plot that resembled the aforementioned episodes of yore. But we can’t forget this is Discovery, a show that’s tied to serialisation like a young girl cuffed to a radiator in a pervert’s basement. So despite episodic touches like an A and B story, a mystery to be solved on a hitherto undiscovered planet, and even a third act crisis to be resolved by story’s end, this show had a loose and unfocused aspect that made it feel slight and uninvolving. In short – because it was just a checkpoint in a larger story, rather than a self-contained piece, the elements that might have otherwise have formed the meat of the tale were undeveloped and truncated.

Take for example the ostensive A-story, the, er, discovery of a human colony on a planet balls deep in Beta Quadrant; a human infestation that dated from the Third World War exodus but would have no means of reaching a world that remote. On the Original Series or TNG this would been the primary focus of the piece, with the away mission revealing some terrible secret or social issue that provoked a huge moral complication for the crew. Wait, you say, isn’t that what happened? Didn’t Mick and Pike find one scientifically woke colonist in a village of blended religious zealots, but were forbidden by the Prime Directive (or General Order One) to liberate him with the facts he’d sought all his life? Well, yes, but this constituted three or four wan scenes, in which the central dilemma played second episode fiddle to the season-long arc mystery of the Red Angel; a phenomenon we now know to have agency and, gulp, intent. Consequently, what would have been the story in a conventional Trek was mere backdrop here.

This had the curious effect of elevating the B-story on board ship to A-story significance. In part this was because Tilly’s attempt to science a “metreon drive” from crystalline dark matter deposits to uncouple Stamets from the Spore Drive and make it an independent system, much as dilithium powers the Warp Drive, featured characters we’re almost invested in (her, Stamets and Saru), in a high-concept scenario blissfully free of the cod-spirituality and dull philosophising taking place elsewhere.

The Spore Drive – hate it or really hate it, is the only feature unique to Discovery that holds any fascination, in part because it is a format breaking invention that, thanks to the show’s prequel status, must, we know, be fatally flawed. Subsequent starships will not have a functioning Spore Drive, and the kind of quadrant jump handled here with relative ease will one day a thing of the past; a fleeting taste of what might have been.

The big question on this otherwise stupid show was and is how will this technology be scuppered and why? Season One suggested the problem was the biological interface required to make it work and the danger it posed to the poor bastard plugged in to the network. Stamets also hinted that his trip along the mycelial network had induced vivid visions of his dead lover, Dr Culber. Psychosis perhaps or something more? After all, we know from Discovery’s long stay in the mirror universe that the Drive can skip dimensions as well as light years.

“New Eden” developed this theme by punishing Tilly for her industry in working up an inorganic alternative to Stamets (who, if allowed to leave for Vulcan will take the future of space travel with him) with a visit from her dead high school friend – a character who, like her, talked like an imbecile.

It wasn’t clear whether anyone but Tilly had seen the girl from yesteryear, curiously grown up and in Starfleet Uniform, but once the show established this character had appeared to Tilly in a vision, much like the Red Angel had appeared to Mick (everyone on this show has visions – it’s like it’s a theme or something), and was deceased, the Spore Drive once again took on a sinister aspect – a form of propulsion that collapsed the barriers between planes of reality and with it all the constraints we rely upon to stay sane – continuities within our lifetimes, the realm of the living and the dead. This, surely, is the problem with Spore tech – but can the writers of this shithouse develop this idea into a suitably apocalyptic and reality threatening scenario, with the crew forced to choose between unlimited exploration and the integrity of their experiences? Well, one can dream.

So “New Eden” ultimately felt like someone skipping a stone across the flat calm of a traditional Trek episode. It ended with the revelation that the Red Angel wasn’t just a symbolic proxy for the red signals as interpreted by those, like Spock and Mick, with developed psychic abilities (Mick was inseminated with a bit of Sarek’s katra lets not forget) but a less interesting actual physical entity that appeared to be reaching out to our crew with a view to taking them on a series of task-solving adventures.

Somewhere, deep down, there’s the kernel of a good idea here, but does anyone really trust Alex Kurtzman to make the best of it? In fact, I’m more pensive about what he’ll do with the concept than I am about the truth behind it.

Anomalous Readings:

  • Pike, for a generation, was a character who sat in a bleep chair, a haunted frozen expression on his face. We never got to know him as a man, which gives Anson Mount carte blanche to play him however the fuck he likes. Sadly, he’s chosen to follow the logic of The CageStar Trek’s first pilot, and play him as a proto-Kirk. In this episode he moralised a little, prevaricated a bit, and threw himself on a charging phaser. All very man of action but one was reminded of Gene Roddenberry’s wisdom in making Picard a very different type to Kirk – not just an enabler of story beats but a unique character in his own right. Can Discovery’s writers find a role for Pike in the show that marks him out as distinct? We shall see.
  • Spock, we learned, had committed himself to a mental hospital on Starbase 5. His plan, one imagines, was to ensure the show’s writers couldn’t break him out and force him to participate in this season of Discovery. Well, life is cruel Mr Spock, and they’ll be coming for you soon enough.
  • Mick referred to science as a religion in the part of the episode that required a certain sensitivity when discussing the world’s faiths (blended by the colonists). Pike didn’t pick her up on the fact that framing her adherence to the scientific method in these terms was an affront to said method, as science relies on empirical verification and is subject to constant revision. But perhaps he couldn’t be bothered.
  • Poor Jacob must live the rest of his life on New Eden knowing there’s space-faring technology out there and a world of enlightenment and scientific endeavour to behold, but he’s stuck with a bunch of backward yokels and his local church. Better to have killed him than left him with a power generator, surely?

Mick’s Second Crack at the Galaxy

The Maiden Voyage 

Published in: on January 27, 2019 at 17:37  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 2.1

Critic’s log, supplemental.

With the grim inevitability of serious illness, the pseudo-Star Trek spin off (anything conceived in the mind of Alex Kurtzman in respect of the franchise he doesn’t quite understand demands a qualifier), designed for a single season as part of a now defunct anthology, has returned for a second. Can we find it within ourselves to welcome it? Not yet, is the grimly inevitable answer.

Discovery, lest we forget, and God knows we’ve tried, still feels like a show trying to inveigle its way into the Star Trek mythos; an interloper. Who’s it made for? We don’t know. But when we hear from them it’s going to be the closest thing to first contact in the real world.

The bad news for the rest of us is Discovery’s still a serial and one lumbered with last season’s stunt ending. You’ll remember that shark jumping moment – the Enterprise honing into view, a distress call on the conn channel. This was a desperate cliffhanger, a plea for relevance following fifteen episodes of canon shredding, over-plotted hack work. Without this admission of defeat, the second season could have started afresh – with characters recalibrated or replaced in line with the show’s needs, sets and costumes updated, even a move to episodic storytelling. Instead, “Brother” had no choice but to pick up moments after the first season, required to integrate Cage-era characters, including Christopher Pike and Spock into its mix, rewriting Trek history as it went – a process we’ll refer to subsequently as cultural vandalism.

You might think it unwise for a show that garnered so much criticism for needlessly intruding on pre-TOS canon to double down in this way. A cynic would argue it’s a provocation from a belligerent and clueless showrunner keen to reshape material he doesn’t understand, impressing his own moronic sensibility on Roddenberry’s first thoughts, whereas an optimist would say Kurtzman simply didn’t know what else to do. Without the crutch of established characters and iconography to generate ideas, how else would an imbecilic fan fic writer generate content? And don’t people like Alex always tell themselves their mechanical attempts at appropriating the achievements of their forerunners are expressions of love? Watching “Brother” it was possible to imagine that Kurtzman’s wife will never cum.

The second season premiere was notable for two things – the obnoxious smashing together of Mick and Spock, complete with Sybok-free childhood flashbacks (where the hell, you might ask, was he?) and what subs for intelligence in this show, namely literalism.

When we first learned that Mick was Spock’s foster-sister, a silly, universe shrinking idea that could not be reconciled with any part of the original series or the six movies that followed (especially The Final Frontier), our hope was that it would ultimately transpire that Sarek and Amanda had looked after her for a year, say while Spock was away at the Vulcan science academy, or that she had eventually left them to live on Earth with her grandparents – anything to put a little distance between her and our favourite Vulcan.

Instead, having rushed in where angels fear to tread for the sake of appealing to what are imagined to be stupid and nostalgia-driven fans, “Brother” establishes the two grew up together in the family home, with Spock wisely rejecting this visitor from an unwanted spin off from the outset. This season, tragically, threatens to explore this strained relationship, knocking through walls of established continuity as it goes. Present-day Spock’s appearance was deferred to another episode – his absence the only structuring element of this one, but if you’re dreading his emergence and the point of no return, you’re not alone.

We don’t want Spock associated with Mick because she’s the unlikable lead of a moribund TV series – the kind of character whose alleged intellect is flagged by another because she knows the difference between a metaphor and a simile. If the bar’s this low in the 23rd century, one wonders if it’s time to revise those Starfleet Academy entrance exams. But Pike’s “they said you were smart” line wasn’t a shock in an episode that talked up its own brains while playing dumb. Only in Discovery could two techies, Tilly and Stamets, high-five each other, following the successful capturing of an asteroid, and exclaim “that’s the power of Math, people!” Can you imagine Data and Geordi having an exchange like that? Indeed, everyone in this episode talked like an idiot from Pike, “hit it!”, all the way down to the unfortunate science officer who was first covered in a new background character’s mucus, then killed in an elaborate action sequence involving glass pods navigating fast moving rocks, while boasting about his own prowess. No one gave a shit about the death of this man, you understand. He was a cartoon character introduced to serve an underwritten plot –  the tease for season two’s big bad.

Still emotionally scarred by the Klingon war, I was initially encouraged to learn this season’s arc would involve an unexplained celestial phenomenon – the so-called Red Angel – seen by Mick on the verge of death and apparent symbol for the unexplained “red signals” lighting up all over the galaxy. We’ll keep an open mind about all of this until we know it’s a terrible super-alien or similar, but for now it provided the only intrigue in an opening episode otherwise built on broad humour, inconsequential action, and the promise of canon ruination. Discovery’s back for good or ill – let’s just try to make the best of it.

Anomalous Readings:

  • Will Sybok be mentioned this season, and wouldn’t he, and not Spock, have been the logical character to disappear and pursue the Red Angel, given his preoccupation with spirituality? (V’Ger, lest we forget, was about bridging logic and feeling for Spock). This would have given Discovery’s writers a legitimate reason to keep Spock out of it, while exploring an untapped facet of Sarek’s family, but I suppose there’s no nostalgic currency going down that road. Here was a chance to flesh out a backstory, in true prequel fashion, without any risk to an iconic character, but don’t let common sense guide your thinking, Discovery hacks.
  • “Get your red shirt into that space suit!” That’s the kind of subtle framing we expect from Discovery’s dialogue.
  • Discovery’s view screen cracked during its encounter with the asteroids. A good argument, you might think, for Federation ships having a giant monitor that channels sensor input, rather than an actual window. You know, THE WAY IT WAS.
  • Tig Nataro’s character, another genius who speaks like an idiot, stayed the right side of zany, but let’s see how long it takes for her Engineer Reno to become insufferable…unless of course her function is to convince Stamets that he can’t possibly leave Discovery in the hands of someone this jokey.
  • No look at the Enterprise’s bridge – that final, brutal, irrefutable signifier of Discovery overwriting the Original Series’ cherished iconography. Rationally, we know it must look very different but will the makers of this monster be brave enough to confirm it?
  • Oh, I didn’t talk about those Short Treks that in the space of four mini-episodes ruined any intrigue about the Discovery’s future, rubbished the Prime Directive and undermined Data’s unique android status in the Star Trek universe. Still, no one saw them, so does it matter?

The Maiden Voyage 

Published in: on January 20, 2019 at 19:05  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Dear Chris Chibnall: Resolution

Dear Chris,

This might be my final Doctor Who review. The end of the Doctorin’ decade seems as good an arbitrary cut off as any. But I’ll be honest, Chris. I’ve been looking for an excuse to stop for some time. Life without Steven isn’t what I imagined. I thought I’d be happy sans his indecent, vigorous conceptual masturbation, but I feel like a great detective who’s succeeded in vanquishing his ultimate foe. Now Professor Moriarty’s lifeless husk is trapped under a rock beneath the Reichenbach Falls, being slowly eaten by assorted species of freshwater fish, I’m bored. Bored and tired. The challenge you pose to the armchair pundit is finding something in your horse tranquiliser of a series to write about. I liken the experience to being trapped in a pub conversation with someone whose only topics of conversation are dog walking and drinking. And if this paragraph feels long, Chris, it’s because I’m trying to defer the moment I have to start talking about your New Year special. And if I now read as morose it’s because I’ve reached the point where I can’t delay any longer. I’m hitting return, and never has my finger felt heavier. Seriously, it feels like it’s strapped to one of Danny Dyer’s testicles.

I suppose I should be grateful to you for not making a Christmas special. I know this wasn’t mercy on your part, rather creative anaemia, but it was joyful to sit through the festive period without that cat turd mince pie in prospect. Instead “Resolution” was, idiotically, set on New Year’s Day 2019 – something I’m sure you were told to tack on as it had no bearing on the plot. Please tell me you were obliged to refer to the New Year, Chris. That alone would explain the excruciating joke about the family with no WiFi who were now expected to talk to each other; a joke as old as time in an episode about dusted off relics. I hope in the next series Bradley Walsh gets to do the one about 2.4 children, and what the hell is .4 of a child? Work it in if you can. Dave Allen’s estate need the royalties.

It’s not such a ridiculous idea, Chris – after all you built your entire special from old material; one familiar scene after another, with the only original filler being the plodding, EastEnders-like insert where Ryan’s Dad returned to the family and the two had a bland absentee father conversation in a café. I hoped this sedative would connect with the A-story at some point, but when it did, with Ryan’s old man being held hostage by a Kaled mutant, just to facilitate a reconciliation by episode’s end, my deadened senses felt nothing. It was like that void the TARDIS was exposed to had sucked all the joy and vitality out of me. For the first time I understood the hatred of those Skaro murder droids.

I don’t blame you for bringing back the Daleks, Chris. What else could you do? You hadn’t created any exciting villains in your first series so you thought it was time to throw the fans some red meat. But man alive, wasn’t there a more interesting story on the table than this one? It was so lacking in ambition – the kind of “fuck it, that’ll do” concept that you might scribble down after a screening of Venom, with the treatment deadline just two hours away. The Tom Hardy movie was lazy and confusing, Chris, but you managed to make it look bold by comparison. Many will hate you for that alone.

Dalek history is a continuity clusterfuck, so I have no idea, because I can’t be bothered to do the research, whether your Retcon Scout Dalek landing on Earth in the 9th century contradicts established events, not least because Daleks can time travel (essential if you’re going to fight Time Lords). Still, assuming we accept that a bunch of ancient sword wielding grunts would have any chance against a thing that, 12 centuries later, laid waste to a tank and men with machine guns, the episode’s basic premise still didn’t make much sense.

In the present day we learned the two parts of the Dalek that made it to their improbably widespread destinations – a pacific island and somewhere in Siberia, had been guarded by, what one assumes to be, an unbroken line of guardians. We didn’t learn whether these were the descendants of the original men, or what instructions they’d been given, or how they were incentivised to give up their lives and carry on throughout the years, because you didn’t tell us.

What of dead Yorkshire man? Was he under orders to father a child and order him to look after the Kaled’s remains for life if he made it, that child having to find the time to father his own child and give him the same orders and so on? What if he was infertile, or lost a kid to child mortality – a pertinent problem for most of the time humanity’s existed? What if one generation rebelled, wanting to pursue a rich and rewarding career in HR instead?

If the fate of the world depended on this man successfully delivering his package to the chosen destination and guarding it, might it have been better for him to travel with a garrison? And shouldn’t all those men have had instructions to get the squid to its very shallow and easily disturbed burial ground no matter what?

When Yorkshire warrior was felled by an arrow, no one knew where he’d fallen. He remained undiscovered until the 21st century. The men that killed the Dalek were clever enough to intuit, despite their 9th century level of scientific understanding, that this dead alien might regenerate if not separated into three and spread to the far corners of the known world, but not enough to take rudimentary precautions to ensure it happened.

Of course in the real world you simply didn’t care enough about the audience, who you imagine to be undemanding children, to think through any of this shit – just sketch a prologue and move on. But by not taking the plotting of the episode seriously, by including laboured jokes and clunky emotional beats for the characters, by having Jodie Whittaker talk like a preening idiot, you reinforced your reputation for hackwork. You’re the TV equivalent of a cowboy builder, Chris. The BBC got you in at great expense and have paid way above the odds for the job you’re supervising, but sooner or later they’re going to realise that both executive and audience alike are just one door slam away from witnessing a complete collapse. Your Doctor Who’s built from knock off bits, and half of them haven’t worked for decades. In the age of premium TV and streaming services, you’ve written a show that could have gone out in 1963.

I don’t have a time machine, Chris, yet I can see into the future. Eventually all the group think and social media stodge packed around this series will crumble and fall away, leaving your work to be judged against its genre peers. The people who think Jodie Whittaker’s fantastic, though they can’t quite say why, will disappear. The people who find Bradley Walsh charming will disappear. The people who think slivers of boring, Sheffield-set domestic melodrama add depth and feeling will disappear. The people who think the production values are a talking point will disappear. The people who think identity politics is a substitute for characterisation will disappear. The people who like nostalgia, so don’t notice it’s been used as a distraction will disappear. The people who say you can’t expect the show to be written at adult level because it’s for kids – a cliché that patronises both adult viewers and actual kids – they too will disappear.

Your next big job in TV will disappear.

Now I must disappear, Chris. I’m going to go and live a simple life in the country, without TV or the ability to play legacy media. I may never know if Doctor Who becomes interesting again; a show that finally lives up to the promise of those Virgin tie-in missing adventure novels of yesteryear; but sometimes the risks of going to the nearest populated area and starting a conversation are just too great.

Goodbye and thanks for nothing,

Ed

P.S: “These are my best friends…” The Doctor’s only friends, surely?

P.P.S: “Doctor, I don’t like it when you go quiet.” Yaz, don’t you have somewhere to be?

P.P.P.S: Congratulations on that emergency armed forces support line scene, Chris. It just might be the worst thing ever filmed.

P.P.P.P.S: GCSE philosophy question: What’s worse? Doctor Who being on hiatus or on the air with Chris Chibnall as showrunner? Discuss.

Everybody do the Chibnall drag:

Capaldi’s Long Goodbye:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Dear Chris Chibnall: Doctor Who End of Series Cloister Bellendry

Dear Chris,

You did it. You got to the end of your first series of Doctor Who with (consolidated) ratings at a ten-year high and pull quotes from the very best critic mimicking algorithms tattooed on your length. Yes, it must feel good to know you have the backing of objective and famously interrogative outlets like Radio One’s Newsbeat and Baron Viktor Von Doomcock’s YouTube channel. Oh and there’s Twitter, where the great and not so good rallied to your broad and curiously regional attempt at reinvention. Suddenly this felt like a show for everyone, with only the genre literate and discerning fans excluded. I don’t know about you, but I was getting a little tired of these lifelong natives of the Whoniverse, with their tiresome craving for recognition, banging on about sophisticated storytelling. Bring on the tourists!

The universe always surprises us, the Doctor opined in the closing moments of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, but not in a series spearheaded by you. In your version of Doctor Who there’s cliché and redundancy and the non-descript. Jodie Whittaker’s casting, celebrated by some for being ground breaking, as though she was a puppet operated by Warwick Davis, not the Doctor reimagined as a holiday rep, personifies the problem with Project Chibnall.

Whittaker’s Doctor, conceived and cast by you, signals her intellectual credentials but talks like an idiot. She’s immature and trying – an eccentric as imagined by a profound conformist. There’s dissonance here and it plays on the viewer’s mind. Scientists call it Chibnall drag. The Doc, as Bradley Walsh insists on calling her, is a creature of depth and wisdom, but we only know this because she tells us so. And all the while we sit and we say, Miriam Margolyes was available – the Doctor in all but name.

I don’t know how to write up your series, Chris, because I was so bored watching it that my mind often wandered to other things. Things like why does the Doctor travel with the kind of people you’d meet on an HR sponsored difficult conversations course, and why is the TARDIS console room adorned with impractical and garish slabs of pink crystal?

I suppose the only way to break down this shit is to talk about the good and the bad, sometimes with passing reference to the second half of the series.

The Good

  • The titles. No Doctor’s face but the opening sequence was a handsome, cinematic take on the vortex opening of old. Better yet, it didn’t look like something knocked up by a fan. Nothing to do with you of course.
  • The production values. Again, nought to do with you, Chris, but the show had additional gloss and scale in 2018, thanks to what looked like an increase in budget. Allow yourself half a whoop.
  • The score: no more overzealous and ear bleeding musical cues from Murray Gold. Instead, the quirky, sometimes uncanny, electronic stylings of Segun Akinola, who brought of touch of the BBC radiophonic workshop to proceedings.
  • The episode with the frog. “It Takes You Away” was the one instalment this year that had genuine intrigue. At the heart of the story was a conceptually dense mystery, something creepy and compelling. Writer Ed Hime (probably hired because you misheard his name as “Time”) managed to introduce a genuine temptation for one of the characters – something that got them away from asking questions or wandering off to find things on the Doctor’s behalf. Okay, the frog was silly, and should have been the form of something the Doctor cared about and longed for from the distant past, like Peri’s breasts, but this was the kind of standalone Who that works – interesting setup, kooky ideas (killer moths) and memorable madness.
  • The Doctor’s womanhood – the punchline for a couple of jokes but thankfully, otherwise, moot. Given the hype around the change, in-story referencing might have made the first run of episodes unbearable. Instead, we learned the problem with the Doctor wasn’t her vulva but her characterisation as a smiley, child-like cartoon character with a propensity to ruin the mystery of her origin by referring to her extended family in the most mundane terms – “I had five grans”, etc. Marc Platt, one-time Who scribe and author of Lungbarrow, must have watched that scene the way Ian Curtis watched his final wildlife documentary.

Cloister Bellendry

  • The Doctor’s womanhood. For a series with such a high didactic load and a new emphasis on educating the kids, it seemed odd that the Doctor’s sex didn’t complicate more plots. Sure, she was (comically) denied her authority in The Witchfinders by a 17th century king, but more often than not the universe didn’t bat an eyelid at the young woman taking control, threatening enemies and giving the orders. We’re assured the Whoniverse is by and large a woke realm, in tune with its audience, which is great, but the Doctor having to struggle with assumptions and laws in opposition to her identity might have added a hitherto unexplored political dimension of the show.
  • The companions – this TARDIS, in a self-conscious echo of the first series in 1963, had more of a family feel, something infinitely preferable to your predecessor’s propensity to elevate the humble tag-alongs to the status of universal puzzle pieces or canon-shaping golden threads. That said, Steven at least was ambitious about making the Doctor’s friends more integral to the stories in which they featured. Your bunch, nice but ineffectual Graham, nice but mildly curious Yaz, nice but dull Ryan, only seem, like your plots, to have one gear. Stories that might have jabbed a poker into their simple souls and stoked a little complexity – Yaz’s trip to the partition era Punjab to meet her grandmother, Ryan on Rosa Parks’ bus fighting a racist alien, Graham confronted by his wife’s murderer, barely made a mark on these life sized cardboard cut outs. They ended the series as they began it, as background.
  • The plots: Chris, I’m not saying your series was made bland by formula, but here’s a breakdown of all ten episodes.
    • Doctor and friends arrive blind, immediately intuit something’s amiss
    • They arrogantly impose themselves on the situation – insisting they get involved, fortunately encountering little resistance, few questions, just confused people happy to accept Doctor’s authority despite having no proof she’s anything other than an interested bystander
    • Doctor thinks aloud delivering chunks of exposition that relieve the writer of any burden to plot the story in an intriguing way or set up mysteries for the audience to solve
    • Doctor asks unqualified companions to split up and gather information without providing sufficient context (they do, asking open questions in the absence of any concrete information about what they’re supposed to find out and why)
    • TARDIS crew finally encounter monster of the week
    • Doctor provides more baseless speculation that ultimately proves to be correct
    • Supporting cast of the week, harbouring either secrets or malevolent intent, are picked off/exposed
    • Doctor pieces together everything based on information only she has, so a disengaged audience doesn’t need to think/remains passive
    • Monster is actively defeated using technobabble, grandstanding, an act of destruction/situation resolves itself with TARDIS crew as passive onlookers
    • Doctor and crew say their goodbyes and offer a platitude for the road
    • End credits roll with preview of next episode containing similar beats.

Now you can and will argue this is the template that’s been in use for 55 years, but seldom has it felt as conspicuous and undeveloped as it has in 2018. Chris, this series has been routine and one note.

So what’s the prognosis for your series, Chris? Well, if it continues like this, I foresee two things happening. 1) The audience that actually cares about the show and doesn’t have it on as background or filler for their morning commute while they half-watch and half-gaze out of the window, will be chronically under-stimulated and will fall away. Right now, they’re excusing the lack of storytelling nous and vivid characterization as early days syndrome. But we both know you’re not going to get any better or smarter. This is your peak. Soon this open secret will be undeniable, even to the greatest series apologist. 2) The casual audience you’ve courted at the expense of the show’s intelligence and wit, will also fall off, as their fandom is soft and vulnerable to other predatory distractions. Some tuned in for the novelty of a Time Lady, some to affirm their liberal credentials, others just for a stake in the pop cultural conversation. But sooner or later, and I predict sooner, you will actually have to give them a reason to watch rooted in the old fashioned fundamentals – dramatic integrity, psychological depth, mystery, and good humour. If not, and with no more gimmicks to sell, your Doctor Who will wither faster than John Barrowman’s member in Noel Edmond’s mouth.

Regards,

Ed

P.S: What I’m saying is, ignore everything you’ve read about how well you’ve done and start again. The Bill was a popular police drama but it’s nobody’s no.1 on the list of greats, knowhattamean?

P.P.S: Thanks for the let off at Christmas. I have enough on my plate without seeing your attempt at a festive themed special.

P.P.S: I’ve bought Bradley Walsh a Christmas present – a second mode of delivery. Can you forward his address to me?

Everybody do the Chibnall drag:

Capaldi’s Long Goodbye:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Just like she planned: The Great Theresa May Brexit Conspiracy Theory

One must begin with a confession. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. The charlatans who peddle them are indulging in a logical fallacy. They attempt to impose a retrospective scheme on events that were in truth chaotic, unforeseeable, unplanned and unmanageable. Conspiracy theories filter out all the variables that shape history, namely error, stupidity, misunderstanding, hubris, impulse and emotion. Conspiracy theories are events understood backwards, with each action and consequence neatly plotted like a novel – their proponents conditioned by too much fiction, apparently unaware that it and reality functions differently.

Indeed, the degenerates that peddle this guff, like the, er, redoubtable George Galloway, who’s currently asking the public for £50,000 on Kickstarter so he can reengineer the suicide of Doctor David Kelley as a murder perpetrated by his old nemesis Tony Blair, whom he’s never forgiven for throwing him out of the Labour Party, see premeditation and planning everywhere (what is it about Scotsmen crowdfunding for dubious causes?).

Not for nothing does this position these egomaniacs as self-anointed mythbusters with an analytical intelligence that cuts through lies like an acidic white wine corroding a creamy sauce. We all love to entertain the silly idea that we’re more thoughtful and self-aware that the docile man and woman in the street, and if you’re so wired, it’s also a great way for idiots to affirm your middling intellectual credentials, giving you the attention you desperately crave.

So, all that said, indulge me while I try to sell you an alternative reading of our current deal or no deal Brexit chaos that recasts Theresa May as our unlikely saviour; a woman committed to saving the country from itself by breaking all the rules of political engagement; a plan that will ultimately end her career but leave the country relatively unmolested. That’s right, in years to come we may, pun intended, look back on this seemingly shambolic premier, and her demented time in office, and say, “Theresa you did it – you kept the wolves from the door, then later had the electorate shoot them. You fiendishly Churchilled that shit, and this despite an affinity with the common man and talent for media presentation commensurate with the 1910s, rather than the 2010s”.

In order to understand how this scenario may have come to pass, we need to remember who Theresa May was before the unlikely implosion of the Cameron Government, just a year after Dave’s decisive election victory – the Tories’ first since 1992.

May was Home Secretary, the longest running ever, who, in the fight against terrorism and international crime, was uniquely placed to understand how supra-national cooperation, particularly within the EU, was vital to our security, but also, on a technocratic level, just how closely integrated we were with the Brussels-led block.

May was ambitious, knew Cameron could lose the referendum, and in that event appearing ambivalent about EU membership would position her as a candidate to bridge the warring factions, should there be a leadership contest. She also knew a majority of her parliamentary colleagues in the Conservative Party didn’t believe in withdrawal (in contrast with the aging, rural based, George Eliot reading membership) so didn’t want to be stuck with the label of an ideologue who’d lead the post-Cameron party into a ghetto which would tie their hands in any future negotiation.

It was perhaps for this reason alone that May won out when set against the conniving Michael Gove, empty-headed Leave champion Andrea Leadsom, and zealots like Liam Fox. Boris Johnson had taken himself out of the contest, and might have won it if he hadn’t, except that shrewd colleagues like the aforementioned Hand in Gove, rightly suspected that he was capricious and ignorant, and couldn’t be relied on to manage the fiendish complexity of Brexit with anything like the intelligence, dexterity and moxie required. In fact, like May, Boris didn’t really believe in it. Theresa was a technocrat with an eye for a detail and a line in cold hard pragmatism, while Boris was a grandstanding dunce, educated beyond his intellect, whose cock and balls were more active than his mind.

When May won the leadership, she would have been conscious, because she was alive in the world and had a full set of functioning faculties, of two things:

  1. That Brexit, as sold to the coalition of imperial nostalgists, xenophobes, racists and, bringing up the rear as part of a very slim minority, democratic deficit hawks (also known as the sovereignty seekers) that made up Leave voters, was undeliverable and;
  2. The small but vocal Eurosceptics in her own party, as personified by Jacob Rees-Mogg, had a vested interest in decrying any compromise withdrawal agreement as a betrayal, because they sought a clean break to pursue their agenda of 51st statism – that is, severing our social democratic ties with Europe, with their pesky human rights agenda, employment and food protections, and tether us to the United States – the perfect social and economic model in their eyes, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. Not so much a hatred of vassalage, but a fantasy of inverse colonialism – allying ourselves with a former colony that’s subsequently overtaken us in terms of power and global prestige.

Yes, Theresa, we’re now daring to imagine, knew both these things, so sought to clandestinely rig our withdrawal so it would reflect realpolitik – i.e. the reality that the EU could not afford to let us go on terms preferential to our membership. The agreement would be markedly inferior to the status quo, and consequently, bolster the case for either a) remaining or b) re-joining the EU toot sweet.

In order to do this, it would be necessary to keep all the champions of Brexit within the tent – not so they could own the disaster to come, but be powerless to speak out against the process, constrained by cabinet collective responsibility, unable to obstruct the real negotiations that would be conducted by senior civil servants like Oliver Robins.

The temporary Department for Leaving the EU and the figurehead attached, first hapless action man David Davis, later injury time substitute Dominic Raab, would perform their ceremonial functions – meeting EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier every once in a while, being allowed to think they were influencing the position in the opposing camp (and reporting back as much to the Eurosceptic rebels), while the real business was conducted between learn’d people in basement rooms, parallel to but unencumbered by, the bullshit rhetoric taking place above ground.

This, my fellow tin hatters, was, I suggest, May’s scheme from the get-go. Ah, I hear you cry, but what about Gina Miller, the 2017 General Election disaster – weren’t these unforeseeable circumstances that might frustrate any attempt to reach an unloved and unworkable compromise? In truth, both turned out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, highly useful in achieving that goal.

May as Prime Minister, would have received legal advice that any attempt to use the power of the Crown to repeal the European Communities Act, complete with the rights for UK citizens guaranteed therein, would be challenged. What would be read by commentators as a shocking and sinister attempt to circumvent problems in the Commons by effectively negating parliamentary authority, was in fact an open and, let’s imagine, deliberate provocation. The courts, not any politician, would rule that Parliament had to both formally vote to leave the EU (which it might not – the short route to frustrating the referendum) and, in the unfortunate event that such a vote passed, because of the inept and vacillating official opposition, would have to endorse whatever deal was finally negotiated.

Well, the Commons reliably fucked up and voted for withdrawal, leaving the savvy and Machiavellian Theresa of our dreams with a serious fucking problem. She had a slim but workable majority, and as government policy was to leave the EU – a policy now backed by two thirds of MPs, that parliamentary arithmetic had to change. If it didn’t, May could still execute her plan – she’d bring back a slave nation deal, whip her MPs to vote for it, then wait as the implications sunk in, allowing a future government to argue that re-joining the EU was preferable, rather than being in perpetual transition and tied to the block without voting rights. Yes, that might work – she could honour the referendum result and enjoy the political dividend as a strong and victorious PM – but better still would be a hung Parliament that strangled the deal at birth and accelerated its demise, perhaps making a second referendum the only viable alternative to no deal.

Thus, pursuant to this carefully orchestrated scheme, for which we have no evidence, May called a snap General Election. The polls had her twenty points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, but, as noted in this blog, the campaign that followed told the story of a distant and dejected figure whose heart didn’t seem to be in victory. Such a shambolic and self-destructive campaign, starting from such a high base, made no sense. Was Theresa really this lacking in even the most basic disciplines of campaigning? Were her advisors, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, as politically naïve and demographically unaware as their manifesto implied? Or was 2017 a campaign designed to do what many thought impossible; erode a seemingly insurmountable poll lead, evening up parliament for the hoped deadlock to come?

May, lest we forget, had already unnecessarily limited the time we had to negotiate our withdrawal agreement with the EU by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, long before suitable preparations for the negotiations had taken place. Even if she’d won a three figure majority, she’d have had less than two years to get the job done, having triggered a legal mechanism that now guaranteed no parallel trade agreements or detailed discussions on our future relationship with the block could take place. A Prime Minister genuinely committed to a deal that was, at worst, neutral, at best emancipating, might have insisted those talks commence, if only via back channels, dangling the threat of holding off on triggering A50 indefinitely. The pitch could have been – start talking or face purgatory. But the risk that might make a success of Brexit was, I suggest with no authority whatsoever, too great.

So for the last 18 months Theresa has worked tirelessly to make sure our terms of exit leave us markedly worse off than we already are. In public, as she must to facilitate the illusion that this is a policy she believes in, lest she alienate the electorate and destroy her party, she’s doggedly stuck to the line that this is a good deal, that it honours the imaginary wish list of Leave Voters, whose wants and dreams may never be known, not even to themselves, and has a hope of getting through Parliament.

This, she must know, is unlikely. But even if Parliament were, once again, to spoil her plans by supporting her – something that can’t be ruled out when the opposition parties and her own MPs are as confused and fearful of voter retribution as this intake, she’s surely now done enough to square the circle of being seen to honour the referendum result, while making a second vote, or future overturning of said result by a government with an electoral mandate, very much more likely – perhaps even inevitable.

Theresa knows and we know that the price of this high wire act, deftly playing parliamentary colleagues against one another, and manipulating the electorate into a volte-face, will be her political life. She will ultimately return to the backbenches, then the ignominy of the lecture circuit, with her name mud amongst ideological Europhobes and angry Leave voters for a generation, all of whom will see her as the great betrayer – the woman who ruined Brexit. Remainers will cite her as evidence that the whole enterprise was doomed and will dismiss her as an incompetent and deluded Premier who put party interest ahead of national interest for no reward – a warning to the Eurosceptics of the future.

But we’ll know, won’t we kids? We’ll know this was just what she planned – the tragedy being that twenty years from now she’ll write an explosive, tell-all memoir that no one will believe – not even George Galloway.

Published in: on November 23, 2018 at 17:10  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,

Dear Chris Chibnall: Doctor Who Mid-Series Wangaround

Dear Chris,

We’ve reached the mid-point in your inaugural Doctor Who series; a time to pause, reflect and deplore the many terrible decisions you’ve made while contemplating the most asked question in the universe: what was the big idea that got you the gig?

Don’t say there wasn’t one, because I distinctly remember reading about it – an interview you gave to the Cathode Ray Society, or the Antennae Group, or the Royal Society of selotaping over the ITV button on old televisions, or something. This piece, which I had tabbed but had to close to make room for more Porn Hub windows, quoted a BBC source who was incredibly excited, like the men and women with no critical faculty on Twitter, because you’d made a pitch for the ages. According to witnesses, you sauntered into the meeting, like a man anointed, and wrote the future in lightning – like a woke D.W. Griffiths. But what the fuck did you promise them?

We’re five episodes in now and the Doctor’s mimsy aside, there’s nothing new on display – not that the Professor’s meat curtains are drawn, you understand. Private Eye’s TV critic, ‘Remote Controller’, gave you credit for aiming the series at children and keeping it largely Earth bound. He was apparently unaware that since the magazine’s attitudes were last frozen, around forty years ago, it’s been discovered that healthy adults also enjoy science fiction, and that the best TV examples grow and sustain their fanbase by writing for a mature and discerning audience. Good stories, we now know, work well when you’re four, fourteen or forty, each group, progressively literate in storytelling conventions and nuances, getting something new from the experience.

Your Doctor Who, unfortunately, plays like an earnest CBBC drama, complete with insufferable child-friendly archetypes. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is so unremittingly buoyant and wide-eyed, it’s like travelling in space and time with a Slimming World consultant. Thus far, when she’s not dishing out certificates for weight loss, applauding the slimmer of the week, and promoting the latest range of fat-free microwave meals, the Thirteenth Doctor, unluckily for us, seems fixated on being the most earnest person in the room. In real life such people are exhausting and insufferable. Chris, it’s no different on TV.

If there’s a second dimension to this characterisation, it sure would be great to see it, and soon. The Doctor, it seems, has been flattened out. She’s become an attitude – a set of values. Where’s the enigmatic side of the character, the mystery? Where’s the wit? And who told you that “get a shift on” was a great catchphrase for a two thousand plus year-old refugee from one of the galaxy’s most enlightened and learn’d cultures? Did John Hurt die for this?

Long ago we talked about how your version of the Doctor was likely to be vanilla, and so it’s proved. I don’t mind hearing her boring companions mention Call the Midwife, because that’s their licence fee friendly cultural frame of reference, but when the Doctor invokes the Antiques Roadshow, Poirot and Hamilton, you’re repeating Nu-Who mistakes which are now so well documented, not least by me, that there’s really no excuse to keep making them. The Doctor is not a contemporary middlebrow bore from Planet Shit. What next, are we going to learn she’s read all the Harry Potters and likes Pot Noodles? Actually, forget I said that Chris – I’m terrified you’ll work it in.

So back to your innovative vision for the show. What was it again – to regress to Russell T Davis’s era of creative timidity? Ah yes, because that was when the modern show was at its most popular, wasn’t it? We loved David Tennant singing Ghostbusters and visiting the companion’s council flat and all those other things I’ve tried to block out. In fact, you want to regress further, don’t you? To a time when Doctor Who was imagined as an educational tool for an audience strictly imagined as pre-pubescent. We had “Rosa”, the show that taught kids about the American civil rights movement and racism, and I see next week we’ll be heading to India for a story about partition. Hang on, Chris – hold the space phone, I’ve worked it out. I know what your big idea was!

Identity politics. How could I have missed it? Life lessons for the audience using the characters as lightning rods. Fuck-a-doodle-do, Chris – no wonder the executives who know nothing about genre programming lapped it up. This is why the Doctor has three companions, not just because it recreates the Hartnell era dynamic in the TARDIS, but because, in the absence of an ability to conceptualise exciting stories, it creates space to explore social issues instead.

The more I think about it, the more I think they were conceived with spin-off stories in mind. Take Graham, for example – not just Bradley Walsh but a cancer survivor and, until the Doctor showed up and ruined it, a happy partner in a mixed race relationship. “Rosa” was a shot of racism to the face, but it surely can’t be long until Graham finds himself in ‘60s Sheffield, witnessing first-hand local racial tensions and the struggle of those who defied the bigots to beat segregation. Maybe, given his medical history and association (his dead partner was a nurse), he’ll meet the teenage Nye Bevan and accidentally give him the idea for the NHS, or travel into the future and find the cure for cancer, only to lose it when the vial is ingested by a malicious alien. I’m loathe to share these ideas with you, Chris – they’re probably better than anything you’ve come up with.

Yasmin’s cultural origins are shortly to be touched upon in “Demons of the Punjab” but she’s also a trainee police officer, so perhaps the Doctor will take her to see the Brixton Riots or the Miner’s Strike or get two for the price of one, by showing police oppressing suffragettes. Ryan’s already met his civil rights heroes of course, but his dyspraxia may yet bare storytelling fruit – a journey to a planet where the registered disabled are an undesirable caste, perhaps? Or better yet, could Ryan meet Josef Mengele and kick him in the balls? History’s fun, kids!

Making Who relevant in a thudderingly literal way was a pitch bound to appeal to executives who don’t watch the show, but Chris, it doesn’t have to be this way – you could, you know, use forms like allegory – exploring historical problems in new and imaginative scenarios. That’s science fiction’s greatest trump card – it’s ability to use high concepts to illuminate real world problems, reminding the audience that these things can’t be safely compartmentalised as historic, but are ever present. Oh, yes, I forgot you had a stab at contemporary relevance with “Arachnids in the UK” – something about fracking and Trump, I think? I forgot to add these issue-inspired stories require characters we care about.

In my letters to Steven I mentioned a few times that multi-part stories – the serials of old, always worked better on Doctor Who. From the very beginning it was understood that in a series where the period and location change with each story, time is required to establish each set up, introduce new characters and let the story unfold. It didn’t always work, of course, but it’s still the best way to let the show breathe. This was largely forgotten by Russell Dust when the series returned in 2005, but Steven, lest we deny him the single scintilla of credit he deserves, lumbered with the episodic format (for international sales purposes), attempted to find a workaround with more two-parters and multi-episode, non-linear stories. By returning to single episodes, you’ve once again hamstrung the series’ ability to offer meaty narratives featuring memorable supporting characters.

I could be wrong, though I’m not, but I don’t think it’s just the limited ambition of your writers’ room that’s led to each episode being thin and inconsequential. It’s a by-product of a format that doesn’t afford the, er, time and space, for substance and depth. Imagine instead you’d commissioned four two-hour TV movies. Then you could think big. Instead, you’re compelled, like Davis before you, to frequently return the TARDIS crew to the home of its human occupants to add an overarching sense of continuity – like the kids periodically returning to the house from the secret garden.

After two visits to Sheffield I’m sick of it. I hope when they next go back, in a couple of episodes’ time, it will have been sucked into a time maw – just a hole in the universe. Why not test Bradley Walsh et al. in far-flung, outlandish scenarios featuring stakes we can’t predict? In “Rosa” there was no question that they’d succeed – you weren’t going to have our team accidentally take Parks’ seat, forcing her to stand, and one suspects they’ll be passive witnesses to Indian partition too. Why not take us somewhere where the outcome isn’t fixed and the challenge is to our characters’ values? Why not make them active and have them live with the consequences?

Oh, Chris – this series is so crushingly weightless and boring.

I warned you a long time ago that no one wanted a Who that was just alright. If your only ambition to is create a reliable warhorse that can be watched passively, then forgotten the next day – the backdrop to viewers watching Netflix on their phones, then you’re in the wrong job. Of course the ratings are high – you’ve created broad wallpaper for a general audience. These viewers may be many for now, but they’re soft and disengaged. Unless you give them something to invest in and talk about soon, I fear these pop cultural tourists will shortly find another distraction, while the series’ natural constituency, currently watching out of blind loyalty when many better written and less patronising options are available, will eventually succumb to boredom and indifference, and fish out their VHS copy of “Ghostlight” instead.

Don’t take this the wrong way Chris, but you’re a dull writer currently assigned, inexplicably, to head up the most versatile and unconstrained science fiction franchise ever created. The converse would be Isaac Asimov writing EastEnders. Don’t get me wrong, Chris, I’d love to see Asimov’s take on the lives of those cockney miseries, it’s the flip I can’t stand. You’re currently the man who inherited a fortune and bought a villa in Spain.

I’ll be back at the end of the series to see if you packed all the intrigue and imagination into the second block of episodes.

Yours asleep,

Ed

P.S: I note a forthcoming episode is titled “Kerblam!” (your exclamation mark). How old is the target audience now, five? And can you think of any other sci-fi franchise that cut the age of said audience in half between seasons?

P.P.S: Many have compared the P’Ting in “The Tsuranga Conundrum” to Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. I found that comparison a bit generous.

P.P.P.S: After all this, Alan Cumming is still to come. Fuckin’ ‘ell.

A Touch of the Chibnalls:

Capaldi’s Long Goodbye:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on November 5, 2018 at 12:38  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Dear Chris Chibnall: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Dear Chris,

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of this. Steven (remember him?) hollowed me out and filled the cavity with cloudy, foul smelling piss, but as I wrote to you nearly three years ago now, begging you not to take the showrunner job on account of your broad and witless pedigree, and you ignored me, I felt compelled to give my verdict on the first episode of your new series. I’d have done everything differently you understand, except the new theme arrangement and cinematography – that was great, but you know this. I suppose I could leave it there, but where would be the sense? What’s that you say, it would be infinitely preferable to reading your nonsense review, Ed? Wow, Chris – cutting. I wish your writing was that sharp.

Right, so ahead of transmission, all the talk in Wholand was about Jodie Whittaker, a choice I lamented in my second letter to you, on the grounds that she lacked that mysterious, mercurial quality that I suggested was integral to all the best iterations of the character, as instantly suggested in the debuts of Tom Baker and Paul McCann – actors who found the right tone and sensibility from the off. This, of course, was and is a gender neutral observation – there’s nothing intrinsically male about the Doctor; well, apart from his grandstanding, arrogance and taste for women hundreds of years his junior. I worried that Whittaker would play it provincial and bland, like a bowl of rustic Yorkshire broth. She’d be Peter Davison, only less so. And on first sight, that appears to have come to pass. I hate being right, Chris, that’s why it’s such a chore when it keeps on happening.

First episodes are always tough of course, but we usually get a flavour of the Doctor’s personality, even if the poor sod spends most of that post-regeneration story lagged and memory blocked. At the end of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” – a title that riffed on a film with a far more interesting, androgynous alien visitor, by the way; a true outsider and mesmerising with it (God how we miss David Bowie); we’d spent an hour in the company of an impish child who, like the over earnest club rep she sometimes resembled, was prone to overstatement. The boilerplate plot, which I understand was just a routine way of bringing the new characters together – insipid though they were, could have used a little more palpable fear and uncertainty from the new Doctor. You might have been bolder still and identified a gap in her knowledge. But instead Whittaker glibly tossed off the whole thing with cheery abandon; a characterisation that will no doubt be endearing to many, but for me was a just a bit too close to the non-entities she’d picked up in situ.

I’m sorry Chris, I know I sound despondent, but I don’t know why a show with this rich a history and detailed a mythos is compelled to reset when there’s a change of the guard, and why said return to square one must always, in the Nu-Who era at least, be a dull UK city based adventure, featuring a group of earthy, blue collar characters who meet the Doctor while facing a second-rate alien threat. Didn’t you get this gig on the promise that you’d innovate? It looks to me that you were counting on the people you made that promise to not owning televisions.

What about taking those new cameras and pointing them at a set depicting a colony in deep space, a city like Starchaser’s Toga-Togo, full of creatures and AI and things that look like Jimmy Savile? Why not have companions that show a little of the universe’s variety, maybe even challenge the Doctor’s values? What’s that – it’d alienate the newbies? Well, fuck you Chris. The show’s 55 years old, if the cunts aren’t interested in it and its history by now, perhaps they should stick to YouTube clips.

Is this a show for the whole family or not, because if it is, it should also be aimed at the adults who grew up watching it. All you need to do is tell a compelling story. If it’s good, any kids who don’t know what’s what will be compelled to find out more. When I discovered Doctor Who properly, as a teenager, having enjoyed a smattering of the original run, I went back and watched the 26 seasons that then existed in order. If you become a fan of something, you tend to gobble it up. Oh, and children are a lot more canny than you believe, by the way – they understand high concepts, adult stories. You can talk up to them. You don’t have to reintroduce everything. Half of them will have seen Game of Thrones and Altered Carbon, and lots of other crap I haven’t seen. You’re a bit like my old History teacher, who fast forwarded through the brief sex in a VHS presentation of Highlander, apparently unaware that half the class had used local tramps to buy porno mags the previous weekend.

So you barely touched on the whole change of sex thing – I suppose that was to be expected. Steven had prepared the ground so thoroughly, what more was to be said? But as gender politics is white hot right now, this was a bit of a missed opportunity. Imagine the headlines if a primetime BBC show had featured a prolonged monologue on gender dysphoria, following the Doctor’s unexpected loss of penis and testicles. She’d acquired an inch with every regeneration after all, so this de facto castration might have hit her hard. Indeed, there was no scene when the Doctor and Bradley Walsh argued about whether the Time Lord could just appropriate female gender identity, just because her cells said she could, and whether said identity, acquired as it was, constituted a parody of femininity; womanhood as imagined by a man.

Walsh was quiet on the big issues – the Doctor having skipped those formative years as a female, with attendant problems like the assignation of cultural stereotypes and discrimination, the traumas and tribulations of adolescence, dealing with predatory male sexuality and toxic masculinity in early relationships, not having to deal with oppression as a sex class, not having to worry about beauty standards and archetypal expectations like getting married and having children. One imagines he’ll judge her for roaming the universe and not settling down in future episodes, but a discussion here and a direct challenge from the new Doctor, might really have shaken things up.

And that was it, I suppose. A glossy but empty new Doctor Who, that felt very familiar, but not in an exciting way. More like a programme you’d seen years ago and remembered being quite good but when you sat down and watched it again it had nothing for adult eyes; nothing that went over your head as a child. Perhaps you’ve got lots of great stuff coming down the pipe – psychological depth, moral conundrums, impossible choices, surprise deaths, new weird and wonderful guest characters, and memorable villains. Maybe you, unlike Steven, can tell a story. But I’ve seen Torchwood, and so justifiably fear the worst.

Yours, etc.

Ed

P.S: Please don’t include stuff like YouTube in future – it instantly dates episodes.

P.P.S: “Half an hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman.” The Doctor has never been Scottish. She’d know that.

P.P.P.S: Right, so the Doctor’s got a northern accent, but why? It’s a pity she spoke before she fell, because otherwise you could have established a new precedent, that she copies whoever she hears first. And then we could have lamented that she didn’t fall into a Jamaican bar in North London circa 1974, and adopted the patois. Instead, she was a perfect fit for the area she fell into, a terrific piece of celestial luck.

P.P.P.P.S: The new companions – Yazz, Terry, Wilf – I forget their names, were very quick to believe the Doctor’s “I’m an alien” story. They didn’t even question why she sounded like she was from Huddersfield and talked about being a Scotsman. Wouldn’t the obvious conclusion have been that she was nuts and couldn’t you have mined some comedy from that? Her taking them hostage and forcing them to help – them being terrified, something of that nature?

P.P.P.P.P.S: “It’s a long time since I bought women’s clothes.” Oh yeah? When was the last time?

P.P.P.P.P.P.S: Alan Cumming coming soon? Oh Chris, you’re too early in the job to hate your audience.

The Way It Was:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time: