Weirdly Normal – The City and the City

The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?



David Morrissey stars in The City and the City (BBC)

Borders are a mundane daily reality for millions, yet retain a sense of deep weirdness. It’s a paradox pushed to extremes in  The City and the City, now a BBC TV serial starring David Morrissey.

China Miéville’s dystopian fantasy – if such it is – reads like a rather dull police procedural, until the final lines of the first chapter when the protagonist notices and then “unsees” what appears to be a perfectly ordinary elderly woman. It’s the first indication that normal rules don’t apply in Besźel, the down-at-heel, vaguely Eastern European city where he lives. Gradually we piece together what appears to be impossible. The city has a twin, Ul Qoma, occupying exactly the same geographical space. But nobody is allowed to acknowledge this. Inhabitants are conditioned from birth to deliberately avoid seeing it, as are their opposite numbers across the boundary. It is a brutally enforced, State-sponsored act of mass hallucination.

Okay, we think, this is weird. We are in for a wild ride here. But the more we think about it, the more parallels with everyday normality seem to appear. We play along, expecting things to become trippier, or at least to get some explanation of how this extraordinary situation developed. Yet the tone of the narrative remains defiantly mundane. Our guide, the taciturn Inspector Tyador Borlú, doesn’t bat an eyelid as he describes the day to day reality of living in a place where you walk down a street navigating around people from another city whose presence you could be locked up for acknowledging, and (a particularly haunting example) he feels a frisson of unease when he notices a familiar street of crumbling buildings reflecting back light from the glass and steel skyscrapers of its unacknowledged neighbour. The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

The best fantasy, like the best satire, knows it is best not to exaggerate too much. A grounded, intricately described world that differs from our own in just one or two respects, perhaps simply in a matter of intensity or degree, is often the scariest and most intriguing. After a while the reader starts to accept its normality and even make comparisons with life in what we collectively call, “the real world.” In fact, the real world is full of borders. Some look very odd on a map, such as the shape of Norway or Chile, but make perfect sense when natural topography is taken into account. Others appear utterly arbitrary, but developed as the least-worst solution to decades of lethal and bitter conflict that could flare up again if anyone poked the hornets’  nest. And such arbitrariness may, with the passage of time, create its own self-reinforcing visible divisions. Many years of malnutrition has left the citizens of North Korea stunted, several inches shorter than their neighbours in the South. Economic gulfs open up between adjoining communities, apparently trapping one in a technological or social time warp. Languages that were once similar become mutually unintelligible.

But borders retain their fascination, particularly ones that run directly through human communities that once were united. They remain the subtext of every unspoken, carefully navigated conversation. What seems like an absurdist joke – a house with the front door in Northern Ireland and the back door in the ROI, can quickly turn nasty. A few years ago I visited Cyprus. It was, in every obvious respect, a relaxing trip. Except I never really did relax. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place’s tragic history, the community just a few miles away that might as well be on another world. The ruined luxury tourist hotels of Greek-speaking Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta locked up and left to rot since 1974 while tourists sunbathe just yards away, has haunted me ever since.

Mieville loves to write about cities, and they don’t have to be formally politically divided to be shaped by invisible boundaries. One of the first things you learn when you visit an unfamiliar conurbation is where the no-go areas are. Cross a street, and suddenly you feel unsafe. People look at you in a different way – or are you imagining it? Your language, gestures, maybe even your clothing, mark you out as suspect. And the barriers imposed by social inequalities, even in a theoretically stable state, can be surreal. Ordinary Londoners crammed into substandard, overpriced flats walk daily past billboards depicting sterile, idealised communities of unaffordable and often empty apartments. Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll do your head in. Keep your head down, head for the tube, don’t dwell on the body on the pavement inside the sleeping bag.

In the trope-driven Hollywood narrative, there is always a band of brave rebels fighting against segregation, borders, state-imposed realities. But what if we need borders? What if the fearsome secret police were the good guys, keeping us safe? Is that really so weird? UN peacekeepers, in Cyprus and elsewhere, are armed. And which is preferable – a peaceful, stable society where the vast majority of people just want to keep their heads down and carry on undisturbed by local ethnic tensions, or one where people think and speak freely and they flare up into dangerous conflict?

Our daily reality is composed of the world view we sign up to, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes imposed by brutal State repression, more frequently by unspoken mutual consent. All that Miéville does in The City and The City is to dial up the tension and the absurdist level a notch or two. It makes for a challenging read.

canary wharf

Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)

The Branding of Nadiya Hussain


Nadiya Hussain’s first novel has just been published – is there no end to this lady’s talents? She has already proved her worth on the Great British Bake Off, released a lovely kids’ cook book and proved to be a charming and natural TV travel show host. And of course, she is justly valued as an icon of everything that inclusive, multicultural Britain should be.

She’s a delightful person and a worthy Bake Off winner. I wish her all the best; so, I am sure, does Jenny Colgan. But I do share Colgan’s reservations about Nadia’s overexposure. It’s not just Nadiya of course; it’s almost a rite of passage for people who became famous on TV for some completely different reason to produce a work of fiction – at the very least, a children’s picture book. A lot of comedians do it and in the case of the popular David Walliams, to give one example, they turn out to be pretty good. This is hardly surprising since humour is a much-loved attribute of many children’s books.

In fairness to Nadia, she’s probably in the hands of an agent by now and has only limited choice over what opportunities she doesn’t take up. And she acknowledges that she didn’t write her novel on her own. I don’t think Jenny Colgan’s showing any jealousy or sour grapes here. But she’s identifying a somewhat depressing feature of modern cultural life, one that I see daily in my work with children’s books.

Children’s fiction has always featured long, much-loved and formulaic series. But at least Enid Blyton wrote her own books. She wasn’t part of a syndicate dreamed up by marketing moguls, subsumed into a generic Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade. The marketing of Nadiya shows that branding is everything in publishing these days. The best way to get a book published is not necessarily (some would say never) to be a good writer, but to be famous for something else already. What does that actually say to children about how much we value good writing? That it’s something you get to do after you’ve done the important stuff, the stuff like being in the Big Brother house or on The Apprentice? That once you’ve been famous for fifteen minutes you have a right to be heard and to be taken seriously? Where does that leave Jenny Colgan’s child, “in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one….by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds.”

Of course, publishers would argue that they have to make money and that’s what people want. But people tend to want what they have been told that they want, by multinational corporations with agendas of their own. And any corporation has a tendency to rub the messy edges off those creative people that come into its clutches. I think books have become so brand-saturated because as a society we have stopped valuing the gatekeepers, the teachers and librarians, the arbiters of taste. In a spirit of misplaced anti-elitism we have convinced ourselves that such people have no right to impose their cultural standards on us. Voters have consistently supported governments that have presided over the running down of libraries and the stifling of creativity in schools. The result is that many people are deeply uncomfortable around books, so much so that they need the presence of a comforting character to make the experience palatable to them.

I see this in the school library all the time. At one time I was dismayed by the number of shoddily written, cheap Disney picture books that some children craved. I also confess to a deep aesthetic aversion to Peppa Pig. But my prejudices have mellowed somewhat as I’ve interacted more with children who have not grown up with a lot of books around them. For a small child, a book works best in close proximity to an adult, someone offering them undivided attention and a feeling of security and acceptance. For many children – and not necessarily poor ones – that role is now filled by the iPad or the TV. No wonder that the presence of a Disney character reassures them. And if they are lucky enough to have people in their lives who will build on that by buying them books, those adults are increasingly tempted to play safe by buying the 90th title in an interminably formulaic series that they know the recipient will like.

When I was a regular churchgoer, I became familiar with the pronouncement that God loves us enough to take us as we are, but not to leave us as we are. It does us good to be gently, persistently and lovingly pushed out of our comfort zone. Or would our political masters prefer us to stay there, marooned in our bunkers and transfixed by our screens? The best way to do that is to run down libraries, until you end up with people who won’t contemplate reading anything that doesn’t have a person from the telly on the front of it. So far, it seems to be working.

Nadiya’s lovely and genuinely talented. Perhaps a little brand-stretching is a price worth paying for her value as a positive role model in this increasingly divided society. But to misquote Arthur Miller, I congratulate her with a sense of alarm.


Planet Earth II – The Movietisation of Wildlife


Anyone involved with getting children to read soon learns to keep up with what’s on TV. This year I’ve noticed an unusual addition to the pantheon of Disney princesses and super heroes – Sir David Attenborough.

I was reading David Walliams’ picture book The Bear Who Went Boo! when instinctively I put on a breathy, slightly preachy Attenborough voice for the TV wildlife presenter character who gives the titular character a telling-off, and the kids fell about. Meanwhile, requests for animal books have been taking off. It turns out that the driver of this enthusiasm, which refreshingly seems to transcend gender boundaries (fluffy kittens vs cool scary sharks) was Planet Earth II.

One thing we librarians find ourselves doing frequently is explaining the difference between non-fiction and fiction. I tend to feel uneasy about the proliferation of guides to fictional universes that mimic encyclopaedias and dictionaries – kids are already pretty muddled about what is and isn’t “real.” The strength of Planet Earth II is that it’s taken the pulling power and authority of a national treasure to head up the most cinematic natural history series ever seen on British telly. They’ve even got Hans Zimmer to write the score, and the editing and photography intentionally mimics the qualities that make movie blockbusters so enthralling.

Most important of all of these is narrative. We all love stories. We watch sequences like the breathtaking iguana vs snake smackdown on the edge of our seats. We sympathise with the ravenous lioness but still feel sorry for the giraffe she stalks. And I defy anyone not to chuckle when the brazen monkey in an Indian city market makes off with someone’s bottle of Sprite.

Not everyone relishes this approach to natural history. Martin Hughes-Games, producer of the more factual BBC wildlife programme Springwatch, complains that Planet Earth doesn’t take the reality of wildlife extinctions sufficiently seriously. “These programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening,” he says, “The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling, fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”

That does make me wonder if he actually saw the final episode about the interaction between humans and wildlife in cities, but I recognise his point. Of course (and there may be a little envy at work here) he’s right to say that Attenborough has turned natural history into a big theme park spectacular. When people with good intentions fall out in public there is often an element of wanting the same outcomes but disputing the road map to them.

The reality is that humanity has always relished stories. It’s how we learn, not only facts but empathy. Try talking to a six year old about whether we should kill a starving leopard that attacks someone on the way home. Ask a Hulk-fixated eight year old boy if he thought the snakes were cool when they throttled the iguana, or a sensitive child hooked on Magic Kitten stories if it would be right to intervene to help the disorientated baby turtle about to die in a storm drain.  They’ll have an opinion. Take it seriously, and they may just become the wildlife advocates of tomorrow. Or at the very least, they’ll take the first steps to appreciating the complexity of human relationships, both with each other and with the other species on this planet.


The Doctor’s Precious Creature – “Hell Bent” reviewed

capaldiOne of the pleasures of fan fiction is the opportunity to rework the conclusions of story arcs that we find deeply unsatisfactory. Stephen Moffat gets to do this in canon, and very publicly. He’s particularly fond of re-imagining some of Russell T Davies’s most enraging storylines, and does so with audacity and style. The most memorable example of this was retconning the destruction of Gallifrey two years ago in The Day of the Doctor. And in last night’s finale he turned his hand to the other great tragic narrative of the RTD years – what happens when the Doctor loves one of his companions too much to let them go without a fight.

In The Winter’s Tale, faced with a dangerously paranoid king convinced that he’s being cuckolded, Polixenes remarks,

This jealousy
Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,
Must it be great, and as his person’s mighty,
Must it be violent

So ’tis with the Doctor, but for jealously read grief. This spectre always hung over the love story of the Doctor and Rose – what on earth would he do when he lost her? In Hell Bent, Moffatt follows that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion; we see a vengeful Doctor teeter on the abyss of madness, shoot one of his own people in cold blood and effectively stage a coup on Gallifrey. Those expecting Star Wars space opera were to be disappointed, however. In the second act, with the reappearance of Clara, the epic became a chamber piece. To the Doctor, the destruction of the universe was merely the means to an end; he wanted Clara back from the dead.

The change of tactic was probably the biggest weakness of the finale, and the cynic in me suspects that budget constraints also played their part (the Matrix set had a very reused look). With a bit more build up, filling in the situation on Gallifrey that gave the Doctor such confidence in his supremacy, the switch might have been less jarring. But ultimately, the Doctor tends to check his altruism at the door when he hits home turf. He might like the trappings of guerilla resistance in the badlands, but consolidating regime change isn’t really his thing.

So Clara is snatched from the jaws of death. The Doctor is going through something of an “it’s all about me” phase – that’s natural, if you’ve been banging your head on a very hard wall for billions of years on your own. He’s extremely scary, and Jenna Coleman’s acting conveys her fear overcoming relief, combined with a certain anger at the violation of her parting wishes and the Doctor’s habit of objectifying lesser species. Clara is not the type to become a player in the Doctor’s personal drama. She demonstrates compassion, but demands self-determination.

It’s impossible to view what follows without recalling the fate of Donna Noble, the point at which many of us, even his most ardent fans, turned against the Tenth Doctor. Indeed, the way that Clara turns the Doctor’s planned mind wipe back on him was one of the most strongly feminist scenesI’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Physician, heal thyself. The world is full of men objectifying women and wearing blinkers, and probably almost as full of women enabling them to do just that. Clara’s having none of that shit, and shows how far Moffat has come since creating the wish-fulfilment fantasy of River Song.

I understand the charges of misogyny levelled against Moffat, but I don’t endorse them. I think he might well be the first to admit that he struggles to write nuanced, compelling characters, particularly female ones, which isn’t the same thing. We live in lazy and strident times when people tend to confuse the inability to convey all the complexities of human diversity with the personal endorsement of prejudice. Moffat under pressure falls back on lazy stereotypes and well-worn tropes – he’s not alone in that. There were times in the 2009 Specials when RTD seemed to be capable of little in the way of dramatic development other than showing David Tennant looking sorry for himself.

Moffat has the ability to recognise his weak points and surround himself with talented people who can do a better job. Series Nine has been particularly strong in female participation, both on and off the screen. Many show-runners would have balked at giving the plum job of a major character exit to another writer; not only did he do that, but he then gave Rachel Talalay a free hand directing the finale.

He also places enormous trust in his actors. Moffat’s scripts sketch in character, so their role in fleshing out is particularly crucial. In Series 9 I think he’s been well-served in having a leading man of Capaldi’s experience and stature. Not every Doctor could have carried so much on his shoulders as silently as Capaldi did in the opening scenes of Hell Bent. (Loved the Morricone callback in the line-in-the-sand scene, by the way). This should go down in legend as the Heinz-Tomato-Soup Western of Doctor Who.

For all his warmth and moments of utter brilliance, Matt Smith never quite nailed it for me. I know he has his fans and I can see why, but I wonder, in hindsight, if he was a little too lightweight to wrest character and presence from Moffat’s sometimes formulaic scripts. Peter Capaldi has become a towering presence, inhabiting the role and showing a deep vulnerability without mawkishness and sentimentality. He also pulled a stellar performance out of Jenna Coleman – it got better and better as the series went on, and I’m sure she will remember her time with him as a career-defining masterclass in the craft of acting.

Ultimately finales are about style as much as substance, and this one delivered. Ironically, for a man accused of misogyny, it was strongest on the traditionally feminine virtues of grounded compassion, comfort and the kind of intimacy that makes it possible to say what must be said without fear or favour (a quality demonstrated by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, particularly when played by Judi Dench). Plus a subversive little dash of girl power. The universe is filling up with powerful women willing to take the Doctor on, and some of them have their own TARDIS.



Business as Usual at Baker Street (Spoilers for His Last Vow)

After two episodes of fan-pleasing emotional complexity and self-referential humour, there was a bit of a feeling of “business as usual” about last night’s Sherlock finale as ex-teacher Stephen Moffatt cracked the whip and put a stop to all this touchy-feely nonsense. He turned in a brisk, tightly plotted tale full of twists and rather short on convincing character development.

Watson, in particular, seems like a different character this week. Apparently he’s already a little bored with married life, but not bored enough to call his old friend and check whether loneliness is driving him back to the crack dens. In Moffat’s defence, this behaviour pattern is pretty consistent with John’s military background, English emotional reserve and the general male reluctance to do emotional heavy lifting. If anything, it’s the increased openness of the previous two episodes that’s the aberration.

I have no problem whatsoever believing that John has spent the last four weeks with the thought “Must call Sherlock,” niggling away at the back of his mind but constantly postponed, since to do so would open up a can of worms that could potentially wreck his marriage.

Of course, that was nothing to the can of worms that very nearly did. And, while it was certainly a lovely jaw-dropping reveal when Mary turned out to be a bad ‘un, the more I think about it, the less likely it seems that Sherlock, who thought nothing of grilling her friends to check whether they were suitable wedding guests last week, wouldn’t have had his suspicions aroused by Mary’s lack of family and friends, and done a little pre-marital sleuthing. If I still wrote fan fiction, I’d quite enjoy going AU and writing the scene where he confronts John with his findings and the wedding gets called off.

The trouble with Mary is that, with her nefarious background left hazy, it’s a tough call to feel any identification or sympathy with her – particularly as writing three-dimensional female characters has never been Moff’s strong point. Indeed, it was notable this week that all the female characters were less fully developed than in the previous two outings. Mary is now a blank slate – ironically, perhaps, very much as she was in the original. So, despite her pregnancy, she immediately becomes the less worthy rival than Sherlock for John’s heart.

I don’t want to get too far into Moff-bashing. It’s such a cliche these days – and because I don’t have a huge emotional investment in Sherlock I enjoyed His Last Vow despite its faults. Loved the mind-palace stuff, enjoyed the reptilian villain enormously, so much so that I rather regretted his demise. Lindsay Duncan’s tormented blackmail victim was a class act, we found out once and for all who bought the Teletubbies’ old place after they moved out and Moffat got to dramatise another cherished male fantasy. No, not shagging a tabloid hack. What red-blooded male, comotose and grumpy after Christmas lunch, hasn’t fantasised about someone turning up in a chopper, knocking all those irritating relatives out for an hour or two and transporting him to a James Bond-style lair?

(Incidentally, those who criticise Sherlock’s harsh treatment of Janine might care to read the ACD original, in which Sherlock proposes marriage to the blackmailer’s maid in order to get into his house).

But back to Mary, whose situation ironically echoed that of Wanda Ventham (BC’s mum,  also featured in last night’s episode) in the 1970s TV series The Lotus Eaters. Does anybody really have a shred of sympathy for her now? This story exposes her to much of the fan-hate that was so neatly avoided in The Empty Hearse, since she’s now isolated as the devious interloper and architect of Sherlock’s emotional collapse. In some ways, this whole series demonstrates how tricky things become once you acknowledge the emotional subtext that fans love so much. It’s going to be hard to return to the Case of the Week format that served so well until the Pandora’s box of UST was opened up.

Of course, all this applies equally, if not more, to Doctor Who, which Sherlock seems to resemble more and more. I am not sure that is a good thing. More confusing still, I saw a lot of RTD’s Who in His Last Vow. The ending was pure Doomsday; I was waiting to hear the immortal line, “And, John Watson, since it’s my last chance to tell you…” And then we had the trailed return of Moriarty, with its unpleasant echoes of Simm’s cackling Master in the best-forgotten The End of Time.

And so concludes a thoroughly entertaining and divisive third series. There was much to admire. The acting was uniformly superb, the writing excellent, the plotting somewhat problematic as we stray further from ACD’s clearly defined template. If there’s one conclusion to be drawn, I think it echoes Laurie Penny’s (her piece on Sherlock in The New Statesman is a balanced, well-argued read):

What is significant about unofficial, extra-canonical fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans – women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry). The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly.


I don’t think it’s quite that simple, because some writers fit and follow the Straight White Male demographic more closely than others. What results is a kind of fan-whiplash, when writers with a different angle on the fan-creator relationship pen adjacent episodes of the same show. It reminds us that fandom seeks to address what remains an unequal dynamic. The creators (usually straight white males, as Penny points out) have the power to dole out largesse, but also to withdraw it and reinstate the conventional hegemony at any time. And while this is invariably accompanied by howls of indignant publicity-generating reaction on Tumbr and elsewhere, sending their ratings skyrocketing, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Badly Done, Caitlin

Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in as Emma and Mr Knightly
Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in as Emma and Mr Knightley

“It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.–This is not pleasant to you, Emma–and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,–I will tell you truths while I can.”

Mr. Knightley chastising Emma for her ill treatment of Miss Bates
Emma, volume 3, chapter 7

I have never felt the desire to write Sherlock fan fiction. I did, however, write extensively in another fandom for several years. So I know how tender and sensitive the part of a writer’s psyche can be when dealing with the objects of their fantasy and – let’s be honest – lust. You seek out similar company because sometimes your response to characters you love, combined with the sense of helplessness when things on TV don’t work out for them, leaves you with an overflow of emotion that desperately needs sympathetic company.

To “out” yourself as a fan is more socially acceptable than it used to be and it would be disingenuous to claim that shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock aren’t in a continual, generally unacknowledged dialogue with their fan base. But it’s a sensitive area. Fanfic writers know that legally they are on shaky ground and that a certain amount of smoke and mirrors obscures the reality that, whatever they say in public, the creators of their loved shows have some awareness of their work, their sensibilities and their motivations. In the case of Doctor Who, at least, a whole generation of fans have grown up and become media professionals developing the franchise.

All this is a sensitive area, and there are things you just don’t do. Generally even hardened, publicity seeking media hacks play by the rules. And that’s why it feels so deeply wrong that last night, at a BFI screening of Sherlock, Caitlin Moran crossed a line by getting Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read out loud from someone’s mildly slashy fanfic. I probably don’t need to elaborate to the kind of people reading this why it was so out of order, but what the hell, it’s my blog and I’ll try if I want to:

  • First, she didn’t ask the writer. Okay, we all know that the legal validity of fanfic is sketchy at best. But CM is a writer herself, and she must know how it would make her feel if someone helped themselves, unacknowledged, to her creative work in public. A fanfic writer is vulnerable because they can’t demand any legal ownership of their work and its dissemination. To take advantage of that is unprofessional; the fanfic writer may be technically an amateur, but the increasing frequency of writers who began with fan works breaking through into  professional fiction, whether fan-based or general, shows that many of them are genuinely good writers and take their work very seriously indeed.
  • Second, what she did must have been excruciatingly embarrassing to at least four of the people on that panel beside her – Moffat, Gatiss and the two actors who had to read the stuff. It shows a staggering disregard for the social conventions of the occasion. It drags something extremely private into the harsh light of publicity, cheapening both the original show and the sincere intentions of the fic writer.
  • Many of us admire Caitlin Moran’s outspoken feminism. That’s why it’s all the sadder to see her make a mockery of something that, however inexplicably to others, is extremely meaningful to many women, most of whom can never aspire to the professional and public recognition she casually abuses. Did it occur to her, for example, that whoever wrote that story would probably have to face people at work the following morning? If it had happened to me I would have wanted to crawl into a dark hole and be left to die. Great, that’s really what you need with two little kids nine days before Christmas morning. And what about the writer’s marriage? She mentions on her blog that her partner was sympathetic and gave her flowers, which is nice. But not every man would react so generously to the public disclosure of his wife’s sexual fantasies.
  • After a long, tough battle, fan works (sometimes called transformative works) are on the verge of being acknowledged and accepted as a valuable contribution to popular culture. Far from being transgressive, the desire to develop and extend an existing fictional world is as old as storytelling itself. It is the modern era of corporate ownership of intellectual property by mass media that is atypical of human cultural history. If fan works are not treated with respect, professional writers and actors with the right to do so will distance themselves from fan fiction, fearing embarrassing exposure. Contracts will include gagging clauses that will set the fan fiction community back years and prevent mutually beneficial dialogue between entertainment professionals and their audiences.

So all things considered, nice one Caitlin. You crossed a line last night – you’ve become coarsened by too long spent in the crucible of public life and Twitter campaigning. You spoke out load and clear when a woman was threatened unacceptably a few months ago for wanting Jane Austen on a banknote. Maybe it’s time to pull Emma down from the shelf and reflect on what Mr Knightley would have thought about your behaviour last night.

The Twelfth Doctor is Peter Capaldi


Just before I went to the Azores for two weeks, the lovely Peter Capaldi was officially anointed as the Twelfth Doctor. Given the fractious nature of DW fandom, this seems to have been a remarkably popular choice. Certainly the appointment of Matt Smith was a lot more divisive at the time.

Nothing became Capaldi less than the way the news was announced. For crying out loud, Auntie, does everything have to be turned into Britain’s Got Talent these days? The show was a vapid, overblown mess and the less said about it the better. It must piss people off royally when they spend their lives writing really top quality drama for the BBC and don’t get a fraction of the exposure of Doctor Who. And I speak as a fan.

But Capaldi managed – just – to retain his dignity, and I’ve a feeling that will be a keynote feature of his performance. Lord knows we could do with it after Matt’s hyperactive bounding around. I think we are all ready for an older Doctor who does, occasionally, feel truly dangerous. Not in Ten’s smouldering emo way, but wearing the ancient robes of a proud, remote and inscrutable race.

It took me a while for the penny to drop that Capaldi got his first big break in Local Hero, which happens to be my all-time favourite movie. There are lines in that film that have passed into our family vocabulary (“IT HAD A NAME! YOU DON’T EAT THINGS WITH NAMES!” “It was a clean break. You can check the bones if you don’t believe me.”) Okay, it’s as much a period piece in this age of instant, portable digital communication as Audery Hepburn’s Roman Holiday, but I’ve always been a sucker for quirky, gentle humour and a strong sense of a place that is both beautiful and remote. And Capaldi…well, there was the wonderful meeting with Mac at the airport when he offers to help with Mac’s luggage and takes the briefcase, leaving him to struggle with his huge suitcase…and who could forget the look on his face when he discovers Marina’s webbed toes?

Jenny Seagrove & Peter Capaldi
Jenny Seagrove and Peter Capaldi in Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero”

But I digress. In all honesty I’ve never really got into The Thick of It – it’s not the swearing as such that bothers me but I do like to have at least one likeable person in something I’m watching (in fact that’s been a lot of my problem with recent episodes of Who, come to think of it). Capaldi broke my heart and won me over in the unforgettable Children of Earth as Frobisher, the flawed but ultimately decent civil servant who went home and shot his kids rather than have them abducted by the monstrous 456. He’s an actor of great presence and range and I look forward very much to see what he’ll do with the Doctor.

I know it upset some people that the Doctor wasn’t cast from a conspicuous minority group this time around. I think they may be saving a big surprise like that for the tricky Twelfth Generation. But there’s another reason why I didn’t subscribe to the view that casting the Doctor should be subservient to political correctness, and hear I risk making myself unpopular.

The point is, most SF and fantasy is heavily encoded with the political characteristics of its period. We do tend to forget that when shows go on for 50 years and become a fixture, but just as Star Trek is basically a Western in space and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds is about the jittery decline of imperialism, Doctor Who is a product of the long, elegaic, post-Suez sunset of Britain’s influence on the world stage. At its heart is a mixture of nostalgia and wish-fulfilment. It looks back to iconic images of London invaded by Nazi-like monsters and meeting plucky resistence, defined by Churchill as Britain’s finest hour. And it hugs closely to itself, like a hot-water bottle brandished against the cold winds of change, the illusion that a well-intentioned British amateur can save the world.

Cast in the mould of the Edwardian gentleman adventurer of private means, the Doctor has massive cultural clout and operates from a position of assumed authority, but skirts the edges of being a pathetic, irrelevant and isolated figure for all that. Ten’s tip to Martha at the start of The Shakespeare Code, “Just act as if you own the place. Works for me,” is freighted with all the unquestioned and unjustified self-confidence of an Eton education. It’s said by someone who not only is able to carry that off, but can’t conceive of anybody not being able to do so.

"Just act as if you own the place." David Tennant and Freema Aygeman in The Shakespeare Code
“Just act as if you own the place.” David Tennant and Freema Aygeman in The Shakespeare Code

Never was this clearer than when the fob-watched Doctor found himself in a boarding school in 1913, and felt right at home. Gallifrey was conceived as something very similar – sexless, communal living arrangements with beautiful buildings, emotional sterility and a veto on emotional expression. The Doctor can afford to remember it fondly because now he can never go back. He is vulnerable and adrift, his moorings gone, and as Joni Mitchell famously said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”

Classic Who exploited this abrasive relationship to the full. When he revived the franchise,  RTD made the bold decision to blow the rug away and leave the Doctor utterly alone in a postwar society that he had to figure out how to negotiate. He captured that vulnerability in his writing and it defines the RTD era, though both his Doctors interpreted the brief very differently – Eccleston by being defensive, spiky and abrasive and Ten by being needy and manipulative. Billie Piper’s presence was crucial; she was the Doctor’s eyes and ears in a new society, and the audience joined her by proxy on the journey. It was a casting choice of extraordinary boldness and did much to sell the show to a new generation – just like Rose, everyone was asking, “Who is this weird bloke – where has he been for the last 20 years?”

Moffatt has concentrated on the legend of the Doctor, and that has a hollow heart. Myths are full of symbolism, less sure on character (unless they are skilfully reinterpreted). It will be interesting to see where he goes with the dignified and patrician Capaldi. I hope PC will stand up to him in a way that, perhaps, Smith never quite felt able to do. PC has had a lot of big breaks behind him, he could walk away from Who anytime and be seriously famous, so taking on the bullshitters would leave him with less to lose. And if there’s one thing Malcolm Tucker was famous for, it was making his opinions f*****g well felt.

So, to get back to whether a PoC could ever play the Doctor, well, “never say never,” but it would involve the show having an extremely different narrative, so much so that I’m not sure it would even be Doctor Who any more. But I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong.

So far, we’ve only had one very specific take on postcolonialism. I happen to believe that DW is, in essence, a show about postcolonialism from the colonisers’ PoV, and that does make it a big ask to turn the tables. But if there’s one constant in DW, it’s the show’s ability to surprise. Both Eccleston and Tennant, under RTD’s aegis, crossed the class barrier, something that would once have seemed unthinkable. Nine was unmistakably working-class, and Northern with it – two taboos crashing down at a stroke. Ten took it off in another direction as the Converse-wearing cockney wide-boy (said to be moulded on Jamie Oliver’s persona). Smith and Moffatt seem to have re-erected some of those class barriers. But future writers might well find a way to cross the ethnic divide with the same skill, boldness and lightness of touch as RTD tackled the great British obsession of class. It won’t be on the Twelfth Doctor’s watch. But after that…well, who knows?

"Lots of planets have a North." Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in "Rose"

“Lots of planets have a North.” Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in “Rose”