My rant about the new series of Doctor Who

I don’t want to, but I have to admit it: I hate the new series of Doctor Who. I tried not to, because that’s exactly what a betrayed fanboy would feel, and though I was a real fan of the series, I don’t like thinking of myself as a fanboy.

But I do have reasons — one all-pervading reason, in fact. There’s a quality the show has that it didn’t have before, a quality not just evident in the content and style, but in the very way it’s marketed. That quality is smugness. The new series of Doctor Who is smug.

The show’s acting (from the lead actors, anyway) is smug. It’s probably very good acting, but it doesn’t serve the drama. Rather, it seems to be trying to prove what good acting it is. The two lead actors seem so pleased with the way they can add little interpretative frills to each line, the way they can spin the dialogue to make it sound throwaway and casual and humorous (or, too often for my liking, self-righteous, which is the dominant tone of the likes of Eastenders), but the result, for me, is most definitely not a sustained narrative trying to create an overall effect (horror, or wonder, or the thrill of adventure), but merely a series of affective soundbites — emotibites, you could call them — no doubt intended to keep a jaded, emotionally sluggish audience engaged.

The show is smug in relation to its audience in other ways. It tells its audience what to feel, moment by moment. For instance, in an episode from the first series where Rose is taken out onto the top of Captain Jack’s spacecraft hovering above a blitzed-out London, she says something like: “I’m standing on a spaceship hovering above London!” The subtext of this statement of the obvious is: “Look, you stupid audience, this is a wonder moment — feel the wonder, feel it!” Not only is this treating the audience like a bunch of idiots who can’t feel anything unless it’s spelled out for them, it’s doing an injury to the deeper psychological function of the show’s drama. The great thing about any sort of drama is that it allows a viewer to interpret it in a way that’s personal to them. It’s only by doing this, by allowing the viewer to impose their own emotional concerns, that it’ll be able to have its effect — cathartic, uplifting, whatever. The difference between that and what the new series of Doctor Who is doing is the same as the difference between a laugh generated by a funny joke and a laugh that comes from someone holding up a card that says LAUGH. If you constrict a viewer’s emotional responses by telling them what to feel, you cut them off from their genuine emotional concerns and do them no benefit at all. (And I thought the above example of Rose’s spelling-out-the-wonder was bad till David Tennant came along and over-egged the wonder at almost every opportunity. He’s always saying something like, “Aren’t humans brilliant?” like that kid from The Fast Show. Who was brilliant.)

The show also has what I call the smugness of the present. This is a special sort of smugness you feel if you think the age you’re living in is so much better than every other age simply because it’s the age you live in. It’s the smugness of people who think history is over now we’ve got everything right. It’s the smugness that leads to remakes of classic movies, a smugness that says: “Of course we’ll make Psycho better this time round, because we’ll be doing it with modern technology,” or, “Of course we’ll make Dracula better this time round, we’ll be doing it with a modern sensibility,” or whatever. But here’s an example from the show. It’s the episode from the first season that had Charles Dickens in. Rose meets a Victorian-age serving maid. Almost straightaway, Rose asks something like, “Where did you go to school?” A pretty unlikely question to ask someone you’ve just met, unless you feel they might have gone to a school known to you. (Which in this is quite unlikely, as Rose is talking to a woman born a century before her, and half a country away.) The only reason she asks the question, then, is so viewers in the 21st century can feel self-satisfied at how much more enlightened they are when the serving maid answers, “I didn’t go to no school.” Oh how misguided those Victorians were! Oh how much more enlightened we are in our wonderful age of school and… school and… Oh, all those other wonderful things we have in our wonderful age! We treat our poor so much better! (We still have poor, though, so let the smugness end there.) The thing that’s wrong with this is that the whole point of science fiction taking us to other worlds is not to make us feel how much we, in our current age, have got it right, but how much we’ve got it wrong, how much further we’ve still got to go.

Another smugness that gets to me is how the show is being marketed. The Christopher Eccleston season of Doctor Who was released on DVD as “Season One”. Why? Because this new series of Doctor Who is obviously so much better than those others, it requires a whole new chronology. Those last thirty years of the show, they were B.C. This new series is A.D. We’re out of the dark ages and into the light! The messiah has come!

If only the new series was worth being smug about. It gets so much wrong. The format is too short to build up both an entirely new fantasy world and a drama set inside it, so as a result we get what I call tokenised fantasy, where you end up in situations like the end of that recent two-parter with the Beast living on a planet near a black hole, where the Doctor had to smash some vases or whatever in order to defeat it. Smash vases? It’s meaningless. It was simply a way of resolving the drama by inserting a “this story ends here” token. Tokenised fantasy. The Doctor and Rose’s are they/aren’t they relationship (modelled on a far more believable sexual tension between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files) just doesn’t work because we know it won’t ever happen, so it comes across as audience manipulation on one level and confusion as to what the characters’ real feelings are on another. The show’s style is comedic. This isn’t to say the old show didn’t have its comic moments, but when they worked it was because it was the characters who were being funny, while the world they were in remained serious, meaning the darkness they were facing within that world remained potent. (I of course exclude the Sylvester McCoy, or “pantomime”, era from this statement.) The new series can’t take itself seriously, almost like it’s embarrassed to be dealing with the vivid emanations of its writers’ imaginations. You can joke about fantasy, but if you don’t at the same time allow yourself to value what the fantasy’s about, to take the underlying drama seriously, you’ll gain nothing from it. It’s like all those awful stories that end with it “just being a dream”. If it’s “just” a dream, you don’t have to take it seriously, and all that darkness within you, well, you don’t have to take that seriously, either, you don’t have to face it, you can just let it boil away and devour you from the inside, nice and slowly. The new series of Doctor Who wants to come across as non-threatening; as a result it comes across as fluff.

know the old series of Doctor Who wasn’t perfect. It’s almost a rule that even the best stories were flawed by at least one really awful moment (the giant clams in Genesis of the Daleks, the fluffy rat in The Talons of Weng Chiang), but this was because of their tight budget. Knowing they weren’t able to produce something to rival Hollywood’s Most Expensive, they were forced to make sure they got the tone right. They quite literally couldn’t afford to be smug.

I could go on and on, but I’m sure I’ve embarrassed myself enough for the moment, betrayed fanboy that I am. I’ll go away now and mumble to myself in the corner.

But — alright one more thing — the music. The music. The old Doctor Who theme tune was an invitation to another world. It was weird, frightening, mysterious. It was numinous. The new music is an invitation to curl up with a cushion. It’s multi-layered, beautifully produced, ever so correct. It’s technologically smug. And sterile.

Alright, I really will shut up now.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

matheson_iamlegendEvery so often when I finish a book, I give a little nod and think, “Yeah, this could be a read-in-a-day book.” This is something that goes back to when I was a kid — when, that is, I was a lot more likely to actually have a whole day to dedicate to nothing but reading — though I think it was Garen who was the first to actually perform the feat, by getting through Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth in a single day. Naturally, I felt the need to rise to the challenge; my first book-in-a-day was Doctor Who and the Robots of Death. Since then, I’ve accumulated a short list of titles that can, if the need arises, be called on to be read in a single day.

Now, a read-in-a-day book doesn’t just have to be a short book. In fact, it shouldn’t be too short, otherwise reading it one day doesn’t really mean much. (The Mr Men books are out.) It has to be a book just long enough that reading it really does take most of a day. The most important thing about it is that it should really call out to be read in one day. In other words, it should be exciting, compelling, and absorbing.

I’m happy to say that Richard Matheson’s SF/horror classic, I Am Legend, is a definite addition to this category. The reasons:

First off, its basic premise. Robert Neville is the last human alive on a near-future Earth whose population has been turned into bloodthirsty vampires. Simple, immediately dramatic, and definitely appealing to my particular hunger for man-versus-monster situations (AlienThe Thing, etc.). (I’ve also had several dreams of being in a similar situation, which is always a plus point.)

Secondly, its prose is clear, but not so simple as to be boring. I’ve been reading some Hemmingway short stories recently, and I thought I detected a bit of influence there — though maybe that can be said of all mid-20th century American fiction, I don’t know. Anyway, the images flick off the page as effortlessly as frames in a film.

Thirdly, the story keeps moving. In some cases, there are the situations you just know, from the premise, are going to have to happen. For instance, we know at some point Robert Neville’s just going to have to get caught outside his vampire-proofed home when the sun goes down; it happens. It’s no surprise, but it’s still thrilling. Then there are the turns you don’t expect, and for me, this includes the ending, which I won’t give away, but I will say it was definitely a more intelligent conclusion than you’d expect from a pot-boiler. So this book, as well as being thrilling and readable, is also intelligent.

Thrilling. Readable. Intelligent. The perfect ingredients for a read-in-a-day book.

I Am Legend. I recommend it

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black

mantel_beyondblackI spent most of Sunday reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which I bought back in December of last year, because of the Philip Pullman quote on the front: “One of the greatest ghost stories in the language.” Once bought, it sat on my to-read shelf for about six months while I furiously disbelieved Mr Pullman and regretted buying it. It’s literary fiction — how can it be a great ghost story? Literary fiction most often doesn’t do stories, let alone ghosts, and when they do, they have to be all ironic and meta-para-textual about it.

But I saw Hilary Mantel interviewed on BBC2’s Culture Show a few weeks ago, and felt sufficiently re-enthused when it turned out she’d seen something like a ghost when she was a kid, so I picked up the book and gave it a go.

However, I didn’t spend so much of Sunday reading Beyond Black because it was necessarily page-turning. (It is well written, and quietly humorous.) Rather, it was because the middle section was a bit dull plot-wise and I wanted to get it over with so I could start Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. However, it did at last repay the effort, as the ending provided a real sense of chill, as well as the possibility of emotional release for its long-suffering heroine, the psychic and medium, Alison Hart. (Real name Alison Cheatham. “I changed it,” she says. “Think about it.”)

The story really gets going when Alison’s live-in manager/business partner, the non-psychic and somewhat sour Colette, suggests they write a book to “flog” at the various psychic fayres and gigs Alison makes her living from. Taping interviews with Alison proves problematic, as her voice can sometimes be drowned out, on playback, by all sorts of whistles and whoops and other ethereal noises. But Colette pushes on, and we start to hear of Alison’s awful childhood. (The full revelation has to wait to the end of the book, as certain parts are a mystery to Alison herself.) Neglected by her prostitute mother, sexually and physically abused by the coterie of male hangers-on (all of them petty criminals) — this, most of all, is what haunts the sensitive Alison, as well as the feeling that she herself did something terrible, which has driven her, all her life, to try to do something equally good to balance it out.

Though humorous, it’s hardly a feel-good book. The language is generally soaked in a feeling of the drab futility of things, the essential difficulty and lack of fulfilment of life. But what came through for me was Alison’s faith in human nature and the need to do good despite all the wrong that has been done to her. The central idea, of Alison as a medium surrounded by so many spirits of the dead, is really used well by Mantel to bring out the emotional truth of her main character’s situation.

Worth it in the end.

A Rough Guide to Asian Horror

Having just watched Dark Tales of Japan, my 15th Asian horror DVD, I thought I’d provide a roundup of what’s good and what’s not in this sub-genre. I’ll start with the best:

Although obviously lower in budget than, say, the US remake (The Ring, 2002), Ring (Ringu, 1998, Japan) works because for the most part it keeps its horrors subtle, and when they aren’t subtle, they’re often surreal, thus bypassing the stock responses of a jaded genre audience by simply being so strange and new. The cursed videotape itself is a perfect example. When you get to see it, you really feel what the protagonist Reiko feels: first of all a startled, “Was that it?” Then it sinks in. “Oh my god, I’ve just watched it… But what did it mean?” There’s a real build-up to the central terror, without the usual teen-horror necessity of providing cheap jump-thrills at set intervals. It has some genuinely chilly moments. The most famous, when the terrifying Sadako comes for Ryuji, struck me as being both horrific and beautiful at the same time, something I’ve only ever experienced before when watching H R Giger’s monster uncoil out of the darkness of the escape pod at the end of Alien. My one criticism is the film’s reliance on one of its main characters having psychic powers, which distracts from the central horror, making it feel less universal, less threatening to the (presumably non-psychic) viewer. But fortunately it isn’t foregrounded enough to really impinge on the film. The sequels, Ring 2 and Ring 0, are no way near as close to the power of the original. If you’re going to watch just one Asian horror, make it Ring. (The US remake overcomplicated the plot and took all the subtlety out of the main emotional theme of neglected childhood. Avoid!)
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If you’re going to watch one more Asian horror than Ring, choose from either the South Korean A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) or Audition (1999, Japanese). Both stretch horror in the direction of the subtle and surreal; both are also shocking and bloody. Of the two, Audition is the more extreme, though anyone watching the first half may think they’re in the midst of nothing worse than a slightly odd but gentle family drama, in which a middle-aged widower is encouraged by his son to find a new wife. His best friend suggests going through the casting process of an invented film to find a mate. Then, suddenly, halfway through things just go weird. A man in a bag. A severed tongue flapping on the floor. Cheeswire and ankles… A Tale of Two Sisters, on the other hand, is a bit more human. Two sisters return to their family home after a stay in some sort of institute. But the family, including a verging-on-a-breakdown stepmother and resigned, defeated father, have obviously got secrets, and the pressure of things not said gets unbearable, till it breaks out in horrific moments and strange terrors. A Tale of Two Sisters is stylish and mysterious, where Audition is like a nice romantic dinner followed by a spiked sledgehammer to the back of the head. Take your pick.

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Where to go from there? I’ll be briefer from here on:

The Eye (2002, Hong Kong) has some really spooky effects, as a blind girl gets a cornea transplant that allows her to see the spirits of the dead. Plotwise, so-so.

Ju-On, or The Grudge (2000, Japan) is a sort of ‘J-Horror Greatest Hits’, being basically a series of spooky moments cludged together in a haunted house. If you don’t care about plot, but want to see a few low-budget chills, it’s a good one. You could just as well see the Hollywood remake, by the same director. There’s not much to choose between them.

Inugami (2001, Japan) is a slightly more serious attempt at marrying drama with horror. Its protagonist, Miki Bonomiya, is cursed by a violent Inugami, or dog-spirit, which is reawakened when she falls in love with a new-to-the-area teacher. The emphasis is as much on how the curse turns her into a social outcast as the horror itself.

Acacia (2003, South Korea), has a few chilly moments but loses its impact when it can’t decide whether to be a thrilly horror or supernaturally-tinged family drama.

Shikoku (1999, Japan) has a young woman returning to the village of her childhood to find her friend has been dead for several years. The friend’s mother, a sort of priestess or medium, has gone insane and is working towards bringing her daughter back from the dead. Not bad, not great.

Dark Water (2002, Japan) was directed by Ringu‘s Hideo Nakata, but, although moody, doesn’t have the thematic substance to really take its chills into the sort of horror you can feel in your bones. This is another one that’s been remade in Hollywoodland, but I haven’t seen the remake yet!

Isola (2000, Japan) has the wonderful subtitle “Multiple personality girl”. One of those personalities, of course, turns out to be a vengeful spirit. Again, pretty much standard stuff.

Uzumaki (2000, Japan) is set in a village whose inhabitants start to become obsessed with spirals in all their forms (the shell of a snail, the whirling of a washing machine). More surreal than your standard Asian horror, but without a real emotional core to the horror.

Phone (2002, South Korea) again has spooky moments but nothing to really grab you, and then the plot just gets too improbable and gothic. It’s the sort of horror film you know just had to be made. Someone just had to say, “I know, let’s have a horror film featuring… A haunted mobile phone!” Yeah. Let’s.

Dark Tales of Japan (2006) is a bit different, being a compilation of short horror tales taken from, I think, a TV horror series. Standout moments are the giant demon head that suddenly appears in the corner of the room, and the final tale whose protagonist gets stuck in a lift with three very peculiar individuals.

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