Category Archives: Science Fiction

Getting Our History and Future Back: Some Thoughts on THAT Doctor Who news

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It was TV’s razing of Alexandria – the BBC, in order to save money, decided that it would be a smart idea to wipe the masters of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army and Z-Cars. Logistically it makes a sort of sense – this was an age before VCRs and DVDs and MP4s, and TV was ephemeral, made to be viewed once and once only. Culturally, however, it was a crime.

It’sDoctor Who – analysed, examined, collated Doctor Who – where this loss is most keenly felt. We don’t have landmarks like William Hartnell’s last story, or the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, or most of Patrick Troughton’s run. There’s a 106 episode hole where the sixties should be.

That changed at midnight, officially at least: nine of those missing episodes have been found in Nigeria. It’s the great birthday surprise of the 50th anniversary, and it will be celebrated as a restoration of the show’s history, but it’s not that simple.

Among fandom the show’s core texts are known as the canon, but it’s a pre-Council of Trent canon where no-one’s entirely sure what counts. And, because so much is missing, received wisdom takes hold. Stories that haven’t been seen since older fans were watching grainy black and white broadcasts at the age of seven are known as classics because of a single memorable image, or because the novelisation made it into a lot of libraries, or because an actor cites it as a favourite.

This means that fan wisdom is mutable – stories are downgraded from classic status as various fans mature or lose their influence, or, in rare instances, when a lost story is found again. Everyone held up ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ as the awesomest thing ever until it showed up in Hong Kong and everyone got to watch it. Now the perception is very different.

So the discovery of ‘Web of Fear’ and ‘The Enemy of the World’ doesn’t just restore the show’s past, it helps secure its future. Doctor Who has a fantastic tradition of fan involvement and so the community, both the people making the show and those watching it, are going to be all over this; I already suspect the production team knew what was happening, based on a least one recent story decision. This discovery doesn’t lock history down or preserve it in amber; instead it’s going to inspire debate and discussion and arguments, blog posts and cosplay. We’re going to see nine new episodes, effectively; we thought we had them pegged but now we get to see them with new eyes.

It also gives hope that there are more discoveries still to be made. After all, yesterday there were 106 missing episodes; now we’re down to double digits. It may be overly optimistic to expect more, but Doctor Who has a weird habit of defying the odds.

So happy anniversary, everyone; now let’s get ready to enjoy Yeti in the Underground again.

(Shameless plug: I’ve got more posts on Doctor Who here

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Man Of Steel: My sort-of review (contains spoilers!)

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This post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers, particularly about the ending of the film. You might not want to read on until you’ve seen the movie.

I’m sitting in the Odeon cinema in Derby, about five minutes before Man of Steel is due to start. I’ve seen the trailers, I’ve read the tweets, I’ve seen geek culture offer up almost every imaginable opinion about the film. And you know what? At this point, all I really want is for Superman to hit a bad guy with a bus.

I mean, what do I want – what do I expect from a Superman movie? He’s a pop culture icon, and because of that we develop our own conception of the character. It’s not DC Comics or Warner Brothers that define Superman, not really, it’s each of us, every die-hard fan having their own image in our heads made up of bits and pieces from comics and movies and TV and all the cool ideas we have that no-one else has thought of. Man of Steel isn’t going to live up to that – I guess the question is, as I watch a trailer for The Lone Ranger, what’s the film going to add to my Superman mythos?

The thing about Man of Steel, two-and-a-half-hours later, is that while it ‘s a Superman film, it’s not a film about Superman. It’s about the generation before him, their competing visions of the future and how those visions play out in the lives of Earth’s inhabitants. Is Zod right to want to preserve his world at all costs? Is Jor-el right to see his son as the embodiment of his own rebellion? Is Jonathan right to want Clark to keep his powers a secret? These questions drive the story more than Clark’s search for a place in the world, to the extent that at times the film feels like an extended prequel for a character study of Supes.

I hope we get to see that, because Henry Cavill is great – good enough not to be trapped in Chris Reeve’s shadow. His joy at finding he can fly is lovely – the sort of reaction Superman should have. We don’t get to see a Clark/Supes distinction – deliberately so – but I think Cavill could handle it, heading up an impeccable cast. That said, Michael Shannon’s mad-eyed intensity steals the show. Look, I thought Terence Stamp insisting everyone should kneel before him was legendary, but I’m sorry, there’s a new Zod in town and he punches his enemies through skyscrapers.

That spectacle is a real strength – this is the best superhero battle since Justice League Unlimited and that was animated. Sure the visuals are over the top, but this is a comic book movie, things should be turned up to 11. And frankly, Zack Snyder is the first director who seems to realise he should give us a reason to care that Krypton blows up, serving up some pulp sci-fi wonder and a badass Jor-el.

That’s one of the issues Snyder deals with – the other is making sure Lois doesn’t look like an idiot by letting her in on the Secret almost from the start. I could go another 75 years without seeing Lois fail to notice who Clark is again, and Man of Steel sidesteps that before you even realise they’ve done it. She’s also proactive and confident and she shoots bad guys with a death ray. Awesome.

But there’s always controversy. Normally I don’t mind that – I don’t care if Perry’s black or if Jimmy Olsen now seems to be Jenny; let there be change. But there is a moment that rips through my image of Superman and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Clark kills Zod, and while it’s to save innocents and he’s clearly devastated by it, it’s still a moment I’m uncomfortable with. Superman doesn’t kill, and while I’ve justified it to myself – it’s a set-up for a more character driven sequel, it’s the sort of thing that could fuel a future confrontation with Lex, but somehow that feels like fansplaining. I hope it’s not, especially if this is going to be the foundation for DC’s cinematic universe.

A while back, this would have been the main thing I took away from Man of Steel – I’d’ve debated it and got annoyed by it and insisted that Hollywood doesn’t get Superman. But now… Well, there’s a moment in which the young Clark has just discovered he’s adopted – that he’s not even from Earth. He turns to the man who raised him and asks “Can’t I just pretend I’m still your son?” “You are my son!” comes the reply, and that still gets me, even as I’m typing this.

Maybe it’s because I’m a new-ish stepdad, maybe it’s because I’m getting old and relating to fathers rather than sons, but… There’s just so much there, love and compassion and identity and fear, and so much of the film is tied up with the things parents want for their children, whether they’re from Kansas or Krypton. And it’s that moment that sticks with me, because ultimately I don’t want a film or even a favourite superhero that resonates with my comic collection, I want one that resonates with my life. That’s what Man of Steel adds to my Superman mythos – not just a new favourite Krypton, not just deranged superhero spectacle, not just a better role for Lois, but a moment that actually makes me relate to a story I’ve been following for years, a moment that gives voice to a bunch of feelings and hopes in my own life. That’s more than most movies offer, even ones I love.

Thank you Superman.

Thank You, Matt Smith

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So. The Matt Smith news.

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for years, and so I’ve been forced to become used to the idea of change; ever since William Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who has changed and adapted and, well, regenerated, so that when news of Smith’s departure broke yesterday evening, it was less a crisis and more another turn of the wheel. A song ends, but the story goes on forever.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a little sad; Smith’s been great and it feels like maybe he had another year in him that we missed out on, what with production schedules and split-seasons and all that behind-the-scenes stuff that Andrew Pixley will meticulously document in years to come. Smith has brought a lot to the table and it would have been nice to see more of it.

It’s funny; for all his Doctor has been at the centre of big, complex story arcs, it’s the quieter stuff I’ll miss; his fairytale-wizard-like empathy with children, his physical and social klutziness, his nerdy enthusiasm underlying his declarations that something else is now cool. I’ll remember his Doctor for telling the young Amy a bedtime story, for showing Van Gogh his legacy, for every conversation he had with the TARDIS in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, for dropping the mic before delivering an epic call to arms.

And yet there are two moments when I saw we had a great Doctor that weren’t even part of the show; Matt Smith’s one of my favourite Doctors because he can explain non-Newtonian fluids on The One Show and because he can admit to a little girl that he finds the Weeping Angels scary. There’s a sense behind both of those clips that Smith understands the part and its role in the UK’s pop culture.

Speculation as to who will play is rife, but last time this happened I was convinced it was going to be Patterson Joseph; we got someone I’d never heard of and he was great. I’m going to trust the producers and just say “thank you Matt.”

And fezes are cool.

Geek Urban Myths: Better than real

And so comedian and Doctor Who fan Toby Hadoke today tweeted some news that broke my heart:

“As there are some who still don’t believe it: I’ve just received written confirmation that Harold Pinter was not in The Abominable Snowmen!”

Okay, some context: for years a story has done the rounds of fandom, that Harold Pinter was hired by the producers of Doctor Who, not as a lauded playwright but in his other role as a jobbing actor. Yes, the man who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was employed to play a yeti-fighting monk. That is, frankly, an awesome story.

Only it’s not true. And I’m gutted.

It’s not that I want all geek myths to be true – I’m glad there’s not really a Munchkin suicide in The Wizard of Oz – but some make the world more interesting. I want Bob Holness to have played the sax solo on ‘Baker Street’; I’m kind of freaked out but intrigued by the idea that the CIA invented a nefarious arcade game. I wish Kate Bush had written a Doctor Who story under a pseudonym, and frankly it now doesn’t matter that Uncle Ben never said “With great power comes great responsibility” in the original comics, the phrase is now deep in Spider-Man’s bones.

Like any other culture, the geek community has evolved a mythology over time. Often that’s based on flat-out misinformation, but it catches on because a need is fulfilled – attaching names like Bush and Pinter to a show traditionally made on a shoe-string grants it a certain legitimacy and credibility; that’s why these stories find themselves embedded in fan culture. It’s probably worth noting that, when Neil Gaiman wrote for Who, his episode got its name from one of the show’s most notorious hoaxes. After all, reinventing mythologies is one of Gaiman’s great strengths.

All of which goes to show, sometimes it’s more fun to print the myth…

Superman, Orson Scott Card and Diversity in Geek Culture

It’s a strange thing, becoming estranged from your own sub-culture. Things happen within a close-knit community that once you’d be in the middle of, but now it feels like it’s happens to other people.

Problem is, sometimes those other people need support; that the stories and characters you love become tainted by association and bad decisions, that your community gets bruised and battered and threatens to tear itself apart.

So when DC Comics announced that their new Superman title would by written by outspoken anti-gay activist Orson Scott Card. As PR moves go, it’s been less than successful, almost immediately attracting a boycott. Do I think DC is fundamentally homophobic? No – I think they hired successful-writer-of-space-opera Orson rather than person-who-doesn’t-like-gay-people Orson, no malice intended. It’s a screw-up.

That’s the problem. And it’s bigger than Orson Scott Card.

Geek culture is often blind to the implications of the media it produces, which leads to things unravelling when people on the receiving end of those implications dare to point them out. Key flashpoints in recent years have been the treatment of women in comic books (with ‘Women in Refrigerators’ being one of the key tropes) and the grief black cosplayers get when they’re dressed as white characters. DC recruiting Card is just the latest controversy that exposes a prejudiced undercurrent in geek culture.

Part of me thinks it’s because of the small-c conservatism of the key geek texts – Superman was created in the 1930s, Lord of the Rings in the fifties, Doctor Who in the sixties, all products of eras with a less inclusive approach to society, their launch years coinciding with Kristallnacht, McCarthyism and Governor Wallace declaring “Segregation forever” in Alabama respectively. Of course their histories are going to have problematic moments; racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers during war time, a lack of decent roles for women or anyone who isn’t white. For the most part, the worst excesses of this get left behind as society moves on; unfortunately, alongside this, stories calcify around particular images and scenarios – they become iconic, in the positive and negative senses of the word.

The problem is, because geek culture holds true to these iconic texts, it creates havoc when, say, a film adaptation wants to beef up the roles of female characters or wants the next Doctor to be black. “That’s not how it’s always been,” comes the inevitable response, and so genres that should be dynamic in exploring possibilities shut down and remain dominated by white men. And while I’ve got nothing against white men (I am one), they don’t exactly give geek culture a multiplicity of voices. And where does that leave you if you’re not one of those voices? Do you get labelled a fake nerd because, say, girls can’t possibly be into comics?

This is where the ‘don’t change the icons’ excuse runs out, because the treatment of people outside the ‘mainstream’ of geek culture can be abhorrent. For a community that has historically been defined by standing on the margins, it’s capable of doing its own share of marginalising.

Superman shouldn’t be about that. More than any other superhero, he’s the one who’s defined most purely by his desire to help and protect others. He’s the guy who gets between you and a killer robot. Or a slumlord. Or corruption or abuse or prejudice. Superman helps people. That’s his job. The key moment of All Star Superman, the best work on the character for years, isn’t a gonzo sci-fi concept, it’s Superman gently and simply talking a girl out of throwing herself off a building. If Superman can’t say “It gets better” then he’s outlived his usefulness. I don’t think he has, but that usefulness has to be more than him picking up asteroids.

I don’t think for one minute DC editorial would let Orson Scott Card use one of its titles to promote a specific political stance. That doesn’t matter. Homophobia has become the elephant in the room, and the fact that Card was even considered for the role, seemingly without anyone considering that it might just be controversial, is problematic. There are already very few black and female creators working in the industry; to pick an outspoken, homophobic author to write DC’s flagship character just adds insult to injury. What does it say to gay creators trying to break into the industry? Heck, what does it say to those who are already established?

Geek culture, in both professional and fan communities, needs to take a good look at itself. Questions of race, gender and sexuality need to be addressed, (and not just by a tiny minority) but more importantly, the community needs to show respect – respect for fellow fans, respect for customers, respect for those who will love Man of Steel this summer but don’t want to buy a comic because it’s written by a homophobe. This isn’t about ideology or politics, this is about humanity.

Superman was once used to fight the Ku Klux Klan for real. We forget the power of our stories; this current controversy acts as a reminder that these characters are important and have meaning for millions of people. Superman is about truth and justice; the moment his books work against that, it’s a problem; it’s even more of a problem that people remain blind to those problems.

Geek culture needs to lose its blinders and live up to its own ideals; needs to be less of a customer base and more of a community. How we go about that will be the real test of whether comic fandom deserves to survive the years to come.