Category Archives: Geeky

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.

A Tribute To Star Wars

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May the Fourth be with you! Ha ha!

The Star Wars movies are some of my all-time favourite films. Of course they are – I was born in 1976, and therefore Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are some of the fundamental stories of my childhood. Not only the films either; they were the first movies that really pushed the merchandising side of film-making, and so I had a substantial collection of Star Wars toys – the first one I acquired, second hand, was one of the third-stringers, an Imperial officer who got Force choked by Darth Vader, but I moved up the ladder. Heck, I had an X-Wing Fighter. I had the Millennium Falcon!

My grandmother wasn’t impressed by all this. A lot of the characters in the trilogy are pretty much grotesque, and if I was ever ill for no apparent reason, Nan blamed Chewbacca and the others. Medically speaking this was unfair, although a couple of George Lucas’s decisions over the years have made me feel ill if that counts..

Nah, as a kid in the early eighties, it was the aliens, robots and hardware that made Star Wars cool. Nowadays it’s easy to appreciate other aspects of the films, like how Harrison Ford becomes a megastar before your very eyes (“I love you!” “I know.” is one of the coolest moments in sci-fi history), or how there seems to be a whole back-story to the whole thing (I have a friend who thinks the Expanded Universe is better than the films; I don’t altogether agree, but it’s a fair position to take), or how good the costume design in Return of the Jedi is, but back in the day it was all about comedy robots, cool spaceships, and light sabers.

That covers a lot of its appeal – it’s not a science fiction film, not in the strictest sense of the definition. Science fiction, as a genre, is about technology and scientific potentialities and their imagined impact on humans. That’s not really Star Wars. Sure it’s set in space, but that doesn’t really make it science fiction, and while the hardware is seriously cool, that’s pretty much all it is. No, Star Wars is a fantasy movie set in space, complete with naive farmhands, princesses, comedy servants, wizards, swords and magic. It’s got the trappings of sci-fi, and it owes a massive debt to early movie serials like the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon adaptations, but at its heart it’s a fantasy movie with spaceships, and I think that’s a key component of its success. Fantasy, at least in the fairy tale guise that Star Wars taps into, is a bit more accessible than full-on science fiction; I think that’s a big part of Doctor Who’s success as well.

Another reason for the success of Star Wars is the way in which it lends itself to fandom; George Lucas has given his approval to fan films like Troops (Cops with Stormtroopers, basically – you can also join the 501st Stormtrooper Legion if you want ), you can have long arguments about why Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal when he did just as much work as anyone else, and you can sing along to Livin’ La Vida Yoda if you’re feeling musical. Never under-estimate the importance of fandom fodder to the success of all things culturally geek.

A lot of this is rose-tinted glasses – there are aspects of the original trilogy that look pretty dated nowadays – but at the same time it’s hard to see many blockbusters coming along nowadays that have half the impact of Star Wars; they may make more money, but I can’t see people cosplaying Avatar or Titanic in thirty years time. Or maybe, and again this is rose-tinted glasses time, there was a moment in cinema, late seventies to mid-eighties, that saw the release of a bunch of blockbusters that caught the imagination of audiences; Star Wars, yes, but also the Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters… Star Wars, to me, just seems to be the king of that movement. Or maybe it’s just because I loved all those movies as a kid.

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That’s the key, I think – Star Wars is for kids. And, of course, for adults who can accept it’s for kids and enjoy it because of that. And yet it’s also for the kids who once watched it on BBC or ITV every Christmas, and who had all the toys; for the kids who grew up and sold those toys because they grew out of them, even though they kick themselves because of what those toys are now worth to collectors; for the kids who, somewhere along the line, realised that, actually, there’s no point in growing up if you can’t pretend to have a light saber fight once in a while.

Because, for me and for a lot of Generation X, part of our imagination will always live in a galaxy far, far away.

Look, Up In The Sky… Superman and Lois Turn 75

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I’m looking at the cover of Action Comics #1 and finding it almost impossible to imagine how people saw it back in 1938. A powerfully-built ox of a man holding a car above his head while the other figures in the scene cower or flee in terror? Who is this guy? Is he the hero or the villain? Gaudy circus performer or alien invader? Man or…

Superman has always been a part of my pop culture landscape, from the Christopher Reeve movies to Lois and Clark, from running around with my coat doubling as a cape to reading the comics as I embraced my inner geek. True story: while on holiday in Toronto, I was wearing a Superman t-shirt on a visit to the CN Tower. When the time came for my tour party to stand on the glass floor and stare down at the sidewalk hundreds of feet below, I was asked to hold a middle-aged woman’s arm as she’d be too scared to walk on the glass otherwise. That was nothing to do with me being courageous or strong, but everything to do with the symbol on my shirt.

Those early readers weren’t the only ones figuring Superman out. In that first issue, Superman works for the Daily Star, not the Planet; he can leap one-eighth of a mile but can’t fly; his powers are due to Kryptonians being more evolved, not a reaction to sunlight. Perhaps more importantly he’s more rough and ready than the character’s normally portrayed, less sci-fi and more earthy. Back in 1938, Superman had yet to become the mythic hero of pop culture epics.

April 15th 2013, and social media reels in shock as explosions tear through the Boston Marathon. Among the digital chaos of the first few hours after the bombing, a friend retweets a quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And I read that and I thought about the horror of that day and the heroism of those who ran to help the injured, and I also thought of Superman.

At least Lois was there. For all this is Superman’s anniversary, it’s also the birthday of Lois Lane. I’ll admit it; I’m a shipper. She’s the voice of humanity in the mythos, a tenacious journalist who fights for justice in her own right; the recent trailer for Man of Steel, amid all the questions about Superman’s role and identity, it’s Lois who sits there confidently getting to the heart of the matter. Heck, she’s one who gives Clark’s alter-ego a name. She’s not just one of the most famous female comic book characters, she’s one of the most iconic characters full stop. Look at the cover of Action #1 again – it’s Lois who’s being kidnapped in that car. It may be Superman’s 75th, but let’s also sing happy birthday to Lois Lane.

Talking of that trailer, there was another moment of humanity that just floored me. 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 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 Superman story is tied up with the things parents want for their children, whether you’re from Kansas or Krypton.

In a world of grimdark superheroes, it’s easy to overlook how important Superman was and is. He’s been used as a pop culture defence against Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and when Grant Morrison’s run rebooted Action Comics in 2011, Clark returned to his roots as a social crusader in a time of recession and austerity and the 1%. It’s easy to forget Superman’s relevance – after all, he’s a part of the mass media wallpaper – but while it’s easy to see him as ‘establishment’, there’s also subversion going on – he’s an immigrant, he’s working class, he’s hiding a secret and he’s an outsider.

He’s relevant, in other words. 75 years after he first picked up that car, since he first leapt into action to save Lois Lane, he’s still important, still recognised, still a symbol of heroism and justice; ask him what he wants and he’ll tell you he’s here to help.

I want to help too.