Friday, November 13, 2009

Z-Bomb Casualty

My "talking to strangers" thing has rather unexpected consequences.

5th of September, 2009. I've just attended an event so geeky that I can barely bring myself to speak of it, but it's enough to say that very few women were in attendance, and that it was held in the basement of London's Hilton Metropol. The Hilton Metropol, as the name suggests, is one of the capital's chicest and most modern hotels-cum-conference-centres; the basement, as the name suggests, indicates that the management doesn't see Our Sort of Person as being a desirable customer. We can be there, if we pay. But we probably shouldn't hang around on the upper floors, in much the same way that Mutts shouldn't try to enter Skybases.

But it's eleven o'clock at night, and I'm on my way home, and I'm slightly tipsy. And I'm standing on the pavement outside the main entrance to the Metropol, finding my bearings in the night air, or at least trying to remember which way the nearest tube station is. I've just about figured it out when I realise that a second individual is hovering a couple of yards away from me. He, too, is standing quite still. But whereas I'm turning my head from side to side, considering the "this way might be quickest" and "this way is slightly longer but leads to savaloys and chips" option, this other man is… really still. So I have to admit, it's rather impressive. He's young, black, well-dressed (leather coat over a suit, which is a little obvious for my tastes, but so easy to pull off that you can tell he's thought this through), with a close-shaved head and dark glasses. He remains still as I notice him: so still, in fact, that it looks as if he's been superimposed onto the background. Admittedly, I've spent the day amongst nerds, but even so… even so, he looks as if he doesn't quite belong in this picture. In earlier times, I would've sworn that he'd been CSO'd onto London, a bit like a puppet dinosaur.

And I'm rather drunk.

'Excuse me,' I find myself saying to him. 'Are you real?'

He tilts his head towards me, puzzled, but doesn't speak a word. I find myself staring into the blackness of designer shades. At night? Who the Hell wears designer shades at night…?

Suddenly, it clicks. Or I think it does.

'Oh!' I say, rather too enthusiastically. 'Are you a bodyguard?' This would explain so much: very rich people stay in the upper reaches of this hotel, and his absolute calm gives him the air of a Beefeater gone "urban". I'm convinced that this is a reasonable explanation.

'No,' he tells me, flatly. 'I'm Jay-Z.'

Hmm. Instinctively, I find myself squinting, because that's what I do when I try to access my long-term memory (yeah, it's an affectation, because that's what we used to imagine future-androids doing when they were calculating things). Now, I gave up on pop music in 2001, and I've only skimmed its surface since: those who ever read the Top Forty Countdown will know that it was the work of someone who just saw bits rather than involving himself. All I remember of Jay-Z is a record that sampled the "Hard-Knock Life" song from Annie in the early 2000s, yet I've seen his name reported in so many "entertainment news bulletins" since then that I know he must be a big player these days. (Since this encounter, I've realised how big. Alan Yentob's documentary about him was broadcast a week later.) What can I say, though?

The answer is, as ever, to slip into hyper-English.

'Ahhh,' I tell him. 'You're that rap fellah I've been hearing about.' (N.B. Yes, I'm afraid I actually say "fellah".) 'Well… I'm afraid I don't know much about your kind of music. But I've heard good things. So… I hope you enjoy our country.' And I bow politely, like a German prince in a Technicolor adventure-movie about Old Ruritania.

Jay-Z is obviously not familiar with this genre, and remains puzzled-looking, although a slight furrowing of his brow suggests that he's wondering if some bizarre British custom requires him to bow back. I hurriedly turn around and huffle off, instinctively choosing the "savaloy and chips" route.

I'm halfway along the street, towards the corner around which pasties lie, when I hear an angry shout of 'HEY!' from behind me.

I turn. Storming towards me, alone but taking up the full width of the pavement, is a man with none of the still superiority of Mr Z. Also black, also with hewn follicles, but middle-aged and with the sense that he makes up for in width what he lacks in height. He pumps his muscular arms back and forth as he approaches my frozen mass. This doesn't look like a bodygaurd; it looks like the kind of person who might be a shady friend of a bodyguard, but who specialises in dumping things in the river. In concrete boots.

Actually, I'm wrong here. He's a member of the hotel's security staff, who wastes no time in charging up to me and informing me that the police will be called if I "harass" the hotel's clientele again. Under his suit, his muscles twitch in such a way as to suggest that "police" is a euphemism.

There are many things I could - maybe should - have said at this juncture. I could have pointed out that I'd been talking to complete strangers in his previous hotel all day; that I'd met a man in the lift who'd been so harried while coming down from the "posh" levels that I'd helped him to carry his luggage to his car in the basement; that I'd had a long and interesting conversation with two female patrons of the Metropol in the hotel bar, about the effect of cinema on 1930s European art; that on at least two occasions that day, I'd pointed guests to either the toilets or the lifts in a generally altruistic way. Alternatively, I could have questioned the idea that he might call the police to deal with someone who was walking away from the hotel and clearly going home. I could have asked whether all the hotel's guests - including, to an extent, myself - were protected by this over-zealous security service, or just the famous ones. And yet, confused by the last few minutes' worth of information, what I actually say to him is: 'Flaaah baah-baah fuff. Naaah… ruh bububububuh buhhh.'

The security guard informs me that this doesn't matter (implying that he understood what I was saying, which is more than I did). He repeats his warning. I let my mouth open and close for a while, then decide to go 'pwuuuuh' and turn away.

At the corner, the stupidity of all this finally dawns on me. I pause in mid-step. Did that just happen?

I look over my shoulder. I'm now some distance from the security guard, who's schlomping his way back to the hotel, presumably to tell Jay-Z how good he is at scaring off stalkers (especially if they're already moving in the right direction). Yet through either chance or paranoia, I turn around at exactly the moment that the guard looks over his shoulder. Seeing that I've stopped, he swivels on his foot, and begins following me up the road again. This time, he's swinging his arms in deliberate mimicry of a bipedal rhino, making it clear that he'll bloody thump me if I don't stop bothering the paving-stones where his celebrity charge happens to be.

I look down, and shake my head incredulously. Partly because this is how I actually feel, but mainly because I sense that he'll get less of a kick out of beating up a sad-looking intellectual.

Around the corner, once the guardian has left me alone, I find a shop that sells food. Not actually savaloys, but things that can be heated up in an on-site microwave, plus the Lucozade I'm going to need quite soon. The proprietor of the shop seems rather hip, in terms of modern pop-culture: I judge this from the fact that when I walk in, he's doing that friendly knuckle-knock with a local Hoodie.

After the Hoodie leaves, I take my foodstuffs to the counter. While the shopkeeper's entering them into the till, I say to him: 'You know that Jay-Z?'

'Oh, yeah,' he says.

'Is he actually… any good?'

He looks non-committal, even as he's running the Lucozade over the digi-gizmo that reads barcodes. 'Yeah,' he says, not quite sounding convinced. 'Yeah, he's okay. He's married to that Beyonce, isn't he?'

Is he? I didn't know that, but there's a special irony here. You may recall that I said I gave up on pop music in 2001, and one of the key reasons for this retreat was that the mode of the age turned out to be the hideous squawking noise made by Destiny's Child. The first time I heard "Single Ladies" (which, I've been informed, is the most 2009 thing made in 2009… this is why I'm insisting on living in the past), I was at the rear part of a department store, and I literally ran a hundred yards to the exit in order to get away from it. No, I'm not exaggerating. It's like having nanites build cheese-graters inside your inner ear.

I share this overall sentiment with the hip shopkeeper.

'Hah,' he says. 'Good job you didn't say that to Jay-Z. Then the security guy would've really done you over.'

Which, I suppose, is true.

I can at least find a certain satisfaction in the thought that I was the one who asked Jay-Z whether he was real; furthermore, I might claim bonus points for talking to the man as if I were Jon Pertwee. But on getting home that night, I rang my ex-girlfriend, thinking that this would be a grade-A ;pop-culture anecdote. It turned out that on this particular evening, she was in her flat with another of her ex-boyfriends (one with whom I went to college, although the Venn diagram is too complex to bother with here), and both of them seemed rather unimpressed. Why…? Because, as he wasted no time in informing me, the ex-boyfriend in question is going to be an extra in the remake of Clash of the Titans. I didn't even know there was going to be a remake of Clash of the Titans, but my rapper-irritating antics are surely less impressive than this. We nerds know our priorities.

So I'll just say this. I spent the next few days in a colossal sulk, not because of Jay-Z or because of the Clash of the Titans thing, but because I couldn't stop thinking of that poxy security guard. If you read this blog-site quite often, then you may remember how insulted I felt after I was given the brush-off by Ian Levine: again, not because I desperately wanted to know such a person, but because of a level of rudeness I find unconscionable. He simply refused to speak to me, apparently because he thought I wanted something from him, when in fact I was just going to say "we're completely mismatched, but hi". Likewise, the security guard shoved a spike through a certain delicate part of my dignity, not only because of the stupidest threat ever issued - "you're walking away, so I'm going to call you back and say that you should walk away or I'll call the police to make you walk away" - but because h genuinely thought I knew and cared who Jay-Z was. What, do I look like I've got too much testosterone and a barely-concealed misogynist streak…?

Plus, I've been singing "It's a Hard-Knock Life" ever since. But the hook is technically from a musical, so he can't claim any credit.

Yep, I was right all the time. People with power are hideous, but worse still are the people who hang around near people with power: once again, I remember Paul Cornell haranguing me because of the way my "followers" were behaving on the internet (this was before I even had access to the internet, you understand), and his sheer lack of comprehension when I told him that I didn't want to have any followers. We can all learn lessons here, not least because some of the silliest behaviour amongst Doctor Who tribes over the last twenty years has been a result of acting like an offensive security guard. Paul? This isn't a feudal state where you have to "bend the knee" to the most popular writers, so stop it. Moffat? You're not going to make any interesting TV by sucking up to a big gay producer or by supplying fangirls with things that might make them go squidgey for you, so stop it. Jon Blum? You're not going to get hired by the TV series by defending every single thing BBC Wales does, so stop it. No, really, stop it. You sound like an arse, and everybody's laughing at you behind your back. And me in 1999…? You're not going to get into telly by lying to people who write terrible fiction, so stop it. Oh, you did. Good. You don't have to positively insult them, mind you, but… no, whatever you like. All power is rubbish.

In Doctor Who, of course, all security guards are idiots (except for the one in "Dragonfire", who's deliberately ironic). Yet that doesn't stop us being more like them then the "nice" characters. Elsewhile, Jay-Z himself appeared at a 9/11 Memorial Concert less than a week after our encounter, during which he encouraged the crowd to 'make some noise' for the dead of the terrorist attacks. Jesus, what a twat! Now I wish I had harassed him.

I don't think you're ready for this jelly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Captain Jack's Guts

In which Lawrence Miles responds to the letters about Torchwood: Children of Earth in last week's Radio Times, and uses their entrails to divine the past and future of Doctor Who.

Let's begin with the RT's letter of the week (which, as we all know, wins a charming BBC-endorsed digital radio with 1950s moulding).

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Dear Radio Times,

I've been a Torchwood fan from the start...


_________________________________________________________

Then your opinion can be of no intellectual value. Next!

_________________________________________________________

…how can a drama be gripping for a week, then throw it all away? It was heartbreaking to see a good premise and fine acting wasted on an "in one bound they were free" solution.

_________________________________________________________

Dear God, man, where have you been for the last four years? Anyone would think you'd never seen a drama by Russell T. Davies before. Were you not paying attention when the last-ever Dalek army was disintegrated by Billie Piper's time-space orgasm (arguably what the conclusion of "The Parting of the Ways" was really all about, if you interpret the whole of Season One as an unrequited love affair… call it "The Fire in the Girly-Place", if you will)? Or when the other last-ever Dalek army was sucked out of the universe by background radiation from a place where nothing exists, not even radiation? Or when the other other last-ever Dalek army was defeated by Catherine Tate fiddling about with some wires? And that's without even mentioning the climax of "Last of the Time Lords", in which the Doctor rewinds time by flying around the planet very very fast, or something.

As we should all have gathered by now, Russell T. isn't primarily a science-fiction writer, at least not in the most pedantic sense. SF is hung up on the details of how the machinery works, but he only cares about the people. Therefore, it's reasonable to hit the reset button as long as there's a human cost, whether it's the death of the Best Ever Doctor or an almost Biblical child-murder. Which brings us to the real nub of things…

_________________________________________________________

I seriously wonder whether the harrowing ending, in which a child died horribly, should have been broadcast. For the first time ever I was reduced to tears watching a TV programme.

_________________________________________________________

Whooooah Nellie. Let's pause to consider what this correspondent is actually saying. He's complaining that a drama programme - and, furthermore, a tragedy - actually provoked an emotional reaction. I'm sure you can see the oddity. Isn't a few minutes' blubbing just a sign that the programme worked…?

Let's not be in any doubt, the controversy about the child-exploding finale (if there really was any controversy) had nothing to do with "violence on television": the slaughter of Jack's firstborn grandson was too far from any real-world agony to leave a bad taste in the mouth, and a long way from graphic, unless you seriously believe that nosebleeds shouldn't be shown on TV. But modern drama, or pretend-drama, is about making the audience feel comfortable rather than affected. This has always been true of the commercial channels, yet now even the BBC's mandate is to provide the viewer with "cosy" rather than "challenging". It's a truth of modern television that despite the liberalisation which has allowed men to kiss each other in prime-time and characters from The Wire to mumble "fuck" every twelve seconds for absolutely no reason, the cod-drama programmes made circa 2009 are far more limited / limiting in their content than those of the 1970s. You know the bit in I, Claudius where Caligula does that thing with his sister? Yeah, you know. That thing. Could that be shown - or, rather, suggested - on BBC TV today? Almost certainly not. It isn't comfortable viewing. And for a Corporation that's increasingly made to feel aware of both the ratings and government (dis)approval, an uncomfortable audience makes an uncomfortable drama department. Ergo, programmes are designed to engender a sense of warming numbness, like a plate of chips at the end of a cold day. To the point where viewers actually start complaining when they feel something.

I've occasionally noted my approval of Waking the Dead on this blog-page, particularly those episodes written by Declan Croghan, whose ability to bring a kind of nightmarish magic-realism to a standard prime-time format should surely put him on any producer's list of Writers to Try Out on Doctor Who (consider the episode "Wren Boys", which is a bit like CSI in the style of The Wicker Man, and features the fit one from "Blink" as an additional bonus). The reason is that Waking the Dead is one of the few dramas still prepared to take the viewer out of his or her coddling-space. As I've mentioned before, the episode "In the Sight of the Lord" involves a murder case that stretches all the way back to the 1940s, and attacks our sentimentalised version of the Great British War Years by focusing on the atrocities carried out by English soldiers in the field. We're told, for example, about a group of squaddies cutting the genitals off a German soldier and forcing him to put them in his mouth. The repugnant Chibnall-era version of Torchwood often brought this to mind, and not just because of the sensation of gagging on bollocks. Torchwood tried to sell itself as a "grown-up" sci-fi show, and yet despite a superficially similar format to Waking the Dead (just try imagining Trevor Eve as Captain Jack…), it never would've dared risk audience disapproval in this way. The supposed point of science fiction is that it's meant to go further than conventional drama, but Mark One Torchwood never had the - excuse me - balls to even go as far as a mainstream detective programme on BBC1.

Hardly surprising: after all, Torchwood was deliberately contrived as a "Cult TV" series, not a drama series. This is why a guest appearance by James Marsters was thought to be more important than consistent characterisation, and why horribly misjudged story-arcs were thought to be more important than the actual stories. The gulf between Cult TV and Proper Drama is a vast one, and it's worth remembering this now that the Radio Times has given us our first official preview of Doctor Who 2010. I've already suggested that Moffat's role in the casting of Matt Smith was a colossal act of cowardice, a way of keeping the audience on his side by giving them Tennant Junior rather than anyone more controversial / unexpected / interesting. Likewise, the decision to dress him up in what the RT rather desperately calls "geography teacher chic" smacks of the same play-it-safe, Doctor-by-numbers strategy that brought us the TV movie, in which the Doctor's "character" was defined purely by stuffing a pretty-faced English actor into an Edwardian jacket. But more worrying is the reappearance of Professor River Song, the most cynically-engineered love-interest since… well, since Moffat's last one, to be honest. It's worrying because she's been foisted on the viewer as a Major Character in exactly the same way that Lwaxana Troi was foisted on Star Trek fans, or that Joxer was foisted on viewers of Xena: Warrior Princess for more than a year after he stopped being funny. See also the entire last season of Buffy.

This is a sure sign of Cult TV, and it's something that Russell T. Davies largely avoided, at least until the interdimensional wank-fest of "The Stolen Earth". One of the reasons Doctor Who went off the rails in the mid-'80s was that John Nathan-Turner stopped making a television programme per se, and started making a continuity-package to satisfy the kind of people he met at conventions (this way lies madness and "Attack of the Cybermen"). Why did he do this…? Because he just wanted to be liked. And Moffat, as we’ve already learned, desires nothing more or less than to be adored by his audience. Alienating them is simply beyond him. Especially if they're redheads.

And as if to underline this question of "comfort", the next letter reads…

_________________________________________________________

…I was shocked, even betrayed. Russell T. Davies transformed our hero Jack into a monster… I wonder how a writer can do this to a character both adults and children adore.

_________________________________________________________

We'll skip over the weapons-grade-obvious point that Jack has always been a dodgy geezer, not only because of his criminal tendencies in "The Empty Child", but because he was introduced to us as someone who can casually treat a mass-death like the eruption of Pompeii as a business opportunity. The bigger point here is that a large section of the audience, the section which Doctor Who is now so concerned about offending, wants to be able to see its central characters as definite hero-figures. Even though we know there's nothing more tedious.

At this point, let's side-step into the old faux-moral debate about the conclusion of "Remembrance of the Daleks". It's been argued - for example, by my Magic Bullet employer Alan Stevens, in those rare moments when he's not 'phoning people up and engaging them in two-hour conversations about Blake's 7 - that the Doctor's cheerful blowing-up of Skaro is a moral aberration which contradicts the ethical grounding of most of the rest of the series. The trouble is that this Doctor = Absolute Decency argument only holds water if you seriously believe the drivel that Gerry Davis puts into the leading man's mouth during "The Moonbase", which portrays the Doctor as a well-disguised superhero who believes that evil communists 'must be fought'. (All right, he's technically talking about Cybermen at the time. But Davis saw Doctor Who as an internationally-exportable adventure series, little more than a spy show with SF elements, so the monsters on his watch become indistinguishable from commie thugs in The Man from UNCLE or The Champions.) Davis widdled all over the heterodox, xenophiliac version of the Doctor promoted by Lambert, Wiles, Tosh, et al, i.e. the interesting version. In the script of "Remembrance", Ben Aaronovitch goes out of his way to establish that Skaro is the Daleks' 'ancestral seat', so its destruction is meant to be like blowing up the Fuhrerbunker rather than dropping the A-Bomb on Japan. But even if that weren't true, even if the Doctor is crossing a terrible moral line, it still wouldn't bother me much. Why? Because I don't necessarily want the central character's values to be the same as my own.

Indeed, one of the most alarming things about the Tennant era is the way the voice of the Doctor has become the voice of the liberal-minded early-twenty-first-century viewer. The ideals he represents are the ideals of those in the audience who believe themselves to be generally "good" human beings, on the grounds that they occasionally recycle and don't use the n-word. This explains his ludicrous, self-contradictory arguments against the American death-nerd in "The Sontaran Stratagem" (which leave us with the impression that it's nice to care about the environment, as long as you don't seriously do anything about it), and why "Planet of the Ood" sees him apologise to Donna for taking 'cheap shots' when he asks her the only sensible question in Season Four (because slavery is wrong, but it's apparently even more wrong to make the viewers feel anxious by pointing out that they're supporting child labour whenever they shop at Primark). If, like me, you feel that the prime mover in Doctor Who isn't good-versus-evil but the ability to see things from an alien point of view - a theme that's been there ever since the beginning, even before "The Sensorites" set the pattern for humans-meet-alien-culture stories - then it's surely quite right that the leading man shouldn't have exactly the same moral stance as ourselves. Actually, he should probably be going out of his way to challenge it. So what went wrong?

Once again, what went wrong is the desperate urge to keep the audience squirm-free. Beyond the confines of Doctor Who, this has led to a culture of drama in which all goodies are good as we see it, while all baddies oppose the basic freedom to choose the colour of your iPod. By default, protagonists now have "issues" which might occasionally make them behave in out-of-character ways, but we're never in doubt that they share our world-view. They can never be racist, sexist, or homophobic (that's the baddies' job), yet nor should they ever rock the boat. They should never make us doubt ourselves or our consumer society, because even if it isn't perfect - hey! - at least we're living in a democracy, right? Right…? Inevitably, this turns every drama series into a sequence of contrived confrontations between insipid non-characters, and Cult TV programmes are more prone to this tendency than any genre other than cop shows. Fans of Heroes-generation sci-fi honestly believe it's revelatory when a baddie turns out to have "layers", but in fact, it's what Proper Drama is meant to do all the time. Again, we go back to I, Claudius for the perfect test-case. The Emperor Tiberius, supposedly a sadistic pervert who might best be described as "syphilis with a face", reacts in different ways to different characters: at no point does he only have "villain" traits, and from his very first scene, the monster on the throne has characteristics ranging from an honest and touching love for his brother to periods of what we'd now call paranoid depression. Almost nobody writes characters this way any more. Today's audience has been brought up to believe in its own moral supremacy, and thus prefers things to be rather more absolute. Just look at the atrocity of Rome.

A personal sidelight here. If you're one of the 4,000-odd people who kept buying the BBC's Eighth Doctor novels after their sell-by date, then you may recall that I once invented a semi-antagonist called Sabbath, for a book called The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. The editor of the range was keen on using him as a recurring character, and asked me to write up a detailed description, which I did. Now, the idea here was to present Sabbath as the Doctor's (morally dubious) replacement in a hostile new universe, or at least in a hostile new form of history. Gallifrey had been destroyed; the laws of time were in flux; and the Doctor's powers were distinctly limited, not least by a period of amnesia. As a result, Sabbath was a figure who knew more about the universe than the Doctor did. This was his environment, while the Doctor was rooted in a version of history that no longer existed. Which, as I saw it, meant that the overwhelming smugness of some of the weakest Doctor Who stories would be removed from the formula. The central character would no longer have all the answers. He wouldn't be able to pull solutions out of a magic pocket. He'd have to learn from experience, and figure out each new situation from scratch, just like Sydney Newman intended. In short, he'd be able to make mistakes.

What actually happened was the other writers turned out a series of novels in which stupid, arrogant, evil Mr Sabbath would perform some reckless experiment which imperilled the entire universe, so that the good, noble, and all-wise Doctor would have an opportunity to set things right again. This reached its nadir when Lloyd Rose stated that she couldn't see any difference between Sabbath and the Master, as if I'd written a three-page document describing an out-and-out villain who wanted to take over the galaxy and finished every sentence with "nyah-hah-hah". (In her novel Camera Obscura, AKA The Twelve-Year-Old Anne Rice Fan's Guide to Victorian Clich├ęs, she underlines this by having the Doctor put a whoopee cushion on Sabbath's Throne of Evil. It's meant to demonstrate how silly and pathetic anyone who dares to argue with the Doctor must be, because apparently, villains don't have a sense of humour. Here I'd just like to point out that the first thing Sabbath ever says to the Doctor in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is a joke, and an anachronistic one to boot.)

Why, then, did this happen? How did a character whose whole function was to give the Doctor some real competition end up being used as a Hooded Claw substitute? The answer seems to be that we've come to fetishise the very notion of the Doctor, to the point where we believe he's simply incapable of doing anything wrong. The nature of Cult TV makes him "our hero" in ways that extend far beyond the narrative. We feel uneasy if he goes astray, either morally or intellectually, and now we're beginning to feel the same way about Doctor-surrogates like Captain Jack. Of course, the fact that we feel uneasy probably indicates that it's good storytelling, yet we've been too swaddled in FilmLook slickness to accept this. On top of which… oh, dare I really say it? I think I have to. Unquestionably, this fetishisation is doubled if the Doctor's cute. No fangirl would be bothered by the thought of William Hartnell, or even troll-faced Chris Eccleston, committing space-age genocide. This sort of behaviour is harder to accept from Paul McGann or David Tennant, whose boyish good looks™ have been thoroughly mined for romance, firstly by the Yanks who factory-assembled the TV movie and more lately by a sneery-faced Scots cynic. Mentioning no names. It comes as no surprise to find that the "you bastards, you've made Jack evil!" letter in the Radio Times was written by a woman, just as it comes as no surprise to find that the "I'm furious because the machinery they used to kill the 456 doesn't make sense!" letter came from a man.

Yet the most curious thing is that as Doctor Who heads further and further into the stagnancy of Cult TV, Torchwood has suddenly veered in the opposite direction. "Children of Earth" is, against all expectations, a work of Proper Drama. Nobody here scores points for being 100% Goodie, and the only 100% Baddie seems to be the Prime Minister. Even the 456, who exist solely to make us poo ourselves, have enough depth to point out the humans' hypocrisy. Bucking the trend of all the other programmes that look, sound, and market themselves like it, characters with whom we sympathise do things we don't necessarily like, not in order to make a big song-and-dance about major issues (yeah, you're right, I'm thinking of Battlestar Galactica again) but just because that's who they are. The most obvious example isn't Captain Jack's kiddie-killing, it's the fact that Clem - a man who's pure victim to the core, pitiable-yet-quite-frightening in exactly the way that mentally-damaged people really are - treats Ianto with disgust while calling him 'queer'.

In any other show, that alone would be enough to mark him out as a baddie, like the bigot-thugs who occupy most corners of the CSI world. Here, it's simply treated as the kind of thing you'd expect from someone who's been messed up since the 1960s. The Doctor Who universe has always had leftist intentions (Gerry Davis notwithstanding), but there's a difference between "left-wing" and "liberal". To be a liberal means to believe that tolerance is good and global warming is bad, but also to believe that you can save the world simply by not using the word "poof". S/he may have good intentions, but doesn't seem to appreciate that all the things s/he considers to be civilised - democracy, universal suffrage, the right to exist without having the shit kicked out of you for having long hair or skin that's a bit on the dark side - were achieved through the effort of rather more pro-active people, who fought and occasionally died in order to create a less appalling version of humanity. To be a liberal means to shield yourself from the full horror of your society, to have a veneer of civic responsibility while still approving of a system that's wholly founded on exploitation. Tennant-era Doctor Who is liberal. Most of the New Adventures are very, very liberal indeed, hilariously so in some cases. Whereas "Children of Earth", in facing up to our hypocrisies and refusing to make things simple, actually seems… leftist. Who saw that coming?

[A footnote, before you ask: it's true, much of the previous paragraph was informed by various encounters with Doctor Who authors over the years. Most particularly, an argument with Paul Cornell - Grand Poobah of Liberals and unapologetic Blairite, who genuinely believes that everything in the world will be all right as long as you don't vote Conservative - in which he derided me for being 'like one of those '60s idealists'. Hmmm. Does he mean, like one of those '60s idealists whose determination to change Western values created the kind of lifestyle that Paul and his friends now enjoy…? No, he probably didn't intend it to be a compliment. Oh, and I chose "poof" as a Word You Mustn't Say after a conversation with Moffat in which I jokingly exclaimed 'are you calling me a poof?' when he challenged my masculinity, 'are you calling me a poof?' being the catchphrase of the boorish he-men whom anyone of my age will remember from the '70s. Moffat responded by looking nervously around the pub and informing me under his breath that I shouldn't say that out loud. I'm amused by several things here: (a) the thought that Moffat believed I needed his wisdom and experience in social situations, (b) the thought that any gay fanboy at the Tavern might seriously be offended by the retro use of the p-word, (c) the thought that I was being criticised for using it by the world's most heterosexual man when I've at least enjoyed the occasional gay flirtation, and (d) the thought that Moffat was terrified of offending Doctor Who fans even then. I really, really digress.]

Of course, the aliens are still basically evil, because no series can be xenophiliac all the time. Especially not when there's the potential for great big monsters. The notion of a morally-questioning, see-the-other-man's-POV universe may run all the way from "An Unearthly Child" to the superfly guys in "Planet of the Dead", yet a programme in which the outsiders are always potentially-friendly would be dull. Morally uplifting, but dull. Fortunately, most Doctor Who writers through the ages have managed to use horrible alien menaces without suggesting that anything foreign wants to hurt us by default, the pro-Vietnam hectoring of "The Dominators" being a nauseating exception. The problem comes not when the aliens start invading, but when the scripts are written by people who think it's a good idea to present us with a universe which is intrinsically hostile and in which EVERYTHING UNFAMILIAR WANTS TO EAT US. As I've had to explain over and over again, my tragic rant about "The Unquiet Dead" wasn't driven by a disgust of actual racism (although I still hold that it was chronically misjudged in the run-up to the Asylum Seeker Election of 2005), but because the episode betrayed the entire ethos of Doctor Who. The Doctor comes up with the most brilliantly in-your-face, air-punchingly great salvation plan in the programme's history. "Yeah, let the aliens have the corpses… you got a problem with that?" But then… hahahahahah, fooled you, they're aliens and therefore just want to kill everybody.

So it's apt that another "Children of Earth" missive to the RT reads…

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It was entertaining and thrilling: like experiencing The Quatermass Experiment or the BBC production of 1984 for the first time.

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…since both of those programmes were, as you know, written by stodgy old conservative Nigel Kneale. If you haven't already seen it, then I wrote an entire article about Kneale's influence on the modern SF generation (see "SF Iconoclasty 101", some way down this page), but the key point is this: however revolutionary The Quatermass Experiment may have seemed in 1953, Kneale himself was a grumpy misanthropic sod who distrusted anything that wasn't middle-aged and middle class, which is why his scripts depict hippies as murderous death-cultists and seem to believe that rock music heralds the end of human civilisation. To Kneale, anything new or unfamiliar was a threat, and he expressed this intolerance with a variety of over-the-top SF metaphors. And as anyone who watches BBC4 documentaries will know, Mark Gatiss idolises him. The grand irony is that Gatiss believes his work to be "traditional" Doctor Who, yet when Doctor Who began overtly copying the Quatermass set-up during the Pertwee years, its writers specifically went out of their way to reverse Kneale's vision and create a universe in which the alien isn't automatically evil. Again, look at "The Silurians". Or look at "The Ambassadors of Death", in which Knealish paranoia is what causes all the trouble. Gatiss seriously believes Quatermass and Doctor Who to come from the same tradition, even though they're ethical and philosophical opposites. The Wire in "The Idiot's Lantern" is a typical Gatiss villain, i.e. a big hungry alien force that has no purpose other than to eat people. Malcolm Hulke isn't exactly spinning in his grave, but he would find it unbearably childish.

Actually, now I come to think of it, there's an even grander irony: Nigel Kneale himself described Doctor Who as 'a stupid idea for a programme'. M'lud, the prosecution rests.

In effect, then, the 456 are the Wire done properly. Because this isn't really about a threat from the unknown, it's about us, and about the way we react to it. Fear of the alien is at least as horrifying as the alien, something that Gatiss has never quite grasped: once again, we should remember that this is a man who established the evilness of the villain in St Antony's Fire by having the character stab a kitten through the throat, just for a laugh. So he's clearly not one for the subtleties of human psychology. Like all good monsters, the 456's inhumanity makes us inhuman ourselves, which is what Nigel Kneale nearly realised when he wrote Quatermass and the Pit (although his questionable view of world events rather brought it down). So is it ironic or appropriate that "Children of Earth" should resurrect the Quatermass format, and shun the Cult TV model of Torchwood's first two hideous years? Either way, it's hard to believe that BBC Wales would have risked it if American television hadn't rediscovered the joy of the epic serial, so treating this as a late victory for the Knealites is rather missing the point.

Whichever way we turn, we keep coming back to this struggle between Cult TV and Proper Drama. We may be tempted to ask whether it really matters, since even Cult TV might feasibly be watchable, if regularly groomed and wormed for fan-wank. The trouble is that the very notion of "cult" leads to a certain… shall we call it territoriality? It's been said that gay culture isn't a festering pit of bitchiness and backstabbing because gay men are genetically inclined to scratch each others' eyes out, but because any subculture in which you're bound to keep running into the same people over and over again is inevitably going to end up that way. This was certainly the case with Doctor Who between the late '80s and the early '00s, when it wasn't popular, populist, or even noticed by most of the population. We may recall that during the '90s, the big movers in fandom often found themselves acting like feudal overlords. On a personal level, I still recall Keith Topping attacking me for breaking the "unspoken code" which forbids New Adventures writers from publicly criticising each others' work (it sounded berserk to me at the time, and it still does), while the afore-dissed Paul Cornell once demanded to know whether I was prepared to "bow the knee" to anybody else in fan-society. He also kept talking about my "followers", which I found rather puzzling, but we'll come back to that in a moment.

It'd be nice to think that the cosmic popularity of Doctor Who circa 2009 would prevent this sort of silliness, but our perception of the series as a Cult concern guarantees that we keep making the same mistakes. Fans still have a loyalty to their feudal chieftains which seems to ignore events in the outside world. I still get flak about my "Pissing Blink" comment, as if Steven Moffat - a highly-regarded, award-winning writer who now receives a huge chunk of licence-fee money for doing the best job on Earth, whose work is watched by millions all over the world and whose every opinion is instantly reported in the mass-media - needs to be defended against a former author of low-selling genre novels who writes a blog that only a few dozen people read anyway. It's a bit like attacking a Big Issue seller for trying to put W. H. Smith's out of business. Certainly, there wouldn't have been even one-tenth as much fuss about the GatissGate comments if there hadn't been a sense that modern-day Doctor Who scriptwriters are part of a ruling class, and that savaging their work on the internet is therefore a crime against the natural order. If I'd criticised George Lucas, or Danny Boyle, or even the producer of Casualty, then nobody would even have flinched. But Doctor Who… that's us.

This seems doubly peculiar when you realise that it contradicts the nature of the programme itself. We could spend days arguing about the "true" morality of Doctor Who, but Gerry Davis, "The Dominators", and bad Quatermass pastiches aside, we wouldn't be going too far wrong if we described its view of the universe as exploratory, experimental, and egalitarian: in brief, outward-looking. Yet there's a specific breed of ruling-class fanboy whose influence over this Cult TV phenomenon has made him petty, retrogressive, and obsessed with his own importance: in brief, utterly inward-looking. Apart from anything else, you have to wonder what the Hell these people learned from watching the programme as kids. Did they learn anything? Did they even realise that learning was the point, or did they just get off on all the space-age hardware and reach the conclusion that it was in the same oeuvre as Battlestar Galactica (the '70s one, with the proper Cylons)? At the risk of becoming overly personal, I particularly wonder about Gary Russell, who's obsessed with the programme's minutiae and yet writes things which seem to owe more to the Star Trek: The Next Generation school of Cult TV (Divided Loyalties is the funniest example of this, and it even shares a title with a Babylon-5 episode). And Gary Russell is the epitome of Cult Man. In Doctor Who itself, of course, the accumulation of power for trivial purposes is always the preserve of the villain.

Well, all right. Maybe Gary isn't quite the epitome of Cult Man. About a year ago, I found myself at the Tavern at the same time as Ian Levine. As we all know, we've got Ian Levine to thank for the survival and/or recovery of a huge number of ancient Doctor Who stories, even if he has got a private stash of "lost" episodes that he won't share with the rest of us. (Yes he has. Don't even think about trying to deny it.) Since I'd never met him, I thought I'd go over and introduce myself, if only because it seemed like such a peculiar meeting of sub-sub-subcultures. It'd be both crude and hypocritical for me to describe him as looking like a bloated potato-emperor holding court in the presence of his skinny minions, especially given the size of my own man-tits, but it is true that he took up one whole side of the table while his friends sat on the opposite side.

'Hullo,' I said, as I walked up to the table and outstretched my hand.

He eyed me suspiciously.

'I'm Lawrence Miles,' I explained. 'I just thought -'

'No,' he said, physically drawing back on a cushion of rump. 'No. No. No. No.'

I found myself reminded of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.

'Wh-' I began.

'No,' he repeated. 'I read your…' He didn't seem to know how to finish, so he just looked disgusted instead. 'I don't know what it was. But it was so off the case. So off the case. No.'

With that, he turned his head away, and there was an awkward silence while he carefully pretended that I wasn't there. His friends looked rather embarrassed, although whether they were embarrassed for me or for him, I'm not at all sure.

I finally lowered my hand and walked off. But I remember thinking, even as I left the presence of this Huttesque fan-lord: I could never do that. I simply wouldn't be capable of it. If you presented me with a man who had the most ridiculous opinions on the planet, if I'd read an article he'd written which tried to turn all human sense on its head, then I'd still be prepared to at least say hello. I'd chew the fat with a Nazi, if he thought he had a good reason to speak to me. I'd even consider the possibility of discourse with Chris Chibnall. And perhaps what's most disturbing about Ian Levine's behaviour, far beyond the fact that it was very, very rude, is that we know he's dedicated a large slice of his life to a programme which positively detests this sort of thing. If Doctor Who celebrates the outward-looking, and has an underlying philosophy of listening to the outsider's point of view, then how did someone on the top level of its aristocracy become so insular? How can a man with his grounding in the classics think of blanking someone for writing a piece he simply didn't agree with (I have no idea which piece, although I'd put a small wager on the one about "Love & Monsters")?

Later, on the way home, it suddenly hit me.

He thought I wanted something from him. He believes his friendship is valuable. And, to an extent, I suppose it is: Ian Levine is said to be a multimillionaire, so for all we know, he holds orgiastic Doctor Who parties in an opulent mansion where guests can watch the two missing episodes of "The Invasion" while being serviced by prostitutes in Nimon masks. But being part of a cult means being part of a hierarchy, and it's inevitable that those at the top of any hierarchy will end up behaving like gigantic arses. It's one of the reasons that I've alienated any "followers" I might accidentally have picked up over the years.

No, fair enough, that's a lie. I alienate them because I just can't bloody help myself. It is true, however, that the nature of Doctor Who defies the very notion of hierarchy. Let's be honest, the series taught you that you should be able to walk into the throneroom of any ruling monarch and be sarcastic to them without getting your head cut off. Didn't it?

In the end, the super-hyper-mega-ultra-irony is that I agree with Alan Stevens: the least Doctor Who thing in Doctor Who really is in "Remembrance of the Daleks", but it's not the trivial matter of planetary destruction. It's much earlier in the story, when the spooky little girl runs away from the Doctor, and the Doctor muses to himself: 'She doesn't talk to strangers… very wise.' Of course, it's not surprising that this line should have been jemmied into the script, any more than it's surprising that Ben Aaronovitch removed it for the novelisation. As I've said in the dear departed Randomness Times, the '80s was the decade in which the concept of "paedophile" entered the British consciousness, and the don't-get-into-cars-with-people-you-don't-know message was pushed harder than ever. (In the '70s, we grew up believing that people who abducted children wanted to hold them hostage, like in an episode of The Professionals. It wasn't until the '80s that our parents felt comfortable talking about kiddie-fiddling. This is why nobody found Darth Vader's 'I have felt him' comment remotely funny when Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, even though nobody can take it seriously now. Worse, the Emperor's reply is 'strange that I have not,' as if they're both part of the same paedophile ring.)

Yet for anyone grown-up enough to make their own decisions, this advice goes against everything Doctor Who seems to stand for. From the moment that Ian and Barbara enter the Doctor's world, understanding the alien - embracing the alien, even - becomes the baseline of all wisdom. Even the Tribe of Gum finds a sort of redemption this way, when Ian exposes Kal to a concept from another philosophy, if not actual democracy ('Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe') then at least the notion of duty to society. And even when the Doctor's involved in something morally dubious, refusing to communicate with the unknown simply isn't part of his world-view. Or worlds-view.

So if I have one final pronouncement to make, before Doctor Who descends into a Cult TV Hell of squee, self-congratulation, and Alex Kingston, then it's this. Always talk to strangers. They know things you don't.

Another thing to notice about this edition of the Radio Times is that the target time for the Enigma puzzle was 26 minutes, and I did it in nine. I just had to tell someone that.