Thursday, May 19, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and history: 'An Unearthly Child'

One of the projects I was thinking about several years ago but never quite got round to was a book on how Doctor Who engages with human history, on which I planned to work with a couple of other scholars who have interests in that area. As I'm doing a rewatch of the show at the moment, I thought it was worth jotting down a few notes.

As is well-known, the format for Doctor Who was to alternate stories set in human history, and science fiction stories. (Script editor David Whitaker originally conceived of a third category, 'sideways' stories, but there are few examples of that, with only 'The Edge of Destruction' and 'Planet of Giants' being plausible candidates, and it's clear that this category soon got subsumed into the more general sf stories.) These two strands are represented by the audience's viewpoint characters, the science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell), and the history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). Both take an interest in Susan Foreman because she is a prodigy in both subjects. (In Whitaker's novelisation Doctor Who and the Daleks, he adds some nuance here, making Susan very good at some historical periods, but dreadfully ignorant of other events, such as the Spanish Armada.) This is reinforced by Susan reading a book on the French Revolution, in which she spots an error (a scene, incidentally, not in the original pilot). In retrospect, we are meant to realise that she identifies this error through her personal experience.

When we finally enter the TARDIS control room in the first episode, it is a mixture of the advanced and the antique. The control console, and the walls, are a science fictional mise-en-scène, but scattered around the control room are various antique objects: a clock, a tripod of birds (Whitaker talks of a bust of Napoleon). The number of these objects in the TARDIS declined as the years went on.

In the next episode, 'The Cave of Skulls', Susan talks about the TARDIS appearing as an Ionic column or a sedan chair, both antique objects.

More importantly, the remaining three episodes of the story include the first shown trip into Earth's past, to the Stone Age. In The Television Companion, David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker say that it is not necessarily the Stone Age of Earth depicted, as this is never established on screen; but if a planet is presented that looks like Stone Age Earth, it is probably safe to assume that it is Stone Age Earth, until someone says otherwise. That this story is a historical is suggested by its being immediately followed by an sf story, 'The Daleks', and the alternative title of '100,000 BC' also suggests that someone thought the story was set on Earth (though it's not clear when it acquired this alternative title). Indeed, no-one else involved in the production of the show has ever suggested that it isn't Earth, so the idea that it isn't can be discarded. 

That said, it's a risky strategy for the first historical to be actually a prehistorical. There's a sense that what we are getting is more common assumptions about Stone Age humans (living in caves, dress in skins) rather than anything based on actual research into the Middle Paleolithic (as professional paleontologists recognised at the time). And everyone is portrayed by RADA-educated actors talking about themselves in the third person because that sounds 'primitive'.  

Friday, April 22, 2022

Wonder Woman for President conference open for booking

There's an excellent online Wonder Woman conference coming up from 10 June to 12 June 2022, organised by Amanda Potter and Natalie Swain. There is no registration fee, but the organisers are soliciting donations to Cancer Research, in honour of George Pérez. The programme can be found here; I'll be speaking on the Saturday, specifically on Pérez's run on the book. For further information, see the conference website. And isn't their poster fab?

Saturday, January 01, 2022

My MANCENT course on London and the Fantastic is running again in January. Come and join in—it's fun and you aren't expected to do any work. Tickets are here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/london-and-the-fantastic-full-course-tickets-227766364327 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021 #6

(Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.) 

Movies

56. Dark Waters (USA, dir. Todd Haynes, scr. Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, and Bill Pullman, EOne/Participant/Willi Hill/Killer Content, 2019) *

Virtual film club pick. Extremely well-made, but profoundly depressing and disturbing movie about the real-life DuPont chemical/PFOA scandal. You definitely get the feeling that American companies don't really care about the health implications when there's money to be made, and the health implications of PFOA are pretty universal. The movie perhaps spends too much time trying to get a conspiracy thriller vibe that it can't really deliver; but there are excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo as Rob Bilott, the lawyer at the centre of the case, and from Tim Robbins as his boss. The movie fakes, of course—the tension between Bilott and his wife (Anne Hathaway) seems a little too clichéd and movie-like—but this is an important movie you should see. It's also the first Todd Haynes movie I've seen since Velvet Goldmine (not that he's made a lot).

I got behind with doing this, so I am just going to list everything else.

Movies 

57. Count Me In (dir. Mark Lo, 2021) *

58. Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright, 2004)

59. Serenity (dir. Joss Whedon, 2005)

60. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson, 2017) *

61. Captain Marvel (dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)

62. Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)

63. No Time To Die (dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021) *

64. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

65. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery, 2021) *

66. My Wife & I (dir. Bunmi Ajakaiye, 2017) *

67. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016) *

68. Rocketman (dir. Dexter Fletcher, 2019) *

69. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

70. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2016) *

71. Falling for Figaro (dir. Ben Lewin, 2020) *

72. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)

73. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011) *

74. Let It Be (dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970)

75. 8 Remains (dir. Juliane Block, 2018) *

76. Once (dir. John Carney, 2007) *

77. Single All The Way (dir. Michael Mayer, 2021) *

78. Head (dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968)

79. The 6th World: An Origin Story (dir. Nanobah Becker, 2013) *

80. Wakening (dir. Danis Goulet, 2013) *

81. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion, 2021) *

82. Last Train to Christmas (dir. Julian Kemp, 2021) *

83. Happiest Season (dir. Clea DuVall, 2020) *

84. The Lady in the Van (dir. Nicholas Hytner, 2015) *

Books

6. Ursula K. Le Guin, Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) *

7. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

8. John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids (1951)

9. Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (1996)

10. Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)

Comics

6. Heroes Reborn: America's Mightiest Heroes (2021) (Reviewed here.) *

7. Heroes Reborn: America's Mightiest Heroes Companion Volume 1 (2021) (Reviewed here.) *

8. Heroes Reborn: America's Mightiest Heroes Companion Volume 2 (2021) (Reviewed here.) *

9. Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (2006) (Reviewed—several years ago now—here.)

10. Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel and Lee Sullivan, Rivers of London: Body Work (2016) *

11. Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel and Lee Sullivan, Rivers of London: Detective Stories (2017) *

12. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine: The Faust Act (Reviewed—again, quite some time ago—here.)

Virtual Theatre

15. Oedipus the King (Rickmansworth Players, 2021) *

Monday, August 09, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #5

 (Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.) 

Movies

47. The Viking Queen (UK, dir. Don Chaffey, scr. Clarke Reynolds, starring Don Murray and Carita, Hammer/Seven Arts, 1967)

A rewatch because I had a guest spot talking about this movie on Paul Cornell and Lisbeth Myles' Hammer House of Podcast, and, eventually, this movie will feature in my book on Roman Britain on screen. I'm afraid I don't like this movie very much. It's part of Hammer's 1960s flirtation with the epic, that they get into just about the time the bottom falls out of the ancient epic market, and they don't really have the money to do it justice. Don Chaffey, who directed Jason and the Argonauts, does what he's supposed to do; but it needs a better script, and a better cast. Liz Myles liked it, however.

48. 300: Rise of an Empire (USA, dir. Noam Murro, scr. Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, and Rodrigo Santoro, Legendary Pictures/Cruel and Unusual Films/Atmosphere Pictures/Hollywood Gang Productions, 2014)

To be fair to The Viking Queen, it is at least a better movie than this. A #ClassicsTwitterMovie, of course; my Twitter thread is here. Everything that you didn't like about 300 is repeated in this movie, whilst pretty much everything you did like is gone. It's nice that Lena Headey gets a bit more to do, though the movie has to reset her personality for plot purposes. Eva Green does the Eva Green bit of being a mean woman and flashing her boobs (and, of course, has to be motivated by sexual violence in the past, because no other motivation for mean women is allowed), whilst the movie entirely fails to make a star out of Sullivan Stapleton. Absurdity piles on absurdity, with seas that look like they have come out of The Perfect Storm, an oil tanker, and cavalry concealed in the bowels of the Athenian ships. 

49. Antigone (Greece, dir. & scr. George Tzavellas, starring Irene Papas, Norma Film Productions, 1961) *

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My own Twitter commentary was minimal, as I hadn't seen this movie before. It is something I had always meant to get round to, as I wanted to see how Tzavellas handled Greek tragedy, as compared to how Michael Cacoyannis handled it. The prologue is good. Tzavellas very much plays the text as one woman standing up for what is right against an oppressive régime (in the original Athenian context, it's more complex than that, but this is how most modern treatments take the play). Papas is excellent in the central role. But overall, it feels very studio-bound; there are external shots, but they don't exploit the locations very much. The net result is rather stagey, and, I feel, perhaps a bit too respectful towards the text; it's as if Tzavellas knows that he is dealing with an important part of Greek heritage, and as a result, the play doesn't really feel alive. Also, Tzavellas is not as good a director as Cacoyannis.  

50. Electra (Greece, dir. and scr. Michael Cacoyannis, starring Irene Papas, Finos Film, 1962)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. Just less than a year passed between the release of Antigone and the release of this, yet they are vastly different movies, and Papas' performance in this is very much more advanced. In Antigone, she's excellent; here she's extraordinary. The movie is cinematic in a way that Tzavellas' Antigone just isn't. As it happens, Electra is probably my least favourite of Cacoyannis' Euripidean trilogy; but that doesn't mean it is in any way a bad movie. Far from it.  

51. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (USA, dir. George Lucas, scr. George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee, Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox, 2002)

I put this on the syllabus for my course on Classics and science fiction. I chose this episode because it's the one that you can say most interesting things about Classical reception in, as you get the Roman-derived politics, and Naboo which looks like medieval Rome, and an amphitheatre scene. This does not mean that I rate it particularly highly. Lucas should really have remembered that he was better as a producer and story creator than as a director or screenwriter. And Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker is just whiny all the time, giving little indication how he might eventually become Darth Vader, and indeed, why Portman's Padme Amidala should fall for him.

52. The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (USA, dir. Patrick Hughes, scr. Tom O' Connor & Brandon Murphy & Philip Murphy, starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, and Morgan Freeman, Millennium Media/Nu Boyana Film Studios/Campbell Grobman Films/Film i Väst/FilmGate Films, 2021) *

You may recall my enthusing about The Hitman's Bodyguard earlier in the year, and saying that the only thing really wrong with it was that there wasn't enough Salma Hayek. This certainly corrects that, but overall, we're into the law of diminishing returns. Certainly, there are some good funny bits, but they're a lot fewer and further apart than in the previous movie. The script doesn't really have anything new to do with the relationship between Reynolds and Jackson's characters, and so it hits the reset button, so that things that were settled between them, such as gaining a certain amount of mutual respect, have to be gone through again. Still, if you ever wanted to know how Antonio Banderas would play a Bond villain, this is the movie to watch.

53. Black Widow (USA, dir. Cate Shortland, scr. Eric Pearson, starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz, Marvel Studios, 2021)

At last, the pandemic-delayed Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets underway, though actually, given that it is set before Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, this feels more like unfinished business from Phase 3. I wrote a review of this for FA Online, and don't really have much more to add here. There's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, and it is nice to see Johansson in action as Natasha one last time, but Black Widow didn't excite me as much as I was hoping it might. Also, I am extremely disappointed that the movie does not use Pulp's 'I Spy' over the closing credits, which, is in my head, Natasha's theme song. Having predicted that we'd get Yelena Belova and the Red Guardian, and that the story would take the Black Widow to her Russian roots, I was hoping for three-for-three. (Both these movies were seen at Nightflix, where the screen was a bit dark, so that may have affected my enjoyment of them.)

54. Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (USA, dir. David Leitch, scr. Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, Universal, 2019) *

My pick for virtual film club. I wanted to watch this because I liked the trailer, and it is a movie that links in with my interests in London and the fantastic, as this is very clearly a science fictional plot. In fact, it's a superhero plot, with Idris Elba's Brixton Lore (no, really) being constantly described as 'the black Superman' (he's actually the black Captain America). I enjoyed this, despite never having watched a Fast and Furious movie before, so not having any of the backstory. Johnson and Statham are likeable leads (apparently Statham's character was once a nasty villain, but has been redeemed), and there's plenty of over-the-top action. It's nice that Vanessa Kirby's character gets quite a bit of agency, and isn't just a love interest for Johnson. And Ryan Reynolds plays pretty much the same character as he plays in Hitman's Bodyguard.

55. Dredd (UK/South Africa, dir. Pete Travis, scr. Alex Garland, starring Karl Urban, Entertainment Film Distributors/Reliance Entertainment/IM Global/DNA Films, 2012) *

I happened to mention to John Coxon that I'd never seen Dredd; he told me I must watch it immediately, so I did. Back in 1995 I went to see the Judge Dredd movie that starred Sylvester Stallone. I wrote a review with got published in an apazine, and which I can't lay my hands on at the moment, but I think I said it was the perfect Judge Dredd movie for the first five minutes, up to the moment that Stallone takes the helmet off, and then it just all falls apart. Thank heavens then, for Karl Urban, who here appears very briefly with the helmet off at the beginning, but with his face in shadow, and is then happy to remain in full Dredd uniform throughout. Alex Garland takes a relatively low-key storyline, of Dredd and Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trying to stay alive in a block, rather than the big corruption plot of the 1995 movie, and Dredd is all the better for that. It's not perfect; the black humour that characterises the comic strip at its best is largely missing. Mega-City One also looks shabbier than one might expect, though that probably works in the movie's favour. Dredd is better in just about every respect than the Stallone movie; the only point where the earlier movie is superior is in the design of the Lawmaster bikes, which seem more like those of the comics in 1995.

Television

7. Star Trek, season 1 (US, TV, created by Gene Roddenberry, starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Desilu/Paramount, 1966–1967)

I embarked on a rewatch of Star Trek, beginning with The Original Series, which I watched in production order, rather than broadcast order. That rewatch has rather ground to a halt of late, but I did get to the end of season 1. Watching it in production order means that I got to see that Uhura began in a gold uniform. And watching the episodes close together meant that I noticed things like Kirk being presented as quite an erudite man, not just a man of action; that Spock isn't half as emotionless as he likes to pretend; that Uhura keeps being given things to do; and that, for all that Next Generation got criticised for everyone having meetings all the time, there are a lot of meetings held on the old Enterprise.

Books

5. adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) *

Read for the August meeting of the London Science Fiction Research Community. It's a collection of essays and thoughts relating to ways of trying to save the world. I like very much that these ways are inspired by science fiction (amb looks to both Star Trek and Octavia Butler). It's also worth noting that she is primarily an optimist about this, and we need a bit of optimism when the world around us is burning, and western governments still don't seem interested in taking the drastic action that is becoming ever-more imperative. On the other hand, the book is a little on the bitty side, as is probably inevitable given the many different origins of the pieces that go towards the final book. I feel perhaps that a bit more structure might have made it more effective. I also feel it's not for me as much as it is for people from marginalised communities. Nevertheless, I suspect I shall be coming back to this one. 

Virtual theatre

12. From the Machine, King's College London, 2021 *

This year's King's Greek Play, written and performed by a cast of KCL students, supervised by David Bullen, Edith Hall, and Nicola Hewitt-George. This production had, as with everything else, to accommodate itself to the COVID pandemic. The solutions taken were very similar to those used by the Oxford Orestes I talked about in a previous post; cast members performed from their offices and bedrooms, giving a claustrophobic feel. There was a crossover in subject matter with Orestes as well; From the Machine combines elements of several Greek plays, many of them set around the end of the Trojan War and its immediate aftermath. So it includes Orestes and Electra's murder of Clytemnestra and their attempted murder of Helen. Unfortunately, after Orestes, From the Machine doesn't feel as innovative as it might have been, and as with the Oxford play, I found it hard to engage. Anactoria Clarke was excellent, however, as an older Helen.

13. The Frogs, by Aristophanes, directed by Argyro Chioti, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021 *

Once again the main play of the Epidaurus festival was screened for free. I'd missed last year's Persians, but managed to catch this. I enjoyed it a lot, and had a big grin on my face. It's unusual for a play in a foreign language, that I'm very familiar with, and which makes few concessions to updating the jokes, to get a laugh out of me. But this did, consistently.

14. La traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi, Glyndebourne. directed by Tom Cairns, conducted by Mark Elder, starring Venera Gimadieva and Michael Fabiano, 2014 *

Virtual theatre club pick, because it's available for free through August. I'm not particularly an opera buff, so not only had I not seen this production of La traviata, I'd never seen any production, though I did recognise a couple of tunes. (My mother was a Verdi fan, though her favourite was Aida.) I enjoyed this. I mean, it all ends tragically, of course, but then it wouldn't really be opera if it didn't. Gimadieva is particularly good in the lead role, both as a singer and as an actress.