Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Foxcatcher"

One of the things about "based upon a true story" narratives with which I always struggle is the extent to which the text accurately reflects the events upon which it is based. At the same time, of course, it behooves one on occasion to practically forget the origin of such a text and simply treat it in isolation. That being said, the cursory research I've done suggests that 'Foxcatcher', a film in the public eye at the moment, has a variable relationship to reality: fairly close in the broad strokes, divergent in the details. It's just something to bear in mind. In any event the film's basically a tale of an Olympic gold medallist wrestler being taken under the wing of an eccentric billionaire, with a rather sinister twist resulting in a right proper bollocking of the American Dream and all that guff.
At first I thought this was in some way or another a "sport film," but it isn't really. It's not so much about wrestling, Olympic or otherwise, as it is about alienation, possessiveness and power. Mark Schultz is a gold medallist recruited to lead a wrestling team in the late Eighties by John du Pont, one of that peculiar breed of American quasi-aristocrats who lives on a huge estate in the middle of the Pennsylvanian countryside. Despite the enormous opportunity that du Pont's wealth brings to Schultz, it's fairly obvious that the entire scenario is a contrived effort on du Pont's part to inject some kind of meaning into his life, believing that wrestling success will bring glory to himself and somehow be a part of the revitalisation of the American nation and subconsciously, perhaps, cure his obvious loneliness and the meaninglessness of his life. All of this ambition is undercut by the sparse, tense screenplay, and heavy use of silence, as characters unable or uninterested in expressing themselves talk at each other with little communication or understanding.
The other effective contrast in the film is in the relative family situation of these two characters: Mark lives in the largely self-imposed shadow of his older brother Dave, equally successful in sport but also with a clearly more fulfilling personal life, career prospects and a more amiable nature. Du Pont has a far more strained relationship with his mother, who is interested in the traditionally aristocratic pursuit of horse rearing and disdains her son's goals, but has also clearly raised him in an incredibly isolated world. Mark and du Pont both have absent parent figures, but the point is clearly made that Dave has overcome this situation, while neither Mark or du Pont have. Mark is a far more sympathetic character than du Pont, struggling while mired in an unhealthy culture of success at all costs and emotional repression. Du Pont, by contrast, comes from a far more privileged position than Mark, but spends his wealth in the pursuit of unearned personal glory. We see his only wrestling competitor seemingly paid off for throwing a match, and late in the film after making a deal with Wrestling USA he produces, in probably one of the film's more outwardly absurd moments, a hyperbolic and self-indulgent documentary praising his role as nominal "coach" of the wrestling team, despite his incompetence and lack of real involvement beyond as a source of money and connections.
The outcome of this is to argue, in my view, a depiction of the United States and the "American dream" as bound up with violence, decadence and delusions of grandeur. The first two acts of the film at least are set in the late Eighties, and one cannot avoid noticing, for example, the inanely grinning face of Ronald Reagan's portrait in the school at which Mark speaks at the beginning, or the single reference du Pont makes in his first meeting with Mark to the Soviet Union. The emotionally unhealthy nature of the two main characters, their occasional codependence and their instability all symbolise an argument that "winning" the Cold War proved virtually nothing about America. Similarly, du Pont's love of firearms and working military hardware, as well as the fortune the family made through manufacturing gunpowder, are suggestive of how compromised this kind of success is, depending as it does upon destruction and deadly conflict - we are informed of how vital the family's industry was to the Union in the Civil War. Du Pont's own absurd self-perception as "America's Golden Eagle" argues that the Dream endears itself largely to those incapable of finding satisfaction elsewhere in life. It is the American Dream as a desperate pursuit of glory, regardless of true merit, built on money made through blood and hoarded in the very kinds of palaces of which the United States was supposedly meant to be a rejection. It's a not that it's a Dream without family or friendship or love, but rather a substitute for these things sought by people who have never been introduced to the satisfactions of life which can't be bought.
"Foxcatcher" is a bleak film and this is reflected in its contemplative pace, limited dialogue and small cast of characters. Mark Ruffalo seems to be in his element as the affable and thus inevitably doomed Dave, Channing Tatum subverts the meathead roles in which he's typecast as the brooding Mark and while Steve Carrell doesn't in my opinion seem actually too far removed from his usual roles as du Pont, simply substituting humour for being unsettlingly caught up in his own world, the character is in my opinion successful because it's so difficult to tell what's going on in his head: whether he's an eccentric but harmless sponsor, or a completely deluded psychotic with no self-awareness and a completely skewed system of values. We of course find out in the end (hint: it's the latter) but the fact that the film withholds and teases this information for so long rather substantially contributes to its emphasis of the seemingly benign but in fact incredibly problematic nature it perceives at the heart of the American Dream.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Red Eye and the White Hand: Antagonist Characterisation in Tolkien

Introduction
I haven't written an article about Tolkien in a good long while. If you're still expecting reviews of the most recent (as of writing) three episodes of New Who, or of the third Hobbit film, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait a bit longer. In the case of New Who, I simply couldn't be bothered re-watching three mediocre, forgettable episodes at present. In the case of The Hobbit, I need to do the pictures and a bit more writing about the changes from the source material, and those are other things I couldn't currently be bothered doing either. So let's instead talk about The Lord of the Rings (the book, of course).

This isn't a topic I consider particularly academic, or else I'd probably try to save my ideas for a publication of some kind, but here's a thought which has recently occurred to me: that the characterisation of the main antagonist in The Lord of the Rings is kind of sketchy. We can't say the same about Saruman, of course. We hear plenty about who he used to be, what he's become, and why, but not so for Sauron. I feel like when we read The Lord of the Rings, we're left wondering what Sauron's "deal" is. Why does he, apparently, want to "beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness"? (LR 50) Just because he's evil? It's not a question to which The Lord of the Rings really offers an answer. Now I don't want any book enthusiasts here to think I'm dissing The Lord of the Rings. I'm not. It's one of my favourite books. But at the same time I don't think it's unfair to say that Tolkien didn't always find it necessary to give extensive characterisation to every fictional person in his narrative. At the same time, I think The Lord of the Rings is not always given its full due when considering the matter of characterisation: I think Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are all fairly roundly characterised and undergo significant development and change over the course of the story. Even secondary protagonists like Aragorn go through a fair amount of change, as well as characters who only appear in a few chapters, like Denethor. My point is, there's more characterisation to go around in The Lord of the Rings than we might think, but I don't feel like Sauron gets allocated very much of it.

Sauron
What are we told in The Lord of the Rings about Sauron? There is of course a great deal to know about him, but most of it is to be found elsewhere. I particularly recommend the short essay 'Notes on motives in the Silmarillion' published in Morgoth's Ring for a number of extremely interesting insights about Sauron's character. The main argument is that Sauron desired order above all things, that he turned to the service of Melkor/Morgoth believing that Morgoth's power would bring about a swift and efficient order, but in doing so quickly came to be beguiled instead by the authority and license for cruelty which being Morgoth's first lieutenant permitted. After Morgoth's fall he repented, but being too proud to submit to the Valar instead decided to try to bring order to Middle-earth on his own. He was still sufficiently corrupt, however, that this desire swiftly gave way to mere tyranny and a lust for power, initially for the better implementation of his plans and desires, but ultimately for its own sake as he became more mired in evil. This brings about, more or less, Sauron as he exists in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory.

Obviously one of the most important aspects of Sauron as he occurs in The Lord of the Rings is that he is mysterious: he never appears directly in any scene of the text, and none of the main characters ever meet him, although Pippin briefly speaks to him through the palantír of Orthanc. This of course has led to the misconception, one I still see people holding, that Sauron is literally disembodied and only exists as some kind of intangible spirit. Of course we know from the Letters that he did eventually reform a body in the Third Age. In The Lord of the Rings itself we are at least informed that he has a hand. This is revealed in the recollection of Gollum, who was tortured by Sauron seemingly in person in an effort to discern the location of the Ring: "'He has only four on the Black Hand, but they are enough,' said Gollum shuddering." My response to those who argue that Gollum is being metaphorical is that the "shuddering" implies that Gollum is recalling something he saw. It's also notable that in The Lord of the Rings the reader is never even actually told what manner of being Sauron is. While the Valar are referred to extremely tangentially in the book, the term "Maiar," which came to describe Sauron's type of being, was not yet in use by Tolkien at this point. I believe that early students of the history of Middle-earth, operating purely on the information in The Lord of the Rings, usually came up with two conclusions as to Sauron's identity: that he was either a very powerful Elf, or a fairly weak Vala. Obviously the second suggestion is closer to the mark, but it's interesting nonetheless. I suppose given that he is referred to at points as the 'Necromancer' suggests that he's a magician or sorcerer of some kind, and therefore of the same manner of being as Gandalf and Saruman, not that that would have really shed any further light on the issue.

But Sauron's identity and body are not really the issue here. The question remains as to what we know about Sauron as a person according to the text of The Lord of the Rings. We know that he is "the Dark Lord," (LR 50) whatever that means, and that he desires strength to achieve the aforementioned policy of covering the lands in darkness. We also discover that "hobbits as miserable slaves would please him [...] There is such a thing as malice and revenge." (LR 48) So we know he's dark, malicious and vengeful. We also discover that he "ensnared" the Elven-smiths of Eregion through their "eagerness for knowledge" (LR 236) before betraying them and forging the One Ring. So we also discover that he's knowledgeable but also manipulative and treacherous. It's worth noting that the history of his involvement with the Elves is provided extremely succinctly in part of the already very long 'The Council of Elrond' chapter, which touches upon a lot of material properly detailed in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings as well as even touching upon the fall of Morgoth, which is detailed more fully in The Silmarillion. It's actually surprising, if you look into it, how much you can learn about the plot of The Silmarillion by assembling bits of throwaway dialogue and historical dressing scattered throughout The Lord of the Rings.

The portrait we are shown of Sauron's character is obviously a completely negative one. We also learn his main motive: "the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts." (LR 262) Thus we also learn that he's power-hungry and cynical, believing everyone to be as ambitious as himself. This, I would argue, fairly well concludes the depiction of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings: a warmongering tyrant whose main personality traits are mendacity, ambition, ruthlessness, cruelty, hatred and wrath. We also get hints that he has a tendency towards brooding in a way that affects the weather (LR 595) and an unmistakeable arrogance suggested by Denethor: "he will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won." (LR 800) There is, however, one significant caveat to all this provided by Elrond: "nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." (LR 261)

We have hints to the effect that Sauron has been mired in evil for a very long time, with reference to "the Great Enemy, of whom Sauron of Mordor was but a servant." (LR 189) That is, of course, to say, Morgoth, dating back to "when the world was young." So we know that Sauron is so steeped in evil that he in fact came to succeed an earlier and more formidable evil power. If Sauron was not evil in the beginning, however, what lured him to the service of that Great Enemy and corrupted him? We know now of course, but in The Lord of the Rings it's completely obscure. One of the reasons I would argue that Sauron might come across as an arbitrary villain is that we don't know why he's doing what he's doing, why he's obsessed with power, why he wants to be tyrant over all of Middle-earth. So how can we figure it out without turning to The Silmarillion or any other text? Enter the White Wizard.

Saruman
When we first learn about Saruman it's a bit of a surprise to learn that there are other wizards, beyond the mention of Radagast in The Hobbit. I think Frodo says what is on every reader's mind at that point: "Who is he? [...] I have never heard of him before." (47) We are informed straight away, however, that Saruman is not exactly a pleasant character even before we know what has become of him: "His knowledge is deep but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling." (47) In Saruman's case we learn his motivations very distinctly: "The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see." (252) So Saruman wants power supposedly for the sake of order, and ordering to a benevolent purpose, albeit one which may not seem obvious. He further proposes that they ally with Sauron in an effort not, as in the films, out of subservience, but rather in a belief that he may be manipulated: "there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it." (253) His intentions are strictly consequentialist, arguing that the ends justify the means: "We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order." (253) His true plan, of course, is in fact to take the One Ring for his own and in fact replace Sauron: "If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us." (253)

So we see here why Saruman becomes a tyrant: out of a desire for order, and ultimately a belief that he will bring about "that good which only the Wise can see." He thinks that tyrannical power and force are what is necessary to create a better world, and an ordered world. Thus he too becomes obsessed with his own plans and, with his war on Rohan, clearly forgets much of the reason he began in the first place. It's basically all part of this argument Tolkien makes about the corruptive nature of power, particularly externalised power, and of possessiveness. What does this have particularly to do, however, with Sauron? How does one, more explained character, Saruman, reveal the characterisation of another, Sauron?

The answer is seen in the way Saruman's own ambitions are characterised. That is to say, Saruman is presented as an imitator of Sauron. When the company travels to Isengard after the Battle of the Hornburg and gaze upon the Wizard's Vale, the narrator makes the following remark: "Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived - for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child's model or a slave's flattery, of [...] Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery." (542) When they meet Saruman, Théoden tells him: "You hold out for hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor." (566) Saruman is a facsimile for Sauron, an imitation of him.

In this way, I would argue, we do not require an explicit characterisation of Sauron, which would probably have not been something the protagonists could conceivably have revealed anyway. We can't expect that even Elrond or Gandalf or Galadriel particularly know when or how Sauron became evil because it happened so long ago: as a Wizard, Gandalf has hazy memories of the ancient past, and Sauron fell to evil in Almaren before Elrond or even Galadriel were born, and we know Sauron must have left Valinor before the coming of the Elves to Aman because the Valar were looking for him when they attacked Angband during the Battle of the Powers (although they could not find him). (The Silmarillion 51) It would be implausible if the characters did know that much of Sauron's personal history. What the reader sees, however, is the corruption of Saruman, and they are told that Saruman is essentially an inferior copy of Sauron. Thus we can deduce, as is borne out in the other material written by Tolkien, that Sauron too desired order and good (which he did) and turned to power and tyranny in order to achieve it (which he did) such that eventually all the tyranny and power-lust became an end in itself, just as Saruman did after him. As such, it's not explicitly necessary to turn to additional material in order to discover Sauron's motives.

Thus, perhaps, in a tangential way, we actually do receive a characterisation for Sauron in The Lord of the Rings: just one that may not be terribly clear at first glance. I'm not going to use this idea as an attempt to propose that this is some kind of master-stroke on Tolkien's part. It may not have been intentional, and it may not be especially important to understanding The Lord of the Rings. That being said, I think it's worth bearing in mind that Tolkien was not as incapable of writing deep and complex characters as is sometimes argued, and it is hardly the case that his characters are symbols or ideas rather than people. I would argue that even without much evidence for his motives above a level of subtext, we do still get a fairly clear portrait of the kind of person Sauron is - not a very nice one. In the same way more generally we shouldn't write off characters in romances, rather than novels, as necessarily two-dimensional and lacking in depth. It may simply involve drawing connections and considering the possibility that the ideas that romance characters represent may speak to who they are as well as what they mean.

Source
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. London. Harper Collins, 1997.
------------------ The Silmarillion. London. Harper Collins, 1999.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Dark Water"

After the next round of budget cuts, post-its will replace episodes.
Right. If it doesn't happen now it isn't happening. I've been watching The Thick of It lately and I'm keen to compare it to Peter Capaldi in arguably a less confronting role, admittedly at the expense of The Thick of It's actually good writing. We begin with, naturally, not the Doctor, TARDIS or adventure but Clara as usual calling Danny on the phone. Thus is revealed, after all this waiting, the great expected secret about Danny: he can't cross roads safely and talk on the phone at the same time. In all honesty, we don't need to hear six "shoot oops" from Clara at the start of any screenplay after hearing this phrase done to absolute death in this series. She's embarking on some kind of post-it-note-driven confession about lying, but it's never made clear why: didn't Danny already figure out that she was still travelling with the Doctor last episode? Not sure what else there is to be done with that. She has a big self-referential ramble about saying the deadly phrase "I love you" and Danny gets hit by a car, which apparently makes no noise whatsoever on the phone. Clara nonetheless says "that's a thing" - was someone paying Moffat to insert the phrase "a thing" into every episode? - and says that he's the "last person who's ever gonna hear me say that." Why? This never gets resolved either.
Auditioning for one of the water tomb bodies.
Of course the whole point of this is that Danny dies as he lives: in a humdrum sort of way, killed offscreen by a speeding car, not aliens or something. Now I know he notionally had an exciting life in the army and what not but I mean as a character he was humdrum. Later Clara's mourning, standing in the middle of the street where it happened - clearly not learning from Danny there. She phones the Doctor, who's mucking around on what looks a bit like a gloomier version of that planet from Revenge of the Sith where Obi-Wan hunts down General Grievous. She's all dead inside, having a stilted conversation with her weird grandmother from "The Time of the Doctor," and complains about Danny's death being boring and ordinary. Much like himself, then. I'm trying to wrestle the subtext out of this but it's still drama with the blunt end of the wedge. Clara thinks she's "owed better." Then the Doctor answers the phone, Peter Capaldi giving an adrenalin shot to the episode. That being said, I realise Buffy-style the representation of death as silent and dull is something which can have a purpose, although I wonder given the Buffy precedent if really now its only purpose is to remind of shows that have done it before. Suddenly the Doctor wakes up on Lanzarote or rather some lava planet which is intercut with flashbacks of Clara nicking all the TARDIS keys, one of which is in The Time Traveller's Wife. Remember how in the TV Movie he was reading H.G. Wells' The Time Traveller? Well, pomo Who, pomo intertextuality I guess. Clara's used some kind of "sleep patch" on the Doctor and is chucking all the keys into a volcano to force him to help her prevent the death of Danny. Apparently lava is the only thing that can destroy a TARDIS key. Seems a bit ordinary for sci-fi. Why not dropping them into a blue giant star or a black hole or something? Anyway, hearing Jenna Coleman trying to fill the name "Danny Pink" with emotional gravitas is a pretty awful moment.
"I do not choose now to do what I came to do."
The Doctor's having none of it of course, refusing to be involved with a paradox, and dismissively suggesting Clara make good on her threats which she claims is him trying to seize control. His response, "I am in control," is very Malcolm Tucker. Her remark that "You will never step inside your TARDIS again" is pure trailer bait, and in any event she tosses all the keys into the Fire of Doom. Then she has a big cry while saying she'd do it again. Can't the Doctor just click his fingers? I think I heard a cut line addressed that. It is, however, very conveniently, all a dream. The Doctor turned the tables on Clara in the first place. This is exploitative writing at its finest, the Doctor claiming it was a test to see how much she meant it. Instead of telling her to "piss off" however he tells her to "go to hell." How droll, he was making a pun about how they'd go find the dead. Presumably the Doctor believes that the TARDIS might be capable of accessing the "afterlife." How does that work? Maybe if he believed living consciousnesses went to another dimension or something, but otherwise "heaven" is a pretty metaphysical concept. What are we going to get next, an episode where the TARDIS lands inside an idea or something? It's odd. Anyway, we get some overplayed drama shite about how the Doctor cares for Clara so much that betrayal wouldn't matter and pure trailer speak about "the darkest day, the blackest hour." Why do characters in New Who always saying "a thing" or spout vaguely poetic-sounding crap all the time instead of actually commenting on events like real people?
That's right, it stinks.
Anyway Clara sticks her hands back in the TARDIS's dubious "interface" from "Listen" and off they go. Meanwhile Danny is being shown the ropes by Chris Addison who's concerned about him being cremated and reveals that they're all on the inside of a Hollow Earth kind of deal. Obviously the bureaucratic office space heaven type imagery is hardly something new either. The TARDIS lands in a spooky building with teardrop logos everywhere and skeletons in tanks, which of course move when the Doctor's not looking. I'm surprised at one point they didn't go past a painting where the eyes slid away and someone peeped through. The Doctor checks out a hologram book about the place rather pointlessly and they finally, after a whole series, meet Missy. Knowing who the character is it's of course completely predictable that Moffat gets his kiss in here as the Doctor gets orally accosted. I'm so worn down by this stuff after ten years of New Who, but the thing is this: the Doctor never kissed anyone in the old show, did he? No, not like that. Why? Because he just didn't. That wasn't in the nature of the character, and no one seems to have cared. Now it seems like one is mandated once a year, and if it isn't outwardly, boringly romantic - making the Doctor seem like any other screen hero - it's like this, just pointlessly cheeky and the writers doing it because they can. I think the thing that bothers me is that, regardless of whether it's done sincerely or as a joke, it's basically the writers saying "Old Who's characterisation and tone was wrong," because it was conspicuous that in Old Who this never ever happened. The thing is, Old Who wasn't always terrific on the characterisation front, but the way they treated the Doctor, and the way they treated romance most of the time (except for weak crap like marrying off female companions), wasn't conformist to regular drama or what have you. So whenever they do stuff like this, even as a joke, I feel like it's saying "it's better that Doctor Who be more conformist to the norms of modern TV" which to me is emblematic of the way that New Who so often seems to spectacularly miss the point of the show's original premise, which was to stand out and be different. That's not to say the Old show wasn't as unashamedly populist as the New, but I feel like it more often did so on its own terms (although I'm sure tedious gasbaggers on some of the bigger, more "uber"-populated forums could lecture me on how every single Old Who episode is a worthless rip off of a pre-existing narrative and New Who is better in every way). It is of course also a problem because it's just Moffat going "Wouldn't it be funny if the Master and the Doctor kissed on screen?" and making it happen. It has nothing to do with the story really, it's just an old fan mucking around, which like so much of New Who's self-awareness, makes it virtually impossible to suspend disbelief about anything because the narrative doesn't function as if it is a representation of actual (albeit fictional and fantastical) events happening to people and instead feels more like playing with toys. But hey, it's a kid's show, right, so maybe that works in its favour (or maybe kids deserve to be taken seriously too).
"Why don't they fall off the ceiling?"
Anyway Missy pretends to be a robot, they meet someone named Doctor Chang, and Clara and the Doctor have an exchange where Clara says she's not okay and the Doctor responds "there would be something very wrong if you were." Typical Moffat "Look at me, aren't I clever" dialogue. No offence to the guy (I know no one says that in good faith) but why does he write these days so much as if he's got something to prove? If he's as good as his biggest fans claim that his winning of awards proves him to be, he shouldn't need to. In the Nethersphere Chris Addison makes a naff reference to the death of Steve Jobs explaining the proliferation of iPads in heaven, which is clearly not all it's cracked up to be, being cold, dark and apparently involving crime if the police siren is to be believed. Chris Addison makes an analogy to babies which serves in no way to explain or bear any relevance to the idea that the Nethersphere is an extension of existing consciousness rather than a "true" spiritual afterlife. Then a visitor turns up and we discover that the person Danny killed in Afghanistan (or Iraq I suppose) was a young boy upon whom he recklessly opened fire when checking a house in a battle zone.
No skeletons in his water closet.
In the real world, such as it is, the Cyberman imagery is extremely obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Doctor Chang reveals that the dead bodies have a "support exoskeleton" which Clara immediately deduces must be invisible. Why is Doctor Chang so accepting of all this? Is he from the future? I think it's kind of implied that he is, but it's really not clear. I guess "Into the Dalek" showed people from the future being uploaded so I suppose it's possible. Chang shows off "Dark Water" in which only "organic material" is visible. Pedantry time! Why does his suit disappear? Even if he was being a dreadful cad and wearing a polyester suit, that's still organic. He also makes a pervy joke about swimming pools 'cause obviously as a scientist he's a big old nerd and of course for Moffat that means he wants to trick people into exposing themselves as his only way of seeing anything arousing. Anyway, the only purpose of the Dark Water is to hide the presence of the Cybermen. Its invisibility qualities serve no other purpose whatsoever. There's a possible Malcolm Tucker reference when the psychic paper is alleged to show swearing. Back in the Nethersphere, Danny tries to be nice to the kid he shot. Does he expect that to work? Why does the kid want to see him anyway? Chris Addison dodges the question, so Moffat does too. Outside, Chang reveals that the company's founder discovered that TV white noise is actually a psychic message from the dead. Capaldi has to deliver the atrocious line "Can you just hurry up please or I'll hit you with my shoe." Chang reveals that the dead remain conscious in their bodies (somehow - New Who implying souls as usual), saying that this "never occurred" to anyone before. What? People have imagined that forever. I know I have. Moffat trying to seem clever again.
Says it all.
So it turns out everyone's begging not to be cremated to spare their bodies, which still have feeling. If they're dead, wouldn't the nervous system have stopped working? How can an uploaded mind, even if somehow still connected to a body, feel anything from the body if the body's dead? So dead people have more physical sensation than, say, paralysed people? It's bizarre. The Doctor appropriately enough declares it all a sham, arguing that "the dead are dead," that they're "just gone." Suddenly Danny's getting a call from Clara, but Clara's getting a call from Danny. How did that happen? "We've been scanning you telepathically since you came in." That's convenient. The skeletons all start standing up and the Doctor and Chang piss off leaving Clara alone. The Doctor's wondering what he's missing, asking "who would harvest dead bodies?" It's the Cybermen, as we see when the doors close, but it's still a valid question, or at least: why would the Cybermen need dead bodies? They're just old bones and stuff, what use would they be to the Cybermen? Isn't the point that they combine cybernetics with living organics? Surely an empty skeleton with no muscles or organs or brain would have no use whatsoever to them. Well, that wouldn't fit the spooky idea of the Cybermen turning skeletons into more Cybermen would it, so the issue is avoided. Missy stands around gloating and Chang reveals she's not a robot. He accepts the existence of robots then, so is he from the future? Missy says she'll not kill him until he says something nice, so in fear for his life he says something nice and she kills him. So long, Doctor Chang. What an odd character. I wonder what she would have done if he'd slagged her off.
"Can I have something to eat?"
Missy's claim that she's "feeling a bit emotional" is of course jutaxposed against the Cybermen, I suppose suggesting that cold reason is most dangerous in the hands of irrational people. The Doctor exclaims "Cybermen!" possibly surprised at their presence given that they would have no use for a bunch of old dead parts. Meanwhile Danny can't prove to Clara who he is, while Missy reveals that people in the Nethersphere only think they've gone to heaven. It's actually a "matrix data slice" which is a "Gallifreyan hard drive," evoking the weird dimensional computer storage of the Time Lords as seen in "The Deadly Assassin," "The Ultimate Foe" and so forth. Supposedly the dying minds are uploaded, edited and put back into their "upgraded" bodies. Again, wouldn't the Cybermen need living people? In fact why do they need minds? I guess that's the problem with the Cybermen, really: if they're so advanced and don't want emotions, why don't they just go full robot? The Doctor wonders "which Time Lady" she is and Missy says she's "the one you abandoned," presumably a last minute effort by Moffat to get people thinking it's going to be Romana or Susan or something. People had already been saying the Rani for months, as if Moffat would bring back an unpopular and little known character from the Eighties. It's like people who every year seem convinced Omega is going to come back. The Doctor heads through a tiny door and discovers himself bursting out of St Paul's Cathedral, Missy wondering if he didn't realise where he was. He shouldn't be too surprised, most of the time they can't escape from the middle of London.
"Simm? Bit rich for our blood now."
Back inside Danny keeps telling Clara that he loovs her, and she gets pissed off. Now the point here right is that Clara said those words were super special and unique from him right, at the beginning of the episode, right? Danny's trying to show how it's him that way? But it never pays off, Clara never acknowledges what he's doing, and we're left to assume that she's either too distraught or too dense to see it. Maybe Moffat's just playing with our expectations again or maybe he didn't even realise what he'd done. Either way she claims she wants to be with him, having to unleash the dreadful line "I have to be with Danny Pink." Unfortunately, no sentence involving the name "Danny Pink" is ever going to sound profound or genuinely emotional. Chris Addison encourages Danny to delete his emotions and the Cybermen emerge as Murray Gold bombast crashes in the background. The Doctor runs around yelling, Missy says it's too late and the human race is basically buggered with a bargepole because the dead outnumber the living. What use do the Cybermen have for dead bodies??? Then of course she reveals she's the Master. Holy shit! We only predicted that in the first episode! Much like River Song being Amy's daughter, I initially thought this would be too obvious to be true, but lo and behold here we are. The Master's back.
"But I thought all Time Lords were now
to be Seventies fan club members!"
I seem to remember finding "Dark Water" pretty intriguing at first broadcast but the plot's got more holes than the Seventh Doctor after he landed in San Francisco in 1999. We never find out what use the Cybermen actually have for dead bodies, there's no explanation for how or why the mind is somehow still connected to the dead body in the Nethersphere (apart from it being an elaborate trick to encourage people not to cremate anyone so they Cybermen can use their bodies for whatever reason) and we don't discover why Danny's accidental victim visited him. By this I mean that we don't find out in the next episode either. Danny just isn't interesting enough for me to care much about Clara's plight - I'm not a monster, they're fictional characters: if one dies, I have to be pretty bloody fond of the character to mind. The problem is, not enough happens: Danny dies and then talks to Chris Addison on the set of Blade Runner, the Doctor and Clara visit an imaginary volcano, and then they stand around in a building being fed plot exposition that isn't even true. Obviously as part one of two "Dark Water" has to set things up, but it's all either set up or pointless time wasting. The "drama" side of things is okay as they go, but its delight in constantly spelling itself out is tedious. The Master's reveal is incredibly obvious and the Doctor doesn't have nearly enough to do. I think the main thing that needed to be ditched here is the presence of the Cybermen, and they needed to spend less time over-emphasising the Doctor's, Clara's and Danny's feelings and more time establishing rules for the plot. It was interesting at first broadcast, but looking back what I can see are very murky waters indeed.

Why I Can't Get Behind Video Game Controversies

Video games, right? Sometimes their "culture" has "issues." I guess every medium goes through a phase - sort of like music did when rock 'n' roll started or literature did in the rise of the "populist" novel. I can't help but feel like these things are big issues for people living very different lives to my own. I can't really get behind most of these issues because I struggle to see why they're issues at all. Let's have a look.

1. The Unfortunate Practical Consequences of Video Game Reviews are Not the Fault of Reviews or Reviewers
Apparently some video game developers or publishers, basically the bosses, see scores on Metacritic and such and go "Eight out of ten? Better fire that whole team then." And that sucks. But it's not the fault of the review. Beyond the fact that I think in the present day games rise and fall based on hype and marketing rather than reviews, the fact of the matter is that that situation is the fault of the skewed priorities of businesses and the nature of neoliberal economics. It doesn't matter why a game got slagged off - maybe it was accused of being buggy, maybe it was accused of being sexist, whatever - if people lose their jobs, it's not the review or reviewer's fault. Imagine if Stephen Moffat was surfing the web and saw my review of Robot of Sherwood where I basically said it wasn't very good and thought "Well that's going to devalue the Doctor Who brand, better fire Mark Gatiss then." I feel as if I probably wouldn't be to blame.

2. Criticism, no matter how polemic, is not an Attack, and even if it is, it Doesn't Matter
Let's just say for example that an item of criticism argues that certain recurring elements in video games normalise and desensitise people to violence. I'm dancing around the issue here by going for violence, but I think that's for the best. Let's say an article or what have you says that all these pugnacious male protagonists in video games normalise male violence. Does that mean that the author is saying you, if you are a male person, are violent, predisposed to violence or becoming accepting of violence? No, it's just trying to say that it might be a trend in society. Let's say a critic comes out and says violent video games with male protagonists represent the fact that all men are naturally violent. So what, again? People make stupid generalisations all the time - I'm constantly impressed by the relentless quantity of them that I read in the comments sections of articles I irresistibly view through the trending section of Facebook to remind myself that much of the human race is pointlessly horrible and wilfully ignorant. Even the most vituperative critic doesn't know you personally. Until such time as that kind of criticism causes you to be ostracised by your friends, family, colleagues and so forth or gets you locked up - which is to say when hell freezes over - it doesn't matter.

3. Critics can't force anything to happen and aren't trying to anyway
Like I said, criticism is just criticism: just words, intended to persuade, perhaps, but not authoritative. I've seen it argued, bizarrely, that critical theory is a force of "social engineering." It's not. Empiricism can be - hopefully for the better, but that rather depends on the ideology behind it. In any event it's not forcing games to be made a certain way, or for people to behave a certain way, it's just commentary. Even people being lambasted on social media doesn't equate to censorship, and it works both ways too.

4. Video games being 'entertainment' doesn't mean anything
Entertainment means different things to different people. Video games aren't obliged to be "just entertaining", whatever that means, certainly not according to a narrow "just having fun" definition of entertainment. They can be as moralising or meaningful or philosophical or intellectual as they want. Even games as products, which is in fact most of them, are going to provide for a consumer base that they think will turn the most profit. If a for-profit video game (again, most of them) "panders" to a particular political agenda, for example, it's only because they think it will make them more money, not because they're trying to shape society. Even if they are, you don't have to listen. I think a big part of this has to do with an anti-intellectual streak in certain parts of society who think that because they don't understand or aren't interested in discourse (or take it too personally, see above) then it shouldn't exist. Why not?

5. Living in a smug echo chamber doesn't achieve anything
Even the most moderate people involved in these kinds of controversies seem to ultimately still think that they're pretty much completely right about everything and that their equivalent "opponents" are poor deluded fools. Generally they (the other moderates I mean) are just ordinary people hoping for the best. Obviously the rest are just a bunch of ideologues whose entire identity is bound up in their views and trolls stirring the pot but that's simply the way it is. Obviously bullies, harassers and so forth need to be dealt with, but the people spouting crap constantly are just getting worked up into a fuss over nothing, like I do about New Who.

6. "Gamers" and "game culture" are not homogeneous
I've read a tonne of stupid definitions of what constitutes a "gamer" in my time. I don't like the term "gamer" because I don't like labels. Labels mean applying someone else's definition to yourself, which in my opinion is a wilful reduction of your own agency (usually to achieve a sense of belonging). No one person or group of people can speak for "gamers," "game culture" or "gaming" as a hobby. That's just another kind of conformity. Then again, conformity has infected all permutations of "geek culture" for a long time - it's a form of tribalism which serves the interests of big corporations that make films, video games, merchandise and so on.
I've seen it argued that the problem with the generalisations from the other "side" is that no one is there to positively represent "gamers as a whole." Sorry, but there is no "gamers as a whole." If you feel the need to identify as a "gamer" that's your business, but "gamers" are not "a whole" except by stupid definitions like "well, people who just play casual games on mobile aren't..." and all that other pointless tribalistic crap. Why do you feel the need to fit into a group so badly?

Ultimately I will admit that I don't support the "video game controversy" for a few reasons:

1. I don't object whatsoever if there is "progressive" or what-have-you stuff in games or game reviews because it interests me, and also because honestly I think most of it is justified - that doesn't make me some kind of pro-totalitarian "cultural Marxist" trying to turn the world into one big Political Correctness State. Well, maybe some people would argue that it does, but whatev. Even if I was, it isn't a crime. I know some of the controversy people are actually "progressive" themselves. I don't really get what their issue is exactly, but at least see Point 4 below and Point 1 above. Furthermore, if you value "free speech" (whatever that means) you have to accept that it includes the freedom to criticise free speech (although I don't think these commentators are actually denying free speech, mostly just encouraging people not to be dicks).

2. I don't take it personally when people make generalisations about my sex/gender or ethnicity (because I realise they represent a generality and not specifics - in case you're wondering, they're the "privileged" ones)

3. While I enjoy entertaining gameplay, I also enjoy it when any and all of my entertainment interrogates sociopolitical issues because they interest me

4. I think the rampant cronyism between Triple-A publishers and major review sites like IGN is a far bigger problem than reviewers and indie developers having close ties or any consequent cronyism that may or may not be going on in that sector. Hell, I gave Depression Quest a positive review and I certainly don't know anyone involved in making it, I found it when trawling Steam Greenlight. Don't know what that makes me.

5. Too much of the taking-issue-side seems to involve "being a dick because I'm insecure and therefore angry" to an equal if not greater extent than justifiable complaints

6. I think both "sides" think the extremists on either "side" represent the "whole" (although I still think one "side" is more justified than the other, who mostly even in the most moderate cases just seem upset that their favourite game didn't get a good enough number out of 10 on one website or another - pro tip: most games, especially Triple A games, are shit)

7. I kind of think the whole thing shifts the blame away from neoliberal economics, which is the Blofeld-like spider at the heart of most of Western popular culture's problems, deploying useful idiots to distract from itself. I think the biggest problem with The Video Game Controversy is that its aims would notionally allow the Triple A industry to keep peddling glossy but empty corporate slop - the idea that people actually want slop, or at least defend slop because they're intimidated by the idea of more than slop, bothers me a bit. You're free to enjoy or even want slop, but don't pretend that there's anything noble about it.

Maybe this all seems like I'm namby-pambying around the issue but I can't help but think that a bit of namby-pambying wouldn't go astray. In any event it's just the opinion of this humble commentator. I'm not fond of conformity, even the kind that claims to be opposed to another (alleged) source of conformity, and I find people getting worked up into a frenzy about these kind of issues fairly exasperating. I know each "side" can accuse the other "side" of doing the same things it's done (although the idea that either "side" is a homogeneous entity seems fairly inaccurate) but ultimately I find it all to be largely ideological rather than rational and based on a lot of insecurity and other petty things. I think ultimately, the main points are these: criticism is not a personal attack (even if it seems like it is), the fault is not with reviewers (all criticism has its place, even the kind that basically just says "this is shit") and, most importantly of all, I now can feel secure that I posted something in January after delaying my Hobbit 3 and Doctor Who reviews.