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23.8.14

If I Should Become A Stranger

When I saw the first pictures of Peter Capaldi's Doctor costume I was uneasy. Something - well, a couple of things - didn't sit right with me.

The concept is fine. A crombie jacket, drainpipe trousers and clumpy boots? It sounds like exactly what a sophisticatedly bohemian time traveller should wear, referencing Capaldi's own background as an early 1980s art student while being versatile enough to pass for smart casual at any point since 1815.

And yet somehow the execution is contemporary where it should be timeless - the trousers too low in the crotch, the coat too tight across the chest, the boots neither real brogues nor classic bovver but a post-modern fusion of the two. It could hardly be more 2013 if he had Fucking Red Trousers and a hillbilly beard (not that there's anything inherently wrong with either), but more importantly it looks designed for effect - even tailored - rather than thrown together in a charity shop or appropriated. He could easily be playing the Master.

Steven Moffat has since said that as it's turned out, Capaldi's Doctor is changing outfits more than has been usual in the new series - not by decree, but just according to exigencies of the script - and that's probably just as well.

Because the other thing I noticed was the colours.  Red, white and navy blue. Now obviously, in referendum year my propaganda-sense is on a hair trigger and I'm alive to the possibility that I'm overinterpreting…

But.

It's been said so often it's become a nostrum that part of what makes Doctor Who so special is its "Britishness". As a piece of descriptive shorthand, it seems to have originated in American fandom during the Tom Baker years, but it's been recycled a lot both by critics and those involved with the show itself. It's almost always meant positively, and there's a lot of truth in it - but with repetition, a degree of intellectual laziness has crept in around the edges about what it actually means. It's begun to be conflated with a sort of post-Austin Powers post-Britpop Blairite kitsch modishness that's led in narratively unfortunate directions. I'll touch on some examples in a bit, but first I'd like to roll back and identify what I think are the key positive elements of the "Britishness" of Doctor Who.

Most obviously, of course, it's made here. The stories set on contemporary Earth tend to be set in England for straightforward logistical reasons, and with only occasional exceptions the cast are British even if they're playing Aztecs or Ood and the locations are British even when they're doubling for Australia or the Eye of Orion. But this is trivial. If a preponderance of English accents and occasional sight of a Routemaster bus were enough to engage a global audience, we'd be expecting season 36 of The New Avengers any week now.


I choose the comparison deliberately. Superficially, John Steed and the Doctor seem cut from the same template - enigmatic dandies who covertly fight evil armed with secret knowledge, the odd gadget and a series of loyal (usually glamorous female) companions. Steed, though, is a paid agent of British Intelligence, a less cynical and thuggish version of James Bond, acting with the full backing of a state to which he is in no sense an outsider. He is, in the parlance,  not only "one of us" but also "One of Us" for values of "Us" that on close analysis don't necessarily include all of us and certainly don't include the U.S.

The Doctor, however, is not one of us. He's just pretending. Everything that superficially makes him look and sound British - or even human - is an affectionate affectation. He's actually a member of a technologically advanced alien race who has deeply mixed feelings about the rules and history of his own culture and has therefore left it behind to experience others, in the process developing an appreciation for a wilder way of life and adopting the styles and customs of the natives he lives among.

Which, from a certain point of view, is pretty British behaviour.

What's going on in a lot of classic Doctor Who is a science-fictional transposition of British modern history to a cosmic stage. The Time Lords used to be masters of the universe, their engineering and transport systems enabling them to exploit lesser races almost without challenge, until for one reason or another (ethical enlightenment, imperial overstretch or cataclysmic war depending on who was writing a particular story - continuity has never been the series' strong point) they retreated to more of a hands-off observer role, imperfectly analogous to the UK's diminished role in world affairs after World War II. Post-colonial guilt is a massive subtext in a lot of the old series: time and again humans, even when individually portrayed as sympathetic, are technically in the position of invading some planet and oppressing the native lifeforms, much to the Doctor's dismay as he tries to prevent the inevitable eruption of violence. Cold War and/or 1914-style "powder keg" standoffs between mighty empires also appear frequently, as do environmental issues; and many of the show's most effective "monster" races are actually nightmarish distillations of aspects of modern life. In other words, although the pill is sweetened for younger viewers with several spoonfuls of pantomime hokum and weird creatures, it retains at its heart a connection to the British literary tradition of allegorical writing and satire that on its more respectable shelves includes Bunyan, Swift, Wells, Orwell and many many more.

It's that questioning, even mocking, edge that I think is the crux of the matter. Other SF tv shows also do allegory, and some have even done it well. Star Trek in both its original and next-generation forms was forever hanging its phaser fights on barely-veiled parables about prejudice of one kind or another, solving disputes with diplomacy rather than force or destroying alien despots with their own logical contradictions as much as good old Amer Earthling can-do spirit. But the cultural background was different, most crucially the assumption that "we" - humans and our allies in the Federation - are the good guys and can be relied on to do the right thing, even when our point of view representative is a cornfed young philanderer on his first starship command. It's back to that insider perspective. The USA in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, was a global superpower riding high on its own self-aggrandisement, and its mass media reflected that. Moral complexity and meditations on the legacy of empire were not on the agenda, and must have seemed deliciously exotic to American geeks watching The Power of Kroll on late night cable.

Robert Burns wrote: "Oh wad some pow'r the giftie gie us tae see oursel's as ithers see us! It would frae mony a blunder free us". At its very very best, Doctor Who is such a pow'r.

Unfortunately, there's a massive disconnect between this amorphous combination of literary heritage, low budgets, eccentricity and political philosophy as grouped under the heading of "Britishness"by critics and fans, and the way the same word is understood by marketing people and politicians, for whom it's all about positive association with Brand Britain iconography such as the Queen, the London skyline, Stonehenge, Winston Churchill, and wrapping the Union Jack over every available surface whether it's Billie Piper's torso or the hide of a 30th-Century space whale. And the longer the new series has gone on, the more this shallow iconicism has come to infect it.

Which must be how you end up with a piece of semiotic suicide like this:


Seriously, what? It's tempting to think that with a Scot as executive producer, the decision to associate the DW universe's foremost embodiment of intransigent narrowminded in-group psychopathy with the flag of the United Kingdom during a Scottish independence campaign was some sort of deliberate pisstake. But somehow, and call me crazy if you will, I can't imagine BBC Marketing ever signing off on the idea if that thought had even momentarily occurred to them.

More likely it's just one more example of the same infatuation with jingoism that's seen a 2000% rise in programming titled The (Great) British something or other since the SNP gained power at Holyrood, as the organisation seeks to demonstrate its value to a Tory government pending its charter review in 2016. It can't be easy making an ambitious, ideas-led anti-imperialist pulp series in such a climate (which maybe helps explain why so few recent stories seem to have been about anything), but the Doctor is spectacularly ill-suited to the role of anybody's flagbearer. Leave that shit to Bond.

You may recall that one of Better Together's threats a year or so ago was that Doctor Who wouldn't be broadcast in an independent Scotland. It was debunked at the time on the assumption that the threat was logistical, and would be overcome by some commercial arrangement or other as with the many other countries in which the programme's shown.

At this stage I'm more worried that the show itself will end up warped by political interference into something I won't even want to see. I'd better be wrong.


  

16.8.13

DC does the right thing... Will Marvel?

Bleeding Cool reports that, to avoid confusion with BeActive entertainment's multimedia sci-fi property Collider (which. coincidentally, I also did some work on early last year), DC/Vertigo has changed the name of its new sci-fi comic Collider to Federal Bureau of Physics from #2.

Go precedent!

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for a reply from Marvel to my letter about Agents of TIME, which got to their New York offices at the end of last month.

Watch this space for more details. Meanwhile, I'll have a fresh batch of the original minicomics for sale at Carlisle Megacon this Saturday. Get em while they're hot!!

21.7.13

Do You Remember the First T.I.M.E.

I've had to write to Marvel.

http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=46650

It's not that I think Mark Waid, a writer I respect and whose work I enjoy, has any intention or need to rip me off. I'm sure he was unaware of my prior use of the title, just as I was unaware of Mathew Jonson's until I googled it up last night.

Nor am I claiming that the idea of a government agency policing the flow of history is entirely without precedent: that goes back at least to Poul Anderson's Time Patrol, and has been widely imitated. Indeed, the Marvel Universe already has its own Time Variance Authority.

The fact remains, however, that I was the first to use "Agents of T.I.M.E." as a comic strip title, in a context that seems prima facie broadly similar to what Mark and Marvel are now planning, albeit minus the Hulk. And let's just say the "House of Ideas" has form when it comes to grabbing the titles of extant properties and then restricting the original owner's use thereof.

A case in point. And that was before they were bought by Disney.

So if I want to retain the right to exploit the Agents of T.I.M.E. mark further, I have to put Marvel on notice now before they get too attached to their version.  

Nothing personal, guys, but I was here first. Step off.

31.10.11

Agents of TIME

This is my strip from 24 Hour Comic Day 2011, written and drawn at Plan B Books in Glasgow between 3pm on Friday 30th September and 2pm on Saturday 1st October. Thanks to Tom and Pete for the coffee and to Garry McLaughlin of Cosmic Designs for organising things. If I'd tried to do this at home alone I'd have given up halfway through!