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In the Villa of Amen Stands a Solitary Candle

At the time, I think I more or less assumed The Next Day was David Bowie's farewell album. I neither expected his imminent demise nor discounted the possibility of an And The Day After That coming out in a few years' time once he had a backlog of songs again, whether he lived to see them compiled or not – but with its downbeat sound, recycled cover art and the lack of fanfare with which Where Are We Now was released, it felt every inch an old man's retirement project, hobby doodles to keep his hand in rather than anything particularly fresh and new.

Don't get me wrong, a new Bowie album at that point was a great thing to have, and it was solid, with a bunch of tracks that from any other source would be hailed as instant classics... but it was the "interesting later work" of an artist whose paradigm-shattering years were behind him.

And there's nothing wrong with that: David Bowie had long since earned the right to do whatever he liked without having to blow anyone's mind ever again. How much can you expect from one man? After THAT career, a few extra good choons at the end were bonus enough.

So when I saw the video for Blackstar a couple of months ago, I sat up and paid fucking attention. The plaintive opening stanza that titles this post hasn't left my mind since. Instantly I was a kid again, watching Ashes to Ashes on Top of the Pops and thinking "What IS this?"

I've seen some artistic comebacks in my time, but this wasn't just Dave the Beloved Entertainer with a surprise new song – this was Bowie the Legendary Weird and Fascinating Visionary Genius, back at the top of his game, knocking it out of the park at escape velocity, firing ideas, riddles and symbols out machinegun style at a world that thought it had caught up with him years ago, cackling "Think again, sunbeam!". 

The subsequent release of Lazarus and the full album drop last Friday confirmed that first impression. Haunting, challenging, blackly comic, roaming across genres and influences old and new (one song is in Nadsat, for crying out loud! How didn't that happen already?), it's slimmer and less cohesive than TND, but still arguably his best work in three decades. In retrospect, it seems obvious that cancer had given him a kick up the arse, or at least a final challenge worthy of of his talents: David Bowie versus Death Itself. But mortality and transformation have been such longstanding themes in his music that it wasn't obvious at all. It felt like a renaissance, not a valediction.

And now, abruptly, that's yer lot.

What a way to go. What an encore. That, ladies and gentlemen, is showmanship with a capital SHOWMANSHIP.

Always leave them wanting more.


To The Lord Smith of Kelvin, Greetings

Dear Robert,

Any devolution settlement which is intended to endure must recognise the ancient and established Scottish principle of popular sovereignty as the context in which power is distributed between the Crown and Parliaments of the Union: that Westminster has authority in certain matters by consent of the Scottish people for the benefit of the whole UK, but that the repatriation of any such power is for the Scottish people to claim by mandate rather than for the UK government to dispense or withhold.

Such a recognition in principle might allow some compromise between the negotiating parties on the detail of powers to be devolved in the short term. However, there are areas of present and emerging conflict between HMG and the Scottish people which must be resolved as a matter of urgency.

The most salient of these is taxation and public spending. It is no longer politically or economically sustainable for all Scottish tax revenue to pass through Whitehall before being allocated, but devolution of income tax alone would be to assign responsibility without power. Scotland must be expected to make a fair contribution to the UK Exchequer to pay for shared services, but the interests of fairness and transparency are best served by collecting all personal and commercial taxes at source in Scotland before the Union subscription is paid.

An exception, or special arrangements, might have to be made for National Insurance payments in order to maintain a common pensions framework. Realistically, however, pensions policy is likely to be reviewed in the next few years anyway and it would be as well to head off that conflict in advance. There are already significant cross-border policy faultlines in the social security system more broadly, notably over housing benefit; wholesale devolution of welfare policy and administration would avoid making these worse.

Beyond purely fiscal issues, the regulation of land use, natural resources and infrastructure must be brought fully within the competence of the Scottish Government. There is no justification for the management of Scotland's very physical substance to be beyond the democratic control of Scotland's people or subject to overrule by English legislators, any more than vice versa. The contrapuntal anomaly that Scottish members of the House of Commons can vote on English matters must not be addressed in isolation.

There is a strong case for a federal UK, but debate on, for example, whether England should have one parliament or several, must not be allowed to delay the Scottish reform process already under way.

Aspects of all the above may touch on relations with the European Union, and arrangements should be made by which Scotland can be directly represented in all negotiations and committees. This does not challenge the UK's right as the member state to appoint a delegate to the European Commission, as that role is not one in which national interests are advanced.

Finally, to restore confidence in the quality and transparency of public debate, a separate Scottish regulatory body for the press and media must be established, independent of political control, and given authority over future broadcasting provision and licensing. Members would ideally be elected. This need not take effect before the currently pending renewal of the BBC Charter, but it should form part of the media environment going forward, and would allow Scotland to retain the option of public service broadcasting whatever happens in the rest of the UK.

Thank you for consulting the Scottish public about their future. I hope it will be bright.

Yours sincerely,

Will Pickering

You can make your own recommendations to the Smith Commission at https://www.smith-commission.scot until the 31st of October.


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…


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.



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!!


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

I've had to write to Marvel.


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.