Doctor Who and the Cancellation Monster

NuWhoIs Doctor Who in danger of being cancelled? Well, first let's make the obvious point that it was already cancelled, back in 1989. So the question probably ought to be: is it in danger of being cancelled again.

To find out, join me on a fascinating journey through the last decade and a half of New Who...

 

The Ratings of Doom

If you've been keeping your ears to the Doctor Who rumour machine recently, you will doubtless have stumbled upon something declaring that current showrunner Chris Chibnall has "killed the show", and that doom is imminent. These rumours of impending disaster aren't actually that new – British newspaper The Sun has been reporting "lowest viewing figures ever" for Doctor Who for about a decade now… but that's a publication that loves to make titillating scandal out of anything and everything, and it's wise to take its stories with a grain of salt.

The truth is: Doctor Who's ratings have fallen steadily over the last decade or so. As indeed have the ratings for all television shows. A key reason for this is that broadcast television is now facing increasing competition from streaming services such as Netflix, and the battle for eyeballs has never been fiercer. Take a look at the following chart which shows the number of viewers (in millions) for another British television institution, the gritty soap Eastenders, versus the numbers for Doctor Who. Both show decline in both the highest and the lowest viewing figures in each year 2005-2019, with a number of spikes in the Who ratings corresponding to special events like the 50th Anniversary in 2013 or the debut of the first female Doctor in 2018. If we look at the ratings, it's fairly clear that Doctor Who is actually holding off the rot at least as well (if not better) than Eastenders.

Eastenders vs Doctor Who

But viewing figures are not the most interesting metric when it comes to judging the 'health' of a BBC show with respect to cancellation. That's because Auntie Beeb, as a public broadcaster, is willing to concede to the idea that not all of its programmes need to be as successful as Doctor Who at attracting viewers. For the last forty years, the BBC has commissioned reports on Audience Appreciation, which is presented as a number out of 100 known as the Appreciation Index (AI) that is calculated by getting people to rate shows out of ten, average the scores, and then multiplying the mean value by 10. Take a look at a graph of New Who's AI scores from 2005 to present:

Doctor Who AI Scores

The BBC doesn't like to share these figures for individual shows… but they do for Doctor Who because, well, the AI scores are consistently good. If you look at the image above, it looks like a steady decline, which indeed it has been (more on this below), but that's because I condensed the x-axis on the chart so we could see the changes clearly. Here's the same data shown with a zero point of origin on the vertical axis.

Doctor Who AI Scores.with origin

It's almost completely flat.

That's because New Who has never scored below 75 on its Audience Appreciation - even Love and Monsters managed to score a 76 (indicating an average audience review score of 7.6), which is below BBC One's target average of 81 but is still a very respectable score for any TV show to get.

Some quick disclaimers… the BBC changed data supplier in 2012, switching to online surveys and increasing the sample size from 1,000 to 20,000. This presumably means the later data is more accurate than the earlier data (in so much as any thermometer for aesthetic judgement can be accurate!), but there's no discernible impact from this particular change. Also, these ratings are based on people who watched the shows as they were broadcast and were exposed to all the surrounding media fuss, they were not taken in a controlled environment (neither would there be any point in doing so). This means, as we'll see shortly, there's some fascinating hype effects on the AI ratings for Doctor Who.

How low would AI have to drop before the show would be at risk of cancellation? Well, it's widely discussed that the start of Sylvester McCoy's time as the seventh Doctor in 1988 the classic show pulled in Appreciation Index scores of 60, with Bonny Langford's character of Mel being singled out for particular dislike. As the BBC report stated:

56% of respondents who answered a questionnaire on the Paradise Towers story wished – as seemed likely at one point during the course of this adventure – that she had been eaten.

As a start, then, we can eliminate any risk of the BBC cancelling a programme that is still pulling in average AI's of 80+, especially one that is (in the wake of what happened to Top Gear) their only remaining flagship brand for export. The scores would have to drop by 20 points or so for this to be a risk, and that's not even remotely close to what's happening.

But there's a lot more we can glean from trawling through the AI scores with a curious eye…

Arc of Entertainment

The annotated version of the blue chart (below) gives us an intriguing peek into what the audience for this show has thought about individual episodes, and allows us to take a closer look at what we might call the Arc of Entertainment for New Who. After some digging, I have several hypotheses as to the behaviour of the AI scores that might be interesting to mull.

Doctor Who AI Scores.Annotated2

Let's start with the lowest points. These are all during Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner's run. One is the oft-unpopular Love and Monsters, with its played-for-laughs monster, the Abzorbaloff. Honestly, while it may seem quite amazing that this one still pulled in a 76 this is a hugely inventive episode, and the genesis of the 'Doctor-lite' episodes that soon after give us the outstanding Blink. In many respects, this is a perfect example of Davies strengths and weaknesses – it's wildly creative (giving us an entirely new format for a Doctor Who episode), while also being hugely indulgent (it's sometimes rumoured that the monster is modelled on real-life Doctor Who superfan Ian Levine...). It divides fans, and the score of 76 reflects that divide – scores of 8 and 9 are being averaged with much more dismal values.

But then we get the other two episodes to score 76: Rose and The End of the World. Now among New Who fans, these are simply not stories that provoke obvious ire, and it seems to stand in some need of explanation as to why Rose in particular could rival Love and Monsters as allegedly the worst New Who episode according to Appreciation Index scores. However, there is a highly likely explanation for this. When New Who began to air, its audience included a great many classic Doctor Who fans, along with a (larger) number of newcomers with less or no experience of the franchise. Dedicated Whovians did not, on the whole, like Rose… it felt like a weak rehash of Spearhead from Space. Similarly, The End of the World took some flak for seemingly writing over some parts of the backstory (although, let's be honest, the Whoniverse has always been self-rewriting, as Moffat arguably parodies in The Big Bang). My suspicion is that these low ratings from (some) classic fans dragged these early episodes' AI scores down – but after that, the detractors simply stopped watching, and the AI scores begin to rise.

Another thing the AI scores reveal about Russell T. Davies stint as showrunner is that Davies mastered the build. I personally never liked his slightly slapdash way of building up to a climax at the end of each season, but I was weaned on Chris Claremont stories where the building up was far more textured (it's far easier to plan long-term stories in comics than in TV shows). The bottom line is, Davies method worked, and it did so despite largely hermetically sealed episodes, which is an incredibly difficult balancing act. The Parting of the Ways (series 1 finale), Doomsday (series 2 finale) and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (series 4 finale) all show huge spikes that speak of the immense satisfaction viewers felt as Davies arc stories paid off. (The series 3 finale also peaked above the rest of its series, but only just.)

But hang about – The Stolen Earth/Journey's End aren't just an end of series spike, they're the highest rated episodes of New Who ever at 91 approval. How is that possible? Call me a humbug, but those stories are pretty weak (at least some other Whovians agree with me on this). Yet they have two enormous advantages. Firstly, it was highly publicised that David Tennant was leaving, and Tennant was (and is) so popular that this hype train left its impact (even though it would be a year and a half before Davis and Tennant would actually bow out). Plus, bringing back both Captain Jack and Sarah Jane was an honest-to-goodness crowd-pleaser, and even more so for fans of Davies and Gardner's spin-off shows. Crossovers often do well in the short term. Hindsight doesn't always look back upon them kindly, though.

State of Gradual Decay

And so to Steven Moffat, a much more consistent showrunner than Davies in many respects. His only AI dud is Mark Gatiss' Sleep No More at 78 (just above Davies three barrel-scrapers with 76). It's another format-breaker like Love and Monsters, and it also divides fans. (I don't much like it, but I probably wouldn't single it out over other lacklustre moments in Capaldi's tenure). Moffat proved weaker with his series arc plotting than Davies, though, and his only end of series spike is his first one, The Big Bang. Look at the crash immediately afterwards with A Christmas Carol. Ouch. Loveable Matt Smith can't rescue this one from being a bummer. Moffat does, however, achieve something that Davies never quite managed – a spike for a series opener, Asylum of the Daleks. Another crowd-pleaser with a great story and tons of fan service (yes, you can buy my love with a Special Weapons Dalek), and the back door debut of Jenna Coleman to boot. Moffat's 50th Anniversary specials The Name of the Doctor/The Day of the Doctor are a huge spike at the end of series 7 - although we're 'only' talking 88, here, which is an utterly fantastic AI score that other shows would kill for, but amazingly not the 91 that Davies' fake-out exit achieved. And this is with David Tennant reprising his role as the Doctor, of course…

That failure to crest above the wave, despite frankly blowing all of Davies finales out of the water in terms of writing and production quality, is a sign of something that is going to seriously afflict Moffat's time as showrunner… audience fatigue. The AI scores are in a trajectory of consistent decline from the moment Moffat takes over – don't be fooled by the story that its Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker that kicked off a downward turn, the slowdown has been a decade in the making, and it's at its most tangible with Moffat's second Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Deep Breath, Capaldi's debut, is a notable dip from where the show had been previously (admittedly the anniversary was a tough act to follow!), and Capaldi's only readily apparent peak is World Enough and Time (which incidentally, I love), and that wasn't the finale for series 10, but merely the set up. The final two Capaldi episodes drop 2 points apiece, bowing out at just below where he came in. It is also during this period that Doctor Who merchandise sales drop, although to be fair, they peaked in Tennant's run and never recovered, just like Dalek toy sales in the sixties.

Doctor Who AI Scores.Annotated2

Finally, Chibnall and Whittaker. (I've duplicated the annotated chart here so you don't have to scroll so far to check it.) Here, the AI scores start to become seriously up-and-down, but the highs of 83 are directly in line with the fatigue effect that began with Matt Smith and made itself a comfortable rut during Capaldi's time in the TARDIS. Jodie Whittaker's debut in The Woman Who Fell to Earth is very healthy in AI terms, on par with stronger Capaldi/Moffat episodes certainly, and there's another bump with Spyfall (which personally I'm less fond of) – and then there's the gobsmacking Fugitive of the Judoon, which weirdly scores the same 83 approval as the first Whittaker story despite wildly greater love from the supportive parts of the fan-base. Something's definitely up here – what?

There are at least two factors that can help explain this pattern. Firstly, the contrasting down-strokes. The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos ("Worst. Finale. Ever." - although it's not actually a bad episode), Orphan 55, Praxeus, and Can You Hear Me? all dip notably into the high 70s, although none go below Orphan 55's disappointing 77 (justified in my view). When a show can't consistently satisfy the audience there's none of the hype boost that Tennant/Davies secured, and it means that better episodes score lower than if they were surrounded by stronger work.

The other problem is the fan revolt. I don't know what proportion of the Whovians at large is involved, certainly not enough to make the AI scores do anything other than preserve the general trend that began with Moffat's ascension to the throne, but as with those 76 scores for the first two New Who episodes, it inevitably drags down your AI scores down when you offend the fanbase. And whereas classic fans gave it up in two episodes, Whittaker/Chibnall haters apparently keep on watching, even though they're not enjoying themselves. But if this is a factor, it's a reminder that the disgruntled fans are in the minority, otherwise we really would be facing cancellation, instead of a continuation of the same general pattern since Tennant, Davies and Gardner left. Also, if we acknowledge this factor, we have to wonder what the scores would be if the rebels just stopped watching...

Who vs Who

Finally, I want to share this intriguing chart which shows all the episodes by each Doctor in order, even though taken out of context this will seem like priceless ammunition for the anti-fans. Frankly, we're all free to tell whatever story we wish, but what we see here offers a much more intriguing tale than just the long-running trend of decline.

Doctor vs Doctor AI Scores

Obviously, Whittaker is below Capaldi who is below Smith who is below Tennant. That's the audience fatigue effect I was talking about as much as anything (go back and check the blue charts above to confirm this). But we can look at this story very differently, not as a competition but as a means of drawing more general conclusions about the AI patterns of New Who.

  • Christopher Ecclestone fights from 76 up to a whopping 89, and goes out with a genuine bang. He and Davies (and Julie Gardner – she really ought to get more credit than she does) literally save the show here with this fight from "should be on BBC Two" to "centrepiece of Saturday night telly".
  • Tennant is wildly variable at the start, dipping to his 76 low in his first year in the role, but then wins the battle for hearts and minds and climbs all the way to his triumphant exit.
  • Matt Smith comes in higher than Tennant (he's riding on the love for Tennant, and the expectations that Moffat's episodes under Davies/Gardner had justifiably created), but it's all gently downhill from here, the show understandably unable to get back the national moment of hype created by Tennant's departure, even though the 50th anniversary gives it a great shot.
  • Capaldi's pattern is very much like Smith's, but further deflated by the fatigue effect – he too gets his exit peak, but it's slightly premature, his final two appearances all sliding downwards.
  • Jodie Whittaker's trace is nowhere near as stable as Capaldi's, but it's about the same jaggedness as Tennant and Smith at the same point, taking the overall trend in AI decline into account. It's almost as if – and stop me if you've heard this before – the show just went through a major transition and is still feeling out the consequences of that change...

I know I won't convince the anti-fans with any of this analysis, but that isn't really why I undertook this investigation. I was merely curious as to what the Audience Appreciate Index values would reveal if I examined them with a little data visualisation. Having shown you the results, let me finish with three claims that neatly bookend everything discussed above:

  1. Doctor Who is in no danger of cancellation. If you're hoping for this out of spite, I'd suggest stopping watching is a better strategy, because then you'll be genuinely in control of your own experience of Doctor Who going forward. (Big Finish would love your support if you do ditch the TV show.)
  2. New Who audience scores have steadily fallen since David Tennant announced his departure. The slide in AI scores began with the 'Year of Specials' (2009) and continued throughout Moffat's run and beyond. However, the falls are merely a few points in size, and the overall pattern remains essentially flat.
  3. Whittaker/Chibnall have not killed the show, and their next series together could potentially outperform Capaldi/Moffat at the equivalent point in their run, but the heavy-handed moralising will need to be handled more elegantly (all the low points in series 12 featured prominent 'lessons').

This is all rather exciting to me – I would rather a showrunner who is willing to take risks with new writers and suffers a few duds than someone who was consistent with their quality but whose shows were unambitious. The funny thing is, it seems like all the New Who showrunners fit that description, one way or another. Whatever happens next, I'm definitely not bored of the show… I'm ready for more.

What about you?

All data quoted belong to the BBC.


The Chibnall Gambit

Chibnall and Lambert.2-1.blendedWhen I last worked with Tom Baker, on the voice recordings for the recent Heretic Kingdoms games, he confessed to being rather disappointed with the scene Stephen Moffat had written for him in the fiftieth anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor. It seems he would have preferred to appear directly as the Doctor rather than as some sideways reference to his time in the role. Which just goes to show that no matter how hard a writer works on their Doctor Who script, how many fans you satisfy with your continuity kisses, and how much you can shock and delight with a ‘canon’ ball as huge as a secret incarnation, you still can’t please everyone. It’s something that the newest showrunner, Chris Chibnall, knows all too well.
 
Now that it’s all over, there’s a lot to take in from the aftermath of Chibnall’s second series at the helm - both on and off the screen. I have an enjoyably wide perspective in this regard since my kids and I have been simultaneously watching both the new episodes of the show and the classic Hinchcliffe and Holmes episodes - while my boys are also watching New Who from the beginning on the iPlayer, and I’m revisiting the black and white episodes and reconstructions in the cracks of my time. I’d love to do a tribute to the incredible Adventures with the Wife in Space with my children’s reactions - but it’s a lot more fun reading Sue Perryman’s bitchy honesty than it would be discovering that what my kids love more than anything is a really good monster. What I have gained, though, is a delightfully fractured perspective on three different yet closely related periods in the show’s history - the beginning, the revival, and now - and with it, something of a skeleton key to the mysterious world of Chibnall’s Who.
 
We were watching the last Hinchcliffe-Holmes story, The Talons of Weng Chiang, when Spyfall, Part 1 aired. Knowing that Robert Holmes had originally intended the villain in his Sherlock Holmes tribute to be the Master has very slightly blunted my enjoyment of it... it seems so obvious in retrospect. But Hinchcliffe was surely right to avoid having a double Master reveal in one season - and Spyfall was something of a let down for me precisely because I didn’t need yet another Master reveal, even with such a great casting as Sacha Dhawan. I mean, we’ve now had three in the past five series alone! Besides, they couldn’t possibly reveal the late Roger Delgado, and every Master since is inevitably something of a disappointment for me, with the possible exception of Derek Jacobi. I’m afraid I was never much of a fan of John Simm’s manic Master, and while Michelle Gomez is fabulous in everything, Missy was not quite enough to make Peter Capaldi’s episodes with her anything more than watchable diversions. Speaking of which: did Moffat plan that regeneration just so he could have one Doctor with a side of Master and one without (half rice, half chips)...? I don’t know, but I do know the fanbase wasn’t half as up in arms about that casting as Jodie Whittaker’s, despite Moffat laboriously foreshadowing this inevitability from 2013’s The Night of the Doctor onwards.
 
The official story in the newspapers is wall-to-wall outrage, of course. But it’s quite hard to discern how much of the alleged controversy around this year’s series was inflated by the tabloids’ insatiable need for muck to rake, and how much of it comes from the ever-irritable Whovian fanbase having more public means to bitch than ever before. In this respect, Paul Kirkley’s The Diehards of Doom (written during series 12, just a few weeks ago) might be the most insightful newspaper article on the show ever written. Frankly, the social media hashtag #NotMyDoctor feels darkly amusing me, because I thought it was common knowledge that “your Doctor” is the one you fell in love with as a child. It was Tom Baker for me, so I stopped watching the Peter Davison episodes in disgust because he was “not my Doctor”. But I still came to love these episodes when I returned to them, many years later. Besides, you don't have to like everything in a franchise to be a fan of it. I still like George Lucas' Star Wars movies (Caravan of Courage not withstanding), even though I don't want to pay Disney to watch their big budget fan fiction.
 
So here I am, a fan of these adventures in space and time since hiding behind the sofa for Genesis of the Daleks back in 1975’s season (sic) 12, and for the first time since Russell Davies’ sophomore outing as showrunner back in 2006’s series 2, or possibly Moffat's first run in 2010, I’m thoroughly enjoying the show rather than patiently waiting for that one truly great episode a year that we might just be lucky enough to get. And it’s not because new showrunner Chris Chibnall has fixed all the flaws in the show - this will never happen, thankfully! - it’s because he’s chosen a different set of flaws to everyone before him, a template for his ‘era’ that pays greater tribute to the earlier episodes than ever before while also shuffling the deck of narrative possibilities rather more than anyone else has dared. It’s a gamble, to be sure, just as every major change to a beloved franchise has to be. But it’s a calculated risk - one rooted in an evident affection for parts of the show’s history that don’t always get the love they deserve.
 
Chibnall’s tenure on New Who has been by far the closest in form to the episodes made under the very first producer, Verity Lambert (pictured above), even if he didn’t quite have the brass to make one of those purely historical stories that were a staple of William Hartnell's Doctor. Russell Davies dreamt up his template for the revived show by taking influence from the Fourth, Seventh, and (to a lesser extent) Third Doctors and blending it inexplicably (yet successfully) with British soap opera Eastenders. Stephen Moffat kept most of the foundation that Davies had laid (hell, he helped him lay it!), but mixed in a little of “his Doctor”, Peter Davidson (Number 5), specifically a lot of high concept psychodrama. I’ve already compared these two showrunners once before, the key point being that Davies had Moffat as his one exceptional writer (like Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe had Robert Holmes), but Moffat could not find a genius writer to apprentice under him as a future replacement, for all that he and Mark Gattiss had (and still have) a lot of fun working together. But I’m afraid no head writer on a sci-fi show ever managed a consistent flow of dynamite episodes without working with another writer - and before you suggest Dalek creator Terry Nation on Blake's 7, he had formidable assistance from fellow former Who writer Chris Boucher as script editor to bail him out... Chibnall, despite his unique strengths as showrunner, could still use some reliable back up behind him, for all that I am enjoying the writers he is choosing to work with, Vinay Patel in particular. (In earlier times, incidentally, the BBC would not let senior production crew also write episodes without special dispensation - I sometimes wish they’d go back to that policy).
 
What aspects of Chibnall’s regime hark back to the show’s first (and only female) producer? Well, as the very first Chibnall-helmed episode hinted at, the dismantling of the hermetically sealed episode. Oh sure, Davies and Moffat made some two parters, but in the tenure of the first two Doctors, one serial flowed into the next as a continuous narrative. The Daleks ended on a cliffhanger that set up The Edge of Destruction; the resolution to The Enemy of the World was in the first few minutes of The Web of Fear. While The Woman Who Fell To Earth did have an unexpected cliffhanger ending that is perfectly in keeping with the structure of these early Who stories (The Mind Robber inevitably invites comparison!), series 12 has mostly settled for a less ambitious compromise, mostly consisting of setting up the next story at the end of each episode, something not really done (regenerations notwithstanding) since the climax of The Hand of Fear teased The Deadly Assassin (which incidentally was perhaps the biggest single influence on Chibnall's series 12 finale, The Timeless Children).
 
The more significant echo of Lambert and those who immediately followed her is the return of the TARDIS family. This was integral to the show’s format right with the first episode, An Unearthly Child, which also featured three companions: Susan (the Doctor's granddaughter, swept under the continuity rug since 1983's The Five Doctors except in the semi-canonical Big Finish Eighth Doctor stories), and her school teachers at Coal Hill, Ian and Barbara. Multiple companions remained the norm until the Third Doctor appeared, when a single female companion became more-or-less standard. While the Fifth (under producer John Nathan Turner) tried the larger gang again with Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric, New Who only came as far as Moffat’s two and a half Ponds until Chibnall brought us back to the full crew’s complement of four, counting the Doctor herself.
 
Certain newspaper critics have consistently railed against the three newest companions, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz, whinging that it’s too many people and there’s not enough for them all to do. This somewhat misses the point. Davies’ biggest change in the show’s DNA was to make the companions the actual focus of the wider storylines, which Moffat continued during his reign. Chibnall goes back to the narrative being more often focused upon the events and characters introduced within the current episode. More companions thus allow both a larger cast of  secondary characters (The Haunting of Villa Diodati would not have worked as well in the earlier New Who series with a single companion), more choices in how to pair characters, and slower burning character development. In other words, it doesn’t matter that we had to wait until Can You Hear Me? to get solid character backstory for Yaz because committing to the TARDIS family format works precisely because you don’t need everyone to have an equal share of every story. TV shows used to know this; I’m at a loss to put a finger as to when everyone apparently forgot that an ensemble cast inherently thrives on its permutations. But for Doctor Who, certainly, that happened when Davies (boldly) wanted his companions to also be the arc stories, which Moffat kept running with even though his arc plotting was quite often the weakest part of his otherwise excellent writing. Fun, yes; surprising, yes; logical... not very often.
 
Chibnall seems willing to allow the slow burn. This misfired in series 11 in part because the climax was such a damp squib, and we were so used to the fellow at the control column pulling out all the stops and turning the nonsense up to full blast in the final episode. For all the problems in the previous set of episodes, though, I blame the transition - Moffat, after all, was already on the shop floor when he was handed the keys. Chibnall hadn’t written for Who in six years. Moffat had to go to him to discuss the job offer, because unlike Davies he simply didn’t have a writer he could hand over to with any confidence (Gattiss always had too many irons in the fire for Auntie Beeb to consider him a contender). And it wasn’t so much Chibnall’s previous Doctor Who scripts that got him the gig, frankly, but the fact he had successfully helmed Broadchurch and thus knew how to run a show - no small task!
 
Another thing Chibnall went ‘back to basics’ for, and another source of critical ire: the ‘lesson’. Chibnall does like the Doctor to indulge in a spot of “what did we learn this week”, alas. Yet Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational show, with time travel being intended as a facilitator for the sharing of historical knowledge - an amazing suggestion for 1963! However, you would be hard pressed during the Gothic monster golden age of Hinchcliffe and Holmes (1975 to 1977) to deduce an educational angle to any of those dark and utterly fabulous stories, and under Davies and Moffat the closest thing to a ‘lesson’ was sceptical rhetoric endlessly rammed down our throats - about which, I note, neither critic nor fan complained about, myself not withstanding (see the Religion in Science Fiction serial for a deep dive on this point). I can completely understand why some fans and critics think the lesson is out of place... but I cannot agree.
 
Chibnall has gone back to seeing the show as having an educational remit. Sometimes this works rather well (RosaDemons of the Punjab, The Witchfinders, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, The Haunting of Villa Diodati). Sometimes we get the clunky preaching of early Star Trek: The Next Generation (Arachnids in the UK, Orphan 55, Praxeus). The failed lessons usually crash and burn around environmental issues, since plenty of people know that something is terribly wrong in this regard, but no-one has a handle on anything close to cogent advice for dealing with the growing catastrophe, making attempts to provide lessons on the topic rather empty. I would hardly call anything in the current New Who ‘woke’ though, as if the liberally-minded were actually engaged in something new and not merely cherry picking which traditions to cherish - just like conservatives, actually! Besides, I don’t see that much difference between Chibnall's environmentalism and what Barry Letts green-lit in The Green Death back in 1973, or even Tom Baker’s Doctor initially refusing to help the Brigadier in 1975’s Terror of the Zygons because “it’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent upon a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense.”
 
What Chibnall is willing to do, though, which neither Davies nor Moffat could stomach, is to genuinely offer respect to everyone rather than undermining that intended message by singling out certain beliefs as worthy of contempt. No professional critic mentioned it, but I notice fantasy and sci-fi writer (and conservative Christian) Kyle Robert Schultz picked up on the same thing that leapt out at me from the astonishing Fugitive of the Judoon - and no, I don’t mean the rather spiffing ‘canon’ ball of inventing another new Doctor we didn’t know about! When Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor chastises the Judoon by saying “this is a place of worship, show some respect!” it is the first time the New Who Doctor has stood up for religious people rather than merely pitying them (The Satan Pit, Gridlock) or being outright venomous (The Parting of the Ways, Army of Ghosts, and so many more). You most likely don’t care about this issue, but it means a lot to those of us who have had to endure asinine ‘lessons’ under Moffat and Davies about what intelligent people ought to believe, as if tolerance should be bounded by acceptable belief and not by acceptable behaviour. The Doctor cannot love humanity and yet harbour prejudice against the majority of the species - it makes no sense at all. Chibnall has put the character back to respecting all cultures, and even let the Doctor invite a practicing Muslim to join the TARDIS team. It’s about time indeed.
 
Doctor Who has been hugely influential in my writing. I borrowed from Genesis of the Daleks when writing the showdown between Lewton (Rob Brydon) and the villainous cult leader Satrap (Nigel Planer) in Discworld Noir, thinking that nobody would notice because I genuinely underestimated the depth of the geeky love for Tom Baker as the Doctor. Then, knowing for certain that Tom’s fans ran deep and wide among the audience for videogames, I cast him twice in Heretic Kingdoms games along with other Doctor Who and Blake's 7 veterans like Robery Ashby, Stephen Greif, and Sally Knyvette, who I hope to work with again soon. In my philosophy books, Chaos Ethics begins with a direct reference to Doctor Who, and when I came to write The Virtuous Cyborg I was struck by the realisation that the only feasible way of understanding the Doctor's personal moral code is in terms of virtue. A recurring theme of the show is the idea that the right thing to do is never simply a matter of numbers. Jodie Whittaker's Doctor reaffirms this in The Haunting of Villa Diodati when she refuses to sacrifice Percy Shelley, even to prevent the Cybermen from rising again and saving billions of lives. The same theme occurs in that pivotal moment of Genesis of the Daleks when the Doctor rejects the Time Lord's injunction to inflict pre-emptive genocide upon the Daleks. There is a continuity of character here that matters to the identity of the show.
 
Maybe I’m the only person on the planet who really doesn’t care one way or the other whether we have a female Doctor incarnation - or two, for that matter! - all I care about is that the BBC keep making the show, and that some of the new episodes will be worth watching. Chibnall’s already achieved this, and in bringing in influences from earlier in the show’s history, he’s also tickled my fan bone rather magnificently. When the delightfully malevolent Zellin name-checks not just the Eternals and the Guardians but the Celestial Toymaker as well, that’s not just a kiss with continuity it’s a veritable snog with tongues! And even if you don’t like the new format, there’s surely no denying that the episodes have never looked or sounded so great. The production values are now so high that even the corridors everyone is running down are shot on location! And while Murray Gold’s scores were always up to the task at hand, Segun Akinola’s work is spectacular and his new arrangement of the theme tune is so much closer to the incredible Delia Derbyshire original than anything since - fitting, then, that the title sequence also reverts from the 1970’s vortex back to something more akin to the kaleidoscopic swirl of the original title sequence.
 
If you’re one of those younger Whovians who only knows New Who, you could be forgiven for thinking all this connectivity to the early days of the show is irrelevant. But everyone who has held the reigns of this beast of a franchise - a show so resilient it survives all changes and has even regenerated itself from death! - does so because of their love for a mythos that goes back to its earliest incarnation back in 1963, and must find ways to both inherit and reinvent its past and its lore in an endless (and often thankless) balancing act. Moffat knew it, Davies knew it, and Chibnall’s gambit is founded upon it. When he has Jo Martin’s Doctor (the zeroth Doctor? -1th?) say in the finale “Have you ever been limited by who you were before...?” it is not just part of the climax of the story, it is a gauntlet laid down to those truculent fans who deny the legitimacy of these episodes and these Doctors. Chibnall has put in the time as a fan, he knows his stuff, he has earned his time at the reigns of the show - and he’s at least as good as his predecessors at keeping it going.
 
It's no good making the show just for the diehards; that’s what Big Finish does with the Doctor Who audio adventures, and it must necessarily do so on a much lower budget... the TV show has to bring in a new and younger audience, secure a regular adult audience, and somehow satisfy the existing fanbase - despite the utter impossibility of achieving all of this! Yet this is a universe where impossibility is a negotiable concept, thanks primarily to people like Verity Lambert, Chris Chibnall, and everyone in between who has been willing to take on the inestimable challenges of a television programme like no other. If you want a show that never changes, go watch boxed sets of something that’s already finished. That way, you can know for certain what you’re getting yourself in for. Doctor Who, on the other hand, is - and always has been - joyously, chaotically, uncontrollably alive. I shall continue to relish it, from all its times and spaces, as long as I am too.
 
Love technology but don't want to end up like the Cybermen? Check out The Virtuous Cyborg - paperback and ebook out now!

Top Ten Cybergs

Purple Cybernetic FlightEvery purposeful network of beings and things forms a cyberg, where (like an iceberg) we only see a fraction of the entailed network and the rest lurks beyond our awareness most of the time. The complete inventory of beings and things entailed within each of these cybernetic networks would be challenging to enumerate, but we can approximate the scale of each cyberg by counting just the number of one kind of entity within it e.g. the number of humans, the number of computers.

To qualify as a cyberg at all, we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential. A nation is a good example: not every citizen knows every other citizen yet they are linked by a shared bureaucracy that integrates them all into one functional network. It is not enough for there to have been a common network of production – no matter how many people own a penknife, penknife-wielders do not have any ongoing relationship. Conversely, the exchange of media effectively links television stations and thus viewers such that while individual TV stations are modestly sized cybergs by contemporary standards, they aggregate into something far more substantial. (Religions are something of a borderline case in this regard, but I shall set these aside for now.)

In the list that follows, cybergs are listed in order of the size of a single indexed entity, either humans or devices. Everything listed is a gigacyberg, with no fewer than a billion entities embroiled in its network. This list is not intended to be definitive but merely indicative – it points to the general situation today from a perspective we would not normally consider.

Runners Up

A number of megacybergs narrowly missed the top ten, including the European Union (743 million), movies (about 800 million), and guns (875 million). More than 360,000 people die each year as a result of the gun cyberg, but this is by no means the most fatal of our cybernetic networks. If this list included religions, Christianity would be the number three gigacyberg (2.3 billion), Islam would be ranked jointly with Microsoft (1.5 billion), and the Hindu traditions would be a close runner up (900 million).

Joint 9th: Tencent and Google (1 billion)

Chinese internet giant Tencent and search colossus Google both have about a billion humans in their cyberg. Whereas Tencent does not lead Chinese search (that honour goes to Baidu) it has a tremendously diverse network of internet services, including the wildly successful competitive game service League of Legends. Google dominates search globally – but even this only allows it to squeak into the world’s biggest cybergs if we take its quoted figures as accurately gauging its scale. Pragmatically, the reach of the Google cyberg is probably greater than this conservative estimate – but it feels somehow fitting to show this young upstart beginning its climb towards the top of the heap...

8th: Cars (1.2 billion)

It is possible to drive completely around the world thanks to the extent that the car-human cyborg has emerged as the dominant lifeform on our planet. We have completely changed the ecology of almost every ecological biome by installing the infrastructure required to make cars a viable form of transportation. This is the world’s deadliest cyberg, taking more that 1.25 million human lives annually, and that figure does not include war deaths some would attribute to the oil industry that feeds this network.

7th and 6th: India and China (1.3 and 1.4 billion)

The only nations to qualify for this top ten list, India and China each have more than four times the population of the United States, and nearly twice the population of the European Union. China is the wealthier cyberg, with an economy four times the size of India’s, but both wield significant destructive power via their hundreds of nuclear weapons. However, they have less than 2.5% of the world’s nuclear stockpile, since the US and the Russian Federation hold 45% and 48% of the world’s nuclear weapons, a quantity far beyond any rational consideration.

5th: Microsoft (1.5 billion)

Despite no longer being the centre of attention in technology circles, Microsoft’s cyberg is 50% bigger than the certifiable size of Google’s, thanks to the continuing dominance of Windows, which has a 90% market share in desktops and laptops. That said, these are now only 20% of the robot market, which is dominated by smartphones (where Google enjoys 87% of the market). Microsoft is a cyberg in decline, unable to adequately break into the pocket robot marketplace, but jealously guarding its hold over other industrial cybergs.

4th: Television (1.6 billion)

That television enjoys only a marginal numerical advantage over Microsoft is a sign of how completely the computer has has positioned itself as the cybernetic successor to the notorious boob tube. Yet there is another lesson here: the television is not ubiquitous, being a cyberg that extends through only 20% of the planet’s population.

3rd: Facebook (2 billion)

Here again we get a sense of the power of the digital cybergs... it has taken a little over a decade for Facebook to become the first definitive 2 billion human cyberg owned by one corporate entity. By leveraging human social instincts – and largely by accident, for it was not originally designed to operate as a surrogate for relationships – Facebook has aggregated more humans into one walled garden than anything else.

2nd: The Internet (3.5 billion)

It is distributed, beyond outright control (but certainly open to influence) and is the largest electronic cyberg on our planet. The internet... so significant, most dictionaries think it deserves a capital letter, like a nation. But this is a cyberg on a scale beyond national bureaucracies, a network that links half the planet’s humans to almost all the planet’s computers. Cisco claims there were 8.7 billion devices connected to the internet in 2012. As cybergs go, this one is the most spectacular in scale and potential. Yet it is still arguably outstripped by at least one larger cyberg...

1st: Money (7.3 billion)

This was the first cybernetic network, the first technical system to spread around our planet as both practice and tacit relations. As humans have grown more populous, so too has money spread with us – including into the virtual spaces of the internet, where this cyberg now lives as much or more than it does in the pockets of its humans. It seems positively simplistic next to the other gigacybergs, yet it engulfs almost every human; I have estimated that only 1-2% of the population of our planet are not caught up in the commercial cybernetic system. The sheer ubiquity of money as a concept is so complete that politics hinges more around budgetary numbers than about questions of how to live. This is one of our first technologies, as old as civilisation – and it remains our most successful.

More cybervirtue next week.


Tip of the Cyberg

CybergDoes technology simply increase human capabilities? Or have we radically misjudged the extent and complexity of the ever-growing abundance of tools around us?

The astonishing advances in technological prowess in the prior century or so give an impression of infinite capabilities – the closest secular thought gets to imagining omnipotence. Thus we have no difficult envisioning (if we suspend critical judgment) techno-immortality, sentient robots, or interstellar travel. Indeed, science fiction is replete with these imaginary grails. This way of thinking about our tools – as personal enhancement – radically misleads us in several important ways (many of which I discuss in Chaos Ethics), but perhaps the most striking is the sense that equipped with any technology we act autonomously. This is always a subtle deceit.

Science fiction helps bring this confusion into focus. In Star Trek, the communicator, universal translator, phaser, transporter, and tricorder all do one thing perfectly (except when drama requires otherwise), to the extent that a Starfleet officer equipped with these things can appear anywhere, talk to anyone, scan anything to know what it is and what condition it is in, and – when push comes to shove – stun or kill on demand. All these capabilities occur literally at the push of a button. Where do these miracle tools come from? How does they work? It doesn’t matter; it’s high technology (hi-tech) – which is strikingly parallel to the magic-laden worlds of high fantasy. Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic should raise more questions than it does... even in the context of sword and sorcery, we are entitled to ask: where does the magic come from? What is expended when it is used? What are the unseen limitations to its usage?

In the Terminator movie franchise, mankind in the future has been driven to the brink of extinction by robotic killing machines humanity made without thinking. That much of its setting is not hard to believe, particularly when you see the effortlessness with which the armed drone made battlefield honour obsolete. Yet against the backdrop of a total collapse of civilisation and killer robots prowling everywhere,the Resistance movement in the future depicted by Terminator: Salvation somehow maintains safe houses, feeds the survivors, even operate fighter planes. The aeroplane sits in our mind like the tricorder and communicator – autonomous once paired with a human. But as Bruno Latour never tires of reminding us: airplanes do not fly, it is airlines that fly. In stark contradistinction with what we see in a Terminator movie, no plane takes to the air without their logistical supply chains bringing fuel, their air traffic control networks managing flight paths, their support personnel performing essential maintenance.

Technology is not magic, and even fictional portrayals of magic are not as autonomous as we imagine our tools make us. There is a stark difference between hammers, binoculars, and a wind-up torch on the one hand and computers, cars, and airplanes on the other. While both sets of examples are manufactured by complex meshes of people and things, the latter list also require a complex network just to operate, a point brought into clear focus by the actor-network theory developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour. If a cyborg is what occurs when an organism is cybernetically enhanced by a tool like a hammer, we can call the network that produces and maintains the more complicated cyborgs like cars-and-their-drivers or computers-and-their-users, a cyberg.

The iceberg famously has only 10% of its mass above the waterline, and thus only its top is visible to the casual observer. So it is with the cyberg – the cybernetic network required by the more convoluted of our technologies. We see only the cyborg – the car and it’s driver – and not the cyberg that makes it possible. When it comes to technology we are perpetually shallow sighted: we see only the ‘surface’ of the network, so flat that it can be expressed as a one-dimensional array or list (car, driver, fuel, road). If we manage somehow to become more deep-sighted, we can recognise the relations and dependencies that give the cyberg it’s network-qualities (ore mines, smelting mills, factories, oil rigs, refineries and far more besides). These dependencies rapidly become tangential and obscure: an oil rig has scuba divers who repair the metal structure when it corrodes with arc welders entirely unique to their profession, but who is deep sighted enough to think of the factories making hyperbaric welding kits or compressed air tank regulators when looking at a car?

It is the cyberg that defines our technological situation, more so than the scientific research projects that we (somewhat naively) see as feeding directly into new tools, like the magician conjuring a new alchemical potion out of thin air, having expended nothing but time. What is more, we can measure our depth into cyberg existence by looking at the numbers of people and things involved in the cybernetic network. A hammer made a millennia ago involved a miner and a blacksmith, a mule and a horse, a mine, a furnace and trees; no more than about a hundred beings and things were entailed in this early cyberg example. A functionally identical hammer today would entail a network of ten thousand beings and things, or even a hundred thousand.

Our cybergs get bigger, deeper, wider, and as they do our autonomy recedes even while the imagined scope of our autonomy grows. This is part of the technological blindness I have previously called cyberfetish and am here marking as shallow-sightedness; our strange capacity to see only the powers and potentials of our new tools, but to overlook or underjudge their consequences. Precisely because we have moved from tools that could be made by individuals or villages to tools that require nations or corporations to build and maintain, we live at a time where the cyberg is the measure of both possibility and catastrophe.

Although I have introduced the idea of a cyberg through the extended frameworks behind a specific tool, the concept behind these cybernetic meshes applies whenever beings and things are linked together into extended networks. When Benedict Anderson observed that the printing press allowed the imagined communities we call nations to form, his argument can be read as saying that nations are cybergs. Every corporation is a cyberg, constituted slightly differently from nations, but in the last half century rivaling and exceeding them for power and influence. Every one of us is embroiled and imbricated in cybernetic networks of such scope and influence as to make a mockery of our mythos of technological empowerment. For when it comes to our tools, the enhancement of our personal agency is truly just the tip of the cyberg.

Next week: Top Ten Cybergs


A Study in Psylocke

A Study in Psylocke was a short two-part serial that ran here at Only a Game from July 5th to 12th 2016. Effectively a sequel to Corporate Megatexts, it examined the relationship between the different comic series that featured Betsy Braddock (who becomes Psylocke), the circumstances in the Marvel offices surrounding her transformations, and the challenges involved in bringing such a racially ambiguous character into the X-Men movies.

The two parts are:

  1. Betsy Braddock
  2. Olivia Munn

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


A Study in Psylocke (2): Olivia Munn

Munn as PsylockeLast week, I discussed the circumstances surrounding Betsy Braddock A.K.A. Psylocke both inside the fictional world of the X-Men comics, and within the offices where her stories were created. This week, I want to pick up this megatextual odyssey by turning our attention to the big screen narrative offshoot established by 2000’s X-Men. After two successful X-Men movies, Bryan Singer walked away to direct the disappointing Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to complete the original trilogy with the choppy mess that is 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. One of the bit parts in that movie is a mutant called (so the credits claim) Psylocke, played by Meiling Melançon. You could be forgiven for not connecting Melançon’s character to Betsy Braddock, however, or indeed for never noticing her at all. In a very practical sense, the opportunity to bring Psylocke to the big screen was still substantially open.

 

Enter: The Munn

We come at last to Olivia Munn’s role in our story. She was auditioning for the role of Vanessa for Deadpool when somebody (nobody seems clear who) spotted the potential for Munn to play Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. Another significant ambiguity is whether Psylocke had been written into the screenplay for that movie by this time, as she wasn’t originally part of the plan. Indeed, the Fourth Horseman would have been Xavier, a plan that began to feel hollow during production, since James McAvoy does very little in the final act of the movie beyond whinging. So a mutant character needed shoehorning into the story to make up the requisite number of minions for the dullest of all X-villains, Apocalypse. Whether because Munn had been auditioning for a role in Fox’s branch of the Marvel movie megatext and an opportunity was spotted, or because Psylocke had already been chosen to plug the gap in the story (which seems less likely), Munn was thus brought into the production.

This helps explain in part why Psylocke has so little backstory in the film, and very little to do other than provide another foe to fight in the rather flat final act. But the other side to this coin is that it would have been highly difficult to provide any context or origin story for Psylocke for the reasons explored last week: Betsy’s character is a clunky amalgam of three separate storylines,  the Captain Britain continuity from Marvel UK, the original Psylocke character that brought her to the US comics, and the Jim Lee-designed Lady Mandarin Psylocke who has lost all the vulnerability and ambiguity of Betsy’s previous incarnations and serves as yet another kick-ass anti-heroine to throw on the pile of scrappy new characters added to the X-megatext by the future Image artists (e.g. Gambit by Lee and Claremont, Cable and Deadpool by Liefeld).

Adding Psylocke to the already crowded story-space of Apocalypse must have presented director Bryan Singer with something of a conundrum. There wasn’t enough narrative space to do justice to the characters they already had, especially since Singer set himself the task of getting a solid X-Men team together by the close of business but had only Beast, Professor X, and Havoc left in play at the end of Days of Future Past. (I’m not counting Mystique, whose role has been utterly transformed in the movie megatext from second string villain to full-on heroine through the sheer popularity of Jennifer Lawrence). There was no plausible way anything substantial could be done with Psylocke. So what to do?

The first play in circumventing this problem was a stroke of simplistic genius: Singer announced Munn’s casting on Instagram by saying:

Excited to welcome @oliviamunn as Betsy Braddock! #Psylocke #XmenApocalypse #XMEN

The key point here is that he announced that Munn would be playing Betsy Braddock, which was not strictly the case. The credits to Apocalypse report only that Munn’s role is Psylocke, which is also the only name that is ever used to address her on screen. So here we have a situation whereby if we take solely the movie as our source of canonicity, Singer’s announcement is either incorrect, or a lie. But of course, the ultimate source of all canonicity in anything licensed from the X-men comics are the comics themselves – these are always serving as subsidiary props in the background of the ‘games’ being played by those who are watching the movies whenever they possess the relevant background knowledge of the comics, a complex form of play I explored in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”.

 

Playing with the Backgrounds

When creating high-profile derivative works from a corporate megatext, you have unusual choices. As long as nothing in the foreground narrative (the X-Men movies, in this case) contradicts an element of the subsidiary text (the comics in this case), the ‘players’ of the movie are free to establish the viable narrative connections in their own minds. So as long as Psylocke as presented as having plausible continuity with her comic progenitor, fans of Psylocke are free to inject her backstory into their experiences of the movies along whatever lines of imagined adaptation they want to apply. Movie-goers without the knowledge of the source megatext are excluded from this game, of course, but to them Psylocke is just another bit player in a film franchise that is packed with such throwaway extras – just look at first draft of movie-version Psylocke in The Last Stand.

Now whether through agreement with Singer or just brilliant PR instincts from Munn or her agent at EBA (most likely through Munn’s own well-developed geek-sense), Munn takes the gift that Singer provided the fans by publicly announcing she was playing Betsy (rather than just Psylocke) and spins it into a brilliant piece of extra-textual play. For through a single press interview that was picked up and run through dozens of nerd-leaning internet news sources like Screen Rant, Collider, and Nerdist, Munn takes the foundation Singer had provided and builds upon it every possibility that could be used to support just about every game of canonicity-alignment any sufficiently interested X-nerd might want to play. Here’s a great example:

If Psylocke had a chance to tell her story, it would be great to start with the genesis… I think maybe like right as she’s getting out of university and before her whole family… We jump in right before all of her family is taken out and we have an understanding of what she had to lose. Then her figuring out he powers and how powerful she is. It’s something that I always loved about her. That she came from a good family and lost everything. Yeah, I would just like to tell that story.

Yet of course, if the comics canonicity was to be held faithfully, it would be essentially impossible for Munn to tell that story – for Betsy at this point is a blonde Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. And cast your imagination around how you like, you’ll not find a viable way for the first part of Betsy’s backstory to be comfortably converted to the big screen, nor for that matter for something as offbeat as Mojo and Spiral to be part of the events, nor for that matter the Ninjas-R-Us craziness of the Lady Mandarin story, whether in Claremont’s original form or Nicieza’s retroactive adjustments. Betsy’s story, in its most canonical form, is simply unfilmable. But Fox never needed to offer it on the big screen, because Singer and Munn had managed to offer fans a chance to play this game themselves, without creating any complexities for the film franchise.

In no way am I impugning Munn’s honour in drawing out this strange and wonderful side story that hangs ethereally off both the comic and the movie megatexts, bridging the two without ever having to establish anything substantial. Even if it is taken that the above quote invites the inference that Munn is falsely claiming to have read the Marvel UK Captain Britain stories (which she could not have done directly as they were UK-only) no US nerd could viably indict her since they too, like Munn, must have picked up this backstory from secondary sources, of which there are an endless supply of options, from trade paperbacks to internet databases. Honestly, I admire the way Munn managed to generate such incredible publicity from nothing more than the appeal of canonicity and the faithfulness of X-fans. I challenge anyone to find such commitment to a frankly minor acting role in any other corporate megatext adaptation ever.

But because of Psylocke’s canonical history, it would have been impossible for Munn to ever portray Betsy’s backstory without transforming it to the point that it was no longer canonical, thus breaking with the faithful community that care about such matters. All that could be done was to hold out a hope, a carrot of possibility, that would enable fans to create their own bridging stories in their minds. Precisely because storytelling with corporate megatexts concerns a manifold of practices, a set of different ways of drawing connections across impossibly distinct continuities, the satisfaction of the fanbase has become a vital corporate practice whenever adaptation is in play.

The management of the kinds of possibilities I have outlined here are now absurdly big business – a billion dollar business, indeed – and the risks of a misstep cannot simply be ignored or taken for granted. We geeks have a strange kind of powerful powerlessness: we were essential to the initial commercial success of any and all comics that come into contention for adaptation, and we are equally central to the hype-making and cross-megatext story-weaving practices that accompany transitions into television and film. Yet, we are also expendable, in the sense that satisfying the punters in the cinema or the binging box-setter is vastly more important to on-going commercial success than placating fanboys, fangirls, or other kinds of fan-entities. While it’s true that the corporations need us more than we need them, for those of us whose imagination and loyalty is bound to contemporary megatexts, the dependencies are far harder to unravel.

More nonsense soon.


A Study in Psylocke (1): Betsy Braddock

Captain Britain No13.borderWith X-Men: Apocalypse now leaving the movie theatres having pulled in decent box office returns but lacklustre critical response, the future of Olivia Munn as purple-haired mutant miscreant Psylocke is currently a matter of speculation. Here is a situation where the demands of adapting from a corporate megatext into a substantially more commercially valuable subsidiary megatext create subtle and awkward pressures. Psylocke, now a fan favourite in the comics, has a long and complex history that vastly predates her transformation into the Asian character that Munn was a fit for – and Betsy Braddock, who becomes Psylocke, was in no way Asian, and indeed, was resolutely and inescapably Anglo-Saxon British. What are we to make of this strange collision of ethnicities, and what can it tell us about contemporary megatexts?

 

Psylocke in the World of Marvel Comics

The choice of Olivia Munn to play Psylocke on the big screen is an act of casting genius on behalf of either Ronna Kress or Roger Mussenden, or one of their minions. Not only is Munn the spitting image of recent forms of the psychic knife-wielding fan favourite, the complex web of cultural forces bearing upon Munn’s childhood provide a plausible means of dismissing just about any ethnic argument that could possibly have been advanced against this casting decision. I wrote recently about Jon Tsuei’s objections to the casting of Scarlett Johanson as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi as part of the Corporate Megatexts serial. The issue there was the casting of a non-Asian actress in a quintessentially Asian role, and the corresponding undermining of authenticity this engendered in the community around Ghost in the Shell. In the case of Munn’s casting, however, the Gordian knot that exists around Betsy Braddock provides no viable means for any equivalent complaint to be levelled.

But there is still a potential authenticity crisis surrounding the transferral of Psylocke to Fox’s cinematic adaptation of the X-comics megatext, and it is one that has been handled with either ingenious strategy or great luck on behalf of prodigal director Bryan Singer, the founder of the movie branch of the X-Men narrative tree. At its heart lies the problems entailed in taking a character whose backstory in the source materials is utterly unadaptable to a movie format, and which includes within it an ethnicity conflict that would have generated substantial furore had it occurred anywhere but pre-internet comics. Actually, that’s not strictly the case: there was an internet at the time, but it was largely only accessible to elite computer nerds, and it was substantially before its mainstream adoption, and certainly before internet nerds were a community with a power base that needed to be wrangled. Before we can adequately explore this topic, however, it is necessary to recap the rather strange biography of a character who had very little fan support before her transformation into ‘psychic ninja’.

Betsy Braddock debuts as part of the 1970s line up of comics published by Marvel UK. There is very little talk about this offshoot of Marvel Comics, which is unfortunate as incredible work was done by writers such as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons on the Doctor Who magazine (which, under a different publisher, continues today), not to mention in original stories never printed in the US for Star Wars Weekly by Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Michael Golden and, once again, Alan Moore. But the lasting legacy of these unique British comics in Marvel’s superhero megatext is the creation of Betsy Braddock, who will eventually become Psylocke. Betsy, it should be clear is British… indeed, English, and a daughter of the aristocracy. Chris Claremont, writing for Marvel UK, added Betsy to Captain Britain (another UK-only title) in 1976. Her notorious purple hair begins as a dye in 1983, in a storyline by Alan Moore and Alan Davies, and she goes on to have a stint as Captain Britain in one fateful Alan Davies issue from January 1986 (pictured above), long before Marvel US took a penchant for gender-switching key characters. It ends badly for her, and she loses both of her eyes.

Claremont, never one to waste a loose end, rolls Betsy back into his run on Uncanny X-Men in the back end of the 1980s. In October 1986, nine months after Davies had left her blinded and broken as Captain Britain, Claremont and Davies remake the character via the second annual of The New Mutants, marking her first appearance in the US marvel comics, the creation of her new identity as Psylocke, and the changing of her natural hair colour from blonde to the trademark purple. The transformation is pure comic book hokum, and happens as a result of tinkering by Mojo and Spiral, two wonderfully peculiar extra-dimensional villains created by Ann Nocenti and Arthur Adams the previous year. But the strange creation of telepathic plot device Psylocke out of Betsy Braddock is dwarfed in weirdness by her metamorphosis into Lady Mandarin as Claremont’s contribution to the 1989-90 Acts of Vengeance crossover. Marvel’s bottomless bucket of ninjas, the Hand, somehow remake Betsy into a Japanese psychic ninja (later retconned to a body swap by Fabian Nicieza in 1993), making her one of very few fictional characters to have changed ethnicity. It is this that establishes the utterly English Betsy as now definitively Asian (specifically, Japanese), and kicks off a previously unprecedented popularity for Psylocke.

 

Psylocke in the World of the Marvel Offices

The circumstances of the ethnicity transplant that made Psylocke’s career are a source of tremendous speculation, and particularly because it involves one of the most pivotal writer-artist encounters in comics history. Many fans suspect that Korean-American artist, Jim Lee, who was the artist on the X-Men’s Acts of Vengeance issues, somehow pushed for the new look Psylocke. But this isn’t entirely plausible. Lee was 25 in 1989 and a virtual newcomer to comics while writer Chris Claremont was 39 and had worked on Uncanny X-Men for an unprecedented 14 years at that point. (Claremont’s work on these comics had vast influence on other writers, not least of which upon future nerd-god Joss Whedon.) Claremont and Lee had first worked together on issue 248, when regular artist Marc Silvestri wasn’t available, after which Lee returned to replace Silvestri for the three issues in question. Interviews with both have failed to reveal any way in which Lee influenced Claremont, and it’s unlikely he did: Lee was a newcomer and Claremont was a legendary veteran; at this point in time, Claremont would certainly have been in the driving seat.

Examining the construction of the panels in issues 256-258 reveal great attention to details that clearly come from Claremont’s plotting – such as detailed references to Betsy’s earlier life and the dream-twisted inclusion of Mojo and Spiral, all of which demonstrate connectivity to the longer narrative arcs Lee would have known little or nothing about. Clearly, Claremont was in control of the storytelling at this time, yet he would certainly have seen Lee’s sketchpad, and would have had a sense of the new artist’s strengths. It seems far more plausible to surmise that Claremont created the Lady Mandarin plot as a vehicle for Lee’s talents. Allegedly, Psyclocke would have reverted back to her Anglo-Saxon body soon after – but the popularity of the character as drawn by Lee was too great for a reversion, or for matters to remain the same as they had been at Marvel. Lee was soon signed on as the regular artist, and he (and other talented artists such as Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and the aforementioned Marc Silvestri) began to be recognised by new Marvel comics X-titles group editor, Bob Harras, as critical to the growing popularity of the franchise.

Psylocke thus becomes a symbol for the transformation of Marvel Comics at this time, precisely because her radically more popular post-Lee poster-art form usurps some of the narrative control from established writer Claremont. Claremont and Lee produce the first three issues of new hyperbole free X-Men in 1991, after which Claremont quits, citing a lack of support from Harras whose mandate was to keep their new hotshot artists happy so that sales could continue to build. The first issue of X-Men is the highest selling comic of all time – because Marvel printed five different versions of it, and foolish fans (including 19 year old me) bought every version, thinking they would grow in value like other number 1 issues in the past. Marvel sold 8 million copies, mostly five at a time to befuddled nerds with a sketchy grasp of economics. Afterwards, not only Claremont but many of the fans left because, like me, they felt manipulated and used, and no longer wanted to support Marvel’s lust for profits over storytelling.

Despite the compromises that Harras made to try and keep Lee and the other artists at Marvel, they all eventually broke away (in what has been dubbed, in tribute to the awful crossover names of the time, ‘the X-odus’) and founded Image Comics, a revolutionary artist-owned line of comics, which with the exception of McFarlane’s Spawn did not have a great deal of commercial power until Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead in 2003. Lee may not have enjoyed tremendous success with his Image title, WildC.A.T.s (which always felt rather too much like a second rate X-comic clone), but his nearly limitless popularity with fans ultimately led to him becoming co-publisher at DC Comics in 2010, effectively taking the top job at Marvel’s biggest rival. (Bob Harras, who had joined Lee at his Image company, Wildstorm, was appointed editor-in-chief and Vice President at DC, seven months after Lee was handed his half of the crown.)

Through both her transformation and the circumstances surrounding it, Betsy Braddock, an obscure scion of long defunct Marvel UK, symbolises the transition of Marvel from comics publisher to media corporation, a change that reaches its apex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But before Marvel worked out how to effectively monetise their stories through making movies of their own, there was Bryan Singer’s hit licensed film X-Men in 2000. And that lucrative franchise extension is where Olivia Munn comes into Psylocke’s megatextual story.

Next week, the final part: Olivia Munn


Prezi: Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to the Red Gallery (or for interested souls not able to make it to the Futurism v Fatalism event), here is my Prezi for my presentation Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow so you can explore it with me:

Click the button to start the Prezi, then use the arrows (or arrow keys) to advance the slides, or you can explore the content freely by zooming in and out and dragging the canvas. I also recommend using the button in the bottom right to put it into full screen. You can also view it over at the Prezi website by following this link for the Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow Prezi.


Corporate Megatexts

Corporate Megatexts was a serial in three parts that ran here at Only a Game from May 3rd to 17th 2016. It considered the way that we ‘play’ with the fictional worlds of books, movies, and TV shows as if they comprised a single conherent setting and the conflict between authentic expansion of such megatexts and the commercial custodianship required to make this happen. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Canonicity
  3. Faithfulness

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


Corporate Megatexts (3): Faithfulness

Flash Gordon Star WarsThere are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.

Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.

Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.

At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).

The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.

A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.

Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.

This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.

So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.

My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.

Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.

A new serial begins later this year.