Roger Moore’s Dangerous Teenager

A blog-letter to Jed Pressgrove of Film Quarantine as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Roger MooreDear Jed,
A short while ago, whilst working through all the James Bond movies, you declared that you were coming to the conclusion that was no such thing as a good Roger Moore Bond film. But I have quite a different take: there’s no such thing as a bad Roger Moore Bond movie - only different ways to appreciate the brilliance of Roger Moore Bond movies. Yes, they are sexist, but markedly less so than Sean Connery Bond movies. Yes, they have content that if filmed today would be outrageously racist, but they were not filmed today and the cringes of hindsight do not undo the gains for cultural inclusion these films may strangely have achieved. Indeed, so much do I rate the late Roger Moore’s stint as Bond that for our first family movie night experience, my wife and I choose these films for my three sons to share with us. Are we mad? Probably. But there is definitely method to our madness and I should like to share that with you without any attempt to persuade you that your perception of these films is mistaken. It is not. I rather suspect you just haven’t the prior experience required to enjoy these particular (very particular!) movies.

My wife is from Tennessee like you (unless I’m mistaken) and comes to Bond on my suggestion having really loved the first (and only the first) Austin Powers film. As such, the Sean Connery Bond movies were a Where’s Waldo? extravaganza for her! “It’s Doctor Evil!” she exclaimed upon seeing Blofeld for the first time because, well, of course it undeniably is. When we finished watching the first Roger Moore outing, Live and Let Die, she declared “I don’t know if that was the best movie I’ve ever seen or the worst.” That is the greatest description - and highest praise! - of Moore’s Bond films I can imagine. For you must be able to enjoy bad movies for what they are good at to love Moore as Bond. The 1981 Clash of the Titans is quite the same; it’s a masterpiece. It’s also a cinematic dumpster fire with LA Law’s Harry Hamlin totally unable to anchor his own action movie and upstaged quite inevitably by Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion menagerie.

This brings me to the first reason to love these films: Derek Meddings. A special effects genius at a time when such things required immense practical skill, Meddings is best known for his amazing work with Sylvia and Gerry Anderson on their incredible Supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. My boys and I are working through these on Saturday mornings (along with classic Doctor Who), and are currently enjoying Stingray. Meddings contributed model work to five of the seven Moore Bond films, and was Oscar-nominated for Moonraker. You can spot a Meddings model shot from a mile away, although I do wonder if you have to have watched those classic 1960s sci-fi puppet shows to truly appreciate the craft involved. Appreciation flows from our prior experience; I never appreciated shot composition until I watched Seven Samurai, still my favourite film of all time. But Kurosawa movies are brilliant in almost every way. That’s not what Moore’s tenure as Bond is about. Meddings work carries a lot of appeal for me, holding the same joy as a beautiful matte painting, which is so much more wonderful than anything you can do in CGI to my eyes. I’m so delighted Meddings won an Oscar for his work on the 1978 Superman film. He was to miniature shots what Harryhausen was to stop-motion: a legend.

Neither is Meddings the only such mythic cinematic contributor to these films. John Barry, perhaps the greatest and most influential orchestral film composer Britain has produced, does some of his best work during Moore’s run, although his work with Shirley Bassey is more striking in the earlier Bond films and his magnum opus is arguably Louis Armstrong’s "All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which I believe we both rate highly as a Bond film). I think, on balance, his score for that movie and for You Only Live Twice are a head and shoulders above his work for Roger Moore, but the British Film Institute did pick up on the score for Moonraker as one of Barry's ten best. I personally think videogame orchestral scores almost always draw from Barry when they are not instead stealing from John Williams. But the significantly insignificant difference here is that John Barry is British.

This British connection is important. Unlike my wife, I’m British, quite the mongrel actually - half English, quarter Scottish, with Italian and Belgian bloodlines also in my family history too. Roger Moore is the most British of all the Bonds, and his movies are so intimately caught up in British culture that comedian Steve Coogan could write a comedy scene in which his most enduring character (Alan Partridge from The Day to Day) recites verbally the entire opening sequence to The Spy Who Loved Me - including those lurid Maurice Binder titles - in an utterly hilarious irritable deadpan. It's worth noting, then, that Moore was the first English Bond. Connery? Scottish. Lazenby? Australian (not British). And afterwards: Dalton? Welsh. Brosnan? Irish (not British). It's only when we get to Craig that we get English again. And what a step down that is, from Moore to Craig - although presumably not for you!

Britain, of course, has an extremely chequered history from its time as a world power, which peaked in the nineteenth century, just as the United States' empire is peaking seems to be peaking in the twenty first. In 1973, when Live and Let Die arrived, Britons (especially the English, but not only...) were rather struggling to get to grips with the reality that whiteness is not Britishness. This was especially the case with respect to the burgeoning West Indian population - half a million arrived between 1948 and 1970 seeking jobs, which they were expressly invited to emigrate for but whose welcome was not always (or indeed often) warm. But there were still vanishingly few black actors on TV in the 70s. Doctor Who is one of a rather short list of shows to have had multiple black actors in key roles by Moore's debut. Britons were simply not used to watching black people in 1973. And then here is Live and Let Die - a suave, black supervillain, multiple black henchmen all with great charm - and none more so than dancer Geoffrey Holder as the quite literally marvellous Baron Samadhi. And black allies who are there for something more than just being killed! The message to spellbound Brits watching was that black people can be spies and criminal masterminds, just like white people. Yes, there’s massive influence from Blaxploitation films at work here. But the benefits for British cultural integration should not be underestimated. 

So too with Vijay Amritraj and Kabir Bedi in Octopussy. Okay, we have to endure every cringe-inducing Indian cultural stereotype imaginable - but at a time when the Indian population of Great Britain were almost entirely invisible on recorded media, here is a film saying Hindus and Silkhs can be spies and superpowered villains too. The location shots from Udaipur are among the greatest in the entire Bond movie run, although as with the miniatures shots I mentioned above it takes a certain kind of film appreciator to enjoy location shots independently of their role in the narrative. Still, watching Amritraj pal up with Moore sends a clear message that Indian people can be superspies too - and that counts for something. Please do not underestimate these gains because they are tied up with casual racism... acceptance that Britishness need not entail whiteness begins with films like these, and while I do not know what black and Asian people in the 1970s made of them, the predominantly white audience for the movies here in the UK were, I suggest, subtly and positively affected by the inclusion of heroes and villains of colour. Even if these actors were not themselves British, they opened doors in the media industries for black and Asian actors who were.

What of Moore himself? Here we cannot tell any story without first acknowledging the centrality of Sean Connery to the Bond mythos. He embodies the phrase that was ironically said (by film critic Raymond Mortimer) in connection with the first Eon Productions Bond movie without Connery: "James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets." This is of course a problematic claim unless it is preceded with the phrase “in the imagination of men...” Which men? Why, 1960s stereotype men of course who, on the basis of Connery’s Bond, fantasise about striking women across the face so that they will then want to have sex with them - something Connery’s Bond does with embarrassing frequency.

But not so Roger Moore’s Bond. Whilst still sexist by contemporary standards, his version of the iconic character is markedly more respectful of women in that his technique for attracting women isn't to physically abuse them. Clearly, Bond is still at heart an adolescent power fantasy - but what action hero is not? More than that, Moore’s Bond isn’t just a fantasy for teenage boys, he is emotionally a teenage boy - with his distinguishing feature being that unlike any actual teenager he is written with the skills, gadgets, and sheer luck to actually succeed at everything instead of merely falsely believing that they would do so. Moore’s Bond is an absurdly dangerous teenage boy in a man’s body, who is always inches away from death by misadventure but is repeatedly saved by script immunity or, more often as not, by the magical science provided by Q’s gadgets.

Moore’s casting was not any kind of accident. His quasi-predecessor, George Lazenby, had the fatal flaw of not being Sean Connery, while Moore had the immense benefit of not being George Lazenby. Moore was chosen precisely because he had already shown himself more than capable of playing a gentleman spy, having done so as Leslie Charteris' 1920s hero Simon Templar in the TV show of The Saint, which aired from 1962 to 1969. Templar is a thief not a secret agent as such, but he is still very much part of the spy thriller genre broadly construed. And like Moore’s Templar, Moore’s Bond is impossibly skilled, implausibly righteous (yet never quite good, per se), and bucks authority with a glint in his eye, an impish grin, and more than a few raised eyebrows. Transplanting Moore into the Albert R. Brocolli film series was a safety play - and boy, did it work! The movie series’ success grew substantially during Moore’s tenure - he even got to ‘win’ against Connery in the much publicized ‘Bond vs Bond’ box office duel of 1983, when Octopussy outgrossed Never Say Never Again.

What I love most about Moore’s dangerous teenager is that quite unlike the brutal, emotionally stunted Bond of Daniel Craig, or the woman-beating Bond of Connery, Moore’s Bond is always respectful to those serving in the military (but never entirely to the civil command, which Bernard Lee's and Judi Dench's M represent) and largely avoids being a murderer - except for two instances, which apparently Moore himself was vehemently opposed to. Yes, enemies are killed, but largely in self-defence. Moore’s Bond is a warrior with honour, something quite unthinkable in contemporary cinema without transplanting the story back in time more than a hundred years. In the twenty first century, our spies and military are now permitted to murder even our own citizens with unquestioned yet utterly questionable impunity. But Moore’s Bond has an ethic to his spycraft that is as unrealistic as the magical science of his gadgets, but that makes him far easier to love because we somehow want to believe that spies could be this noble, even though we know they are not.

As I said at the outset, it’s not my intent to convert you to Moore, but rather to show how Moore’s Bond is tied up with British culture in a way that Connery’s Bond really isn’t (although some of his filthiest puns - penned by children's author Roald Dahl for Your Only Live Twice - require a grounding in British schoolboy humour to appreciate). Connery (Scottish) and Brosnan (Irish) are the most Americanized Bonds - and very enjoyable for it! But Moore is quintessentially English, his Britishness rooted in Oxbridge, the Officers’ Training Corps, and London gentlemen’s clubs (by which I do not mean strip clubs!). As problematic as this may be in retrospect - the false equation of Britishness with Englishness being a papering over of the aforementioned whiteness problem - it has an inherent charm that is also part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes, another quintessentially English hero with magical science at his disposal.

I love Moore’s Bond, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of why in this short missive - why, I haven't even mentioned how they let the always astonishing Grace Jones design her own wardrobe in 1985's A View to a Kill, which must surely be the greatest costumes ever seen in a franchise known for its outlandish clothing. There's so much to adore in these films once you let them beguile you, but I think appreciating Moore as Bond requires either an openness to archaic Englishness as an aspect of Britishness (which is also helpful for appreciating classic Doctor Who), or an ability to enjoy an action movie purely as a pulp romp and not as cinema, per se. The Moore Bond movies may indeed be bad films, but they are among the greatest bad films ever made. It has been a pleasure sharing them with my three young boys, and I hope in writing this letter that I can give you at least a glimpse of why that might be so.

Please continue to be the good and excellent person you are, and to write about films, games, and whatever else you choose to discuss. If you should find the time to reply, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, or indeed on the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, which I personally view in quite similar ways, as allowing a vast raft of phenomenal black musical talent a cinematic spotlight they could never have had at that time without teaming up with white comedians. 

With love and respect,


Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!

Magical Science

Elementary Dear DataArthur C. Clarke famously suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. This suggests another maxim: any insufficiency developed philosophy of science is incapable of distinguishing between science and magic.

We all have our own philosophy of science, our conceptual framework for understanding scientific topics. In the best case, our personal philosophy of science informs us of the limitations of scientific knowledge, allows us to put research into a wider context, and ensures we remember that the work of the sciences is still at heart an entirely human endeavour. Alas, few of us have such a clear view of the sciences. Far more widespread is a kind of pervasive mythos we might call ‘magical science’, which affords to the image of science unlimited future power, and to scientists an awesome capacity to divine the truth through singular experiments, like a Roman haruspex reading animal entrails to predict the future.

Magical science has the dubious honour of being the only superstition widely encouraged today. We are all too frequently adamant that science has all the answers, science is the royal road to truth, that we can trust in the science... I notice that even the British Prime Minister has taken to invoking magical science in his speeches these days to validate his increasingly dubious actions. At heart, magical science may seem harmless, a mere rose-tinted vision of the work of scientists, one that tries to account for all the successes of our various research networks without any attempt at balance or insight. We typically overlook this kind of naive enthusiasm for scientific achievement on the basis that it's at least ‘supporting the right team’. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that blind support for science can manifest in ugly ways, even in ways that can prevent the sciences from working, plunging research into the debilitating condition of pseudoscience, as previously discussed.

The perceived infallibility of the sciences as truth-seeking procedures clashes worryingly with the necessity of scientists making mistakes, and thus magical science leads to anger at scientists when the actual scientific work is not as wondrous as it is imagined it should be (as with the ugly 2009 L'Aquila trial, where terrible earthquakes in Italy were not successfully predicted and the scientists blamed), or when any scientist speaks out against a claim that has been proclaimed unshakably true by its advocates. It is precisely because magical science is incapable of distinguishing science from magic that it represents a far greater danger to scientific endeavours than other philosophies, perhaps even so-called ‘anti-science’ philosophies. What deceives us here, what elevates scientists to their misguided role as flawless augurs rather than researchers struggling with ambiguous data, are the bad habits we have learned from the manifestations of science in fiction, where magical science is the norm. If we wish to see the work of the sciences with clearer eyes, we may have to start by putting some of the most iconic characters in fiction on philosophical trial.

Sherlock Holmes and the Flawless Investigation

It is sometimes remarked that in creating Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle produced the first hero of ‘the scientific age’. The Victorians were the ones who coined the term ‘scientist’ and it was their obsession with the sciences that set the scene for the unfolding technological transformation of the world over the next century and a half. We tend to treat the character of Holmes as significant mainly for crime fiction, as the archetype from which all whodunits descend - but Holmes, quite unlike a Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie detective, is always a practitioner of magical science. Partly, this proceeds from the inherent parsimony of storytelling whereby all questions will eventually be answered because everything is there by the author’s design. Partly, however, it proceeds from Holmes’ essential power - which upon closer inspection is not deductive reasoning at all, but rather the infinite convenience possible solely in literature.

Doyle gives Holmes a quite impossible access to every conceivable fact as a starting point, such that a berry stain or the smell of a particular tobacco can certainly be identified, and then (to pile on the absurdity) Holmes by purest chance always encounters a set of circumstances that allow for only one viable interpretation. This particular brand of tobacco, for instance, is sold in exactly one place in London... We thus end up admiring Holmes purportedly scientific form of investigation while what we ought to admire is the way Doyle effortlessly conceals the magical science entailed in this depiction by making it seem as if all of Sherlock’s deductions (and inductions) were strictly logical. Doyle has contrived a set of circumstances that Holmes, with his unlimited catalogue of facts, can be certain to solve. This makes Holmes a disastrous role model for scientists (or indeed, detectives!) since it is only through the meticulous construction of literary contrivance that he possesses any investigative power at all. This becomes clearest when Holmes relies upon facts we know are false - such as the ludicrous snake plot device in The Speckled Band, which entails behaviour implausible to coax out of any reptile. Holmes’ claims to be a man of science are rather fraudulent behind the scenes: he is simply the locus of a mythic depiction of magical science.

Neither is Holmes the only such character. Both Spock and Data in the worlds of Star Trek share this power of magical science - also manifested in these shows by the tricorder, which like Holmes spits out every required fact on demand and without error. Or consider Doctor Who from the third Doctor onwards: anything necessary is certainly known by the Time Lord, except when the story requires a convenient (and often temporary) amnesia for dramatic effect. That both Data and the Doctor had a spin at being Baker Street’s most eligible bachelor is not accidental, nor perhaps is Stephen Moffat’s concurrent time as showrunner for both Doctor Who and Sherlock... Magical science heroes seem to reaffirm our faith in the power of scientific knowledge, while also playfully exposing the quirky personalities of scientists. House, The Big Bang Theory, and much more besides all participate in a literary tradition that stems from the Sherlock Holmes tales, and is now seemingly dominated by his science fiction proteges. 

Yet these are not scientific heroes, but magical science heroes. They have exactly the facts and the circumstances to answer perfectly every time, without ever having to confront the ambiguity, indeterminacy, and incompleteness of an authentic scientific problem. They are to science what Superman is to police officers: naively idealized caricatures. They find the answers solely because they live in stories where uncovering the truth is possible by design. This is a wildly misleading template for scientific truth, and although we know these are ‘just’ stories, we somehow import our wilder beliefs about the sciences into our everyday thinking unless we are extremely careful. If we are to break this spell, we need a philosophy capable of distinguishing science and magic - and for this, we need a clearer understanding of ‘scientific truth’.

Desperately Seeking Truth

Even if we start with the acknowledgement that the sciences are capable of discovering or affirming truth, the question of what might qualify as a ‘scientific truth’ is far trickier than it seems. As the preceding discussion on pseudoscience made clear, we cannot simply append ‘scientific’ to known truths without distorting the essential ambiguities of the research process where we cannot in practice know if the apparent truth of a researched claim will hold in the future. In fact, we have a choice. We could align ‘scientific truth’ with the unshakeable deep truth of reality and thus admit that the claims asserted by scientists cannot be known as truth at all (effectively contracting the domain of scientific truth to concluded research programmes like optics). Or else we can align scientific truth with the body of beliefs held by scientists, with the inevitable consequence that such truths can be later revealed as false - or even abominable. We don’t even have to go back a century to find all manner of racist, sexist nonsense asserted as truth by those who identified as scientists.

Now those who buy into magical science have an easier job here, but only by being wildly dishonest about both truth and scientific methods. According to magical science, scientists uncover truth infallibly so all claims asserted by scientists are scientific truth. Thus if and when the circumstances shift we can ‘debunk’ or ‘discredit’ those responsible and say they were not really scientists at all, or even exclude their claims from consideration in the first place! This is where ‘pseudoscience’ has been used as a label, although as I have argued previously it is not a terribly viable way of using the term. Babette Babich has made even stronger - and oft misunderstood - claims about the way the discrediting associated with the term ‘pseudoscience’ serves as a dogmatic attempt to demarcate legitimate science, while all too frequently preventing any scientific enquiry from even beginning. Thus when this particular word comes out, it narrows scientific knowledge by declaring certain topics forbidden and out of bounds - and woe betide the researcher who goes on to try to report experimental results from such verboten fields...

The highly problematic implication of every attempt to discredit and thus demarcate ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience’ must be that we cannot know when scientists assert a claim whether it will later need to be ‘debunked’. Thus faith in magical science is inevitably a distortion of the truth - for things we will say are scientific truths on this philosophy may later be ‘discredited’, or even discredited before they are considered at all. The alleged truths of magical science are thus only defended by ignoring the inevitable consequences of the inherent revisionism of scientific practice and pretending that the current consensus among researchers is ‘more true’ than it was yesterday and thus that now (and by implication, only now) we can trust everything scientists say as long as we are standing guard for those pernicious pseudoscientists who ruin it for everyone. To say that this is dangerous nonsense is easy; to replace it with a more sound philosophy of science will be much harder.

There might be a way out of this maze, but it would require us to think differently about the relationship between truth and the sciences. Part of what deceives us here is our desire to understand the truth in terms of a set of valid statements. Since we can point to scientific concepts we abandoned, like phlogiston (which was a hypothetical substance that made combustion possible), we want to assert a gradual improvement in the accuracy or scope of our ‘book of facts’. “We would not be fooled by phlogiston today,” we might think. Yet phlogiston was an important - and arguably entirely scientific - proposal that was merely discarded when our understanding of chemistry shifted such that combustion could be thought of in terms of a chemical reaction with oxygen.

The brutal truth of the ‘book of facts’ is that such a collection of statements today would theoretically contain far more ultimately false claims than it would in the 1770s, simply because the number of scientists and the diversity of research fields has increased dramatically we are now paradoxically more wrong than researchers in the 18th century (in terms of sheer numbers of errors made) - the inescapable consequence of asking both more and more difficult questions. What makes it feel as if we are now more right is knowing that phlogiston was to become replaced by a new understanding of chemical reactions and thus combustion and so forth. But this is largely an illusion caused by examining successful research programmes in hindsight.

Similarly, when I say phlogiston was ‘scientific’, I am projecting with hindsight since the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1834... researchers in the 1770s would not have described anything they were doing as ‘scientific’ - it is our desire to paint the sciences as something with a history of more than two centuries that makes us ‘claim’ both phlogiston and oxygen (not to mention Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and so forth) as part of the story of ‘science’, rather than the natural philosophy that those involved would have stated they were pursuing. Thus our ‘book of facts’ not only contains more errors than our predecessors two and a half centuries ago, it is not even entirely honest about its relationship with its own past. Add to this the unavoidable truth that this imagined ‘book of facts’ does not exist (for all that encyclopedias and their successors have wished to fulfil this role) and it begins to feel uncomfortably like we are deceiving ourselves - as if we have all fallen for the seductive confusions of magical science.

Legitimate Practices

We want to defend our intuitive impression of the sciences as truth-seeking, and also (in some nebulous sense) successful at doing so. How do we do it?

One option we can consider is that which I proposed in Wikipedia Knows Nothing: to switch our focus from facts (true statements) to practices (skills and equipment). To know how to use something - a polymerase chain reaction, an interferometer, a fractional distillator - is more a matter of knowing what to do than it is a ‘book of facts’, even though that knowledge also produces facts related to the equipment used (and any theories deployed to give a context to the reading of the instruments). Thus an astronomer armed with geometric theorems can use an interferometer to measure the diameter of stars, while an engineer can use an interferometer and the wave theories of light to measure very small objects precisely. The practices associated with both the equipment (the interferometer) and the theories associated with each specific usage give rise to facts - in this case, distances. The difference lies in what legitimizes the activity in question: on the usual conception of knowledge, if you had the facts you had legitimate knowledge if those facts were true and the reasons for justifying them were correct - which actually provides no means of knowing what is or is not legitimate since our criteria for legitimacy requires an appeal to something beyond the situation (the truth) that we cannot access directly. Conversely, when we view knowledge as a practice, what makes the facts legitimate is that we are using the tools correctly. In this context, we have recourse to everyone with the relevant knowledge of the tools entailed to verify the legitimacy of the practices used and hence the facts reported.

On this understanding of knowledge, unlike an appeal to the truth, we can construct a viable understanding of ‘scientific truth’, since certain equipment, certain theories can be uncontroversially attributed to the sciences, and their correct usage can be judged by anyone else with access to the same knowledge practices. On this path we can therefore distinguish between scientific truth (facts emerging from legitimate research practices) and errors, provided we allow the disagreements to be properly explored in any given research community. However, as Babich warns, this cannot happen if we rush in with a dogmatic cry of ‘pseudoscience’, since every attempt to discredit something a priori entails an outright refusal to think about a given topic at all. Ironically, such attempts to discredit effectively cause an outbreak of the condition of pseudoscience, in my sense (a state of disrupted communication where scientific work can no longer be pursued), since whomsoever speaks this word with the intent to discredit (and thus ignore something) signals the very breakdown of legitimate scientific disagreement required to understand whatever is (not) being discussed.

The deeper problem we encounter when we look more clearly at how scientists discover or verify truths is that the claims that are asserted soon exceed simple assertions of facts. Once they do, it requires another set of knowledge practices to disentangle the relationships between facts and conclusions - and these are not strictly scientific at all, for all that scientists engage (unknowingly) in these kind of interpretative philosophical practices every time they assert anything but the most trivial of claims. Indeed, precisely the crisis of contemporary sciences is that their application is not a scientific practice, but a philosophical one - and Einstein’s generation may have been the last where scientists spanned these disciplines rather than retreating behind specializations that narrow, rather than widen, the scope of our collective understanding.

It is small wonder that we seem to have arrived in a “post-truth” world: the attempt to make the only acceptable truths those that flow from scientific endeavours renders a great many of the truths that matter impossible to adequately discuss, precisely because the important truths (those that pertain to what we ought to do, for instance) could never be scientific and thus cannot be established solely by an appeal to the facts. Yet we keep looking to scientists to give us a certainty that is not in any way available through scientific methods - and as the L'Aquila trial in Italy demonstrated, we will turn upon those who do not live up to our insanely unrealistic expectations and even accuse them of committing crimes when they, inevitably, make mistakes. But it is we that have failed, by falling for such an impoverished understanding of the complexity of scientific research as that of magical science.

Breaking the Spell

The needs of a narrative require magical science for the very same role as arcane magic - as a plot device limited solely by our imagination - and the two are (in more ways than we tend to acknowledge) equivalent, exactly as Clarke foreshadowed. The problem is, the actual work of the sciences, the global cybernetic collaboration of scientists that began under that name in the 1800s and continues today, is magical solely in its lustre and not in its details. Yes, the collective technological achievements facilitated by the work of countless scientists is now already indistinguishable from magic in a great many situations. But the work of scientists is not magic, and is certainly nothing like the magical science of a Sherlock Holmes fable. When we mistake the two, when we treat a human who conducts scientific work as someone wielding all the sorcery of magical science to know, automatically, everything that needs to be known, we are not supporting scientific truth-finding at all, but making it far, far harder, and in the worst cases, rendering it entirely impossible.

I will not say we must stop enjoying the fantasy of magical science in our stories - escapism is mostly harmless, after all, even if it is not entirely blameless - but is it not perhaps about time we stopped pretending that our scientists are superheroes with magical powers to determine truth? Scientific truths are extremely specific, and much narrower than we want them to be - they are at their most precise precisely when their claims are most limited. The heroism of actual researchers is of a patient, humble kind, that requires time and substantial disagreements to bring about. It is neither as spell-binding as Holmes’ contrived deductions, nor as charmingly detached from human fallibility as Data or Spock’s inhuman resourcefulness suggest. Neither has any living scientist access to the unquenchable moral certainty of the later incarnations of the iconic Time Lord to guide them either. These role models all imply a role that is impossible to bring to life: we should be careful not to buy too deeply into such implausible exemplars, without dismissing entirely the hopes and ideals that they embody.

Actual scientific practice is amazing, but it is neither miraculous nor supernatural. It is rather mundane in its details, which never entail perfectly prophetic experiments, and always require a great deal more arguing about the possible interpretations of the facts than literature has ever depicted. When we cannot distinguish science from magic, we obscure scientific truth and the immense and heroic efforts required to produce and understand it. We do all our scientists a disservice when we mistake them for sorceresses and wizards, and we entirely dishonour the scientific traditions when we censor or revile researchers for not living up to our hopelessly elevated expectations of their truth-discovering powers.

If we cannot distinguish science from magic, we need to either improve our philosophy of science or else remain silent on scientific topics. As Holmes remarks: the grand gift of silence makes Watson quite invaluable as a companion, for scientists, much like Holmes, often need us to pay close attention to their work and their disagreements, so that together we can eventually reveal true claims about our world. When we work to silence and discredit others we disagree with, rather than remaining silent so we might hear those disagreements we are denying, we have destroyed the very conditions for any kind of legitimate scientific investigation to occur. If we truly wish to be friends of the sciences, perhaps we too ought to know how to hold our tongue and try to listen to the quiet whispers of the truth when the game is afoot.

Comments always welcome, especially the polite ones!

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.