Archive for May, 2010

So… what did I think about The Hungry Earth?

Posted on May 29th, 2010 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who - Series 5 - Episode 8 - The Hungry... wait, what?

As ever, spoilers. Read on with care.

I’m quite tempted not to review The Hungry Earth at all until after Cold Blood has gone out. Not just because this review is so late, but also because I can only remember one other two-part story in the Modern Era which has had so much set-up and so little actual story in the first part. That story was the 2008 season finale The Stolen Earth. This very curious episode is structured so as to first remove the Doctor from the action so he can have some neither terribly relevant nor terribly dramatic backstory explained to him by a convenient galactic secretary. Meanwhile, we get reintroduced to all sorts of friendly faces from the past until finally the Doctor and Rose can be reunited and the Doctor blasted by a Dalek triggering the infamous faux-regeneration. What this means is that after about the first ten minutes and before the last five, the plot hardly advances at all, and we get thirty minutes of narrative “vamping”, with almost all of the actual story crammed into a bloated 65 minute denouement.

Of course, we classic fans are used to this. Many’s the four part story which is basically a pretty decent set-up in episode one, a pretty decent climax in episode four and an awful lot of running around, being locked-up, discovering a tiny smidgeon of plot and then being locked up again in the middle episodes. And god help you if your first experience of classic Who is one of the shapeless, swampy Pertwee six-parters. The Time Monster, be named-and-shamed; Colony in Space, let’s be having you; The Monster of Peladon, stand up and be counted.

Having seen The Hungry Earth – a Pertwee nostalgia-fest, lacking only a Brigadier-substitute – many younger fans may now be tempted to go at revisit some Pertwee stories, but thankfully Chris Chibnall has picked some of the better ones to pay tribute to. Here’s the obligatory roll-call of Pertwee elements making a reappearance here – Welsh miners digging up something nasty from The Green Death, domelike incorporeal barrier over the church and its environs from The Daemons, foolishly boring to the centre of the earth from Inferno, the Silurians from, er, The Silurians and being-set-about-ten-years-in-the-future from – oh look, let’s not go there.

But where’s it all going? Bafflingly, Doctor Who Confidential claimed that the rough-cut of The Hungry Earth was a full 15 minutes overlong, and implied that this was rather unusual. And the transmitted version does bear some signs of having had the hatchet taken to it at a relatively late stage, as so many of the scenes exist simply as obviously sign-posted set-ups. Some paid off in this episode, at least to some extent, others haven’t yet. Rory’s sudden and unmotivated desire to return Amy’s ring to the TARDIS is about as blatant a device for splitting up the TARDIS crew as I can remember, but at least we leave the episode understanding that the point of him returning to the TARDIS is to discover the subterranean grave-robbing with Ambrose and Elliot. But, on the other hand, what was the point of that? If you’re trying to establish that there’s something under the ground pulling stuff down then the Doctor and Amy have managed to tell us that rather more dramatically while you’ve just been standing around and talking calmly.

Worse is to come when Elliot announces in the middle of a tension-filled countdown that he is just popping off to reclaim his headphones and nobody even blinks let alone tries to stop him. Was Chibnall hoping no-one would notice, or was a more elegant version of this, with a little more justification present in the sixty minute cut and it only looks so crass now because the story has been stripped to the bone? Except it hasn’t. Apart from PC Rory’s deadend investigation of those graves, all of that fannying around with surveillance equipment also goes nowhere, and right at the end when the Doctor and Nasreen get in the TARDIS to take a trip down to the lower caves we spend several minutes with them being buffeted around as the Silurian sciencey somethingorother screws up the TARDIS controls before depositing them exactly where they had been trying to go. Why not cut some or all of these narrative “loops” (see Terrance Dicks on writing The War Games) instead of paring back the central plot to its most basic and functional components? Why not give Amy Pond, the ostensible second lead, something to actually do instead of removing her from the action and keeping her chained up in limbo until part two?

Maybe part of the motivation for this delaying procedure was to withold the revelation that the Silurians were responsible, but in that case nobody told the BBC continuity announcer who cheerfully blew the surprise while chatting over the closing credits of the previous programme. And it’s been an open secret for weeks in any case.

Other obvious set-ups which haven’t gone anywhere yet include Elliot’s dyslexia, the Silurian “dissection” of Mo, the future Rory and Amy glimpsed on the hillside, the blue grass (mentioned two-or-three times but it hasn’t amounted to anything yet), Tony’s sting wound, the Silurian barrier which just keeps coming and going and switching the lights on and off purposelessly so far, and the Doctor’s continual promises that he will bring people back / keep everyone safe / make sure nobody dies today. Does Chibnall really have no idea what he’s doing?

Well, other evidence makes that seem a little less likely. Once we finally arrive at where a Moffat, a Davies or even a Cornell might have delivered us in half the time – the humans having to stand guard over a defiant Silurian – the script suddenly takes flight. The moral ambiguity which the Silurian backstory invites bursts into life, the Silurian make-up is fantastic, and Alaya’s taunting of Rory, Ambrose and Tony with her prescient visions of her own murder are wonderful stuff, as is the spectacular reveal of the Silurian city, hugely raising the stakes and providing a marked contrast to the rather self-consciously small human cast (“all the rest of the staff on this colossal, record-breaking drilling project drive in and overnight it can be looked after by just one bloke reading The Gruffalo”).

Will all this pay off next week (i.e. tonight)? Well, I just don’t know, and that’s what makes it so hard to give this episode a definitive rating. In amonst these structural gripes, there are many moments of charm and grace. The benefit of a smaller cast is that the actors have more room to work, and four nicely-defined human guest characters are starting to emerge – Tony, Nasreen, Ambrose and Elliot. Only Mo is a little underdeveloped so far. The being-sucked-into-the-earth effects while not perfect are at least an improvement over the Dave Chapman video wipe seen in Frontios or the Colin Baker wiggle-your-tummy-into-the-sand manoeuvre from The Ultimate Foe. Ashley Way directs with vigour and elegance and Murray Gold’s music is at its lyrical best, so there is hope. But ultimately, I will be much more inclined to forgive the clunkiness of the setting-up if the paying-off is truly spectacular. So, for now I reserve judgement. A full review of the whole two-parter will be up in a day or two.

So… what did I think about Amy’s Choice?

Posted on May 19th, 2010 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Doctor Who - Series 5 - Episode 7 - "Amy's Choice'

As usual, this review contains spoilers, so read on with care.

One of only two writers new to Doctor Who this year (both of them veteran sit-com hands with a wealth of other experience besides – this is no longer a show which can develop new talent it seems), Simon Nye seems at first glance a curious writer to pick, but actually he fits into Moffat’s fairy tale vision of the show very neatly. As most will know, this is the season “cheapie”, filmed last to the almost audible sound of barrels scraping and wallets straining. Sometimes the season cheapie turns out to be a little gem like the shamefully overlooked Midnight. On other occasions we get the more dubious Love & Monsters or Boom Town (to say nothing of The Horns of Nimon or Time Flight). Certainly, this puts more weight on ideas than on execution, but Doctor Who has (almost) never been about visual spectacle.

Nye’s script was a very simple idea – possibly too simple. Toby Jones’ Dream Lord offers the now three-person TARDIS crew a puzzle to solve. Which is the true reality? And for a while, I was actually interested to see which it would turn out to be – forgetting the almost cast-iron Rule of Story Choices. This rule states that unless we know in advance which is the right choice (such as who such-and-such is supposed to marry) that given X choices, the hero of a story will pick none of them, either because the choice is no longer necessary or because an X+1th reveals itself. And so it proves to be here. The story has one more twist before the titles roll though, and one Nye can’t keep from us. Having promised that the Doctor knows exactly who the Dream Lord is, we have to have an explanation, and fandom primed itself for the revelation of The Celestial Toymaker, The Master or even (Verity save us) The Valeyard. This all seems a little foolish now, but we live in a post return-of-the-Macra world, so never say “never”.

The reveal that the Dream Lord was the Doctor certainly made sense of a lot of the foregoing, with or without the slightly naff space pollen (to me very redolent of Star Trek The Next Generation, both in conception and appearance) but seemed to lack any kind of sting or bite, and while the adventures in the two realities had some fun and clever moments, the key moments of death in each world were curiously muted. Why can’t we be with the Doctor and Amy as they hurtle towards that cottage? Why can’t we see the TARDIS disintegrating and the void of space wrenching them apart? Instead we just cut away.

Nye’s structure means he has to keep cutting back-and-forth between Leadworth (sorry, Upper Leadworth) and the increasingly refrigerated TARDIS with nowhere else to go and he does a decent job of continually upping the stakes, I just wanted some kind of third act complication if only for variety. But while we keep just flipping back and forth it’s all too apparent that Leadworth is where the real action is, whereas back on the TARDIS, there’s little more than chat and ponchos. This means that the performances and dialogue have to really work hard, and luckily Nye, Smith, Gillan and Darvill are all up to the task, but while the ending was satisfactory and the concept neat, I felt the whole was just a little underwhelming, with the possible exception of Amy’s reaction to Rory’s “death”, which was beautifully handled by all concerned.

A few other niggles. Why is the Doctor’s savagely cheeky line “how do you stave off the, you know, self-harm?” talked over? Why is the exterior lighting/grading suddenly so flat and EastEnders-y after the lovely tones and shades we got in what is supposed to be the same location in The Eleventh Hour? Bad weather? Another eye on the end of a pseudopod? Really!?

Three and a half stars, but I’m in a good mood cos it’s the Silurians next week!

A quick note – new/old blog entries

Posted on May 18th, 2010 in Housekeeping | No Comments »

In order to keep all of my Big Important Thoughts in one place, or at least fewer places, I’ve imported by storytelling and screenwriting blog posts from the Script Surgeon blog into here. If you haven’t read them before, there’s some good stuff there about the art and craft of story-making, with discreet plugs for the Script Surgeon service (still available!) at the end. Clever old WordPress has preserved the dates from the old blog, so basically anything from 2009 is from Script Surgeon.

Let’s make up and be friendly

Posted on May 18th, 2010 in Politics | No Comments »

So, it’s a Lib-Con coalition. Hooray! Everyone’s done the grown-up thing for the sake of the country and for the sake of a strong and stable government. And just to make sure it’s really, really stable, there won’t be another election for five years, since the new government has changed the rules and introduced fixed terms. In fact, it’s even more stable than that since the other rule-change which has whizzed by is that you now need 55% of the commons voting with you to topple the government. This apparently arbitrary figure just happens to ensure that the Tories will stay in power even if every single Lib Dem MP joins forces with Labour and votes against them. Funny that.

I mention all this, not simply as an expression of sour grapes, but because further electoral reform is likely and it’s worth looking at some of the different options which are being considered. I’m not going to bore you with the difference between Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote, (although god knows I could thanks to many ill-spent days and nights hacking around my student union where such things were talked of with the excitement I now reserve for a new iPhone), I’m going to take a considerably wider view, beginning with just what is so “broken” about the current system anyway.

Basically, there aren’t that many votes which actually matter in a UK general election. Only about 26 million people voted this time round (out of about 40 million who were eligible, a 65% turnout). Of those 26 million, the great majority – like me – will always vote for the same party, come what may. We don’t decide the election, only the floating voters do. But of the 650 parliamentary seats, the majority are safe. At the last election only 100-odd actually changed hands. So, politicians are attempting to influence the 500,000 or so voters who are going to vote, and are undecided, and live in marginal constituencies. The rest of us might as well not bother turning up, except to keep the BNP out.

So some voters are understandably peeved that their vote hasn’t really affected the outcome all that much, but this peeve is a trifle compared to the staggering injustice which Nick Clegg believes that the electoral system has dealt him – 23% of the popular vote, but only 9% of the parliamentary seats? In fact, such are the vagaries of our first-past-the-post system that although their share of the vote went up (by just less than 1%), they ended up with a net loss of five seats. The injustice of it all!

Now, you might argue that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have actually done all right out of first-past-the-post this time round, given that they have around half-a-dozen cabinet positions and Clegg himself is now deputy PM. You might also argue that the Lib Dems are moaning about a problem which is somewhat, if not entirely, one of their own making – if there was no significant third party, the distribution of seats in the House of Commons between Labour and Conservative would much more closely resemble the distribution of votes in the country. In other words, the Liberal Democrats could come pretty damned close to proportional representation without any complicated change to the voting system or the role of MPs, just by giving up and disbanding.

This of course is not going to happen, and here it becomes important to state the Golden Rule of Electoral Reform, which is that anyone in politics who is advocating a particular system of voting (including the existing one) is almost certainly advocating the system which would be most advantageous to them and their party, regardless what justification they give. Hence, the Liberal Democrats want a strictly proportional system, which would gain them about ninety seats. Not surprisingly, neither the Tories nor Labour want such a system as the Lib Dems’ gain is their loss.

The Tories, despite long-standing opposition to electoral reform, appeared to be offering an olive branch to the Lib Dems on this issue with David Cameron saying that he would like to see fewer MPs and constituencies of equal population sizes. Ignoring for the moment quite how it is possible to claim that anyone’s vote can count for more if the number of representatives is significantly reduced, a look at what I must call “the electoral math” reveals why. Conservatives tend to win big majorities in large, rural constituencies. Labour politicians tend to win by smaller majorities in smaller urban seats – they use their voters more efficiently. Cameron’s plan effectively means taking pairs of small Labour-held seats and pushing them together to make one Tory-sized seat, costing Labour one MP in the House of Commons every time they do it. Not surprisingly, Labour isn’t keen on this plan, and it is unlikely to help the Lib Dems out much either.

So, Labour voters (like me) favour the status quo, which – on some calculations – would hand Labour a small but workable outright majority if the votes across the country were split exactly equally across the three parties. This is not what we tell people in wine bars, however. What we generally tell people is that given the tribal, adversarial nature of our political system, where opposition parties will tend to oppose anything the government proposes simply to test those proposals, hung parliaments tend to lead to instability, indecision and deadlock. If we don’t want a rudderless ship of state, we need an electoral system which will deliver a decisive outcome and hand the party with the most support in the country a clear mandate and the political tools to get its legislation passed.

And history shows us that most attempts to run Britain in a cross-party fashion have been short-lived failures, which is why – up till recently – I’ve been banging the drum of “decisive outcome” vs “making every vote count”, pointing out that almost any proportional system would deliver a hung parliament at pretty much every election (so why is it only now that this has happened that people are saying that the current system is broken and must be fixed?). However, looking at what is actually happening at number ten at the moment, I wonder…

Politics in Britain has changed in the last thirty years. Tony Blair essentially conceded that the right had won the economic argument. Free market – yes; all-powerful unions – no; get rid of that embarrassing business about the workers controlling the means of production from the party constitution and we’re all set. It worked. New Labour was seen as a friend to business, a chum of the City and stayed in power for three historic terms. After several years of flailing about, shellshocked, the Conservatives had little option but to concede that the left had won the social argument. NHS – yes; safety net for society’s least fortunate – you betcha; and hey presto suddenly they aren’t The Nasty Party anymore.

This leaves precious little left in the way of ideology to argue about, and this does give me hope for the future of the Lib-Con Coalition. It’s not quite Lab-Con, but given that Nick Clegg’s an old Etonian toff (oh okay, he went to Westminster School, but that’s not as catchy) whose first job in politics was working for Leon Brittan, but whose party is generally seen as rather to the left of New Labour, it does sort of balance out. Far from electing the party whose spirit and values is most aligned with theirs, I think many of those undecided voters will feel like they are trying to pick the most capable management team and may be wondering why they have to pick all the people with red rosettes vs all the people in blue rosettes. Can’t they pick-and-choose?

Turns out, you can, if you’re Cleggeron. And this means that cabinet meeting might start to mean something again. And more than that – if you have to convince someone of the rightness of your policy and that someone is fundamentally motivated through years of conditioning to disagree with everything you say, then there’s a chance that we could get policy-making which is genuinely for the good of the country, and might even be evidence-based rather than locked to ideology. Now there’s a thought.

Talking to my GP father about homeopathy #5

Posted on May 10th, 2010 in Skepticism | No Comments »

Part four is here.


I don’t think there is any evidence that a significant number of people are being harmed by choosing to go to alternative practitioners. There is undoubtedly a considerable morbidity and mortality arising from the side effects of drugs and the mistakes that happen in the conventional medicine system. Is the harm caused by inappropriate use of alternative medicine on the same scale?

Interesting. This is basically the Toyota defence isn’t it? “Until a lot more people are killed by our product, we don’t see the need to perform a recall.” Not really what I want my healthcare to be based on.

Your challenge to produce harm produced by alternative medicine “on the same scale” as that caused by evidence-based medicine does not make clear whether you want the same absolute number of corpses or the same level of morbidity per person treated. In either case, it is unlikely that I will be able to provide such evidence. In the first, less reasonable, case, despite my fears that alternative medicine fairy stories of miracle cures are distressingly seductive, it is obviously the case that almost everyone in Britain will be treated by conventional medicine at some point, but only a portion will seek alternative treatments. So even if they kill at the same rate, alternative medicine will be way behind. Even in the second, more reasonable, case, I doubt I will be able to meet this target since if someone is really sick and foolish enough to seek useless alternative therapies, it is likely that once they are at death’s door, they, or a relative, or someone will have the sense to take them to a proper doctor, and we can only hope they will be in time.

But just as we wouldn’t do without conventional medicine on the basis that a significant percentage of people who go into hospital will be killed simply because they went into hospital rather than because of the condition which brought them there, the question we should ask of homeopathic and other alternative remedies is not “what harm do they cause compared to other things in the world with the potential to do harm?” but “are they a net force for good?” or in other words “are we better off with or without them?” These calculations are not always easy to perform. Some people argue that the use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables contributes to deaths from cancer, and this is likely true. It is estimated that around 20 extra cancer deaths occur in the United States each year due to chemical pesticides. While this is a very small number (around 300 Americans die each year drowning in the bath by way of comparison), surely even 20 is too many. We should obviously get rid of these horrible carcinogens polluting our mealtimes. Alas, the immediate upshot of cutting back pesticide use would be to decrease farmers’ yields, which in turn would raise the price of their produce, which would in turn reduce the national consumption of fruits and vegetables, which would in turn increase the rate of cancers in the USA, probably adding 26,000 to the total (less the 20 who would no longer die because of exposure to pesticides). (Sources for these numbers on request).

So, let us ask what the harm caused by homeopathy is. I (and some of the commenters to this blog) have given you some examples of the horrendous consequences that can follow trusting that homeopathy will be efficacious in treating serious conditions. You say that you hope most people will have the sense to avoid magical treatments when their life is in danger, yet you seem quite sanguine at the prospect of people who are quite determined to erode this life-preserving common sense. Furthermore, the harm which homeopathy can cause is well-documented, by Simon Singh, through the campaign behind the “mass placebocide” or through this website dedicated to answering this very question. Note that Simon Singh makes the same connection that I do between homeopathy and mistrust of vaccinations. The body count due to recent refusals to vaccinate is easy to check.

Having agreed that harm from homeopathy is both possible and actual, we have to ask who it helps. Broadly, there are three kinds of people who might seek this kind of therapy.
• People suffering from serious conditions which require medical treatment. I am reassured that the Royal Homeopathic Hospital would refer these people, but still marvel at the cognitive dissonance required. Clearly, any people in this group run the serious risk of suffering quite unnecessary harm. For this group, the existence of alternative modalities is nothing but a negative. It will cause them to delay treatment.
• People suffering from self-limiting conditions which require little or no treatment in any case. These patients will not be directly harmed, except in the wallet. They will be spending money needlessly since their condition will improve on its own. This is a minor negative, but not in terms of health outcomes. It’s their money, you may argue, and they entitled to waste it however they please. Unfortunately, if they develop the belief that the alternative modality of their choice is effective in treating their minor self-limiting condition, then they may be more inclined to believe the more exotic claims made for this treatment and subsequently find themselves members of the first group. Thus, for this group also, the existence of alternative modalities is nothing but a negative.
• Finally, we come to the group which you have chosen to emphasise. Those suffering from chronic, non-life threatening conditions, for which no evidence-based treatment is offered or available. In a competitive marketplace, they are likely to get more sympathy from a quack than from a real doctor, and they may benefit in the short term from the (very powerful) placebo effect. They may even be permanently cured if they condition had no physical reality in any place (e.g. phantom limb sufferers or people who claim that mobile phone masts give them migraines). While I agree that some people in this group are made to feel better, I do not believe that this benefit is worth the cost, nor do I agree that the Royal Homeopathic Hospital (and other less scrupulous purveyors of fairy stories) is the best possible means of providing this kind of comfort. Relaxation techniques, improved diet, better trained GPs who understand the importance of providing emotional support to their patients and a better patient understanding of how psychosomatic illnesses affect us are all available and likely to be efficacious. You can probably add to that list.

So, no, I don’t believe that the harm done by homeopathy is on the scale of the harm done by conventional medicine. But conventional medicine does tremendous amounts of good which is absolutely unavailable anywhere else, whereas homeopathy does quite a lot of insidious harm, for only a little bit of good, almost all of which is available elsewhere.

Overall what makes me cross is big companies misleading people about important issues such as health. It isn’t just homeopaths who do this. Idiotic media celebrities like Gillian McKeith do the same thing. So do some drug companies. But lying to the general public about health is unlikely to have a positive effect on society, and institutions like the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, whether or not they cause harm themselves, make the lies of the unscrupulous so much more convincing. Campaigns like 1023 aim to provide more accurate information as a corrective to this – to help ensure that people do know that they need to be in hospital with severe chest or abdominal pain.

One of the recommendations made in the recent government Evidence Check was that homeopathy should have to be approved by NICE before being made available on the NHS. Do you think it would get NICE approval? On what grounds? If it wouldn’t, why should it be made available at no cost to patients when other more efficacious drugs are only available privately?


I think the argument along the lines of ‘how many more people have to die before you admit I am right?’ is a bit over the top.

I think there are two areas where we are out of synch with each other. They concern the concepts of ‘health beliefs’ and ‘risk management’. I also have a problem with your relentless positivism. Science and logic and common sense are very valuable but there are other powerful forces that govern human beliefs and actions and they need to be understood rather than dismissed as simply foolish.

Risk management. Doctors deal with this every day. We are constantly having to decide whether to advise a patient to take a particular drug which has potential for good and for harm. This can be quantified to some extent. We can say, trials show that if you take aspirin your risk of a heart attack will be cut by X percent over ten years. There is also a risk that you will have a cerebral haemorrhage but the risk is much less so the odds are in favour of taking it. Often, when presented with this information, people say: but I’d rather not take any risk!  But this is impossible. It seems to be a hard concept to grasp. The other problem is that you can’t guarantee that taking the drug will have any benefit for that individual. The effect is only measurable on the population as a whole.

Health Beliefs. You argue that ‘the placebo effect’ can be more safely produced by doctors taking more time, being kind and sympathetic, being trained in psychology etc. But some people’s health beliefs are very physically based. They have very fixed ideas that only by swallowing a pill or having needles or massage or whatever can their bodily pains be relieved. Trying to argue people out of this is usually a waste of time. Often it’s based on personal experience or family traditions.

But I still think that for the overwhelming majority of people will be guided by conventional medicine when there is a really effective treatment available. I have yet to meet a patient who said, no, I’ll just have homeopathy etc. when it was a matter of life or death, or when I said, try this, we can really help you.

Maybe one can’t justify alternative medicine being paid for out of taxation or insurance. But I don’t think it will stop those people who believe in it from getting it privately if they have to. I don’t believe it should be banned by law because a few rather idiosyncratic people may wrongly choose it instead of conventional medicine when conventional medicine is in a position to prolong their lives or relieve their suffering.

That would be an abuse of their human rights. better to ban smoking if you must ban something. Or alcohol? Though, that has been tried.

And now I really have had enough of this subject. By all means have the last word. But after that,  can we talk about something else? How about euthanasia?


This seems a good place to end the conversation, as we are moreorless in agreement! I agree with everything you say about risk management and almost all of what you say about health beliefs.

I agree that for some people a physical intervention such as a pill, or a series of carefully placed needles, is required to trigger the placebo effect. You can’t argue someone in or out of the placebo effect – it isn’t a product of conscious decision-making.

I also agree that attempting to ban alternative medicine would not make it go away, any more than prohibition stopped people from drinking. Even regulating advertising of alternative medicine only encourages those who sell it to seek editorial promotion instead, which is more convincing than advertisements in any case.

So what do I want? Well, essentially just what you want – for everyone in the world to understand the difference between the claims made by evidence-based medicine and the claims made by magic-based medicine and so make informed health decisions. It’s just that you see very few people who get this wrong coming through your surgery and I read lots of blogs and listen to lots of podcasts which detail case after case, so we have formed very different views as to the scale of the problem. No doubt each of us has a somewhat skewed perspective.

The one area where I would be tempted to disagree would be on the subject of my “relentless positivism”. I am well aware that forces other than science and logic govern human beliefs and actions. However, I submit that to better understand these forces in an objective manner, the only option is to study these very forces with the tools of science and logic. But that’s not really what is under discussion here.

I imagine we’d boringly agree about euthanasia. Human dignity, relieving suffering and patients’ wishes all sometimes trump “first do no harm” but great care must be taken in exercising this option. Is that roughly your view too?

So… what did I think about The Vampires of Venice?

Posted on May 9th, 2010 in Culture | 2 Comments »

Doctor Who Series 5 Episode 6 - The Vampires of Venice

As usual, this review contains spoilers. Read with care.

So, Toby Whithouse, the writer who gave us School Reunion, the Doctor Who story in which The Doctor, his companion and her boyfriend infiltrate a mysterious school which is actually the operational base for a group of aliens disguised as humans, is back with a Doctor Who story in which… ah.

As full of familiar tropes as this was, the repetition isn’t the biggest issue and the first thirty minutes seemed rich, lush and full of witty lines. Arthur Darvill makes Rory a doofus boyfriend who is entirely different from Noel Clarke’s Mickey Smith, and the notion of sending Rory and Amy on a date is a lovely one (although Amy being the most important person in the universe seems to have taken a back-seat since the end of the last episode). Croatia, standing in for Venice looks absolutely fantastic, and Jonny Campbell’s camera prowls atmospherically around the architecture, costumes and actors. Murray Gold’s score may have been his finest to date – I particularly liked his new Doctor’s theme rescored for sonorous strings – and the supporting cast added gravitas and weight counterpointing the wit of the regulars.

But around the time that Isabella is fed to the fishes, freeing her father up to make a Noble Act Of Self-Sacrifice – yup, there it is – and especially following that NAOSS which firstly follows a second almost identical running through stone corridors waving torches at vampire girls sequence, and secondly effectively removes the major threat with almost twenty minutes to go, it all starts to seem a bit uneventful. At this point, the one-liners start undermining the jeopardy rather than counterpointing it. Rory’s fight with Francesco is terminally unexciting because of the constant wisecracking, and the stately camerawork is not suited to what should have been a fast-cut combat sequence. Further, Amy’s exploding Francesco with her compact makes no sense whatsoever – very disappointing given that the rest of the fish/vampire/alien business had been if not thoroughly worked out, then at least given some care and attention.

The following supposed climax never really has any power or energy and is apparently composed entirely of offcuts from previous episodes. As dark clouds of alien energy pour out of the Globe Theatre the Calvierri School, the Doctor has to climb Alexandra Palace The Empire State Building The Palazzo and rewire the Adipose Parthenogenesis Saturnynian Tsunami machine before finally looking up and seeing the skies clear of Sontaran gas storm clouds.

And this invites the nitpicking. Why do most of the Calvierri girls turn into vampires, but Isabella just gets a bit light-averse and Amy is entirely unaffected? What kind of vampire story is this when being bitten by a vampire is something you can just shrug off and carry on? Why does the Doctor make such a big deal of Rosanna not knowing Isabella’s name, but nobody notices that she calls him “Doctor” without ever having been introduced? Why does her clothing disappear when her filter fails (suggesting it is illusory) but then we see her taking off much of it before jumping into the lake (suggesting it is real)? Who’s going to mop up all the murderously hungry man-fish still in Venice’s lakes? Who thought it would bring this story to a rousing conclusion to have the chief villain obediently kill herself, saving the Doctor, our hero, from having to lift a finger?

Even more than the misguided Victory of the Daleks, which was ill-conceived but cheerful nonsense from very early on, this is a spectacular missed opportunity. Thirty minutes of creeping suspense, genuinely funny lines, strong character work from regulars and new cast members alike and rich visuals, which get thrown away not in an RTD-style whirl of bewildering last minute plot resolutions but in an excitement-free, drama-light, that’ll do muddle.

Compare the entirely pointless rewiring of the tsunami machine here to the almost identical scene at the end of Partners in Crime. Whithouse just has the Doctor pulling the plug on some bit of whizzy set-dressing and ends the threat there-and-then. RTD builds the tension by having the machine first neutralised, and then not, and then uses the renewed threat to build structure and character by having Donna produce the urgently-needed second capsule to the Doctor’s total delight. If you’re going to re-use an old sequence you have to do it better than the people you’re copying, not give us a watered-down version.

Two stars.

So… what did I think about Flesh and Stone?

Posted on May 7th, 2010 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who Series 5 Episode 5 "Flesh and Stone"

Right, all that election fuss and bother over with, let’s see if I can marshal some thoughts about Flesh and Stone before Vampires in Venice airs. As usual, beware spoilers!

Basically, this was fantastic. Building on the adventure and derring-do of the first part, moreorless wrapping up the villainy with a denouement that was mostly carefully-set-up-and-then-hidden-from-view-plotting and just a little bit RTD-style-magic-hoover-which-suddenly-appears-and-sucks-all-the-badness-away, then dropping some delicious hints about what the end of the series might hold and then having the companion trying to jump the Doctor on the eve of her wedding! What larks!

Not only that, but Moffat finally gives a major speaking character a proper death. The demise of Iain Glen’s stoic bishop is one of the finest deaths the series has given us, brilliantly freaking out Doctor and viewer alike, incorporating everything that’s wonderfully terrible about the Angels and providing a real, tangible sourness, which perfectly complemented things like the comfy chair gag.

And the much-talked-of fairy tale imagery really went into overdrive here with an extended sequence of Amy, eyes tight shut, wandering through a forest, dressed in red, while frozen monsters lurk behind every tree – how weird that the statues, freaky because we never see them move, become even more freaky when we do some them move!

As unbothered as I am by a companion with an honest libido, I’m equally unbothered by the last five minutes being an extended tease for the next episode – it’s a feature of the fifth series which I enjoy and I can’t think why it wasn’t included at the end of the badly-underrunning Victory of the Daleks. I’m faintly bothered by the previous five minutes largely being a tease for the end of the season, however. Moffat is asking a lot of viewer loyalty here, just as the summer kicks hold and the ratings start to dip. Still, it’s a different show than it was in 2005 and TV is a different thing now than it was in 1989. American shows like Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica and The Wire have proven that an audience will follow a continuous narrative over many weeks, but I still worry that season arcs need to be all-or-nothing and that this piecemeal approach will not garner new viewers, as much as it might please the stalwart ming-mongs. On which subject, just what is happening around 17 minutes in as the Doctor comes back and pleads with Amy to “remember”? If you look closely, there’s a heck of a clue that all is not what it seems in this scene.

Finally, let us note that this is the last Moffat script of series 5 until the two-part finale. RTD was widely criticised for his cavalier rewriting of scripts credited to others, but an analysis of the DWM favourite story poll indicates that these stories are precisely the ones which are likely to be the most popular. RTD’s own scripts may have suffered from not having had that extra pair of eyes to spot flaws, burnish up dialogue and strengthen plotting. Rare scripts not by RTD or Moffat which did not have RTD’s input tended to fall flat, such as Matthew Graham’s widely-derided Fear Her or Helen Raynor’s Daleks in Manhatten (written while RTD was sick). (For a full analysis of this, see here, if you really must.)

We don’t know whether Moffat is rewriting other people’s scripts in the same way, but he’s certainly working very closely with other writers. So far, Gatiss’s script is the only one which has attracted anything other than general praise, either from me or from the Whogosphere in general. We wait with interest to see what Messrs Whithouse, Nye, Chibnall, Curtis and Roberts can conjure from their typewriters as well as to see what will happen on 26.06.2010.

275 / 250 / 85 follow up

Posted on May 7th, 2010 in Politics | No Comments »

Well this is pretty much as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won. I think this is largely due to the number of votes cast.

To be fair to me, my prediction wasn’t quite as bad as that. With all 649 contested seats now having returned results (the Thirsk and Malton election will be re-run on 27 May following the death of a candidate) the final results are in fact 306 / 258 / 57. This means that about 30 seats I thought would go to the Lib Dems actually went to the Tories, outside my self-declared margin of error of 20. My prediction for Labour was pretty much spot-on, however, and so is what I called the overall narrative of the result. The Conservatives are the biggest overall party, but neither party has enough for a stable government without help from the Lib Dems.

However, the stunning collapse of Lib Dem vote (in terms of seats won) also means that the third party is a slightly less significant force when it comes to the Making of Kings, since now even with a stable Lib Dem coalition, Labour still can’t pass the 326 seat winning line without help from other minority parties. This may explain Cameron’s eager overtures compared to Brown’s rather more subdued approaches as each of the two parties with the most support in the country, and the most seats in the House of Commons effectively beg permission to govern of the party who came third. Ain’t democracy grand?

It may also be instructive to compare the actual result to the exit poll released at 10:00pm last night. This mighty exercise – for the first time a coproduction between Sky, ITV and the BBC was generally derided by pundits on its unveiling. None of the Party spokespeople wheeled in front of the cameras by any of the broadcasters had anything good to say about the poll, all proclaiming that it would be hopelessly incorrect and that it was pointless to speculate. However history will show that it was stunningly close. Off by just one for the Conservatives, three for Labour and two for the Lib Dems. Kudos to the real pollsters who actually know what they’re doing.

Finally, no matter how this all shakes down over the next week or so, I think the real losers in this election are the Lib Dems. True, the Tories did not win the outright majority they hoped for, but they are the largest party by a substantial margin and could probably hold a minority government together if they strike a couple of deals here-and-there. A good result by any standard. But nor was this a rout for Labour. The strength of the core Labour vote not only held the Tories back from the brink of victory but also curbed the Lib Dem surge. After three terms in office, and having survived a punishing recession, this is a very good showing. The Lib Dems however had their most lavish and successful exposure on the stage of British politics since their inception and yet not only failed to capitalise on it, they actually lost seats.

Of course, you can also interpret these results as a damning of our first-past-the-post electoral system. My thoughts on that are best left to another post. For now, with the rest of the country, I wait to see what the result of the result will be.

PS – come and see Horse Aquarium tonight at the Hen and Chickens 9:30pm to take your mind off this mess. Three improvisers, your suggestions, one hour, lots of laughs.

275 / 250 / 85

Posted on May 5th, 2010 in Politics | 2 Comments »

Following my stunning lack of success with the Oscars, I am determined to do at least as well, if not worse, when it comes to the General Election. Based on a thoroughly unscientific method of looking and some recent polls, and letting gut feeling do the rest, here’s my prediction of the numbers of seats each of the major parties will win tomorrow…

Conservative: 275

Labour: 250

Lib Dems: 85

While I would not be a bit surprised if these numbers turn out to be quite badly wrong, I would be quite alarmed if the overall narrative changed significantly. That is to say, I am fairly confident that…

  • The Conservatives will win the most seats
  • But will not win an overall majority (on the figures above, they are short by around 50 seats)
  • The Lib Dems will not crack treble figures (or if they do, not by much)
  • Despite having an increased share of the vote
  • And they will become the kingmakers in the new Parliament.

Or to put it another way, my figures are plus-or-minus about 20.

Both because this kind of outcome will shine a harsh light on our first-past-the-post-elect-your-local-constituency-MP-directly system, and because they rarely shut up about it (except when tactical voting boosts the number of seats they can win) the Lib Dems will be in a tremendously strong position to make electoral reform a key part of any coalition deal they might make. This in turn means a deal with Labour, not the Tories, even though Nick Clegg is basically a Tory at heart, since the Tories will never agree to electoral reform (nor could they stomach an alliance with such a Eurofriendly party).

Electoral reform almost certainly means the end of decisive victories in the House of Commons (as well as an end to directly electing your local representative) and so every general election henceforth will deliver the same outcome – of the three main parties, the one with the fewest elected representatives, becomes the party which decides who will govern.

And remember, when this happens, the Lib Dems told you it was in the name of democracy!

Oh, and in the mean time, if you haven’t seen this, then you should.