Review: Doctor Who, Series Eleven, Episode Six, ‘The Demons of Punjab’

Demons of Punjab promo image - Yas and her great-grandmother standing in a meadow.

Another beautifully written historical episode. I think the fact that showrunner Chris Chibnall has ensured that people of colour are hired to write historically sensitive episodes like this, and ‘Rosa’, is making a palpable difference. Writer Vinay Patel‘s grandparents were Indian, and his previous credits demonstrate his experience and passion for writing in a way that draws on his roots. It matters that these episodes are not simply written by white people about a white Doctor interacting with these moments, and I think it shows in the quality of the episodes, which come across to me as personal, engaged, and centred on the moment in history and not on the Doctor.

In this episode we see Yaz (Mandip Gill) begging the Doctor to take her back in time to an important moment in her family’s history – the day her grandmother received a watch from her grandfather. We’ve seen similar story premises before, most notably in ‘Father’s Day‘, where the Doctor takes Rose back in time to see her father, and we all learn why that’s generally a bad idea. Some moments are fixed in time, and if you try to change things for those moments, Reapers sweep out of the fabric of the universe to correct things.

With plenty of warnings from the Doctor about not interfering, she eventually agrees. Because the Doctor will always side with curiosity.

Only this time it turns out that they arrive not only at an important moment of family history, but of the history of India and the world. They arrive the day before the Partition of India, when the country was divided in two – creating Pakistan.

I am going to own up and say that this truly significant moment in history is one that I knew nothing about prior to today. Zero. Nadda. As a white girl who attended British and American schools, no one ever told me anything about this. This new season of Doctor Who is once again serving up genuine history lessons – not only for the children who will be watching, but for many adults, too.

When I consider comparing this episode to other Doctor Who historicals – ‘The Romans‘, ‘The Visitation‘, even ‘The Fires of Pompeii‘ – there’s really no contest. The vast majority of Doctor Who historicals are focused on white European and American history, and it tends to focus on the kind of history that kids will be learning about in schools anyway: the Tudors and Stuarts, the Romans, Pompeii, the Moon Landing, the French Revolution. There are exceptions. I wish we had the lost serial ‘Marco Polo‘ – I listened to the 30-minute reconstructed episode about ten years ago… but it’s not the same. It’s also noticeable that it’s an episode focusing on a European encountering Kublai Khan and the Silk Road, and I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to whether it was sensitively handled.

This episode – and ‘Rosa’ – are doing something very different and very good. The Doctor isn’t explaining history to us and history is not simply an entertaining backdrop, focusing on the greatest hits of what English school kids are probably going to hear about anyway.

When the political situation in India is discussed, it is outlined for us by two brothers on opposing political sides. One a Hindu man, Prem, who wants to marry a Muslim woman; the other his brother, who is firmly opposed. When they discuss the British involvement in Indian history, again, it is the brothers who tell us about it and contextualise it from the point of view of the war that Prem fought in, and that his other brother died in. When we learn of the drought and starvation that India endured, it is Yaz’s grandmother and great-grandmother who tell us about it.

We are also introduced to Hindu and Muslim marriage ceremonies and a Hindu holy man. We are shown culture, not merely facts. And we are shown the hope that exists in these times, too. Thoughts about creating new ceremonies and new ways of living together, not simply enmity and despair.

This is a rich episode.

I also loved that the inevitable alien involvement turned out (minor spoilers) not to have any affect on the historical events. Doctor Who is not attempting to rewrite history. It is not inserting the Doctor, or alien species into human conflicts, which is a particularly problematic trope when it comes to white people interpreting things that happened to, or were achieved by, people of colour.

And because I’m sure someone, somewhere will say it: no, it is not the same if aliens turned out to have built Stonehenge or the Doctor started the Great Fire of London. One significant difference is that no one believes that ancient Britons could not have built Stonehenge, whereas a disturbing number of people think that the pyramids of Egypt and the Nazca lines could not have been achieved by the ancient peoples of Egypt and Peru and must have been made by aliens. It is different when science fiction stories posit aliens being responsible for the events that happen to marginalised groups. It matters that the Thijarans are here to witness history, and not make it.

That the Thijarans come to witness the ‘unacknowledged dead’ is so deeply moving, Not only simply as a thought for us all about death and baring witness, but also as a reminder of our role as viewers, and a description of what the writers are doing in bringing this episode to us. Part of remembering history is acknowledging the lives lived and people lost. It matters that we try to witness them as they were – to value them as people in their own right, and not simply facts in history, numbers of dead in terrible conflicts. That we acknowledge them as people who lived and died.

They’re also striking as alien creatures – their architecture and costumes are dark and gothic, but acknowledged to be beautiful by both the Doctor and her companions. They also seem to be inspired by bats – their heads resemble bats, and the CGI effect that shows when the matter transmitter is used recalls the motion of bats flying. I’m curious as to what inspired them, and briefly wondered if they reflected any aspect of Hindu mythology, but my GoogleFu suggests not. I’d welcome comments from anyone more knowledgeable!

I’d also like to give a shout out to the writing for Graham in this episode and the performance by Bradley Walsh. There are several nice, understated moments when he really shows the value of having an older companion in the TARDIS. His understanding of why Yaz’s nani might not want to talk about difficult and traumatic times from her past provides a welcome word of wisdom. I’m loving the way his character is developing to consistently provide quiet insight – an insight that tends towards respecting others whilst embracing the new.

Lastly, I would just like to say that Shane Zaza, who plays Prem, is a very beautiful human being who can assuredly get it, and I would welcome seeing more of him on my screen.

In all seriousness, though, this was an excellent episode that continues this series’s run of presenting groundbreaking, original, and truly moving television.

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Micro Review: Doctor Who, Season Eleven, Episode 5 ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’

I have a blinding headache, so this is just a quick note to say I thought this episode was a lot of fun.

Loved the Space General with her robot consort.

Loved the multiple explorations of family dynamics.

Loved the pregnant dude – a million fanfic writers pumped the air!

Hate, hate, hated the line “Boys give birth to boys and girls give birth to girls.” That’s nice – what happened to the rest of us? The non-binary people and intersex folk get shafted again. You thought this was gonna be a nice bit of trans representation – hahaha, no. Please enjoy a slice of gender essentialism in a gender binary sandwich. FUCK whoever wrote that line.

Loved the adorable, vegetarian killer alien. Loved it’s smug little face when its belly was full.

Loved the general aesthetic of the spaceship.

Was confused by the fact that everyone could understand each other but they couldn’t read the signs. If they’re without TARDIS telepathic translation then something is still doing the translation.

Loved the Space General and the Doctor fangirling each other, Loved that the Doctor was smug enough to one-up her on it. Not enough of the Doctor’s massive ego in this incarnation yet.

And that’s about it. I’m off to find some ibuprofen.

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Could there be medieval science fiction?

Tumblr user raised a really interesting question:

here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.

not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Knowing me only too well, nickjbarlow subtly suggested that I might have some thoughts on this, with reference to a certain Duchess of Newcastle. I do.

Margaret Cavendish was not medieval, but she was an early modern natural philosopher writing at the dawn of science and she was the first (European) science fiction writer.

The main reason you don’t get medieval science fiction is because there was no science. There was natural philosophy, but the specific way of thinking that we identify as science – the scientific method for acquiring knowledge – simply didn’t exist. (In Europe – it would be very easy to say ‘in the world’ and Europeans do tend to view Europe as the birth place of science, but the truth is I have neither the world history nor the world history of science background to comment on that.)

The early modern period and the birth of science is generally dated to Galileo’s The Assayer, published in 1623.

What was regarded as known prior to this was dominated by the Church. I can’t stress that enough. What Galileo did that was so scandalous was not saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he proved it with the scientific method and said that human beings could gain knowledge via this method and not solely from the Church and the Bible. More: humans could gain knowledge that showed the Church and the Bible to be wrong.

The Royal Society, England’s oldest scientific body, was founded in 1660.

Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World in 1666.

That’s why you can’t really get actual science fiction that dates from the medieval period. The (early) modern period is kind of defined by the shift in thinking that allows people to think scientifically and therefore write science fiction – fiction based on the possibilities enabled by scientific discovery or possible scientific discovery. Margaret Cavendish extrapolated from a whole bunch of scientific theories that she was aware of and posited another Earth (an alien world) attached to our Earth at the North Pole. She posited a different ecology for that different world (aliens and xenobiology) based on the different plants and animals found in the so-called New World (full-disclosure, it’s a bit imperialist; she was a duchess writing in seventeenth century England). She posited new and incredible machines created by the natives of that world. This is hard science fiction. The scienciest science fiction.

Now. Can we coherently imagine Bede or Chaucer writing science fiction and what that tale would be like?

Urgh… it kind of breaks my brain a bit, because you probably have to deviate significantly from how they would have been likely to think. There’s a reason people from these periods who wanted to write speculative fiction wrote Arthurian tales or about fairies and other fantastical folk traditions. Partly it’s that it would have been sacrilegious, but partly it’s that Galileo’s achievement was a massive shift in perspective with regard to how people thought. How we think about the ways in which we can gain knowledge has a knock-on effect for how they think about their entire world, including the ways in which they imagine. The very way we defined the possible and the impossible or fanciful changed. It wasn’t defined by the church anymore – knowledge was democratised, but also systematised.

Not that there hadn’t been other ways of thinking about what was known or unknown. That’s one of the oldest discussions in philosophy and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, whose theology was very different. Logic played a significant role, but logic can’t actually tell you very much about what is known about what we now think of as the physical or material world (although those are themselves are modern and early modern concepts – they wouldn’t mean much to Socrates, for whom true reality was the world of the forms). There was also natural philosophy, which Aristotle was a champion of. A Christianised understanding of Aristotle’s teachings dominated the way we thought about what could be known about the natural world (the world we know via our senses) for over a thousand years.

The dominant way of thinking about learning in the medieval period was scholasticism. Scholasticism was characterised by dialectical reasoning – using inference to resolve contradictions. (Note: scholastics were particularly Christian; there was interesting stuff going on in Islamic and Jewish scholarship at this time, too. I don’t know that it was that different for the purposes of our current question – Al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic philosopher, was saying stuff that Descartes was still drawing on in the 17th century – but it’s notable that Islamic alchemy was well ahead of what English, Christian scholars knew.)

Could this be used to inspire science fiction… I just… it’s just not very scientific, OK? It’s very a priori (before experience) and based on reasoning from things already regarded as ‘known’. The scholastics got into maths and geometry, and they liked Aristotle to the extent that they could make him seem Christian. Which he wasn’t. So a lot of the natural philosophical thought that we can find in Aristotle and see as a precursor to scientific thinking… just wasn’t there. I am not a medieval scholar, and I’m sure that there were monks studying nature and making observations. But by and large they were looking to reason from those observations in ways that harmonised with Church teaching. Some of that thinking is still genuinely interesting. But it’s not scientific.

It’s not interested in creating new knowledge on the basis of our observations of the world in the way that is central to science fiction.

So… to imagine someone writing proto-science fiction in the medieval period, you really need to imagine a heretic. Chaucer would never have written science fiction. I don’t want to poo-poo the thought – it’s exciting! – but if you want to do it, I’d advise reflecting carefully on who might possibly be thinking in such a controversial way at that time.


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Doctor Who: season eleven, episode 4, ‘Arachnids in the UK’

The Doctor stands with Ryan, Graham, and a female scientist outside a high-rise flatThis was a solid episode. It didn’t blow me away the way that the previous three episodes did, but it didn’t have to. Not every episode has to deal with issues as prescient and historically significant as ‘Rosa’, and we shouldn’t expect them to.

Besides which, it’s worth remembering that even if this didn’t blow my mind, 35 year old women are not the primary target audience of Doctor Who. Six year-olds are. And people are most likely to develop phobias between the ages of four to eight years.

While sometimes phobias can be caused by a traumatic experience, there’s thought to be a genetic element that affects common, simple phobias – like the fear of spiders and the fear of heights. This is often misleadingly referred to as ‘ancestral memory’. Arachnophobes don’t ‘remember’ a bad experience an ancestor had with a spider, but it was likely a genetic advantage to be sensitive to, say, the distinctive movements of spiders, and to respond with the fight or flight reaction. Such a response is irrational in the UK, where there are no native poisonous spiders, but less irrational in Africa, or indeed most continental landmasses.

Fear of spiders in the UK is one of the least rational fears you can have, and yet it persists. I should know. I started being afraid of spiders at the age of six.

Nearly 30 years later, the phobia persists, yet I was not particularly scared by this episode. That’s not the episode’s fault. I’m rarely scared by TV or film when I watch it by myself. My Twitter feed was full of grown adults who certainly seemed to be watching through their fingers. But even if adults weren’t scared, this had all the elements to make a lasting impression on a child.

Because spiders are strange. What they do to flies is usually no danger to most of us, but if they were large enough to subdue humans and wrap them in their web cocoons, that would be pretty fucking scary. To be rendered helpless and immobile and enclosed in a claustrophobia-inducing manner, and to be kept in a spider’s larder as something’s food.

It’s a perceptual shift. Very little truly threatens human beings in nature. Very little eats us as a matter of course. Many things could eat us. It’s quite rational to be afraid of a lion, for instance. But those things are rarely a realistic threat for most humans in most places. Consequently, one’s first encounter with the suggestion that people could be food tends to leave a lasting impression.

For me, it was giant spiders. Two years before I developed the phobia of normal spiders, I saw the second episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. I can’t say that I fully understood the plot. For years it lived in my memory sort of merged with Logan’s Run, and it was a long while before I understood that the two things were different.

But I remembered the spiders.

The spider-like Ovions that cocooned unwary gamblers on Carillon and kept them as food.

A few years after that my teacher read an abbreviated version of The Hobbit to my class. Again, the Great Spiders of Mirkwood stuck in my memory as uniquely horrible. Especially when the party is cocooned. Those spiders were going to feed on them. Suck them dry as they hung, swaddled in webbing and helpless.

I think there will be a few young minds who will be forming similar memories tonight. So the fact that it didn’t really scare me doesn’t matter. It will have scared the children – which Doctor Who should if it possible can. *evil laugh*

As a kind of sop to the ‘should we really be making children scared of spiders’ worry, we see that towards the end of the story the Doctor is reluctant to kill them and says of the mother spider ‘She’s probably more scared of us than we are of her’. As an arachnophobe, I can’t tell you how tired I am of that particular phrase. I understand why they included it, but it’s honestly so beside the point. Phobias are not rational.

I do not believe the spiders in my house can harm me. I am quite worried about how easily I can harm them – in fact, my visceral reaction to dead spiders is actually worse than my reaction to live ones. Phobias are not rational.

Yes, two pieces of media featuring giant spiders left a lasting impression on me from childhood, but they had nothing to do with my phobia. It was a couple of years after seeing Battlestar Galactica that I became afraid of spiders (and heights – it happened at around the same time) and a couple of years after that before I was read The Hobbit. There’s no sign at all that scary giant spiders had anything to do with my becoming afraid of little spiders.

It’s almost certainly a genetic fear. No amount of people telling me the spiders are more scared of me than I am of them is going to change it. But on the plus side, I doubt the BBC created millions of arachnophobes tonight. It’s either going to happen anyway or it won’t.

Overall, this episode solidly delivered on a classic concept. It wasn’t particularly original, but if didn’t have to be – it will be new to the six year-olds watching today.

Beyond the central conceit (which really is just Big Spiders Are Scary) there were a few other nice notes.

Chris Noth makes for a perfectly loathable villain, as the slimy big businessman with his sights on the US presidency. I know him best as Alicia Florrick’s inferior half in The Good Wife, where he plays a corrupt politician and philanderer; so it’s a familiar fit, and he did a creditable job portraying a man whose money and confidence has blinded him to morality.

I was a little confused by their positioning him as a man who hates Trump while characterising him as… a man very much like Trump. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from this, and I’m worried that it sends the message of ‘Both sides are as bad as each other; all politicians are equally loathsome’. That is not a message we need in these times, where the last week has seen a Nazi shooting in a synagogue and bombs sent to Trump’s political enemies by a fanatic Trump supporter. People are literally equating these actions to members of the Trump administration being yelled at in restaurants.

Some politicians are much worse than others. Both sides are not the same. I want to find another reading for this, but I’m baffled as to how we are supposed to see it any other way.

Still, Noth does a good job in a familiar role.

We also have some lovely notes of family togetherness as the Doctor is delighted to be invited to ‘Tea at Yaz’s’. I liked that Yaz’s family kept asking whether Yaz was  in a relationship with any of the members of the group, and Yaz firmly answered ‘No’. While I see the possibility of a relationship slowly developing between her and Ryan, I like that we’ve not immediately jumped there. There’s been far too much of ‘All women must be in relationships’ in the Doctor Who of recent years, and this is a pleasant change of tone. We get both the message that men and women can just be friends and the opportunity to note that Yaz’s family are entirely comfortable with the idea that she might like women (ie the Doctor).

Meanwhile, there are some really touching scenes as Graham goes home and remembers Grace – his wife and Ryan’s grandmother. I thought this was really nicely handled. The only thing that felt off about it was that Ryan doesn’t seem to feel the same kind of grief and desire to go home. Of course, the plot needs to keep rolling, but Grace seems to have performed a motherly role for Ryan, and it’s weird to see Graham’s grief taken so seriously while Ryan seems to brush it off and get on with adventure.

Overall, a solid episode. I wasn’t blown away, but I don’t need to be. This one was for the kids, and that’s OK.


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Doctor Who: series eleven, episode two, ‘Rosa’

An image of Rosa Parks sitting on a bench, from Doctor Who.This week Doctor Who tackled a pivotal moment in American history with heartbreaking resonance for current events. With white supremacy on the rise again, choosing to have the first historical episode in this season focus on Rosa Parks is bold and important.

Headed by the first female Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), this season has shown itself as making a bold stand for women in the present and the future already. It was always going to be significant which women they chose to celebrate from the past. It would have been very easy to celebrate white women. And even though we have a female Doctor, we’re still on our thirteenth white Doctor. There have been calls for a person of colour to play the Doctor for as long as there have been calls for a woman to play the role – possibly longer. And there was no reason that the call to cast a female Doctor could not have been answered by one of the many capable women of colour who I’m sure would have jumped at the role.

So it’s important that we’re not, for instance, revisiting Elizabeth I, or taking in Catherine the Great, or even one of the suffragettes – many of whom were only fighting for the emancipation of white women. We are instead introduced to a key figure from the civil rights movement whose refusal to move from the ‘white’ section of a bus sparked a wave of protests that helped end segregation in the US.

It’s important, too, that this is a TARDIS with two people of colour as companions. We aren’t seeing this from a completely white perspective. While it’s good that the Doctor recognises Rosa’s significance, that recognition isn’t nearly as interesting as her resonance for Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill), the Doctor’s black and South Asian companions.

It is a strength of the episode that much of the history of this period is recounted by Ryan and Yas, and not the Doctor. And even when some of the explanation comes from Graham (Bradley Walsh), her white companion, he attribute’s his knowledge to Ryan’s grandmother.

We also get to see Ryan and Yas discussing their own feelings of powerlessness – the warnings their parents gave them not to fight back because it is just too risky. It is important that white children watching the show know that in our supposedly enlightened world their friends may not feel as safe and easy – that they have a privilege in not experiencing that fear as a part of daily life.

I have only recently come to understand this in the past few years. I grew up in the 80s and 90s thinking that racism was mostly a thing of the past. That ignorance is a part of how it has been possible for the far right to rise again, targeting people of colour. That ignorance stood in the way of understanding and solidarity. We need to know the truth of what is happening to others when we feel safe. Privilege is blindness. Dismantling that blindness often involves coming to recognise your own complicity in accepting ignorance and not questioning more.

But it’s also important to recognise the role that this representation plays for the children of colour watching this episode, too. That their experiences are validated. That they feel a part of a community with common struggles that extends beyond their own front door. That these struggles are shown as a part of something as iconically British and widely viewed as Doctor Who.

From this perspective, I’d like to encourage you to seek out the reviews of people of colour and not just read my thoughts on the matter. I am likely blind to both problems and successes in this episode, and I can only draw on empathy to guess what this episode must mean to people of colour, not direct experience.

For what it is worth, the episode seemed by and large sensitive and skillfully constructed.

The racist 1950s white folk are shot in such a way as to feel very much like sinister Doctor Who monsters who might pop out of the darkness at any moment to pounce on our heroes. There’s even a creepy musical theme that plays to make us feel like they’re always watching, and the camera often views the Doctor and her companions from the shadows – just as it would if there were gribblies waiting to jump out.

There are gribblies here. They are the white people.

And the interactions with 1950s American white people made for uncomfortable watching. I’m always less comfortable with episodes that go back in time because there’s always a bit of second-hand embarrassment as modern characters get the behaviour and dress of the time wrong. But the discomfort here wasn’t that jarring kind of embarrassment humour. The discomfort that arose from modern people interacting with historical characters was not (mostly) played for laughs. Ryan doesn’t ‘get it wrong’ when he tries to hand a fallen glove back to a white woman. He is doing nothing wrong. It is the racist reaction of the white people that makes the scene uncomfortable.

It’s a kind of discomfort I should have to sit through. White people are fragile when it comes to race. Even where we believe in equality, we don’t want to talk about it. We’d prefer to pretend that everything is fine and everyone is already equal. But being ‘colour blind‘ is its own sort of racism. It is not fair to the struggles that people of colour face to insist that their experiences are the same as ours – that we don’t see the difference. It is harder for them. White people make it harder. Denying that you can see any difference is not a good thing, and it leads to one being insufficiently critical of one’s own blindspots.

So it’s uncomfortable to watch Ryan face the prospect of death and imprisonment for a kind act. It’s uncomfortable to watch black and Asian characters be refused service. It’s uncomfortable to witness Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) being told to move to the back of the bus because of the colour of her skin.

It’s uncomfortable, and it’s good that white people are being asked to live with that discomfort.

But it’s also important that this is not just a tale of terrible things that happened and are happening to passive black people. We are told directly that Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman who refused to move; we see her as part of a movement. I particularly like that Ryan, as the only black companion, is also the only companion who gets to meet Martin Luther King. He deserves that honour and it is good that it’s not overshadowed by what would have been the Doctor’s delight, or Graham’s, or even Yas’s. Other people of colour can identify with these struggles, but they are also not a homogenous group. Black people in the US suffered a particularly fraught history, and this is their story, Rosa is their hero. As a black British man, Ryan has a different and much closer relationship to those struggles than the other characters.

I also liked that there was a brief acknowledgement that though this is a particularly American moment in history, Britain cannot claim any kind of superiority over race relations. In addition to Yas and Ryan discussing their experiences of racism at home, a throw-away line from the Doctor makes a gesture towards acknowledging British imperialism: “You know us Brits,” she says, “very imperious.”

It’s not really enough, but they cover a lot of ground in this episode, and perhaps it would have been too distracting to delve deeply into British historical racism as well.

Similarly, I watched hoping that there would be some acknowledgement that Rosa Parks was not the first black person to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa. But Rosa was a more palatable hero. Claudette was 15 – a teenager – and seen as less reliable. She also noted of Rosa Parks: “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class… She fit that profile.” (Source.) I’m always a bit bristled when I see a woman written out of history, but again, it was perhaps too much detail for what had to be a very tight episode and cover a lot of ground.

We do see Rosa as an activist, though, and that she did not work alone. And I was really glad that Ryan got to play a significant role in standing up against the white supremacist baddie. This was not simply the Doctor acting as a white saviour and co-opting black history. It isn’t even entirely her plan that sets history back on track – all the companions contribute.

That said, the Doctor, Graham, and Yas become a necessary part of history by taking up seats on the bus – an issue that is directly discussed as Yas notes that they must have always had to be there to make this moment in history happen. That is not entirely cool. That is white people (and Yas, who is not white, but is shown to be treated differently to black people on buses) making this moment in black history possible. I… would have preferred if the writers hadn’t gone down that route, or at least made it less explicit.

It is, of course, a familiar Doctor Who trope for the Doctor and her companions to become a part of history and to turn out to have been necessary all along. It’s heavily implied that the Doctor was integral to such moments as Nero’s burning of Rome and the Great Fire of London. But there’s something very different about the morally questionable First Doctor giggling about the fact that he might have had a hand in Rome burning and a modern, progressively framed Doctor inserting herself into recent history that was an important moment of black triumph.

Overall, I do think the episode appropriately centred black characters and people of colour, and Rosa’s moment is appropriately tense and powerful. It would be remiss of me not to note these qualms, but ultimately I’m not in a position to say whether it really marred the episode. It does feel like the most important historical episode I can think of. In the spirit of genuine educational messages that this season seems to be going for, the episode takes an important moment in history that is relevant to our current political climate and, well, educates. Historian, EK, on Twitter was crowing with delight:

Children are not only being given an account of an important moment, but shown part of how historians do research, as the Doctor and her companions piece together Rosa Parks’ day from bus time tables and newspapers.

Where the previous two episodes gave us a classic Doctor Who aliens-on-Earth encounter and a dystopic-future encounter, tonight’s episode was a classic Doctor Who historical – mixing history with adventure and a powerful social message.

This season continues to prove its classic credentials while offering something that stretches us and takes the format further. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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Doctor Who: series eleven, episode two, ‘The Ghost Monument’

I am so freakin’ EXCITE about the new Doctor Who.

The writers seem to be going out of their way to establish both their sci-fi and Whovian credentials, and I don’t mind one bit. This week was a fast-packed action adventure that riffed off Alien, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hunger Games, Firefly/Serenity, Call of Duty, and probably half a dozen other things I didn’t notice.

I am in geeky glee. Squee, as we would have called it in the naughties.

We start off with our heroes being scooped up from the vacuum of space, just as the Heart of Gold rescues Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent after they are expelled from an airlock in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. The Doctor’s companions emerge from medical pods reminiscent of the cryo-stasis pods shown at the beginning of Alien. A strong link? No, but coupled together with the plethora of other sci-fi references, I’m sure it is intentional.

Ryan runs away from a crashing spaceship.The companions are split between two space ships that are in a race. The Race. The last Race. And the pilots of those space ships are the last survivors of this very dangerous inter-planetary quest. One of the ships is clearly a piece of junk, owned by a taciturn fellow who swears that it is the best ship in the galaxy. There are definite notes of Millennium Falcon as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yas (Mandip Gill) lift panels in the floor to try to fix this hunk of junk. As it goes in for a crash landing I get definite notes of the Serenity, the spaceship from Firefly… and the film Serenity. It’s not one simple reference, but an appeal to a trope of dodgy space-faring misanthropes and the ships they love. The appeal to the archetype will warm the hearts of older fans and introduce it to new ones.

A screenshot from Doctor Who that strongly evokes Mad Max: Fury Road.Meanwhile, the pilot of the other ship is striking a definite Fury Road chord. In this shot the goggles and wild hair and dirt-smeared bandana combined with the vertical lines drawn by the chains the men behind her are clinging to cannot help but evoke Mad Max and the War Boys, and the presence of a strong female character in this context immediately draws connection between the female pilot, Imperator Furiosa, and the female Doctor. Women are powerful forces in this episode, although it is worth noting that they are again notably out-numbered by men, and the show really needs to address this.

Ilin confronts the Doctor.Moving on, we learn the nature of the Race from a holographic projection who performs a similar function to Seneca Crane from The Hunger Games and the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. He is richly robed and carefully styled as he directs others to compete to their deaths. Although forbidden to directly kill one another, it’s clear that many have died along the way, and only one person is supposed to make it to ‘The Ghost Monument’ – the end of the race.

Again, the most obvious visual references are to The Hunger Games and Thor: Ragnarok, but this type of premise has a long tradition in science fiction, not just in explicitly violent iterations, such as Battle Royale and The Running Man, but also in perhaps the most direct comparison: The Long Walk, in which competitors simply have to outlast each other in a walking race – none directly killing each other, but all facing the prospect of death from exhuastion. It is worth noting, though, that all these examples are of spectator sports – it’s not obvious that anyone apart from Ilin, the games master, is watching. I think we’re expected to assume that they are, but this could have been more clearly articulated.

We also learn that the monument that marks the end of the race is (this isn’t a spoiler as we learn it very early on) the TARDIS. A little predictable, but it makes for a nice incentive for all our characters to keep going in the same direction.

The episode continues to hit us with visual references, with shoot-outs that reference Call of Duty (hat-tip to @richmondbridge for pointing that out); a green and black computerised map that, again, feels very like the Alien radar blips that track the alien hunting the crew of the Nostromo; and of course, Star Wars – another franchise with a long history that has taken a stand by centring female characters in recent years. It’s hard to see any desert planet and not think of Tatooine, and several moments seem to deliberately call this out, such as the spaceship that cuts a trail across the clear blue sky, which recalls the escape pod that R2D2 and C3PO escape in, and the fact that this desert planet has three suns. Of course, Tatooine has two suns, but it’s close enough that it was inexorably brought to my mind by the context.

The TARDIS set on a slight rise in a barren landscape.There are also several call-backs to previous Doctors – again, establishing the Thirteenth Doctor’s credentials. She uses a Venusian Aikido move (the favoured martial art of the Third Doctor), and has a TARDIS that dispenses biscuits (the Eleventh Doctor famously squared off with a Dalek using only a jammy dodger). I am also fairly sure that the first exterior image we see of the TARDIS directly echoes one of the iconic early shots from either the first or second episode in 1963. I don’t have my copy of those episodes to hand and my GoogleFu has failed me, but I will update if I can confirm.

There’s also a direct call-back in that the words of the Remnants, who seem to see into the Doctor’s mind and mention a Timeless Child that the Doctor has abandoned and others have forgotten. This could either be Susan (the Doctor’s granddaughter and the original Unearthly Child) or Jenny, the Doctor’s child via DNA extraction, who the Tenth Doctor left for dead and we know to have regenerated. Either possibility has me very excited, especially as both are Time Ladies themselves and would be a great addition to this female Doctor Who – again, cementing her roots in Whovian history.

This episode is using the past not just as a reference point, but to drive us forward. It makes me feel like this is a season that is going to be both returning to roots and taking us somewhere new.

The fast-paced chase through ruined cities and desert lands kept me gripped throughout and once again the monsters were suitably scary. I loved the creepy cloth monsters and loved more that the Doctor was able to defeat them with scientific knowledge of the properties of acetylene. She also defeats robot guards with an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) – something she explains to the audience, again sneaking in a little science lesson in just the way I kind of think Doctor Who always should if it possibly can. Getting kids excited about science and history in an action-packed, alien-filled science-fiction plot that somehow involves a lot of running. That’s the Doctor Who I know and love, and a Doctor Who I am very much ready to see more of.


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Doctor Who: series eleven, episode one, ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’

Doctor Who promo Yup. That’ll do.

The first episode of series eleven of new Doctor Who  (New Who) just aired. Theoretically controversial, but actually massively supported, the most striking feature of this episode is that it marks the debut of the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.

The actor fills the variably-sized shoes of twelve or thirteen (or fourteen – or even more, depending on what record you’re checking) white men: William Hartnell,Patrick Troughton Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGannChristopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a massive Whovian, with affection for both Classic and New Who, but I stopped reviewing the show a heart-breaking five years ago because the sexism just got too much. It takes too much out of a person to review week to week a show you have invested so much into that starts regularly making women the butt of jokes (from the Doctor’s mouth, no less), spouts gender essentialist nonsense, and frames even ‘strong’ women as obsessed with men, and marriage, and the Doctor as the kind of attachment-avoident smug git that former showrunner Steven Moffat thinks drives women wild. We know this not only from textual analysis, but because he’s been quite vocal in his sexism. If you want to know more, I recommend Sophia McDougall’s well-cited blog post on Capes, Wedding Dresses and Steven Moffat – I don’t want to focus any more on the depressing past here.

Because the long-awaited episode that aired tonight was brilliant.

Whittaker was vibrant and excited and weird and spontaneous in just the way we expect the Doctor to be. As a fan with a specific fondness for regeneration episodes, I loved that she couldn’t remember her own name. I loved that she was ill and incapacitated for portions of the experience. I loved that she explained what was happening as well as she could to her companions as she went along, while still being just cryptic enough.

I loved that we avoided the awful, awful, awful ‘goodness! look! boobs!’ jokes that Moffat shoe-horned into ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ in the 1999 Red Nose Day spoof in which Joanna Lumley briefly became the Doctor. I know a lot of men who liked that spoof, but few women. It seared in a generation’s mind the idea that any female incarnation of the Doctor would be instantly sexualised – her secondary sexual characteristics becoming the most important thing about her change.

It didn’t happen.

The Doctor doesn’t realise she is a woman at first – she’s oblivious to her physicality in a way quite in keeping with previous incarnations, who have variously rejected the entire idea that their face belongs to them (the Third Doctor); started immediately unpicking the trappings of their previous incarnation (the Fifth Doctor, famously unspooling the Scarf); or noted they have different teeth, before simply getting on with things. She asks whether it suits her – crucially, not whether she looks good or pretty, but just if her appearance seems appropriate for her – and then does exactly that: she gets on with things. It doesn’t matter. She’s waiting to find out who she’s going to be, and that doesn’t have anything to do with her sex.

Moreover, in the scene where she changes her clothes (delightfully, in a charity shop) she indicates she’s worn women’s clothes before. We can read into that a certain fluidity in approaching gender, even though the show’s canon suggests the Doctor has not had a female incarnation before.

Side note: I’ve seen some people start hesitantly referring to the Doctor as ‘they’. I’m referring to her as ‘she’ because this seems to be what she prefers. I’m a non-binary person and I prefer ‘she’ even though I’m agender. Some non-binary people prefer ‘they’, ‘zie’, or other gender-neutral pronouns, but there’s no single right way to do it. That said, I think the Doctor most closely aligns to genderfluid. She uses male pronouns when in a male body and female pronouns when in a female body. This isn’t quite how it is for those of us who are stuck in one body and are genderfluid, but it’s the closest analogy. Above all, in matters of gender: be led by the person you are speaking to or about. The Doctor uses female pronouns now, but if you were talking about her fourth incarnation, you’d say that he wore a scarf.

On to the show. I won’t dwell too much on the plot, as I want to avoid spoilers, but I’d say it gave everything you’d want from a Doctor Who episode. There were new and original aliens, even while there were nods to science fiction classics. There are little notes of Predator vs Alien (shut it, you, it’s a fun film), the 2016 female Ghostbusters (Holtzmann fans will enjoy a goggles-related nod), and even an earlier Doctor Who episode (I can’t be the only one reminded of the scribble monster from ‘Fear Her’).

There were also a good few scares that would have had me hiding behind the sofa as a kid. It’s easy to forget, watching as an adult, that Doctor Who is a kind of sci-fi horror for kids. Two things any good episode of Doctor Who should deliver if it possibly can are scare jumps and the kind of horror that gets in your brain and makes you think about possibilities you never considered before. I think this episode has both in spades. There were a number of deaths that reminded me of Doctor Who deaths that really affected me as a child – little moments that stayed with me and provided both a bone-chilling and thought-provoking fear. That people with families can lose everything in a moment, and their loved ones might never know what happened.

I also loved the diversity. There still were more men than women – boo! But the main cast was exactly equal. It also had great racial diversity. It felt plausibly like inner Sheffield, and not the white-washed version of an inner city we usually see on TV.

I was less keen on the Doctor getting the sonic screwdriver back and declaring that it’s not really a screwdriver, it’s a tool for nearly everything. This has always been a bugbear of mine. I know the Doctor lies, and that gets us out of a world of continuity errors, but in the old days the sonic screwdriver was just one of the Doctor’s many tools – his favourite, but not the only one – but I liked the fact that the Third Doctor said it literally could only open and close things. That limitation was narratively interesting. And while I think destroying the screwdriver entirely is unnecessary (as happened in the Fifth Doctor’s era because it was too much of a get-out-of-jail-free card), sticking to a few rules about its limitations is really helpful for dramatic tension.

Honestly, if the screwdriver is just a wand of do-anything, it’s boring.

If it being sonic is key (like when the Tenth Doctor combines it with a speaker to disable an alien with sound) or if being a screwdriver is key (opening hard to open things, fixing things) that’s interesting! That’s thought-provoking. That’s science fiction. And I like Doctor Who when it’s trying to be science fiction and inspire kids to have scientific and mechanical curiosity. I know some people say that it’s a fantasy TV show, but I don’t think it used to be, and as much as I love fantasy, some honest sci-fi is good for kids.

I also wasn’t a fan on the Doctor choosing a nickname on behalf of one of her companions or continually getting the alien’s name wrong because it was difficult for her to pronounce and she found it funny to insult him that way. That’s a straight up bullying tactic and it’s racist. How many kids are gonna go away and start garbling people’s names in school because they don’t sound ‘British’ enough and laughing at the other other kid when they get frustrated. The Doctor did it, so it’s fine, right?

No. It’s not. It’s bullying. And it’s racist.

And it is really not OK to choose to shorten someone else’s name without permission, wither. Ryan calling Yasmin ‘Yas’ is fine because they are old friends. The Doctor deciding to do this without even knowing Yasmin likes being called ‘Yas’ is a dick move, and again, not something we should be recommending to kids.

But these are minor complaints in an overwhelmingly positive experience. As well as everything mentioned above, I’m super-pumped that an older black lady got to have a heroic story arc, and her grandson was shown giving her real respect. And we get a companion struggling with dyspraxia – I was really glad that this was not magically cured by determination! It sends a really great message that people with learning difficulties can have genuine problems that can’t be wished away without being lesser as people – the message is about having hope and drawing strength from your support network, not about just trying to find a way to be cured or be ‘normal’.

Overall, this was a great episode, with action and touching family moments and cool-looking aliens (and gross-looking aliens) and it really delivered on what I want from a Doctor Who story. New showrunner, Chris Chibnall, shows that passion and imagination he brought to Torchwood along with the maturity of outlook he demonstrated on other projects, like Broadchurch. He handled this crucial transition episode remarkably well.

I’m excited about where this is going to go. The preview of the season that followed the episode shows an exciting mix of international stars (like Alan Cumming!) and new faces, and a continuing range of diversity for race and gender. I think it’s going to be amazing.


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The Ethics of the Good Place: PowerPoint slides

Hey guys, I got back from Nine Worlds yesterday and I am completely wiped. I am hoping to get YouTube vids of both the papers I gave up at some point, but that point is not today.

However, I was completely floored by how well my Good Place talk was received and am really thankful to everyone who came along and asked really insightful questions. Particular thanks to @mmcasetti who pointed out that the four main Aristotelian Virtues align with what each of the four humans of the Good Place lack:

  • Eleanor – Temperance (self-control or moderation)
  • Chidi – Practical Wisom (employing both Courage and Justice)
  • Jason – Courage (finding the mean between fears and overconfidence)
  • Tahani – Justice (giving one’s enemy their due)*

Because lots of people have shown interest I’m going to put up the slides for my paper in the meantime, which cover the most salient points of the three philosophical theories I discuss.

(Apologies for the poor quality of the slides, converting from PowerPoint to jpeg was apparently a painful process for them.)

*Having reflected a bit since the talk, I’m now fairly sure that Jason and Chidi should be reversed. Chidi’s flaw is that his fears control him – so much so that even though he usually knows what is just (which is why everyone turned to him) he doesn’t act on it. Whereas Jason doesn’t know what is just and has almost no fears – he is the embodiment of overconfidence – and not knowing what is just but acting anyway is what gets him into so much trouble. Note: it also makes him a really interesting character. His lack of self-reflection has led him to commit the most clearly heinous acts – as Michael shows when  he assesses him – but he also consistently shows that he has no awareness of the consequences of his actions and whether those are good or bad. Can we blame someone for committing crimes if they are incapable of knowing that they are wrong or why?

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Nine Worlds 2018 and me!

I’m going to Nine Worlds again! Hurrah! I am excited and a little nervous.

I’m also going to be on some panels and doing some papers – please show up, they’re going to be amazing!

They’re all happening on Friday, so it’s gonna be a busy day for me.

The only toilet in Thedas: practical considerations in fantasy worlds – 11.45am-12.45pm

‘Everybody hates moral philosophers’: The ethics of The Good Place – 3.15pm-4.15pm

Online Resources For Writers – 5pm-6pm

‘Fear in a Handful of Dust’: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower as a Modernist Wasteland of Culture – 10.15pm-11.15pm

Please, please, please come to my Dark Tower talk – I know it’s super late and on opposite the disco, but it’s maybe the one that means the most to me. This is what I’d have written my thesis on if I’d decided to do a literature PhD instead of a philosophy one.

Otherwise… come say hi if you see me. I’m a bundle of nerves at these things because I don’t know how to interact with humans and I’m afraid of not recognising someone I’ve met before (or vice versa) but I’m looking forward to getting out and socialising with other geeks!

 

 

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An Ursula Le Guin Award

Yesterday we heard the sad news that Ursula Le Guin passed away. There is something wonderful in the almost continuous outpouring of tributes and memories that has been ongoing since. Her work touched a lot of people. She changed the shape of science fiction and fantasy, attitudes to gender and race, and she encouraged us to reconsider the way we approached the stories and characterisation of indigenous peoples in fiction.

People are sharing quote after quote from her on Twitter, and every single one is perfect.

Many feel that she should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

And I remembered that there had briefly been a buzz about creating an Award in Diana Wynne Jones’s name after she died, and nothing ever came of it. And I thought that we should have a prize named for a woman, and which honoured the contribution of the woman whose name it bore, just as we do for so many male writers.

My tweet

“Can we make an award in her honour?” I asked, “Who would not be floored to be awarded the Ursula Le Guin Award[?]”

If ever there were a literary giant for the science fiction and fantasy genres, it is her.

Over the course of today quite a few people have shared this sentiment. Dave Moore of Abaddon Books offered his support, as did Laura Lam, Laura Blackwell (whose tweet prompted mine), and a number of others.

Dave suggested an award for women writers or progressive SFF. I felt it shouldn’t only be for women writers, that it should reflect the significance of her writing – beyond being a woman who wrote. Something with progressiveness would fit. Laura Lam suggested breaking the barriers of SF.

I’ve suggested the Ursula Le Guin Award for Breaking the Barriers of Speculative Fiction – reflecting the breadth of her writing and achievements.

But beyond this, I do not know what to propose. The tweet has had likes and retweets, but this is not enough. I supposed I had hoped it would reach the eyes of someone who knew what to do.

It’s all very well to say ‘There should be a thing!’, but how are such things organised? It seems to me that no action should be taken without talking to Ursula’s family and friends, but I did not know her, personally, and would not be the person to do that. Besides which… I’m not sure that just now is the time.

There are also questions about how, where, and when such an award would be presented. What criteria might apply. What would the award look like and who would make it? Where would the money come from for that? Should there be money for a prize? Who would the judges be and how would books be submitted for the award?

Do you have experience with these things? Would you be willing and able to bring this to fruition?

I am not very well and I’m not well-placed to spearhead this, but I would like for something to come of it. Can you help?

[Edit: The Clark Award/Tom Hunter has offered coaching / mentoring / consultancy for anyone willing to take this up: “to share EVERYTHING I know about award running, marketing, promotion, time management, logistics, publisher liaison”. Contact via the Clark Award contact form.

I need to stress that I am not well enough (mentally or physically) to do this myself but still very much think this would be a wonderful thing to happen. Please consider volunteering.

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