Fuck Silence Too

I wrote this poem on the day of the Pittsburgh shooting. It’s been out to submission, but I feel like it’s not something that can wait another six months to be said.

Today’s terrible shooting in New Zealand provokes the same feelings in me, and make the message all the more important. This is a poem about not staying silent about the rise of white supremacy. It can’t go unheard languishing in an editor’s inbox.

Fuck Silence Too

What more is there to say?
Another death, another day.
Another white man spraying fear,
Another closed politico ear.
We’re spoon fed empty thoughts and prayers
From empty-hearted millionaires.
I’d give a fortune of kind thoughts
For children’s bodies to unrot.

Today he entered holy ground
And brought a gun to burn it down.
This time it was a synagogue –
Immersed in Trump’s murderous fog,
Consumed by words to make him great ­–
Another Nazi, filled with hate.
But never name him plainly so,
To boldly aim is ‘shooting low’.

Lynchings now have catchy names;
They SWAT black bodies like a game.
I’m sick to my stomach with impotent grief
Too familiar with death for disbelief.
I’m an ocean away, but the problems are here,
And in every corner: fear, fear, fear.
Fuck Trump. Fuck guns. Fuck Nazi scum.
Fuck Brexit. Fuck TERFs. Fuck everyone.

Ro Smith, 27 October 2018

Remember: speak out. Condemn. Don’t amplify their message.

Don’t say their names. Don’t share their videos. Don’t share photos of their faces. Turn off media previews on Twitter to avoid unintentionally seeing or giving hits to the messages they hope will spread.

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Me and Chronic Fatigue

So, long term readers (really long term readers) will know that this used to be a lively, happening blog that updated at least once a week. They’ll also know that all that changed a few years ago. Actually, more than a few years ago. Seven years ago. A depressingly long time ago.

In which I do, in fact, have pretty much all of the symptoms of CFS

And I have been back and forth to the doctors to find out what was wrong. So many doctors. Actually more doctors than I can count. The last doctor I saw both he and I had actually forgotten that I had seen him before until he checked my notes. He was the one who diagnosed me with vertigo.

Which it turns out is one of the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitus (CFS/ME – which I will be abbreviating to CFS).

As is a sudden onset of crushing tiredness.

As is being ill All The Time. All the time. ALL the time.

As is tender lymph nodes, chiefly in the jaw area. Anyone remember the consistently swollen lymph node I nicknamed Bob the Gland, because it was always swollen? For, like, three years? Bob is exactly where people with CFS most often get tender lymph nodes.

Or there’s the post-activity fatigue that used to DESTROY me as I was trying to do the exercise the first doctor who saw me about this SWORE was the key. Because I was a woman who had put on weight (after she had to stop exercising because she was too tired), so even though I came back negative for diabetes and thyroid issues and all the things he tested me for to try to prove it was my weight, he refused to focus on anything else unless I started to lose weight. Which I could not. Because EXERCISING DESTROYED ME.

Admittedly, I have always had insomnia, but sleep problems are also a symptom. Especially only feeling energetic late at night. Now, originally my bed time moved from 10:30pm to 1am because of my goddamned awful noisy neighbours, but I moved out of the last place where that was an issue about eight years ago, I think? It’s still very hard for me to go to sleep before midnight. I used to be a morning person. I’m not now.

Also, headaches. I never ever used to get headaches. I get them all the time now. Headaches are a symptom.

As is gut pain that can’t be explained for any other reason – like the issues I’ve had for the last five months, and periodically before that, which I thought might be a bladder or appendix issue, but is not.

Also memory problems and clumsiness. I used to have a TERRIFYINGLY good memory. Very exact. Very comprehensive. Not now. My memory is shot.

I also have difficulty reading and concentrating. I can still do that, but it definitely got harder when I was doing my PhD. And everyone kept telling me ‘Oh, it’s just because you’re not smart enough for this. You should give up and try something simpler!’

Well, passing with no corrections kinda makes it clear that, in spite of everything, that was not the case. I could do the work. I. WAS. JUST. SICK. So it took longer and was harder than it otherwise would have been. If people could have just believed that I was sick instead of undermining my confidence further, that surely would have helped, though.

In which I also fit the pattern for what people with CFS were like before they got CFS

And this… this brings me to the real OHHHHHHH moment I had at the introductory session today. They showed us a graph (sadly, it’s not in the booklet they gave me – I was gonna photograph it for you, because it was pretty striking), but what it reflected was this:

People who experience CFS/ME were usually leading busy, active lives and often had no problems with their health before the start of the condition… Commonly the people who suffer with this condition have tried to continue life as normal when they are unwell, so they typically react to the start of this condition in the same way. People often talk about going back to work or college as soon as possible and of pushing through exhaustion to keep going.

(emphasis mine) Yorkshire Fatigue Clinic Introduction Booklet

What was really striking about the graph (and what the clinician explained to us) was that while most people have a variety of peaks and troughs in their energy levels, people who go on to develop CFS tend to have consistently high energy levels before onset. Much higher than most people. When they do get sick it doesn’t affect them as much and they tend to bounce back quicker.

That. Was. Me.

I was never sick. Like, at most, once a year I got a stuffy nose or a sore throat. I never felt ‘under the weather’. I knew that people could be brought so low by a cold that they would need time off work, but I didn’t really understand how or why.

I did not know what people meant when they said that they felt ‘run down’. I just didn’t get it. That had never happened to me.

Now it’s my entire life.

And it’s not just that I never got sick. I had always been the type of person who was happiest when doing a lot of things at once. This is something people who develop CFS tend to have in common. Before developing CFS they tend to be ambitious and active and manage to fit more into their days than most people.

They tend to be, for example, the kind of person who would work four part-time jobs while completing a part-time PhD, writing fiction, and updating a successful blog at least once a week.

In fact, when I think about the onset of the Crushing Tiredness and Endless Illness, I often think of a blog post I made a year or so before it set in. It’s titled: One crazy bohemian roller coaster ride. I wrote it at a time when I knew things were about to get bad, and I was determined to find a way to power through it all.

In fact, things had been bad for a long time. I did not have enough money to live on. I’d recently had to take on teaching evening classes as well as my daytime teaching job, my admin job, my proofreading, and my PhD. I knew it was too much, but I didn’t have any choice.

It still wasn’t really enough, so to save money that year I ate off what I grew in my allotment as much as possible. Oh yeah – on top of the four jobs and the PhD, I was doing regular heavy physical exertion down the allotment.

When I was too tired to cook I sometimes just ate chips from the chippy across the road. I knew that wasn’t a proper meal, but they were cheap and warm and I never got sick – I’d be OK, right?

But that wasn’t all. Remember – I never was the kind of person who could be passionate about just one thing. The PhD wasn’t enough. I had to be creative! So I squeezed in fiction writing, and at least once a week I wrote a blog post here.

In which I got sick

About a year and a half after I wrote the post about the Bohemian roller coaster ride, I got sick.

Not the big Glandular Fever sick that most of those doctors I talked to over the years were looking for. That is, apparently, is not directly connected to CFS at all. The association comes from the fact that those most vulnerable to developing CFS are teenagers and women in their 40s. And teenagers are particularly likely to catch glandular fever, which puts stress on the body and hence can trigger CFS.

CFS can be triggered by any virus or even just a stressful period in one’s life.

I had a cold. It wasn’t a particularly bad cold in terms of sore throat or cough or anything. I didn’t have the flu or glandular fever. It was just a cold. But unlike any cold I’d had before, it completely knocked me out in a way I didn’t quite know how to describe.

I thought to myself, ‘This must be what people mean when they say they feel run down.’

But it was more than just feeling run down. I was crushingly tired. I had never been someone who was able to nap in the day before, but suddenly I was napping all the time. I got home from work and I went straight to bed. Every day.

I took five days off work sick that year. I had never had a day off sick in my life. When asked what was wrong, I didn’t know what to say. My boss told me I needed to ‘manage my sickness’.

I, as someone who had no barometer for what was an an appropriate level of sick at which to stay at home, was already inclined to assume I should push through it. Now I had been tacitly advised that I should not take any more time off if I could possibly avoid it.

So I didn’t. Quite often I would show up at work feeling barely conscious, my eyes literally drooping where I sat. But I showed up. And I made mistakes. And I got more stressed, and things got worse.

In which most doctors know bugger all about CFS

I’m not going to relive the last seven years of misdiagnosis and gaslighting for you. The point is: I have absolutely goddamned classic symptoms of CFS. Yet every doctor I have seen has told me that wasn’t very likely. Even the one who referred me to the clinic thought I had some kind of fatigue, but not CFS.

Why? Because I didn’t have any big illness like glandular fever. I had a mild cold. And I suddenly felt crushingly tired. And then I never stopped having colds and feeling tired. For seven years.

The cold may have triggered it, but in terms of big stresses on the body, it’s pretty clear that I had that going on, too. I was doing too much paid work. I was studying for my PhD. I was exercising regularly and working down the allotment. I was eating very poorly. Just because I didn’t have a serious virus doesn’t mean my body wasn’t under stress.

Incidentally, always feeling like you have a cold is one of the symptoms. Not just because a simple cold will take longer to get over if you have CFS, but because your immune system will start acting as though you have a cold even when you don’t. Which is why people with CFS often don’t look particularly ill.

At the moment I have a slight stuffy nose and a mildly sore throat. I have had those mild cold symptoms for three weeks now. And I spent most of those two weeks off work sick and barely able to get out of bed.

In which, there is light

What does this mean, going forward? Well, I have my assessment on 22 March. After today, I feel a lot more confident that I’m finally going to get my diagnosis.

There’s then a programme that will actually help me get better.


I’d been led to believe that this is a lifelong illness and that the most I can expect is to learn how to manage it.


Partly born of the fact that until recently there’s been very little research into CFS/ME. But they do actually know things, now. I’ve been talking in quite general terms, but the talk today was actually very detailed, specific, and not afraid of technical language.

Apparently the big thing is that something has gone wrong in the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, which alters cortisol regulation. And THAT sends a WHOLE BUNCH of systems haywire, including altered mood, changes in concentration and memory, altered bowel habits and abdominal pain (without cause), lymph node tenderness, immunological changes and immune activation (even when you’re not sick).

In my assessment we’ll identify risk factors, profile my symptoms and triggers, and make a plan for rehabilitation, with the aim of achieving stability, then gradually building tolerance and helping me get back to the activities I want to be able to do. Like going places and doing things.

That will probably mean doing less for a while. I probably won’t be updating this blog much and I suspect I’ll be asked to give up my allotment (although I hope not).

I’ll also probably have to put off the things I was starting to hope I could do soon, like learning to drive or getting a cat or trying to get out and meet new people.

The expectation is not that I will get back to the energy levels I once had. But the point is that most people don’t have that level of energy. They did say that some people do get back to that level, but more likely is that I’ll get back to normal people energy levels. Which would be just fine by me.

So. There’s hope. The clinic seem very well informed. And it seems likely that they won’t dismiss my symptoms in the same way all the doctors have over the past seven years, because the doctors were wrong.

That’s really, really good.

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Review: Russian Doll

Has The Good Place whetted your appetite for high-concept, well-executed speculative television? If so, Russian Doll might be just what you need.

Be warned, Russian Doll is as dark as The Good Place is light-hearted and colourful, but it’s darkly humorous, rather than darkly grim. And if anything, its message is even more life-affirming.

Nevertheless, viewers should note that suicide and depression form part of the rich tapestry of subject matter explored in this original and well-observed dramedy.


It’s Nadia’s birthday. She’s turning 36, an age her mother never reached.

We meet her as she stares into the mirror in an absurdly decorated bathroom at her friend Maxine’s apartment. Maxine (Greta Lee) has thrown her a lavish party.

An Asian woman smoking a join looks quizically at a red-haired woman. She is wearing a blue, puff-sleeved chiffon blouse. A caption with musical notes on either side reads "Happy bithrday to you".
It’s a good blouse.

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and her friends are affluent, creative, and free-spirited professionals, mostly in their 30s and 40s. That hinterland generational mix of older millennials and younger gen-Xers. (Maxine’s apartment is fantastic and I would trade half my clothes for her stylish blouse.)

Despite her evident wealth and the many people who clearly love her, Nadia is unfulfilled. She smokes; she drinks; she has casual sex with a pseudo-intellectual arsehole.

And she ends the night being run over by a car when she spots her cat on the other side of the road. (Note: the cat is fine.)

This is not really a spoiler, as Nadia immediately returns to the exact point at which she started the evening: staring into the mirror in her friend’s bathroom while someone knocks on the door.

Meanwhile, nearby, Alan (Yul Vazquez) is having the worst night of his life.

Alan is also well off – they are not really like any millennials I know. He is physically fit and healthy – in fact, obsessively so. He suffers from intense anxiety and depression and attempts to manage these conditions by rigidly ordering his life according to strict routines. He never explicitly states that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, but that seems to be implied.

This night, Alan plans to propose to his girlfriend, and she plans to break up with him.

Alan is also stuck in a loop where he starts the night staring into his bathroom mirror and ends the night by dying.

While Nadia immediately starts trying to figure out what is happening, Alan simply assumes he is being punished, and adjusts his routine to compensate.

Eventually they meet, and together they begin to solve the puzzle of what the hell is actually going on.

My take

This is amazing.

Anyone who has seen Orange is the New Black will know that Natasha Lyonne can act. A witty, drug-taking woman with a self-destructive streak is not a very great leap in casting from the role that made her famous, but it’s undeniable that she does it well.

Once you know that Lyonne wrote Russian Doll in partnership with Amy Poelher (Parks and Recreation), it’s time to sit up.

Russian Doll is smart, it’s funny, and it kept me guessing right until the very end.

It has a good balance of male and female characters, represents a variety of sexualities, is racially diverse, and doesn’t do badly at all in its representation of mental health issues. While the life-affirming resolution could be taken to tie things up too easily, it’s fair to say that there’s no suggestion of an easy cure for depression or anxiety. And though the stigma of mental health issues is recognised, both Nadia and Alan have people in their lives who treat their respective difficulties with unpatronising compassion.

Particular credit is due for the character Ruth – the therapist who raised Nadia after her mother died. Played by the wonderful Elizabeth Ashley, Ruth doesn’t fall into the cliches of cookie-cutter psychotherapists one usually sees on film and TV. She offers no reductive solutions, and instead emphasises the need to build a relationship with her patients. She also steadfastly calls anyone and everyone up on the use of ableist terms in her house.

While I wouldn’t put too much stock in the metaphysics of time loops explored in Russian Doll, it’s internally consistent according to the rules of the universe it establishes. It’s also more interesting, complex, and satisfying in both structure and resolution than Groundhog Day, the most famous example of the time loop trope. I say that as someone who rates Groundhog Day quite highly.

Please take the time to enrich your life. This is an original and exciting gem of a show.

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2018 – a year in review, I guess

It’s definitely been a year, hasn’t it? Trump? Brexit? Distracted boyfriend memes. Tide pods. Black Panther. Female genderqueer Doctor Who. Oceans 8. Increasing ways to fuck monsters on the big screen.

I suppose I should start with the illness

Personally, I started the year sick as a dog. Sicker than a dog. I had the Australian flu. And then every other bug going around at about 10 times the level of ill that other people had them.

It was gutting. I had to take time off work at a crucial point and some of my coworkers never forgave me for that. I was lucky in that I had a really understanding boss who insisted that I take time off when I was ill, but it was still awful.

I accidentally ended up seeing a different doctor to usual and at first it looked like that was a good thing as he seemed to take my condition seriously and be willing to help. But that just set me up for even more gutting disappointment when he declared that he couldn’t find anything and it was all in my head.

Fortunately, he suggested I try a different doctor for a second opinion before just trying me on a different anti-depressant medication again.

She’s been great. Slow. But great. Slow because my doctor’s surgery has actually been rated inadequate. They literally can’t handle the number of patients they have, but there also aren’t any viable NHS alternatives in the area. It’s been a barrel of laughs.

Anyway. More blood tests. I’m anemic again. More iron tablets.

An iron fish.

A weird pain in my lower right-hand side. New blood tests in case it’s my appendix. It isn’t, but it might be an ovarian cyst.

Blood tests reveal that my iron levels are technically back to normal (as in, the lowest number there is in the normal range) but apparently you can still be symptomatic up until 50. I am at 30. I do not know what of, but that is the iron number of my blood.

The good thing is that technically being back in the normal is all my doctor needs. I have been sick, pretty much non-stop, for six… actually probably more like seven years now. It isn’t normal. I had a week this year – one week – where I almost felt OK.

I cannot go places or do things. When I get home from work I cannot do anything. I mostly live in my bed. At work I am tired and I know I could function better than I do.

I have had blood tests. So many blood tests. I’m not going to go over my medical history again – I have talked about it ad nauseum and you, dear reader, are not going to be able to tell me anything me and my doctors have not considered, so please, please don’t try.

They don’t think it’s ME or CFS. It might be Multi-factor Fatigue Syndrome. It might still be the iron. It might be a sleep disorder (I doubt it – I have always suffered from insomnia, but there have been periods where I have slept quite well over the years this has been going on). But having technically normal iron means that I am finally being referred to the Chronic Fatigue clinic.

The thing I find most hilarious is that one of the reasons they don’t think it’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is that, while they insisted for years that it wasn’t anything at all, they now say that it’s been going on too long for it to be CFS.

But the fact is that I am still ill. Debilitatingly ill. I’ve seen people just about every other day this Christmas, and have ended up sleeping most of the following day to recover. And it’s not just being tired. I feel nauseous. I have headaches. I can’t think properly. It makes dealing with anything emotionally taxing very hard.

And this has meant that I can’t get on with my life. I just can’t. I can’t write fiction. I can’t publish philosophy. People have stopped believing that I ever will and hence treat it as a joke. I’m not being lazy, guys. I’m ILL.

I gave my most successful and most enjoyable paper ever at Nine Worlds this year – to a really huge packed room – and people were coming up to talk to me afterwards. It was amazing – it should have been amazing. I was too ill. I had four or five things to do that day and I had to run away to recover before the next.

It could have been a relaunching of my online presence. All kinds of people followed me and were asking for an online version of the talk – on The Ethics of The Good Place – and I haven’t been able to do it. I have been too ill.

It’s boring to dwell on this. It makes me seem whiny – I know. But it really has affected every part of my life, personally and professionally. It’s very difficult to find any kind of hope for the future when you literally can’t do anything but the bare minimum required to survive.

Professional life

Let’s talk about this, then. Overall, objectively, it’s worked out to be a good year.

For the most part I worked with good people and achieved great things and really diversified my experience. I played a substantial part in bringing two prospectuses to print and I think my contributions to those look great. It was a shift, moving from mostly website and social media work to print, but it was wonderful to be writing so much, at such a high level, and to play such a key role in how a university presents itself.

The last two years being paid to write and create graphics and web content for a university I love has been amazing. I’m very sad to have had to leave such a creative environment, but yet another short-term contract came to an end, and I couldn’t live like that anymore. I have needed a permanent job for a long time, and I am very grateful that one came along when it did.

Now I’m a Content Specialist. Which at the moment seems to largely involve technical writing. That’s a new field for me. I have written, proofread, and edited fiction, academic writing, marketing materials, even poetry, but not technical writing. Although much of the work seems very similar to what I’ve done before, there’s still a lot of uncertainty involved in doing something new.

I will be a lot happier when I’ve seen out my probation and know that this really is a permanent job.

It pays a lot better than anything I have ever earnt before. Which is good. Frankly, I need the money – my credit card bills need the money. And I don’t like having to rely on teh generosity of others so much.

I’m also hoping it will mean that I can get private medical insurance soon. I love the NHS, but the Tories have gutted it and I need to sort my health out. I can’t go on like this – limping from one thing to the next. I want to actually live my life at some point.


I am writing. Not as much as I would like. But I am. As of yesterday I have 48,000 words on what I am referring to as Courtly Intrigue and Dragons.

I am determined to finish a novel this year. I know I say that every year, but it has to be done.

It’s hard to write at home because illness usually means the place is a tip and my own despondency seems to sort of seep into the walls, but I’m hoping that once I’ve made a proper dent in the credit card bill I can afford to get away – a writing retweet. Or maybe even just a weekend away in an AirBnB in Edinburgh or something.

It would be good to sort out my study, but illness has made that hard. It is overflowing with stuff that I don’t have the time or energy to sort out.

I’ve also gotten back to writing poetry this year. I think I’ve written some good things – working in Marketing has really honed my ability to write within hard limits and to set requirements. Having always written freeform before I have tried my hand at sonnets and I’ve been pleased with the results. I read some at the open mic at Fantasy Con and they seemed well-received. Nothing published as yet, but I have some out to submission. I’ve had no luck at all with my short stories this year, so it’s been good to try something else.

I have also written a very great deal of fanfiction. But less than last year, I think. My obsession with Dragon Age is finally cooling, so I’m able to throw myself behind the original fiction more.

I treated myself to a notebook earlier this year, and I think that’s really helped.

Holidays and Conventions

I actually got to go on holiday this year. Nice was nice. It was hot and sunny and I got suitably sunburnt. I think it did me good. I hope this year I manage to get to a proper sand beach, but the pebble beach in Nice was pretty good, and I enjoyed being able to swim in the sea again.

I’m hoping this year involves some time to get away and write, but I have less leave to work with so need to have a proper think about where I go and when.

Nine Worlds was good in some ways this year. I enjoyed the Toilet Panel, my Good Place paper, and my talk on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and the Modernists. But it was also smaller, less diverse, and with much less involvement from the publishing industry. I now know that this is because the con was in a kind of crisis and over the past few months its been in the process of changing hands and sorting itself out. Only time will tell what becomes of it, but it is a shame – local friends had just started saying that they might go in 2019.

I am tempted by World Con and Easter Con and Fantasy Con this year, but I can’t go to them all. There’s also the fact that I really enjoy taking part, and I know that more traditional cons tend to focus on inviting guests who have something to plug, instead of encouraging enthusiastic fans and academics the way Nine Worlds did.

Maybe this year I should spend the time focusing on my writing instead, so that I actually become the sort of person those kinds of cons want. But I also need to get out and meet new people, and at the moment, cons seem to be the best way for me to do that.


My resolutions for this year are very similar to those of every year.

I need to lose weight. It’s very difficult to do when you’re ill, but I am the fattest I have ever been and I hate the way my body feels.

I’ve started again with what I used to call Boredom Calisthenics – doing sit-ups and whatnot in the little bits of empty time when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or the rice to cook. I did this before and was able to maintain my lowest adult weight for several years that way. I’ve also started on the weights. And I’ll need to eat better.

That latter is inhibited by the free-flowing of food and drink at work. I need to be better at saying ‘no’. But that’s difficult when you’re anxious, and I’ll need to settle into the work a lot more before my anxiety reduces.

I also want to finish writing a novel.

And I want to be published again. I used to manage to get at least one thing published every year, and I’ve not been able to do that for a while now. That needs to change.

I’d like to go back to my allotment and do a good job this year, but I may have to give it up because, you guessed it – my health.

A lot is dependent on my health. Writing is, exercise is, eating well is, the allotment is.

I will keep taking the iron pills and try to hope that something comes of this referral.

I also need a better sofa. That will help in getting me down out of bed and into the rest of the house.

So… as year reviews go, this is fairly dull. I feel like I should have been talking about Black Panther and Doctor Who and Shape of Water. But I haven’t the energy.

That’s what I most want for 2019: energy.


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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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