Friday, 4 January 2013

That's the trouble with time...

Whoah! Start a blog and end up working flat out for most of 2012...Why didn't this happen in the months of boredom ad inertia before I thought of doing this whole thing in the first place? Hey-ho...

Anyway, it's the run-up to the 50th anniversary of that show I used to like. As such, I'm planning on doing a 50 At 50 thang through my favourite stories about the good Doctor.

So, number 50 it is, which - perhaps, remarkably - takes us right back to where it all began:


It' still really quite odd this one;  the spiky, atmospheric production reveals some inspired ideas and moments: the TARDIS of course, but also the weird music and bizarre title sequence...and that's before we get to the character of the Doctor himself, as played by William Hartnell, who is pretty mesmerizing here.

Almost immediately, the series exists on a  knife's edge of conservatism and something altogether more progressive. This is remarkable in so many ways - very few long-running series fluctuate so frequently and dramatically between political poles. Partly it's to do with the shifting personnel and the changes of writer, but even under the firm hand of a story editor and producer, it's sometimes rather astonishing in how many different directions 'Doctor Who' will go. 

This story sets up a very 'establishment' foundation for the series: we get four (albeit two coded) white westerners who travel across frontiers in a symbol of that establishment's authority, law and order ( a police box) to a world of savages. And these guys will kill you as soon as look at you! They'll drop a rock on your head to crush your skull, strangle old women and more because they have no concept of friendship, see?

And our heroes are going to teach them all about it...

Thankfully, this tweeness is buried under a nicely brutal and atmospheric production, in which Waris Hussein achieves a minor miracle with the budget and resources available to him. Moreover, it is made more complex by stopping the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan from becoming paragons of virtue. They're at each other's throats too! 

Of course, the let's-teach-the-savages-our-enlightened-values can only really work if we ignore that many tribal societies (especially those that made it into the modern era for us to see) are nothing like the fellas in the skins here. This is an enlightened modern humanist's fantasy and, therefore, doesn't have to be rooted in any kind of historical or anthropological facts. It's a great phew! that we learnt how to be civilised and respectful to one another (hmmm...) and a warning that the little tribe aboard the TARDIS must do the same if they are to stay a unit. 

After all, it's notable that the way the Doctor taunts Ian about the lack of sophistication of his culture isn't all that far removed from the dismay Ian feels when he fails to get through to Za. Maybe the only way in which we might read this as a critique of the arrogance of the technologically advanced is that the Doctor realises that his very survival was dependent on the two Earthlings he was critical of...and the longer he is in their presence of course, the more his character shifts from paranoid, ruthless exile with a selfish desire to explore on his own terms, to...well, to the kind of character he would fully develop into later. 

So, very nicely, the series is already a wee bit murky. It's pretty unflattering in its depiction of the Tribe of Gum but it's not exactly trumpeting the civilised behaviour of the Doctor and his band of unwilling travellers...And there's something in that moment when Hartnell's Doc picks up the rock that reminds me of Kubrick's '2001', which is underpinned by the notion that the technology may change but we still carry the lowly stamp of our origins and must be wary of some of those base desires...if indeed, he was going to kill Za, rather than get him to draw their way back to the TARDIS as he insists. Indeed, this is nicely murky for a children's afternoon adventure series. Plus, all that clever stuff with the flash-backs in the first episode, the way the TARDIS is revealed, the flip-flop between something akin to a soap or a play-for-today into something all together stranger and the dream-like atmosphere created by the denseness and shading of grainy black-and-white. I love it! 

Friday, 6 January 2012

WHEN I'M (6)5...

David Bowie is 65 and it's been a strange journey. I didn't discover his work until I was in sixth form, when my teenage love of Suede, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails led back to Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground and David Bowie...I was in an interesting position. Not old enough to remember the great rise of the Glam rock God of Ziggy, the dizzy commercial heights of 'Let's Dance' or the derision prompted by the mid-80s and Tin Machine, all I knew was that he once played something called Ziggy Stardust and there was a Hitchcock-esque video for 1993's, 'Jump They Say' that once came on ITV's Chart Show and engaged me for four-and-a-half-minutes before I went on my merry way.

So, after 60 years, a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a guy with a Third Reich-obessed, occultist alter-ego who gives dodgy salutes from the back of open-top Daimlers, but who also writes anti-fascist tirades and has one of the most ethnically-diverse bands in rock; a bi-sexual in a 20-year monogamous marriage to a woman almost his own age (by rock standards, that's startling...although she is a former model, so yet another layer of confusion); a guy who made a bundle on the stadium circuit and tried to vanish into a band to escape it all;  someone with a huge ambition to live in LA, who then fled to Berlin to get away from it;  man who claims to have never been a lefty (and looked every inch like the uber-yuppie in the 80s) but who also refused a knighthood, credited his drummer with writing songs to get the man a royalty and released a pro-Tibet single in China during the Hong Kong handover with a Mandarin translation, no less - a more exciting event than a hundred Band Aids, with its creepy racist lyrics.

So, happy birthday to the Dame (who, without fanfare, vanished from the world stage with no signs he'll ever return to it) and here's my favourites of your albums:

Low (1977)
It's actually very funny at the start - an eccentric collection of fragmented pop songs that sound as if they've been built out of samples of Wire, O-Jays, Kraftwerk and early Pink Floyd (well, his real initials are DJ after all). Then after these quirky, audaciously brief shorts that vacillate between ironic and heartfelt rumination on isolation, bewilderment and loneliness, Bowie all but vanishes (bar some haunting wailing) for a collection of synth symphonies far more reminiscent of Steve Reich or Philip Glass than anything in rock. And if we want a tenuous 'Doctor Who' link, they occasionally sound like the kind of Radiophonic experiments that the show managed to offer up too.

Station to Station (1976)
It's funky but in place of the warmth synonymous with so much contemporaneous soul music, it's a chilly affair. At times, the ramblings of a cocaine-smashed ego maniac with a Kabbala fixation, it's the heartfelt cries for love, spiritual healing and the company of people rather than yes-men that make it such a fascinating and beautiful affair.

"Heroes" (1977)
Unlike 'Low', this WAS actually recorded in Berlin and the city permeates the album. On the first half, the Weimar-era decadence familiar to readers of Isherwood infuses quirky, uncompromising disco-y rock numbers such as 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'BlackOut', while the sublime title track and the haunting 'Sons of the Silent Age' are gorgeous slow burners. On the second half, it's as if words can no longer express the view from Hansa by the Wall studios and the instrumentals provide attitudes and atmospheres that are evocative of the doom that once pervaded the cultural cross roads of Europe...Even listening to it now when travelling through the city (as I did a couple of years ago), it makes huge amounts of aesthetic sense.

I've also had many a wonderful listening experience with the too-long but underrated 'Outside', plus 'Diamond Dogs', 'Hunky Dory' and 'Lodger'. However, not having been there for the pop cultural phenomenon that was 'Ziggy Stardust', it's sometimes hard to gauge why it has been so lasting. It's full of great hooks and melodies certainly, but 'Aladdin Sane' manages to give Ziggy a sonic landscape to match the look, whereas 'Ziggy' - to me - just sounds like T-Rex with The Velvet's swagger that could have done with beefier production...So, what am I missing here?

To the Pluto Station

Its all too easy to idealize a social upheaval which takes place on some other a planet than one's own...

...No, there'll be time to look at 'Doctor Who's' 'The Sunmakers', which - in part - has inspired this blog's title.

By far the bigger influence however, has been Jack Graham of the quite brilliant Shabogan Graffiti who, many moons ago, suggested I put together a blog after I contributed a guest's scribble to him about the Peter Davison story, 'Kinda'. However, as he runs by far my favourite blog of lefty 'Who related wallscrawl on the web, what was the point me doing the same? After all, our opinions and politics aren't all that dissimilar and I have found myself, on more than one occasion, becoming something of an echo-chamber for him on Gallifreybase, largely because he has quite the turn of phrase...

But hang on, I want to keep any possible readers here, not swanning off to Shabgraff (okay, have a look but promise to come straight back, do you hear!).

So, this blog, which will be a bit lefty and about 'Doctor Who' too, will also turn its electronic eye on anything that remotely interests/irks/fascinates/angers me on a given day.

However, I think it only right that I should say upfront that I should credit Jack and thus, have given this blog a name that captures some of the anarchic zest of Shabogan Graffiti. Just as those guys ran amok in the capitol on Gallifrey, undermining Time Lord oligarchy, so the work units of Megropolis One on Pluto sought to overthrow the economic imperialism of the Collector and his kind. We have solidarity!

I am also indebted to the late Edmund Wilson, whose book 'To the Finland Station' inspired the title for my opening blog...As you can see, I live by pastiche and parody, which is itself a steal. Can you guess from which 90s novel by a so-called national treasure that hails? Put your answer in a bottle and eject it into space and it should reach me here on the edge of the solar system at some point.

Enough throat clearing...To the first post proper at some point soon...