Not The Fox News: The Doctor Is In

Like my friend Saxon says, always start with a song.

John Lydon there, a few years out from being Johnny Rotten and a few years before splitting his time being a mouthpiece for Big Dairy and deciding Brexit was punk rock. It’s one of his best pieces of non Sex Pistols work, all righteous late ’80s piss and vinegar. Compelling argument too, because anger is an energy,  he’s right. If you ever want to gorilla up and over a problem, all you really have to do is get good and mad at it. ‘DRIVE OVER!’ As my tiny Welsh Rugby coach used to say, encouraging 500 pounds of adolescent scrum to do their best impression of a tank.

Hello Mr McGregor, by the way, if you’re reading.

Anger tends to power Difficult Men in fiction too. House? Pissed. Sherlock Holmes? Bloody furious. The Doctor? Often mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore. Peter Capaldi’s epochal run as the 12th Doctor was driven, at least in its first year, by the Doctor’s barely contained rage at everything he knew, could sense and that was not happening fast enough. That rich vein of tetchy has run through most of the previous incarnations too, always appearing in different ways. 11’s baby-faced old man persona, 6’s fundamental inability to not shout, 4’s occasional mercurial explosions of rage. 9’s tormented, embittered survivor’s guilt that often threatened to tear him and anyone near him in half as he grinned as widely as he could to keep from screaming. It’s why ‘Just this once, EVERYBODY LIVES!’ Still makes you cry a full decade and a bit after transmission. It’s the feral desperate joy of a man who wants to save everyone who, just once, can. But the thing none of these Difficult Men, or to use the correct trope, Insufferable Geniuses know is that Anger is An energy, not the only energy. And based on her first appearances, the 13th Doctor has found and is building herself around something else; kindness.

To deal with the obvious comment head on, I don’t think this has anything to do with her gender.
Anger isn’t something dependent on gender and never has been. Rather, I think 13’s approach to
kindness uses the decades of Insufferable Genius that preceded her as a foundation and the environment she’s dropped into as building material to create something as new as it is necessary.

Peter Capaldi’s 12 is, at the very least, my second favorite Doctor of all time so I’m not bagging on him in the slightest. But, especially in that first year, 12 was defined by his rage. ‘Am I a good man?’ Remained the driving question throughout his run and resurfaced when he flat out refused to regenerate at the end of his time. Anger at the world, at the injustice he’d seen, at the fact there were still Things To Do drove the gloriously disreputable old punk right up until his final moments when he was finally allowed not only peace but to realize that someone other than him was allowed to shoulder some of the burden. I was basically a wreck for the entire back 20 minutes of Twice Upon A Time (The Lethbridge-Stewart reveal? Not enough tissues in the world) but those final moments, 12’s curtain call, were what really got me. Especially what seemed to be a good part of the mission statement for 13:

‘Laugh hard. Run fast. Be Kind.’

It’s a moment made all the more powerful in retrospect. 12, finally at peace with himself and his
end, taking his final bow and throwing a typically dignified plea out into the world as he goes. One his successor picks up in her first three seconds of life, laughing at the sheer joy of having arrived, of having so much to do and so much time to do it. The torch being passed not reluctantly but with trust. The torch being picked up not out of obligation but choice.

And 13 is unfailingly, disarmingly kind. She’s instinctively the Doctor from the first second we see
her. Talking fast, solving a problem, collecting information. She knows who she is before she can
remember who she is. She’s also painfully aware of the toll events take on the people around her
in a way almost no Doctor has ever been before. The Tenth Doctor’s retrain of ‘I’m sorry, I’m so
sorry’ was, at times, performative. Another excuse to rails against the universe so vast
and malicious that even the Lonely God couldn’t save everyone.

13 has no such front. Or indeed, any at all. She apologizes when things go wrong, compliments her friends (And they’re her friends now, not her companions. That’s important too) for dealing with their situation and is engaged with everyone, not just everything. 13 builds the suit of herself from her environment. Her accent, her friends, her Sonic Screwdriver, her costume. All of it comes not from some conveniently hand waved alien box but from a northern town on a crappy night. I actually applauded at her costume coming from a charity shop because its such a perfect choice. A Doctor with no time, or resources, for the sartorial fripperies of her predecessors, rolling her sleeves up (Literally!) and getting it done. Brilliant. A Sonic Screwdriver made out of Sheffield steel and stolen bits of a Hershey’s Kiss from space. Even more brilliant. The iconic superhero elements of the Doctor stripped away to reveal the same person they’ve always been; never cruel or cowardly. Here to help. Hates empty pockets.

And behind all of it, kindness. Whitaker has the exact steel the Doctor requires and facing down
Tim Shaw the tooth-faced pound shop Predator (And I mean that as a compliment) on a tower
crane is a Hell of a first ‘I’m the DOCTOR’ moment. But where she lives and breathes in the role is
in her compassion. The offhand reference to how ‘everyone is capable of the most incredible
change’. The fact that she quietly positions Ryan, whose fault this indirectly is, so that he can be
the one to bring the situation to an end. The fact too that she watches him try and ride his bike and doesn’t intervene. This incarnation of the Doctor is kind but not smothering, compassionate but respectful. She’s here to help, she isn’t here to do it for us and that’s a distinction the show has rarely, if ever attempted before.

It’s also one that implies a welcome fallibility. The Doctor’s decision to leave her friends to heal is
one again borne of kindness. But fate, as we see in the final moments of this episode, has other
plans for 13 and her odd, fractious survivor’s club. Yazmin, so determined to prove herself. Ryan,
refusing to break under the pressure of his dyspraxia and working to not be defined by it. Graham, united with Ryan in grief if not love. Survivors all, none of them happy about it and all of them about to take their first steps into a world that will show them just how much bigger they all are on the inside. And do so not as a punishment, but as a kindness.

Anger is an energy. Right now it’s a mandatory one. I’m writing this on the morning an IPCC report is published, that will almost certainly be ignored, which says we have 12 years to correct or curb climate change before it begins having disastrous, Roland Emmerich-ian effects. I’m writing this in a country which in six months will merrily walk off an economic and cultural cliff because rich white sociopaths turned the very people they exploit the most into a weapon that will harm us all. I’m writing this on the other side of the Atlantic from a country I love whose President’s behavior degrades by the hour, which has just railroaded a probable sexual predator onto the highest court in the land and which looks dead set on rolling the clock back to the 1950s in every single one of the worst ways. Anger is an energy, a mandatory one.

But not the only one.

If anger is a weapon then kindness is a tool and Doctor Who has returned to place that tool in everyone’s hands where it fits so well we almost forgot we could wield it. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind. Make your own future and bring people along with you when you go. That’s what this Doctor would do. Now, let’s get a shift on.

Not The Fox News: New Minds, Fresh Ideas, Free Comics

Free Comic Book Day, this weekend just gone, is an annual event designed to bring people into their local comics stores. Companies produce free books designed to showcase their best material, and stores buy it (Hold that thought) and give it away to customers. There are snacks, balloons, signings, parties.

I love it, firstly because it’s a great outreach tool for an industry I worked in a lot and desperately needs new blood. Secondly because each successive Free Comic Book Day drives a stake a little further into the heart of the Comic Book Guy stereotype. And, as a 6’2, 300 pound former comic store manager, trust me when I say when that worthless garbage take is finally irrevocably dead I will be the first to dance on his grave.

(Quick aside: I once wrote an extended essay on this exact subject, for a comics site. I got this BRILLIANT 3000 word rebuttal emailed to me by someone who proved, using science, that Comic Book Guy is the hero of The Simpsons. I mean, they were completely wrong, but I respect the hustle).

Anyhoo, this is the first FCBD in a while where I’ve been near a store. Crunch Comics, in Reading, is about ten minutes away from my front door and has the exact feel I always look for in comic stores. Despite being smallits clean, brightly lit, cool, tidy and has a real sense of focused energy and enthusiasm to it. It’s the exact sort of store that Free Comic Book Day should be bringing new people to and I made sure to both pick up a couple of books and order a couple of things too.
Because, remember, Free Comic Book Day is only free for you. The stores have to pay so the unspoken social contact has to be; you pick up something free, you order something or buy something.
They didn’t have much stock left, which is always a good sign, but I grabbed a couple of books and read them last night. And it’s only now, having done so, that I realize they accidentally book end everything I love about geek culture, and what’s happening to it, surprisingly well.


WARNING: GIANT ROBOTS AHEAD

Transformers: Unicorn is written by John Barber, has art by Alex Milne, colours by Sebastian Cheng and letters by Tom B Long and is the start of an official endgame for this run of Transformers comics. IDW have held the license for over a decade and in that time have done extraordinary things with it. Till All Are One is essentially The West Wing (Of Cybertron) following the struggles to maintain peace on a world full of functionally-immortal transforming heavily armored robots. Optimus Prime has dived deep into the mindset of the most important leader in Autobot history and discovered just how fallible he can be and More Than Meets The Eye and Lost Light have essentially distilled joy down into comic form.


Seriously, these books are wondrous. More Than Meets The Eye is the story of a blazing argument that leads Hot Rod and a crew of volunteers to leave Cybertron in search of what is almost certainly a myth. They screw up, a lot. They get lost even more. It’s somewhere between Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, Waiting for Godot and Red Dwarf, just with heavily armed transforming robots as the lead. Over the years, the book, and Lost Light its sequel, have explored PTSD, romance, the fluidity of sexual identity and just how in love with himself Hot Rod actually is. They’ve given a redemption narrative, one that landed no less, to the last character that you’d expect. They’ve been hilarious, tragic, heart-warming and inspirational. Everything a licensed comic is traditionally expected not to be.


Unicron is the beginning of the end. The Orson Welles-voiced planet eater is going to munch his way across these books and bring them all to an end, and, presumed reboot. And in doing so, he’s demonstrating the thing no one likes to talk about with comics in particular and stories in general. They have to end. Or rather, they should end.
Comics are long-form serials and that shouldn’t work. A serial, especially a pulp one is driven by cliff-hangers and the longer it goes the less powerful those become. The cliffs get shorter, the explosions smaller. Before long you’re going through the motions rather than telling the story and for a lot of comics, for a lot of time, that’s worked.
The harder, better choice, is to bring things to an end. In doing so, you give your characters a chance to resolve, your readers a chance to say goodbye and you leave the stage before someone yells ‘Do FREEBIRD!’. But you also deny people of that shrinking, but still present, joy of continuation. It’s a difficult path to walk, and I commend the IDW staff for making the call. I’ll still miss this guy though:


And that brings us to Doctor Who. I’ve written before (I think? If not I should) about how Who’s specific gravity dragging everything in UK pop culture back to it is by no means a good thing at times. This, however, is not one of those times.The Doctor Who FCBD offering contains three (Well…kind of…) stories featuring the Tenth, Seventh and Eleventh Doctors.

‘Catch A Falling Star’ follows Tenth Doctor companion Gabby as she falls through space to what she thinks is her death. Written by Nick Abadzis it’s a neat summation of the Tenth Doctor run featuring Gabby and has stunning artwork from Giorgia Sposito and Arianna Florean. This is truly gorgeous work, using Gabby’s own sketch journals to tell the story and finishing on a beat that’s as surprising as it is welcome. The End, it seems, has been prepared for. And this time at least, is not The End…

‘The Armageddon Gambit’ by John Freeman, with art by Christopher Jones and colours by Marco Lesko is up next. This is the Seventh Doctor and Ace at their finest, playing chess on levels their opponents don’t see coming. It’s breezy and fun and Jones’ artwork does that near impossible thing of capturing likenesses without losing fluidity of expression, Plus, again, there’s a subtle note of hacking the game so you can win here. It’s a Seventh Doctor story certainly but one with a far more grandiose (And REALLY COOL) Console room than the BBC budget ever allowed.

‘Midnight Feast’ is up next, by George Mann with art by Mariano Laclaustra and colours by Carls Cabrera. This is an odd one for me as Eleven is one of the Doctors I have the least time for. However, the story does a great job of emphasizing the best elements of that run’s style. Peckish but not sure for what, Eleven pops the TARDIS off to one of his favorite diners, resolves a dispute or two, fails to find anything he likes and is then introduced to the joys of the tuna sandwich by his companion, Alice. It’s short, breezy, fun and again, ends in a way you wouldn’t expect.

And then this happens.No warning. No dialogue. Just, BOOM.  The 13th Doctor, running headlong into the world with a massive smile on her face and trouble undoubtedly mere pages away. Jody Houser’s script, Rachael Stott’s art, Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt’s letters, it all works perfectly and works instantly. In doing so, it ties everything I’ve been talking about together.
Stories can, and should, end. Otherwise they aren’t stories they’re just doing laps with words. Empty exercises in style and nostalgia that ring hollow even as the few voices still singing along get louder.

But there’s always another way, and it’s one that these books, especially the Doctor Who one, embody;

Change.

The same notes played on a new instrument. New voices. New perspectives. Ones that honor what they’re built on but aren’t beholden to them. Stories that do not gate keep themselves and whose fans shouldn’t either. Because every new voice, every new perspective and new start shows us all something different about the stories we love. And if that isn’t amazing, I don’t know what is.

Happy Free Comic Book Day everyone. Go take your local store donuts and buy something. I’ll see you next month.

(And if you have trouble finding your local comic store, try here. Or, talk to these folks. I used to work for them and they’re good people.)

Not the Fox News: The Five Rules


As 2015 comes to a close I’ve been thinking a lot about clarity. Ricky Jay, one of the greatest magicians of his age, talks about clarity as a vital concept in performance and it applies to writing just as much. Bloggers and magicians have a lot in common. We both have to communicate exactly what we want to our audiences. If we do that then they will be pleasantly surprised when we pull the metaphorical coin out from behind their ear.

I worry I’m really bad at it.

I run long, I know that and I also know that I have a very different approach to the vast majority of critics. I am painfully optimistic. I assume best practice where others are already writing their hate pieces and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out why. Worse, I worry that it makes me come across as naïve or worse still, wilfully ignorant.

And then Ricky Jay enters, stage left and says one word; ‘Clarity’.

So here are the five rules I approach every piece of culture with. This is how I think and why I think it.

 

  1. You Are Allowed To Like Things

You are positively and absolutely encouraged to like things. Liking things is at the heart of geek culture. Those things do not have to be the same things others like. Some of them may be – it’s called popular culture for a reason. Some of them won’t be.

That’s great. That’s the point.

For example: I’m genuinely and non-ironically fond of Armageddon. Yes it’s a ludicrous movie with entirely too much Aerosmith but it also hits me right in my Astronaut Feels. For other people that movie is nails on a chalkboard. There’s a non-zero percentage chance one of the comments I’ll get on this piece will be a variation of ‘Yeah but Armageddon’s crap’. That’s okay because we love what we love. That honest engagement is what matters.

  1. You Are Allowed To Not Like Things

You are positively and absolutely encouraged to not like things. Some of the things you don’t like will be things everyone else doesn’t like. Some of the things you don’t like will be things everyone else loves.

That’s great. That’s the point.

Another example: I have a ton of friends who adore 1960s and 1970s era Doctor Who. From Patrick Troughton up to Tom Baker, The Doctor strides across their lives like a grinning Titan made of scarves, ruffles and reversed polarity.

For me, that era is difficult if not impossible, to sit through. Does that make them inherently bad? No. Which leads us to…

  1. Share Your Joy, Not Your Rage

There is no force more inclusive and welcoming than enthusiasm.

When we connect with a piece of art, whatever that may be, it’s like setting off a rocket. We sparkle with joy, delight in the intricacies of what we’ve seen or read or played and how it makes us feel. That intense joy naturally fades over time, simply because so much of it is wrapped up in the shock and surprise of the new.

But it never dies.

And we can maintain it by telling others about what we enjoyed and sharing why.

It leads to a virtuous circle of enthusiasm. You get to squee about something you love. Your friends get introduced to new culture. Sometimes the creators get to see their work publically shared and appreciated. You expand the horizons of others, knowing they will return the favour.

The shared joy of a piece of culture loved by many cannot be overstated. Look at the new born and amazing Force Awakens fandom to see just how welcoming and fun this can be.

  1. You Are Not Allowed To Murder Other People’s Joy

There is no force more divisive and poisonous then derision.

When you share your joy, you may also be on the receiving end of its flip side. Agendas, festering political sores, discrimination, social cliques, and the scars of long past but cherished disappointments.

It’s easy to respond to joy with negativity. It’s easier still to assume that someone that hurt you before will do so again, and even more so to lash out pre-emptively. Look at the small faction of Star Wars fans merrily spoiling The Force Awakens. Or the racist, sexist discriminatory apologia groups that have tried to ‘fix’ the Hugo Awards the last several years.

I’m not saying we can’t dislike stuff. I’m not even saying we can’t talk about why people like stuff we don’t. That discussion is brilliant and vital. What I’m against is criticising other people for liking something we don’t.

Let’s re-frame it. Say you’re sitting in a favourite restaurant. You’re chatting to your friends about how great your meal is. Someone someone at a nearby table turns round and says ‘Why are you eating that? It’s garbage.’

Rude. Upsetting. Unnecessary. At best its poor communication skills. At worst it’s cruel for cruelty’s sake.

Don’t do it. Especially don’t do it to enhance your personal brand as we’ve already, hilariously, seen with The Force Awakens. Crapping on someone’s joy is different from critique or commentary. Learn and PRACTICE that difference. Everyone will be happier. Including you.

  1. Culture Changes and Grows. So Must You.

You could read a book, see a movie, or watch an episode of a show every day for your entire life and there would still be incredible work you’d miss. But you can still have fun trying.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine chided me for my limited cinema habits. At that time I was on an ‘orange explosions and superheroes’ kick. While it was fun, it was also limiting. Since then, I’ve made a point of expanding my horizons and it’s paid off again and again especially this year. The Lady in the Van, Deceptive Practices, Burnt and Steve Jobs are some of the best movies I’ve seen this year. They all fall outside my usual inclinations. But because I saw them and liked them I’ll now go and seek out other movies in similar fields. Some will be awful, others won’t. But my tastes will expand, or at least my exposure to different things. I’ll learn more. I’ll have new things to talk to people about. I’ll enjoy more, even if it’s a single thing more.

And that’s great.

And that’s the point

 

Thanks as ever to Adele and the Fox Spirit team. Thanks to you all for reading. Have an excellent festive season and I’ll see you in 2016.