Who Rules? Who Rules!


Ah, Saturday night telly. Safe, secure home of talent show, hospital drama, old film. And of course, also the place to go for head-mangling, multi-level, wildly self-referential and furiously uncompromising science fiction.

That would be Doctor Who, which always stuck out of the Saturday night schedules like a Sontaran at the dinner table. Gleefully absurd, cheap and cheerful, dark at heart yet always somehow comforting. Effects straight out of the Blue Peter school of sticky-back plastic. Acting straight out of regional theatre.

Yeah. Not any more. Not for a long time. Under Russell T. Davis and more recently Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who is now the best-looking, best acted show on the box, and one of the most contradictory. Ostensibly still a kid’s programme, at least when you look at the extensive BBC website and all the associated mercy, Doctor Who is at the same time deeply complex and terrifyingly adult. It not only refuses to talk down to it’s audience, but launches off in all directions at once and dares the viewer to keep up.

This season, Moffat’s second as show-runner, has been made with money from BBC America, and was supposed to be the moment when the show would break in the States. You would expect, then, a couple of episodes in which a new audience could be eased gently into the story. Something entry-level, with a decent dose of explanation about who the guy in the blue box that’s bigger on the outside than the inside is.

Nope. Sorry. Within ten minutes of the opening titles, the Doctor had been killed, and then reappeared as a version from an earlier timeline. There was something about Scream-faced monsters that you forgot about as soon as you looked away from them. And where the hell did the red-headed broad from E.R. come from? Also, when the heck did the show with the monsters made out of bubble wrap get so goddamn scary?

Since the reboot, Doctor Who has been in the hands of writers who not only get the Doctor and all his dichotomies, but were responsible for keeping the flame lit during the wilderness years. The Paul McGann TV movie aside, the period between the end of Sylvester McCoy’s time in the Tardis and Christopher Eccleston shrugging on the leather jacket was one of furious invention and true high concept adventure. In books, audio and comics, writers like Davis, Moffat and Paul Cornell could carve out stories that didn’t have to be concerned with budget or kid-friendly attitude. They could bring a Doctor to life that had rarely been seen in the shows, a Doctor filled with moral ambiguity, a Machiavellian manipulator. More importantly, a Doctor that instils fear. The Doctor that can turn armies around at the very mention of his name came out of this free and fertile period.

Today’s Doctor Who is a very different programme to the one I grew up with, the one that scared me behind the sofa for two seasons running. The pace, of course, has sharpened, as stories are fitted into forty-five minute slots instead of the two-hour four parter format. Although it’s good to see more two-part cliffhangers, giving the characters a little more room to breathe. It’s also more overtly scary, as Moffat creates adversaries designed to exploit our all too human weaknesses, the flaws in our perception of the world. Creatures that attack in a blink, or hide in the shadows.

And all of a sudden, more adult fears are also being exploited. Constant, unexplained surveillance. The doppelganger, the enemy with your face. Or the terror of a mother losing her child. All tied into a narrative that has no problems with skipping hundreds of years and light years in a single jump cut. It’s epic, demanding and yes, exhausting work. To be honest, I tend to watch the show on catchup, when I feel ready for it. That also gives me the rewind option for those reel “huh?” moments.

But Moffat’s refusal to compromise hasn’t lost him viewers. Considering what else is on around the same time, it’s not a surprise that anyone with the taste for big, brash but thoughtful action would be all over this show. I have niggles with the way the show has so tightly interwoven with it’s backstory, but these are only niggles. Doctor Who is far and away the best thing on British telly at the moment. It’s fearless, tough and when it hits the big notes, a sheer and utter joy. It lures high end names and the best writers in the business. When I realised it was going on break until the autumn, I yelled in disbelief. Although the big reveal wasn’t that huge a surprise, it’s wonderful to finally have River Song’s place set in stone. And with these six episodes, the set up for something extraordinary to come rolling out of the gates in September is well and truly in place.

Now all I need is one of those damned time machines so I can see those episodes now!



Much as I admire and base my actions on Master Lao Tzu, there’s only so much banging on about life in a Taoist stylee you can do before you start to repeat yourself. I’ve decided to open up my Sunday thread, which will henceforth be retitled The Sunday Spiritual, to other voices, opinions and philosophies. Possibly even some I don’t agree with, so that you can have the edifying experience of watching Yours Truly arguing with himself.

Meanwhile, the last couple of weekends have been spent with the extended family, celebrating birthdays and generally enjoying the rare occasion of everyone getting together. Both sides of our clan are equidistant, meaning that visits are bookended with two-hour car rides. Another reason, I guess, for the rarity of family reunions. There are only so many Saturday mornings that you can spend on motorways.

The meet-ups have had a couple of unexpected benefits. I have an evil plan that may turn into an biography, and another that is likely to lead to a regular blogging gig separate from X&HT. Neither of which I can really talk about yet.

Meanwhile, I and another group of friends that don’t get together often enough will be meeting tomorrow, following which there may be more news. And it looks as if another piece written a while back will be making an appearance in print very soon. But again, I can’t really talk about these yet either.

In other words, although I’m bubbling over with excitement about events in the latter half of the year, I can’t do more than hint and tease. Which makes this whole post a bit redundant, really.

Oh well. Dance me off, Mulder and Scully…

They're doing the twist to the theme from "The Munsters", you know.

The Saturday Foto: Window

We spent a highly agreeable day in Oxford yesterday, and took full advantage of TLC’s ability to get us into the colleges for free. I can recommend a wander through the grounds of Magdalen or Balliol. You get a feel for why the city is called The Dreaming Spires.

The pic below is of the window at the chapel of Balliol College. It had me quite mesmerised.

Up until the point where I was lured away with the promise of a pint, anyway.


DC: Dunces and Conmen?

Every time I think the comics industry can’t get any stupider, something happens to make me wonder how I got so complacent.

No, hang on, let me qualify that. Every time I think the American superhero-based comics industry can’t get any stupider, something like, well, this happens. DC are cancelling and rehashing 52 of their titles, starting them all back at no.1 with simplified back stories and in some cases changes to the origins.

Retcons. The curse of the American superhero-based comics industry. Ever since DC killed Superman, brought him back in a new costume before slowly reverting him back to the old blue-and-red romper suit, this nonsense happens on an annual basis. The claim is always that creators want to do something fresh and new with the old franchises. Rubbish. It’s all about squeezing a few more cents out of them. The new editions are scheduled to take place over the traditionally quiet sales period of September. No. 1’s of any title always sell, and all of a sudden DC are flooding the market with 52 of the buggers at once.

The argument brought forward by DC head Dan DiDio is that it’s a chance to make the books relavent for a 21st century audience who have little investment in the stories of the past. Which is, in it’s way, fair comment. Fifty years of character development and story cruft can leave any title in a funk, unable to properly innovate or tell tales in a fresh way.

But, as comics blogger and funny-book shop owner Mike Sterling points out, a jumping-on point can also be a jumping off point. The end of a story gives the bored reader who just wanted to see how things turn out the excuse not to bother with next month’s issue. Especially if it’s not the character he or she enjoyed reading about.

I’ve long been bored with the American superhero-based comics industry’s obsession with huge, multi-book events and gimmicky promotions, to the detriment of decent characterisation and storytelling. If this event doesn’t work, it could signal a reboot for DC as a whole, becoming a placeholder for superhero franchises, a brand name for movies, TV shows and lunchboxes. Which can only be bad news for fans and retailers again. Mike Sterling again:

“While I’m curious as a fan about what DC is doing, as a retailer I’m a little worried. Not just about the jumping-off point thing I noted already, but also about how I’m going to explain this to the customers who are going to be caught completely by surprise by DC’s plans. I know it sounds strange, since all of you reading this are plugged into the Web Matrix-style via interface ports at the bases of your skulls, but I have regular customers for whom their exposure to comics news comes from walking into the store and looking at the rack to see what’s new. I can hear them already: “Hey, why is Superman at issue #1 again? And Batman? …And, hey, Legion of Super-HeroesAgain? What’s going on?” Which is fine…that’s part of my job, to explain what new dumb thing a comic publisher has done to confuse and frighten its readership this week.

But as a pal of mine noted to me in email, if this particular publishing initiative falls flat on its face, where does DC go from there? This is an awfully drastic and wide-ranging strategy that won’t be easy to reverse without some consequences. And not just of the “fans and Marvel Comics laughing at DC’s failure” kind, but having highers-up at Warner Brothers looking at the crash-and-burn and thinking “that didn’t work, so why are we bothering with these pamphlet-thingies? Let’s just do cartoons and movies with these characters, and make some real money on them.”

Yes, quite. Although I’m no fan of capes and masks any more, and will gleefully and at length point out how comics are so much more, I don’t want to see a huge part of the industry collapse into rubble. I can see DC’s core readership shrink rapidly as no-one wants to read crappy new interpretations of perfectly good characters, with no new fanbase to take over. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. But confusing and alienating your customers is no way to run a business.

However, there’s no reason you can’t have a little fun with the idea…

Oh, and if you want to know how to elegantly tell an origin story without letting it taking over an issue, Grant Morrison’s four panel recap that started off his masterly All-Star Superman is the way to go. Perfect comics work.

Four panels. Eight Words. Seventy Years Of Back-story.

*One last thing. The heads up/impetus/desperate steal of an idea at the end of a dry creative day for this one came from long time X&HTeam-mate, Rob May. His new geek-friendly website Cake And Lies is very much worth your time. And as he says here, there are prizes to be won.  


You won’t often get a football post out of me. I can think of only a couple in my entire blogging career, both of which were snarks at the so-called beautiful game.

Why, then, am I so saddened to hear that Reading had lost to Swansea in the playoffs for a place in next year’s Premiership? Considering the fact that I’ve never been to a match, even though the bus to the Madjeski Stadium runs from the bottom of our road. Even though I’d struggle to name more than a couple of our first team players.

I think it’s got a lot to do with the events of the past few years. Under the visionary Steve Coppell, Reading made their way into the Premiership in 2007 for the first time in their history. After a giddy couple of seasons in the top flight, they crashed out unceremoniously and faced tough times. Coppell left, to be replaced briefly by Swansea manager Brendon Rodgers, under whom the Royals couldn’t couldn’t seem to win a game. The first team was strip-mined of talent by Premiership clubs, and left in the hands of caretaker manager Brian McDermott. Saddled with a first team of untried youngsters, and a season that started with the team hovering a point or so off the bottom of the Championship, the glory days seemed like a very distant memory.

But this year, Reading seem to have hit their stride. Unbeaten in eleven games, striker Shane Long up for player of the year. McDermott’s quietly inspiring managership and a playing style that could best be described as “no surrender” (several games this season have been won in extra time), meant that the Royals suddenly looked like they had a good chance of getting back in the major leagues.

Yesterday’s 4-2 result was especially heartbreaking, then. Reading were 3-0 down at half-time, thanks to a penalty and a lucky deflection that seemed to knock all the fight out of the boys. It’s absolutely typical of them that they came out in the second half and fought back hard. It looked as if they could pull off a miracle, but luck and the run of the ball were simply against them. Jem Karacan’s strike smacked off the post, and a late penalty rang the final bell on Reading’s chances. It seems ironic that Rodger’s Swansea is the team to go up. Like Reading, they were suffering only a couple of seasons ago. The Royals’ loss would seem to be the Swan’s gain.

I don’t think any Reading fan can be anything but proud of their team today, though. They showed the spirit and determination that have turned them into a deeply respected team in the Championship, and the team to watch next season. The town and it’s community are behind them, and they are a true unifying force in Reading. It’s been a rollercoaster year for the Royals. Who knows what could happen in 2012?

The Sunday Buddha: Storm

(The most appropriate quote I could find from Master Lao this week was used a couple of weeks ago. So, for one week only, please welcome our guest speaker, the Buddha.)

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?”

For the third year in a row, there have been redundancies at the company for which I work. This time around, I was not in the frame. People that I have worked with for many years were not so lucky.

Losing a long-held job can be a lot like losing a loved one, and will leave you subject to the same feelings of helpless loss. No matter how much you rationalise it as a chance to start again, to try something new, the kick in the gut when you’re told there’s not a place for you is a terrible blow.

We’re all subject to the cruel vagaries of fate, and to forces that are very much above and beyond our control. It can feel as if we are buffeted by a storm, clinging to any piece of flotsam we can find to keep our heads above water. It doesn’t have to be like that, and the simple recognition that we are all drifting together can, I hope, bring some measure of comfort. If we treat each other as equals under the storm, then there is the possibility of everyone finding their way to higher ground together.

The End Of Recorded Music: Bill Drummond And The17

Let’s begin with a few words from artist musician and cultural rabble-rouser Bill Drummond.

Drummond has always been about flipping the switch on baked-in ideas about art and music, but this is something else. Performance for the sake of performance, completely dissolving the boundaries between musician and audience, to the point where they become one and the same entity.

In his explanation of the concept found here Bill mentions influences as disparate as Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. I’d add the experiments David Byrne carried out in Brooklyn, turning an old warehouse into a musical instrument. I’m also thinking about Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a software instrument designed to play by itself for a thousand years without ever repeating. Or his Score For A Hole In The Ground, a tuned series of metal bowls that play a random melody when water is dripped onto them from above, hidden in a forest in Kent.

I find conceptual music deeply fascinating and satisfying, and the idea of a piece of music mutating and evolving beyond the reach of it’s composer is an amazing idea. The17 aren’t quite there yet – they are still organised by Drummond, and sing libretti that he has written. But this will change, I’m certain. And Drummond has stated his intention to set it free on his 60th birthday in 2013.

There is something so freeing and fresh in these ideas. I find it more and more difficult to connect with modern chart music, which has become shamelessly blatant in the way it cribs older songs, or have the sound and lyrical content of skipping rhymes. Yes, yes, I know, old git thinks music ain’t worrit used to be. Which is a rubbish argument, because there’s a lot of great new music out there. And let’s not lose the image of me bouncing up and down on the sofa cackling at Eurovision a couple of weeks back. I’m still not convinced about Drummond’s argument that all music has been heard to death, either. But a radical stance is the first move towards new way of thinking, and Bill has always been an innovator.

You could argue that performance by and for a small group is as ancient as gatherings around campfires. But then sometimes we need to see where we’ve been to understand where we’re going. I love the Spotify model of complete access to a vast range of music. I love discovering new and old music alike. (an example: this absolutely gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by… well, you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.) The17 ties into that process of discovery and distills it down to a very pure, clear extract. A perfect circle, welcoming and enclosed all at once. Music for the initiated, performed in an open church.

The next The17 performance will be in Portugal on June 17th. For more details, or if you’re interested in participating, check the website.

On a slight deviation, Bill Drummond is the unheard voice in our conversations about the M25 Spin, following chats with Gimpo and Iain Sinclair. Dom is in contact with him, and it’s a dear wish of mine to be able to chat to Bill about the Spin, The17 and his other projects. We remain hopeful, and will update you as news becomes available.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: The Future

Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.

It’s a beautiful spring day in England. The kind of day fir which, if you are religiously inclined, you would want to offer thanks to whatever deity you have chosen to worship. The predictions of a deluded old man have been blown away in the fresh wind, insubstantial and dead as dust, vanishing like broken promises into a clean blue sky.

Let’s not waste our pity on Harold Camping. He is at best a fool, at worst a charlatan and thief. He spent a hundred million dollars on an exercise in self-promotion. Hardly the most Christian use of such a large sum.

Worse, his followers are waking up this morning to realise that they have blown life savings and mortgages to pass his message along.

We all need a sage, a mentor, a muse to help guide us down the road. Sadly, we could also use some advice on choosing that wise man or woman, and it’s all too easy to listen to the wrong person. I choose to be guided by the precepts of Master Lao, but I understand that he too can be contradictory. For example, I offer the quote above, but he has also said:

The sage does not hoard. The more he helps others, the more he benefits himself, The more he gives to others, the more he gets himself. The Way of Heaven does one good but never does one harm. The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.

…which, you could argue, is perhaps what Camping thought he was doing. Nevertheless, two opposing koans on the same subject, allowing me to put my own perspective onto a text. Which is exactly what Camping did.

Any reading of a text is subject to the reader’s interpretations and bias. As a writer, I understand that clearly. As does Master Lao, who says:

The words of truth are always paradoxical.

…which is just so incredibly helpful.

It’s very likely that Camping will regroup, rejig his numbers and come up with a new date for the heavens to fall. This is the fifth time he’s done this, and as long as his followers give him money, he will continue to do so. This saddens me, but it’s their choice, and there is nothing I can do to change their minds. I simply hope that at least some of them will wake up in every sense of the phrase today, and take joy and comfort in the precious gift that is the first day of the rest of their lives.

The End Of The World, Continued


It’s a big old world out there, and everyone has their own ideas about how it’s going to end. It would be silly of me to suggest that the Christians have the whole Empty Earth thing wrapped up. And anyway, the concept of The Rapture bothers me. I think the whole idea of a chosen few being whisked away to safety leaving all the non-believers behind is incredibly selfish. There’s an element of that in all religions, of course. Our way is the right way, and the rest of you can (quite literally) go to hell. It also gives a whole new spin on the idea of Christian family values.

Every culture has a view on the apocalypse. The Abrahamic tradition (your Jews, Christians and Islamics) tend to view it as the end of all things. God ringing down the curtain as punishment, or rebooting creation as it’s started going a bit funny and his spreadsheet package has frozen. Buddhist and Hindu philosophy tends to think cyclically. As one age ends, another begins. It’s almost a seasonal thing, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. I can sympathise with this. Every time I think I’ve wrought the End Times on the weeds in my garden, back they come, regular as the new Golden Age.

Most religions seem to agree that we are living, if not in the End Times, then at the corrupted end of a cycle. Hindus call it Kali Yuga. The thinking goes that as we and our world go through time, we devolve from divine beings that know nothing of sin, into the sort of base creatures that can happily watch the X-Factor. According to Buddha, our life spans are also attached to this cycle. In the past, people lived for 80,000 years and were endowed with beauty, grace and strength. Over time, as we took on more worldly habits (organised religion, frozen stuffed crust pizza, Sky Sports) our life span and the gifts that go with it started to decline. Eventually, as the cycle comes to an end, we will live for ten years, become sexually active at five, and hunt each other for sport. Once only a few of us are left to repent that we ever thought Eastenders was any good, we will somehow regain virtue and become again divine. See, much more sensible than this Rapture nonsense.

I’m intrigued by the idea that most religions think that we are living in a time that is significantly more corrupt and evil than any that has gone before. I’ve heard that argument before. From my nans, mostly. Things were so much better when they were kids. There was Hovis for everyone, and there was none of this war stuff, you know apart from the war.

This hearkening back to a mythical Golden Age, and dire warnings for our future if we don’t behave, has been going on for longer than you think. Sumerian cave writings have been found that gloomily document a society grown weak, venal and corrupt – a society that, the grumpy writer predicts, will soon collapse into rubble. These writings, surely the first example of a Daliy Mail editorial, have been conservatively dated to around 2800BC. Which goes to show. If we really are living in Kali Yuga, we have been doing so for a veeeeery long time.