And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

What Pride Comes Before

Plot details will be discussed and possibly mocked.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

So, let’s see: what do we know about Bill? I don’t think there’s any mention of her father and we know her mother is dead — the Doctor got her some photos as part of her recruitment. The memories of her mother were part of defeating the monks, as preserving her self identity.

What will survive of us is lurve, it turns out.
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Mars Attack

Spoilers on ice
Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars”

So a few weeks back, we weren’t allowed a reference to Harry Sullivan, companion for Tom Baker’s first season and the opening of the second, as well as appearing in a later serial, because no one would remember him.

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Monks’ Childhood Memory

Spoiler Heap

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land”

And so we come to the end of the Monks Trilogy — although the finale may yet return to them as Missy has been mixed up with them.

With all this virtuality around, you can imagine a much better episode exploring the memory police and the dystopia that’s Nineteen Eighty-Four-lite. Someone actually trying to resist and then being arrested. Instead of a reset button.

Instead we get the Doctor going in with a militia, all guns blazing, with a possibility that he might have to kill Bill, even though he says the safest place in the world for her is by his side. To be fair, she has already shot him — and he goes into a fake regeneration that last week’s next week teased us with.

The Monks have replaced our reality with a new history where they have always been (and the president is orange) and they’ve even redesigned the rather narrow streets around St Paul’s Cathedral where the pyramid has landed. (Is it an Illuminati reference? A dollar bill? Camel cigarettes?)

It is a fairly obviously plot, but the scriptwriter Toby Whithouse doesn’t trust us, nor does the composer. Murray Gold’s soundtrack is less intrusive than it usually is, but it still needs to Shut The Fuck Up for much longer. Bill is given a couple of great speeches and Pearl Mackay delivers them with gusto, but the subtlety is undercut by the sodding music telling us to emote. We also have Bill imagining the dead mother that the Doctor photographed back in “The Pilot”, so she can do Fake News for herself, but this is undercut by leading to a narration of what is an obvious set of manoeuvres which make sense without voiceover and we are distracted by wondering when this happened.

It also clues us into the end of the Monks — although David Archer has evidently gone back to sorting out the IBR on Brookfield. They were let into the world by love and will be expelled by it. Bill’s memory is touching and a little unconvincing — no anger at her dying? — and her heroism is undermined by the Doctor’s speech TELLING US.

Pedants would note that we don’t really know what the Monks got out of this invasion and whether a multimillenia dry run really helped, and if they really wanted to be loved then maybe they could use a little moisturiser or fake their appearances.

We don’t really know what they got out of this invasion and whether a multimillenia dry run really helped, and if they really wanted to be loved then maybe they could use a little moisturiser or fake their appearances.

I’m not sure how Margot knew that Bill had been to Australia, either. He wasn’t there, was he? There’s a brief acknowledgment of him nearly dying in “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and I can’t help but feel that the gaps between the episodes are disjointed in the wrong way.

Meanwhile, back at the STORY ARC, Missy is going cold turkey from evil and is asked her advice on how to defeat the Monks. Her solution is somewhat utilitarian, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one, but clearly she has some way to go. She has a few decent lines questioning the Doctor’s version of good, but she keeps being directed to eat the scenery. It is neat that — like the Doctor — she does remember the names of everyone she killed. Maybe she has a conscience after all.

We’ll see.

Monks’ Anxiety

Spoilery McSpoilface.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up by an American general and the Secretary General of the United Nation, interrupting the real date that replaced the virtual date from last week (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base. There was Heather, too, don’t forget). When there is a crisis, the Doctor gets to be president of the world (although note that the dead president last week doesn’t have the orange look Bill mentions) and the current crisis is the appearance of a five thousand year old pyramid, which has landed between the American, Russian and Chinese armies, threatening… well, oddly getting between them so you’d think it’d be safer.

How do they know it’s five thousand years old?

They just do, okay.

And it’s home to monks, because everyone knows that monks live in pyramids, wearing particularly tasteful curtains.

Look, this episode is co-written by the guy who did the Moon-egg-butterfly-Moon-egg episode, which makes The Clangers look like a Larry Niven novel.

Somewhere, the end of the world is underway, as at a research lab the hungover scientist Douglas screws up an experiment and the cock up isn’t clocked by short-sighted Erica. (Erica, I like, I could bear more of Erica.) The whole world is in danger of being poisoned by them. Fortunately, the Doctor is able to find them, thanks to Margot hacking the security cameras — the Doctor couldn’t do the hacking because he’s visually impaired — yes I know he’s already hacked two computer systems since he lost his sight, don’t quibble. He also gets locked in the lab in question. Because the sonic screwdriver won’t work on a combination lock. Because labs use mechanical locks.

Obviously.

Meanwhile, the Monks are offering to help, but will only do so if asked — shades of the Doctor asking Bill if he can save the world in ”Thin Ice”. In return for saving the world, they will want the world, which they have been practicing to invade since humanity crawled out of the slime.

Yes, I know it would be a pain in the butt if after all that humanity didn’t want help. You’d think they’d asked for consent before they were so committed, but the practices clearly told them Bill would oblige…

Yes, Bill, after the Secretary General and the three military leaders asked, but apparently not in the right way.

Do these monks want to invade or not? David Archer must have cows he has to get back to milk.

Bill has finally learned — and you wouldn’t think her so dumb — that the Doctor hasn’t got his sight back. She can ask for help, with love, and not fear, honest, unlike the Secretary General, so sight is restored.

How?

Don’t ask. You should be more worried about the STORY ARC and that Margot is apparently dead in the TARDIS and

Will nobody think of the Vault?

Monks Scream

Spoilers, innit.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I have an awful feeling that as a child we were set the task of writing a story that ends with the words “and I woke up and it was all a dream”. At some point we were probably told not to. Lewis Carroll gets away with it, twice, but I felt very cheated by The Box of Delights. Occasionally long-running dramas will risk it — think of Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower. One problem with telefantasy is the diminishing returns of the bigger and bigger Big Bads the heroes have to defeat, before a big reset button has to be hit.

This episode effortfully winds together the series STORY ARC and what turns out to be the first of a three part story. Moffat is also back at the word processor.

On the one hand, we have Missy, facing execution by the Doctor for unknown crimes, with the latter promising to guard her in the Vault for a thousand years. (Is this the first time we know who is in there?) Margot arrives, cowled like a monk, with River’s diary and permission to kick his arse. The Doctor, whilst he has killed people, can’t be an executioner, and so it turns out Missie is not dead, but resting (beautiful plumage). And this presumably explains why the Doctor is a millennium older than he used to say.

A thousand years is a long time in Bristol. You’d think an Oxbridge college would be better. He presumably sat out the various Dalek, zygon, cyberman invasions.

The main plot involves the present day Doctor being asked by the Pope to come and read a mysterious heretical manuscript, Veritas, which has caused all but one of its previous readers to commit suicide. Ooooh, shades of the Ringu movies. There’s a bad taste joke to be made here about the Doctor’s visual impairment and a visit from the Holy See, but I’m not going to make it.

We have another illustration of the distinction between Classic and Nu Who: One thru Seven (as the kids call them these days) either kept it in their trousers or were discreet about their sex lives. They lived like monks, meddling or otherwise. More recently, perhaps through the experience of the Time War, and realising YOLTT, we’ve learned of all kinds of shenanigans — this time with Pope Benedict IX, who it turns out looks like Angelina Jolie and was a woman. The real Benedict, who oddly enough just turned up in a documentary I was watching the other day, was 20 when he achieved popedom and was pope three times (to be pope once, might be considered a fortune, but thrice…) He also seems to be the first pope who repeatedly (or reportedly) engaged in same sex relationships. Hmm.

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up, interrupting a date (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base), and they head to the Vatican with all these Italian-speaking priests. That’s odd, because there’s the convention that the TARDIS telepathic circuitry translates stuff into English. It’s also going to be interesting because the Doctor is still visually impaired and it’ll be hard to read a manuscript — perhaps Bill can read it to him.

But whilst the Doctor is preparing a little light read, Bill and Margot disappear through a crack in the wall and find a white room with more rooms, through which they find the Pentagon and then CERN. In case we aren’t clear it’s CERN, CERN conveniently has a publicity stand for CERN in CERN’s lobby. The scientists have been emailed a translation of Veritas and have learned that they are actually in a computer simulation — their reaction is to decide to blow themselves up because, well, particle physicists are especially gullible to emails from the Vatican. OK, that’s not fair, they realise that they can’t pick random numbers. Mass suicide seems an overreaction.

Margot and Bill escape to the white room and Margot steps the other side of the projector and is pixelated, whilst Bill follows the drips of blood to another zone, the Oval Room with a dead president. The Doctor’s been bleeding from his meeting with the mysterious and messy monks in the reading room, the chief one sounding oddly like David Archer after a long day shouting at Josh and Kenton. The monks are mentioned in the book — the simulation is a practice invasion of Earth, repeatedly run and rerun.

Yes, this is a mind-bending idea, in a Philip K. Dick-lite way, and for a moment you might glimpse that all of series ten has been a simulation — perhaps explaining how most of the episodes have been better than series eight and nine.

Hit that freaky deaky reset button.

Somehow the monks know about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but not the translation circuits (hence the Italian, I’m told bad Italian) and the sexuality of Benedict IX. Was it wise to include the Veritas in the simulation?

And somehow the Doctor can hack the programme to send the PDF of that book to the real world version of him — but then we already know he can program whilst visually impaired.

So, at the risk of invoking or interrupting STORY ARC!!!, we’re prepared for an invasion of meddling monks, who might get away with it if it weren’t for those pesky time travellers.

O2

Spoilers, obviously.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

So, almost as if the scriptwriters had been reading my mind (only nine months in advance), the sonic screwdriver is kaputed early in the episode by a rogue zombie in a space suit. This is going to be a pain because there are lots of electronic locks that need to be bypassed — through the equivalent of fiddling around with wires under the dashboard. Also, sensibly, the TARDIS is put out of reach as soon as possible, although you’d think he’d have a remote control by now or a dog whistle.

Zombies in Space wears its structure on its sleeve, with an in-space pre-credits sequence of astronauts outside a ship overlaid with the Doctor quoting Star Trek and explaining how dangerous space is and how you would die if exposed to a vacuum.

Is someone going to be exposed to a vacuum? Does a wooden horse shit in the woods?

Of course, those of us with long memories (or poor repression mechanisms) will recall Five — as I believe the kids call veterinary these days — floating in space with a BMX helmet, using a cricket ball to navigate zero-g in “Four to Doomsday”. But back when Five was Doctoring he was a mere slip of 800 or so, rather than 2000. Maybe he had better lungs.

So the Doctor is using Bill as an outlet for scratching his itchy feet (that’s a metaphor, obviously), much to Margot’s disgust — Margot claims that the Doctor has ordered him to force the Doctor to stay, threatening the opening of the Vault and OMG STORY ARC even though presumably the Vault needs to be opened to deliver a piano and Mexican takeaway. Margot has removed the fluid links to disable the TARDIS, a reference mainly back to the first Dalek serial in late 1963 (Harry who? Medical officer to what?) — but this is clearly not as important a plot device, er, component as he was led to believe.

The Doctor takes Bill and Margot into deep space, the penultimate frontier, to a mining ship putting out a distress call — because “You only see the true face of the Universe, when it’s asking for help” (wasn’t there a similar line in ”Thin Ice”?). You’ll note that later in the episode we see the Doctor not really asking for help — almost as if he doesn’t want us to see his true face. The crew are in the middle of the crisis — their spacesuits are killing them and are occupied by zombie crew members.

The crew are pleasingly interracial and mixed-sex — echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien — but there’s a foot put wrong when Bill double-takes at Dahh-Ren, species unknown, blue-skinned, and she is schooled in racism. Yeah, after the whitewash comment last week (which is fair comment), a lesbian of colour has to be schooled in racism. There is more to ethnicity than skin colour, of course, but we don’t get much more than him being blue (although he is reasonably knowledgable about his surroundings and useful for info dumping).

But perhaps we should forgive “Oxygen” for this, given its political commentary: oxygen is a commodity to be bought and sold, about the only thing the Conservatives never privatised. As workers, the miners are part of the machinery of capitalism, always already cyborgs, liable to wear out and be replaced. The Company has decided the operation is uneconomic and, without a care for its workers, close down the operation — or rather refit it with new crew. The suits are attacking the crew, in a literal metaphor like the skeleton crew of ”Smile”, but I’m not sure whether the Company wish the crew to be killed (but I don’t suppose they’d lose any sleep). It might be a misinterpretation of the programme (yanno, like the Emojibots in “Smile”).

Interesting, then to compare these two episodes in which machinery evolves a state of consciousness beyond that which is programmed and operates as a kind of slave class taking revenge upon their creators. The machinery’s new consciousness is not allowed to stand by the liberal Doctor, but reprogrammed.

Meanwhile Bill, rather conveniently, is stunned, not dead (beautiful plumage…), as if we’d seriously think she’d been killed off. Although, that rumour about her as single season character makes it more of a possibility. The Doctor helps save her — at the expense of his eyes, although he is evidently able to program a computer system he has never seen before and can’t see now.

No sonic, so just rewrite the DNA, so to speak.

The Doctor stays visually impaired, even if Bill doesn’t stay dead, so it’s time for a group cuddle. It looks as if they are going to keep him like that — perhaps so that Bill can step up to plate (like other Nu Who companions did). A regeneration would resolve it, presumably, but then we are being misled about whether that is sooner rather than later. There is much insistence that this will play into the hands of the prisoner in the STORY ARC. I can’t see it myself.

(sorry. sometimes i can’t help myself)