Bayreuth: unexpectedly science-fictional, unexpectedly saucy, sometimes inaccurate and sometimes just plain wrong

The Doctor Who bar, which seems nice and liberal enough.

But here, in the former Nazi heartlands, they are ominously building a moon, wait, that’s no moon, it’s a space station.

bayds

I have no idea what this is or why.

And while they may be a bit rubbish when it comes to remembering  the names of existentialist philosophers,

baysartre

they are pretty impressive when it comes to statues celebrating equine micturition.

bayhorse

 

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RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

Stockholm: beating Banksy, calling Zack Snyder (superhero), recalling puppies and the original Doctor

To my surprise, Stockholm pre-empted Banksy.

sw7

The original Dismaland, now called Gröna Lund, has been dismal ever since that night on 4 September 1967 when Jimi Hendrix refused to stop playing so they unplugged him. To overcome this shame, the city has recently opened a new venue, which enraged locals have already dubbed Dismaland Redux:

sw12

Indeed, so grim and crime-infested has the city become, that officials have been forced to turn to vigilante justice. When the roaming gangs of thugs get too far out of hand the police commissioner has no choice but to call on Zack Snyder for help, projecting a  sigil into the sky to summon his aid:

sw1

In his language, in any language, it means ‘hopeless’.

Long gone are the days of cheery social democracy, when the nearest thing to a threat faced by the city was the boundless energy of …

sw6

Clifford the Big Red Church.

What few people remember is that Doctor Who was originally a Swedish television show, although the streets of Stockholm and other cities are littered with reminders.

 

It was here that the Doctor faced such enemies as the newly hatched troll sheep,

 

 

the tiniest goat you have ever seen pooh,

sw13

and the dread advance of the robot giraffes of doom.

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Forgotten Spaces 2013

a_lost_world__draw_2598564kFrom 4 October to 10 November 2013, London’s Somerset House, which stretches from the Strand to the Embankment, was home to Forgotten Spaces 2013, an exhibition showcasing the 26 shortlisted (of 147) entries in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ competition of the same name. Located in the Lightwells (the two meter wide subterranean passageway that runs between three of the House’s inner walls and the sides of the fountain court) and in the Deadhouse (the tunnels beneath the fountain court where gravestones were relocated during the Georgian rebuilding of the House), it is fairly minimalist: a pair of information boards per entry, including artists’ impressions and, perhaps, photographs of the location as it currently appears or as it used to be fifty or a hundred or more years ago; occasional architects’ models or dioramas; several small installations. It is as if William Gibson’s cool hunters raided the Bridge for ideas to commodify but ended up doing school projects instead.

Forgotten Spaces is a rather spectral affair. Ghosts of London’s multiple pasts appear in glimpses; histories that played out differently than expected flicker and flit among the Deadhouse stands; and each display conjures a possible future that, like the dirigible cheekily lofting in the blue evening sky above A Lost World, is never seriously intended to become reality. (Meanwhile, dancing just out of reach are reputation and the possibility of actual commissions.) The exhibition inserts possibility into deeply sedimented urban spacetime. Each entry refuses to accept that a city’s retrofitting must succumb to the dystopianism of Syd Mead’s Blade Runner Los Angeles. But utopian desire is everywhere haunted by the phantasm of corporate co-optation. Neoliberal capital frames every project. Few of them would have any chance without corporate sponsorship, and those that might get by without it—such as Urban Agri-Aqua Culture’s plan to convert an abandoned Kingston Upon Thames sewage works into a fish, fruit and vegetable farm—cannot hope to escape the inertia of property and the menace of land values.

The scale of the projects varies considerably. Bikebox wants to create a network of emergency cycle repair stations from the iconic K6 red telephone boxes falling into relative disuse across the city, while In the Canopy raises ladders up to treetop perches, opening up new vistas for adults reliving childhood tree-climbing antics. The Lepidopterium is an exotic butterfly house, situated on a patch of ground next to a railway line, itself already a haven to native species. Recalling some of London’s earliest streetlights, fuelled by methane from the sewers, Hidden Light imagines pipes that slowly telescope up into the air as they fill with sewer gas and, on reaching their full extension, burn it off in a spectacular flare before telescoping down to ground level once more.

Another piece of outmoded gas technology, the gasometer, fascinates entrants. The Gasworks retains the cylindrical lattice that used to frame the gasholder when it was above ground, and decorates it with panels off which light can be bounced, creating the effect of a giant lantern, while the cavernous space below, which held the retracted gasholder, becomes a gallery, with a long ramp sweeping down around the outer wall. A Lost World envisions several adjacent gasometers housing a zoo and aquarium, with their anaerobically digested waste sustaining a lake and wetlands. Reclaiming the Canalside has its eye on gasometers as the centerpiece of an urban park, while Sculpture & Sons seems happy merely to have a gasometer visible in the background of its five-storey reconfigurable sculpture park.

dwwarmachines1Every bit as iconic as a phone box or gasometer is the BT Tower, which (when it was the Post Office Tower and tallest building in London) housed the megalomaniacal WOTAN supercomputer (at least according to Doctor Who’s “The War Machines” (1966)). It once had a revolving restaurant and viewing galleries open to the public, but for more than thirty years public access to this monument to the 1960s’ optimism of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” has been restricted. An Aerial View wishes to convert the Tower’s aerial platforms into a public space once more, with multi-storey curtains to be pulled back to reveal the city. (Sadly, there is no plan to turn its pinnacle into a mooring mast for A Lost World’s rogue airship.)

Plunging beneath the ground, Museum of Memories is an archive of artifacts situated in the terminus of the old London Necropolis Railway (which, I swear, is, or was, a real thing). With more than a hint of Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius UK 1949) about it, Aldwych Baths is a decommissioned tube station turned swimming baths; Aquadocks is a similar, if rather more up-market, scheme for the airy, columned space fleeting-memories-4orm_webbeneath the Royal Docks. In contrast, Fleeting Memories wants to bring water above ground, returning the River Fleet to the surface near St. Pancras where, according to the crafty artists’ impression, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884) will idle away London days; and The Centre for Forgotten Beer wants to recover London’s brewing history and bring long abandoned beers—their flavors and smells—back into circulation.

While some projects prioritize recycled and reusable materials, others seem mostly to harvest buzzwords (“responsive,” “innovative,” “permeable public realm”). Some are difficult to distinguish from the ongoing gentrification of Docklands and other rising boroughs. Many of those that want to recover river and canal banks seem little different—give or take a tree or two, some wetlands, or a strip of garden—to the soulless piazza behind the new Paddington Station development. A number of entries seem to belie their nature as hypermodern spaces by imagining themselves as, in Marc Augé’s terms, places. Guerrilla gardening and other urban insubordinations are pre-empted by the occasional bed devoted to urban agriculture, and innovation from below becomes draped in the discourse of increasing “food security” against a backdrop of rising global populations (as if produce from an urban fish farm might actually end up on regular folks’ dinner tables rather than the menu of a boutique restaurant).

Other, related dystopianisms lurk in equally plain view. Many entries talk about providing spaces for “the community,” but no one seems even to have consulted with actually existing communities in which these forgotten spaces exist. Has the ideological commitment to neoliberal regeneration reached the point where “the community” is always-already in the subjunctive tense? Are incoming hipsters always-already gathering, like Hitchcock’s birds? About halfway around the displays, I realized that in all the artists’ impressions there had not been a single person of color, and the only one I subsequently spotted in any of the exhibition’s images was in a “before,” rather than an “after,” picture. Is this the real future of London to be found in Forgotten Spaces 2013?

Artists’ impressions of the 26 shortlisted entries can be seen at the RIBA London website.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 123 (2014): 467–9.

Flagstones of the week

Cue jingle: ♫ favourite flagstones of the week!!!! 

And this week’s winners are…

flagstone

These flagstones are part of the workroom floor at the rear of William Herschel’s house in Bath, where he made his own lenses and other optical equipment. In August 1871, during one such procedure, the stones were shattered by a stream of molten metal that leaked through the bottom of the furnace.

The event is recorded in the journals of his sister, the renowned comet-hunter Caroline. She later accompanied the Doctor on a series of interstellar and transtemporal adventures in a stone TARDIS.

tardis

 

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘Some Lapse of Time’, BBC2 8 December 1965

John Brunner
John Brunner

One of the things ‘Some Lapse of Time’ gets right (and would have probably got right even if it had been a 75-minute episode as originally intended) is selecting to adapt a source of appropriate length – John Brunner’s novella of the same name, originally published in Science Fantasy (February 1963) and reprinted in Brunner’s collection Now Then just a couple of months before the episode aired. A novella has more than sufficient complication for an hour-long drama without any need for additional elaboration (or padding), while also not requiring the compression that adapting a novel might entail, such as season two’s Level Seven, season three’s Immortality, Inc and The Naked Sun or season four’s Deathday.

lapse-02Dr Max Harrow – whose young son recently died of a rare disease, heterochylia, the product of a genetic mutation caused by radiation – is plagued by a nightmare of the distant past, of immiserated primitives dominated by a shaman figure. In the small hours of the morning, after the nightmare has woken him once more, a policeman arrives at the door, having found an unconscious tramp outside Harrow’s house. To the doctor’s astonishment, the tramp seems to have survived into his thirties or forties despite suffering from heterochylia, which is every bit as impossible as him even having the disease since he was born long before there were any nuclear weapons. And he somehow found his way to the doorstep of one of the handful of doctors in the country capable of recognising the symptoms…

These are not the only odd thing about the vagrant.lapse

He carries a finger bone with a distinctive curve, he speaks no known language and is, it turns out, radioactive. He is not from the past at all, but from the future. From after the nuclear war. His language is an evolved or, rather devolved, version of English (like in Threads (1985) or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)).

And when Harrow loses the top of one finger – accidentally slammed in a car door during an argument with his wife – and it goes missing, he realises it is the shaman/tramp’s fetish bone, used to focus his journey back in time. (Nigel Kneale’s The Road (1964) relied on a similar reversal of temporal perspective.)

Also being treated at hospital is Wilfred Fitz-Prior, the Minister of War – precisely the kind of person Harrow holds responsible for causing his son’s death. (What choice does Harrow have but to steal the Fitz-Prior’s’s amputated leg and hide it so that it’s bones, too, can become a fetish object for some post-apocalyptic shaman to use to come back and haunt the Minister?) On a rather less macabre note, when Harrow wants to carbon-date the finger bone, he consults with Gerry Anderson (presumably taking a break from filming Supercar or Fireball XL5).

Brunner’s novella is structurally a little clunky, and bows some under the weight of a compositional principle that seems to consist of cramming in everything he could think of, but this does help to generate a sense of inescapable nightmare. (A nightmare that ties in closely with Brunner’s work with the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests and with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.)

The script by Leon Griffiths – who also wrote John Gillings’ Burke and Hare movie The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), and adapted Raymond F. Jones’s  ‘Divided We Fall’ (1950) and Rog Phillips’ ‘The Yellow Pill’ (1958) for Out of this World (25 August and 30 June 1962, respectively, the latter also reworked for Out of the Unknown (25 March 1969)) – cuts away a lot of the clutter. This reduces the nightmarish quality somewhat, even as the pace of the episode teeters on the brink of hysteria.

The production design is by some chap called Ridley Scott, and includes some impressively moderne hospital spaces, especially an angular corridor. The brief exteriors – filmed at the Technical College and the School of Art in (appropriately enough) Harrow – further convey this sense of the very near future; and one shot, in which the camera hurriedly tracks alongside one side of a fence while Dr Harrow races down the other, is especially effective.

Other things to look out for:
– the copper who finds the tramp is played by a young Peter Bowles, delightfully struggling to do the accent of a rural plod
– one of the medical students lurking in the background is played by Victor Pemberton, who wrote the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968), as well as episodes of Timeslip (1971) and Ace of Wands (1972)

lapse-03Previous episode, ‘Andover and the Android’

Sources
John Brunner, ‘Some Lapse of Time’, Now and Then (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1965)
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

Out of the Unknown: ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ BBC2 8 November 1965

Patricia 'Paddy' Russell
Patricia ‘Paddy’ Russell

The second original script for the series has, like ‘Stranger in the Family’, a contemporary setting (but is rather less adventurous in its use of location shooting – just the exterior of an old suburban home and the Putney street outside). The writer, Mike Watts, had primarily worked for various ITV companies, although in 1965 he also scripted a couple of episodes of the BBC’s The Troubleshooters (1965–72); in addition to writing original dramas and episodes, he wrote or co-wrote several British crime movies, all of them comedies, The Pot Carriers (1962), The Cracksman (1963), Crooks in Cloisters (1964), which I remember fondly but haven’t seen in about a million years, and Joey Boy (1965). The director was Paddy Russell, one of the first two women directors at the BBC. Originally an actress, she appeared in a 1950 adaptation of Karel Capek’s The Insect Play for BBC Sunday-Night Theatre (1950–59) and in two different and uncredited roles in a couple of episodes of Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953); she quit acting to become Cartier’s floor manager and then a director. Despite a long and varied career that lasted until around 1980, and included everything from 55 episodes of Z Cars (1962–78) to 15 instalments of the gameshow 3-2-1 (1978–87), she is probably best remembered as the director of Doctor Who’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), The Pyramids of Mars (1975) and The Horror of Fang Rock (1997). Here, she does an excellent job of never letting the potentially ridiculous aspects of the story teeter over into the comical.

OOTU Come buttercup Repeat 12th August 1966‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ tells the story of Henry Wilkes (Milo O’Shea), a fishmonger and an obsessive gardener who, thanks to his weekly, year-long correspondence with the mysterious Mr Pringle, has managed to grow a number of exotic species which should not even survive in the UK. He has, in fact, grown them to monstrous size, feeding them experimental foodstuffs as well as diced rabbit and cockles. There is something odd about them, though. Birds stay away from the garden. Wilkes, who has given the plants names, also talks to them, and they respond, although we do not hear their voices or what they say; their sentience, however, is confirmed for viewers by their physical responses to his proximity and touch, and the way they extend feelers to grasp at the food he scatters on the soil. Wilkes goes as far as to steal hextellenium, a dangerous chemical, from the pharmacy next to his shop to use in an experimental formula to make Nobby, his favourite among the plants, grow even bigger and stronger.

come-04Indeed, Wilkes is so obsessed with plants as living beings that he berates his new shop assistant, Anne Lovejoy (Patsy Rowlands), for dressing the displays of fish with parsley – he refuses to stock the herb in an effort to discourage his customers from making parsley sauce – and for putting tomato and lettuce in her cheese sandwiches. She is extremely devoted to her new boss, ever so slightly a-quiver when he is around.

come-01Monica Wilkes (Christine Hargreaves) is a nervous mess, concerned her husband no longer loves her and driven to distraction by the weirdness the garden exudes. Although she has witnessed nothing in particular to distress her so, she senses it is somehow unnatural. She suffers from headaches and depression, and her only comfort is her pet dog, Mina, an obvious child surrogate whom she obsessively sketches and paints. (If the story was told from Monica’s point of view, it might be rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892).)

This potential middle-class love triangle comes to the fore when Dr Chambers (Desmond Jordan) is brought in to consult on Monica’s ‘nerves’. (He is a private specialist, rather than an NHS doctor, which is significant to the class politics of the story: there are clear social hierarchies, including ones around education, the amateur and the professional.) Chambers bluntly asks Wilkes whether the source of Monica’s anxiety could be that he is having an affair with another woman.

But something else entirely is going on. Something rather queer.

comeThere is a tradition of sf/horror stories about sentient plants, from HG Wells’s ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) to The Thing (from another World) (Nyby 1951) to Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006). Many of these stories are obsessed with reproduction, especially Don Siegel’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the peculiarities of human sexual reproduction are mapped onto a post-war world world being transformed by commodity production. In ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’,  though, the plants are partly about masturbation and all about homosexual desire.

Wilkes comforts Monica with transparent – to us – lies. He is oblivious to Anne, even as he seeks her collusion in his secretive schemes; in a quite agonising scene, his efforts to make up for snapping at her lead to an intimate conversation, during which he is completely unaware of quite how likely she might be to misinterpret his sudden attention (Rowlands excels, as always, at combining self-deprecation, class aspiration, timidity and repressed desire). He has been engaged in a secretive correspondence with Pringle, a man whom no one has met and who regularly sends him odd packages. Wilkes takes special pleasure in the plant he calls Nobby. He thrusts his hands deep into Nobby’s leaves to administer a ‘morning tickle’, during which he calls the plant what sounds like ‘a little old plonker’ and then unquestionably a ‘great big silly old faggot’. And when he plunges a syringe full of his special formula into Nobby’s roots to make his favourite even bigger, the framing of the shot makes it look as if Wilkes is fumbling with his penis. Elsewhere, he describes himself to Anne as ‘the biggest cockle-eater in the business’.

And Nobby is a jealous lover. He devours Mina, and then barks like the dog so as to lure Monica to her death; and then when Anne turns up, laden with cockles for Wilkes…

outunknown8bigThe script was originally commissioned as a seventy-five minute drama; cutting it down to sixty-minutes (even then, it overruns by a minute), might be why the end seems a little rushed, fizzles a little. On the one hand, there is no revelation that Pringle is really an intelligent plant, which is probably a good thing; but there is certainly left open the unexplored possibility that Nobby or the other plants are telepathically controlling Wilkes and others…

Other things to watch out for
— Patsy Rowland’s reverse acting when the plant wraps its tendrils around her neck
— The quite astonishing line after Wilkes tears a plastic flower off one his customer’s bosoms: You can’t go out for a pair of kippers nowadays without getting raped.
— The expression on Patsy Rowland’s face when she walks out of the shop just in time to hear that line being delivered.
come-03— And Norman. Watch out for Norman. He is the pharmacist. He is also Eric Thompson, Emma’s dad and, far more significantly for world culture, the narrator of the English-language dub of  The Magic Roundabout (1965–77).

Previous episode, ‘Time in Advance

Next episode, ‘Sucker Bait

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.