Friday, July 27, 2012

Take Hitler and Put him in the Cupboard Over There (The Curse of Fenric)

Bloody hell, is it the Arockalypse again?
It's October 25th, 1989. Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers are at number one with "That's What I Like," which is unseated after two weeks by Lisa Stansfield's "All Around the World," which rides out the story. Phil Collins, Belinda Carlisle, Kylie Minogue, and New Kids on the Block also chart. This being rather dismal, let's note that Kate Bush's The Sensual World comes out during this story, which is an altogether more fitting analogy.

In real news, Nicaragua ends its ceasefire with the US-backed contras, and Douglas Wilder and David Dinkins become the first African-American governor in the US and mayor of New York City, respectively. The General Assembly of the Church of England votes to allow the ordination of women. Increasingly desperate measures are taken to deal with an ambulance strike in Britain. And oh yeah, the Berlin Wall falls.

While on television we get The Curse of Fenric, which is one of the best things ever. It is also, of course, oddly incoherent. The biggest howler by its own logic is pointed out by Tat Wood. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that everyone at the base is a descendent of the viking settlers. These would be, of course, the viking settlers who were all killed by vampires, according to the inscriptions. Oops. And yet I've watched Curse of Fenric more than any other Doctor Who story, and I never noticed this problem. I'll bet that an overwhelming majority of you haven't either. And this is an important observation that provides a lot of insight into how we have to understand Curse of Fenric.

Rather more of you, I suspect, have noticed things like the fact that the chess puzzle and its solution are completely non-sensical, that a mate-in-one puzzle that stumps an ancient god for ages is ridiculous, that nordic runes are a strange way to make a logic diagram, that no understanding whatsoever of how to crack a German code would also be able to translate a language, and that the inscription does not, in fact, read "let the chains of Fenric shatter" but instead reads "Leek, Abracadabra, Presto Chango, Leek." (OK, possibly only my good friend Anna noticed that last one. Incidentally, there's a big line of commentary I'm just dropping here about the Norse mythological roots of this story. That is because towards the end of August Anna is providing us with a guest post on the relationship between McCoy's Doctor and Odin.)

It may seem strange to harp on the plot holes of this story, given that I don't usually do that. After all, it's not like the understanding of Norse runes in this story is actually any weirder than the series' understanding of physics in many other stories. But there is something subtly different about the distortions here. For one thing, this starts to tack towards playing fast and loose with history, something Doctor Who has, of course, never ever done in any way shape or form. But more broadly, Curse of Fenric relies on distorted versions of things that are understood, as opposed to impossible (or at the very least colossally improbable) versions of things that are not yet understood. There is, in other words, something fundamentally different about creating a wonky version of chess than creating a wonky version of faster than light travel.

All of which is a long way of saying that Curse of Fenric continues Ghost Light's approach of allowing the story's logic to be associative rather than strictly causal. But whereas Ghost Light invites a compulsive, scurrying picking through of its themes and links, Curse of Fenric lurches forward with mad, claustrophobic adrenaline. Tat Wood chalks it up to the wartime setting, and it's true that this helps, but there's so much more to it than that. It's also the return to a straightforward horror film setup, and the willingness to just linger in extended sequences of unbridled frights. And, perhaps most importantly, it's the way in which the story starts in Act III.

This is something the McCoy era has played with before. Remembrance was effectively an Act III to an unscreened Act I and a half-remembered dream of An Unearthly Child as Act II. Greatest Show in the Galaxy played at starting at the end, but didn't quite make the concept hold together. Battlefield was Act III to a story whose first acts were yet to come. But here in Curse of Fenric we finally get the unadulterated version. Fenric is the final part of a story that has skipped the beginning and instead gone straight for the climax. And so everything spirals up to massive, apocalyptic proportions at a dizzying rate.

The mistake that it's easy to make is to think that because the story is driven forward at such an unrelenting pace that it's the least bit facile in what's going on behind the scenes. This isn't something like 24 that holds together an absurd penny dreadful with the unceasing suspense of a ticking clock. Or, if we want to stick to Doctor Who terms, it's not Earthshock, where the sole point of the exercise is the adrenaline of the plot being pounded out. No, the urgent, demanding rhythm of the plot is just that - a rhythm over which the story is playing. Yes, the rhythm smoothes the transitions among the story's many ideas, but it's still the ideas and their interplay that are important here.

The result is what is, in my experience, the single easiest piece of classic series Doctor Who to show someone who has never seen it before. And for my money, with good reason, because I think this really may be the classic series' finest hour. It doesn't require any excuses beyond those allowed to it by being from 1989 (indeed, the transmitted version, with its use of voiced-over dialogue combined with scenes of things happening and unfolding, largely comes off as ahead of its time), it moves at a great clip, and it's very, very smart. And it's the sort of thing only Doctor Who can do: underwater World War II vampires demonically possessing Alan Turing. If that isn't your idea of how to spend two hours of your life, quite frankly, you're just in the wrong fandom.

As with Ghost Light before it, everything in this story is curled into a tight thematic knot. The story goes back to World War II, the main event of the twentieth century, and revisits the same tangle of evolutionary and historical progress that animated Ghost Light. Here, though, this is a more compacted strand. Where Ghost Light meticulously flayed this issue and sought to explore its depths, The Curse of Fenric takes one vary interesting perspective on it and begins combining it with new themes. (This is another reason why, to my mind, Fenric is better served in its transmitted position. Having explored the theme in Ghost Light, Fenric builds on it. Whereas positioning Ghost Light after Fenric makes its exploration into a footnote to Curse of Fenric, as opposed to a triumphant lead-in.) In this case, the clever idea is that Curse of Fenric accepts the idea of historical teleology, but then suggests that the end product might be monstrous. It presents us with an end point of the world that is a toxic wasteland populated by fish vampires, and says "this is what the world will become in the end."

Similarly, the historical end everyone in the story is obsessed with is Ragnarok. Which, not to tread on Anna's feet too hard (if only because she has fabulous taste in shoes), is significant. The Norse worldview does, at least in most popular conceptions, move inevitably towards a bleak and apocalyptic end. In Freudian terms - terms which apply well to the bulk of this story - we're talking about the death drive. Curse of Fenric posits a self-destructive, suicidal instinct within history and biology itself.

In this approach Fenric becomes the literal embodiment of this - a quasi-physical manifestation of the death drive itself. He is, after all, a force intertwined entirely with history - existent since the dawn of time, and slowly, invisibly guiding events. And, of course, the Doctor gets cast in the oppositional role, struggling to remove Fenric from  human history.

But if we take this Freudian approach we run into an interesting problem. Inasmuch as there's a counterpart to the death drive it's the sex drive. And this story is very big on dualism, even if it does eventually implode its dualisms with giddy aplomb. It's telling that the "good" force that primordially opposes Fenric is never accounted for after its seeming destruction, with the Doctor slotting into the opposition role. So if we read Fenric as the death drive it becomes very difficult not to shift the weight of the sex drive onto the Doctor.

In contrast to almost everything that has come before, however, the story doesn't try to resist this. Indeed, it seems mostly content to have the Doctor be linked to sexuality. It just displaces it slightly onto Ace. Ace is not, however, the Doctor's proxy or double in this story. Instead she gets positioned as the subject that the Doctor and Fenric are both fighting over. (This risks making her into a passive object to be fought over by men, but largely avoids it given the extent to which both the Doctor and Fenric are historical processes in this story, and thus the extent to which it is less a battle for Ace herself and more a battle of which drive will dominate in her self-identity.) So on the one hand Fenric is trying to get her to help him bring about Ragnarok, while on the other the Doctor is trying to get her head straightened out so that she can dive into the water, an action that is symbolically linked to sexuality. (The sexuality, of course, remains largely symbolic, framed, as ever, in the trappings of children's television. I'd go on a defense of the slightly stilted Ace seduction scene, but anyone who's been reading knows how I'll defend it, so let's just note that Ace's tacit equation of her children's show time traveling with sexuality is absolutely brilliant.)

We could stop here. A Freudian vampire story about historical progress that positions sexual liberation as the solution to war would be sufficient to rank this story among the classics. But astonishingly, it goes further. Because on top of all of this the story is hugely invested in the question of language and encryption. This is a complex nexus - in many ways to this story what evolution and history are to Ghost Light - so let's just accept that we're going to rack up the word count here and take our time.

At the most basic level it's clear that Curse of Fenric is playing with images of logic and computing. These are among the standard issue set of Cold War anxieties, and we've been seeing them in the program for years now. The crux of it is that the Cold War is based on a ruthless, pragmatic calculation by both sides, and thus is utterly intractable. With nuclear weapons being inexorably linked to computers (hence the classic anxiety of the hacker who gains control of the nuclear weapons) the idea of how computers would wage war against each other and what the consequences of a computer going wrong would be were standard Cold War anxieties, and the use of chess and of computers playing chess is similarly straightforward, as is all of Millington's "think like the enemy" rhetoric. (Of all things its Destiny of the Daleks that provides the most obvious antecedent for Curse of Fenric.) Like Battlefield two stories earlier and Survival after it, Curse of Fenric is the series' last play at the Cold War.

But what's interesting about Curse of Fenric is that the Cold War is displaced slightly within it. It takes place in World War II, when the Russians and the British were still allies. And yet everyone is aware of the Cold War and aware that it looms inevitably over them. This is a clever inversion of the Cold War/computing link - if the Cold War is a consequence of logic then it must be a historical inevitability that could be predicted and foreseen. So the Cold War's logic gets allied with the death drive and Fenric as the future continually haunts the past, threatening to happen.

The key line in all of this is Millington's musing on the idea of thinking machines and his wondering whose thoughts they'll think. What's significant is not merely the Cold War future that the Ultima machine augers, it's the fact that this future is conceived of as a train of thought. This ties in neatly with what computers were actually being developed in World War II for, namely the process of deciphering German codes. The purpose of computers, in other words, is to understand speech and language - to allow us access to the thoughts of another.

But the thoughts of another are, in The Curse of Fenric, dangerous, both for the undercurrents they carry and for the possibility of for their own totalizing nature. Hence the strange parallels between the Viking inscriptions and the Russian documents - because somewhere in the words and language themselves there's this unknowable thing lurking, dragging everyone towards a monstrous teleology.

(At this point, if only for a handful of my readers, I need to mention Lacan. One of the most obvious grad school papers about Doctor Who would be a Lacanian analysis of this story. If you play the digital media aspects up enough it's probably even publishable. Having now appeased the academic wonks, we return to our regularly scheduled post.)

Central to all of this is Doctor Judson, the story's stand-in for Alan Turing. It's become so standard these days to praise Turing and to tut mournfully about his (genuinely appalling) post-war treatment by the British government and his (genuinely tragic) suicide. With the novelization even getting around to implying a homosexual past between Judson and Millington, the link becomes even clearer. Turing, of course, is famous for suggesting that being able to convince a person that you are also a person is sufficient to demonstrate that you are thinking. And so the idea of a line of thought that extends out of computers and dooms humanity to Ragnarok, and of computers having an intimate connection with language is a straightforward transformation of the standard Alan Turing package.

Except for two little things that nobody ever covers in the standard primer on Alan Turing. First, you are almost certainly wrong about what the Turing Test is. Second, you've probably never heard of the halting problem, which is really unfortunate. We'll start there.

For metaphoric purposes, the halting problem should be thought of as another variation of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and the Uncertainty Principle. All three are cases in which it turns out that there are fundamental and absolute limits on knowledge. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem shows that there are statements in mathematics that cannot be proven true or false, and, more importantly, that it's impossible to identify these statements, thus putting an absolute limit on mathematical certainty. Heisenberg shows that there is a level at which our ability to have knowledge of the physical universe hits an absolute limit. But Turing does something altogether creepier - he indicates that thought itself may have an absolute limit.

One of Turing's biggest ideas - one that's usually treated as something akin to a value-added extra on the standard Turing package - is the idea of the Turing Machine. On a simple level, the Turing Machine is a theoretical model for a computer - that is, a way of processing data that one can use to create algorithms that solve problems. What's interesting about a Turing Machine is not actually its design, but the fact that to date nobody has found a design for a computer that can do anything that a Turing Machine can't. Plenty that can do things more efficiently, but nothing that can actually solve a problem that a Turing Machine can't solve.

The big question this implies, of course, is whether the human brain is just a fancy and efficient Turing Machine. The answer is… we have no idea. Certainly there are things humans can do that computers can't, but since we don't understand the particulars of how the brain works we can't tell if this is because we haven't figured out how to design an algorithm to do these things or because the brain can do things computers can't. But inasmuch as we understand problem solving the Turing Machine is as good as it gets.

OK - so the Turing Machine is a theoretical computer. Now I want you to imagine a specific instance of a Turing Machine, which we call a Universal Turing Machine. Basically, what a Universal Turing Machine can do is accept a program written for another Turing Machine as input and perform calculations on the machine. In other words, it's a Turing Machine that can run programs about Turing Machines. Now, one of the most basic questions you can ask about a Turing Machine program is whether it's ever going to stop on its own. Some programs, after all, don't - the classic schoolboy BASIC program of "10 PRINT "BUTTS" 20 GOTO 10," for instance, does not halt. Whereas a program that takes two numbers, adds them together, and returns the answer does halt.

The halting problem, simply put, asks whether a given program and a given input is ever going to halt on its own or not. In other words, it asks whether it is possible to determine if a given problem has a definite solution or not, at least in terms of Turing Machines. And one of the absolute biggest things that Turing ever did, and something that's routinely left out of the standard package, was to show that there is no general solution for the halting problem that can be encoded on a Turing Machine. That is, you cannot build a Turing Machine that can look at another Turing Machine and tell if it's going to halt or not.

Given the continual difficulty of establishing that there is any type of computer more capable than a Turing Machine, this is an absolutely mammoth result in that it suggests a fundamental level of uncertainty to thought in the general case. The only way out, of course, is whether or not it is possible to construct something more powerful than a Turing Machine. Which brings us to another giant part of Turing's thought, the Turing Test. Which, as I said, you are probably wrong about.

See, you probably think that the Turing Test involves some form of sitting someone down with an IM window and seeing if they can tell whether the person they're talking to is a human or a computer. Perhaps they face their interlocutor one-on-one, perhaps they face both a human and a computer and have to identify which one is which, but in any case, the idea is that if a computer can fool a person into thinking that they are talking to a non-computer then the computer can think. (And, implicitly, albeit not mathematically, that the human brain is just another Turing Machine)

This is not true. In fact the Turing Test, as proposed by Turing, starts with what Turing calls the imitation game. In the imitation game, a man and a woman both exchange IMs with someone, and the person they are talking to tries to figure out which one is the man and which one is the woman, with, obviously, the man trying to fool the questioner. The Turing Test as proposed by Turing says that if a computer can do as well as a human male at fooling the questioner then the computer can be said to think. This is, first of all, a considerably harder standard - especially given that the popular misunderstanding of the Turing Test, where a computer can fool someone into thinking they're any sort of person at all, hasn't been passed yet.

But second and more interestingly, it moves the bar from a bland "thinking is as thinking does" standard to suggesting that thought is based on the ability to imitate. Aside from having a clear-cut (and I would argue, for Turing, intentional) connection to Aristotle, this version of the test defines thinking not as the ability to put up a facade but as the ability to successfully imagine the thoughts of another person and to think them.

Getting back, at long last, to Curse of Fenric, what's interesting about this is that Briggs's script, for all its wonky understandings of major concepts, actually has a very good understanding of the real Turing. Millington's line about whose thoughts the computers will think is a wonderful gesture in this direction. Because, of course, thinking other people's thoughts is the very definition of a thinking computer.

But what's more important is that while Judson represents the standard image of Turing, the Doctor gets to represent the real image of Turing. The Doctor's perpetual championing of an unfixed universe in which it is impossible to know everything is easily read as an embrace of the consequences of the halting problem, while McCoy's endless tricks and traps, creating situations that imitate one thing but are in fact another shows that he understands the real nature of thought. It is not merely enough to, as Judson's Ultima machine does, read and understand language/systems/stories. It is also necessary to be able to play with them and subvert them through imitation. Real thought is mercury.

But the Doctor also embraces the undercurrent of the Turing Test. It is impossible not to read Turing's fascination with gender impersonation as a facet of his own sexuality. In essence (and allowing for some bleeding of homosexuality and transgenderism that is not inappropriate for 1950's limited understanding or room for expression of either concept), Turing suggests that the definition of thought is the ability to live in the closet. And so in the larger system that Curse of Fenric offers, the act of thought is equivalent to the liberation of sexuality from the tyranny of cold logic's death drive.

And so these ideas build towards something that Doctor Who had not really done since the days of Ian and Barbara - a story in which the resolution depends entirely on the interiority of the companion. The Doctor sets up what appears to be a flawless execution of the mythic final battle that is a central part of the death drive's obsession with Ragnarok. ("He pulled bones from the desert sands and carved them into chess pieces" being the most brazen lapsing of the story's events into the straightforwardly and unclutteredly mythic.) But in reality it's not the mythic death drive, but a plot to get Ace to work through her own angst. The real purpose of the exercise was to free Ace from Fenric's influence - to psychoanalyze her and use the breaking of her faith in the Doctor as a catharsis to liberate her sexuality.

And so we suddenly make a seamless transition from the rhapsodic epic register of the final battle between good and evil to a scene about Ace's angst. The sequence of the Doctor breaking Ace's faith is one of the best in the classic series - hence it getting recycled wholesale by Toby Whithouse. And for the first time the series pulls off this switch perfectly. It's an absolutely brutal sequence. Briggs, McCoy, Aldred, and, credit due, Nicholas Mallett outdo themselves, getting the impact of Ace's agony and the Doctor's own guilt at having to do it to be as strong as the mythic buildup. And this is no mean feat, given that the incessant tension of the mythic buildup has been the driving engine of the story, and so has been done incredibly well. But they pull it off, and the story, at its climactic moment, seemingly effortlessly goes from ancient myth to a young woman's psyche, the whole arc of history and evolution, the very nature of the soul and of human reason, and the final battle between good and evil suddenly turning out to be perfectly encapsulated by a girl learning to forgive her mother.

It is, for my money, the point in the McCoy era where the program not only steps out of the shadow of the early 80s but steps out of the shadow of the Hinchcliffe era and of Robert Holmes. Curse of Fenric is unabashedly a Holmesian epic. It delivers the promise of alchemy being rooted in the realm of the material perfectly. And it does it while delivering a spruced up and more muscular version of the Hinchcliffe era's standard trick of doing an intimate sequel to an untold epic. But where the Hinchcliffe era did this because it was a way to get at the epic without having to break the budget, here we have a story that's doing a sequel to an epic that is unabashedly epic in its own scope, with armies of vampires unleashed in the middle of World War II. It's an intimate sequel to an untold epic that nevertheless sounds bigger and more fun than the original story.

And it is, for my money, the best story of the classic series. A piece of truly epic mercury that dances dizzyingly through as many ideas as Ghost Light before ending in a piece of moving character drama, all without missing a beat. Never mind the best story of the classic series, this is flat out one of the greatest pieces of television ever.

63 comments:

  1. The first Doctor Who episode I ever saw was part 1 of Fenric, it terrified me so much I didn't watch any Doctor Who again until 1993.

    I think there's any important difference between The Curse Of Fenric and The God Complex climaxes. In Fenric the Doctor has to destroy Ace's sense of self and he's brutal especially the line 'an emotional cripple'. However in The God Complex (which is probably my favourite episode of the new series) the Doctor has to tear himself down in front of Amy while at the same time gently nudging her to finally grow up and thus it's a far sadder scene. Both great scenes but with very different emphasises, which is why I found myself getting irritated at people just dismissing The God Complex as having ripped of Fenric.

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    1. I think the Curse scene is more interesting in that there's more going on. The God Complex scene is a bit one note: the Doctor has to destroy Amy's faith in him to save her and he does so.

      Also, I think the God Complex scene, while it might work with Rose, is just wrong for Amy. Karen Gillan said of her first season that she's playing Amy as if part of her just doesn't trust the Doctor and given that the writers can be a bit here and there with Amy's character Gillan's performance is one of the things that holds the character together. So I'm not happy about a script that turns on flatly contradicting Gillan's character reading.

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    2. I personally don't think it contradicts her character in the slightest. There's always been the part of her that's still the little girl that The Doctor first met and to save everyone she has to move on from that, The Doctor has to stop being her 'imaginary friend' and become someone real and real people are always far more disappointing.

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    3. The trouble, really, lies in believing that she still trusts him at all by that point.
      She has been so heavily marginalized and undercut throughout the season (starting out away from The Doctor, being kidnapped in every story, the whole baby... thing) that when she insists that she believes in The Doctor more than anything (in a story that does no small amount of alienating the audience from her itself), her words just ring false.

      That said I do love the god complex an immense amount in most respects, and consider it a very sincere and worthy homage to Fenric

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    4. Ace, I'm not sure that Amy's faith in the Doctor by The God Complex is unbelievable as much as it passed your limit of skepticism, but not hers. Since Raggedy Doctor night, Amy had defined her life according to this image (and if Let's Kill Hitler was good at one thing, it was in showing how this image of the Doctor played out explicitly in her friendships, even if Mels turned out to have encouraged it for more nefarious reasons).

      I don't think it's that her belief in the Doctor is maintained at a constant level. It's constantly challenged, but when a belief is continually challenged and survives, it just becomes stronger for it. The Doctor unintentionally tests Amy's belief in him, but continually earns it back. It took him 12 years (then another two) to return, but he did. He comes back to her after giving her and Rory a post-honeymoon break (which is a very radical way for the Doctor to treat a companion when you think about it), rescues her from Demon's Run, helps her daughter overcome the torture she received. And even when The God Complex's events in her memory, she still believes in him enough to join up with River in the time-gone-bananas timeline and track the Doctor down to save him.

      Amy's faith is tested by all these events, and the Doctor ends up passing. The one time he doesn't is in The God Complex, when he's forced to flunk on purpose. And it hurts the Doctor more than it hurts Amy.

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    5. The Curse of Fenric does, at least, avoid having any lines as grotesquely horrific as "Mrs. Williams."

      But by and large I love both scenes and have little desire to pick a favorite.

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    6. "The Curse of Fenric does, at least, avoid having any lines as grotesquely horrific as "Mrs. Williams." "

      ...says the man who treats Lacan with any respect. ;-)

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    7. My criticism of the God Complex comes from the reverse synergy of the season:
      Failures of script editing are particularly noticeable in these seasons. Amy Pond is written as “The Girl Who Waited”- who was willing to wait for over a decade without her faith losing any strength. She was proven by the beginning of the season to have undying faith and devotion in Rory, and the one time Rory is shown to turn on Amy, it’s shown to be a trick by a god amusing himself with the TARDIS. Yet when Amy’s shown trapped on an alien planet for years, she manages to completely turn on the Doctor and hate him and everything he stands for. Even in that episode, it’s her love for Rory that gives her the strength to change the past, yet somehow in “God Complex”, it’s her faith in the Doctor and the Doctor alone that draws the group into a trap.

      Although my take on it was that if either Matt Smith or Toby Whithouse had watched Curse of Fenric, they simply wouldn't have done it that way, because the scene here was so much more powerful than theirs.

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  2. A pedantic comment first: I think Ace is a young woman rather than a young girl.

    The question that the story raises, and I don't think it actually answers it, is how much does the Doctor know about what's going on before he arrives. Does he actually know that Ace is a wolf, for example? I think your reading of Curse on the assumption that he does is very good. And as a side note, one doesn't really risk making Ace into a passive object given that Ace just isn't passive material.
    However, I still think it's plausible that the Doctor didn't know about Ace. After all, the speech where the Doctor says he did is demonstrably dishonest in that it fails of its purpose if anybody realises what the Doctor's purpose is. And the Doctor is lying through his teeth when he calls Ace an emotional cripple. Why assume he is telling the truth about anything else? In which case, this is the Doctor improvising in desperation. I'm not sure how that would affect your reading of the themes of the story though.

    Another thought: sacrificing innocent people for the greater good is Commander Millington's plan. And the Doctor is disgusted by the idea. So we're invited to see some kind of distinction between the Doctor as manipulator and Millington as manipulator.
    I would certainly reject any reading of McCoy's Doctor on television in which the Doctor's disgust at Millington's plan is merely hypocritical or tactical.

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  3. "In Freudian terms - terms which apply well to the bulk of this story - we're talking about the death drive. Curse of Fenric posits a self-destructive, suicidal instinct within history and biology itself."

    That could possibly have made sense of the entire Saward era.

    "The sequence of the Doctor breaking Ace's faith is one of the best in the classic series - hence it getting recycled wholesale by Toby Whithouse. And for the first time the series pulls off this switch perfectly."

    I think City of Death pulled off a similar switch. For most of the story the Doctor comes off as a bastard trying to sabotage Scarlioni's perfectly noble aims to save his people, until the final reveal demnstrates why the Doctor was right to.

    As for breaking Ace's faith.... I dunno, I just can't help feel that scene is yet again an example of JNT's tendency to treat the show in a manner akin to Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, being projected onto the Doctor himself. Just like in Twin Dilemma.

    The other issues I have are that the background of how Ace met he Doctor is crucial to the story (since her displacement in time mirrors that of the Haemovoores), and yet it's not something that's made lucid to first-time viewers who haven't seen Dragonfire.

    And also that it seems to take the left-wing, anti-British sentiment too far by its suggestion that the Russian soldiers have greater, secular 'faith' than we do. Which rings false when they were living under a fear state ruled by one of the most evil, bloodthirsty tyrants in history (brought about by the revolution they claim to have such faith in), and that they would only understand success or death in this mission. There's little for them to have faith or hope in.

    Other than that though, it is the best of the McCoy era that succeeds in the many areas that the rest of the era falls at, in terms of gravitas and sobering professionalism of performance and directing. It doesn't feel plastic like so much of the story of the immediately prior two seasons did. In that it is perhaps McCoy's very own Revelation of the Daleks.

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    1. I actually found the show's depiction of Captain Sorin as remarkably brave, creepy Stalinist undertones aside (and that loyalty to the Stalinist Soviet state may have been a kind of foreshadowing of Sorin's eventual takeover by Fenric). Sorin is one of the two main allies of the Doctor and Ace among the guest cast for the story, and the member of the guest cast who most earns the respect of the audience. Rev. Wainwright ends up more pitiable than effective, as he can no longer maintain any kind of faith necessary to keep the base from being overrun by Haemovores. Everyone else is either cannon fodder or working explicitly or implicitly for the villains.

      At the end of the Cold War, Russia had been an existential threat to Britain, and The Curse of Fenric was most explicitly about the horror of weapons of mass destruction — that for generations, most of the population thought the Cold War would end in holocaust and in the best case scenario the toxic world of the Haemovores. And in a story like that, Doctor Who has the courage to have an admirable character with such faith in the ideals of the Soviet revolution that he can hold back a vampire. Sorin was such an admirable figure (and his constant flirting with Ace was weirdly sweet and really rather charming as well) that whenever I watch this story, it still hits me in the gut when Fenric takes him over.

      I almost wish Mary Whitehouse had still cared about the show so she could have had a conniption at the depiction of a faith outside Christianity having the traditional power to beat back a vampire (indeed, thanks to Rev Wainwright, Sorin's and the Doctor's secular faith is the only kind that works).

      Phil, I know this story is crazily oversignified, but I'm surprised that you didn't discuss the importance of the Doctor's display of faith, which fits very well with your original reading of why the Doctor became a hero. His greatest faith is his memories and love for his friends, which only makes what he does to Ace even more tortuous.

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    2. In Invasion, twenty-odd years before this, the cybermen's fleet is blown up by Russian nuclear missiles. I've never seen anybody remark upon the fact that less than ten years after the Cuban missile crisis Doctor Who showed Russian nuclear missiles saving the world.

      One of the more objectionable things about Stalin (once you've excluded killing millions of his citizens) is the way in which he manipulated people's faith in the Revolution.

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    3. I think seeing the depiction of Soren as brave is reading American attitudes into a British show. While the UK was indeed on the front line of the Cold War, the British never really saw the conflict with the USSR as an ideological conflict. The general view was more along the lines that the Russians were decent enough people much like ourselves who were ruled by a bunch of mad Communists, while the American were decent enough people much like ourselves who were ruled by a bunch of mad capitalists, and we were stuck in the middle with a great big target painted on us. The sequence with the Russian fishermen in Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero" illustrates this well.

      While some in America saw the Cold War as analogous to the Second World War in terms of it being an existential struggle against an unacceptable ideology, the British saw it more like the First World War, a pointless and deadly struggle of empires with no ideological imperative.

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    4. I would say that the Russian faith makes sense specifically in the context of soldiers in World War II, where one's sufferings can be framed entirely in the context of what those Nazi bastards have done to the Motherland.

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  4. It's recently been in the news that Alan Turing may not have committed suicide:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18561092

    ...although he was still poorly treated, of course.

    And Lisa Stansfield was, for a time, allergic to her own saliva. Unfortunately she never sang a song about this.

    "Been around the world and I, I... I'm allergic to my own spit."

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    1. There's actually been some doubt as to his suicide from day one - his mother always insisted it was an accidental death. I remain unpersuaded, by and large.

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  5. Curse of Fenric is a story fatally undermined by its own casting, unfortunately. I found it impossible to take seriously from the moment Nicholas Parsons appears (though he gives an effective performance). "Live from Norwich, it's the quiz of the week..."

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  6. As I hadn't seen a lot of Nicholas Parsons before, I just found it was an excellent performance. I think I knew I'd seen the actor somewhere before but if I'd been asked to guess I'd have said he'd played a vicar in some Agatha Christie or other.

    I can see that there's a disjunction between character and actor that doesn't happen with, say, Hale and Pace who are in Survival to do a Hale and Pace skit with the Doctor in.

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    1. Or Alexei Sale who gives an appalling performance in Revelation of the Daleks. I've never been able to bear to watch Ken Dodd's cameo so can't comment. Parsons, before he became an afternoon quiz show host was a respected supporting actor in a number of i940's and 50's British movies. In Fenric he is well cast to the type he would have played in films contemporaneous with the setting.

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    2. BTW having to prove I'm not a robot in order to post a comment has never seemed so apposite!

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    3. In case it's not obvious from what I was saying, I think Hale and Pace work. If a story can switch successfully from suburban London to Anthony Ainley's Master it is straining at gnats to claim that it can't digest a Hale and Pace sketch.

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  7. "Much of the plot hinges on the fact that everyone at the base is a descendent of the viking settlers. These would be, of course, the viking settlers who were all killed by vampires, according to the inscriptions. "

    Of course that presumes that a) the inscriptions are to be trusted (after all, the final inscription is written during World War 2, and there's nothing to say that the rest of the inscription isn't simply another part of Fenric's plan to release himself); and b) that all the settlers were killed off before they could start families.

    Personally I go for the later, as I always got the idea that the families were culled so that the "Wolves" chain was purest, so as to better implement Fenric's plan.

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    1. I always assumed that the Viking settlers were already there, hence why the crew carrying the flask went there in the first place. The wolves of Fenric didn't transport the flask, they received it.

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  8. I'm a bit surprised that a) there's no mention of Judson's disability as a metaphor for homosexuality, especially in conjunction with Ace's imagined status as (emotional) cripple; and b) there's likewise no mention -- apart from "the good force that primordially opposes Fenric is never accounted for after its seeming destruction, with the Doctor slotting into the opposition role" -- of the story's insinuation that the Doctor is himself the good force from before the universe.

    It takes place in World War II, when the Russians and the British were still allies. And yet everyone is aware of the Cold War and aware that it looms inevitably over them

    Well, of course many people were. "After we defeat the Germans we'll have to fight the Russians" was not exactly an unheard-of sentiment during the war.

    Turing, of course, is famous for suggesting that being able to convince a person that you are also a person is the definition of thinking

    That would be a bit circular as a definition, given that "person" and "thinking" aren't entirely separate cocepts. (Imagine how unhelpful it would be to be told that the definition of a gzonk is the ability to convince another gzonk that you are a gzonk.) It might instead be a criterion.

    Godel's Incompleteness Theorem shows that there are statements in mathematics that cannot be proven true or false, and, more importantly, that it's impossible to identify these statements, thus putting an absolute limit on mathematical certainty

    Well, not exactly. It shows (on the standard interpretation, at least) that for any given axiomatisation of mathematics, there are statements that cannot be proven true or false within that axiomatisation. That doesn't imply that they can't be proven true or false within a different axiomatisation; nor does it imply the impossibility of knowing them to be true or false by some means other than proving or disproving them within an axiomatisation. In other words, it's not nearly as exciting as its popular reputation.

    Take Hitler and Put him in the Cupboard Over There

    "Take Hitler and put him in the funny pages!" -- His Girl Friday

    She's an emotional cripple

    "Face it, Janet -- Brad's an emotional cripple!" -- Shock Treatment

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  9. It does, however, establish a minimum complexity for axiomatisations beyond which they are necessarily incomplete, and this minimum is one that any functional mathematics will exceed. So the practical scope is in line with its popular reputation

    As for the use of "definition," fair enough - I've recast the sentence. (Along with fixing the "young girl" bit David objected to above)

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    1. "It does, however, establish a minimum complexity for axiomatisations beyond which they are necessarily incomplete ... "

      Yes, and an interesting question which follows on from that is, perhaps, what we think about the nature of mathematics. Godel's Incompleteness Theorems spelled the end of Hilbert's proposal to find a complete, consistent axiomatic foundation for all of mathematics.

      That's really only a problem if one thinks that mathematics is the same as its axiomatization. Godel's first Incompletenes Theorem shows a distinction between the two. So it does not demonstrate a limit to our knowledge. In fact the theorem provides an explicit method for constructing the undecidable Godel sentence for any particular consistent axiomatic system that encompasses arithmetic. When we interpret this sentence, it says essentially, "I am a proposition with no proof in this system." So not only is the sentence undecidable in the system, but also we know it to be true, because we understand its meaning in a way that the axiomatic system cannot. So we know at least one thing which the system doesn't.

      Roger Penrose in his book "The Emperor's New Mind" relates this to the question of whether or not human thinking is the product of a Turing machine. He makes a strong case for the idea that because we do mathematics by insight and not by axiomatizable procedures, we cannot be using a Turing machine algorithm. He argues for a Platonic rather than a formalist understanding of mathematical truth.

      (I should probably add that this is my first post on this blog, which I have been reading and enjoying tremendously for several months now. I haven't seen The Curse of Fenric, but from this description, I am very much looking forward to it.)

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    2. That's really only a problem if one thinks that mathematics is the same as its axiomatization

      Exactly. Which is why I continue to think it's not exciting in the way it's been thought to be.

      To put it another way: it was a mistake to think of mathematics as based on, or depending on, its axiomatisation. Mathematics is not based on its axiomatisation; its axiomatisation is based on it. So problems with the axiomatisation need not have important implications for mathematics itself -- any more than shooting a bullet at my shadow need affect me.

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  10. Phil, you've put such a dense post together that I'm glad I have the whole weekend to sort it out in my thoughts. As it is, this comment might be as disjointed by necessity as the Ghost Light essay was by design.

    It's taken me years to figure out what Turing was really talking about in the imitation game, and its subtlety has impressed me more than ever. A puzzle about thinking computers was turned into a profound statement of the human condition: all any of us ever do is con others into thinking that we meet their minimum conditions to require respect. Any underlying reality doesn't matter, and probably doesn't exist anyway.

    It saddens me that Nicholas Parsons couldn't imitate an actor deserving respect for a significant chunk of British fandom. But even though one of the main goals of the Eruditorum is showing the intersection of Doctor Who's fictional world with our mostly real one, I think this intrusion of Parsons' game show persona into viewers' perception of The Curse of Fenric is the wrong kind of interaction of worlds. I live in Canada, so I had no experience of Parsons other than Doctor Who. But I think I figured out the phenomenon when I did some web fu on James Corden when his being cast in The Lodger was so controversial in the UK. Consensus since then is that Corden did a wonderful job, and I think I may miss him if we don't get another Craig Owens story in season 7. However, what I learned in anticipation of The Lodger:

    The phrase "James Corden's guest appearance in Doctor Who" had the same tone in the UK as the following sentence if it had been uttered in North America: "Ray Romano's guest appearance in Battlestar Galactica."

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    1. And I hope we're all thinking of the captcha tests as successfully imitating a human for the sake of a computer.

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    2. I think I find the suggestion that Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica are interchangeable for these purposes more disturbing than anything else here - and I even like Battlestar Galactica. :)

      I didn't know who Corden was when I watched The Lodger, but he was obviously the "comedian guest star" role, so I could at least tell that there was a cultural signifier I was missing. Actually, for me it was Daisy Haggard who was the visible guest actress in that story - I knew her from the delightful sketch troupe Man Stroke Woman. But knowing that gave me a decent sense of what Corden was supposed to signify; we clearly weren't drawing from the Stuart Lee end of the comedy spectrum.

      It's interesting, though, how much Corden has managed both to overcome that and, seemingly, to rehabilitate his career at large, going on to a big theatrical success with One Man, Two Guvnors. And I think that is, in part, because Craig is obviously a role made for a guest actor.

      Parsons, on the other hand, seemed a respectable dramatic actor in a role where one would expect one, and as a result I had no idea he was an odd casting choice, or even a well-known figure to begin with. I just thought he was marvelous. The Corinthians reading scene moves me to this day (even if it has a tendency to make for an awkward moment in wedding ceremonies as I begin imagining Haemovores bursting through the doors of the venue - the perils of learning something from Doctor Who). So I agree, it's sad that his imitation of a serious actor was unconvincing to much of British fandom, though as a blind interrogator, I can confirm that he fooled me at the time.

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    3. As someone who grew up with Sale of the Century (and continues to listen to Just a Minute, albeit irregularly) I think he did a great job and I didn't have any trouble disconnecting his character here from his compere persona (or, perhaps, personae, since he's changed over the years). In fact, I found his appearance in The Comic Strip Presents episode "Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door" more jarring - and there he was playing himself! Basically, this bit of stunt casting worked for me in a way that Hale & Pace didn't.

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    4. Oddly enough, Phil, I've seen a couple of episodes of Ray Romano's post-Everybody Loves show, Men of a Certain Age, and found that he quite effectively moved beyond his most famous persona. So maybe a guest appearance on a cerebral sci-fi show wouldn't have been such a tonal shift after all. Just like Corden achieved.

      I know it'll be a while, but I am quite interested in hearing your take on Battlestar Galactica eventually. Given its unlikely revival in 2003-4, and its hitting a creative peak concurrent with the Eccleston and first Tennant years of Doctor Who, I think it's reasonable to expect you to pop between realities to it. It would also be important in that Doctor Who's popular explosion in America under Moffatt happened shortly after Battlestar wound down. So you could think of the end of Battlestar (and maybe Lost as well) creating space for a new sci-fi show to conquer the Comic-Con set, and the Moffatt vintage of Doctor Who arrived just in time.

      Two good friends of mine got married (to each other) a couple of years ago, and they read that Corinthians passage. I also imagined the Ancient One and Sylvester McCoy looking on in approval.

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    5. I'll second the Lost/BSG wind-downs as creating space for my current Who obsessions, not to mention how both programs upped the ante on SF-flavoured character dramas.

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    6. I hope we're all thinking of the captcha tests as successfully imitating a human for the sake of a computer.

      The captcha tests have half convinced me that I am a computer. Never before have I suffered such an intense bout with Impostor Syndrome.

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    7. Fans of both Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who ought to pay attention to the character of Tricia Helfer's Messenger Six in general, especially in the first episode. That's all I'm gonna say.

      And amazing take on "Fenric", Phil. Just what I expected :-)

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    8. If anything, the North American equivalent of "James Corden's guest appearance on Doctor Who" would be "Ashton Kutcher's supporting role in Star Trek 2"... :-P

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    9. Fans of both Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who ought to pay attention to the character of Tricia Helfer's Messenger Six in general, especially in the first episode. That's all I'm gonna say.


      Jeri Ryan, Tricia Helfer, and Matt Smith walk into a bar:
      "Hi, I'm Seven of Nine."
      "Hi, I'm Six of twelve."
      "Hi, I'm Eleven of thirteen."
      "So how come yesterday you said you were Eleven of 507?"
      "Oh well, six of one, half a dozen of the other."

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    10. In the immortal words of Mr James McCrimmon, "Oooooooooh."

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    11. That's not at all what I was thinking of, but, nevertheless, BeserkRL wins.

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    12. And then Evita should come in saying "I'm dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you."

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    13. I am not a number. I am a free man.

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    14. "The Corinthians reading scene moves me to this day (even if it has a tendency to make for an awkward moment in wedding ceremonies as I begin imagining Haemovores bursting through the doors of the venue - the perils of learning something from Doctor Who)."

      Next time you go to a wedding, Dr. Sandifer, I dare you to successfully organize and pull off just that.

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    15. "It's interesting, though, how much Corden has managed both to overcome that and, seemingly, to rehabilitate his career at large, going on to a big theatrical success with One Man, Two Guvnors."

      I have to disagree that just because he 'does theatre' he wanted to be taken seriously. He was great in One Man, Two Guvnors but that's becasue he was playing the clown and essentially himself. There were much better actors in the cast than him, but he still did a good job. He'd also done The History Boys, which judging by the film was also a good performance.

      I don't dislike him as much as others do but I'd hardly consider him a great actor - his best performances are only very slight departures from playing himself. Unlike Nicholas Parsons who I love anyway, but I think is just magnificent here. His death scene is the most disturbing and tragic in the story - his lack of faith conflicting with his desperation to keep hold of it was beautifully done and made his death suitably devastating.

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  11. This is another one I remember not liking as much as everyone else did, but while I remember exactly why I didn't warm to Ghost Light, I don't remember what the problem was here. It could be that the whole thing just felt disjointed and difficult to follow; I watched the first half this morning in the gym on my phone using Netflix (it's an omnibus edition, oddly), seeing it for the first time in probably 20 years, and I think it might be the first time I caught most of what was going on. It doesn't seem like it jumps around more than any other modern TV show, but maybe it jumps around more than Doctor Who did in times past and more than it does now (when the Doctor is rarely allowed to be offscreen for long).

    I do remember thinking of the faithless priest as being straight out of Salem's Lot, and of this story as falling short of that one in terms of effective vampire horror. If there's a reason the Haemovores had to be vampires, I'm not sure I've worked out what it is; I might have been less inclined to compare the two. I'm reading Paul Cornell's Goth Opera right now, and of course the "faith" angle comes up again and again in it; back when I was really heavily into vampire lore (a generation before Twilight, thank you very much), part of the reason I favored Anne Rice's vampires was that they were entirely unaffected by religious symbols and strong beliefs, unless they themselves happened to be superstitious.

    Most of the McCoy stories had something I found a little "embarrassing," and often it wasn't really any more so than you'd find in any other Doctor Who story, so I don't know exactly what that was about. In this case, I recall it was the two girls who went swimming when they shouldn't have, walking around terrorizing people with their Lee Press-Ons in broad daylight.

    This morning, what embarrassed me about them was the broad characterization and the fact that the harridan in whose house they were lodging was in fact entirely correct about the dangers of Maiden's Point: if "going into the water" is sex, here it's every bit the deathtrap it's advertised to be, at least until the Doctor cleans it up. I'm curious to hear more about how this is a story about sex vs. death when in fact we get the classic slasher formula of sex = death and the secret word that triggers the flask of Norse venom is "love." I'm not saying the story believes those equations, but the first half seems to be deliberately entangling the two, not setting them up in opposition.

    Maybe I don't know much about Turing's life (I definitely had the misunderstanding you predicted about the Turing test, though I've spent a fair amount of time with Turing machines), but I'm not sure I see why you chose to overlap his homosexuality with transgenderism. Is it the hormone injections he was given as compulsory chemical castration? Could you explain more about his "fascination with gender impersonation," or point me to your source for the same?

    Speaking of, all the photos I've seen of Turing are considerably hunkier than his fictionalized counterpart, which is a bit of a bummer for this story. Not that it would contribute to the story for Judson to be sexy. Fortunately the soldiers are pretty easy on the eyes.

    I did enjoy the story more this time around, and I do plan to watch the second half of the story, probably tomorrow. Maybe I'll have more useless things to add then. :)

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    1. I finished it this morning. It was indeed very good.

      I'm not sure I'm convinced that "Mrs. Williams" is a worse thing to call someone than a failed student, a "social misfit," and an "emotional cripple" (and "grotesquely horrific" seems a little strong), though I can see why you might feel that way. Since the point in both cases was not just to be hurtful but to be convincingly hurtful, they all seem to be pitched just about right.

      This time around I noticed that only women are converted to Haemovores -- the men just seem to die. I'm not sure what to make of that.

      I don't think I've said it, but I'm grateful you're writing this. I don't always agree with your viewpoints, but often they make me see the stories in a new light, and it's been great to revisit the McCoy era after so long.

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    2. The crux of the difference, for me, is that I think we're meant to read the Doctor as telling the truth (or at least as believing himself to be telling the truth) in The God Complex. Because he reaffirms the thrust of his claim in letting Amy and Rory go at the end. McCoy is making a feint to get out of a jam. Smith seems to be admitting an uncomfortable truth.

      The gender impersonation issue, for me, comes mainly from the fact that in the 1940s and 50s the link between "male homosexual" and "effeminate" was a much, much stronger link than exists today, while the cultural understanding of "transgender" as a category was much more limited. Historically speaking, the terms were considerably more conflated. I don't think it's a stretch to assume that the cultural conflation of the concepts would influence both transgender people and homosexuals' self-conceptions. In fact, I think it's almost certain that they would.

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  12. So, Phil... what did you think of the Olympic opening ceremonies? ;-)

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    1. I appreciated its moral message that socialized health care would lead to Mary Poppins fighting Voldemort.

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    2. And that magical statues of Winston Churchill freak even James Bond out.

      Now... due to its absence tonight, I am DEFINITELY expecting a Doctor Who scene during the closing ceremonies. DON'T... fail me AGAIN... Olympics!

      *shakes finger at Olympics; walks off*

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    3. It would be perfect for Matt Smith to arrive in-character at the closing ceremony with a torch, ready to light the cauldron...

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    4. What is the audio equivalent of a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" moment? Because there was one last night. The TARDIS was briefly heard during Bohemian Rhapsody. There was supposed to be more, but...

      http://www.doctorwhonews.net/2012/07/dwn280712120008-tardis-materialises-at.html

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    5. YES!!! I wasn't the only one who heard that! :-D

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    6. Heh! No, you're not mad, though nobody else in our house heard it (philistines!). I guess after 40-odd years I'm psychically tuned into the sound of the TARDIS! Doctor Who is a British cultural icon, I knew they had to give it at least a nod.

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    7. My friends and I were convinced that the TARDIS would appear and all the athletes would emerge from it. Oh well, I feel better now I know that the Doctor was at least considered for a cameo appearance. Phillip, I feel the opening ceremony deserves a Pop Between Realities from you particularly considering the bizarre parallel with the end of Alan Moore's recently published 'Century 2009'(Mary Poppins seeing off Voldemort, James Bond entering reality etc.). Perhaps a tie in with 'Fear Her' when we get there?

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  13. Possibly my favourate Who too.

    I suspect the only reason it doesn't win fans polls is that it doesn't contain a 'classic' monster.

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  14. Philip Sandifer:
    "the chess puzzle and its solution are completely non-sensical, that a mate-in-one puzzle that stumps an ancient god for ages is ridiculous"

    I totally agree. I personally feel this story would have worked far better if it hadn't been a "sequel" to a story we never saw, if The Doctor had figured out who and what the "Evil from the dawn of time" was right here and now, and if he'd somehow figured out a way to defeat him that-- you know-- made any damn sense at all.

    Tying this in with a scene in "SILVER NEMESIS" and, worse, "DRAGONFIRE" (same writer, of course) never quite worked for me. It's like, I could see what they were tryinbg to do... I just don't think they pulled it off. And by that, I mean, they didn't convince me it made "any damn sense at all".


    "The result is what is, in my experience, the single easiest piece of classic series Doctor Who to show someone who has never seen it before."

    Are you KIDDING?


    "So on the one hand Fenric is trying to get her to help him bring about Ragnarok"

    This may be the central point. HOW? Okay, so this evil being who is somehow trapped in a ceramic flask (!!!), somehow managed to cause a time storm which whisks Dorothy Gale (haha) away from Earth in the present to Iceworkd in the far future... JUST so The Doctor will pick her up as his latest travelling companion. How could he know The Doctor would show up then and there? And what real purpose is there to have Ace with The Doctor, since everything she's done since hooking up with him has been to become a better person and helping many, many other people? What the HELL am I missing here? Or is the writer really THAT incompetent?????

    So much about this story is so good. WHY did it have to be so completely (in my eyes) derailed by some amateurish fanboy trying to cram in "too much stuff" into a single story, much as he did with "DRAGONFIRE"? Sure, the result here is at least 10 times better... but without the connections, and with a better, more sensible back-story and climax, it could have been damn-near perfect.


    Tommy:
    "And also that it seems to take the left-wing, anti-British sentiment too far by its suggestion that the Russian soldiers have greater, secular 'faith' than we do. Which rings false when they were living under a fear state ruled by one of the most evil, bloodthirsty tyrants in history (brought about by the revolution they claim to have such faith in), and that they would only understand success or death in this mission. There's little for them to have faith or hope in."

    It's sad, it's tragic, over the years, I've come to feel the Bolshevik Revolution was perhaps the biggest, most monstrous CON-JOB ever perpetusated on a large segment of humanity. They lied and cheated and stole and MASS-MURDERED their way to the top, they told everyone left that it was some grand scehem for the betterment of mankind, when really, it was just to benefit an army of murderous gangsters who made Adolph Hitler look like an amateur.

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    1. Monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder. I suspect Stalinism appears much more attractive when the amateur Hitler is massing at the border and flat out states his intention to exterminate you and your loved ones because of your inferior genetic stock.

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  15. Iain Coleman:
    "The general view was more along the lines that the Russians were decent enough people much like ourselves who were ruled by a bunch of mad Communists, while the American were decent enough people much like ourselves who were ruled by a bunch of mad capitalists, and we were stuck in the middle with a great big target painted on us."

    I once read an article about Gerry Anderson's "UFO" which painted the whole show as a thinly-disguised Cold War allegory, with SHADO on one side and the UFOs on the other, and the "good guys" often came across as every bit as bad as the baddies! They tended to be so obseesedd with absolute secrecy at all costs (much more so than learning more about the enemy and finding ways to stop them), that innocent people were in as much danger from them as from the aliens, if, God help them, they ever found out about their top-top-secret organization.


    Nick Smale:
    "I found it impossible to take seriously from the moment Nicholas Parsons appears (though he gives an effective performance)."

    I'd never seen him before, so I found him quite convincing and sympathetic. (Although I could have sworn he'd played the Vicar on "TO THE MANOR BORN", but no, that was someone else.) As it turns out, checking the IMDB, I see he played The Sheriff on Gerry Anderson's "FOUR FEATHER FALLS". (heh)


    Adam Riggio:
    "I know it'll be a while, but I am quite interested in hearing your take on Battlestar Galactica eventually. Given its unlikely revival in 2003-4, and its hitting a creative peak concurrent with the Eccleston and first Tennant years of Doctor Who, I think it's reasonable to expect you to pop between realities to it."

    There was a while there, where BG and DW were the 2 best things on TV, but whereas the BG redo was a dark, nasty, unlikeable F*** of a series, I found the writing and the characters on DW to be much better. In other words, almost as soon as it debuted here, I found the revived DOCTOR WHO to be the best damn thing on TV, period!!!

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    1. It's something I hope Phil covers when he goes through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ron Moore, BSG, and its predecessors in Moore's career like DS9 and his aborted plans for Voyager that would have made it good.

      Probably the biggest difference between the shows was their tone, and I think it's linked to the circumstances of the shows they were reviving. Doctor Who was known for being silly at times, but also for being a scary and sometimes violent show thanks to the Troughton era thrillers, the Hinchcliffe era gothic horror, the Saward era violence and misanthropy, and the pessimistic character arcs of the Virgin era Seventh Doctor. On top of that, it was known for dealing regularly with very complex and strange ideas. So Doctor Who could afford to be more diverse in its tone.

      The original BSG, meanwhile, was low-budget disco in outer space. Ron Moore and his team had to prove from the start the BSG could be a serious show at all, so they, in my view, overcompensated, at times far too relentlessly bleak.

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  16. For what it's worth I think the chess thing is defensible if we assume that the Doctor explicitly posed the problem as a symbol of the real-life contest between the two of them. In which case it would have been understood that a) either party can play the other party's pieces (which both the Doctor and Fenric do in Curse) and b) the Doctor cheats.
    I don't think it's reading anything into the story to say that the reason Fenric can't solve the puzzle himself is that he can't imagine the pawns not killing each other when they have the chance.

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  17. How lovely that I should find this blog just as my favourite Doctor Who story is being considered. I agree on all counts, this is the original series high point, and an excellent introduction to those not already aware of its charms.

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  18. Does anyone know exactly what the Doctor was saying to ward off the haemavores? I know it was the names of past companions (which I thought was absolutely marvelous in what it said about this Doctor's views about his traveling companions) but other than Steven Tyler, I couldn't make them out.

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    1. Susan, Barbara, Ian, Vicki, Steven. That's as far as he gets before the audio becomes too muffled.

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