Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – HOLY FUCK

A promo for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which shows the main cast lounging by the side of a pool in a rich, clearly wealthy setting.
Promo image from Glass Onion

This movie is absolutely extraordinary.

I was not prepared.

Despite the considerable anticipation for fans, this film was released with comparatively little fanfare. It was only in cinemas for a single week, and arrived on Netflix without a splash. I saw that Knives Out was on Netflix UK before I saw that Glass Onion was.

Traditional media seem mystified by the decision, but as a disabled person I am extremely thankful. I can’t count the number of films I would have seen at the cinema if I could over the last few years: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Dune, Elvis, The Green Knight, Black Widow… But it wouldn’t have been safe, even if I did have the energy to leave the house. And by the time those movies arrived to streaming, I’d either had them spoiled or lost interest.

Some may see this as Netflix leaving in-person money on the table, but they have my money instead. And thanks to my excited tweets, toots, and Tumblr posts yesterday, a whole bunch of other folks are excited to watch it too.

Because what I saw made me extremely excited.

This film is so rich and the detail so exquisite that it won’t be possible to talk about it adequately without giving at least some spoilers, so I’m going to give a brief, spoiler-free reaction, and then delve into the details.

Low spoiler reaction: OH MY GOD, THIS IS FUN

The set up has an ecclectic group of people receive elaborate puzzle boxes that invite them to a murder mystery on a private island, hosted by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He invites them to solve his murder.

One recipient, Cassandra Bland (Janelle Monae), seems rather less enamoured of the invitation.

Meanwhile, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective from the first movie, sits depressed in his bath, dealing poorly with the isolation of the pandemic.


This was probably the first thing that made me sit up and really think.

Understandably, when the first lockdowns happened, most media took the position of pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, in order to avoid retraumatising everyone. However, this year, governments around the world lifted restrictions, despite the fact that the pandemic has not gone away. People continue to get infected, and while vaccines have mitigated deaths, people are still dying in large numbers, becoming disabled in even larger numbers, and already-chornically-ill people, like me, have had freedoms we’d had tentatively adopted in 2021 stripped away, because no one else is masking or social distancing.

We have been left trapped in our homes while the rest of the world spreads infections that would kill us or destroy our lives, even with vaccination.

Now the trauma is people pretending that the pandemic does not exist. So to see a piece of media include it: include masking, include selfish people not masking, include people depressed because they are trapped in their houses while others break rules without a care…

It was a blessed relief.

I felt seen.

For about 10 minutes, anyway, before they hand-waved it away so their stars could walk about unmasked. [Addendum: Ancient-string on Tumblr made a post that explained to me that they did not, in fact, hand-wave away the corona virus, and it is, in fact, present throughout the entire movie in a really glorious way. However, to explain that would be a (minor) spoiler, so only follow the link if you don’t want to see if you get it on your own.]

But this was the first inkling of what turned out to be a tour de force critique of all the problems of our times, with a fake-ass billionaire sitting squarely in the middle of them.

I said on Twitter that it’s the Citizen Kane (1941) of our time and I’m sure many people thought I was exaggerating, but I wasn’t. And not just because it’s a targeted critique of the super-rich.

This is an exquisitely well-made popular movie that people will be writing essays about for decades to come. And it’s written specifically for the problems of right now, so although I’m sure 50 years from now people will still watch and enjoy it, they won’t feel it on a visceral level the way we do now. Just as I felt a disconnect watching Citizen Kane as a 90s child.

No one ever feels searingly important movies as powerfully as the audience for which they were intended.

But a guarantee you: however much times change, this is a movie that will always be extremely fun.

I would even say that the wit and pace have been refined since the first movie. I adored Knives Out, but it took a little while to really gel for me. It was stylish and well-acted from the get go, but just not quite the polished gem of engrossing entertainment that I found Glass Onion to be, right from the start.

And, I cannot stress this enough: Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are having a blast and it is a very great pleasure to watch them at it.

They practically vibrate off the screen with how much they clearly enjoy bouncing off each other as actors, embracing the fabulous characters they’ve been gifted.

And against this background of sheer delight, there’s a cutting analysis of the woes of our fucked up world, woven together to create a climax that digs its knives into not just billionaires, but tech bro culture; the death of truth; white supremacy; modern slavery; political corruption; the devaluation of education and art; the monopolisation and overvaluation of historic art by the rich; and cynical virtue signalling by corporations that have no connection to, or understanding of, the real issues.

Eight years ago I said it was time to watch movies from the 1930s because I could see which way the wind was blowing and it fucking depressed me that our popular culture wasn’t calling it out. BUT HERE IT IS. This is it.

And it’s not that no one has mentioned these issues before. Chernobyl is still a hugely important masterpiece that grimly asks us: “What is the cost of lies?” But for all that serious dramas like that are important, they’ll never have the power to seize the public imagination the way something that is utterly delightful can.

But to say more, I need to take a look under the hood. So if you haven’t seen it yet, go off and do that – as soon as you can! Make it your holiday watch! Get from it all the endorphoines you need in these dark times, and then come back buzzing to see if you got the same things from it that I did.

From now on here be SPOILERS

OK, let’s start with the fact that they made Bond gay.

And The gays are normal

Like, I know Daniel Craig =/= James Bond, but he’s a big hecking symbol. And Blanc is such a dramatic departure from Bond. Obviously all the same character traits are there from the first movie, where he could have been read as queer-coded, but if there was anything definitive, I missed it. By constrast, one of the first things you hear when he’s introduced is a male voice talking through the bathroom door and friends talking about a ‘Philip’ (who is clearly Blanc’s partner) as having told them things.

Then later, when we see the partner, it’s famous heart-throb Hugh-fucking-Grant.

Hugh Grant and Daniel Craig are adorable ageing gays and it’s beautiful.

And domesticity is written over every inch of what little we see of their apartment. From the depression-mess in Blanc’s bathroom, to Blanc playing Among Us, to the fact that when we meet Philip he comes to the door in an apron and holding a sourdough starter. The fact that we see so little of their apartment is also one of the ways they code Blanc as normal in constrast to most of the wealthy characters who have benefited from Bron’s patronage. Blanc is dissatisfied because he cannot solve mysteries (do his job) in lockdown, and we feel how cramped he is. Constrast to Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the former-model-turned-fashion-designer, who has ‘bent’ lockdown rules to turn her mansion into a vast party, claiming that all the people there are in her ‘pod’.

Blanc and Philip may be played by men who’ve been sex symbols when they were younger, but they are not presented in that way. While both obviously still have charm, they’re presented as comfortable, having aged gracefully, doing the things that we did (or at least were aware of lots of people doing) in Lockdown.

Ageing gracefully

One thing that struck me early in this film was the commentary on beauty standards and ageing, or the perception of ageing. We see this also in Knives Out where close-ups of famously beautiful women seem to be framed to show, rather than hide their wrinkles, and I’m sure there were conscious decisions made by the make-up artists too. In the first movie I detected this as a general theme, but not an especially deep one. It was just a general sense of deception, fakeness, holding onto an image of beauty when what’s inside has become ugly.

The theme is more developed in Glass Onion, and, to my mind, is itself more graceful. While we get similar close-ups of Birdie that show her make-up as not hiding the signs of ageing, normal, comfortable ageing is much more present as a contrast. Most films go to a lot of effort to preserve the ideal of youth while using ageing stars. The stars bring in more money because they have an established carreer, but it’s often a career built while they were young and unwrinkled. Anxiety makes filmmakers try to hide the changes time has written, and even apply anti-aging CGI to make them still appear young.

But this is a cast full of older actors famous for their beauty: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Hugh Grant, and even Ethan Hawke (briefly), and the camera never avoids the signs of age. And it presents those who seem most comfortable with it as normal, friendly, approachable. Those who try to hide it seem, by contrast, distant and uncomfortable.

This includes, by the way, the Mona Lisa. Though Bron proudly tells us that DaVinci developed a technique for painting that left no brushstrokes – a complately smooth finish – the scenes in the presence of the painting repeatedly cut to close-ups that reveal the cracks of age in her painted skin.

Fakes and originality

Having the (ostensibly) real Mona Lisa as the centrepiece in the room where much of the action takes place is not what I would call a subtle way of placing the question of forgery, fakes, and originality front and centre. A question I asked myself all through the movie was whether it would turn out to be the real Mona Lisa or a fake – after all, Bron could have been lying.

The fact that he was not reflects Bron’s own deep insecurity. He wants to be talked of in the same sentence as the Mona Lisa. That tells us that even though he’s a fake whose empire has been built on lies and theft, he still values originality and genuine talent. Even though the world believes he created the social media network Alpha, he always feels in Cassandra Bland’s shadow – because she was the real deal, and he was just hanging onto her coattails. For all that Duke Cody describes himself as sucking on Bron’s golden teat, they are all reliant for their trappings of success on the actual talent of Cassandra Bland.

None of it exists without actual creators with actual originality. Just as AI art that steals from living artists for its training database is fundamentally derivative.

Bron’s initial presentation as a faker tech bro seemed a little shallow to me – enjoyable, but shallow. Down to the use of the non-words that niggle Blanc so: inbreathiate.

But Blanc’s final speech ties it all together so perfectly. The point is that it’s stupid. It’s not even clever fakery. Clever fakery is something Blanc enjoys. Like when he solves the murder mystery written by an expensive professional writer before the game even begins. But this isn’t clever fakery.

It’s stupid.

Like Elon Musk buying Twitter because he got butthurt and making just the worst, most transparently ridiculous decisions.

Like four years of Donald Trump’s bold-faced lies.

It’s all so stupid. It infuriates clever people, and we don’t know how to respond to it.

The Glass Onion

I admit, when I first read the title I thought it was silly. Not nearly so eye-catching and pithy as Knives Out. I thought they should have just called it Knives Out 2.

I was wrong.

The point, as Blanc concludes in the end, is precisely that it’s fucking stupid. It’s transparently stupid. ‘Layers like an onion’ is too obvious a metaphor to be interesting. An onion is too ordinary an object to elevate without irony. Making an onion out of glass so you can see through it obviates the point of having layers.

But that’s the point. Of course the tech bro billionaire is a big fake. He’s never needed to be anything else.

Of course the obviously evil guy is the killer, but we were all successfully distracted from our instinctive dislike of him.

Even the clumsy moments are the point.

Like Bron using the rainbow dress as a distraction. The way corporations who funnel money to anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups will buy a float at pride to keep their image. Bron urging Birdie to spin in her meaningless rainbow dress feels too much as you watch it, and that’s just because it is. Because Bron is clumsy.

Bron has never had to be anything other than clumsy. He’s a middle-class white man who failed upwards into money off the back of a black woman’s work.

As someone who works in tech, I’m familiar with the term ‘disrupter’. A disrupter is what you want to be. Disrupters are start-ups who can drive a wedge between the established behemoths of the tech world and their customers because they’re not tied down by the weight of established practice and beaucracy. Disrupters move fast because they’re small and they can invert paradigms because they have no legacy. Sometimes disrupters live up to the hype. Sometimes they’re just causing a disruption and no good comes of it.

One thing a disrupter can’t be is a billionaire. That happens when a disrupter transitions into establishment. What most tech people want to do is find some kind of in-between ground between disrupter and slow-moving behemoth. And that’s very hard.

What we’re seeing with Musk now is just the kind of nonsense half-understanding of disrupter theory Bron waffles his way through in Glass Onion. Making changes without thinking first on the assumption that all change is disruptive and will therefore lead to profit. But real ‘disrupters’ (in as much as there are any) use inherited wealth to sit in a garage (usually not the modest affair that sounds like) and carefully develop their disruptive idea for years before bringing it to the market. Musk is just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. Because he’s never invented anything. He’s always inherited someone else’s labour.

It’s what Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) wants to do with the ‘Klean’ energy project, and is horrified to learn Bron has jumped the gun on. He knows that kind of ‘disruption’ actually takes years of careful planning and testing. But that wouldn’t have been disruptive either. It would have been bankrolled by a billionaire, and controlled by him.

It’s all a facade, and a fragile one – just like an onion made of glass. It’s no misake that so much glass is broken in this movie – a glass table breaks when Cody’s killed, a glass pane is shattered when Bron attempts to kill Helen/Cassandra, and of course Helen breaks so many glass objects at the end. Glass is fragile, and you can see right through it. It’s also a reflective surface with the capacity to make us look into our selves or create illusions, so themes of introspection and questions of identity are played with throughout.

The Glass Onion is a fragile illusion that you can see right through. Like a 90s magic eye trick, all you have to do is stop looking at the outline of the illusion itself in order to see right through it to what’s really going on. (Side note: I have never, ever been able to do those, but that’s definitely why one appeared as part of the puzzle box.)

The whole idea of ‘disruption’ is really an illusion invented by privileged people, who were always a part of the establishment, using their wealth to do what few of us are in a position to: really develop their creative ideas into something useful. And then using their existing connections to get those ideas out into the world where they can make money.

That’s not really disruption.

Burn it all down

Real disruption is a riot. Real disruption comes from pain and causes pain. Real disruption aims at the whole system, not merely the current incombent.

The politician is posing as an AOC-style disruptive politician, but AOC’s a working latina funded with small donations from real constituents shaking up the establishment, Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-class white woman funded by a billionaire. She is no different than those she claims to oppose – as she confesses when she admits she already approved Bron’s plant.

Real disruption is Helen, the black high-school teacher who wants justice for her sister.

Note the centring of education for ordinary people, which has become so devalued in the US that school teachers are known to bring in their own supplies because there’s no funding for them. (Not that we are so very far behind that in the UK; we live in fear because we know that what American corrupt politicians have, our corrupt politicians want.)

And this is why it’s so important that at the end Benoit Blanc, middle-class white man, steps back, and not only lets the young blank woman, Helen Brand, take centre stage… he also admits that there’s nothing he can do.

Blanc admits that all he can do is present evidence to lawyers and cops, and he knows what he has to present will not move them in the face of money and lies.

The law has failed black people, and women, and young folk, and young black women in particular. When people cannot get justice from the law, it does not mean they are without recourse. What Helen does – breaking the glass statues, and then setting fire to it all – is real disruption, and an obvious call out to the Black Lives Matter protests. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “riot is the language of the unheard”.

I would emphasise that violence in riots is usually instigated by the police, and much of what was called ‘riot’ in the BLM protests were peaceful gatherings that police hounded in an attempt to provoke riot. Nevertheless. The dismissal of any protest as not peaceful is a tool of authoritarianism. To the extent that it’s now illegal in the UK to have a protest that causes ‘disruption‘.

Protest is meant to be disruptive, in the true meaning of the word. It’s meant to be inconvenient and shake you out of your rut so you realise that something big needs to change. It’s meant to be inconvenient.

Yet Extinction Rebellion have been panned in the press for their disruptive protests. Protests that are often presented as more harmful than they really are. Many people I know were appalled by the protest of smearing cake on the Mona Lisa and throwing paint at a Van Gogh. But the paintings were entirely unharmed. These are the most expensive paintings in the world, valued far in excess of the work of any living artist. They were never in any danger.

What the papers didn’t like was the attack on wealth and ‘normality’ and big oil.

So they all wrote headlines than made it sound like the paintings themselves had been damaged. But they hadn’t been.

And even if they had been, for all I value art (and I really truly do). No single piece is worth more than the planet on which it exists.

And this is why it’s important that Helen burns the Mona Lisa in the end.

Because we should be willing to burn the symbols.

Because human lives and our planet are worth more than them.

But for some reason, a person’s death is not as powerful as a threat to a painting.

It’s burning the painting that gets the ‘shitheads’ to see that Bron is just a man. That his lies are only powerful because they stand by him. And that they could just as easily stand by Cassandra instead.

Sandra Bland

And while we’re talking about the value of a life, something was niggling away at me as I wrote this post. Something about the name Helen Brand.

I realised a few paragraphs back that it isn’t the name Helen Brand that was itching away in the back of my consciousness.

It was Sandra Bland.

I had noticed the obvious name play with ‘Cassandra’ the seer who prophesised the fall of Troy, but was cursed to never be believed. It was cute, but obvious, like so much on the surface of the Glass Onion.

The real symbolism hit me like a punch to the gut. The fact that Cassandra went by ‘Andi’ hints at another name and another meaning, but I couldn’t see anything special about ‘Andi’. Then I got it: another shortening of Cassandra is Sandra. Sandra Brand. A name so close to Sandra Bland that I actually misheard it as that on my first watch.

The real Sandra Bland was arrested in what appears to be a bogus traffic stop. Three days later she was found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she had no signs of clinical depression and the cause of death is widely disputed. Video of her arrest makes her treatment seem overly violent and the arrest itself questionable.

What is clear is that she did not have to die.

Protests erupted in response, calling for an inquiry. The legal results fell well short of the mark.

To have Helen Brand, put on the guise of Cassandra Brand, whose murder was framed to look like suicide – a symbolic representation of Sandra Bland – to exact justice on someone who thought themselves to be beyond the law is… Fitting? Apt? Words struggle to express it.


That’s the best I can do. And it is that.

Perhaps some will be shocked by the violent destruction at the end of the film, but no one is harmed. Only things.

I am ever in awe of the restraint black people have shown, when they are constantly asked for civility in the face of such blatent and horrible abuses.

Sandra Bland is dead and she didn’t have to be.

Say her name.

Say it before you mention the Mona Lisa.

I’m glad Glass Onion found a way to honour it forever.

Review: Doctor Who, Series Eleven, Episode Six, ‘The Demons of Punjab’

Demons of Punjab promo image - Yas and her great-grandmother standing in a meadow.

Another beautifully written historical episode. I think the fact that showrunner Chris Chibnall has ensured that people of colour are hired to write historically sensitive episodes like this, and ‘Rosa’, is making a palpable difference. Writer Vinay Patel‘s grandparents were Indian, and his previous credits demonstrate his experience and passion for writing in a way that draws on his roots. It matters that these episodes are not simply written by white people about a white Doctor interacting with these moments, and I think it shows in the quality of the episodes, which come across to me as personal, engaged, and centred on the moment in history and not on the Doctor.

In this episode we see Yaz (Mandip Gill) begging the Doctor to take her back in time to an important moment in her family’s history – the day her grandmother received a watch from her grandfather. We’ve seen similar story premises before, most notably in ‘Father’s Day‘, where the Doctor takes Rose back in time to see her father, and we all learn why that’s generally a bad idea. Some moments are fixed in time, and if you try to change things for those moments, Reapers sweep out of the fabric of the universe to correct things.

With plenty of warnings from the Doctor about not interfering, she eventually agrees. Because the Doctor will always side with curiosity.

Only this time it turns out that they arrive not only at an important moment of family history, but of the history of India and the world. They arrive the day before the Partition of India, when the country was divided in two – creating Pakistan.

I am going to own up and say that this truly significant moment in history is one that I knew nothing about prior to today. Zero. Nadda. As a white girl who attended British and American schools, no one ever told me anything about this. This new season of Doctor Who is once again serving up genuine history lessons – not only for the children who will be watching, but for many adults, too.

When I consider comparing this episode to other Doctor Who historicals – ‘The Romans‘, ‘The Visitation‘, even ‘The Fires of Pompeii‘ – there’s really no contest. The vast majority of Doctor Who historicals are focused on white European and American history, and it tends to focus on the kind of history that kids will be learning about in schools anyway: the Tudors and Stuarts, the Romans, Pompeii, the Moon Landing, the French Revolution. There are exceptions. I wish we had the lost serial ‘Marco Polo‘ – I listened to the 30-minute reconstructed episode about ten years ago… but it’s not the same. It’s also noticeable that it’s an episode focusing on a European encountering Kublai Khan and the Silk Road, and I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to whether it was sensitively handled.

This episode – and ‘Rosa’ – are doing something very different and very good. The Doctor isn’t explaining history to us and history is not simply an entertaining backdrop, focusing on the greatest hits of what English school kids are probably going to hear about anyway.

When the political situation in India is discussed, it is outlined for us by two brothers on opposing political sides. One a Hindu man, Prem, who wants to marry a Muslim woman; the other his brother, who is firmly opposed. When they discuss the British involvement in Indian history, again, it is the brothers who tell us about it and contextualise it from the point of view of the war that Prem fought in, and that his other brother died in. When we learn of the drought and starvation that India endured, it is Yaz’s grandmother and great-grandmother who tell us about it.

We are also introduced to Hindu and Muslim marriage ceremonies and a Hindu holy man. We are shown culture, not merely facts. And we are shown the hope that exists in these times, too. Thoughts about creating new ceremonies and new ways of living together, not simply enmity and despair.

This is a rich episode.

I also loved that the inevitable alien involvement turned out (minor spoilers) not to have any affect on the historical events. Doctor Who is not attempting to rewrite history. It is not inserting the Doctor, or alien species into human conflicts, which is a particularly problematic trope when it comes to white people interpreting things that happened to, or were achieved by, people of colour.

And because I’m sure someone, somewhere will say it: no, it is not the same if aliens turned out to have built Stonehenge or the Doctor started the Great Fire of London. One significant difference is that no one believes that ancient Britons could not have built Stonehenge, whereas a disturbing number of people think that the pyramids of Egypt and the Nazca lines could not have been achieved by the ancient peoples of Egypt and Peru and must have been made by aliens. It is different when science fiction stories posit aliens being responsible for the events that happen to marginalised groups. It matters that the Thijarans are here to witness history, and not make it.

That the Thijarans come to witness the ‘unacknowledged dead’ is so deeply moving, Not only simply as a thought for us all about death and baring witness, but also as a reminder of our role as viewers, and a description of what the writers are doing in bringing this episode to us. Part of remembering history is acknowledging the lives lived and people lost. It matters that we try to witness them as they were – to value them as people in their own right, and not simply facts in history, numbers of dead in terrible conflicts. That we acknowledge them as people who lived and died.

They’re also striking as alien creatures – their architecture and costumes are dark and gothic, but acknowledged to be beautiful by both the Doctor and her companions. They also seem to be inspired by bats – their heads resemble bats, and the CGI effect that shows when the matter transmitter is used recalls the motion of bats flying. I’m curious as to what inspired them, and briefly wondered if they reflected any aspect of Hindu mythology, but my GoogleFu suggests not. I’d welcome comments from anyone more knowledgeable!

I’d also like to give a shout out to the writing for Graham in this episode and the performance by Bradley Walsh. There are several nice, understated moments when he really shows the value of having an older companion in the TARDIS. His understanding of why Yaz’s nani might not want to talk about difficult and traumatic times from her past provides a welcome word of wisdom. I’m loving the way his character is developing to consistently provide quiet insight – an insight that tends towards respecting others whilst embracing the new.

Lastly, I would just like to say that Shane Zaza, who plays Prem, is a very beautiful human being who can assuredly get it, and I would welcome seeing more of him on my screen.

In all seriousness, though, this was an excellent episode that continues this series’s run of presenting groundbreaking, original, and truly moving television.

Micro Review: Doctor Who, Season Eleven, Episode 5 ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’

I have a blinding headache, so this is just a quick note to say I thought this episode was a lot of fun.

Loved the Space General with her robot consort.

Loved the multiple explorations of family dynamics.

Loved the pregnant dude – a million fanfic writers pumped the air!

Hate, hate, hated the line “Boys give birth to boys and girls give birth to girls.” That’s nice – what happened to the rest of us? The non-binary people and intersex folk get shafted again. You thought this was gonna be a nice bit of trans representation – hahaha, no. Please enjoy a slice of gender essentialism in a gender binary sandwich. FUCK whoever wrote that line.

Loved the adorable, vegetarian killer alien. Loved it’s smug little face when its belly was full.

Loved the general aesthetic of the spaceship.

Was confused by the fact that everyone could understand each other but they couldn’t read the signs. If they’re without TARDIS telepathic translation then something is still doing the translation.

Loved the Space General and the Doctor fangirling each other, Loved that the Doctor was smug enough to one-up her on it. Not enough of the Doctor’s massive ego in this incarnation yet.

And that’s about it. I’m off to find some ibuprofen.

Could there be medieval science fiction?

Tumblr user raised a really interesting question:

here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.

not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Knowing me only too well, nickjbarlow subtly suggested that I might have some thoughts on this, with reference to a certain Duchess of Newcastle. I do.

Margaret Cavendish was not medieval, but she was an early modern natural philosopher writing at the dawn of science and she was the first (European) science fiction writer.

The main reason you don’t get medieval science fiction is because there was no science. There was natural philosophy, but the specific way of thinking that we identify as science – the scientific method for acquiring knowledge – simply didn’t exist. (In Europe – it would be very easy to say ‘in the world’ and Europeans do tend to view Europe as the birth place of science, but the truth is I have neither the world history nor the world history of science background to comment on that.)

The early modern period and the birth of science is generally dated to Galileo’s The Assayer, published in 1623.

What was regarded as known prior to this was dominated by the Church. I can’t stress that enough. What Galileo did that was so scandalous was not saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he proved it with the scientific method and said that human beings could gain knowledge via this method and not solely from the Church and the Bible. More: humans could gain knowledge that showed the Church and the Bible to be wrong.

The Royal Society, England’s oldest scientific body, was founded in 1660.

Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World in 1666.

That’s why you can’t really get actual science fiction that dates from the medieval period. The (early) modern period is kind of defined by the shift in thinking that allows people to think scientifically and therefore write science fiction – fiction based on the possibilities enabled by scientific discovery or possible scientific discovery. Margaret Cavendish extrapolated from a whole bunch of scientific theories that she was aware of and posited another Earth (an alien world) attached to our Earth at the North Pole. She posited a different ecology for that different world (aliens and xenobiology) based on the different plants and animals found in the so-called New World (full-disclosure, it’s a bit imperialist; she was a duchess writing in seventeenth century England). She posited new and incredible machines created by the natives of that world. This is hard science fiction. The scienciest science fiction.

Now. Can we coherently imagine Bede or Chaucer writing science fiction and what that tale would be like?

Urgh… it kind of breaks my brain a bit, because you probably have to deviate significantly from how they would have been likely to think. There’s a reason people from these periods who wanted to write speculative fiction wrote Arthurian tales or about fairies and other fantastical folk traditions. Partly it’s that it would have been sacrilegious, but partly it’s that Galileo’s achievement was a massive shift in perspective with regard to how people thought. How we think about the ways in which we can gain knowledge has a knock-on effect for how they think about their entire world, including the ways in which they imagine. The very way we defined the possible and the impossible or fanciful changed. It wasn’t defined by the church anymore – knowledge was democratised, but also systematised.

Not that there hadn’t been other ways of thinking about what was known or unknown. That’s one of the oldest discussions in philosophy and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, whose theology was very different. Logic played a significant role, but logic can’t actually tell you very much about what is known about what we now think of as the physical or material world (although those are themselves are modern and early modern concepts – they wouldn’t mean much to Socrates, for whom true reality was the world of the forms). There was also natural philosophy, which Aristotle was a champion of. A Christianised understanding of Aristotle’s teachings dominated the way we thought about what could be known about the natural world (the world we know via our senses) for over a thousand years.

The dominant way of thinking about learning in the medieval period was scholasticism. Scholasticism was characterised by dialectical reasoning – using inference to resolve contradictions. (Note: scholastics were particularly Christian; there was interesting stuff going on in Islamic and Jewish scholarship at this time, too. I don’t know that it was that different for the purposes of our current question – Al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic philosopher, was saying stuff that Descartes was still drawing on in the 17th century – but it’s notable that Islamic alchemy was well ahead of what English, Christian scholars knew.)

Could this be used to inspire science fiction… I just… it’s just not very scientific, OK? It’s very a priori (before experience) and based on reasoning from things already regarded as ‘known’. The scholastics got into maths and geometry, and they liked Aristotle to the extent that they could make him seem Christian. Which he wasn’t. So a lot of the natural philosophical thought that we can find in Aristotle and see as a precursor to scientific thinking… just wasn’t there. I am not a medieval scholar, and I’m sure that there were monks studying nature and making observations. But by and large they were looking to reason from those observations in ways that harmonised with Church teaching. Some of that thinking is still genuinely interesting. But it’s not scientific.

It’s not interested in creating new knowledge on the basis of our observations of the world in the way that is central to science fiction.

So… to imagine someone writing proto-science fiction in the medieval period, you really need to imagine a heretic. Chaucer would never have written science fiction. I don’t want to poo-poo the thought – it’s exciting! – but if you want to do it, I’d advise reflecting carefully on who might possibly be thinking in such a controversial way at that time.

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Doctor Who: season eleven, episode 4, ‘Arachnids in the UK’

The Doctor stands with Ryan, Graham, and a female scientist outside a high-rise flatThis was a solid episode. It didn’t blow me away the way that the previous three episodes did, but it didn’t have to. Not every episode has to deal with issues as prescient and historically significant as ‘Rosa’, and we shouldn’t expect them to.

Besides which, it’s worth remembering that even if this didn’t blow my mind, 35 year old women are not the primary target audience of Doctor Who. Six year-olds are. And people are most likely to develop phobias between the ages of four to eight years.

While sometimes phobias can be caused by a traumatic experience, there’s thought to be a genetic element that affects common, simple phobias – like the fear of spiders and the fear of heights. This is often misleadingly referred to as ‘ancestral memory’. Arachnophobes don’t ‘remember’ a bad experience an ancestor had with a spider, but it was likely a genetic advantage to be sensitive to, say, the distinctive movements of spiders, and to respond with the fight or flight reaction. Such a response is irrational in the UK, where there are no native poisonous spiders, but less irrational in Africa, or indeed most continental landmasses.

Fear of spiders in the UK is one of the least rational fears you can have, and yet it persists. I should know. I started being afraid of spiders at the age of six.

Nearly 30 years later, the phobia persists, yet I was not particularly scared by this episode. That’s not the episode’s fault. I’m rarely scared by TV or film when I watch it by myself. My Twitter feed was full of grown adults who certainly seemed to be watching through their fingers. But even if adults weren’t scared, this had all the elements to make a lasting impression on a child.

Because spiders are strange. What they do to flies is usually no danger to most of us, but if they were large enough to subdue humans and wrap them in their web cocoons, that would be pretty fucking scary. To be rendered helpless and immobile and enclosed in a claustrophobia-inducing manner, and to be kept in a spider’s larder as something’s food.

It’s a perceptual shift. Very little truly threatens human beings in nature. Very little eats us as a matter of course. Many things could eat us. It’s quite rational to be afraid of a lion, for instance. But those things are rarely a realistic threat for most humans in most places. Consequently, one’s first encounter with the suggestion that people could be food tends to leave a lasting impression.

For me, it was giant spiders. Two years before I developed the phobia of normal spiders, I saw the second episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. I can’t say that I fully understood the plot. For years it lived in my memory sort of merged with Logan’s Run, and it was a long while before I understood that the two things were different.

But I remembered the spiders.

The spider-like Ovions that cocooned unwary gamblers on Carillon and kept them as food.

A few years after that my teacher read an abbreviated version of The Hobbit to my class. Again, the Great Spiders of Mirkwood stuck in my memory as uniquely horrible. Especially when the party is cocooned. Those spiders were going to feed on them. Suck them dry as they hung, swaddled in webbing and helpless.

I think there will be a few young minds who will be forming similar memories tonight. So the fact that it didn’t really scare me doesn’t matter. It will have scared the children – which Doctor Who should if it possible can. *evil laugh*

As a kind of sop to the ‘should we really be making children scared of spiders’ worry, we see that towards the end of the story the Doctor is reluctant to kill them and says of the mother spider ‘She’s probably more scared of us than we are of her’. As an arachnophobe, I can’t tell you how tired I am of that particular phrase. I understand why they included it, but it’s honestly so beside the point. Phobias are not rational.

I do not believe the spiders in my house can harm me. I am quite worried about how easily I can harm them – in fact, my visceral reaction to dead spiders is actually worse than my reaction to live ones. Phobias are not rational.

Yes, two pieces of media featuring giant spiders left a lasting impression on me from childhood, but they had nothing to do with my phobia. It was a couple of years after seeing Battlestar Galactica that I became afraid of spiders (and heights – it happened at around the same time) and a couple of years after that before I was read The Hobbit. There’s no sign at all that scary giant spiders had anything to do with my becoming afraid of little spiders.

It’s almost certainly a genetic fear. No amount of people telling me the spiders are more scared of me than I am of them is going to change it. But on the plus side, I doubt the BBC created millions of arachnophobes tonight. It’s either going to happen anyway or it won’t.

Overall, this episode solidly delivered on a classic concept. It wasn’t particularly original, but if didn’t have to be – it will be new to the six year-olds watching today.

Beyond the central conceit (which really is just Big Spiders Are Scary) there were a few other nice notes.

Chris Noth makes for a perfectly loathable villain, as the slimy big businessman with his sights on the US presidency. I know him best as Alicia Florrick’s inferior half in The Good Wife, where he plays a corrupt politician and philanderer; so it’s a familiar fit, and he did a creditable job portraying a man whose money and confidence has blinded him to morality.

I was a little confused by their positioning him as a man who hates Trump while characterising him as… a man very much like Trump. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from this, and I’m worried that it sends the message of ‘Both sides are as bad as each other; all politicians are equally loathsome’. That is not a message we need in these times, where the last week has seen a Nazi shooting in a synagogue and bombs sent to Trump’s political enemies by a fanatic Trump supporter. People are literally equating these actions to members of the Trump administration being yelled at in restaurants.

Some politicians are much worse than others. Both sides are not the same. I want to find another reading for this, but I’m baffled as to how we are supposed to see it any other way.

Still, Noth does a good job in a familiar role.

We also have some lovely notes of family togetherness as the Doctor is delighted to be invited to ‘Tea at Yaz’s’. I liked that Yaz’s family kept asking whether Yaz was  in a relationship with any of the members of the group, and Yaz firmly answered ‘No’. While I see the possibility of a relationship slowly developing between her and Ryan, I like that we’ve not immediately jumped there. There’s been far too much of ‘All women must be in relationships’ in the Doctor Who of recent years, and this is a pleasant change of tone. We get both the message that men and women can just be friends and the opportunity to note that Yaz’s family are entirely comfortable with the idea that she might like women (ie the Doctor).

Meanwhile, there are some really touching scenes as Graham goes home and remembers Grace – his wife and Ryan’s grandmother. I thought this was really nicely handled. The only thing that felt off about it was that Ryan doesn’t seem to feel the same kind of grief and desire to go home. Of course, the plot needs to keep rolling, but Grace seems to have performed a motherly role for Ryan, and it’s weird to see Graham’s grief taken so seriously while Ryan seems to brush it off and get on with adventure.

Overall, a solid episode. I wasn’t blown away, but I don’t need to be. This one was for the kids, and that’s OK.

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Doctor Who: series eleven, episode two, ‘Rosa’

An image of Rosa Parks sitting on a bench, from Doctor Who.This week Doctor Who tackled a pivotal moment in American history with heartbreaking resonance for current events. With white supremacy on the rise again, choosing to have the first historical episode in this season focus on Rosa Parks is bold and important.

Headed by the first female Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), this season has shown itself as making a bold stand for women in the present and the future already. It was always going to be significant which women they chose to celebrate from the past. It would have been very easy to celebrate white women. And even though we have a female Doctor, we’re still on our thirteenth white Doctor. There have been calls for a person of colour to play the Doctor for as long as there have been calls for a woman to play the role – possibly longer. And there was no reason that the call to cast a female Doctor could not have been answered by one of the many capable women of colour who I’m sure would have jumped at the role.

So it’s important that we’re not, for instance, revisiting Elizabeth I, or taking in Catherine the Great, or even one of the suffragettes – many of whom were only fighting for the emancipation of white women. We are instead introduced to a key figure from the civil rights movement whose refusal to move from the ‘white’ section of a bus sparked a wave of protests that helped end segregation in the US.

It’s important, too, that this is a TARDIS with two people of colour as companions. We aren’t seeing this from a completely white perspective. While it’s good that the Doctor recognises Rosa’s significance, that recognition isn’t nearly as interesting as her resonance for Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill), the Doctor’s black and South Asian companions.

It is a strength of the episode that much of the history of this period is recounted by Ryan and Yas, and not the Doctor. And even when some of the explanation comes from Graham (Bradley Walsh), her white companion, he attribute’s his knowledge to Ryan’s grandmother.

We also get to see Ryan and Yas discussing their own feelings of powerlessness – the warnings their parents gave them not to fight back because it is just too risky. It is important that white children watching the show know that in our supposedly enlightened world their friends may not feel as safe and easy – that they have a privilege in not experiencing that fear as a part of daily life.

I have only recently come to understand this in the past few years. I grew up in the 80s and 90s thinking that racism was mostly a thing of the past. That ignorance is a part of how it has been possible for the far right to rise again, targeting people of colour. That ignorance stood in the way of understanding and solidarity. We need to know the truth of what is happening to others when we feel safe. Privilege is blindness. Dismantling that blindness often involves coming to recognise your own complicity in accepting ignorance and not questioning more.

But it’s also important to recognise the role that this representation plays for the children of colour watching this episode, too. That their experiences are validated. That they feel a part of a community with common struggles that extends beyond their own front door. That these struggles are shown as a part of something as iconically British and widely viewed as Doctor Who.

From this perspective, I’d like to encourage you to seek out the reviews of people of colour and not just read my thoughts on the matter. I am likely blind to both problems and successes in this episode, and I can only draw on empathy to guess what this episode must mean to people of colour, not direct experience.

For what it is worth, the episode seemed by and large sensitive and skillfully constructed.

The racist 1950s white folk are shot in such a way as to feel very much like sinister Doctor Who monsters who might pop out of the darkness at any moment to pounce on our heroes. There’s even a creepy musical theme that plays to make us feel like they’re always watching, and the camera often views the Doctor and her companions from the shadows – just as it would if there were gribblies waiting to jump out.

There are gribblies here. They are the white people.

And the interactions with 1950s American white people made for uncomfortable watching. I’m always less comfortable with episodes that go back in time because there’s always a bit of second-hand embarrassment as modern characters get the behaviour and dress of the time wrong. But the discomfort here wasn’t that jarring kind of embarrassment humour. The discomfort that arose from modern people interacting with historical characters was not (mostly) played for laughs. Ryan doesn’t ‘get it wrong’ when he tries to hand a fallen glove back to a white woman. He is doing nothing wrong. It is the racist reaction of the white people that makes the scene uncomfortable.

It’s a kind of discomfort I should have to sit through. White people are fragile when it comes to race. Even where we believe in equality, we don’t want to talk about it. We’d prefer to pretend that everything is fine and everyone is already equal. But being ‘colour blind‘ is its own sort of racism. It is not fair to the struggles that people of colour face to insist that their experiences are the same as ours – that we don’t see the difference. It is harder for them. White people make it harder. Denying that you can see any difference is not a good thing, and it leads to one being insufficiently critical of one’s own blindspots.

So it’s uncomfortable to watch Ryan face the prospect of death and imprisonment for a kind act. It’s uncomfortable to watch black and Asian characters be refused service. It’s uncomfortable to witness Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) being told to move to the back of the bus because of the colour of her skin.

It’s uncomfortable, and it’s good that white people are being asked to live with that discomfort.

But it’s also important that this is not just a tale of terrible things that happened and are happening to passive black people. We are told directly that Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman who refused to move; we see her as part of a movement. I particularly like that Ryan, as the only black companion, is also the only companion who gets to meet Martin Luther King. He deserves that honour and it is good that it’s not overshadowed by what would have been the Doctor’s delight, or Graham’s, or even Yas’s. Other people of colour can identify with these struggles, but they are also not a homogenous group. Black people in the US suffered a particularly fraught history, and this is their story, Rosa is their hero. As a black British man, Ryan has a different and much closer relationship to those struggles than the other characters.

I also liked that there was a brief acknowledgement that though this is a particularly American moment in history, Britain cannot claim any kind of superiority over race relations. In addition to Yas and Ryan discussing their experiences of racism at home, a throw-away line from the Doctor makes a gesture towards acknowledging British imperialism: “You know us Brits,” she says, “very imperious.”

It’s not really enough, but they cover a lot of ground in this episode, and perhaps it would have been too distracting to delve deeply into British historical racism as well.

Similarly, I watched hoping that there would be some acknowledgement that Rosa Parks was not the first black person to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa. But Rosa was a more palatable hero. Claudette was 15 – a teenager – and seen as less reliable. She also noted of Rosa Parks: “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class… She fit that profile.” (Source.) I’m always a bit bristled when I see a woman written out of history, but again, it was perhaps too much detail for what had to be a very tight episode and cover a lot of ground.

We do see Rosa as an activist, though, and that she did not work alone. And I was really glad that Ryan got to play a significant role in standing up against the white supremacist baddie. This was not simply the Doctor acting as a white saviour and co-opting black history. It isn’t even entirely her plan that sets history back on track – all the companions contribute.

That said, the Doctor, Graham, and Yas become a necessary part of history by taking up seats on the bus – an issue that is directly discussed as Yas notes that they must have always had to be there to make this moment in history happen. That is not entirely cool. That is white people (and Yas, who is not white, but is shown to be treated differently to black people on buses) making this moment in black history possible. I… would have preferred if the writers hadn’t gone down that route, or at least made it less explicit.

It is, of course, a familiar Doctor Who trope for the Doctor and her companions to become a part of history and to turn out to have been necessary all along. It’s heavily implied that the Doctor was integral to such moments as Nero’s burning of Rome and the Great Fire of London. But there’s something very different about the morally questionable First Doctor giggling about the fact that he might have had a hand in Rome burning and a modern, progressively framed Doctor inserting herself into recent history that was an important moment of black triumph.

Overall, I do think the episode appropriately centred black characters and people of colour, and Rosa’s moment is appropriately tense and powerful. It would be remiss of me not to note these qualms, but ultimately I’m not in a position to say whether it really marred the episode. It does feel like the most important historical episode I can think of. In the spirit of genuine educational messages that this season seems to be going for, the episode takes an important moment in history that is relevant to our current political climate and, well, educates. Historian, EK, on Twitter was crowing with delight:

Children are not only being given an account of an important moment, but shown part of how historians do research, as the Doctor and her companions piece together Rosa Parks’ day from bus time tables and newspapers.

Where the previous two episodes gave us a classic Doctor Who aliens-on-Earth encounter and a dystopic-future encounter, tonight’s episode was a classic Doctor Who historical – mixing history with adventure and a powerful social message.

This season continues to prove its classic credentials while offering something that stretches us and takes the format further. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Doctor Who: series eleven, episode two, ‘The Ghost Monument’

I am so freakin’ EXCITE about the new Doctor Who.

The writers seem to be going out of their way to establish both their sci-fi and Whovian credentials, and I don’t mind one bit. This week was a fast-packed action adventure that riffed off Alien, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hunger Games, Firefly/Serenity, Call of Duty, and probably half a dozen other things I didn’t notice.

I am in geeky glee. Squee, as we would have called it in the naughties.

We start off with our heroes being scooped up from the vacuum of space, just as the Heart of Gold rescues Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent after they are expelled from an airlock in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. The Doctor’s companions emerge from medical pods reminiscent of the cryo-stasis pods shown at the beginning of Alien. A strong link? No, but coupled together with the plethora of other sci-fi references, I’m sure it is intentional.

Ryan runs away from a crashing spaceship.The companions are split between two space ships that are in a race. The Race. The last Race. And the pilots of those space ships are the last survivors of this very dangerous inter-planetary quest. One of the ships is clearly a piece of junk, owned by a taciturn fellow who swears that it is the best ship in the galaxy. There are definite notes of Millennium Falcon as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yas (Mandip Gill) lift panels in the floor to try to fix this hunk of junk. As it goes in for a crash landing I get definite notes of the Serenity, the spaceship from Firefly… and the film Serenity. It’s not one simple reference, but an appeal to a trope of dodgy space-faring misanthropes and the ships they love. The appeal to the archetype will warm the hearts of older fans and introduce it to new ones.

A screenshot from Doctor Who that strongly evokes Mad Max: Fury Road.Meanwhile, the pilot of the other ship is striking a definite Fury Road chord. In this shot the goggles and wild hair and dirt-smeared bandana combined with the vertical lines drawn by the chains the men behind her are clinging to cannot help but evoke Mad Max and the War Boys, and the presence of a strong female character in this context immediately draws connection between the female pilot, Imperator Furiosa, and the female Doctor. Women are powerful forces in this episode, although it is worth noting that they are again notably out-numbered by men, and the show really needs to address this.

Ilin confronts the Doctor.Moving on, we learn the nature of the Race from a holographic projection who performs a similar function to Seneca Crane from The Hunger Games and the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. He is richly robed and carefully styled as he directs others to compete to their deaths. Although forbidden to directly kill one another, it’s clear that many have died along the way, and only one person is supposed to make it to ‘The Ghost Monument’ – the end of the race.

Again, the most obvious visual references are to The Hunger Games and Thor: Ragnarok, but this type of premise has a long tradition in science fiction, not just in explicitly violent iterations, such as Battle Royale and The Running Man, but also in perhaps the most direct comparison: The Long Walk, in which competitors simply have to outlast each other in a walking race – none directly killing each other, but all facing the prospect of death from exhuastion. It is worth noting, though, that all these examples are of spectator sports – it’s not obvious that anyone apart from Ilin, the games master, is watching. I think we’re expected to assume that they are, but this could have been more clearly articulated.

We also learn that the monument that marks the end of the race is (this isn’t a spoiler as we learn it very early on) the TARDIS. A little predictable, but it makes for a nice incentive for all our characters to keep going in the same direction.

The episode continues to hit us with visual references, with shoot-outs that reference Call of Duty (hat-tip to @richmondbridge for pointing that out); a green and black computerised map that, again, feels very like the Alien radar blips that track the alien hunting the crew of the Nostromo; and of course, Star Wars – another franchise with a long history that has taken a stand by centring female characters in recent years. It’s hard to see any desert planet and not think of Tatooine, and several moments seem to deliberately call this out, such as the spaceship that cuts a trail across the clear blue sky, which recalls the escape pod that R2D2 and C3PO escape in, and the fact that this desert planet has three suns. Of course, Tatooine has two suns, but it’s close enough that it was inexorably brought to my mind by the context.

The TARDIS set on a slight rise in a barren landscape.There are also several call-backs to previous Doctors – again, establishing the Thirteenth Doctor’s credentials. She uses a Venusian Aikido move (the favoured martial art of the Third Doctor), and has a TARDIS that dispenses biscuits (the Eleventh Doctor famously squared off with a Dalek using only a jammy dodger). I am also fairly sure that the first exterior image we see of the TARDIS directly echoes one of the iconic early shots from either the first or second episode in 1963. I don’t have my copy of those episodes to hand and my GoogleFu has failed me, but I will update if I can confirm.

There’s also a direct call-back in that the words of the Remnants, who seem to see into the Doctor’s mind and mention a Timeless Child that the Doctor has abandoned and others have forgotten. This could either be Susan (the Doctor’s granddaughter and the original Unearthly Child) or Jenny, the Doctor’s child via DNA extraction, who the Tenth Doctor left for dead and we know to have regenerated. Either possibility has me very excited, especially as both are Time Ladies themselves and would be a great addition to this female Doctor Who – again, cementing her roots in Whovian history.

This episode is using the past not just as a reference point, but to drive us forward. It makes me feel like this is a season that is going to be both returning to roots and taking us somewhere new.

The fast-paced chase through ruined cities and desert lands kept me gripped throughout and once again the monsters were suitably scary. I loved the creepy cloth monsters and loved more that the Doctor was able to defeat them with scientific knowledge of the properties of acetylene. She also defeats robot guards with an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) – something she explains to the audience, again sneaking in a little science lesson in just the way I kind of think Doctor Who always should if it possibly can. Getting kids excited about science and history in an action-packed, alien-filled science-fiction plot that somehow involves a lot of running. That’s the Doctor Who I know and love, and a Doctor Who I am very much ready to see more of.

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Doctor Who: series eleven, episode one, ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’

Doctor Who promo Yup. That’ll do.

The first episode of series eleven of new Doctor Who  (New Who) just aired. Theoretically controversial, but actually massively supported, the most striking feature of this episode is that it marks the debut of the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.

The actor fills the variably-sized shoes of twelve or thirteen (or fourteen – or even more, depending on what record you’re checking) white men: William Hartnell,Patrick Troughton Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGannChristopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a massive Whovian, with affection for both Classic and New Who, but I stopped reviewing the show a heart-breaking five years ago because the sexism just got too much. It takes too much out of a person to review week to week a show you have invested so much into that starts regularly making women the butt of jokes (from the Doctor’s mouth, no less), spouts gender essentialist nonsense, and frames even ‘strong’ women as obsessed with men, and marriage, and the Doctor as the kind of attachment-avoident smug git that former showrunner Steven Moffat thinks drives women wild. We know this not only from textual analysis, but because he’s been quite vocal in his sexism. If you want to know more, I recommend Sophia McDougall’s well-cited blog post on Capes, Wedding Dresses and Steven Moffat – I don’t want to focus any more on the depressing past here.

Because the long-awaited episode that aired tonight was brilliant.

Whittaker was vibrant and excited and weird and spontaneous in just the way we expect the Doctor to be. As a fan with a specific fondness for regeneration episodes, I loved that she couldn’t remember her own name. I loved that she was ill and incapacitated for portions of the experience. I loved that she explained what was happening as well as she could to her companions as she went along, while still being just cryptic enough.

I loved that we avoided the awful, awful, awful ‘goodness! look! boobs!’ jokes that Moffat shoe-horned into ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ in the 1999 Red Nose Day spoof in which Joanna Lumley briefly became the Doctor. I know a lot of men who liked that spoof, but few women. It seared in a generation’s mind the idea that any female incarnation of the Doctor would be instantly sexualised – her secondary sexual characteristics becoming the most important thing about her change.

It didn’t happen.

The Doctor doesn’t realise she is a woman at first – she’s oblivious to her physicality in a way quite in keeping with previous incarnations, who have variously rejected the entire idea that their face belongs to them (the Third Doctor); started immediately unpicking the trappings of their previous incarnation (the Fifth Doctor, famously unspooling the Scarf); or noted they have different teeth, before simply getting on with things. She asks whether it suits her – crucially, not whether she looks good or pretty, but just if her appearance seems appropriate for her – and then does exactly that: she gets on with things. It doesn’t matter. She’s waiting to find out who she’s going to be, and that doesn’t have anything to do with her sex.

Moreover, in the scene where she changes her clothes (delightfully, in a charity shop) she indicates she’s worn women’s clothes before. We can read into that a certain fluidity in approaching gender, even though the show’s canon suggests the Doctor has not had a female incarnation before.

Side note: I’ve seen some people start hesitantly referring to the Doctor as ‘they’. I’m referring to her as ‘she’ because this seems to be what she prefers. I’m a non-binary person and I prefer ‘she’ even though I’m agender. Some non-binary people prefer ‘they’, ‘zie’, or other gender-neutral pronouns, but there’s no single right way to do it. That said, I think the Doctor most closely aligns to genderfluid. She uses male pronouns when in a male body and female pronouns when in a female body. This isn’t quite how it is for those of us who are stuck in one body and are genderfluid, but it’s the closest analogy. Above all, in matters of gender: be led by the person you are speaking to or about. The Doctor uses female pronouns now, but if you were talking about her fourth incarnation, you’d say that he wore a scarf.

On to the show. I won’t dwell too much on the plot, as I want to avoid spoilers, but I’d say it gave everything you’d want from a Doctor Who episode. There were new and original aliens, even while there were nods to science fiction classics. There are little notes of Predator vs Alien (shut it, you, it’s a fun film), the 2016 female Ghostbusters (Holtzmann fans will enjoy a goggles-related nod), and even an earlier Doctor Who episode (I can’t be the only one reminded of the scribble monster from ‘Fear Her’).

There were also a good few scares that would have had me hiding behind the sofa as a kid. It’s easy to forget, watching as an adult, that Doctor Who is a kind of sci-fi horror for kids. Two things any good episode of Doctor Who should deliver if it possibly can are scare jumps and the kind of horror that gets in your brain and makes you think about possibilities you never considered before. I think this episode has both in spades. There were a number of deaths that reminded me of Doctor Who deaths that really affected me as a child – little moments that stayed with me and provided both a bone-chilling and thought-provoking fear. That people with families can lose everything in a moment, and their loved ones might never know what happened.

I also loved the diversity. There still were more men than women – boo! But the main cast was exactly equal. It also had great racial diversity. It felt plausibly like inner Sheffield, and not the white-washed version of an inner city we usually see on TV.

I was less keen on the Doctor getting the sonic screwdriver back and declaring that it’s not really a screwdriver, it’s a tool for nearly everything. This has always been a bugbear of mine. I know the Doctor lies, and that gets us out of a world of continuity errors, but in the old days the sonic screwdriver was just one of the Doctor’s many tools – his favourite, but not the only one – but I liked the fact that the Third Doctor said it literally could only open and close things. That limitation was narratively interesting. And while I think destroying the screwdriver entirely is unnecessary (as happened in the Fifth Doctor’s era because it was too much of a get-out-of-jail-free card), sticking to a few rules about its limitations is really helpful for dramatic tension.

Honestly, if the screwdriver is just a wand of do-anything, it’s boring.

If it being sonic is key (like when the Tenth Doctor combines it with a speaker to disable an alien with sound) or if being a screwdriver is key (opening hard to open things, fixing things) that’s interesting! That’s thought-provoking. That’s science fiction. And I like Doctor Who when it’s trying to be science fiction and inspire kids to have scientific and mechanical curiosity. I know some people say that it’s a fantasy TV show, but I don’t think it used to be, and as much as I love fantasy, some honest sci-fi is good for kids.

I also wasn’t a fan on the Doctor choosing a nickname on behalf of one of her companions or continually getting the alien’s name wrong because it was difficult for her to pronounce and she found it funny to insult him that way. That’s a straight up bullying tactic and it’s racist. How many kids are gonna go away and start garbling people’s names in school because they don’t sound ‘British’ enough and laughing at the other other kid when they get frustrated. The Doctor did it, so it’s fine, right?

No. It’s not. It’s bullying. And it’s racist.

And it is really not OK to choose to shorten someone else’s name without permission, wither. Ryan calling Yasmin ‘Yas’ is fine because they are old friends. The Doctor deciding to do this without even knowing Yasmin likes being called ‘Yas’ is a dick move, and again, not something we should be recommending to kids.

But these are minor complaints in an overwhelmingly positive experience. As well as everything mentioned above, I’m super-pumped that an older black lady got to have a heroic story arc, and her grandson was shown giving her real respect. And we get a companion struggling with dyspraxia – I was really glad that this was not magically cured by determination! It sends a really great message that people with learning difficulties can have genuine problems that can’t be wished away without being lesser as people – the message is about having hope and drawing strength from your support network, not about just trying to find a way to be cured or be ‘normal’.

Overall, this was a great episode, with action and touching family moments and cool-looking aliens (and gross-looking aliens) and it really delivered on what I want from a Doctor Who story. New showrunner, Chris Chibnall, shows that passion and imagination he brought to Torchwood along with the maturity of outlook he demonstrated on other projects, like Broadchurch. He handled this crucial transition episode remarkably well.

I’m excited about where this is going to go. The preview of the season that followed the episode shows an exciting mix of international stars (like Alan Cumming!) and new faces, and a continuing range of diversity for race and gender. I think it’s going to be amazing.

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Review: The Good Place

The Good PlaceI have a new favourite show. It’s both smart and easily digestible, and it’s refreshingly diverse and unproblematic.

It’s called The Good Place, and each episode explicitly explores moral theories in the context of wacky, upbeat sitcom hi-jinks. I never expected that such a show might exist. I AM SO EXCITE.

The Premise

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the Good Place. She has died, and Michael (the Architect of the Good Place, played by Ted Dansen) introduces her to the afterlife. She’s one of a tiny percentage of people whose good works were so astounding that for them the afterlife will be spent in a neighbourhood perfectly constructed to suit the tastes of the other Very Good People who have managed to get in. This Good Place is not the only Good Place, but it’s the one perfectly suited to them.

It’s paradise! There’s only one problem: Eleanor Shellstrop does not belong. She is not the Eleanor Shellstrop who was a human rights lawyer defending people on death row. She was, in fact, not a particularly nice person. Eleanor was not evil. She committed no serious crimes. But she was petty and selfish and you would not have wanted to be her friend.

Worse: Eleanor’s presence has thrown the Good Place out of balance. Following a neighbourhood welcome party where she got drunk, insulted the host, and ate more than her fair share of the shrimp, the Good Place is beset by chaos. Something is clearly wrong, and Eleanor knows it is her.

Chidi Anagonye

Chidi Anagonye

Worried, she turns to her Soulmate for help (everyone in the Good Place has a Soulmate), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and he sets about teaching Eleanor not just to behave well but to be a better person. A person who might belong in the Good Place, thus preventing further choas and potential discovery.

For discovery would mean eternal damnation: being sent to the Bad Place.

Why I like it

The philosophy

The Good Place source material

The Good Place source material

As long-time readers will know, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher of epistemology, metaphysics, and mind, rather than ethics, but I have taught ethics. I have studied and/or taught all of the texts referenced in the show. And when I say referenced, I don’t mean subtly. I don’t mean implied or in passing. I mean Chidi literally teaches Eleanor these texts and we see the books and they are quoted from.

They hit a lot of the classics you do at A level or as a first year undergraduate: Aristotle, Kant’s Goundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Hume, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. As a utilitarian, I get kinda narked by the fact that they only discuss the easily dismissed act utilitarianism, rather than the more robust rule utilitarianism Mill prescribes in On Liberty, and I have no idea why they seem to think Scanlon’s contractualism is All That (it is not). I’d also like to see more female philosophers, and was glad to see they worked Phillipa Foot’s seminal text in for the season 2. But as a brief introduction to some of the key theories in ethics, it’s not bad.

And I suppose that’s the thing. They pack an awful lot of clear explanation into 20min episodes of easily digestible lighthearted situation comedy about the afterlife. That’s an achievement, and not something I have ever seen attempted anywhere else. This show has guts, and it’s paying off.

The diversity

While it must be conceded that the main character, Eleanor, is white, and all the promos are off-puttingly white, focusing on the two white characters from the main cast, this is actually one of the most diverse casts I have ever seen on telly. As well as Chidi, the main cast also includes Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who is South Asian, and Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto), who is East Asian.

Not to mention a supporting cast that is not only racially diverse, but diverse in body type. While it’s hard to deny that all of the main cast are all beautiful people in a reasonably standard Hollywood fashion, the people of the Good Place are by no means all super-skinny Hollywood starlets, and this is never seen as a bad thing. There is one instance where Eleanor comments on someone’s weight, and Chidi immediately calls her out for it. After all, it is implied, good people don’t judge people based on their weight.

We also see an equal number of men and women, and I’m fucking CHEERING for a female lead, jumping all over sexist dingbats who think women aren’t funny.

Moreover, we see diverse sexuality. Eleanor is openly and unabashedly bisexual – a sadly rare thing for a main character. She frequently comments on Tahani’s attractiveness, and it’s made clear that she has sexual interest, this isn’t just about jealousy or recognising another woman’s beauty. Recurring character, Gunnar, appears to have a male Soulmate, and in Season 2 Michael confirms that not all Soulmates are sexual partners – affirming that asexual and platonic love are also valid. I would like to see more in this vain. Except for a brief hint in Season 2, we never really see Eleanor and Tahani in a relationship (though that hint indicates that Tahani is also probably bi), so all the main character relationships thus far are male/female*. But overall the representation is positive.

I also like that the representation avoids stereotypes. Tahani is unambiguously and frequently described and treated as more beautiful than the white woman, Eleanor. An important fact in a world where skin bleaching is still routine as paler skin is eroneously treated as a beauty ideal. Chidi is the intellectual who cannot make decisions and abhors violence, eschewing the stereotyping of black men as thugs. And Jianyu/Jason’s character is the epitome of stereotype breaking. This is a minor spoiler, but I can’t discuss it otherwise and it’s great. The character is originally introduced to us as very stereotypical: the East Asian guy is the wise Jianyu, a monk who has taken a vow of silence. But Jianyu reveals to Eleanor in the third episode that he also doesn’t belong. He isn’t Jianyu, he’s Jason Mandoza, a stoner failed DJ from Florida. We are directly confronted with racial assumptions and have them shown to be false – a fact that Jason even gets to explicitly comment on: “Everyone here seems to think that I’m Taiwanese; I’m Filipino. That’s racist.” Particular credit goes to Manny Jacinto, who is supremely convincing in both roles, and thoroughly sells Jason as not particularly bright, but thoroughly engaging. It would be very easy to bring his lines straight into ham territory, but Jacinto conveys a genuineness in Jason that’s endearing instead.

Janet (D'Arcy Carden)

Janet (D’Arcy Carden)

My one minor note of uncertainty lies in Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the almost omnipotent AI who runs the Good Place, and whom Jason forms a romance with. I love the idea of human/AI romance, but I am done, done, totally done with dudes getting off with hot AIs that happen to look like hot women. This is lampshaded a little by Eleanor, who (unable to remember Janet’s name) refers to her as “Busty Alexa” and “Robot Slave Lady”. That said, Janet is always dressed like a particularly modest air stewardess, and while I’m kinda annoyed by the ridiculousness of having the avatar of an AI mainframe wear heels, they are at least small heels. Janet is never dressed in a sexually provocative way. Plus, Jason and Janet’s relationship is based solidly on the fact that both have been kind and comforting to each other when others were not.

The comedy

As well as all the intellectually pleasing aspects of The Good Place, it’s just plain FUN. It’s silly, it’s a little surreal, and it’s not offensive. I was sold on this programme the moment Janet played an audio-clip of the Bad Place and admidst the screaming you hear a woman shout: “That bear has two mouths!” Because a bear with one mouth is just not scary enough. And all this mixed in with a genuinely engaging plot and an ensemble cast of deeply charismatic and funny characters.

Safely hand your brain over to The Good Place and be at peace for a while. I can’t recommend it enough. You can find The Good Place on Netflix.

*Ish. As she reminds us frequently, Janet is not a girl.

Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

The Ghostbusters team in from of the Ghostbuster's car

I ain’t afraid of no ghost!

Ghostbusters is officially the most fun I have had in the cinema for a very long time. It may not be the cinematic masterpiece that was Fury Road last summer, but it is hilarious from start to finish whilst also delivering on an appropriate amount of genuinely scary ghosts.

I was a real fan of the original Ghostbusters films and I am not generally in favour of remaking great films just to rake in more cash, but ever since the success of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot I have been wholeheartedly in favour of films and TV that take something I loved from my childhood and update it in genuinely interesting ways – specifically, to make it relevant to a new generation and to improve on things that now stand out as problematic in the originals. So when I heard that this was to be an all female Ghostbusters, I was interested. As much as I have great affection for the original films, they were uncomfortably misogynistic. The fact that we are expected to root for Venkman’s (Bill Murray) stalking of and aggressive sexual advances towards Dana Barrett (Sigourny Weaver) – his client – and find Louis Tully’s (Rick Moranis) stalking amusing… this is deeply disturbing to the 2016 eye, and extremely uncomfortable for a female viewer.

Rebooting this classic film franchise in a way women can enjoy without these unpleasant undertones was a stroke of genius.

Against the Backlash

Naturally, the film has attracted a lot of sexist backlash. I won’t dwell on the attention-seeking misogynists who have tried to tank the film before it even came out, they’ve had quite enough attention as it is. But I will say that I’m inclined to agree with @Lumetian on Twitter, that ‘MRA Horror is my new favourite genre‘. Whilst not actually a genre in itself – films like the dramatic cinematic masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the science-fiction comedy, Ghostbusters, really have very little to do with one another in terms of genre – the sheer levels of horror exhibited by so-called ‘Men’s Right’s Activists’ at the very existence of these films is turning out to be a very good indication that the film will be a quality piece of entertainment.

As a fan, I was excited for more Ghostbusters; as a woman, I was excited that the wrongs of the past were to be corrected and that I would get to watch a science-fiction/fantasy film where the heroes were all women.

Race and Representation

Which is not to say that I had no reservations – as others have pointed out, it’s a very white cast and whilst the three white women on the team are all scientists, the black woman, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is a working class woman who, from the trailer, was presented as having no professional skills beyond wise-cracking street sense. Note, however, that Leslie Jones herself defended this on Twitter, noting that an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worker had contacted her to thank her for representing people who perform this kind of role. Privilege and oppression remain multi-sided, and representing working class people as heroes is also important. The issue comes from the fact that white people are more likely to be represented as professionals and scientists, whereas black people are far more likely to have roles as working class people. Why couldn’t one of the white women have been an MTA worker, after all?

I was pleased to see that the role did have a lot more to it than appeared from the trailer. Patty shows herself to be very knowledgeable about the city, and not simply in a ‘streetwise’ manner, but in actually knowing a lot of historical information that becomes crucial to fighting ghosts and solving the film’s central enigma. This doesn’t completely erase the problematic aspects, and as a white person myself I’m not best placed to comment on whether Patty’s character constitutes ‘good’ representation or not, but overall my feeling is that she’s better than no representation at all and I appreciated that the film promoted a wonderful comedian like Leslie Jones.

It’s worth noting that Leslie was slighted by the fashion world, where designers refused to provide her with gowns for the red carpet simply because she isn’t a ‘sample’ size. After she called this out on Twitter, designer Christian Siriano stepped up to the plate and provided her with a stunning red gown. Without doubt, it is Leslie and Christian who have come out of this looking best, but as a rising star she should never have had to be in this situation. Basically, I mostly just want to raise pom-poms for Leslie right now.

Representation of Men

In the run up to the release there was a lot of noise made about the prospect of supposed ‘reverse sexism’. It’s feminism 101 to point out that sexism is institutional, widespread, and historic – it simply isn’t possible for men to experience ‘reverse’ sexism against their background of massive privilege. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that individual men cannot be objectified, misrepresented, or stereotyped in ways that hurt both men and women. Prejudice is never good.

I’ve addressed elsewhere the question of whether Chris Hemsworth‘s character, Kevin, is shown as objectified in the trailer. The answer, by the way, is no. Objectification is the reduction of a person or character to an object: lack of characterisation, focus on body-parts rather than the face or actions of a character, absence of agency or self-directedness, existence purely for the visual pleasure of the viewer and other characters within the media presented. This wasn’t exhibited in the trailer, but there remained the question about how he would be treated in the movie as a whole.

It is worth noting that Kevin is a caricature, but he is not a stereotype. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character like him in film before. Kevin is extremely handsome and not very bright. He is nonetheless very likeable and characterful. He is clearly meant as a counterpoint to stereotypical representations of female receptionists in film and TV – beautiful but unintelligent, an object of attraction – the ‘sexy lamp‘ as characterised by Kelly Sue DeConnick – a character that could be replaced by a sexy lamp with no detriment to the plot. As a send up of this, Kevin is hilarious, and yet Kevin himself is neither a stereotype, nor a sexy lamp.

Kevin cannot be a stereotype because men have never been presented ubiquitously in this manner. Nor is there any evidence that he is intended to present men in general or to be a realistic representation of a man. His characteristics are exaggerated to a pants-wettingly funny extent, and it’s quite clear that the famously handsome Chris Hemsworth (best known for playing the superhero, Thor) is having the time of his life in this role.

Nor could Kevin be replaced by a sexy lamp. Despite his incompetence as a receptionist, Kevin displays an interesting character with a life independent of the women in the film and undertakes agentful action that affects the plot. Kevin is an actor for whom being a receptionist is his day job, he plays competitive hide and seek, he dabbles in graphic design. He is exaggerated, but rounded.

I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable with how often other characters comment on Kevin’s handsomeness – this is not, it has to be said, something that men say about other men very often. However, I think that’s kind of the point. As a caricature of how women are frequently shown in film, we see how strange and uncomfortable behaviours are that are completely accepted when directed at women.

I was also uncomfortable with Erin Gilbert’s (Kirsten Wiig) attempts at flirting with Kevin in the workplace. However, in stark contrast to Venkman’s sexual advances towards Dana Barrett in the original, Gilbert’s colleagues call her out on her behaviour and no romantic relationship results from her advances. Sexual harassment is not endorsed or normalised by the film, and that is the key.

Beyond the representation of Kevin, there are a whole host of male characters, each with different personalities. Far from the MRA-nightmare of a film that presents all men as Evil, men have individual personalities, mostly neither good nor evil, just different. Yes, the bad guy is a man, but his representation is no different from the representation of bad guys as alienated loners to be found in umpteen million other films in this genre.

Entertainment Value

Overall, this had everything I wanted from a Ghostbusters film. It was extremely funny. Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Kirsten Wiig as Erin Gilbert, Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan, and Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman were all hilarious in very different ways. I’ll admit that early in the film I found there wasn’t enough to differentiate Yates and Holtzman, who seemed to be competing for enthusiastic maverick, but this swiftly changes as Jillian Holtzman becomes one of the most delightful and unique characters I have had the pleasure of seeing in film. She expresses a wild side quite unlike Abby’s and her dual-wielding proton-pistol fight sequence is a real crowning action moment for the film.

But as well as laughs, action, and the social awkwardness we expect of the loveable outsiders the Ghostbusters should be, the film also delivers genuine scares. The ghosts achieve the otherworldliness of the originals surprisingly well, delivering a higher level of imagination and quality than I expect from modern CGI. I’m rarely actually scared by horror, but I jumped several times in response to spooky goings on I didn’t see coming. Right from the opening sequence the ghosts are frightening and visually captivating.

I had the pleasure of seeing this in 3D at the IMAX, and I would say that if you’re able to watch it in 3D (the medium is not suitable for everyone) it’s worth doing so. This is a film that does 3D well.


If you still have any concerns that this film is in some way a snub to the originals, lay them to rest. All of the original team who are still with us make an appearance as a part of a series of delightful cameos – look out for Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, as well as Sigourney Weaver who appears as part of the credits sequence (which you should definitely stay for). Moreover, Dan Aykroyd was an executive producer of the film. This movie is 100% endorsed by the old crew and for me it felt to be very much in the spirit of the originals.

I thoroughly recommend this film for an evening of fun and guaranteed laughs. Treat yourself!