Learning and having scones

Think of a weekend away to celebrate and examine the works of Joss Whedon, the genius who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who wrote & directed Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble) and Age of Ultron, and you’d be forgiven for thinking about a convention. That was the reaction I had from several people when telling them I would be attending EuroSlayage, but it instead was something rather different (and I would argue a whole lot more) than this.

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Poster courtesy of the WSA, and designed by Michael Starr. T-shirts were also available.

Organised by the Whedon Studies Association, the seventh biennial Slayage was an academic conference; an oppurtunity for teachers, scholars, and researchers to come together to present and discuss ideas from across a wide range of the Whedonverses, or to utilise ideas and characters present in them as an example of wider arguments.

Although primarily a gathering of those active within academia itself, there were also a number of passionate fans of Whedon’s work who had attended essentially for their own enjoyment. Having studied for both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in the realm of Film and Television Studies, although having finished the latter four years ago, I was somewhere between the two.

Regardless of background however, it seems as though talking with friends, family, and colleagues, was met with the same kind of misunderstanding. “You’re studying Buffy?” is a question often posed to academics by those from other disciplines, whereas “you’re studying Buffy?” is one posed by those outside of academia. Thus EuroSlayage was made up of fans and academics (although I argue that both labels would apply to all at the conference, regardless) who not only recognise the value of studying such topics, but who were also delighted to be in the company of those who understand the struggle of dealing with others who consider it ‘just’ a TV show. There was even one presentation which dealt specifically with this issue.

As this was my first Slayage (primarily as it was the first to be held outside of North America, and as such much attention was paid to Whedon’s use of Englishisms), and my first academic conference at all, I was told on several occasions that it was not to be taken as an example of academic conferences in general. My first thought upon hearing this was to feel sorry for the rest of academia…

Having booked my train to the wrong station (I was so excited about securing my place at the event in Kingston that I failed to notice I was actually staying in the neighbouring London borough of Surbiton), my Slayage began by turning up to register at the Knight’s Park Campus, followed by taking my travelling backpack to the Seething Wells halls on what can only be described as an urban hike (it is a rather big backpack), and then the journey back again.

I arrived at the wine reception shindig to see a room full of people all chatting away as if they had known each other for years, and at this point realised that many of them indeed had, and that I had no idea as to how I would join in. Luckily I arrived just before the welcome by WSA President Stacey Abbot, and Associate Professor at Kingston University Simon Brown. As much as I enjoyed their introduction, I have to say nothing was as welcome as the whole sea of hands raised at the question of “who here is attending their first Slayage”. I was far from alone.

And far less alone that I originally thought, as people soon came up to me to introduce themselves, thankfully negating the fact doing this for myself is not one of my strong points. Although I didn’t recognise any faces, I have to admit that there was a great thrill at having Rhonda Wilcox, the author of Why Buffy Matters, a seminal Buffy textbook, say hello and that she recognised my name. Admittedly just from the list of those registered to attend, but still.

This was matched by having a short but sweet conversation with a lovely lady taking photos, about whether she wanted us to pose or if she would prefer us to act natural. She then introduced herself as Mary Alice Money, someone who Wilcox often quotes and defers to in her book, essentially becoming analogous to a grand sire of mine in terms of Buffy studies. Whoever came up with the idea of never meeting your idols because you’ll only be disappointed obviously never attended a Slayage.

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I’m not saying Kingston is far from the centre of London, but this is the Thames..

This was also another situation in which geeky T-shirts should never be underestimated, as they made a great ice breaker for many more than just myself. After the formal event ended, this lead to going to dinner with two women I had never met before, from entirely different countries to my own, but who I was chatting with as though I had known for years.

The next morning the conference began in earnest, with three full days (9am – 7pm) of talks, presentations, and four flights of stairs to get to them. I personally couldn’t have asked for a better start, with a keynote speech about fan reactions to the endings of TV series, and the ways in which those series continue, something which I find particularly interesting. After this came something completely different, but which I was equally looking forward to.

Although Joss Whedon is undoubtedly the current writer/producer/director whose work has the most analytical scholarship about his works, the first talk of the day (or at least my first, the nature of parallel sessions meaning I couldn’t attend them all) was entitled “Images of Tea in the Whedonverse“, something I had never begun to consider before, and was curious as to what I would learn.

In fact it turns out that tea is a perfect example of how even something that a first seems like the most inconsequential element will have many layers of meaning that you only realise after they have been explained to you, but which you can’t unsee afterwards. As well as conforming to English stereotypes, tea – of the British/European variety – was used to highlight the idea of the friendship group; both Wesley’s tea set and Fred’s mug being the first and most obvious possessions seen to be packed away after their respective leavings of the core group in Angel.

Chinese tea meanwhile, and the rituals surrounding it, is also often used as a representation of invitations, particularly those of an intimate or sexual nature. Upon watching Firefly when I returned home I noticed that the introduction of companion (read: courtesan) Inara saw her entertaining a client – both in the physical and ‘smile and nod’ sense – only to be insulted by an insinuation of cheating him of both time and money. With the mood obviously ruined, her reaction is to discard the tea set she had been carrying for seemingly no other reason that to discard it. As I said, cannot be unseen.

Other talks throughout the conference ranged from such a wide variety of approaches and disciplines that it is impossible to list them all here, although the full schedule can be found on the conference’s website. Whilst some may be fairly obvious in terms of tracing the links to classical literature (comparing Serenity‘s Operative to Les Misérables‘ Javert), or looking at the influences and contrasts of ancient mythology (the reversal of the Greek Orpheus myth, with heroine rescuing the male from hell), others took more outside the box approaches to Whedon’s work. There were also those which looked at Whedon himself, with one such talk examining at how fans (and indeed anti-fans) react to his own politics and charity work.

There was so much on offer to take in, and as much as I can only congratulate the organisers for the entire weekend, I cannot blame those who chose not to attend every session, particularly those directly before or after their own presentations. While it was impossible to attend every single panel due to them running parallel with each other, all those I did attend were fascinating, although perhaps last thing on a second full day wasn’t the best time slot for an examination of Buddhist philosophical concepts about self/no self regardless of any relation to Dollhouse? It’s fair to say that wasn’t when my mind was at its sharpest, but then I highly doubt I would have understood it all anyway. Perhaps at least this way I have a reasonable excuse?

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Dinner and a show…

Luckily the first day was followed by an evening meal which, presumably like other conferences, allowed the attendees to continue meeting new people and continue many discussions. There was also a raffle in which a number of text books were given away as prizes, of which I myself was a lucky winner, and now that my brain has been given a rest I can actually sit down and read. There was also a handing out of lyric sheets for the Buffy Sing-a-long, although I have been lead to believe this is not a standard occurrence at other conferences. As I mentioned before, the rest of academia has my sympathies.

In fact the only downside to such an evening was following a group who were walking back to what myself and one of many newly made friends originally thought was where we were staying, but who turn into the car park of a B&B and say good night. I can only thank them for not minding us tagging along in the first place, add London to the list of cities in which I’ve gotten lost, and figure that hey, part of the reason I attended Slayage was to learn, right? And what better way to learn than from your mistakes?

But whilst I wholeheartedly endorse this type of behaviour (by which I mean the merriment, although getting lost can have its merits), it is important to note that the conference wasn’t one to shy away from the more serious topics either.

Several presenters at Slayage raised many valid points which often came to the same conclusion about how Buffy, and pop-culture in general, help frame society’s values. One talk focused on how ideas of/reactions to abortion and sterility have been represented in the Whedon’s works, and the now infamous attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” was mentioned several times in relation to notions of ‘masculinity’, as well as actual audience reactions to the very real world concepts of consent and abusive relationships. These also lead to discussions as to why other attempted rapes (as seen in “The Pack”), and telefantastical rape analogies (“Tabula Rasa”) were often overlooked. Ideas which were summed up expertly at one of the last talks of the entire conference, in which “The Wish” in particular was examined in terms of upholding and continuing the trend of victim blaming.

Likewise, two other talks as part of the same panel were the start of an audience debate in terms of attitudes towards of the deaths of women of colour. Although each talk was looking at the death of a particular slayer as examinations of the vampires who kill them rather than the slayers themselves, the point was rightly raised that at the very least in terms of how arguments are phrased, more awareness needs to be highlighted in terms of both gender (slayers are always female), and race (Kendra and Nikki are both black).

Discussions such as these raised the quality of Slayage as not only are they those which have to be had, but despite the obvious passion with which people were making their argument, they were also done so professionally and in a constructive manner. “Xander’s a dick!” is another point which was brought up with regards to a central male character who is often considered to be the heart of Buffy‘s Scooby Gang (see “Primeval”/”Restless” in particular), but whose other actions throughout the series also include slut-shaming the female lead.

That’s not to say that the entire conference was dominated by such seriousness, as analysis of the varying ways post-coital “morning after” scenes depict specific relationships elicited the giggles you can’t help but expect from such a topic. This is to say nothing of the way in which a room of fully grown academics reacted to the image of Anya eating chocolate whilst unashamedly staring at Spike’s masculine (à la Bruce Lee) body. More than this though, the friendly nature of the conference as a whole meant that presentations were given in a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere.

All of which added up to something one of the earliest professors of my BA once said; subjects like Film and TV aren’t easier than any other, we just have more fun while we’re studying them. Something I can attest to personally as I thoroughly enjoyed my own studies, and attended Slayage having still followed the work of the WSA throughout the four years since I was last within academia. Going back to study for a PhD is also something I have always considered as a possibility for the future.

Despite being hectic at times, and with far more to take in (not to mention write down by hand) than anything else I’ve experienced in such a long time, Slayage has left me with that bittersweet feeling of being sad that it is now over and I have to go on living in the real world once more (apparently it’s the hardest thing), but also glad at having experienced something which, either despite or because of current events, chose to “live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be”.

So.

What am I gonna do now?

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From the Archives: A Low Down on Downloads

Okay, more from a shelf in my old bedroom at my parent’s house, but before I started writing for this blog regularly, I wrote a few articles and reviews for my Student Union newspaper while I was at university. I’ve now managed to dig them out, get them scanned, and can finally add them here. 

The first of which comes from the 29th April 2011 issue, and with a student readership in mind, looks at the cinematic costs of illegal downloads.

[Click on the image to zoom]

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Hopefully it hasn’t aged too badly for a two-year old article. My writing experience aside, I’d say it’s still pretty relevant today, and probably will be for a while yet as well.

Review: The Name of The Doctor (spoilers and theories not optional)

The season 7 finale contained revelations that audiences were not expecting.

The season 7 finale contained revelations that audiences were (probably) not expecting.

So begins what is perhaps the longest wait for television fans across the globe. Forget Locutus of Borg’s cliffhanger, that was so twenty years ago (twenty-three to be exact, scary how long ago The Next Generation was, but hey, it’s held up remarkably well).

But let’s take a step back for a minute, and first take a look back at how we got to this point. Series 7 started back last autumn, with the final five outings for the Amy and Rory. With casting often hard to keep secret in this day and age, there was no surprise that they would be leaving, and the announcement that Jenna-Louise Coleman would be replacing them was made before episode one was broadcast. Episode one, better known as Asylum of the Daleks to you and me, didn’t disappoint, as it featured Daleks new and old aplenty (even the special weapons Dalek if you squinted hard enough), a nice reference to the shows history where Daleks who had survived his defeats were kept in intensive care, and Jenna-Louise Coleman popped up as well.

Clara boards the TARDIS earlier than expected?, they’ve kept that hidden from us, well done BBC. Nope, wait. She’s a Dalek. And now she’s dead. Touche Steven Moffat, touche!

This rather unexpected turn of events was kept on the back burner while we enjoyed Amy and Rory’s three penultimate outings before their eventual leaving the TARDIS in The Angels Take Manhattan. A teary affair for many in which, for her final act of onscreen heroism, Amy finally redeems herself by choosing Rory over the Doctor, no going backsies.

Well, narratively anyway, considering whatever was stopping the Doctor from returning was localised only to New York, and both Ponds got rather experienced at travelling across the States in Day of the Moon, but as fun as they were, I can’t argue with the fact their particular stories had been told.

Next came the mid-season Christmas special, and another appearance from Jenna-Lousie Coleman. With the Ponds well and truly departed, it seemed we weren’t going to get any classic series style juxtaposition of companions from different parts of time and space (well, 21st century Britain at least). But we did get Clara back, at least for a while, before she too left us with the mystery of what exactly is going on here?

It has to be said however, Clara’s second death left us with a better beginning for the part two opener The Bells of Saint John. As much as I would have loved a companion that wasn’t from the 21st century (even if she was still from London), the (re)introduction of modern Clara added more mystery to the character that would keep us guessing through the rest of the series, than continuing from where The Snowmen would have left off, would have done.

And whilst I enjoyed the rest of the series, I have to say not as much as I was expecting. Considering it has been eighteen months since the end of season six, you’d think there would have been more time to polish it up a bit. Yes I know they’ve been busy planning for the show 50th in November, but surely the extra effort could have been spread throughout the whole year of the anniversary, not just the day itself. What with writing the BBC’s celebratory drama An Adventure in Space and Time, you’d think that Gatiss could have settled for just the one Doctor Who episode, but instead wrote both Cold War, and The Crimson Horror. Likewise new to Who writer Neil Cross who penned both The Rings of Akhaten and Hide. Protests as to the lack of female writers aside, it has to be said that one benefit the 13 episode seasons have over twentysomething American shows is the extra time they have to get the details right, something negated by having twice as many scripts to complete. The big let downs that got to us though, were the fact that the episodes were given a sense of epic proportions that they just didn’t have.

With such a great title, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS seemed like it could have been so much more than just running through lots of corridors, and for a Neil Gaiman episode, Nightmare in Silver didn’t seem that nightmarish, but was perhaps aimed more at children scared of being abducted by newer and sleeker cybermen in the middle of the night.

Not that the second half was all bad, there were some interesting stories and great actors, not least in the aformentioned Hide. A genre twisting ghost story which, in true Doctor Who colours, was actually about something else all along, and featured a remarkable performance from Dougray Scott as a charming yet shy ghost hunter. Richard E. Grant, as always, is another great addition to the cast.

Where the series shined though, was in Saturday’s final episode, The Name of the Doctor. With a titillating title that had fans everywhere speculating, it was one that didn’t let down on the hype, and was the best Moffat season finale since he took responsibility for them (perhaps in part due to the fact that it hasn’t been an alternate timeline that gets wiped afterwards anyway). Minor quibbles would be left aside (we haven’t quite known Clara long enough for what seems like such a major part throughout the Doctor’s history) right from the beginning of the episode, and indeed the series, starting as we did on “Gallifrey a very long time ago”. Clara telling William Hartnell himself that he’s making a mistake by stealing the TARDIS was one of the two boldest moves made by the show since it’s return, the second coming right at the end with that introduction.

Perhaps the biggest troll to fans everywhere, but also the biggest relief for many who were dreading the loss of mystery, the Doctor told both Clara and the audience at home that “my name, my real name, that is not the point”. More than just the revelation however, there were also some nice little details, what could have easily been reminiscent of Malkovich Malkovich, the Doctor being inside his own timestream which contained shadowy graves in the background was a nice touch.

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Introducing the omninous figure who apparently both is, and isn’t quite the Doctor, show runner Steven Moffat has here made a brave move that unlike his previous “alliance” storyline of every alien race ever joining forces, has to evoke the same sense of awe and anticipation from Doctor Who fans of all ages, new and old fans alike.

Even if you didn’t recognise that deep rich voice declaring that “what I did, I did without choice”, let alone know of his upcoming appearance in the 50th anniversary special, whether your jaw dropped due to the arrival of John Hurt as either actor or character (or both), it was nothing less than spectacular, and will ensure that the internet chat rooms and forums will be bursting with theories and ideas for the next six months.

And so we await the 50th anniversary with perhaps more questions than answers. Although we discovered the answer to Clara’s being impossible, her story can be far from over (I’m still waiting to find out who the woman in the shop was). More than this however, just who is John Hurt??

Adding to his list of iconic science fiction moments that go do in history, he is credited by the BBC as playing the Doctor, despite Matt Smiths insistence that he is isn’t, even though they are both in a place where “there’s only me here, that’s the point”. Only the Doctor, “the one who broke the promise”, and Clara as well actually, but that could be looking too much into it.

So who exactly is he? Fans have already been keen to point several things seen (or not) throughout the episode that may or may not be important. Firsty, despite being referenced previously in the series, Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor was missing from the clips of his past incarnations, although his only on-screen appearance is still stuck in a sticky web of joint ownership with FOX. The fact that Hurt’s costume bears a resemblance to McGann’s newer image for his latest audio releases has also been mentioned.

Was the naming of the Valeyard just something to put an extra smile on the face of classic fans, or was it introducing an older concept that newer fans will need to be aware of in the future? Or is he something new altogether, a missing incarnation made possible by the fact we’ve never actually seen a McGann/Eccleston regeneration??

Over the past several years modern television has come to embrace longer and longer and longer story arcs, something which has made Doctor Who perhaps the last bastion of what is an icon of science fiction and fantastical television, “To Be Continued…”

Taking it to whole new levels however, with no-planets or galaxies in need of rescue, no one on the brink of death, but with the history of a character loved by generations about to be re-written on the eve of his 50th birthday, “To Be Continued … November 23rd” is perhaps the cruelest trick ever to be played on TV audiences, past, present, and probably even future…

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Review: ‘Star Trek – Into Darkness’ (spoilers optional)

So, I’ve just got back from the cinema having seen Star Trek Into Darkness. A film I have been waiting a long time to see, a time which seemed to have been made even longer from all the trailers, posters, and clips floating around on the internet. Not to mention a text from a close friend who thought I’d be interested to know about her attending the premiere.

I guess I can forgive her now that I’ve finally seen it myself, but knowing how to describe it, especially without giving away any spoilers, that’s the tricky part….

Blockbusters just can't help themselves can they.

Blockbusters just can’t help themselves can they.

Firstly, the film does have all the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster, and I have no doubt it will go on to do well at the box office. It has action, explosions, spaceships, even the obligatory scantily clad blonde, although it has to be said we do get to see her intellect as well (I think). Whilst not necessarily a bad thing, the film is also perhaps the single biggest argument for audience reception theory there is, as Trekkies, Newbies, and everyone else in between will have entirely different reactions to what they see on screen.

I chose to see it in 2D, and have to say it’s a gloriously looking film. The flyover of 23rd century metropolitan London is so much something to behold that it’s a scary realisation of what our historic capital could actually look like 200 years from now. The Enterprise is also given some amazing set pieces, and I truly hope that the 3D conversion is done properly, and does them justice.

The actors are also praise worthy, and along with the script each continues to bring these characters loved by generations into the 21st century. Zachary Quinto brings us a more rounded character, particularly as this film again toys with the conflict between Spock’s human and vulcan half, even if his sarcasm may at times be more pointy than his ears. This is compensated somewhat by Karl Urban toning down his DeForrest Kelly possession however, and giving a more natural rather than impressionistic performance.

Despite this however, there are a small number of instances where the film is let down by common sense, at least for established Trek, and has to make way for artistic license. There and back in a day does seem to be pushing it even for warp (let alone the beaming), but having actually thought about Chekov’s red shirt a little more (it was in a trailer, therefore not really a spoiler), it isn’t as out of place in Star Trek common sense as you might think. 

Continuing director J.J. Abrams’ new vision to the screen, Into Darkness has Star Trek running through it like the stick of proverbial rock. So much so in fact, that it makes you wonder how many of those references were included just to show off either the writers own knowledge/research, or how eager they were to make sure they pleased hardcore fans. Let’s just say it’s a long road getting from there, to the Admiral’s desk.

[Like I said, it’s tricky, but I’m still trying my best. If anything is getting too spoilery for you though, now’s the time to press that little x in the corner.]

'Into Darkness' continues the logic vs instinct of Spock and Kirk's central relationship.

‘Into Darkness’ continues the logic vs instinct argument central to Spock and Kirk’s relationship.

This is much like the film as a whole, in that rather than seek out new life and new civilisations in a new timeline, Into Darkness does choose to use more than just references to what has come before. Revenge is hardly a new concept to cinematic Star Trek (see The Wrath of Khan, First Contact, Nemesis, and even Star Trek)let alone the whole of the franchise. My review of it’s predecessor tried to list the ways in which it adapted the series it was spun from, but for it’s sequel it seems I should add “Mirror” to that list.

Where Star Trek took the series and gave it a twist, Into Darkness carries this round to a full 180 degrees. Many aspects of Trek are turned on their head, each with varying degrees of success. I have to admit at one point the sight of a Tribble made me facepalm that Picard himself would be proud of, but on the whole, even the sharpest of turns is perhaps only comparable to reading Shakespeare; an academic exercise that conveys interesting and debatable ideas, but doesn’t hit the mark that was intended. Just as Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen performed not read from a page, so too here are several ideas that perhaps may have worked better in speculative transmedia prose than a canonical feature film.

I also have to point out that this review is coming from the mind of an unashamed Trekkie (hence receiving the boasting premiere text), and like I said, everyone will have different opinions. Overall though I would say that it is definitely a film worth seeing, and does have something for everyone. With it’s fiftieth anniversary only three years away or not, I’m sure that there will be another outing for the crew of the Enterprise, but this time I’m be mulling over the most recent release for a bit more time before eagerly awaiting the next.

[Ok, I’m gonna give this a try, for anyone who has already seen it, or just doesn’t care, highlight the rest of this post, to reveal the spoilers in white text.]

So, it seems all those rumours were true after all, Benedict Cumberbatch IS Khan. For those who don’t know, not only was original Spock right, in that he was the meanest, baddest and brightest of the Enterprise’s adversaries, but his place in Star Trek history was assured by the flawless performance of the late Ricardo Montalban, and you can be sure there will be those sending hate mail simply at the idea of his recasting. 

Personally, I have to admit that I too am annoyed that John Harrison’s true identity wasn’t someone else, but for different reasons. As much as I can see what Abrams and co. were thinking, anyone passionate enough would have been following the rumours, and therefore not surprised. Likewise those who weren’t, probably wouldn’t find it that much of a big deal. In fact it’s most likely those occasional audience members somewhere in the middle that get the most out of it. 

‘Revelation’ aside however, the idea of Kirk and Khan fighting shoulder to shoulder was certainly an interesting one given the nature of their previous relationship, but as I mentioned earlier, is possibly one that should have remained speculative rather than canonical.

And the mirror doesn’t just end here. Seriously, anyone who hasn’t already, really needs to go and see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Carol Marcus, the radiation chamber, almost half the new film seems to copied and pasted from the old

Although Scotty’s sabotage of Starfleet prototypes and miraculous resurrection stem from Star Trek III, I don’t really want to talk about Kirk’s death, let alone his revival.

And as for Spock’s scream. Really?????

Who had a busy weekend(?)

As much as I’ve been busy over the bank holiday weekend, my diary seems nothing compared to that of the Doctor’s. Not content with spreading his schedule throughout time and space, this weekend just gone has been something of a bumper celebration for Doctor Who, past, present and future.

Let’s go through this in a wibbly wobbly timey wimey fashion, and start with what fans had been waiting for; the long awaited beginning/continuation of the new season, and the (re)introduction of Clara/Oswin/Oswald, in an episode that did not disappoint.

'The Bells of Saint John' properly introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman's third (?) character.

‘The Bells of Saint John’ properly introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman’s third (?) character.

Although perhaps a bit too similar to season 4’s opener Partners In Crime (evil business woman leads evil corporation as a front to alien manipulation of contemporary London)The Bells of Saint John was all that you could want in a contemporary-set Who episode; an exciting episode full of danger, one liners, surprise twists, and gave fans more questions than answers (does the Doctor himself not wonder who the “woman in the shop” is?). the end result was only the start of what promises to be a great rest of the season.

Rather than simply review the episode however, (I’d only be quoting the best bits and spoil it for you, so I’ll just say head over to iplayer and watch it here), I’m instead going to talk about how I watched it.

For the first time in too long, I watched this particular episode of Doctor Who amongst a group of friends, all of whom were as equally  as I was. This hasn’t happened since my first stint at uni, and even then possibly not in as big a group as this. Not only do you get to share in the suspense and the laughter with others, but Moffat seems to write new-Who in a way that just can’t be watched on its own. Each of us picked up on a variety of the myriad of details, and were desperate to share our thoughts, theories and questions once it had finished.

This is how I now want to watch all of Doctor Who.

Going back earlier that day however, before people arrived and I had only the internet to share my thoughts with, there was a cast announcement for November’s forthcoming 50th anniversary special. David Tennant fans everywhere delighted at the news he would be back, but speculated as to who he would be playing; regular, or meta Doctor. Billie Piper fans were also delighted at her return, although it’s fair to say a number of Who fans in general weren’t. A group in which I have to say that I am included.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Piper was fine in her portrayal of Rose, who was also a fantastic character. Admittedly I still haven’t decided whether her stringing Mickey along was worse than Amy’s trying to sleep with the Doctor the night before her wedding (actually, Amy’s decision was worse, Rose was just naive), but my problem is with her return, not Piper or Rose.

Doomsday, the finale of season 2 was a landmark episode. Catherine Tate aside, it not only introduced modern Torchwood, but featured the Daleks and Cybermen in a Monster vs Monster battle that Aliens and Predators could only dream of, and also a companion’s leaving that beats all others hands down in terms of emotional farewells.

Modern companions often  have more in common with Ace than is generally acknowledged

Modern companions often have more in common with Ace than is generally realised.

Following on from Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s Ace, those who travel with the Doctor in New-Who have generally been more than just companions, each having a specific relationship with the Doctor, and experiencing a personal journey as much as an intergalactic one. It is because of this relationship that, worse than Adric dying without ever knowing if he was right, Rose was abandoned, forced to live without the Doctor, and knowing how he felt about her. He was never even able to finish his sentence. As I said, an emotional farewell.

A farewell that was ruined two years later in season 4, by the only possible thing that could ruin the emotional moment of knowing they’ll never see each other again: them seeing each other again. Needless to say, I’m hoping Billie Piper’s 50th return is more The End Of Time than Journey’s End.

One piece of casting that cheered me up immensely after this news however, was that the 50th anniversary would also star British acting legend himself, John Hurt. Like Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, and David Warner who will appear later on in this current season, Hurt is the latest in a line of veteran (no, I don’t just mean old) actors to grace the show with not just their presence and reputation, but also immense talent. No stranger to sci-fi, having previously appeared in the scene in Alien, V for Vendetta, and everything in between, the association of Hurt’s name with Doctor Who is even more exciting than that of Peter Jackson’s, and most fans seem to be in agreement that no one more fitting could have been cast in the shows 50th anniversary.

Cut again to some time later, and the internet was ablast with snippets of a photographic nature. First came two pics of Tennant and Matt Smith (and the tip of a Dalek Gunstick?) together at the scripts read through, and once those had gone viral, the BBC also tweeted an image of a 21st century Zygon, complete with #DoctoWho50th hashtag.

But while fans are eagerly awaiting for November’s celebrations to grace their screens, showrunner Steven Moffat is no doubt waiting for September, and the announcement of who has won the prestigious Hugo Awards. Celebrating the best in last years sci-fi & fantasy, and with a shortlist of just five TV episodes in the running for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category, three of last years episodes, Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, and The Snowmen, have been nominated.

Jeff Murdock was a constant source of comedic theories and phrases in 'Coupling'

Richard Coyle’s Jeff constantly had the best lines in Moffat’s earlier ‘Coupling’

Yes, not only is he celebrating as Doctor Who showrunner, but those three episodes were written by Steven ‘Juggernaut’ Moffat himself as a writer. The writer who ten years ago was entertaining TV viewers with Jeffrey Murdock and the Visual Access Angle, is this year celebrating the fact that his stories alone have earned a total of eleven nominations in only eight years, and is no doubt hoping for his fifth win.

Between writing and helming the 50th anniversary episode, working with John Hurt, and adding “buy bigger display cabinet?” to his to-do list, it would seem that 2013 is already a fantastic year for Doctor Who, and Moffat truly has the key to the gates of paradise, regardless of having too many legs.

State of the Geek?

For the past several years, Felicia Day is someone who has become almost synonymous with the term “Geek”. As an actress in LA she has made guest appearances in TV shows from Lie To Me, to House, and is a certified Joss Whedon alumnus having appeared in three of his various series. During this time she has also written, produced, and acted in her own web-series The Guild, and last year founded the internet channel, Geek & Sundry.

Earlier this week she released a youtube video announcing that this would be returning for a second year, and also talks about a subject that is important to her, her audience, and myself.

What is it to be a “Geek”?

If for any reason you can’t/won’t watch the video, I’ve transcribed the important bits for you here:

In the six years I have been doing this, that word has become something else. We’ve been using it so much that it’s kind of lost meaning. Geek has become a cliche. It’s become a label. It’s become something to monetize, to market to, to pigeonhole, to brand, to exploit. It’s become something that describes a person who is defined solely by liking comics, or games, or movies, or TV, and it’s like we’ve become these consumer badgers that will eat anything you can put a zombie or a superhero on, and just like STOP! Just stop. That is not what Geek means to me.

We are more than the hobbies that we do, or the things that we like. We are not mash up t-shirts, don’t get me wrong I love a good mash up t-shirt, but that is just like the superficial stuff. To me, Geek means an outsider, a rebel, a dreamer, a creator, whether it’s our own world or someone else’s. It’s a fighter. It’s a person who dares to love something that isn’t conventional.

The mantra of Geek to me, is “your judgement is not my problem”. You think comics are dumb? Fine. You think I may not be a real gamer? Whatever, that’s your problem.

I think we need to re-own Geek.

In the ten years since her recurring role as a potential in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicia Day has gone on to slay numerous outmoded stereotypes and gender roles. In a world where female gamers (especially attractive ones) are thought to be either non-existent or should be looked down upon, she has been a role model of campaigning for Geek acceptance just by getting out there and doing her own thing.

Although I discussed their/our representation in films from Scream to Fanboys for my MA dissertation (albeit using the more academic term of “fans”), like too many others, Geek is a word that I take for granted in order to describe myself, my friends, and the things we enjoy. 

The origins of the word itself, stem from 18th century circuses, referring to the freaks in a sideshow. Whilst it’s safe to say that this is no longer strictly true, its connotations have remained for a long time, and it seems like only recently that its use is becoming less disparaging.

Also throughout these past ten years, more and more aspects of what would previously have been labelled as Geek culture have made it to the mainstream. Perhaps it was my growing up in rural Britain, but back when Felicia was known as Vi, names like Joss Whedon and The Avengers would have had most people I know either scratching their heads, or thinking of 60’s spies. This last summer however, Marvel’s heroes’ and their writer/director’s were the most talked about throughout the entertainment world.

Not that I am begrudging them their popularity, Whedon is an accomplished film-maker who deserves to have his work seen by a wider audience (allowing me to boast that I was a fan before it was cool), it seems to me there is a difference between Geek becoming accepted, and appropriated.

In fact it seems that like Che Guevara before it, Geek culture is now seen by many to be less rebellious and more fashion statement, often referred to as “Geek chic”.

Richard "Ringo" Langly shows his support of The Ramones.

Once the image of an ostracised Geek, “thick lenses in black framed eyeglasses – he wears a Ramones T-shirt” is now seen as fashionable.

More than just an overall fashion it seems that specific icons of Geek fandom, even the punk band The Ramones have also suffered this fate. Likely due to their retro punk image, but also perhaps in part due to their endorsement by conspiracy theorist Richard “Ringo” Langley on the sci-fi/horror series The X Files

Comparable to Day’s Geek mantra, Langly admired lead singer Joey for sticking to his punk principles and the fact that “He never gave in, he never gave up, and he never sold out, right up to his last breath.” (It is also worth noting he voiced his praise in an episode called Jump The Shark.)

In recent years however, and after the death of not just Joey but also two other original band members, Dee Dee and Johnny, t-shirts and bags embellishing their logo have become an increasingly common sight. 

Combining mainstream appeal with a cult fanbase, it is not surprising that crossover TV shows such as The X Files may have been the first port of call for those first wishing to adopt aspects of what used to be a niche appeal.

And this is something that annoys me. On the other side to Felicia’s argument, the main problem I see isn’t what being a Geek is, it’s what being a Geek isn’t.

Although I don’t solely define myself through them, I enjoy films and TV shows, and that’s why I studied them at university, it’s why I collect VHS tapes, and it’s why I edit wikias. Admittedly I don’t shout about those last two from the rooftops, and maybe sometimes I haven’t always stood up for them as much as I should (sorry Felicia), but those are just some of the reasons I use the word Geek to describe myself.

Perhaps almost conversely, I chose the name i, Coomber as a reference to Asimov’s i, Robot, and if you think the shortened use of iCoomber is because I’m an apple fanboy rather than the internet not liking commas and spaces, then, like Day says “that’s your problem”.

But when I see “fashionable” girls walking through the high street with a jumper saying “Geek”, I want to ask them how they feel about the differences between old school and new Battlestar Galactica, before berating them for not even knowing what I’m talking about, let alone not having an answer. Again, as Day says, knowledge of cylons and vipers isn’t a prerequisite to use this term, and I admit there is a certain amount of irony that they will likely consider my prejudice to not be their problem, but do these factors still make them a Geek as well?

I agree with Felicia that it is something we need to re-own, but knowing how to go about it may take more thought than a single youtube message. How do we rebel considering that many of the symbols of our rebelling against the conventional, have themselves become usurped as an adopted convention?

For those of us with genuine interests, not caring about people’s prejudices and not subscribing to corporate labels is one thing, but I believe that these are not the people we need to re-own Geek from. 

I now wear my Soylent Green t-shirt as much for its warning about industrialised processes creating products not for, but from people, as much as because I enjoy the 70’s classic. I do so because I walk past too many others wearing a Ramones t-shirt that have never heard their music, let alone embody a spirit of being a rebel, an outsider, or a fighter, and so I have to ask.

Is that “not my problem” too?

How ‘Gogglebox’ ruined your TV?

This past couple of Thursday nights, TV has been giving us something of a meta-type look at itself. Starting a fortnight ago on the 7th, 10pm gave us the first of Channel 4’s new four episode series, Gogglebox. The following week this was joined by Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life on BBC2.

How TV Ruined Your Life is exactly what it sounds like. First broadcast back in 2011, each of its six weekly episodes focuses on a different aspect of your life that TV ruins. Cynical it may be, but it is no less compelling.

The first episode for example, was ‘Fear’, and through various analyses of TV programmes, satirical sketches, and sarcastic rants, it showed how TV’s “slightly hysterical take on the world” not only gives us a biased and skewed view of reality, but does so at the same time as being authoritative enough that we don’t dare question it. While only half an hour may not give it the depth to cover all of TV the way Brooker’s previous series Newswipe covered the news, the points it makes are still almost as fearful as the TV would have us believe everything else is.

Brooker's shows often contain satirical reactions to TV shows, which are no too dissimilar from those seen in 'Googlebox'.

Brooker’s shows often contain harsh criticisms of other TV programmes, which are not too dissimilar from those seen in ‘Googlebox’.

With TV scheduling akin to a strictly controlled science where nothing is left to chance, it’s clear why BBC2 has decided to repeat the broadcast of Brooker’s satirical pseudo-educational series specifically against Gogglebox. They’re both reactions to the modern televisual landscape (although How TV also delves into its history), and both look at modern audiences.

Beyond this however, I’m not entirely sure how to describe Gogglebox, as I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. All I can say is what it is, a show in which TV viewers at home can watch other TV viewers in their homes, watching TV.

No, seriously, that’s the whole show. People watching TV.

On one hand it could be produced as the of pinnacle of irony, a self-reflexive mirror trying to enlighten us to the ever increasing number of lowest common denominator seeking, exploitative and voyeuristic “reality” shows that Television now so often reduces itself to. Or, as one reviewer best describes it, “an Orwellian dream but with more conversations about dead cats being found in a morbidly obese woman’s fat folds“, it could also just as easily perhaps be the ultimate example.

I can only presume that Brooker’s opinion of Gogglebox would contain as much cynicism as his audience have come to expect from his trademark sarcasm, and would probably consider it to be the latter. Sitting side by side, the two shows could very easily be seen as two sides of the same coin, but if How TV Ruined Your Life were on half an hour earlier however, you could easily change the channel and see exactly the type of pacifying and brain numbing indoctrination that Brooker had just been warning you about. 

In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Brooker actually thought up the idea himself as a comedy sketch for any one of the shows throughout his portfolio, but discounted it for being too satirical.

Throughout his career, it is safe to say that TV has been the main object of his attention. Series such as Screenwipe, and newspaper columns such as Screen Burn, a collection of which were published in a book of the same name, all in some way examine what TV actually is, and the effect it has on its audiences.

This is something he also does through his screenwriting as well as broadcasting and journalism. Of all the shows that could have been utilised in Brooker’s Dead Set, the E4 mindless zombie (running notwithstanding) apocalypse, it is no surprise that Big Brother was chosen. In much the same way that George A. Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall as a critical view of consumerism, it is no surprise that in 2008’s counterpart it was the Big Brother house that “was like a church for them”.

Whilst I’m eagerly awaiting his opinions on Gogglebox (yes I’ll admit I include myself amongst his audience), I’ll try to examine it in the objective, if overly-analytical way, that academia has taught me.

For a start I’m not picking on it when I call it a “reality” show, just bringing attention to the fact that even Brooker’s shows are carefully and thoughtfully constructed, and even David Attenborough’s Polar Bears proved that television never depicts “reality” as it actually is.

Even from the outside, 'Gogglebox' tries to portray an image of recognisable British households.

Even from the outside, ‘Gogglebox’ tries to portray an image of recognisable British households.

Despite Channel 4 labelling it under the “documentary” banner, even the remarkably simple premise of Gogglebox showing us other people watching TV has been manipulated to the extent that possibly the only less factual “factual” show, is a Top Gear challenge.  

On one hand it has the potential to be a worthwhile psychological/social study, but in the same way Big Brother did (and still does? I lost count long ago) it instead reduces this idea to something my former lecturer Martin Barker, an academic renowned for many research projects into audience studies, might call “The Pornography of Voyeurism”.

In today’s climate of watching TV in order to laugh at people on shows such as Come Dine With Me and Don’t Tell The Bride, a woman who explains how her marriage to her last husband involved her going “straight down KFC”, was never just pulled at random from a hat. If answering the hypothetical “imagine while you watched TV, it was watching you”, I suspect most people’s wouldn’t see the same thing their owners were.

Similarly, by hand-picking a gay hairdressing couple from Brighton for example, alongside heavily made up Essex girls and a spirit guzzling well-spoken couple, the selection of the British TV watching public shown on Gogglebox seems to reuse stereotypes almost as much as it helps purvey them. 

But where the show doesn’t rely on these, it almost points to a preprepared list of shows to watch that had been handed out before the recording. Forgive me if I’m generalising, but I can’t imagine Countryfile is popular with all Liverpudlian body builders.

When adding everything up, even the inclusion of Caroline Aherne as narrator, best known for writing and starring in the fictional but all too real The Royle Family, seems to have been included to give the associated connotations that the people and families you’re watching aren’t real, and thereby giving you permission to jeer as much as you like.

This is even added to by fact that her narration has been underscored with Beady Eyes’ ‘The Roller’, which with too close for comfort similarity  to Liam Gallagher’s previous Oasis career and The Royle Family theme ‘Half The World Away’, seems to have been chosen with as much forethought as Brooker underscoring How TV Ruined Your Life with music straight from A Clockwork Orange.

All in all, Googlebox is something of an anomaly. Although a perfect example of how TV manipulates what it shows us, through doing so it show us exactly how TV manipulates what it shows us, as well as how it can try to manipulate us along with it.

A good example of this is when Gogglebox shows us the media’s speed to control and shape what information is presented to us, such as in the case of Oscar Pistorious – What Really Happened?, a documentary on BBC3 (not exactly well known for it’s attention to current affairs) allowing audiences around the globe (it has since been sold to the Discovery Channel in both the U.S.A. and even South Africa) to make up their own minds. Something which those seen on Gogglebox point out, is months before even the case’s jurors will one day eventually get to do.

In this way, Gogglebox also sits perfectly alongside Brooker’s Weekly Wipe assessment of TV’s reaction to this, complete with a clip from CBS’s Entertainment Tonight, in which the death of Pistorious’ girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is treated in exactly the same manner as Kim Kardashian’s divorce.

At the same time as showing us that, through shows such as BBC1’s Call The Midwife, TV is capable of giving us characters that audiences truly care about, it also relays how even in the 21st Century, ITV’s prime time Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway seems to be saying that a female presenter should still be seen as mere eye candy. It might not be the French maid outfit Dec ‘wanted’, but as Dominic points out, it’s not far off.

As the accompanying Honda sponsorship tells us, “the more we look, the more we learn”, and Gogglebox really is a fascinating insight into modern television viewing. Not long ago our ability to use mobile internet to find out more about what the TV is (and what it isn’t) telling us would have been science-fiction, now we can clearly see that no-one thinks twice about doing it.

Reaction to 'Gogglebox' on twitter has been varied.

Reaction to ‘Gogglebox’ on twitter has been varied.

So is Gogglebox, like Brooker, warning us how TV is ruining our lives, but lowering itself down to the lowest common denominator level to get its message across? If there’s anything that studying TV at university taught me, it’s how simple it is to over-analyse, and it’s just as possible that Gogglebox could pure and simply just be voyeuristic entertainment at its most pure.

Like several of her peers, the reviewer I quoted earlier ironically thinks the Orwellian dream as she describes it is “brilliant”, but the more I write about it, and the more I think about it, the more my opinion is being split in two opposite directions. I can only say that the only way to make your own mind up about it, is to watch it yourself.

And hope that no-one is watching you.