Monday, 30 November 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

We went to see the Moctezuma show at the British Museum this weekend, and pop in on the Staffordshire Hoard upstairs (which hopefully will find a better permanent home in the Midlands before too long), and highly enjoyable it was too. I was surprised how much came back from our honeymoon in Mexico a decade ago, and there was a pleasing combination of big artefacts, interesting details and thoughtful scripting, unafraid to flag up up areas of uncertainty and possible problems with some of the source texts for its story.

The Christianisation of Aztec artefacts brought back very clearly the sight of a young girl from a shanty town stealthily begarlanding a stone at the Mayan ruins of Coba while a Catholic Mass was performed in a nearby shack- the same fusing of traditions that gives us shrines to the Virgin Mary, and Christian holidays exactly where strangely similar pagan alternatives existed.

One particularly interesting detail that slowly emerged going around the show was the Aztecs' offering of images to the Chthonic gods (it's a lovely looking word isn't it? It just means underground but is worth learning for Scrabble) on the underside of things- on boundary markers, beneath sculptures, on the bottom of incense burners etc.
It shows a deep attachment to the power of the Earth and opens up an imaginative world we don't often engage with – it's easy for us to imagine people drawing patterns on a plain for Sky Gods to look at, but we rarely flip the idea over.

Do go if you get the chance.

One nerdy criticism I'd have is that the big AV projections didn't really do much for me- and I became suspicious of the sound design for them with constant repetition. There was a single plaintive trumpet note repeated which I became more and more convinced was actually from the famous old recording of King Tutankhamun's trumpet, and thus, while evocative and historical and all that, was somehow cheating.

You've probably heard Tutankhamun's trumpet yourself, possibly here, maybe on an old BBC Chronicle documentary, or perhaps more likely (given my readers) being used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Delia Derbyshire built a piece around it, it stood in for the Atlantean trumpets in Doctor Who The Time Monster and was also used for the Magrathean answer machine in the radio version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I admire you for already knowing all that and am backing away slowly.

November Spawned A Monster

The obligatory Doctor Who review. Look away now.

The ancient, wise and astonishingly rarely morally conflicted alien hero, Doctor Who is on Mars where an all-conquering force of nature now threatens to break loose of its home world and remake a whole planet in its image. Can the Doctor save the Flood from the threat of Humanity?
Only kidding. That's one step too far and while I suspect the subtext may have been there in the script of The Waters of Mars at some point (co-author Phil Ford has after all written for Captain Scarlet, another family friendly science fiction tale of aliens fighting back against human invaders where you can't really blame them) the Doctor is excused moral relativism this time because Time and History have capital letters to be maintained.
Man must win and these specific people must die to make sure they do because... they must.

The Waters of Mars
is of course a companion piece to last year's The Fires of Pompeii (the echoing of the titles quite possibly deliberate) and finally makes explicit on screen what some of us more dull and earnest fans have been wittering about away from the the telly for some decades- the rules the Doctor claims bind his actions in history apply in the future too, it's just you'd never know it normally and he never seems to mention it.

In fact pretty much the only implausible rule of Doctor Who now left unexposed and rationalised by the Russell T Davies series is why no one ever immediately shoots our hero when he arrives inexplicably at their high security base in the middle of a crisis.
No one's smile is that winning, though the take on the traditional
'Hello, I'm the Doctor, just breezing in.'
'We wave guns but don't shoot you on this space station.'
sequence here is rather engaging.

Once the Doomedness of everyone is established the mood darkens somewhat, and the Doctor spends far longer than you'd expect, or screen-writing guides would recommend, Refusing the Call to Action.
Normally he'll just want to go fishing, or nose around and it'll take him being captured, losing the Ship, being piqued by some mystery or, every now and then, seeing some terrible injustice to force him into being a hero. That's usually sorted within 10 minutes. Here he spends a very long time not quite walking away or getting involved, which leads to a bit of a sag in the tale. If the colonists' suspicion of him had led to him being incarcerated and having to prove himself as Wet Heck broke out that might have been avoided but I guess the key here was to impress on us the inherent decency of the crew, which meant keeping them on the Doctor's side.
It's perhaps a shame that that opportunity was lost because it'd have offered the Doctor a selfish reason to want to walk away, an obstacle to overcome before he could and a relationship with the base commander to build in the process, that might have made his final decision to rip up the rule book we'd just found out about slightly better earned.

The problem is that balancing that with the required family friendly thrills of an hour long TV slot is trickier, and it appears the last talky, psychologically honest Doctor Who story, Midnight, performed rather better with the oldies than it did with the younger audience the programme requires.
This is the show which the 'audience of 8 to 80' cliché was made for after all, and, for all dullards like me might want a touch more grounding here and there to sell some of the fantasy elements better, a lot of the audience is quite happy with the fantasy as it stands and could easily get fractious waiting for the next fire-breathing dragon to fly by, while someone explained the species' evolutionary biology for me. It mainly seems to be about dissolving rocks in their stomachs to produce a great deal of hydrogen which they can then either ignite or use as an aid to flight.

Of course, once the Doctor has made his decision, we fogies get something rather interesting in the last act. The Doctor is suddenly 'heroically' doing everything we think he shouldn't, and we get more of those cold arrogant flashes in Tennant's portrayal of the character that seem to make cynical chaps cheer and ladies swoon.
It's a fabulous finale (albeit featuring slightly fumbled visual grammar in the Countdown to Doom sequence – there are some rules of Time you don't break and chief among them is giving just enough time for the escape to be plausibly imagined before cutting away to the big Foooom), and the coda to it is better again. The arrogant Masterly Doctor is marvellously put in his place by Commander Adelaide, and the moment at which your belief she's about to shoot the Doctor gives way to realising she's doing something a bit more extraordinary is a great one, reminding me of the heart-breaking domestic sacrifices of Russell T Davies' The Second Coming.
It's the bleakest Doctor Who death for the greater good since... well, since the similarly handled one in Torchwood earlier in the year, a world away emotionally from the odd Thal nobly cutting a safety rope or Pex jumping through a doorway clutching Richard Briers' reputation.
I honestly think that's as grim as this show can go though- this is the edge of family viewing for me. Further moody introspection, for all long term fans might embrace it (or indeed rejoice at a show with fewer cute robots and more scary zombies) spells ratings doom (quite possibly with a Capital).
The one time the TV show forget that in the past, it ended up a niche cult programme scheduled against British TV's other great '8 to 80' war horse Coronation Street mopping up a few die-hard fans and soap refuseniks.
It has to be a ride first and an examination of how roller coasters work second.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wiping away the dust

Just a quick post because I haven't done one in a while and my parents were beginning to think I was dead and make arrangements.
I seem to have little to report for November.
More soon.