Thursday, 13 July 2017

Gallifrey 2.5: Imperiatrix by Stewart Sheargold (August 2005)

The finale of Gallifrey II, the 100-minute-long epic Imperiatrix, is assigned to Stewart Sheargold, so far responsible for the delightfully trippy Seventh Doctor story Red. The result is clearly the range's most ambitious story to date, as the major strands running throughout this second series - and even further back to Gallifrey I and Neverland, the first instances in which Romana was referred to as 'Imperiatrix' - are all woven into a heady cocktail. There is no messing around in Imperiatrix, which kicks off energetically right from the off with an explosion in the heart of the Time Lord Academy, follows up with all manner of consequences and ramifications, and pits Romana against Darkel in a gripping battle of wits - all before we've reached 15 minutes in. The stakes remain high throughout, with another almighty explosion at the story's midpoint, one which kills off K9-I, no less - and we get a few more such moments before the end. This structure strongly recalls The Deadly Assassin in my view: starting early on with a climactic event, then letting the investigation spool out whilst building up other threats alongside it. Unsurprisingly, given his good work on Red, Sheargold acquits himself well with a story full of twists and turns; Imperiatrix sees this second season back on solid form after last time's weaker effort.

Monday, 10 July 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 2: Paihia & the Bay of Islands, Waitangi, Cape Rienga, Tauranga

One thing which has struck me several times whilst travelling around New Zealand so far is that its Tourist Marketing Board really ought to make more use of the slogan 'A Greener, Pleasanter Land'. It's not particularly original to observe that, in its undulating green countryside, pastures full of grazing sheep and cows, New Zealand resembles the United Kingdom - but a UK that is somehow cleaner and more unspoiled. Less prone to traffic jams. Less industrialised and exploited and full. Like all unoriginal observations, though, it's not the whole story: for in its longitudinal and latitudinal position New Zealand doesn't map onto the UK, in point of fact, but rather Spain. So it would be more accurate to describe it as a Spain unwarmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream, a more temperate Spain, but still with a climate that's plenty warm enough to support forests of subtropical plants. Combine this with rolling English landscapes, quasi-Saharan sand dunes, snowy mountain ranges, and volcanic formations, and you're onto a pretty unique combination.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Laughter is the Best Medicine (3)": On absurdist portrayals of Scandinavian kings in "Heimskringla" by Snorri Sturluson (c.1230)

‘…let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.’1  
– William Shakespeare, Richard IIIII.ii. 

Ynglinga saga, the first saga in Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century chronicle of the kings of Norway (and the one whose first words ‘kringla heimsins give the larger work its name, Heimskringla (HK)), is concerned with the early Scandinavian monarchs that make up the Yngling dynasty.2 In outlining each individual king within this genealogy, Snorri draws on the Norwegian skald Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s late ninth-century poem Ynglingatal as a historical source. Like the majority of skalds, Þjóðólfr seems to have composed the poem in praise of a contemporaneous king – in this case gnvaldr heiðumhár’, most likely gnvaldr Óláfsson of Vestfold; rather than eulogizing the living monarch, however, Þjóðólfr’s focus is on the preceding twenty-seven generations, thereby ascribing to gnvaldr an extensive and noble heritage. However, as modern readers accustomed to jingoism, propaganda, and the familiar historiographical notion of poets portraying kings in as positive a light as possible, we are struck by Ynglingatal’s subversive undercurrent of absurdismÞjóðólfr mostly limits himself to discussing the circumstances of each king’s death, and yet, especially in the first half of the saga, these are often deaths which are not exactly steeped in nobility, as would be expectedGro Steinsland writes most of the kings die in a rather strange way, without glory, a feature which scholars have found difficult to explain.3 As we read the frequently grotesque or ridiculous events that unfold in Ynglingatal – elaborated upon and retold in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga – we might be surprised by the dearth of stately, solemn reverence of the kind Richard II ascribes to ‘sad stories of the death of kings’ in the epigraph from Shakespeare above. A closer examination of the bleakly humorous fates of these early Scandinavian monarchs as Þjóðólfr and Snorri tell them will lean on an understanding of the power of incongruity in humour, and in particular how this incongruity can produce an effect of pathos in the audience, however absurd the event in question.4 In studying individual instances, we must also discuss what separates these distinct portrayals and why Þjóðólfr and Snorri have treated them the way they have. 

On the presentation of mythological time as linear/cyclical in the Völuspá (10th century)

The mythological poem Vǫluspá recounts in some sixty-three stanzas of succinct, elusive Old Norse fornyrðislag verse a holistic mythological cosmology which involves both looking back to the creation of the world and looking forward to the world’s destruction and subsequent rebirth.1 This ambitious subject matter is related by a prophetess or vǫlva who permits our entry into both past and future, describing both in our present moment (in which ‘our’ applies both to the instant of the poem’s performance and the instant of reading the extant manuscript today). Vǫluspá is thus ripe for an exploration of what John Lindow calls ‘mythic time, particularly in terms of whether its presentation of time could be described as a linear or cyclical arrangement – whether the poem indicates an unbroken chronological progression or gestures towards an infinite set of endings and new beginnings.2 This will involve (chronologically speaking) a detailed close reading of various aspects of Vǫluspá whilst comparing how they support either the linear or the cyclical models, a consideration of what relevance this question has on how we read the poem, and concluding remarks on the nature of this perceived linear/cyclical dichotomy and whether Vǫluspá in some way eludes attempts to place it within such a binary division. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Gallifrey 2.4: Insurgency by Steve Lyons (July 2005)

In the BF stable at least, Steve Lyons is ahead of the pack when it comes to non-linear narratives and experimenting with how time, well, works. He's thus a logical fit for the frequently time-twisting Gallifrey II - it's no great surprise that they got him in eventually, and here he is contributing its fourth chapter, Insurgency. I was imagining something full of temporal twists, non-linearity, and high concepts (i.e. Pandora); what Lyons does instead is not what I anticipated at all - he's the first writer for this series of audio dramas to direct the spotlight away from the political heavyweights and onto a different group of people, namely, students at the Time Lord Academy. Yes, students at a prestigious institution have a cushy number compared to some, and they're hardly the oppressed Shabogans (I do long for their story to be told, almost more than anything), but what instantly comes to mind here - to my mind, certainly - is that there's some really interesting class-based stuff you can tap into about not feeling at home in an august, much-revered academic elite; about feeling out of place because of one's ethnic background or what kind of household you grew up in (I'm only being half-autobiographical here; for a whole raft of reasons, I was not as out of place at Oxford as many people in different situations, both known and unknown to me, but such an alienation is not a completely alien feeling either, let's put it that way - and pardon the pun).

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 1: Bangkok, Auckland, Devonport

My brother Simon and I have been planning to go to New Zealand for quite some time, possibly ever since The Lord of the Rings first seized our imagination some time around 2003/4. Peter Jackson's 6 Middle Earth films are notorious for boasting the spectacular New Zealand scenery as the backdrop to mythical creations and battles, and a whole industry has sprung up around Middle Earth 'tours', especially now Hobbiton, where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live, is a permanent feature of the landscape near Matamata.

But in recent years we have had another motive: our uncle Steven lives near Palmerston North, towards the south of North Island, and while he's been over to Britain a few times in recent years neither Simon nor I had yet done the reverse trip, despite planning it or daydreaming of it on several occasions. And so it was that we decided to visit for definite in summer 2017: I've just finished my degree, and Simon is on his gap year between finishing school and starting at uni, so it's pretty perfect timing. The fact that it's winter over there rather than summer doesn't really perturb me (I'm a Nordic-Slavic soul at heart anyway, so I like winter; their winters have better weather than ours; it means things are cheaper because it's the tourism off-season). Anyway, here we are, it's July the 3rd, and what I'm calling our 'Antipodean Excursion' (because it sounds like a crap pulp thriller you'd find in an airport, and this amuses me. Most of my jokes amuse me and no one else, so this shouldn't be any different) has just begun. To all family, friends, and random strangers: you're very welcome to follow blog updates over the coming weeks - I'm envisaging about six such posts - if you want to know what we're getting up to (photos will be Google Image-y ones, not our own, because our own will be up on Facebook for those who want to see them).

Monday, 3 July 2017

On Luchino Visconti's "Il Gattopardo" (1963)

In a luxurious and expansive, and yet somehow oppressive and restrictive room, the sizeable household of a wealthy Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio Cobera, are gathered to pray before the altar in a repetitious low drone of "Ave Maria"s. They are predominantly dressed in fine black clothes, try to hide their concerns behind outward expressions of pious devotion, and are waited on by a gaggle of butlers and footmen. Behind the continuous sound of Latin learned by rote, the viewer catches the sounds of cries, shouts, fury. Servants glance at one another nervously; the Prince and his attendants do their utmost not to notice or let it disturb their ritual. The angry noises which disturb this stuffy interior's equilibrium come from the world beyond books and chandeliers and orchards - for it is 1860, and Garibaldi and his nationalists are sweeping through Palermo.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Gallifrey 2.3: Pandora by Justin Richards (June 2005)

[I'm writing this on a plane from Bangkok to Auckland, so if it's all nonsense I would like to blame air pressure or oxygen deficiency or lack of sleep or something.]

If we can view Gallifrey Series 2 as a traditional five-act structure, then its third part - Justin Richards' Pandora - is The One Where Things Escalate. After the 'breather' that was episode 2, Spirit, this instalment sees events ramping up fairly significantly. The idea of a villainous embodiment of Time Lords' worst thoughts developing sentience and breaking through into the present is a tantalising one, if only because it emphasises the Time Lords' more despotic nature. While they have never exactly been presented in the televisions series as unambiguously good, some portrayals have lacked the bite of tackling just how oppressive, fascistic and corrupt the Time Lords really are. Here, Richards embraces their propensity for Gothic, chthonic underworlds of forbidden secrets and terrible deeds, of the kind we glimpse in Hell Bent - "not all our thoughts are pure and innocent. The Pandora partition is how the Matrix deals with the darker thoughts of the departed Time Lords: ambition, greed, lust for power... all these are siphoned off and stored separately." Even the words signifying the concepts over which they would claim to be Lords ("past", "present", "future") are echoed by the spirit of Pandora as she watches over her world's future.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Haikus for Grenfell

I went past Grenfell
Today, blackened monument
To world unequal.

Its towers-in-arms
Stand guard, say "never again",
Take rage to the top.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

On Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937)

The French director Jean Renoir (1894-1979)'s most celebrated film, La Grande Illusion (1937), is a humanistic masterpiece of profound anti-war sentiments. A war film which - unlike its counterpart All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - does not show a single frame of conflict or battle and does not have a single scene set on the trenches, La Grande Illusion focuses instead on a group of French officers who have been taken prisoner by German forces during the First World War, on the way they are treated differently to ordinary prisoners because of their rank, and specifically on class relationships, both between the French officers and between the French and the Germans they encounter. It's a deeply realistic film in many ways - not just based on Renoir's own wartime experiences, but lead character Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is even wearing Renoir's old aviation jacket throughout the film - but its director was not averse to stylized touches, saying in his autobiography that he was "incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale". In the context of the "low dishonest decade" of which Auden wrote, the 1930s, Renoir's film is also a way of examining relationships between European countries in the light of the rise of fascism in Germany (post-1933) and sabre-rattling between the various powers. Any pusillanimous Brexiteers sitting down to begin negotiations would do well to watch such a film and think of what can be learned from it in a modern context, though I'm sure the fact that it's in French would put them off...