Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And a Merry Xmas to All of You at Home

How many Doctor Who fans out there have published blog posts with that name on it? Probably all of them, or at least the ones with no shame. However, after much stumbling around the internet, I've finally managed to watch this year's Doctor Who Xmas Special, The Next Doctor, which I thought was a solidly above average, if not exemplary story. It was considerably appreciated among the general British populace, as is the case with everything the show does today. But I think the biggest problem that arose in the fan community was that none of their wild and insane expectations were satisfied.

Now here's the context. In an interview this Fall, David Tennant confirmed that he was leaving the role of the Doctor at the end of 2009, so the four television movies that will be released over the next year will be his last. He'll regenerate during the last tv movie just before the start of season five in spring 2010. Shortly after this announcement, the title of the Xmas 2008 special was revealed as The Next Doctor, and that the title character would be played by David Morrissey, one of the bookmakers' favourites to replace Tennant. The fan community was all a-flutter and a-squee on the internet, with the majority interpreting this evidence along these lines. Morrissey was booked to become the eleventh Doctor in 2010, and Tennant was going to overlap with his own personal future and meet him.

I rejected that plot as just too obvious, especially when the BBC released a teaser clip in November of the pre-credits sequence of The Next Doctor. Tennant appears in Xmas 1851 by himself to chill out for a while, hears a woman shouting for The Doctor, and runs to help. But she keeps shouting when he gets there, and David Morrissey appears wearing Victorian clothes and speaking with a bunch of vocal mannerisms that Tennant himself uses for the character. Rather than Tennant meeting his future self, I guessed that instead this "next Doctor" would be an imitator. Perhaps he was a fan who found opportunity to take up the mantle of his hero, or a time travelling con man out to use his identity for fun and profit. It turned out that neither of these was the case, and Morrissey's "Doctor" (but I should say 'Professor') had a far more compelling, engrossing, and tragic back story than I had imagined. My expectations had been completely thrown and I couldn't have been more pleased.

Some, however, were not pleased at all. Behind the Sofa is a blog that has become a pillar of the community of Who fans, and while they began as a bunch of barely literate prats slagging off their favourite show for a bunch of fanboyish slights, they have evolved into a group of solid reviewers. But they still have their fannish moments. All of these reviews have spoilers, so if you want to watch the story without them, go do that first.

I mentioned that I was glad to have my expectations overturned, since to create the novel and unexpected is what art is all about. However, one negative review of The Next Doctor seemed entirely occupied with the writer, Neil Perryman's, disappointment that he had guessed wrong about Morrissey's character. Iain Hepburn gave a much better negative review, since he didn't like the story for much better reasons. Among them was what he perceived as a by-the-numbers Russell Davies adventure script, a lack of the chemistry between Tennant and Morrissey that they had shown when previously working together on the miniseries Blackpool, some lacklustre special effects, and a tired performance from Tennant himself.

Overall, this is the kind of story structure that Russell Davies writes in his sleep, and that has become a tad old at this point. The story certainly had some unfortunately silly elements, such as the Cybermen secretly using an army of Dickensian street urchins to build a fully functional steampunk 20-story Cyber-mech. Both of these points Frank Collins discusses in his overall positive review of the episode at Behind the Sofa. As for myself, I found Tennant's performance to fit the tiredness of the Doctor himself at this point in his character development. Being forced, for all practical understanding, to euthanize your best friend Donna at the end of season four does not put one in the best of moods, and the Doctor is without doubt tired. His encounter with Morrissey is an opportunity to take stock of the man his tenth self has become.

Indeed, this movement is at the heart of what I thought was a quite intense and dramatic interaction between Tennant and Morrissey. Of course, the chemistry isn't going to be the same as in Blackpool; they were antagonists then. Indeed, the best part of the story was its first forty minutes, where the Doctor works out just who Morrissey is, and helps him come to terms with himself and what he can do. When we meet Morrissey, he's a man who thinks he's a hero, and over the course of the story, the Doctor helps him become a hero himself. It was a perfect ending as well, with Morrissey helping the Doctor become what he didn't think he could be again, a friend.

It's a shame the villain's evil plan didn't make any sense, or this would have been brilliant from start to finish. As it is, The Next Doctor was 70% brilliant and 30% mindless fun that could have been much better as mindful fun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Brief Reflection on Barstool Philosophy

A discussion with a friend of mine at McMaster Philosophy a while ago resulted in the second crossed-finger 'Back Vampire!' gesture and accompanying hissing noise that I've received for my philosophical ideas. All in jest, of course. There's no real hatred happening, at least not for my philosophical views. The first one I got during my MA thesis research when my friend saw I was reading Neurophilosophy, which she utterly despised.

The second one was in a bar in Hamilton, when we were talking a little colloquial philosophy, and I mentioned that I didn't believe in an immaterial soul. And my friend, she gave me the cross and hiss. From what I remember, her case was "You can't just believe that we're just machines reacting to stimuli, can you?!"

The big difference between dualists and me is that a dualist thinks that you need a whole hell of a lot of equipment to do all the crazy cool stuff humans do. I think all the crazy cool stuff humans do can be done by a very trim, svelte, efficient rig. The human gear is simple, but with practically unlimited potential for action. I think mine actually sounds a lot more cool and poetic than the dualist model. After all, a game of Go is just a bunch of discs on a board, but the complexity of what can be done is immense.

Now I must drink and dance to rock music.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Phones and Mannerliness

I was just listening to a fascinating BBC Start the Week podcast, discussing various issues of architecture, and a new book of collaborations between poets and astrophysicists. But a throwaway comment near the end of the podcast threw me, and it's something that always comes up whenever middle aged people discuss how that dang new-fangled technology, mobile phones in particular, have changed the way we interact with people.

One person, I think it was the host, Andrew Marr, mentioned how it's become acceptable to excuse yourself from a conversation with people standing in the same room with you to answer your mobile phone. He described it as caring more about a piece of technology than about a person. But there's a person on the other end of the phone.

They're trying to connect with you from quite far away, and are connecting much more tenuously than these people who are right in front of you. There is a fragile bond connecting you and whoever is calling you, a shaky cellular transmission. It's only fair that this other person should supersede the people in the room with you. The folks standing face to face with you have a much stronger connection with you, and so don't need your help. You can let them go for a few minutes to pay attention to someone through this much more tenuous link.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Coincidental Wrong Number

Eventually, I'll get around to writing a fairly long, detailed post about contemporary American politics, but I'm waiting for various bits of the Blagojevitch scandal to calm down, and I've been busy trying to get all the writing (conference papers, novel) and reading (Pynchon's Against the Day, Latour's Politics of Nature) out of the way by the time I fly to St John's on Xmas Eve. So until I get around to writing that, here's something that used to happen to me in Newfoundland.

About every three months or so for a period of about five years, I would get a wrong number on my mobile phone from someone looking for a person named Yahtzee. I never actually tried to track him down, because I didn't care. But over the past year, I've become inordinately fond of Zero Punctuation, the video game reviews hosted by The Escapist Magazine. I rarely play video games, and I'm rubbish at them. But I do understand the ideas involved, and I find them very interesting. And the man behind Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee Croshaw, is one of the most entertaining people on the internet today.

Just after listening to the latest Zero Punctuation review, a scathingly abusive treatment of the latest Sonic the Hedgehog game (They still make Sonic games? I was surprised too.), I thought about my formerly regular wrong numbers. Since my phone number changed when I moved to Hamilton, I don't get these wrong numbers anymore. But I imagined just now that actual friends of Yahtzee Croshaw were trying to call him. This meant that they were ranking up hideously high mobile phone charges for accidentally calling me in eastern Canada over long distance from Australia. However, that's probably not the case, as very few people would ever be that stupid.
Also, there's a really good Roberto Bolaño short story online over at The New Yorker, and you should read it.
Some of the reasons why I love love.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Protesting in the Freezing Cold

This weekend, I was in Toronto, and found myself at Stephane Dion's and Jack Layton's protest rally downtown without even planning to go. I wandered in, and ended up holding a sign, listening to the speeches of the two party leaders, having arrived just in time to see them both, catch a couple of acoustic songs by a few members of Broken Social Scene (which rally MC Mary Walsh at one point called Broken Scene), and be on my way. The sign is still up in my apartment window, stating that I'm part of the 62% majority.

I had spent the previous Friday, among other events, sitting in a rooftop tent above a pro-actively weed friendly coffee shop in Toronto, laughing myself sick at my friend Chris' impromptu performance of a rant about how, if one interprets the constitution correctly, it would be perfectly acceptable for the Governor General, during a parliamentary crisis, to overthrow the parliament in a military coup. Since the Governor General is the Commander in Chief of the Canadian armed forces and the head of state anyway, this would not even really be a coup, but the Governor General exercising her powers in a time of necessity. I think it was the large number of mellifluously flowing syllables in Chris' explanation. The more I think about this, the more I realize that I would not mind if this happened.

Regular readers (if I have any left) are probably wondering why it's taken me so long to rant about our current political situation. Well, it's because I have so far only been briefly excited about the idea of a coalition, and I'm now fairly concerned about it. I'm not worried about the coalition itself. I endorse the idea of Canadian politics being more open to multi-partisan processes. And every policy the coalition has put forward is a perfect blend of the most sensible Liberal positions with the most sensible NDP positions for what this country needs to do if we're going to ride out the global credit crisis. Canadians should not fool themselves into thinking that we are immune to serious economic problems, like the over-inflation of housing prices.

Conservative party economic policies will only work for magical fantasy worlds where markets are run not by an aggregate of several billion humans buying and selling things, but by the miracle-like dictates of the ghosts of William F Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Barry Goldwater. They are practically photocopies of the Reagan/W economic approach, which values only sustained growth of Gross Domestic Product statistics, ignoring the growing numbers of poor people domestically and throughout the world. Nothing would make me happier than to see this government thrown back to Alberta, where they belong.

And there is my major worry about this country right now. There is something rotten in Canada, possibly the most serious political division in our history since the Quebec referendum. I would say it is moreso, because a nationality can be bargained with, and federalist Canadians have bargained quite well with separatist Québécois. Ideological enemies cannot be bargained with, because they want to destroy what the bargainers are not willing to give up. Contemporary Québécois have largely been satisfied with the greater level of inclusion in the Canadian political process, and increased recognition, at least in the public, of Québec's distinct nationality. They did not want to destroy the economic institutions of federalism. A separate Québec would have had all the same welfare state institutions as Canada.

Albertans do not want this. Contemporary Albertans are beacons of intolerant conservative ignorance. They are a frontier state, settled by a culture of independent farmers and ranchers; individualists distrustful of anyone other than themselves assuring them that they the outsiders know best. Before oil wealth made Alberta a major engine of Canadian economic growth, the people had political leanings that could be called socialist: individuals who have worked hard for their property banding together to protect that property, whether from an invasive federal government or capitalist robber barons.

When Albertans were able to become the robber barons, their tune changed considerably, if not the basic distrust of outside interference, which is often seen as a kind of theft. That was the Albertan response to Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program. It goes to show that even though Trudeau was an effective strategist against Québécois nationalism (why Trudeau had little to do with the 1995 sovereignty referendum is a post for another day), he knew nothing about Alberta. The intolerance toward outside interference has mutated into an intolerance for any dialogue with outsiders. Most immigrants to Alberta quickly change their political beliefs to match their new home. I've seen examples of left-leaning Ontarians and Newfoundlanders going to Alberta to work, and returning as virulent fiscal conservatives.

Now that extreme wealth was the order of the day, principles of sharing that wealth disappeared from the Albertan idea of self-reliance. When a self-centred culture becomes rich, the concerns of their people change to reflect their wealth. If wealth was going to be given to other people who were not Albertans, then Albertans were opposed to this. The bill for a welfare state is paid by those citizens who have enough money that they do not need welfare state services themselves. If those people can understand that the poor are unfortunate and need help, then there is no problem. If those people see the poor as lazy, then the welfare state is institutional theft from hard workers to feed bums.

The values of hard work and just rewards are strong in Alberta, and I admire that. I am disgusted by the self-centredness seemingly ubiquitous in that province which blinds them to the idea that hard work does not necessarily lead to wealth. Albertans believe that their wealth is a necessary result of their hard work, and that people who are not wealthy do not deserve to be so. Albertan conservatism is the greatest threat to Canada's wider prosperity in history, because the Albertan political goal is to destroy every means of protecting people from the injustices of greed in growth, or poverty in depression.

No compromise is possible because they seek to destroy the institutions that I wish to protect. I don't think there is any way to solve this political crisis other than marginalizing the conservative movement in Canada to the point where it withers and dies. They must be kept out of government by a united front of all Canadians who believe in economic justice. The centre-left campaign of the next election must show the suffering poor of Canada abandoned by the Conservative government, and showing Ignatieff (because he'll win this), Layton, and yes even Duceppe standing with people putting factories back to work and marketplaces buzzing with Canadian farm goods.

Some matters of politics are non-negotiable, because we refuse to give them up. Do not buckle down to Conservative demands.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Impasses and Turns of Phrase

As of now, the novel stands at 246 pages and 93,000 words. It is longer than my doctoral thesis will be, and gives me considerable hope that I will finish my thesis and have a job well before the start of what I call Continuance Fee Country, that arid, depressing wilderness many doctoral students find themselves in when their four years have finished, their university funding has been cut off, and they are still writing, now without any income whatsoever.

If I'm able to reach 246 pages of fiction in a year, I'll certainly be able to reach 200 pages of philosophy in eighteen months. Add six months for editing, and a further six months to a year in examination, and I'll have finished my degree fantastically on time. I hope there'll be enough publications and conference presentations as well to have a knockout resumé that can get me into whatever job opens itself up for me. I know a lot of people will say to a doctoral student that they should concentrate on their thesis and save their publications for later.

But I say take that advice and shove it, if you want to get yourself decent employment, instead of a further two to five (yes, five!) years living off your credit line on a diet of Mr Noodles and Spaghetti-Os earning slave-like per-course wages. As a professor, you have to be able to do multiple things at the same time, like teach, publish, administrate, and the various sub-duties attached. And if you don't learn how during your doctoral studies, then you never will.

However, the real point of this post was not to brag about how much work I can do without breaking down in a fetal position and crying like a schoolgirl at the end of term. It was really to ponder a slight hitch with the plot of my novel. The next scene is written up in my outline as follows. "SB and his pregnant partner SM return to St John's from Toronto to get married. 25-30 pages."

As yet, I have no idea how to fill out this scene very far beyond that sentence. The two of them telling stories about Toronto will certainly take up some space, though I'm not sure what kind of Toronto experiences they'll have yet. SB works for CBC arts, so celebrity encounters will be among what he describes. An encounter with SB's and SM's parents might be included as well. However, there's no real conflict there, as the only one I can think of would revolve around their race difference, and SB's parents had no problem with him living with my protagonist JJ for four years. Perhaps I can have things proceed somewhat ironically with no problems whatsoever, and have the entertainment value come from pithy observations and hints of inner despair, like I have throughout the rest of the book.

I think I've made a lot of progress just by writing that paragraph.
One of the blogs I've started reading is the immensely entertaining, Belle de Jour. Much of my enjoyment is found in her forthright honesty, perceptive observation of people, and her delicious turns of phrase. If you do not find this funny, then you either have no sense of humour whatsoever, or are a gigantic prude. Discussing a friend of hers whose girlfriend is jerking him around, she says:

"She still expects him to drop everything and come round as and when she wants, take her out for a meal and morose conversation, then drop her back home without so much as a blowjob. Some women have no shame."