Sunday, 26 October 2014

Fearful Assymetry

No, no no. No, not at all.

Context is important here, I think. Two of our good friends were staying over this weekend, which means that I watched this in the company of a fellow ex-secondary school teacher, and someone still fighting in those particular trenches. So there were three people eager to pontificate on the most school-heavy episode of Who history since the first instalment of "An Unearthly Child", if that (and no, "School Reunion" doesn't count. "School Reunion" is about how awesome the Doctor would be if he was a teacher, which in addition to being pretty fucking insulting to actual teachers reduced the students to another round of cyphers reiterating how the Tenth Doctor was the best thing since sliced Wirrn).

(Spoilers follow)

It all got pretty ugly, by the end, though that was mainly my fault.  This is not going to be a favourable review.  So let's start with what I genuinely loved.  The idea of a central mystery which turns out to be about how life-forms beyond our understanding show up to help out is a wonderful twist. I hoped that was where this was going, and it definitely delivered. The fact that the closest thing the episode ultimately had to monsters were animals simply acting as animals - and who only got the chance to do so because of humans carting them around the globe - was great as well (and really, you can't call an episode what this is called and not include a tiger). And lastly, Danny Pink kicked all sorts of arse by, well, refusing to try kicking all sorts of arse.  Having a maths teacher as the hero of a piece is something I'm obviously massively biased towards, but in every stage of the story he demonstrated that what kids really need in a crisis is someone who has no intention of doing anything but putting them first and getting them home.  It was lovely.

So much for the song of praise. One verse, no chorus. Let's segue into the rage.

I suspect many other people disliked this episode for reasons I'm not particularly concerned with.  Which isn't to say I don't understand people being gobsmacked at the idea you can stop a tree burning by having it "control oxygen" - all they can do is stop producing oxygen, which presumably is why it's conclusively proved by science that you can't set a dead tree on fire - or the idea that trees can grow overnight if only they want to enough or that concrete or seawater can't effectively prevent arboreal advancement or that anyone anywhere could write the phrase "we love trees!" without their  word processor exploding on general principle. All of that is admittedly ridiculous, but at a certain point you just feel like you're screaming into the void about this stuff.

So it wasn't that. Nor was it the fundamental problem with scripts like this that it immediately raises the question as to why the sentient forests don't lift a damn twig when anyone else gets in trouble. Suggesting that trees will help out one time in a million just makes them seem like wooden douchebags for letting us get screwed over the other 999 999 times. One might also point out that fairy tales expressing a fear of forests isn't a global phenomenon (the Japanese spend far more time freaking out about the sea, for example), which makes this one more instance of mistaking the attitudes of Europe for the attitudes of the world, which three weeks after asking Europe to represent the opinions of the entire world is no small problem, but that's not what appalled me either,

It wasn't even really that Clara came off as such a terrible teacher, though that was part of it.  There's basically zero chance Clara didn't know Bradley suffered anger management issues - that will have been communicated to her by the SEN team.  Which means if he's about to blow and you can't even be bothered to look up from your marking so that he assaults another student, you are awful at your job. See also calling a class gifted and talented when they so clearly aren't, as though kids aren't smart enough to immediately see through such transparent lies; it isn't nice, it's horrifically patronising.   But then the episode seemed pretty insistent upon demonstrating that Clara doesn't really have her head in the game, so there's an upper limit on how annoyed I can get that the episode seemed to accidentally make this problem much more pronounced than they seemingly meant to (though of course accidentally making you think someone sucks at a job for which being terrible at can be genuinely dangerous isn't a great look for your ostensible heroine).

It's all about Maebh. You simply cannot, in a show aimed at children, suggest that there are medications doctors should not be prescribing.  You cannot have a character called The Doctor telling children it's important they don't take the pills they've been given because maybe their getting messages from faeries. I know Phil Sandifer loved this aspect, seeing it as a rail against the reflexive use of anti-psychotic medication. I will freely confess that I don't know how common a problem that is, and clearly to the extent it happens, it needs to be pushed against. But there are ways to do that which don't involve telling the patients themselves they should be suspicious of what's being handed to them.

My own biases are creeping in here again, so allow me full disclosure. I was first prescribed drugs to keep my brain from sinking when I was thirteen years old.  I hated the idea.  I had all sorts of messed up concepts of what mental illness was, and how it was supposed to be fought. I was convinced, in the wisdom one is convinced one has obtained simply by crawling upwards to the lowest level of the nightmarish teenage years that failing to work through the issue without breaking out the meds was just that; a failing. I was also in the final years of my formative Doctor Who obsession that informs, well, pretty much all of me. The idea of my hero explicitly stating that medications of the mind are prescribed too freely at an age where I'd have been inclined to believe him terrifies me.  Sutekh alone knows what might have happened to me.  The further pain I'd have put myself through because maybe something else was going on.

I don't mean "something else" in the sense of messages from sentient trees. I'm not arguing children are too stupid to know the difference between fiction and reality. I'm saying they're smart enough to see a metaphor when it's dangled in front of them, and some metaphors do more harm than good. This has an unacceptably high chance of being one of them.  And that doesn't change if, as Sandifer convincingly argued, Maebh is modelled on Blake himself.  There really is a low ceiling on how much I can care about the idea that if Blake had been born in our time he might have had his visions dampened by well-meaning doctors.  Not because I place no worth on his work, but because I refuse to consider Blake's work demonstrates that avoiding medication is somehow worthwhile (I don't think this is what Sandifer intends, though I see no an easy way to get past him starting off singing Blake's praising before calling the episode's comments on meds "beautiful"). Just as Lily Allen's calls for school pupils to ignore their teachers and follow their dreams because it just so happened to work out for her rather ignores the hundreds of thousands of children who won't score platinum albums and award nominations, it is folly to nod to the most famous success stories of skipping out on the best advice available without thinking through the cost for everyone else involved.

It is not to underestimate anyone nor to deny their individuality that to point out for every Blake who crossed through into the side of the mirror on which claim our dreams, there are countless thousands who will never get there, who will spend a lifetime dogged by mental illness without the dubious compensation of securing a place in art history.

Maybe we shouldn't be in the business of telling them there might be a problem in trying to offer them the best quality of life we are able to.

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