Thursday, 30 July 2015

No Future

Well, that ended very, very badly indeed.

It's no surprise, of course. TV shows based on a central all-consuming mystery almost always have terrible resolutions, because by their very nature fascinating puzzles often disappoint once the solution is known.  But that's not what happened at all here. The fact Wayward Pines totally failed to stick its landing absolutely is because of a common problem in serialised storytelling, but disappointing answers wasn't it.

(Spoilers below)

Five Things I Learned In Wales

1. Kingfishers are absolutely delightful in the wild. Technically I've seen one before; back during my college days there was a kingfisher haunting the lake in the centre of our college. But that little guy was almost unbelievably obese. Like, literally unbelievable, in the sense that the ludicrousness of its ability to fly far outstripped the old factoid about impossible bumblebees.

I've no idea what the little dude was eating - "laked" freshers, perhaps - but the ones we saw in Pembrokeshire were fighting fit, and entirely lovely. We spent over two hours watching them, and might have spent even longer had there not been a constant stream of visitors to the hide who somehow harboured the ludicrous impression that chatting loudly to each other somehow wouldn't scare the birds as long as they did it just outside the hide door.

Turds. Anyway, here's one of Fliss' pictures of one of the birds. We also saw an otter - a long-time goal for both of us - but it didn't stay above water long enough for us to get any snaps.

2. Pembroke Castle is a good choice for a day out. In better nick than many castles (it was only taken once in its entire history, and that only because humanity eventually got around to inventing cannons), so there's lots of turrets and levels and corridors to look around, as well as a rather nifty cavern underneath that's just about big and pretty enough to impress despite the pigeon infestation and discarded kebab boxes. There's also some interesting history to the place, from it being a base to plan Irish invasions and defences against the French to changing sides repeatedly during the civil war. There was also some dude named Strongbow heavily associated with the place, which amused me.  The centre of the castle is now a huge map of Wales, strewn with chess pieces, white and black (the English as the black ones, obvious), each one, naturally, a knight. Occasionally men dressed as squires will gather at the map to encourage children to bellow their defiance against the encroaching marcher lords. Jingoism as entertainment, basically, which I suppose is probably an art-form older than the castle itself.

3. Rocks are, of course, boring, but the locals did at least know a thing or two about putting them together in pleasing shapes. The upper stone in the picture below weighs somewhere in the region of sixteen tonnes.

And all because some guy died one time and wanted to be remembered. From a social justice perspective it's grotesque, a weathered, lonely reminder of the ludicrous excess of those who claim power and prove it by making their subjects bleed. It does have a striking beauty, though, the kind of beauty that, as with the pyramids, you can only acquire through a total disregard for human life. Ugh. Culture is complicated.

4. Rocks are, of course, boring, but the rocks that make up the cliffs of Cardigan Bay are among some of the least boring I've seen. Trapped between two outcrops of volcanic rock, the sedimentary rock in between has been squeezed like a stone zit, gradually creating a strange wave effect like the one I snapped below.

There's also this thing, which is - what the hell is this thing? It makes the Welsh coastline look like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, which God had to abandon so as to make sure he had the time to make England perfect.  (I need to stop watching old Al Murray routines.)

There are some awesome little caves too, which were hard to take good pictures of because all the other people on the boat stood up at the same time we did, blocking shots. Selfish.

5. Speaking of Cardigan Bay, dolphins are arseholes. When you get close to them you can see they're covered in scars from fighting each other. They make the lives of the local harbour porpoises a living hell. They wait for birds to settle on the sea and then charge them from beneath. They're awful. Pretty though.

Still, as the major would say, I wouldn't give them the time of day. And I got the chance, too, when we met the dolphin emissaries during Watch the Skies 3 last Friday. That though is a story for another post.

Monday, 20 July 2015

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #48: ...Afraid To Step Into The Light

Poor old Davis Cameron. Just millimetres away from the keystrokes needed to name the demon summoned to destroy the United Kingdom and smear its sagging porcine face in the ashes that remain. Unreasonable though it may be, it's hard to judge Slipstream fairly. 

Potentially this is a big problem, because when viewed with an unsympathetic eye, Davis doesn't come out at all well. But let's try not to pre-judge him before we've strolled though his whole story. It's not like it'll take very long; Davis' tale is even shorter than his sister's.

The first word to suggest itself when considering Slipstream is expediency (X-pediency?) The X-Treme team required some method of rapid transit they could afford on the tight budget of a renegade branch of X-Men who'd already blown their cash on guns and sunglasses. A new mutant who could create wormholes fit that need very nicely. The fact that, as a nod to Davis' surfer past, the "warp-wave" was something he can use his board to navigate is... well, let's not pull our super-punches: it's corny as all hell. A stupid idea welded to an obvious narrative short-cut. The fact that Davis doesn't even have these powers until Sage activates them for him - the very instant they're needed, no less - underlines how convenient this all is. Claremont wanted to set one story in Australia, the next in Madripoor, and figured the easiest way to get from one to the other was to have a character suddenly discover their mutant power of mass transportation.

Start peeling this onion, however, and the situation starts to look a little different. The sudden emergence of Davis' powers allows Claremont to run one of his favourite games: the rookie tagging along with the professionals in a situation geared to challenge the latter. He'd already done this once in this very title with Thunderbird, but Davis is even more of a fish out of water, having literally just learned he's a mutant, having had absolutely no experience or training, and being entirely lacking in the offensive/defensive power Thunderbird could boast from day one. Indeed, in terms of defence, Slipstream only has the one trick; he can get the hell out of dodge faster and further than anyone else going.

This is an important realisation. Davis signs up to the team explicitly to rescue his sister from her captor, but almost immediately finds himself thrust into an inter-dimensional war. The boy who chose to surf whilst his sister was saving lives suddenly finds tens of thousands of people are relying on him to save them, and that his own life is in danger to an extent even someone used to swimming in shark-frequented waters can't really imagine. When Thunderbird finds him in tears during a lull between missions, it's completely believable; the poor kid is simply overwhelmed. But the fact Davis is so afraid isn't what's crucial here. What's crucial is that he's terrified, he's been given the power to literally go anywhere he wants, and yet he stays and fights. Escape would be the easiest thing in the world for him; even if his wormholes couldn't get him through Khan's barrier and off-island, Madripoor is famous for the amount of hiding places it offers; I doubt its tourist board gets to talk about much else, other than maybe the total absence of extradition treaties.

Rather than run, though, Slipstream stands his ground. More than that, he runs combat missions. Sure, they're comparatively low-risk gigs: warp in, drop a few grenades, and warp back out. But even that has its dangers; grenades are specifically designed to require a bit of effort to activate so as to limit the chances they'll go off prematurely, and it only takes one of Khan's elite soldiers to draw a bead on him whilst he's pulling pins and Davis is tumbling through his last ever wipe-out. Indeed, this is exactly what happens when Vargas tries to take out Rogue and Slipstream interferes, intending to drop him through the warp-wave and instead taking a blade to the back.

In short, a man with every reason to run and every opportunity to run stays put, out of a desire to do good, as a way of honouring the character of his missing sister, and in the hopes that he will see that sister again. All of which makes what happens next all the more tragic.

Because when Davis is at last reunited with his sister, she is utterly changed. Gone is the beautiful blonde Baywatch analogue. Instead, a seven-foot tall golden bird-woman stands before him claiming to be Heather Cameron. Davis reacts to this with savage unpleasantness, screaming that his sister is beautiful, not a monster, and demanding the shining alien insisting she's Heather get the hell out of his sight. It's a moment of supreme ugliness, and as I've said, Slipstream does not come out of it looking at all good. But there is plenty of thematic heft to his reaction. After all, Davis has just risked life and limb (nearly losing at least one if not both) in order to become more like his sister, only to find his actual sister isn't anything like his sister any more. Probably much more to the point though, Davis' response is an all-too familiar one amongst those that call themselves allies, which is to insist that they are completely supportive of oppressed groups when that oppression is just a theoretical exercise, but who crash and burn appallingly the instant they are required to give more than token support. Slipstream apparently is the kind of person who will insist on holding progressive credentials, but who will explode with rage when either asked to directly confront the actual fact of the existence of those they claim sympathy for ("I'm not a racist but IMMIGRANTS ARE TAKING OUR JOBS") or, worse still, to take ownership of the ways in which they benefit from and even perpetuate the oppression they claim to oppose.   

Slipstream is a classic case of all that. Davis was perfectly happy with the idea of his sister being a mutant just so long as she looked like a flatscan.  Just so long as she was "passing", or "closeted", depending on how one wants to interpret the mutant metaphor on this occasion. But now her mutant nature is obvious; inescapable. And, like the heterosexual man who's convinced he's fine with his brother being gay until he actually sees him kissing another man, Davis freaks out. Because now the struggle for equality he claimed to believe in comes with a cost to himself. Something in how society has programmed him is rubbing against the ideals he claims to believe in, and Davis can't throw the latter onto the bonfire quickly enough. 

Which is horrible, and inexcusable, and everywhere. If you want to seriously go about structuring a metaphor for the struggle for equality, you need someone like Davis Cameron in there, if only so he can be knocked down. And indeed Claremont wheels Nightcrawler in specifically to do that, to verbally slap him around for equating extreme non-standard body shapes for monstrousness, and to generally remind him that not every mutant is going to look like a body-builder or a lingerie model (though since at the time of writing, Lifeguard was at most the fifth X-Person out of over forty to look even vaguely non-human, there is a certain bitter irony in being lectured in the importance of not fixating on the cosmetic).  Ultimately, what's frustrating about Slipstream isn't that he gives voice to these awful impulses, it's that he's never given the chance to reflect upon them and try to redeem himself. Whether or not such redemption is even possible is not for me to say, of course, but the act of attempting that redemption would surely be of interest.

Instead, Davis disappears rather than face his sister, and is to my knowledge never actually seen again. Just as with his sister, a promising character is shuffled off the board almost immediately, generating disappointment and whiplash in equal measure. Alas, Heather and Davis Cameron. We hardly knew ye; here and gone too fast for us to do anything but wonder what might have been.

Still, since we're on the subject of supersonic character trajectories anyway... how about next time we take a look at Northstar?

Friday, 17 July 2015

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #47: Some People Stand In The Darkness...

Writing an essay on the subject of Heather Cameron isn't the easiest task in the world, simply because she's spent so little time on the page. Claremont introduced her in the late stages of X-Treme X-Men's first arc, and she disappears at the end of the second. I know from the handy chart at the time that she reappeared during the Utopia years, but I couldn't swear to having ever read a book in that period where she actually appears, let alone speaks.

In several ways, it's a shame we don't get to learn more about her. With her mutant power being the ability to spontaneously adapt to deal with any situation, she's very much the forerunner of the ever-interesting Darwin. Indeed, should one wish to be smug, you could label her a Darwin at an early stage of evolution. And we always want to be smug around here.

But there's more to Lifeguard than that, which is just as well considering that, as we shall see, Claremont quickly ditches most of the possibilities that her power set offers.  There are two distinct advantages (potentially at least) to having Cameron be literally a life-guard. The first is something I at least nodded to when discussing Cecilia Reyes, there's something rather nice and generally unexplored about those with the power to become superheroes who instead devote their time to saving people in comparatively prosaic occupations. There's obviously a difference between Cecilia and Heather; one tries to ignore their abilities whilst the other makes use of them to be more effective in their job (whether this would still be true if Cecilia's powers could have been useful to a trauma surgeon is an interesting question). But the basic question is still the same: how would actual people go about living their lives as mutants? The nature of the central X-Book metaphor is such that most mutants become vigilantes, criminals, or victims, so it's nice to every now and again see someone with the X-gene who's just going about their lives. Indeed, it's pointedly not the fact Lifeguard is a mutant that brings her into the story, rather the fact her father was an Australian crime-lord, recently murdered, and the team wish to protect her from whomever has beef with the Camerons. The coincidence that our heroic mutants tracking another mutant find he's murdered the father of yet another mutant is rather pushing the laws of probability even by Claremont's standards, but at least the results are interesting.

Alas, this idea is rather blown out of the water (pun entirely intended) early on when extra-dimensional forces invade and Heather's biology responds by revealing her half-Shiar side. The already bubbling-over cauldron of coincidence has now exploded of course, but that's not the problem here.  The problem is we go from a woman using her evolutionary flexibility to hold down a lifeguard job on an Australian beach to being a golden bird-woman fighting to save the Earth from alien interlopers. Her power is now simply to look like alien royalty and freak out Khan's flunkies accordingly.

Ultimately, then, this reaches a bit of a dead end. So too does the other interesting aspect of Heather Cameron, though I'm a bit more ambivalent on this one in any case. It doesn't take much effort for anyone who lived through the '90s to recognise what Claremont and Larroca are referencing with Lifeguard's first appearance. And even if you don't catch it, the artwork is helpful enough to write the name of the show on Lifeguard's red swimming costume (on her chest, natch).

There are two ways to process this. The rather more generous one is to suggest this is an experiment in adding mutants to a narrative that already exists, to see how their presence warps the story.  In theory this is a brilliant idea; if you want to postulate the existence of an entirely new kind of person, figuring out how those people would change the way we tell stories is an important thing to do. Hell, you don't even need to invent a new minority; adding the oppressed into narratives that traditionally exclude them and seeing how it alters that narrative is both a vital task and one that's doing wonders reinvigorating the sci-fi genre right now. Either way, the suggestion that the popular stories of the past must be revisited and improved upon from a perspective of social inclusion is a powerful one.

But whilst all that might be true, there's a glaring problem in this specific instance. My exceptionally hazy recollections of Baywatch (it wasn't a show I watched) suggests there was indeed a problem with its failure to meaningfully include minorities, and indeed a quick Google search of the original cast suggests only one of the eleven main characters the show started with was non-white. But what Baywatch was most frequently criticised for wasn't the racial imbalance in its cast, but in how completely it was geared towards the male gaze. This was a show that took the "for the dads" idea to its ultimate endpoint, including so much for the dads there was little left for anyone else. The standard idea of Baywatch centring on an endless array of large-busted women jogging in slow-motion down beaches may or may not be exaggerated, but it's apparently true that the show became so reliant on Pamela Anderson flaunting her curves that when she quit the show the producers hired three more similarly voluptuous women to fill the gap. If aliens had intercepted broadcasts of the show, they would have been impressed Earth had so many performers at open-air strip-clubs who would interrupt their routines to save drowning swimmers.

So if we wanted to warp the narrative of Baywatch to make it more progressive, at an absolute minimum you need to get rid of the scantily-clad curvaceous women (not that I want to body-shame anyone, any more than my desire to see less white people on TV suggests there's something wrong with being white).  This, it goes without saying, is not something we can hope for from a 2002 Marvel comic. Indeed, it's not even possible to tell if Heather looks the way she does because she's modelled on Pamela Anderson, or just because this is what passes for the standard female form in superhero comics. This is already a problem before we consider the fact that Pamela Anderson has in her life had four sets of breast implants. Her motivations for those operations are her own business, but the result was to make herself look more like the standard model of western female sexual desirability created and maintained by, amongst other things, comics books. There's something profoundly depressing about a comic book character modelled on a woman who had her body altered to essentially look more like a comic book character. Ultimately then the answer to how including mutants would warp the Baywatch narrative is: not at all.  It's still about women with - in the neutral sense of the word - unnatural body shapes saving people whilst not wearing all that much in the way of clothes.

It's worth remembering though of course that much of the problem above, whilst real and dangerous, can be laid at the feet of all comics at the time, not just this one. So I'm still inclined to give some credit for the narrative invasion idea, whilst wishing Claremont had been smart enough to take Peter David's approach with Darwin and argue Heather's body shape is its own kind of subconscious mutation to make her life easier [1].  But of course this idea too is rapidly shut down by an actual invasion. Which is a real shame. Some promising ideas got cut short here by another Claremont indulgence in space opera. But then that was almost always what Claremont's space stories did. They separated the comics from their central metaphor, and replaced it with a crudely-whisked melange of whatever sci-fi franchises happened to be in the ascendancy at the time. Heather Cameron's story is just one more casualty of that.

Actually, though, I am being a little unfair. There is one aspect of Heather's character that remains of interest once the antimatter bombs start falling. Discussing that, though, requires a slight change of focus. We need to talk about Davis Cameron.

[1] Though one could respond to this that suggesting white skin makes one's life easier than brown skin is very different to arguing the more conventionally attractive and sexually desirable a woman's body the easier they will find life. Perhaps it's just as well Claremont never tried to wade into that particular swamp; he may have needed saving from drowning too.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Friday 40K: Everything Is Getting Older

Fresh off the painting table (by which I mean I'm not even sure it's dry yet) my first ever Eldar miniature, guarding a toast-shaped cork coaster for all she's worth.  In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only surprisingly large grilled bread products WHICH MUST BE CONQUERED!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Brian Michael Bendis Is A Witch

After six years, it all finally makes sense...

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Not So Monstrous After All

"I am a mole and I live in a hole. With badgers. Wait, is that Man-Bear-Pig? ARRRRGH!"
Update: I've updated the below in order to not deadname El Sandifer. Given how much her writing has influenced my thinking, I'm going to have to go through the whole blog to ensure I haven't done this elsewhere. Until I find the time to do that, though, my apologies for any confusion or discomfort caused.

I really wasn't looking forward to "Monster of Peladon". A six-part dose of what everyone seems to agree is, at best, the second most wretched stretch of Pertwee action during his whole half-decade tenure? Not really my cup of space-tea. But, acquiring this was the price of getting hold of "Curse of Peladon" (in addition to the more obvious price of, you know, money and stuff), so like a good Yorkshireman [1] I gritted my teeth and sat down to see if the money I'd spent on this disc would be best recouped by keeping it for entertainment purposes, or hanging it in a tree to upset nearby squirrels.

Here's the thing, though. I don't think it's at all bad. In fact, there's quite a lot I like about it. It has a lot of flaws, certainly; I've no intention of arguing it's an above average Pertwee outing. But it's far from the unbearable car-crash it's been painted as by everyone whose opinion on the subject I've encountered.

So there was nothing for it, then, but to remind why people didn't like it and figure out what I was missing. I started, as usual, with El Sandifer's blog, given she's a) fiercely smart, b) pretty close to me politically speaking, and c) very keen on trying to write positive readings of generally hated stories. Usually, if she can't redeem something, it can't be redeemed.

To summarise, Sandifer's objections here can be broken down into three issues, the structure, the length, and the political subtext. That's not quite the order she does it in, but it suits the flow of this post to tackle them in that order. So, structure first. The big complaint here is that "Monster..." pulls the exact same trick as "Curse..." by setting up two villains, one plainly obvious to the viewer, the other revealed only late in the day. In "Curse..." it is obvious to everyone watching that Hepesh is up to no good, and the same is true of Azaxyr and his shock troops in "Monster...", which returns the Ice Warriors to the status of obvious villains.  Sandifer makes it clear that his objection here isn't in who turns out to be the secret villain (she describes the Eckersley reveal as rather clever), but in who the obvious one is.  Even so, though, whilst we're discussing obviousness, let's talk about how much better "Monster..." pulls off its reveal than does its predecessor. This, for the uninitiated, is Arcturus.

Note the green-brown skin tone, the seaweed-frond tentacles, the staring eyes and skull face.  If there is a central, neutral point for mollusc-like aliens, Alpha Centauri and Arcturus are far from it as possible in opposing directions. There is simply no way to look at this thing and not see it as encoded for villainy. This is basically a Dalek in the Skaro equivalent of a bubble car (he even sounds rather Dalek-like). Nor is Arcturus' attitude anything more than unpleasant throughout. He is disguised as a villain only by the Ice Warriors being the more obvious choice, and even then, there's no reason to not think Arcturus is in on the plot to destabilise the situation.  The Ice Warriors are a distraction, but revealing Arcturus as a villain is not in any sense a surprise - evilness is what sinister tentacle-skulls in cut-price Mark III Travel Machines do.

Compare this with the revelation late in "Monster..." that Eckersley is a villain. That's a genuine surprise, because the coding has suggested nothing like it up until then. Arcturus looked like a monster who might not actually turn out to be one (which when he doesn't somewhat undermines "Curse..."'s point about the Ice Warriors). Eckersley was a friend to the heroes who was working undercover all along. Suggesting this is somehow an inferior re-tread of "Curse..."'s central trick does the latter story a colossal disservice.

As I say though, Sandifer does note how well Eckersley works, saving the majority of her ire for the major step backwards the story takes with regard to the Ice Warriors. Here, we are very much in agreement. The revelation that Doctor Who monsters could graduate into actual characters - actual people - was one of the very best ideas in "Curse of Peladon", and to see them slide back into villainy here is a real shame.  It's worth noting, though, that the regression is not complete. Azaxyr is no more monstrous a villain than is Eckersley. Indeed, you could replace the rebel Ice Warriors with rebel Federation humans and no-one would suggest the story featured unconvincingly simplistic villains (they might complain about other things, of course, like how interesting could three episodes of angry humans being dicks to a giant dick possibly be?). Count how many Who stories involve a human traitor working for alien aggressors. Now count how many of those stories don't feature the human traitor being betrayed by his erstwhile extra-terrestrial allies? As classic Who monsters go, this batch of Ice Warriors are comparatively subtle.  Which is to say whilst a return to villainy for the sons of Mars is a genuine disappointment, it is certainly not the case that they have returned to being mere monsters. One wonders how much better this story might be regarded had the Ice Warriors returned to the show before the Matt Smith years, both as protagonists and antagonists. After all, aliens who are always good are no less reductive and frustrating than those that are always evil.

In short then, whilst Sandifer clearly has a point about how poorly served the Ice Warriors are here, I think it's a criticism that's overplayed, particularly when you consider the real differences between "Curse..." and "Monster...".  Let's talk about the issue of additional length [2]. I'm completely in agreement with Sandifer that Who six-parters are almost always cursed with at least one entirely unnecessary episode that could easily be cut with only minimal changes to the other instalments. This story is no exception, with episode five advancing the plot not one bit beyond the Eckersley reveal. Which is great, obviously, but it wouldn't take much rewriting at all to stick it in at the end of episode four, instead of all that bollocks involving Ettis (which we'll come back to).  But to argue that this story is basically a repeat of "Curse..." but slower is entirely inaccurate. "Monster..." is longer because of what it includes that "Curse..." didn't bother itself at all with: the working class.

Adding the miners to the culture of Peladon is, at least on paper, an absolutely brilliant move. Indeed, it's so strong that I actually found myself unhappy when the Ice Warriors arrived, since it interrupted an unfolding tale of class struggle that I was very much enjoying. The biggest flaw of "Curse Of Peladon" was that it boiled down to a bunch of aristocrats and other powerful men arguing about whether joining a larger community was in their best interests. To link it to the EEC metaphor everyone seems in agreement about being the driving force here, "Curse..." was about whether Edward Heath would win out over his back-benchers in trying to mould the Conservative Party into something marginally less utterly worthless. What's truly important about the sequel isn't that it's a shame the bunch of nice and peaceful Ice Warriors have been replaced with belligerent murderous arseholes, it's that the two groups are indistinguishable from the miner's perspective. What possible difference can it make to them how personally pleasant their overlords' foreign allies are? They're clearly being screwed over either way. Whilst life has seemingly improved for the Peladon aristocracy (everyone seems very keen on continuing to make kissy-faces at the Federation, at least), things have gotten worse for the miners both because they're under more pressure to deliver and also because men like Autron can now blame the Feds for the miners' punishing, risky schedules instead of accepting responsibility himself. Of course inserting that layer to the story requires more episodes.

All of which brings us to the nub of Sandifer's anger: what is being suggested by the miner storyline.  Sandifer's objections are rooted both in cosmetics and subtext.  For the former, she objects to the miners all sporting the same look (leather-loving badgers), having harsh, guttural names in comparison to the aristocratic characters, and talking with "comedy" working class accents throughout the story. In truth, I'm not sure I agree at all on the accents front; it's clear the miners are supposed to represent coal miners, and so have the kind of accents coal miners did. I don't detect anything comedic there, or at least to the extent to which I do it seems far more plausible to blame limitations in acting ability rather than a deliberate dig at the working class. Without wishing to go too far down the "what does she know?" road, I do think it's interesting that there's no mention of dodgy accents here, in a blog written (like this one) by people who are actually from the same sorts of area as the miners in question.  The comment about naming conventions is a more interesting one, though it strikes me, possibly naively, as an open question as to why the ears of English speakers prefer softer consonants and long vowel sounds in names. The chances of this being entirely or even mostly independent of the class divide strike me as not high. As I say, though, that could easily be my ignorance talking.

Either way, the point about uniformity strikes me as a much stronger one. This is definitely a real problem. One could try to argue I suppose that the differences between Queen Thalia's costume and that of Autron's are down to gender rather than any class issue, but that feels like a cop-out. And even were it true, designing upper-class costumes that are indistinguishable would be far less problematic than doing the same thing for the workers, just like the stereotypes of American and British people in "Tomb of the Cybermen" are vastly less problematic than its treatment of Toberman. Stereotyping and simplifying the powerful is different to stereotyping and simplifying the powerless (though a single line somewhere about how the miners are told to dress identically would work wonders here). I won't in any sense try to defend the practice.

On the other hand, though, I will point out how pervasive it is. If we want to tear apart science-fiction shows for pushing the idea that alien cultures are essentially uniform - and by Gods, we absolutely should be doing that - there are much better targets than '70s Who. What matters here is whether the use of that alien race (or class, as here) justifies the underlying problems generated by pretending cultures other than your own are less subtle or complicated than your own. In fairness, I've absolutely no doubt Sandifer knows this, but felt no need to discuss it since she believes the use the miners are being put to is so wrong-headed and unpleasant in any case. My point here then is that many if not all of Sandifer's complaints about the cosmetic issues surrounding the miners can be overridden if the political subtext is less howlingly Godsawful than Sandifer believes.

And I think it is less awful. Or at least, there's a plausible argument that it is. Sandifer's focus here is on the fact that the new dangers facing the miners is secretly agitation from outside agents, reducing the striking miners to dupes accidentally carrying out the wishes of the enemy, exactly the sort of paranoid fantasy the right likes to spread around whenever people try to stand up for to a cruelly disinterested government. It's a valid reading, and were I to subscribe to it I'd be no less outraged than Sandifer is.  But I see things rather differently. I see the sudden attacks of Agaddor as a necessary narrative shorthand for demonstrating how dangerous life has become for the miners because of outside interference. The fact that this particular bunch of aliens is the enemy of the Federation matters very little in my reading, precisely because the Federation itself is so far from being innocent when it comes to risking the miners' lives. Yes, the sonic lance is intended to help the miners out, but there's no reason to believe it will help with regards to safety, as oppose to yield. The trisilicate might flow faster with the lance in operation, but does that mean anything more than that the miners are risking the same horrible fates in exchange for more profits they'll never get to share in. Indeed there's every reason to believe the sonic lance would make things even more dangerous; point it in the wrong direction, someone's gonna get killed. There's no evidence life as Federation citizens has caused any class migration on Peladon, so much as entrenched the class system whilst pushing extra toys as a distraction. What's truly obnoxious about spreading the lie that miners are striking because foreign powers want them to is that it elides the simple truth that those foreign powers are actually much less dangerous to the miners than their own government is. 

And there is evidence here that the script gets this. As Sandifer notes, the Doctor is unambiguously on the side of the miners from the very beginning, and maintains that stance even after he spends time with the absolute least sympathetic of the miners, who beats the crap out of him for a chance to murder dozens of people including Sarah Jane.  The Doctor is aware from jump that the miners are being used by an outside force, but at absolutely no point does he even imply that matters. What matters to him is that the miners concerns are addressed. Because it doesn't matter to him whether the miners are threatened by alien saboteurs or just the kind of standard horrors a life in the pits involves; if the miners have had enough he is 100% behind them. Sure, a cuddly were-boar showing up and zapping people makes for more interesting television than continual cave-ins or suffocation by gas or the slow, hideous fate of coughing your lungs up piece by piece, so that's what we get. But the subtext is clear: mining is dangerous as fuck, and a miner's life is almost never held as more valuable than the rocks he's carving out of the earth. That doesn't mean the link to the "enemy agent" lie has no weight, of course. But to me it's a bum note sounded by a combination of instruments playing perfectly sensible tunes which at a single point combine to sound discordant and ugly.

Which isn't to say I think the miners' tale is free from its problems. I'm completely with Sandifer when she calls bullshit on the character of Ettis, apparently a transparent caricature of Arthur Scargill (not that Sandifer's opinions on Scargill are all that great either). I didn't mention it above, but the whole "I'll kill everyone in the citadel!" idea is ferociously awful. But even were this not a hit-job on a specific human being, it would suck. It's not that there isn't a level of militancy so pronounced it can become self-defeating and destructive, it's that the working class don't need this pointed out to them by smug middle-class television writers. It's patronising crap, and feeds into a larger problem here. Still, at least the Doctor entirely avoids the standard mistake of using Ettis' actions as a cudgel to beat the rest of the miners with. And if we are to see Ettis as Scargill, the fact that his ultimate fate is to be murdered by vicious authorities with no interest in the miners as people is a surprisingly dark and leftist one, even if it here its unfortunately framed as an act of self-defence.

But yes, I started talking about a larger problem. Sandifer nails this one already, so I need only summarise: this is yet another entry in an exhaustively long list of stories insisting the right thing to do is sit down and chat about your problems. Which yes, all things being equal is the best approach. But the whole point here is that things aren't equal. A dialogue, by definition, requires two people, and frequently there's no reason for the more powerful side to engage in that dialogue when they can marshal their vast resources to get what they want some other way. Just look at how easy it was for Eckersley to persuade Alpha Centauri that the miners obstreperousness requires a military response. The arrival of the Ice Warriors is no different to the arrival of the riot police: when you lecture the miners (or the suffragettes, or the civil rights marchers, or the...) on the importance of talking over violence, you are demanding they not fight in a war the other side started.  Fuck literally every inch of that.

Again, though,  the question is whether the mistake is so egregious that it means it would have been better to have never considered the miners at all. And I just don't see that as the case here. Yes, there are huge problems with how Hayles/Dicks approaches the tricky subject of industrial action, but at least it's there. At least the effects of political manoeuvring on the people is being considered, rather than completely ignored (hell, "Curse of Peladon" went so far as to have the only character one could plausibly consider working class to be literally unable to speak). In terms of becoming an ally, the first stage after ignoring someone's struggle is to want to to help but have absolutely no clue about how best to do it. That's "Monster..." for me, a well-meaning attempt to portray the miners' problems that stumbles badly because of how undeveloped the writers' grasp of the situation is.  Were something like "Monster..." to be released in 2015, I'd smash it into the ground. But the television landscape of today is all but unrecognisable in comparison to the television landscape of 1974; the idea that we should actually figure out what the concerns of the working class are and address them wasn't being tried all that often (not that we can pat ourselves on the back too hard even now; we still have to wade through crap like Downton Abbey). El pours scorn on Sarah-Jane's admittedly clumsy attempts to spread women's lib to Peladon, but where he sees the line "There is nothing 'only' about being a miner any more than there is about being a girl" as undercutting an otherwise glorious message about respect for the workers, I see it as strengthening it. It's a reminder that judging someone by nothing but their job should be as self-evidently ridiculous and awful as judging someone by nothing but their gender (and hell, it's not like being reminded to not be a sexist arsehole wasn't worth doing at the time, or indeed now).  If the language used is clumsy, over-earnest, and unsophisticated, well, that's what we got here.  I flatly refuse to believe it would have been better to never say it at all.

Which, in the end, describes "The Monster of Peladon" very well; a deliberate attempt to say something that needed saying, and which the show had failed to say the last time around. The fact it's said so badly isn't something that should be ignored, but it's still a sign of progress, which is exactly the sort of thing we're supposed to be all about.

[1] On my mother's side. My father is a Teessider, a combination which means I have a third lung for filtering smog, but I'm angry that there's no way I can use it to save money. 

[2] This would seem to be the most common complaint amongst those who lack El's fury at the political undertones of the story. And there must be plenty of those people around. We are, let's not forget, talking about a fandom in which a non-trivial proportion of members refuse point-blank to consider the possibility that "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is racist.