Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Villainous Vikings

Since the end of the war with humanity the Cylons had felt free to let themselves go a little.

Since I've said something about every episode of this Who season so far, I feel like I should at least pass brief comment on "The Girl Who Died." Spoilers: I didn't like it.

(Also spoilers: spoilers.)

Most of the usual suspects from whom I tend to get my Who criticism these days were deliriously happy with that episode, featuring as it did a strong central message that villains operate by lying about the world, and the only way to defeat them is to overwrite their lies with something more interesting. Which is a perfectly grand message and a perfectly valid reason to have loved this. As someone else pointed out, this story focuses on two aliens who both claim to be Odin and then sees which of them tells a more compelling story. The fact that the better story turns out to involve the Benny Hill theme is simply icing on the cake.

Which, fair enough. My problem is that whilst the story the Doctor wants to tell is clearly better than that of the literal adrenaline junkies in orbit, the story Moffat and Mathieson are telling just didn't work.  The jokes didn't land, the reveal that this was going to be a story about fighting aliens with eels came across as silly rather than whimsical, and the screeching right turn into the tragic death of Ashildr tore every wheel off the wagon. Some of the baby dialogue I liked, and Maisie Williams turned in a strong performance, but in general, this was a misfire.

Or so it seemed to me.  None of that rises above the level of personal preference, I don't think, which is why it's not a remotely interesting take.  My one substantive gripe is the decision to set a story in Scandinavia that revolves around using an animal endemic to South America.

In part, my objection here is just the geographical illiteracy involved. And I make no apologies for that. There are few things that piss me off more than the Gods-awful vacuous cries of those yelling "It's a show about a time-wizard fighting aliens this stuff doesn't matter!" Because really, fuck you. The idea that there are no realities about our world or universe that couldn't be ignored in the service of a Doctor Who story is so obviously self-refuting that anyone making it should be quietly escorted away from any keyboard they attempt to interfere with.  I'll decide for myself which inaccuracies are a problem, thank you.

But there is another objection to this kind of crying foul, which is that if all you can say is "Well, technically..." is that a useful thing to state? Once you've noted the error, what follows? Jack Graham made this point on Twitter; yes, the Viking helmets have horns here, which is wrong, but where does that criticism get us? Does it reveal something interesting about the episode itself? Or are we the fool at the party smugly informing people that Frankstein was the creator, not the resurrected corpse?

On that front, the horns actually work out reasonably well. One might be tempted to argue they're of a piece with the Doctor and Clara yelping "Vikings!" as though the real-life Vikings were thrilling and exciting as oppose to brutal murderers and rapists ("Heritage park history", as it's sometimes derided).  But a major part of this episode is the idea that the Mire are more Vikingy than the Vikings they're threatening (though really the villagers themselves arguably aren't actually Vikings, any more than I'm a Royal Navy officer), and that this is clearly not a good thing to be. The Viking warriors are out-Vikinged, and so the way for their families to survive is to find an alternative to killing - an alternative to the standard might-conquers-all narrative that we take to be central to their general approach. But perhaps assuming such an approach is their baseline is a mistake in itself. The twin messages here are that the Vikings as we conceive of them were not good news, but also that the communities they came from were more complicated than the endless cycle of pillaging and mead-drinking we associate with them would suggest. Putting the wrong helmets on them might be annoying (Fliss was shouting at the TV at that point; I just remembered the show had made this mistake already more than a decade before I was born, and chose to let it pass [1]), but it doesn't actually undermine the narrative.

Those eels, though... My problem with the eels isn't just that they shouldn't be there, it's what their presence reminds us of, namely that there hasn't been a Who story set in South America for over fifty years. Why, once you've decided your story will require the deployment of fish from the Amazon, why wouldn't you set your story in the Amazon? Take the time to explore (even briefly) an unfamiliar culture instead of relying on a western narrative staple. Get in some actors of colour instead of an entirely white cast. Tell, in short, a better story.

Of course, we know the reasons. At least partially they will be budget based (I can't comment on how much it would cost to either shoot in a real rain forest or try to convincingly construct one on set in this HD age). But also, there may have been some fear about cultural appropriation. Mathieson and Moffat are both white British, so the fear of rustling up a story featuring a Brazilian community threatened by aliens pretending to be their gods might have sounded like a distinctly dodgy proposition. You might be able to get around that by arguing they should therefore have hired a Brazilian writer to pen the episode, but I've no idea how feasible that is, particularly the level of experience with British TV Moffat generally demands in his writers. I'm certainly not saying it couldn't be done, merely that I don't know how easily it could be done.

So it's not like I don't get why that was the road not taken. Even still, in an episode I found as ultimately unengaging as this one, the loss of opportunity is palpable. In an episode all about telling better stories than our enemies, the fact this story could have been so much better is no small flaw.

(Oh, and who gets the second Mire immortality device? The season could not possibly be pointing more heavily at it being Clara. This isn't standard-level heavy pointing, this is Yellow Submarine Dreadful Flying Glove-level heavy pointing. The kind of pointing most often attempted with a loaded rocket launcher.

Whether that's actually what will happen, of course...)

[1] Actually, I'll do more than let it pass; I'll note it's an obvious joke. The First Doctor mocked Steven for not believing the helmet they found on a Northumbrian beach was genuine Viking chique by asking "What do you think this is, a space helmet for a cow?".  But note what the Mire are doing to the Vikings here; they're taking them into space and slaughtering them like cattle. They are now, at least from their murderer's perspective, cows in space. So of course the helmets they wear have to have horns on them.

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