Doctor Who review: Death in Heaven season finale — an ideological battleground.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven season finale — an ideological battleground.

SPOILER ALERT

Cybermen meet zombies in the second half of this A Matter of Life and Death nick in which our intrepid heroes hissy-fit around a lot.

There’s so much that could have worked beautifully in this series. How can you have those great production values and Peter Capaldi on board and still make such a hash of it?

The problem, as always, is the script. The writers’ caprice runs through the Doctor Who reboot like Nick Clegg’s election promises. It’s all Patrick Duffy in the Dallas shower, a dream, a mish-mash of half-remembered images and tropes, mis-threaded backstory lurches (a sudden retro-fit and Gallifrey exists, the Doctor’s nemesis conveniently telling him where). Characters don’t so much arc as teleport to whichever position the writers decide suits the script du jour.

Dream logic seems to have been employed to suit the writers rather than designed to delight the audience the way a modern Maya Deren or Bunuel (from whom the writers appear at times to be borrowing) might do while burrowing into the collective unconscious, taking the audience on a ride rather than taking us for a ride.

Russell T Davies’ heavy reliance on undermotivated melodrama and shouty frenetics are still, after all this time, shrilling away like a dentist’s drill. Clara is SO deeply in love and yet she wastes an irritating plot-blocking age verifying, like software gone wrong, that it really is Danny who’s speaking to her from the afterlife. Everyone’s so cross all the time, operating within their own little thunderous clouds of fury. Like late-night coke-fiends running out of Charlie, you half expect them to sniff and wipe their noses before running off in the Tardis to score more.

The producers set Missy (short for misogyny?) lurching around like a menopausal drunk, neurotic and malevolent because, deep down, she lurves the Doctor, really. Michelle Gomez brings her demented Mary Poppins amusingly to life thanks to a histrionic script and neck-breaking nods to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Turns out Missy’s spotted the dominatrix in Clara and the sub in the Time Lord and has expended a ton of energy keeping them together. Dunno why. It doesn’t help the plot but skitters along the surface of better past-masters, nicking all the glittery bits.

The script dusts the cobwebs off old favourites — “Why are you doing this?” “I need you to know we’re not so different” from a squillion denouments where, quelle surprise, the protagonist and antagonist are inwardly the same. Aw, and love conquers all, unless you’re the season’s Big Bad.

This may be Borg territory (poking that hoary old question: what makes us human?) but collective action is trumped by the one single Cyberman — Danny Pink — who loves more than anyone in the entire history of the human race, more than any of the dead who make up the army of Cybermen because some people are more SPESHUL. (If the Brigadier is capable of redemption as well as Danny, then why none of the other Cybermen? Why can’t the entire Cyberman race be redeemed and escape genocide?) It aims for the sublime moments in Buffy where the Slayer has to kill Angel gone bad, or finally gets to kiss Spike, but misses, barely achieving bathos. There’s no underpinning of the emotions at a deeper level. For a series about a Time Lord, they do get the emotional timing spectacularly wrong.

Once again, the military and authority are fetishised and ideological markers slipped in under the bells and whistles. Danny’s a former soldier who meant well but accidentally killed a boy when he was serving in the Middle East. He is the idealised self-sacrificing soldier who never gets to question what it was he killed for. In this narrative, it’s not the politics or the premise for the war that’s wrong — it’s the fault of individual soldiers like Danny, whose conscience pays the price.

Lethbridge-Stewart falls from the Presidential flight and survives because, as it handily turns out at the end, another good Cyberman caught her, her Brigadier father. If favourite characters can be saved from death as easily as this, then nothing is at stake and our anxieties invested in the outcome are thereby diminished. A huge pic of her father dominating the President’s plane provides another “hunh?” moment. A humble brigadier? Really? It would take a whole Clifton Suspension Bridge of disbelief to buy that. Not only another sloppy moment of disrespect for the audience, but also an unpleasant reinforcement of the principle of dynastic succession, hardwiring young viewers with ruling-class values of social and political hierarchy.

Hysteria is sloshed on— papering over the narrative canyons instead of generating authentic emotion and catharsis — and the resulting ambience is simply over-mannered and harsh, trite and sentimental.

Superficially inclusive, the narrative brings non-whites and LGBTs under the umbrella of existing power structures – on condition that they don’t actually challenge those structures. Even the cheeky black schoolgirl is another version of the perky, privileged white Clara. Prepare to be assimilated!

The BBC has calibrated its culture to the norms of business and the military, with more armed forces personnel featuring as protagonists in its drama and documentaries over the past few years than I can remember, while the space to challenge the mainstream political narrative has shrunk to almost nothing. Imposing a reading of the world at odds with people’s experience, BBC output not only leaves capitalism and the status quo unquestioned, it’s actually reinforced. All those celebrity chefs, big swinging business dicks and talent judges constantly putting you in your place in the New Order, clipping your wings, accustoming you to taking orders. They’re even enlisting Santa, as dreamt up by the Coca-Cola corporation, for the Christmas special. They’d better subvert this one!

Doctor Who was always a bastion of establishment values when it was created just as the Sixties began to swing, but there was something innocent about it, and you could filter out the stories from the residual politics. However, our beloved creation now sneakily puts a new generation back in the box marked pleb. Respect hierarchy, genuflect before authority, fall in with militarism under the delusion that you have value as an individual. Forget the proud heritage of the post-war era where the mass of the population enjoyed an unprecedented confidence born of an increasingly (if far from perfect) egalitarian society. Science fiction fans of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your gains.

Review of Deep Breath, the season opener.

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More or Less Asian? Stereotypes in Literature: talk at Asia House 12th Nov 2014

The cuddly liberal Guardian thought this illustration was OK.

The original photo of the squirrel before the Guardian’s Goebbels squad got on the job.

I’m on a panel next Wednesday at Asia House for a debate — More or Less Asian? — alongside actor and playwright Daniel York, playwright Yasmeen Khan, author Niven Govenden and chaired by the writer and broadcaster, Bidisha.

The debate explores Asian stereotypes in literature.

I’ve been challenging the lazy and dehumanising depiction of East Asian ever since I took my solo show, Suzy Wrong – Human Cannon, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1994.

My other explorations of the theme have included a profile of Anna May Wong for BBC Radio 4, A Celestial Star in Piccadilly (2009), a one-woman show, Anna May Wong Must Die! (2009), and The Steampunk Opium Wars (Feb 2012) which premiered at the National Maritime Museum to mark the opening of their Traders Gallery.

In 2007, I presented the ten-part series, Chinese In Britain, which gave me a rare opportunity to add balance to the skewed view of Chinese people. Among other things, the second episode managed to dismantle the myth of Chinatown. This dark region filled with opium-smoking, dagger-wielding villains is a location in the mind of the beholder and says more about what lurks beneath in the psyche than it does about the mundane reality. (The series is being repeated on Radio 4 Extra and is available to listen on iPlayer for another three weeks.)

However, the BBC series proved to be a rare slip through the white dominant net. I continue to be shocked but unsurprised by the liberal establishment’s continued demented depictions of the Chinese in output such as the BBC’s Sherlock reboot where everything was updated except for the sinister yellow peril in The Blind Banker episode, and the anachronistic Radio 4 programme, Fu Manchu in Edinburgh, which drew uncomfortably from the episode in the Chinese In Britain series in which we’d looked at the early Chinese medical students. These were rarely glimpsed real human beings who’d done so much good for British society, snottily eclipsed by a cheap rehash of the yellow peril stereotype.

Elsewhere, we’re rendered invisible in areas where we obviously have a presence in the real world. There has never been an east Asian family on Eastenders, for example. I speak as an East Ender myself when I say that this is fairly (sic) ignorant and stupid. And it does us no favours, but warms us up for the slaughter.

The absence of east Asians in the culture means we are a blank canvas onto which all sorts of poisonous narratives and images can be projected. So when the Blair government required a scapegoat for its inept handling of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001, it was able to turns the guns of the press onto the UK Chinese by briefing Valerie Elliott of The Times that a Chinese restaurant was responsible. The media, with the honourable exception of The Independent, took up the cry lemming-like. This potentially deadly situation (fury was brewing, livelihoods were lost, farmers had committed suicide, Chinese were being targeted and spat at) required protests in London and Manchester Chinatowns and meetings with the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to get minister Nick Brown to vindicate us and for the absurdity of the claim to be made apparent.

So there is a politcal dimension to issues of identity. It’s not a luxury add-on. This is about people’s survival.

More or Less Asian? debate at Asia House, Wednesday 12th November 2014

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Chinese in Britain this week: South China Morning Post magazine and BBC Radio 4 Extra

Two lots of Chinese in Britain from me this week.

Today, my cover article for the South China Morning Post magazine — “Personal tales of a journey to a new land” — about the sweeping Ming Ai oral history project, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund documenting, as many UK Chinese as possible 2012-2015. Drawn from stories being published online at the British Chinese Workforce Heritage website.

The second is Chinese In Britain, the repeat of the ten-part series I presented for BBC R4 in 2007, broadcast 14:15 daily from tomorrow on R4Extra. Produced by Mukti Jain Campion at Culture Wise.

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Anna on the BBC World Service Weekend programme, 18th October 2014

I was a guest on the BBC World Service Weekend programme on Saturday, talking about the news: the Middle East, The Catholic Synod, Ebola and sheds. This year is the tenth anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Chinese cocklepickers disaster so I read my poem, “I Am Rich and Your Are Poor: lines on dead Chinese workers and their rich benefactors”.

Daniel Johnson (son of Paul and editor of Standpoint mag) was the other guest. It was presented by Paul Henley and producer by Michael Innes.

You have seven days to listen … and other Ringu tropes.

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Doctor Who “Deep Breath” review 8.1: all hail Peter Capaldi, shame about the script.

Why is Peter Capaldi flashing his red bits like a lady baboon, and other questions.

SPOILER ALERT

Review of Dr Who “Deep Breath” first broadcast BBC1, Saturday 23rd August 2014

The Dalek was eyeing up some poor bastard on the far side of the room. It hadn’t yet seen me, so I backed away. Far scarier in the actual metal than on screen, its presence only three feet away sent my heart pounding to 11, so loud it was sure to hear me. It swung round and I froze, skewered by its cyclops stare. Me and a Dalek. Eyeball to eyeballs. An inhuman rorschach inkblot of a creation, sucking out all the dark matter in my soul and planting it into this single embodiment of EE-vuhl. It waved its sink-plunger at me and I took another couple of steps back. People laughed, my mother among them. Surely a nervous, entirely inappropriate, reaction to the horror before them? I sensed another malign presence. I slowly turned to where the people were looking and tittering … to find a Cyberman bent right over me, arms outstretched for a bearhug.

I screamed an eight-year-old’s scream and ran as fast as I could, missing the Cyberman’s grip by a whisker, past the Ice Warriors, the Monoids and the Fish People, and screeched to a halt before the Yeti blocking my way outta here. A moment’s relief because the Yeti was surely just a big teddy bear. All that cuddly fur waiting for a kid to snuggle into. But this was no oversized furry playmate: this was a sinister, silent, unbelievably huge furball with fangs and a bad manicure standing between me and the exit. I stared at it, suddenly aware of depths of alien viciousness. Knowing I was beaten, I broke into a fit of weeping and heard the laughter rise. I swear that Yeti was heaving along to the jollity. It shifted a little to one side leaving a space just big enough for me to squeeze through and then made a final swipe. I yelped and leapt several feet in one bound, vowing I would return one day to vanquish the monsters that had landed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition.

That was one of the few times Doctor Who ever pressed my terror button. Doctor Who was always about the permanance of the British empire and our values; as much in the outlands of space and time as here among Britainland’s acres of melamine and fresh paint. Why else, after 51 years, is there still a white male at the helm of the Tardis aided by a trusty gurl assistant? Terror was the series’ way of reminding you how lucky you were to be alive at such a secure, stable time … if you lived in the British Isles rather than, say, post-second-world-war Korea, Yemen, Kenya, or Malaya. Any disruption of the status quo was certain to be corrected by the Doctor, with equilibrium restored by the end of the series and our place in the universe nailed.

Nuthin’ changes except when it does. This year, for its twelfth reincarnation and eighth series of the modern reboot, Doctor Who goes full-tilt steampunk, calling once again on the Victorian era for validation in a world that’s a little less secure, a little less reliable. Terror springs from newscasts and comes knocking at the door. Casting Malcolm Tucker (who bears a passing resemblance to actor Peter Capaldi) is inspired. Gravitas, grit, a laser tongue and a weary intelligence far beyond that of the mere mortals surrounding him make him the perfect Timelord in this, our hour of need.

Sadly, ‘Deep Breath’, the first episode of the long-awaited new series introducing Capaldi, inhales superb production values, along with some solid acting, but exhales a godawful script from Dr Who veteran Steven Moffat. Dwahlinks, you call that DIALOGUE? Monologues, more like: with declamations to the audience requiring actors to remain rooted unresponsively to the spot instead of reacting the way people, you know, react! The old vagrant and the robot boss have to freeze and endure long narcissistic screeds of character-establishing bollox that should never have made it out of Moffat’s notebooks.

The episode opens promisingly with a Godzilla-scale tyrannosaurus rex as the chosen delivery method of the Tardis, the new Doctor and his companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman). After terrorising London, it is swiftly dispatched by a gentleman cyborg who harvests humans for body parts and requires some dinosaur optical nerve; although how first incinerating the creature aids raptor recycling is never made clear. The story then unravels with one damn thing after another rather than pearls finely strung to develop a complete whole: a meandering scene concerning a bad-smelling homeless man, some absurd short-cut ratiocination from Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), and lo-o-ong event-free dialogue in Mancini’s restaurant. You know it’s an idiot-plot when the heroes stumble on their nemesis as he’s recharging and don’t even unplug him. Clara is saved from the cyborg’s cannibalising restaurant by the crimebusting Paternoster gang. They escape by taking the deep breath of the title and holding it, thereby avoiding detection by the murderous bots who only want to find their “promised land”. The Doctor, still befuddled by the stresses of his regeneration, may or may not have pushed the cyborg gent out of his human-skin balloon at the clunking denouement, although suicide under the torture of being forced to listen to him rant while barely getting a word in edgewise, isn’t ruled out. There’s not a lot of outwitting going on.

When Joss Whedon-manque Russell T Davies first rebooted the franchise, his achilles heel was his adoption of the surface characteristics of Buffy and Angel with only the slimmest understanding of how plot and character interact, resulting in relentlessly annoying hysteria and a lack of story dynamic. He gave us sentiment instead of profound emotional involvement, lurches instead of arcs-within-arcs that dipped and soared along with our spirits. Bad habits have stuck.

I was always shown (and told!) that the rule was ‘show, don’t tell’. The Doctor babbles exposition like a mofo in a stinker of a script in search of a storyline. Note to producers: making characters talk 13 to the dozen like coke-fiends doesn’t mean we won’t notice little things like plot-holes and entire missing throughlines. Have none of you heard of PACING? Longeurs stretched into longdays as sub-Buffy banter held up the promised action while we were expected to genuflect before the awesomeness of Moffat’s one-liners, a vanity process not far removed from pounding rock for diamonds — yes, there were a few but by the time they surfaced I was too exhausted to care.

You can lesbian-lizard-snog all you like in order to establish your LGBT credentials, but class hierarchy is alive and very unwell in the world of Doctor Who. Any subversive value resides in the relationship between Lady Handbag, Madame Vastra, and her maid-wife being normalised, not hollered triumphantly every two minutes. Uncool! Why’re we back in very unsubversive days when maids and butlers were the norm (know your place, kids), and where the white “ninja” maid appropriates eastern skills but the only actual East Asian (Clem So) in sight is a robot? Reactionary mindset leaking at the edges? Even Harry Potter had an East Asian girlfriend until she was dumped for a white girl under circumstances never satisfactorily explained. In fact, not much ethnic minority presence at all in this one.

And why does the Doctor keep exposing his frock-coat’s red silk lining like a lady baboon flashing her in-oestrus labia? So many questions, so much left dangling.

We wade through a swamp of exposition so thick you could stand a spoon up in it. The origins and rationale of the cyborg aliens aren’t revealed through the clever workings of the script: Capaldi has to bark them out while the cyborg stares glassily, politely waiting for him to finish.

The cyborg’s not too bright, anyhow. Eons of farming humans in order to make a skin balloon when he could have used whatever material Victorian dirigibles were made from, or simply bought some animal skins from the local abbatoir?

The funniest moments are owned by Strax the over-literal butler (Dan Starkey) whose knocking out of Clara with a rolled up copy of The Times was authentic laugh-out-loud slapstick.

Clara goggles her way through like someone who’s been told she has pretty eyes (which she does) and has given up blinking for fear of hiding them. Her shrill tantrums have been praised as the mark of a strong woman. Surely, the critics have mistaken petulant for “feisty”? Having her throw strops and hissy-fits at inappropriate moments is a singularly ham-fisted method of telegraphing that this is not your dad’s submissive Dr Who companion but an incredibly dated Grrrl Power trope that the BBC has only just twigged exists. Brattish and bossy when she could be co-operative, sensitive and insightful (but there I go again, talking about myself: it’s catching), Clara is the template for the privileged breed of management who climb up the echelons of the BBC and walk off with those million-quid payoffs. FFS, don’t try this at home, kids.

“In the name of the British Empire,” cries Madame Vastra as her gang perform their rescue. Drip, drip, drip. Doctor Who is the hard-wiring of young minds into the values of the Establishment, not those of our real British society. The post-war period of freedom and relative prosperity for the masses is at an end, the party’s over and the Doctor has reincarnated into the child-catcher. Protect your tender budding brains. Retain your critical faculties even as you chow down on your (intermittently tasty) comfort food.

Deep Breath review first posted at Madam Miaow Says.
Review of the rebooted Sherlock: The Blind Banker.

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Chinese British comic Anna Chen says WTF with the stereotypes? Stand-up comedy in the week of Act for Change.

British East Asian comedian Anna Chen on Asian stereotypes, terracotta warriors, and pets.

This week, hundreds of actors, artists and creatives attended the Act for Change conference at the Young Vic in London looking at the alarming lack of diversity in TV, film, the media and the arts.

Fed up with the continuing exclusion of Black Asian Mixed race Ethnic (BAME) actors, I’m reposting a video (above) of a couple of gigs I did a while back at The Lion’s Den and Mirth Control, lampooning stupid Asian stereotypes.

London, my home city, is nearly 40 per cent BAME. A few years back there was 31 per cent BAME representation in the media industry, but that’s plummeted to five per cent since Ofcom dropped their diversity guidance. I’ve touched on this before but still no response anywhere from Ofcom who, one might suspect, don’t give a flying one.

For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change.

Kat, one of my fellow British East Asia Artists (BEAA) co-founders, who tweets as Little Miss Mandu, read out a powerful quote at the conference, illustrating brilliantly our predicament:

“You know, vampires have no reflection in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters have no reflection in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that, if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t feel myself reflected at all … And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” Junot Diaz

My show, the subversively comical Suzy Wrong — Human Cannon, was all about that. I performed it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1994 and nothing’s changed. Except maybe everything’s going backwards.

You can’t even rely on the left to do the right thing.

There’s a dangerous side to minorities being kept invisible, like a pool of scapegoating ready to activate whenever governments get into trouble. The elephant in the room is that governments can and do divert social anger onto you when they screw up. Being kept in the role of a blank canvas, anyone can project their inner demons onto you.

And there are historical precedents for that.

(Video: two categories in Olympic weightlifting competition are the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk”. True.)

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