Thursday, 1 October 2009

Countdown to The End of Time, Part 1: Mister Saturday Night meets the Endless Story

"It is said that in the final days of Planet Earth, everyone had a cameo."

Someone in work yesterday said that the Jordan and Peter thing had gone on too long, and it started me thinking about how much Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who has meant to me.

By early 2005, Who had settled into a comfy bit of my brainspace where it sat on a big cushion, quietly informing Everything I Think About Fiction and Everything I Think About What It Might Be Like To Be A Good Person, but not really showing much signs of movement except for giving a little shove with its elbow when 'That Time I Broke The Potted Plant' or some other formative experience tried to take up too much space on the cushion. Who as something that mattered directly had finished for me round about The Ancestor Cell.

But then, suddenly, Doctor Who wasn't this deep-rooted multimedia myth that informed Everything I Think About Blah Blah Blah...it was just this really good tellybox show that I was into. Forty-five minutes every Saturday. And somehow that seemed more important.

I'm not sure I've ever been comfortable with Davies' version of Doctor Who, but most of the time it's been the discomfort of the rollercoaster rather than the discomfort of dentistry. I've bloody loved it.

And it's ending. Ending ending. Ending ending in an end so endy that it's called The End of Time. That's the endiest ending title ever!

We once thought The Parting of the Ways sounded quite endy, but now we look back we notice that if ways part then that's at least doubling the amount of continuance, so it's the opposite of endy. And while Doomsday and Journey's End sound pretty damn endy, that's nothing compared with The End of Time! If Time's ending then that precludes any subsequent beginnings! If time's ending then that means that nothing ever started! THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE FINAL CRISIS! I know it's over, and it never really began.


Quiet Mozza2! Quiet Mozza1! Back on the cushion!

Let's hear what Davies has to say about endings...

"I think it's terrifying for traditional writers like me who just have a beginning, middle and end because [...] the greatest piece of drama shown on television this year was Susan Boyle. [...] It's a story. They sold that package. [...] Whoever sat at a desk in Britain'sGotTalentLand and put together that package of Susan Boyle saying, 'I'm a virgin. I've never been kissed.' Walking on stage, the reactions from Simon Cowell. It's beautifully put together. It's put together like a script. And, y'know, the cutaways to the audience mocking her before she started singing, Amanda Holden's amazement as she started singing.

[...]

I think [Dennis Potter] would be worried by Britain's Got Talent if he was alive today. I think we all should be. Because... name me the drama that's had that effect!

And that's why we build Doctor Who up to such huge heights sometimes, because it's such a vivid and sensational and sensual show that it can have the feeling of a Saturday night finale. We we get to our finales, they are done like other people's finals. Like a Pop Idol final. And that was something I said right from the start, before I even wrote the first episode. I said, the one thing people are gathering to watch on a Saturday night was [...] the Pop Idol final. And the tension when it was between Will Young and Gareth Gates was enormous and I was in a house full of like twenty people. All of us voting, all of us excited. That's drama. That was brilliant. So I remember right from the start of Doctor Who saying, 'That's what we need to hit. That's Saturday night.'

[...]

Raising the stakes until you get a finale until you don't know what's going to happen and you're at fever pitch. [...] Not every story can be like that but these sort of fantasy epic adventure stories should be like that, and you get it very rarely these days. I remember sitting in the cinema watching the last half hour of Back to the Future when that first came out and it was just joyous. And you get that very rarely off blockbusters now. I can tell you now that Transformers won't do that when that comes out, because a lot of skills have been lost I think in terms of good old-fashioned adventure climaxes. So I do that really deliberately on Doctor Who. They're bigger every year. They're madder every year. And every year the ratings have gone up and find me another drama that's done that.


[...]

I'm 46 and there should be, any day now, a wave of programmes that leaves me confounded and gobsmacked and saying, 'It wasn't like that in my day and I don't like this.' I should be as uncomfortable as my dad watching Boy George on Top of the Pops. [...] The writer Brian Elsley spoke very brilliantly about this a good few years ago, before he set up Skins, actually. [...] Saying, 'We are a generation that's passing, those of us writing in out forties. And people growing up come from a gaming background and a user generated content background and it is going to fundamentally alter the way things are told'.

I think it was visible in The Phantom Menace, where an entire generation said, 'That's rubbish.' And we hated it. We'd literally look at classical story shapes and say, 'Where have they gone? Where have they gone in The Phantom Menace? Where's that simple structure of Star Wars gone?' And I think the most important thing you have to remember is that George Lucas has got teenage sons. And, as ever, probably ahead of the market, because that was a huge success. It was huge with children. And it doesn't satisfy us, that film. [...] It's a sort of rolling, complicated, bitty narrative. It's bitty. [...] We feel, at our age, there's a lack of coherence to it, a lack of satisfaction. But obviously kids get it. [...]


Interviewer: So are those classical structures then, on the way out?

Well, maybe they're being joined by something. I don't think a beginning-middle-and-an-end ever goes out, but I might be wrong. Because I would say that, because I'm clinging to that hope desperately. And maybe the fact that a video game, or a Second Life or a Sims situation never ends...maybe that's the shape. Maybe that's why Susan Boyle becomes the ultimate story. Because that's never going to end. My God, we'll be having updates on her in twenty years time whether she likes it or not. Y'know, it's going to go on and on. So maybe you're looking at the Endless Story now."

- Interviewed on Night Waves, 23rd June 2009.

It's going to take a while to unpack that. It's probably going to take a series of twelve themed blog posts counting down to The End of Time. Here's one.

We've got the Ultimate Ending coming our way, with the full knowledge that it won't really end anything at all, and with the demand that it provides us with a satisfying ending. It's written by a chap who's "clinging desperately" to the idea of beginnings-middles-and-endings, while suspecting that a large portion of his audience has outgrown them, and looking to Britain's Got Talent both as a fulfilment of classical storytelling and as a way past it... out and into the Infinite Book.

Over the next twelve weeks we're going to examine ALL HUMAN CULTURE (by which I mean whatever random stuff I've been reading, watching or listening to) in light of that Davies quote in order to definitively identify 2009's expectations of story structure (by which I mean whether or not The End of Time is going to be satisfying or not).

We're going to take Susan Boyle up Greek Street. We're going to recruit new Sugababes from The Sims. We're going to Unwrite Mr Toppit. We're going to solve the mystery of what happened in Bristol on September the 18th. We're going to stand the kids from Skins by Superman's grave and ask them why Big Brother's been cancelled. We're going to mention a number of cute things my daughter's said recently. We're going to hear an awful lot about Jordan and Peter's divorce.

Which won't suit everyone. Someone in work yesterday said that the Jordan and Peter thing had gone on too long. It was being strung out. I think it was the Mirror she had in her hand, and she was glaring at the thing in such a way as to make her exact feelings quite clear. She'd been enjoying the Jordan and Peter thing, but...she didn't like the way the story was being told any longer. The outrage in her voice was the same as that you hear when you talk to people who didn't like the end of Battlestar Galactica - "I liked that story, but now the people telling it have RUINED IT! Who do they think they are?"

Jordan/Katie Price (a dichotomy we'll probably have to come back during this Countdown) met Peter Andre on a reality TV show called I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Their union blessed in magazine deals and tabloid exclusives, they settled into a married life in the reality TV series When Jordan Met Peter, Jordan and Peter: Laid Bare and Jordan and Peter: Marriage and Mayhem, before reproducing for our pleasure in Jordan and Peter: The Baby Diaries. Their lives continued in Katie and Peter: The Next Chapter, Katie and Peter: Unleashed and Katie and Peter: Stateside.

Following the split, Jordan's story continued in HER reality TV series, What Katie Did Next, and Peter's in HIS, Peter Andre: Going it Alone. As Henry Miller and Anais Nin battled to control their lives and relationships by competing to see who could best transform their lovers into prose, Jordan and Peter battle to control their lives by competing to see who can best transform their family into reality TV. Forged in the fires of just the right sort of Saturday night, twenty people round your house all fighting for the phone, spectacle, Katie and Peter have become a truly endless story.

But there's a weird conflict of expectations there...because we want to know the end. We've got a new form, endless, 'bitty' story...one that couldn't exist as anything else...and we're still expecting it to fit the classical storytelling structure.

The Death of Jade Goody was probably the most desperate example of this. Perhaps because her story fooled us into thinking it was playing by the old rules. It seemed to have a perfect beginning, middle and end.

Beginning - Jade goes on Big Brother. Says comically ignorant things. Becomes a national joke.

Middle - Jade goes on Celebrity Big Brother. Does some racist bullying. Becomes a national hate figure.

End - Jade goes on Big Brother: India. Is diagnosed with cervical cancer during the filming. Becomes a national saint.

Jade in the hospital, brave and serene, was a powerful image. That she allowed the cameras and newspapers access to areas of a dying woman's life that are normally shrouded in privacy meant both that the story could play out in full before us, and meant that we could justify her narratively necessary redemption. For the story to work, we needed some reason why Jade was suddenly a saint now, and that reason became the way she was sacrificing her own dignity in death in order to accumulate cash for her kids. Jade was the Good Mother. It all worked perfectly. Someone's bitty, unsatisfying, incohesive life had been turned into good, old-fashioned storytelling.

Every tabloid had JADE NEAR DEATH as its front page every day. But there was one problem... she wasn't dying quite fast enough. In and out of the hospice she went. JADE HAS HOURS LEFT we're told on Monday. JADE'S LAST GOODBYE we're shown on Thursday. On and on it went. Every tabloid wanted to have a Dying Jade cover on the day Jade died, but nobody knew which day that'd be. George V's doctors famously finished him off with cocaine and morphine so that his death would make the Times, but since they couldn't go that route, the storytellers were left trying to manufacture any number of last minute dramas to fill the space - nonsense about a heroic struggle to be christened before death, all sorts of hoo-hah. Watching Jade die in the media we saw many things, but one of them was the ultimate stubborness of a human life to fit into a neat story.

But if the advent of the Endless Story has left us with mixed feelings about the duration of a narrative, I think it's left us even more confused about its boundaries.

On September the 17th in Bristol, a bunch of anti-capitalists went on a bit of a spree around the financial sector. You know the sort of thing, slogans and scuffles and smashing things up and what have you, and you probably know what you think of this sort of behaviour (me, I mostly feel a sense of jealousy that anyone this century can still manage to be so earnest). But what the Bristol Evening Post wasn't sure about was how much this had to do with the Jordan and Peter thing.

Now, the Co-mutiny guys who were behind all these direct action hijinks list thier concerns as being to do with "Freedom of movement, climate justice, anti-militarism, food, work, financial, collapse and autonomous spaces." What Katie Did Next is notably absent from that list. And, to be fair, the Jordan and Peter thing isn't mentioned in the Evening Post's coverage of the dust-up on page 3. Nor does page 4's account of Peter Andre's visit to Bristol mention anti-militarism or autonomous spaces.

But the front page of September 19th's Evening Post is very clear...these two things are somehow one story.

The cover shows two photos. One is of a small crowd of very, very bored looking girls standing in Asda and the other is of a small crowd of boys and girls jostling with the police.

"IDOL," says the first caption, "Hundreds wait for the chance to see Peter Andre."

"IDLE," says the second, "Group of 70 anarchists march to stir up trouble in city centre."

It seems there's two Bristols (do your own Jordan joke here if you must), and the story is the contrast. Beyond that the logic breaks down altogether. 'Idle'? Really? Look at 'em go! They're giving it some welly. Regardless of how intellectually lazy anti-capitalist direct action may be, how can planning for months, sticking posters up all over the city, marching about and occupying buildings be considered an act of idleness WHEN MEASURED AGAINST STANDING IN ASDA FOR HOURS?


Also...ARE THESE REALLY MY FUCKING OPTIONS? If those idle protestors are Bad Bristol then does that mean those bored girls are Good Bristol? Is this what the world offers me as my reward for not smashing stuff up in the name of climate justice? The chance to stand in line for hours in the UK's least characterful supermarket giant hoping to catch a glimpse of the bloke who sang 'Mysterious Girl'. If so, then start the riot. So much does the front page sell the protesters' notion that they offer an alternative to a banal prison that you have to wonder if the Evening Post's been infiltrated and is running recruitment.

But no, all that's happened is a botched, half-grasped understanding of how story is changing has splatted out of the presses. Because if the Peter and Jordan story is infinite then that must mean it can contain all other stories. Perhaps it does, and perhaps whoever put that cover together intuited that but failed to work out exactly how it can contain an anarchist demo.

The big twist in Susan Boyle's story is that she didn't win Britain's Got Talent, as a classical story structure would have had her do. Instead, Britain voted for Diversity (a multi-ethnic urban dance troupe). Britain did this in the same week that they used the European and Local Elections to vote the BNP (a racist and fascist organisation who probably can't dance at all) into office.

That's one story.





To Be Continued...

3 comments:

  1. That's absolutely fantastic (even though I disagree with you profoundly about the Welsh series, and think that Davies sounds like a complete buffoon there...)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm thrilled to bits that you think so, as my absolute envy of your Hyperposts was a big push towards me deciding to try something like this!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not sure I think Davies talks complete rot above. I found some of what he had to say, the stuff which factors into what you've written, quite interesting, although I'm not a fan of his work. Too much in the way of deus ex machina*, overt contrivance, and too many plot holes, if you ask me. Like Morrison his enthusiasm can overwhelm the fundamentals of his writing, unlike Morrison he doesn't strike me as anything like as good at delivering those fundamentals when he gets round to it, and neither does he possess (in my humble) an ounce of what I can only describe as Morrison's poetic sensibility.

    *What is it with all those bloody last minute technobabble saves? They're just rubbish!

    ReplyDelete