Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Countdown to The End of Time, Parts 2-4: Nominating Yourself

It is said that Dickens used to make up his stories by watching the flames dance in his fireplace and writing what he saw. It is also said that every time Michael Bay has tried to use the same technique, a bunch of pesky young scamps climb up on his roof and lob fireworks down the chimney.



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Hello!

Welcome to the second part of Countdown to the End of Time, an attempt to review the grand finale of Doctor Who's 'Davies Era' before having seen it by discussing everything else in human culture and constantly harking back to one quote in which Davies may, or may not, "sound like a buffoon."

Here's the first part.

And here's tonight's. In which we'll be moving from here...

"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." - Davies.

...to discuss British television's tenth season of Big Brother and DC Comics' Final Crisis. Mister Internet has already had plenty to say about both, but I think the connections between these two problematic summer events remain criminally under-explored.

What about The Sims though, eh? What's happening there?

Well, nothing. Nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible. I'm talking here about the first two games, as I've not yet played the third, but the really striking thing about them is the way that nothing actually happens in the game, but an awful lot seems to happen in your head when you play it.

The Sims, the most popular computer game franchise of all eternity, involves directing little pretend people to use the toilet and feed themselves as you immerse yourself in what you'll often hear described as "a virtual sitcom" or "a virtual soap." Except...none of the things that routinely happen in sitcoms or soaps can ever possibly happen in the game. No Sim will ever comically misunderstand something another Sim has said, leading to a wacky series of hijinks and social embarassment. No Sim will ever unexpectedly reveal herself to be another Sim's long lost sister. The game will track who's friends and enemies with who, and will stage little set pieces, but no stories can ever really happen within the game. You might get turned into a vampire or social services may take your kids away, but none of those 'plots' are going to develop. The best you'll get is "SimA is cheating on SimB with SimC. SimB discovers and is cross with SimsA&C" over and over again.

But...but...but...as anyone who's ever lost hours to a Sims game know, the above is a load of bobbins. All sorts of stories happen when you play it!

Here's a site where people have uploaded lots of the lovely little Sims they've made. And here's some of the things they've been saying about them...

Mia grew up in a strict christian family and was a very easy and kind child who loved playing the piano and dreamt about being a human rights attorney. It wasn't until she went to University and got new free spirited friends that she gave herself a total makeover, inside and out. She did study law for one semester but dropped out because she thought the level of education provided did not meet her needs. She then moved in with her boyfriend Leon who lived in the not-so-glamorous part of the city.

That's the story that Mia's creator experienced while playing The Sims. The exciting thing though, is that the computer she was playing it on had no idea. When Sonic the Hedgehog collects a magic ring or Pac-Man noms up a ghost then flags are flipped and variables altered so that the game 'knows' this has happened. But the game never knew that Mia wanted to be a human rights attorney or that her parents were Christians. The game doesn't even know what human rights attorneys or Christians are.

The Sims is so popular among people who don't play computer games because you don't play The Sims on a computer. You play The Sims in your imagination, where Mia has her dreams and her regrets, while staring blankly at a rather banal computer game in which Mia is making a sandwich. At least one acclaimed novelist, Fay Weldon, is a Sims addict and it's easy to imagine her sat there, projecting inner lives onto her Sims as real as those of Ruth Patchett or Praxis, or...okay, I've only ever read two Weldon novels. It's like your mind furnishing a mirage just to break the monotony of a desert. It's like Dickens, looking into his fire. And what different ideas he and Weldon would have about how to end Mia's story.

Now, on outing yourself as a Big Brother viewer, one of the first things that people who don't 'get' the show will say is, "I don't know you can watch a load of people sitting there doing nothing."

You can probably see where I'm going with this. So before we go there, lets take a moment to see what all this has to do with Final Crisis and Doctor Who season finales.

From the perspective of Grant Morrison, the writer of Final Crisis, then his work is adjacent to the Who finales. As he said of Season Four's finale (Journey's End), "what intrigues me most are the numerous, absolutely coincidental, similarities to my comic FINAL CRISIS [..]which leads me to believe that creative people, particularly those writing or recording with a mass or populist audience in mind, have all begun to tell a very similar [...] story."

But from Davies' perspective, Big Brother is (or rather was) adjacent, being just the sort of event television to which his Who finales aspire, as we discussed in the last part.

I love reality TV. I get pissed off when actors complain there's no drama on television. Big Brother is drama; it is crafted, it's a story well told.
- Davies, New Statesman.

Quite how directly Davies' finales can be linked to Big Brother we'll go into in a later article, but for now we're left with a sense of them as being 'flanked' by these two other texts. Final Crisis on one side, and Big Brother on the other.

Not that they make such strange companions. Final Crisis and Big Brother 10 have a couple of very important things in common. Firstly there're both successful failures...BB10 took the crafting of stories within reality TV to new heights, but managed to get the entire show sentanced to a lingering execution. Final Crisis managed to pull off the trick of providing a fitting conclusion to three incongruent epics, all of which have run for between twenty and forty years, while dramatising withing a superhero fight-book a shift from a Hegalian to a Derridian dialectic and possibly inventing an entirely new category of fiction... but it failed to bring its audience with it. They carried on buying it, unlike BB's audience who just switched off, but my god did they bitch.

The more interesting thing though is that they both began after they finished.

The tag-line for Final Crisis' advertising was 'The Day Evil Won'...but when in the story did this victory take place? Well, 'evil winning' here means the victory of Darkseid, a GOD OF EEEEVIL, who it turns out has defeated the GODS OF QUITE NICE in a final battle. After that nasty turn of events then the story is over and there's nothing left for the comic to show us except the superheroes coming to realise that the story is over, and then finding a way to jumpstart it.

Steven Grant once wrote that "Story in Final Crisis isn't story, as traditionally understood in western literature" and (although I couldn't disagree more with his 'apotheosis of mad ideas' reasoning for having said that) I think this is spot on. We're not reading a story in Final Crisis, we're seeing a dramatisation of what might happen to a fictional universe and its inhabitants after there isn't any story left.

In 2008, Deepak Chopra, did a panel at San Deigo with Morrison and came out with this...

"If you had only creativity and evolution, you would have no universe," he said. "If you had only destructive forces, the universe would dissipate into a black hole." Chopra clarified, "you need the tension between the two forces."
[...]
He said the message of the superhero is "keep winning, but don't win."

This is literally what Final Crisis depicts, right down to the black hole. Evil has won, the story has ended and the fictional universe in which it played out is now collapsing into a fictional black hole.

But again...when did Evil win? In the first issue? No. If it had actually happened there the series would have contained trace elements of story. More than trace elements really - having 'The Day Evil Won' anywhere in Final Crisis would have been like having a veal escalope anywhere in a vegan carrot cake. So Morrison had it happen in his 2005-6 Seven Soldiers series. And even there had it happen off-screen.

The story ended about three years before Final Crisis began. Evil won...but since a conclusive win for either good or evil leaves a fictional universe with nothing to do, then the victory was unsustainable. Darkseid, the GOD OF EVIL, began a slow fall down into a black hole, dragging the whole of Superheroland down after him.

The moral here is that if you live inside a story, it might not be a good idea to end that story.

So, if Final Crisis was over before it really began, what actually happens in its seven issues? Well, Superman saves us all, naturally. He couldn't do anything else. But this time he can't operate within the story - flying in to save the day - this time he has to rebuild it. Bolting together scraps of meaning and bleeding chunks of narative.

We'll come back to how he goes about this later on. Because now we've returned to "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" territory then it's time to enter the Big Brother house.

Big Brother is the purest form of reality TV. Grab a load of people, lock 'em in a house with Not Much to do, and let the public successively reject them. As Final Crisis argues that the figure of Superman can 'contain' all other superheroes, Big Brother can contain all other reality TV. But before its tenth UK season started, it had already finished.

Big Brother considered as 'cultural event' concluded with the Shilpa Shetty incident and the Passion of the Jade, that grizzly chain of events discussed in the previous article. At the height of that controversy, Davina opened a BB episode with the words, "Good evening. This is the news." and she was right. But this proved to have been the telos of the Big Brother phenomena, and Jade's death three month's before the start of the tenth season capped off the era in which Big Brother mattered.

Also broadcast before BB10 was the conclusion of Big Brother considered as 'drama' or 'story'. This took the form of Dead Set, a five part horror thriller that played out the ever-popular Zombie Apocalypse scenario from the perspective of those making a season of Big Brother and those locked in the house. With all the tropes of the show in place, and continuity with previous seasons established by cameos from previous housemates, then to all intents and purposes, Dead Set was the tenth season of Big Brother. And it came with a proper end - the logic of rejection and the power we attach to shouty ignorance (Big Brother's major themes) GET US ALL KILLED BY ZOMBIES. In its closing shots, Dead Set reached a conclusion that turned the nine previous seasons of Big Brother into a narative. "Here's what this show has said about people. Here's why, if we can't escape that, WE'LL ALL GET KILLED BY ZOMBIES." Viewed as one text, Big Brother and Dead Set make a very similar case to Cloud Atlas.

So, with Big Brother's narative concluded, the producers of BB10 were in the same situation as the heroes of Final Crisis - having to build a story out of scraps. But of course, that's what they do every year, innit? Film a load of people, give them a few paltry party games, edit it into a drama. That's the skill of making reality televison, the skill Davies applauds when talking about BGT's Susan Boyle moment...

"[T]he 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."

And BB10's producers rose to that challenge, turning incident into story like never before. This year the episodes weren't just themed around particular characters, with a clear trajectory across the hour...this year we had ongoing story-arcs. I'll never know how they managed this considering that they were transmitting these episodes only a day behind the events in the house, but they got thier stories to progress and develop.

And even, somehow, they managed to get in plot twists. We watched first creepy stalker Sree and then creepy stalker Marcus hound poor Noirin into the ground...until circumstances with Siavash pulled the rug out from under us and revealed how in control Noirin really had been all along. Filming a bunch of events, editing them to get out the next night and repeating this process every day for three months ought to result in the 'Sims or Second Life' scenario, in pages from the infinite book. But in Big Brother 10 it sustained a classical, beginning-middle-and-end structure for the whole summer.

Didn't help much though. Everybody stopped watching and Channel 4 chose not to bother renewing thier contract for the show. They've one more season they're obligated to make next year, then that's it.

So, why? Why did a "crafted drama, a well-told story" fail so badly?

I suspect it's because its viewers were happier playing The Sims - looking into the fire and seeing the Pickwick Papers, watching an animated lady make a sandwich and seeing a thwarted human rights attorney. The nightly Big Brother 'highlight shows' had always been directive and selective, but in previous years they'd existed as part of a Big Brother that was also made up of podcasts, psychology shows, all sorts of other nonsense and, most importantly, a live feed of footage from the house - a true chance to watch people sitting around doing nothing and imagine what might be the story there.

The live feed was, being unspeakably boring, the closest thing to playing The Sims or Dickens' fireplace, but even if you never watched it, just knowing it was there was a guarantee of the fact that other interpretations of what was going on in the house were not only possible but were part of the game of watching Big Brother. In the show's heyday it wasn't unlike Joss Whedon's idea of Firefly being, "a show about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things" except it was a show about Dermot O'Leary looking into a house and seeing gentle absurdism, Davina McCall looking into a house and seeing romantic comedy and Russell Brand looking into a house and seeing...well, this sort of thing...

Rosebud the Horse: Rosebud the Horse is a very polite and well-spoken character who allegedly lives with Brand in his home, in which he works as his slave and is often mistreated and forced to carry out perverted misdemeanours by members of the "Womanising Circuit" including Beppe di Marco, Dean Gaffney amd David Walliams. He dresses in the style of a country gent, with tweed jacket, smart shirt and tie. He is often treated badly by Brand; in one episode he slapped him in the face.

That's taken from a Wikipedia list of characters who appeared on different Big Brother shows. I hope it makes my point that much of the draw of the British Big Brother was how spacious it was. How much room it offered for interpretation, nonsense and making stuff up.

But by BB10 then it'd all folded up and closed down. Davina McCall now presented the show, did all the interviews and editorialised about it all on Big Brother's Big Mouth. Her opinions were the only ones you got to hear at any length, and her opinions were far from impartial; one memorable interview saw her explaining to an evicted housemate that she'd 'understand' what a horrible person she was when she got a chance to watch the tapes. No one %$%$ with the Judge of all Evil.

With nothing but a directive show and a monotone commentary, Big Brother finally stabilised as classical storytelling and came to rest. It tried to escape finality by embracing finitude, and it died.

But what died in Final Crisis?

The people putting together the hardback collection reckon it was Batman, and so they put a big sad ol' World's Finest Pieta on the cover. It's totally at odds with the roaring fury of the equivalent scene in the book, but makes a lot of sense if you're looking to shift some copies of the thing. "Here's the book in which Batman dies!" is a more obvious hook than anything I'm talking about tonight.

Though (spoilers!) Batman doesn't die at all. He's last seen alive and well, acompanied by a caption saying, "But the fire burns forever." Him being alive and well tends to go against the idea of him having died, and "But the fire burns forever" tends to go against the whole idea of 'dying'.

Because that's what really dies in Final Crisis. Endings.

The title's a joke, setting us up to think it's principally the end of DC's long-running sequence of 'Crisis' events, whereas in fact it's the Crisis of Finality. The death of finitude. The death of confinement.

We learn that story's really ending not so much because of the triumph of the GOD OF EEEVIL - no, that's just a symptom - but because the Monitors, those who stand outside of story and work to keep it neatly within its borders, have themselves been infected with story.

And since stories have ends...that means they're ending. And so is everything else.

Superman's solution is to find a happy ending. But there is only one.

Glen David Gold's novel Sunnyside sees Charlie Chaplin dealing with the same problem...

'How's the war movie?' Syd asked.

'How's the war?'

'It should be over by Christmas, they say.'

'Is that a fact?' Chaplin poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher he kept on the floor behind the desk. 'I was thinking. Comedies end with a marriage. What about tragedies?'

'Death?' Syd wished they weren't discussing tragedies. Tragedies made no money. He suspected his brother had no mind for them.

'No,' Chaplin said, 'Every story ends in death, if only you follow it long enough.'

'Every story is a tragedy, then. Can we just start rolling on the next picture? What's the setup?'

'No setup.' Chaplin was feeling a new vein of energy. 'No story ends happily. The happy ending is only about knowing where to end on a smile, at the very moment where fortune is still on the ascent. The open road. The wedding.'

'I guarantee you, when the war is over, we'll all be happy.'

'Something with come along to replace it.'

'There will be dancing in the street.'

'Until there isn't.'

Syd tugged at his nose, a habit he had developed in the last year or two of these conversations. 'Then something good will happen again. Eventually'.
P.315

'To be Continued...", the words Superman wants written on his gravestone, is the only happy ending we'll ever get. It's one that's superhero comics do very well, although that's normally seen as a bad thing.

"[O]ne of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended. An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time; Robin Hood is driven to become an outlaw by the injustices of King John and his minions. That is his origin. He meets Little John, Friar Tuck and all the rest and forms the merry men. He wins the tournament in disguise, he falls in love with Maid Marian and thwarts the Sheriff of Nottingham. That is his career, including love interest, Major Villains and the formation of a superhero group that he is part of. He lives to see the return of Good King Richard and is finally killed by a woman, firing a last arrow to mark the place where he shall be buried. That is his resolution--you can apply the same paradigm to King Arthur, Davy Crockett or Sherlock Holmes with equal success. You cannot apply it to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth."
- Alan Moore, Twilight of the Superheroes pitch.

But in Final Crisis then the most despised shall be the most loved. The irresolvability of the superhero story is made into a virtue rather than a vice. That the Final Fate of the Batman is forever deferred becomes an emblem of the fact that as idea, Batman can go anywhere. Superman doesn't want "To be Continued..." on his gravestone because he's confident that he'll be ressurected. He wants "To be Continued..." on his gravestone because he's confident that his readers will continue the stuff he's stood for, be it truth, justice or the American way, and continue his story for him.

For Moore then Superhero stories' lack of fixity in time robs them of the chance of having a proper meaning, but for Morrison then that lack constitutes their meaning. Davies talks breathlesly of this with regard to Doctor Who, "Isn't that the best thing an idea can do, go anywhere, be anything, for anyone? [...] I think that's Doctor Who's greatest legacy - an imagination that goes way beyond the screen, and all the way into your head, where it's yours forever."

It's very much the same with Superman. Seagle's It's a Bird asks the question, "Can a fictional character save a real life in the real world?" and Morrison's All-Star Superman answers it definitively; the internet is lightly speckled with exchanges like this one...

jedidotflow : This is gonna sound a bit weird, but All-Star Superman #10 prevented me from committing suicide.

edosan: Not weird at all. Good to have you here.

Brian St. Claire : That isn't the least bit weird.


If Superman's not limited by the boundaries of his text, then why on earth should he, or any of his super-friends, be limited within the text by something as dull as a 'proper ending'? I'm not even sure about half of Moore's examples to be honest - Holmes comes back from his definitive resolution at Reichenbach, Arthur's return will be any day now, and most popular tellings of Robin Hood over the last fifty years have shown that the story works just fine with his death left out of the picture. Final Crisis argues that the endless form of the superhero story is perfectly fitted to its endless function.

The big showdown takes place between Superman and Mandraak...the Vampiric Lucifer figure that the Monitors' "self-assembling hyper-story" has concocted as a narative device with which to end itself. Here's everything that takes us up to that point in six sentances.

- There was an infinite and undifferentiated substance - the monad, the absolute, the monitor, the empty page.

- Then something appeared within that substance - the multiverse, the ink, the story.

- The empty page began to mimic its contents and adopt the condition of narative...it turned from an undifferentiated and impersonal 'entity' into a pantheon of Gods.

- These 'Monitors' work to limit, control and contain story, while all the time enacting thier own - a plot that ends with the return of Mandraak, the Monitor who hates that there is now something instead of nothing, and wants it all gone.

- The end of the Monitors' hyper-story causes the stories they contained to conclude also. In Superheroland this means the victory (then death) of Evil, Earth falling into a black hole and Superman left alone as the world and the story fall apart.

- Mandraak turns up to eat the universe.

And how does Superman defeat him? Well, it's not really with a fight, but with a show and tell session. Supes fends off finality by demonstrating that his story is infinite. With a "Look up in the sky" he calls forth an army of characters who've been inspired by or ripped off from Superman, or even inspired by or ripped off from characters who've been inspired by or ripped off from Superman. Proof that he can do the best thing an idea can do... go anywhere, be anything.

This signal is receieved and understood...if the Superman concept is that free of fixity then it can even effect and change the Monitors' hyper-story. One of the Monitors has become a superhero, and is retrofitted into having been Mandraak's son. Together he and Superman pull iteration after iteration of the superhero myth out of thier A-SS; Superhero bunny rabbits, Superhero angels, Superhero poodles.

"There is no limit to what I can do," says the freshly-minted storytelling superhero god, and Mandraak dies complaining that this can't be happening - he'd read to the end of the infinite book and so knew that evil was supposed to win. What he obviously didn't know though was what a stupid notion 'read to the end of the infinite book' is.

Superhero-Monitor returns to his pantheon of meta-godly editors/game keepers/plot-police and tells them its time for them to stop pretending that they are the story. It's time for them to to become undifferentiated again and return to being the empty page. An empty page across which, without them limiting it, story can now spread out as far as it likes...in whatever direction it likes...in whatever shape it likes. Narative is left free not just of the finality of having to have a conclusion but of the finite boundaries of traditional structures. All Superman wanted was a happy ending, and we know by now what that means. The fire burns forever. To Be Continued. What's the set-up for the next picture, Charlie?

So, on one hand we've got Big Brother 10, which dealt with coming after its conclusion by clinging to the finite, and on the other we've got Final Crisis which actively rejected the finite and prised wide the infinite book.

And then, this December, we'll have The End of Time.

If Davies equates his finales with those of Pop Idol, and is modelling his drama on the SENSATIONAL MEDIA EVENT then something interesting's just happened...

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. [...] Raising the stakes until you get a finale until you don't know what's going to happen and you're at fever pitch. [...] 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.'

Because in Pop Idol terms then we do know what's going to happen.

Who's our winner? Will Young? Gareth Gates? Leona Lewis? Stacey Solomon?

No.

It's Matt Smith.

The little Confidential special that they put out revealing him as the Eleventh Doctor was, in a very low-key way, more like the end of a series of Pop Idol/X-Factor than the actual drama can be. Considered as a media event then 'Matt Smith becomes our new Doctor/Pop Idol' is the end of the story, but considered as a media event then that's already happened.

The End of Time is going out after its conclusion.

And if it's going to satisfy, it'll have to find a crowd-pleasing way of doing what Final Crisis attempted. It will have to end time.

To Be Continued...

Monday, 5 October 2009

Calendar Man strikes again.

Hello, hello. I seem to be alternating between right-brain and left-brain posts, so before the next part of Countdown to the End of Time let's have some more Bat-chronologising.

The first part's here.
The second part's here.
The third part's here.

And this would be the fourth.

Since it's come up though, let's have some disclaimers first...

This is an attempt to generate a plausible chronology for a bunch of recent Batman stories.

This is not important. Playing this sort of game teaches you as much about how stories work as playing The Sims teaches you about raising families and making friends. It's a decadent, mechanical amusement.

This is not an attempt to generate a reading order. I do not propose you wait until after Batman and Robin#3 to read the first page of RIP.

This is not an attempt to find out what order these stories 'really happened in'. As they just made them all up. The scoundrels!

This is not an attempt to find out DC's secret masterplan. Most of the time editorial seem appropriately (see "This is not important") disinterested in this sort of thing, and when they do have a go at it have a tendancy to overcomplicate things unhelpfully. This project treats the published comics as the only primary sources.

This is not exhaustive. The only comics considered in this project are those listed in this project. So it's entirely possible that some detail from, say, Cry for Justice could stuff the whole thing up. I'll sleep.

This is not impartial. Let's say you've got two different stories in which Mary comes to terms with the death of her little lamb, and nothing to indicate which of them happened first. When someone producing a chronology of those stories puts them in order, they're making a decision as to which saw Mary really come to terms with the death of her little lamb. A certain amount of subjective privileging of The Stories I Like is unavoidable.

This is not very interesting. My workings are shown below for transparency rather than with the expectation that they'll offer a riveting read. You might want to just scroll down to the actual chronology at the bottom of the post.

Okay, that out of the way, here we go. And we're into the Reborn era now, which should be a dizzying whirl as everyone's gone non-linear on us. Winnick's jumping between three four different time periods in one issue of Batman, Yost's having flashbacks within flashbacks in Red Robin, and Morrison's now catching up with his flashforwards from last year. We may end up doing this more by the page than by the issue.

Batman #687 then, which is variously set 'YEARS AGO', 'TODAY', 'FOUR WEEKS AGO' and 'TWO WEEKS LATER'. The 'YEARS AGO' section is a long-range flashback to a young Dick and a yellow-ovaled Bruce training and anticipating the day when Dick'll be in the cowl. It's somewhat outside the bounds of this project, so we'll leave it where it is. The 'TODAY' section is set post-Battle for the Cowl, with a Dick who's accepted that he's now Batman, but not accepted accepted it. He's still wearing the Nightwing costume and not getting out of the Batmobile (which is not yet the flying model). Damien's dressed as Robin, but not in his final costume. The section concludes with the move to the penthouse.

'FOUR WEEKS AGO' takes us back to a time when Tim was Robin and shows Superman and Wonder Woman returneing Bruce's cowl. A service is held for Bruce, quiet except for Dick having a little shout about the need to conceal Batman's death from the world at large. This obviously has to go somewhere between Final Crisis and Battle for the Cowl, and I'm inclined to place it quite early after Dick's return to Gotham in Nightwing #152-3. It sits well there for Alfred too, before the Outsiders special. 'TWO WEEKS LATER' takes us to a sample adventure of the new, wisecracking Dick Grayson Batman, as he (presumably) stops the Scarecrow from doing something nasty involving a bridge. Gordon and the GCPD are around, but don't interact with Batman or express any expectation of his involvement one way or the other, so it's hard to judge how much contact they've had with him by this point.

Batman #688 goes easier on us. There're just two time-frames 'THREE WEEKS FROM NOW' and 'NOW', with 'THREE WEEKS FROM NOW' being unambiguously the follow-on from the end of #690.

The 'NOW' sequence may give us trouble though - Gordon's seen using the Bat-Signal in a peculiar way for "the fourth time in ten days"...turning it on then off again after five minutes "to let him know we're here". The implication seems to be that he's not yet used it properly to summon DickBats. However we do see it used fully in Batman and Robin's first arc...which would seem to happen before events here; The 'NOW' section of Batman #688 is very concerned with Batman's very visible public profile since coming back in force, but by the end of B&R#3 then Batman's return is still a rumour. We'll see how this plays out when we look at Batman and Robin #1-3, but it's possible that we're either going to have to go against the grain of the Gordon scene here or the Le Bossu scene there.

#689 carries on from there, though not without the possibility of other adventures inbetween. Dick says he's lately been occupied with catching Arkham escappes and a separate wave of organised crime head by He Knows Not Who. The flying batmobile makes it out of the garage this issue, which we'd not seen it do in Batman previously, and we're told that the hover-tech's been working fine for weeks. #690's a direct continuation from here, and clearly establishes Penguin's new working relationship with the Black Mask, which would seem to place it before Batman and Robin's second arc.

Well, we'll have to stop there with Batman for a while, as we don't get the last part of this arc till next week and I've not got the sense to wait. So far it's looking like this...

Batman #687 - Four weeks ago sequences.
[...lots of stuff..]
Batman#687 - Today sequences.
[...probably B&R #1-3...]
Batman#687 - Two weeks later sequences.
Batman#688 - 'now' sequence.
[possible gap]
Batman#689-90
Batman #688's Three weeks from now sequence.

What shall we do next? Streets of Gotham I think.

"The signal goes on and he shows up. That's the way it's been, that's the way it will be." says Gordon, so by Streets #1 then we're after B&R#2's "It's been a long time..." The Harley scene also works as a prelude to Gotham City Sirens #1. It'd be nice to place this issue after Batman #689 and assume that the foam gun used here is a small-scale application of the tech first tested in that issue, but there's nothing compelling us to. The issue leads directly into #2.

Streets #2 is where Hush escapes, so we're before all further references to his antics as FakeBruce in Sirens and B&R and whathaveyou. We're in a new Batmobile, but it's not the flying one. Dick encounters Black mask, but is given no reason to suspect that he's at the top of the new food chain, so we could still be before Batman #689 if we need to be. Kate Spencer is DA by this point, which we'll have to remember when we come to build the Second Features in. The JLA appear to be Firestorm, Zee, Vixen, John Stewart and Doctor Light at the time, should that later turn out to be relevant, and R'as is watching events with amusement.

Streets #3 is set long enough after the preceeding issue for Hush's reign of Benevolance to have built up a head of steam. Penguin references the events of Batman #690, so we're after that. Dick and Damien are able to call on the League and the Outsiders. Zsasz rebrands himself. Hush is under the Bat-family's thumb by the end of the issue.

Streets #4 shows enough time has passed since the last issue for both the Bat-family's arangement with Hush and Zsasz's new operation to have become established. Dick references the events of Sirens #1. He also mentions Two-face being at large, which might turn out to be a problem if Batman #691 ends with him captured, since Penguin's monologue in Streets#2 puts us after that story. Looking at solicits, it seems that this story won't be picked up on again until Streets #7.

Makes sense to do Sirens next, since Dini bounces a few characters between the books, and the first issue opens with Selina telling us it's two months on from Battle for the Cowl. We're explictly after Streets#1 and before Streets#4.

Sirens #2 follows on directly from the first issue...well, alright, except for a 'THREE YEARS EARLIER' sequence, but I'm not fussing about with that. Hush has gone public with his stimulus package, and his level of autonomy suggests we're between Streets #2 and #3.

Sirens #3's a fill-in, which picks up where #2 left off ("Harley's been taken!") and then follows the Riddler rather than the main cast. Dick's involved, but there's nothing to tie it to any particular events in his life. By the end to picks up the ongoing plot where it found it.

Sirens #4 picks up directly after #3...the Joker (or possibly 'the Joker') is watching the same broadcast as the Riddler. The reference to Hush having moved into the Elliot estate, and being free at Batman's leisure shows we're actually after Streets #3.

So the Diniverse chronology is quite straightforward...

Streets #1-3
Sirens #1-4
Streets #4

...and appears, from the Black Mask references and Dick's relationship with Gordon, to be set entirely after what Winnick's up to.

Lets do the first arc of Batman and Robin next. It features...
...the widespread assumption that Batman's dead, placing it before the media blitz of Batman #688.
...possibly the first field use of the flying Batmobile ("Told you it would work")
...scenes of Dick decamping from the Batcave.
...Alfred saying, "And so begins in earnest your first week as Batman"
...Dick's (facetious?) comment that he could offer Tim his old job back.
...The first time in months that Batman responds to the Bat-signal.
...The timeframe catching up with RIP's flashforwards.

Other than the fact that it makes Gordon's fooling around with the Bat-Signal in Batman #688 look a little strange, this fits perfectly before that issue. And since there's nowhere else that Batman's 'first week' can go, there we have it.

So as things stand...

Batman #687 - Four weeks ago sequences.
[...lots of stuff..]
Batman#687 - The 'TODAY' sequences.
Batman and Robin #1-3
Batman #681 and #676's 'SIX MONTHS LATER' sequences (concurent with the conclusion of the above)
Batman#687 - The 'TWO WEEKS LATER' sequences.
Batman#688 - The 'NOW' sequence.
Batman#689-90
Batman #688 - The 'THREE WEEKS FROM NOW' sequence.
Streets of Gotham #1-3
Gotham City Sirens #1-4
Streets of Gotham #4

Red Robin #1 and, arriving in Madrid, Tim needs to work out the aggression of "the last few weeks".

In the flashback sequence then Tim's discussing Damien's role as Robin with Dick. Damien's seen in his final costume during this, which could place us after Batman #687, as could Dick being Bat-suited up. We've not moved out of the Batcave yet and The Batgirl costume is still available.

It took Tim 'a few days' to get out of Gotham and 'a few more to figure out where to start'. As of the end of the issue he's been in Europe over seven days. That'd seem to put the present of this narative roughly contemporary with Batman #688's 'TWO WEEKS LATER'.

#2's flashback takes place the day after the first issue's. It also appears to show Harper still in Gotham, which I'll have to remember in case I ever decide to sych all this up with the Superman books. The narative in the present continues on directly from the previous issue.

#3's flashback seems to be, given the failure of Cassie's earlier attempts to contact Tim, a sequel to the flashback in the previous issue. Through Cassie's call to Dick it then leads into the flashback in the next issue. Dick's got the flying Batmobile in #4's flashback, but there's nothing to suggest it's flown yet.

Obviously, Tim's European/Middle Eastern adventures in the present of Red Robin take place over an extended period of time, so I'll just put them as starting round about the same time as the end of Batman #687 and note that much of what follows occurs concurrently.

Right! What's left?
Well, there's Outsiders (which I've not caught up on yet, and I've a terrifying feeling is going to make me have to think about incorportating FC: Revelations).

Batgirl (with which I'll wait until there's a few more issues out before thinking about).

Detective Comics (which I'm not sure what I want to do with yet, since its placement is so intentionally vauge). The Second Features (which I can't be bothered with this afternoon)

The new Batman and Robin arc (which I'll leave 'til its done) and Blackest Night/Blackest Night: Batman (which I'll also leave until the monthlies have caught up with it).

I think that's it for today then. And that the new chronology looks like this...

PART ONE - BATMAN BEATS THE DEVIL.
  • DCU #0
  • Detective Comics #846-50 ('Heart of Hush')
  • Batman #676-8 ('RIP' parts 1-3)
  • Robin #175-6
  • Batman #679-681 ('RIP' parts 4-6)
PART TWO - BATMAN'S MISSING FOR A BIT AND EVERYONE OVER-REACTS.
  • Batman and the Outsiders #11-14
  • Nightwing #147-151 ('The Great Leap') - concurrent with early chapters of 'Search for a Hero'
  • Robin #177-82 ('Search for a Hero')
  • Dectective #851, Batman #684 ('The Last Days of Gotham') - concurrent with later chapters of 'Search for a Hero'
PART THREE - BATMAN KILLS GOD.
  • That flashback sequence from #683
  • Final Crisis #1-3
  • Superman Beyond #1-2
  • Final Crisis #4
  • Batman #682-3
  • Final Crisis #5-7
PART FOUR - WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CAPED CRUSADER?
  • Batman #686
  • Detective Comics #853
PART FIVE - BATMAN APPEARS DEAD FOR A BIT AND EVERYONE OVER-REACTS.
  • Nightwing #152-3
  • Batman #687 (the 'FOUR WEEKS AGO' sequence)
  • Detective #852, Batman #685 ('Reconstruction/Catspaw')
  • Batman and the Outsiders Special #1
  • The Outsiders #15-20 ('The Deep') - provisional placement.
  • Robin #183
PART SIX - EVERYONE BATTLES OVER CAWL, A TRADITIONAL WELSH LAMB AND LEEK STEW.
  • Oracle: The Cure #1-3
  • Secret Six #9
  • Gotham Gazette: Batman Dead?
  • Battle for the Cowl #1
  • Man-Bat #1, Commissioner Gordon #1 and Azrael: Death's Dark Knight #1-3 (all concurrent with the above)
  • Battle for the Cowl #2
  • The Underground #1/The Network #1
  • Battle for the Cowl #3
  • Arkham Asylum #1
  • Gotham Gazette: Batman Alive!
PART SEVEN - YOU'RE WRONG! BATMAN AND ROBIN WILL NEVER DIE!
  • Batman #687 - The 'TODAY' sequences
  • Red Robin #1-4 - The 'BEFORE' sequences
  • Batman & Robin #1-3 ('Batman Reborn')
  • Batman #681 and 676's 'SIX MONTHS LATER' sequences - concurrent with the conclusion of the above.
  • Red Robin #1-4 - The 'NOW' sequences - concurrent with much that follows.
  • Batman #687 - The 'TWO WEEKS LATER' sequences.
  • Batman #688 - The 'NOW' sequence.
  • Batman #689-90
  • Batman #688 - The 'THREE WEEKS FROM NOW' sequence.
  • Streets of Gotham #1-3
  • Gotham City Sirens #1-4
  • Streets of Gotham #4

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...