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