SciFi Friday (Sunday Edition): Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Surviving the Year 1000


Every season there are one or two episodes of Doctor Who which really stands out, often winning the Hugo and Nebula awards. Most of these episodes have been written by Stephen Moffat, including The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink. Those of us watching (or downloading) the shows from the BBC have seen this year’s presentation from Stephen Moffat, a two-part story consisting of Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. This portion of SciFi Friday will contain many spoilers for those who are watching on the SciFi Channel which is a few episodes behind.

The two-parter essentially had three different aspects to it. The Doctor is called to a planet-sized Library. The story dealing with Vashta Nerada was the weakest portion. The Vashta Nerada are microscopic creatures which live in the shadows, and which are responsible for the fear of the dark which has arisen in many civilizations. They can devour an organism in seconds, making it necessary for all the people who had been in The Library to be saved. This served as a menace to drive the story but ultimately once the other two aspects of the story reached their conclusion this was resolved too easily to be satisfactory, with The Doctor convincing the Vashta Nerada to allow one day to get the humans away.

While I was dissatisfied with the conclusion of the story related to the Vashta Nerada, the nature of the menace was far superior to that of the previous episode. In The Unicorn and the Wasp The Doctor met Agatha Christie. Much of the episode had the feel of an Agatha Christie mystery, but having the menace turn out to be an alien who appeared like a giant wasp felt incongruous with the feel of the show. A more subtle menace such as the Vashta Nerada, which were either invisible or seen as shadows, would have better suited the feel of that episode.

One technique used in this story was to give the viewers answers which turned out to be different from what might be anticipated, but were consistent with the story. The Vashta Nerada were creatures of the forest, and in this story the forest turned out to be the paper of The Library. Even more important to the overall plot was the meaning of “saved.” Throughout the story we were told of people being “saved” with no evidence of life being found. Ultimately we find that the people literally were saved by the computer to its hard drive, with portions of the story taking place within an artificial reality created by the computer. Having this extra layer turned what would have been a mediocre story into an excellent one.

The third aspect of the story was to have The Doctor meet someone who had already met him. One important aspect of some of Moffat’s stories is that time actually plays an important role. In most stories The Doctor might travel through time to reach the destination, but once he arrives time travel is generally not important to any individual story.

In this story The Doctor meets archaeologist River Song (Alex Kingston, previously of ER) who summoned him for help. She had met The Doctor at a later point in his life and knew a lot about The Doctor and Donna. To The Doctor this was their first meeting. River convinced The Doctor to trust her by revealing that The Doctor had told her his real name.

Since Doctor Who resumed a few seasons back the formula has been for there to be a story which gradually builds through the season with parts revealed gradually in individual episodes. There may also be trends developing more slowly over seasons. The Doctor’s name has been mentioned in episodes including The Girl in the Fireplace, The Shakespeare Code, and The Fires of Pompeii. With Moffat taking over as show runner when Russell T. Davies steps down, perhaps the themes used by Moffat will become even more prominent in future seasons.

It will be interesting to see if we are actually shown the relationship between The Doctor and River as mentioned in this episode, with The Doctor knowing her ultimate fate (and how he saves her by transferring her intelligence to the computer after she appears to have died) from the moment he firsts meets her.

Having The Doctor meet River in such a manner points out a flaw I’ve considered ever since the series revived. Since the original series there was a war in which the rest of the Timelords were killed. I’ve thought that it does not make sense to have a situation where The Doctor will never run into the Timelords when he (and other Timelords who left Gallifrey) are moving throughout time. Just as The Doctor will first meet River (by his time line) at the time of her death (in River’s time  line), even though other Timelords have died (in The Doctors time line) he could still run into them at an earlier point in their lives before the time war.

I have one additional complaint about what was generally an excellent story. Racing to prevent the completion of a computer’s self destruct sequence has been done way too many times. There is never any real suspense as there is always a second to two to spare before the self destruct sequence is completed.

With another excellent story, despite some minor flaws, It appears the show will be in excellent hand when Stephen Moffat takes over as show runner. Besides his own work, there are rumors that he has convinced Neil Gaiman to write an episode in 2010.

Next season we will have far less of Doctor Who while David Tennant is busy in Hamlet (along with Patrick Stewart). Instead of a regular season in 2009 there will be occasional special episode. Now it also appears that we will also have very little of Torchwood. The BBC only plans five episodes, which will air in a single week. They will appear on BBC One, which probably means the show will also be watered down even more.

After the deaths of two major characters there has been speculation that Martha Jones would return to Torchwood. Freema Agyeman will also be busy on another show. She has a role in another old BBC show from the 1970’s which is being revived, The Survivors. The show is about the survivors of a plague which wipes out most of the population.

Captain Jack lived through much of earth’s history. The Doctor travels to any period and usually manages to fit in (although he wasn’t very popular in old England). Surviving in the past would be much more difficult for a modern American who happened to be transported back to Europe of 1000. This happened to be the topic of discussion at Marginal Revolution a few days ago. Being able to write, or even program, a blog would be a totally worthless skill. Most of what we know would also be pretty worthless back then, and discussing what we know could get us killed.

If we managed to survive after coming to an area which isn’t too friendly to strangers without knowing the language or having appropriate clothing, we would have a tough time with the manual careers available at the time. Working in the church might be the best bet, but would also increase our risk of saying something which could result in execution. Then we’d have to worry about surviving the diseases of the time. Having a Tardis is definitely the only way to ever consider visiting the year 1000.

Why Clinton Lost

In most nomination battles the front runner wins or there is a single event which is commonly blamed for the loss. Ed Muskie cried in New Hampshire, before the same act gave Hillary Clinton a temporary reprieve. George Romney admitted he was brainwashed about Vietnam, while Hillary Clinton stubbornly refused to admit she was wrong on Iraq. Gary Hart was caught in activities which now sound ridiculously tame after Bill Clinton. This year was unusual in having the front runner both lose and remain in the race for so long with no single moment which caused defeat. In a race which was so close there were many factors which caused the loss, allowing different writers to present different ideas, with many of them being at least partially right. The New York Times presents an assortment of such writing.

Not surprisingly Mark Penn shows a total lack of understanding as to why Clinton lost. He argues that the problem wasn’t the message–it was the money. Hillary Clinton had all the advantages going into this race, including fund raising. If she had the right message the money would have kept coming in. In reality she did raise quite a bit of money, but Barack Obama had the better message and brought in more.

Penn’s problem in advising the Clinton campaign can be seen when he writes, “As the primaries came to an end, she had built a coalition of working-class voters, women, older voters and Latinos, and it held together — and even strengthened — as Barack Obama gained enough superdelegates to put him over the top.” One problem is that she did concentrate on building a coalition based on old fashioned identity politics in an age when voters wanted a change from this mind set.

Clinton not only attracted members of certain groups but she resorted to tactics which repelled members of others. She resorted to racist tactics, losing the black vote. In going after the working-class voters her campaign labeled the rest of us as elitists, ensuring that she would never receive our votes. Such tactics backfired. Not only did she lose the support of many Democrats outside of the groups she attracted, but her tactics also resulted in a backlash causing some members of her core groups, along with party leaders, to also oppose her. As Carl Bernstein wrote, “Faced with unanticipated adversity, Hillary and Bill Clinton took the low road too often, and voters noticed. So did the party leadership and superdelegates, who abandoned her and the idea of a Clinton Restoration.”

Penn also argues that “Experience was a major part of the campaign message” but this did not work when the message was untrue. The media examined her claims and her record and noted that her national security credentials were highly exaggerated, along with all her other claims of being the more experienced candidate. Following George Bush, Obama’s experience in Constitutional law has become far more meaningful than Hillary Clinton’s experience as a first lady. Obama’s experience as a community organizer both paid off in election strategy and in developing his political philosophy. Obama’s message of empowering individuals was far stronger than Clinton’s top-down philosophy of expanding the nanny state.

The other essays vary in their accuracy. Some of the woman writers over emphasize the role of sexism. While some of the media coverage was undeniably sexist, Hillary Clinton was in a position to overcome this if not for her faults. She started out far ahead in the race, which would not have been a possibility if sexism was really all that important this year. Hillary Clinton lost because she was Hillary Clinton, not because she was a woman.

Bob Kerrey understands that this was a battle between two individuals in writing, “I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton with an unusual perspective: I was defeated by her husband in the Democratic presidential race of 1992.” He understands that the mismatch in their political skills was more important than their gender or race:

She shouldn’t be too hard on herself. If Barack Obama had been born 10 years earlier and had been a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1992, neither I nor Bill Clinton would have defeated him.

Focusing on her mistakes is an exercise in making someone who is already miserable even more so. As is true with every other walk of life, mistakes in politics shrink to insignificance if you win and are magnified beyond their actual importance if you lose.

The hard truth is that from the moment Mr. Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, Mrs. Clinton was facing a candidate with greater skills than any candidate her husband had ever faced in his life.

Rather than looking at this as an isolated race, I prefer to look at this as part of a trend starting in earlier primaries. Often we have had a front runner and establishment candidate facing an insurgent candidate such as Barack Obama. Typically the insurgent is beaten early in the primaries and the establishment candidate goes on to win.

This year was different. As Bob Kerrey notes, the insurgent candidate was far more talented than those running in the past. We have often had the more educated and affluent Democratic voters backing the insurgent, but we lacked the votes to win. This year the addition of the black voters gave the insurgents the majority. This was certainly helped by the tactical errors made by Clinton, including failing to compete in the caucus states and deciding to take the low road which repulsed even many in the party establishment.

Clinton also had the wrong message. This included her support for going to war in Iraq, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote, but extended to other issues. With the conventional wisdom erroneously claiming that the two held the same beliefs most voters were unaware of all the differences, but the core of their beliefs did come through as her similarities to George Bush became increasingly apparent.

Ultimately the campaign lost because of their candidate. Peggy Noonan did a far better job of explaining Clinton’s loss in The Wall Street Journal than any of the writers for The New York Times.

Mrs. Clinton would have been a disaster as president. Mr. Obama may prove a disaster, and John McCain may, but she would be. Mr. Obama may lie, and Mr. McCain may lie, but she would lie. And she would have brought the whole rattling caravan of Clintonism with her—the scandal-making that is compulsive, the drama that is unending, the sheer, daily madness that is her, and him.

We have been spared this. Those who did it deserve to be thanked. May I rise in a toast to the Democratic Party.

They had a great and roaring fight, a state-by-state struggle unprecedented in the history of presidential primaries. They created the truly national primary. They brought 36 million people to the polls, including the young, minorities and first-time voters. They brought a kind of dogged brio to the year.

All of this is impressive, but more than that, they threw off Clintonism. They threw off the idea that corruption is part of the game, an acceptable fact. They threw off the idea that dynasticism was an unstoppable dynamic in modern politics, that Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton could, would, go on forever. They said: “No, that is not the way we do it.”

They threw off the idea of inevitability. Mrs. Clinton didn’t lose because she had no money or organization, she didn’t lose because she had no fame or name, she didn’t lose because her policies were unusual or dramatically unpopular within her party. She lost because enough Democrats looked at her and thought: I don’t like that, I don’t like the way she does it, I’m not going there. Most candidates lose over things, not over their essential nature. But that is what happened here. For all her accomplishments and success, it was her sketchy character that in the end did her in.