O2

Spoilers, obviously.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

So, almost as if the scriptwriters had been reading my mind (only nine months in advance), the sonic screwdriver is kaputed early in the episode by a rogue zombie in a space suit. This is going to be a pain because there are lots of electronic locks that need to be bypassed — through the equivalent of fiddling around with wires under the dashboard. Also, sensibly, the TARDIS is put out of reach as soon as possible, although you’d think he’d have a remote control by now or a dog whistle.

Zombies in Space wears its structure on its sleeve, with an in-space pre-credits sequence of astronauts outside a ship overlaid with the Doctor quoting Star Trek and explaining how dangerous space is and how you would die if exposed to a vacuum.

Is someone going to be exposed to a vacuum? Does a wooden horse shit in the woods?

Of course, those of us with long memories (or poor repression mechanisms) will recall Five — as I believe the kids call vetinary these days — floating in space with a BMX helmet, using a cricket ball to navigate zero-g in “Four to Doomsday”. But back when Five was Doctoring he was a mere slip of 800 or so, rather than 2000. Maybe he had better lungs.

So the Doctor is using Bill as an outlet for scratching his itchy feet (that’s a metaphor, obviously), much to Margot’s disgust — Margot claims that the Doctor has ordered him to force the Doctor to stay, threatening the opening of the Vault and OMG STORY ARC even though presumably the Vault needs to be opened to deliver a piano and Mexican takeaway. Margot has removed the fluid links to disable the TARDIS, a reference mainly back to the first Dalek serial in late 1963 (Harry who? Medical officer to what?) — but this is clearly not as important a plot device, er, component as he was led to believe.

The Doctor takes Bill and Margot into deep space, the penultimate frontier, to a mining ship putting out a distress call — because “You only see the true face of the Universe, when it’s asking for help” (wasn’t there a similar line in ”Thin Ice”?). You’ll note that later in the episode we see the Doctor not really asking for help — almost as if he doesn’t want us to see his true face. The crew are in the middle of the crisis — their spacesuits are killing them and are occupied by zombie crew members.

The crew are pleasingly interracial and mixed-sex — echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien — but there’s a foot put wrong when Bill double-takes at Dahh-Ren, species unknown, blue-skinned, and she is schooled in racism. Yeah, after the whitewash comment last week (which is fair comment), a lesbian of colour has to be schooled in racism. There is more to ethnicity than skin colour, of course, but we don’t get much more than him being blue (although he is reasonably knowledgable about his surroundings and useful for info dumping).

But perhaps we should forgive “Oxygen” for this, given its political commentary: oxygen is a commodity to be bought and sold, about the only thing the Conservatives never privatised. As workers, the miners are part of the machinery of capitalism, always already cyborgs, liable to wear out and be replaced. The Company has decided the operation is uneconomic and, without a care for its workers, close down the operation — or rather refit it with new crew. The suits are attacking the crew, in a literal metaphor like the skeleton crew of ”Smile”, but I’m not sure whether the Company wish the crew to be killed (but I don’t suppose they’d lose any sleep). It might be a misinterpretation of the programme (yanno, like the Emojibots in “Smile”).

Interesting, then to compare these two episodes in which machinery evolves a state of consciousness beyond that which is programmed and operates as a kind of slave class taking revenge upon their creators. The machinery’s new consciousness is not allowed to stand by the liberal Doctor, but reprogrammed.

Meanwhile Bill, rather conveniently, is stunned, not dead (beautiful plumage…), as if we’d seriously think she’d been killed off. Although, that rumour about her as single season character makes it more of a possibility. The Doctor helps save her — at the expense of his eyes, although he is evidently able to program a computer system he has never seen before and can’t see now.

No sonic, so just rewrite the DNA, so to speak.

The Doctor stays visually impaired, even if Bill doesn’t stay dead, so it’s time for a group cuddle. It looks as if they are going to keep him like that — perhaps so that Bill can step up to plate (like other Nu Who companions did). A regeneration would resolve it, presumably, but then we are being misled about whether that is sooner rather than later. There is much insistence that this will play into the hands of the prisoner in the STORY ARC. I can’t see it myself.

(sorry. sometimes i can’t help myself)

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

So you think that Sarah Dollard — oh.

(Hold on. A female writer on Doctor Who, whatever next? She also did “Face the Raven”.)

So you think that Sarah Dollard has made a smart choice in “Thin Ice”, to have the sonic screwdriver stolen by a street urchin so that it isn’t a convenient plot device to get them out of a scrape. In fact, there are three or four moments in the episode — falling through ice, being stolen again, being blown up — when it could be destroyed, but she can’t help but use it.

Can you say, “Merchandising”?
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Why Don’t You Come Up and See My Motifs, Sometime?

Nikolai Astrup: The Way Home (23 January 2016 to 22 January 2017, KODE 4, Bergen)

Whilst many of the important Nikolai Astrup paintings were out on tour to places such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bergen offered a selection of work to demonstrate his emergence as an artist. Since Astrup is hardly known outside of Norway, it shouldn’t be a surprise that few of these are household names. Norwegian art for us begins and ends with Munch, alas.

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:/

Doctor Who: “Smile”

Nu Who has built a few episodes around people being prevented from doing or being forced to do certain things — I’m thinking especially of “Blink”, but if I had a better memory of the last ten years I could think of more examples. Here it is again then: smile, though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

Smile, it’ll never happen. Imagine having to smile or you’ll die.

Actually, I have a feeling Ray Bradbury already did, a story where someone was arrested for not smiling — I used to know titles, and I know it wasn’t “The Smile”.

So the Doctor seems to have taken Bill under his wing — he was grooming her, educationally speaking at least — and she’s still asking the questions that were the clever and probably unconscious subtext of the original creators of the series. Why a police box? How much did it cost? Why did you take it? How do you fly it? The Doctor as helpline, answering all calls. Bill is owed a trip, so she asks to see the future to see if humanity is happy (dramatic irony). After the gadding about shenanigans of “The Pilot” we get a single destination.

Of course, Margot is contractually obliged to knock knock and tell us about the Vault and the Doctor’s duty to guard it. The Doctor, never knowingly underhubrised, reckons he can pop out to ten thousand years from now and be back before Margot’s finished smoking the kippers.

Yeah, right.

But in what the Doctor here calls “negotiation” with the TARDIS as opposed to steering, we know that navigation is as accurate or off-kilter as the plot demands.

So we are transported to the future human colony and we see characters running through wheat fields.

Naughty.

Colonist May does not have long for the colony world, as her reaction to hearing that Everyone is Dead is to cry and leads her to be flayed by the killer locust robots called Vardies.

I am half convinced this is Polari.

But only half.

So the Doctor and Bill walk into this death trap, with Bill entranced by robots who speak emoji. The Doctor has a lovely cake and eat it line about a future “utopia of vacuous teens”, and they have their first Vardy experience. Actually, I do like the look of this utopia future — CGI and a leisure centre I assume — and the central gimmick is neatly done, even if you half expect someone to be quoting the Three Laws of Robotics. The emojibots enforce happiness. An outbreak of grief would doom the colony. After the Doctor and Bill discover a rather literal skeleton crew, the Doctor realises the answer is to blow the colony buiding up.

The second act becomes about the attempt to do so and the exploration of the colony ship Erehwon — a nice joke let down by the misspelling of Samuel-no-relation-Butler’s novel. Complications ensue, which is the arrival of a killer emojibot and the awakening of the colonists. The Doctor can’t blow up the ship because it will kill the colonists, but if he doesn’t blow it up the ship will kill the colonists.

The Doctor has been making allusions throughout to the Magic Haddock, which is a variation on W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” story about three wishes, with the third wish wiping out the previous two. He also mentions a reset button — a rather knowing thing in what we know is the last season of the programme in its current form. Moffat has hit reset buttons before. A few years ago, the narrative used to be resolved by simply rewriting DNA on the fly, here the waving of the sonic screwdriver is the universal panacea.

And it was going so well.

I think Frank Cottrell-Boyce gets away with it, because the banter between Bill and the Doctor is fun, and we should keep an eye on her movie knowledge. I could have done without them both saying the episode’s punchline.

But, like a Spielberg movie, it doesn’t stop there, at the right point — like the early Hartnell episodes we are tipped into the next episode, with an elephant on the Thames. So take note — the Doctor was wrong about blowing something up and he was wrong about being home again home again jiggidy-jig. But then, I guess, it’s never too late for him to get home on time.

But at some point hubris is going to be clobbered.

Please Sir, Can I Have Some Moore?

Albert Moore: Of Beauty and Aesthetics (York Art Gallery, 7 April-1 October 2017)

This exhibition comes with a thesis. I have to confess I wasn’t convinced.

York-born artist Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), son of painter William Moore (d. 1851) and brother to several artists, was part of the Aesthetic movement with Burne-Jones, Leighton, Watts and Whistler. The exhibition claims that his privileging of colour and mood over subject in search of beauty and art for art’s sake was a precursor to British abstract art. Digging around, I found a review of Moore and Burne-Jones from 1881: “Mr. Albert Moore paints neither incidents nor subjects nor allegories: he limits himself very much to the realisation of perfectly balanced for and exquisitely ordered colour.”
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Carry on Constable

Constable and Brighton: Something Out of Nothing (Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 8 April-8 October 2017)

Two artists muscle to the front of early nineteenth century British art: Turner and Constable. Turner, because of Summer exhibition, yadda yadda, varnishing day, yadda yadda, red paint, yadda yadda, it’s a boat and Constable, because between some prints in the living room and six table mats, he was probably the only artist to make it into my childhood home. I can’t help but feel that William Blake and John Martin are better and more interesting than both, but I suspect time has made them more seem conservative than they deserve. There was a huge retrospective of Constable’s big paintings at the V&A a couple of years ago (I suspect I have notes somewhere), but he doesn’t get me excited.

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The Spoils

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality (Pallant House, 11 March-11 June 2017)

I can claim no great knowledge of art aside from what I’ve looked at and then thought about, and maybe then read about. Victor Pasmore was filed in a mental box of British abstract, with if I recall a couple of paintings at Brighton that have caught my eye a couple of times.

It was odd to go into the first room of this Pallant House retrospective and think, French. There was an air of Paris in the domestic interiors and the drinkers in cafés and objects on tables. That almost-out-of-focus feel. It reminded me of a room in one of the Bergen galleries that I nearly skipped when I had this feeling, only to realise it was very early and thus atypical Edvard Munch.

Mother and Florence (1928) can be the typical one, the faces impossible to pick out, the focus on the sewing machine. It turns out he was influenced by French Postimpressionism, the Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard. Having worked in admin for the London County Council, he studied part time at the Central School of Art and then he went onto be a founder with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers of the Euston Road School, who focused on objective observation and naturalism in art — this was to win him accolades from Kenneth Clark of Civilisation.

It’s all a little dull.

He was a conscientious objector to the Second World War, although he was refused this status at first and served a prison sentence. Living in Hammersmith and Chiswick, he began painting landscapes that tended more to the abstract and resisted being picturesque.

There’s certainly the influence of Whistler — although they are not as impressive as his Thames pictures — and the abstract tendency of Turner.

But apparently he saw his own turn to the abstract as a new beginning rather than a continuation of a tendency, and there was was some Ben Nicholson in the mix. The greyed out landscapes with coloured shapes gave way to coloured shapes on a neutral field and titles which were revised to remove references to seasons, times or locations.

I’m presuming I first saw Triangular Motif in Pink and Yellow (1949) the best part of thirty years ago at the Ferens, and it and the other collages are the works that I prefer. But I have to say I can see the influence of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, and I prefer the originals.

Perhaps echoing Nicholson’s reliefs, he moves into three dimensions, mounting slats of materials on black backed glass or squares of wood, sometimes off centred. By then he was teaching at Newcastle and got a job for Richard Hamilton, and I do wonder if he was responsible for Kurt Schwitters’s extraordinary Merzbarn Wall going to Newcastle. I like the spirals and mazes and contour map shapes, but I wasn’t blown away. Sometimes I could see how the spirals turned a painting into a response to Van Gogh, but I think he’d refute such a reading.

The Pallant has a great record of shows of artists I’ve always wanted to see or artists I hadn’t realised I should see, but this time it didn’t press my buttons.