Monthly Archives: January 2007

Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock: Bk. 1I was delighted to get my copy of the Complete Nemesis the Warlock Volume 1 in the post today.

It’s a truly gorgeous book, with somewhat higher standards of reproduction throughout compared to some of the recent 2000AD reprints. The Complete Judge Dredd Volumes contain some horrible bits, with the last part of Block Mania (and also Brian Bolland’s swan song as artist on the strip), smudged to near unreadability in Volume 5.

But enough griping. The best 4 books of the Warlock himself in a single volume! Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo and Brian Talbot! And all on nice, crappy paper that feels (and smells!) distinctly old school.

Buy it before they ban it.

Plugins

I was trawling for WordPress Plugins at work last week, and came up with some goodies:

  • Ultimate Tag Warrior is something I’ve had on this blog for a while now, but it’s taken me until this week to discover its potential. It isn’t just good for generating things like tagclouds, which is nice but not desperately exciting – it can also be used for generating “related posts” lists, such as the ones that now adorn the bottom of all my posts.
  • Social Bookmarks allows you to add links to a variety of social bookmarking websites such as Technorati and del.icio.us. Simple but effective.
  • WP-Amazon allows you to generate “associates” links to Amazon extremely simply. Great for making the political party of your choice a bit of pocket change.

A wee bit of pedantry

It’s always very annoying when you read an article which you agree with the overall thrust of, but the author includes in it some complete howlers that undermine their case.

Iain MacWhirter’s piece about an English Parliament in the Herald today is a case in point. Less importantly, but still annoying because it is in the first paragraph:

So what would an English parliament actually look like, if those 61% of English voters, in last night’s Newsnight poll, who say they want one, get their way. Well, I’m tempted to say that an English parliament would be a bit like day one of a Liberal Democrat party conference. The LibDems already have a federal structure and delegates from England sit, in splendid isolation, at their annual conference to talk about English affairs.

Er, no we don’t. In fact, the first day of conference is normally reserved for business motions and receiving reports, all of which are federal, as anyone who glanced at the agenda would know.

More significantly though is this:

Scots MPs voted, famously, on the 2004 Higher Education Bill, which introduced top-up fees in England, but that didn’t stop it becoming law.

The point, Mr MacWhirter, is that Labour Scots MPs voted FOR the Higher Education Bill, thus imposing top up fees in England that would otherwise have fallen, despite the fact that Labour supported the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland. Now, I would happily accept the argument put forward by many constitutionalists that they should not necessarily have been prevented from voting in that debate, as it is undeniable that the Higher Education Bill had implications for Scotland, but that is a different point to the one that Iain MacWhirter is making here.

Generally however, this is quite a good article which nails some of the sillier aspects of the English Parliament campaigners’ arguments.

On a related note, this ranks as my favourite Act of Union story.

Getting to the root causes of gender imbalance

The debate over how to make our Parliamentary Parties more reflective of wider society is riven with entrenched assertions, with very little actual data to help inform the debate, so the Campaign for Gender Balance are to be congratulated for doing this little piece of research.

They have found that in the 63 constituencies where the Lib Dems have an MP, there are just 29 approved women candidates. In 44 of these constituencies, not a single woman is on the approved list.

Is it any wonder therefore that we have such a blind spot when it comes to getting female candidates to replace retiring male MPs?

This is even worse when you consider that around a third of the Lib Dems’ total membership is locked up in these seats. In total, the party has around 200 approve female candidates, so you would therefore expect the held seats to have 60-odd approved women candidates.

If every held constituency were to set itself the target of getting just one woman through the approval process we would, at a stroke, massively improve the gender imbalance of our candidates. The experience of the CGB over the past few years has been that just getting a few extra women improved can have a dramatic effect. So how about it guys?

Meanwhile, the Campaign for Gender Balance are trying to raise funds via Pledgebank, Jo Swinson MP, Baroness Walmsley and PPC Sarah Di Caprio have set up pledges to donate £20, £10 and £5 a month respectively with a view to raising an additional £5,000 annual income. Contrary to popular belief, the Campaign for Gender Balance hasn’t received any financial support via the party’s new Diversity Fund; in fact, this year it has had its grant cut slightly. Personally I believe it is one of the most effective, positive and liberal measures any party has yet come up to improve its diversity and deserves your support. Sign up!

Rising Tide of Nationalism? Blame the secularists

The Guardian’s ongoing war against rationality continues. After a columnist equated secularism with totalitarianism last week, this week, we are being blamed for the rising tide of nationalism:

There is a danger that the rising tide of secularism, and of narrow English and Scottish nationalism, itself often strongly secular in spirit, combined with its counterpart, the growth of various forms of fundamentalism, will erode the open, hospitable and capacious concept of Britishness in which minorities of various kinds have felt welcome.

There was a time when a “liberal” Christian would pride himself on his secularism, but clearly we have moved on (you can sense the bile rising in his gullet as he was forced to type the hated word). But is secularism truly at the heart of nationalism? Leaving aside the rest of the world for a second, if that is the case, why do nationalists concentrate so much of their energies on evoking religious purges and culls from history as justification? I’m not aware of nationalists in Northern Ireland being any less religious than unionists, but perhaps I’ve missed something (I’m sure Ian Bradley is comforted to have a liberal man of the cloth of the stature of the Rev Ian Paisley on his team). Why do Scottish and English nationalists wrap themselves in the crosses of Saints Andrew and George if they are so driven by secularist concerns? And why are the faith-friendly Cameroonies flirting with nationalism and silly notions like English Votes on English Matters (and, for that matter, religious Lib Dems such as Simon Hughes), while most people in politics associated with metropolitan liberal secularism are so sceptical?

Last time I looked, we had a Church of England, a Church in Wales, a Church of Ireland and Church of Scotland, but no “British” church. Only the former is “established” in the constitutional sense of the word. If religion, and specifically Anglicanism/protestantism, is such a unifier, why don’t they practice what they preach?

Religious anti-secularists are getting increasingly divorced from reality as they continue to make their outlandish claims in an attempt to prove that simply wanting to keep public life and private faith seperate is somehow sinister. The paranoid part of my brain suspects we are looking at some kind of wedge strategy at work.

Laws and Presidents

The latest Judge Dredd story Origins has been perfectly competent but a little underwhelming for a story that purports to finally reveal the secret history of the Judge Dredd universe. So far, that history has revealed little that we didn’t know before, albeit with some nice touches such as revealing “Bad Bob” Booth – the last President of the United States – as a born again alcoholic who stole the presidency and whose waging of a neocon agenda engulfs the world in flames (sound familiar?). The first time Booth turned up in a Dredd story it was 1978 and not surprisingly he came across more as a Nixon figure (in the same strip that had Jimmy Carter’s face added to the Rushmore Memorial).

I did however like the twist this week, revealing that the reason the fictional Judges felt they had the authority to overthrow the fictional presidency is rooted in the very much real Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I’m not sure imposing a police state was quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted this, but it was a nice touch nonetheless. George Bush take note.

Defending secularism

Three years ago, I attended a friends’ pointedly humanist wedding; two weeks ago I learned that this couple was now attending church with a view to getting their daughter into the local CofE Primary School (alongside their devoutly Jewish neighbours!). A shocking ten years ago, I was writing my undergraduate dissertation on Richard Dawkins’ war with religion, back then a somewhat more obscure topic than it would appear to be now (back then, my tutor had to get his girlfriend to examine my paper as he admitted it went over his head; by contrast I suspect that thousands of undergrads this year will be writing on a similar topic).

I recall these two bits of my past because they both appear to have become quite topical in recent months. This Christmas, the tabloids were full of “PC loonies try to ban Christmas” stories, with the Archbishop of York going out of his way to blame it all on militant secularists (a claim which appears to have no basis in fact whatsoever; not that that has ever stopped Christians in York from making outrageous claims about another group before). Last week, the Guardian went a bit more potty than normal, publishing an article from “self-hating atheist” Neal Lawson and an even more zany one from Tobias Jones, equating seculatism with totalitarianism.

We do seem to be well in the midst of a backlash against secularism. Screaming about the militancy and totalitarianism of atheists is going a little far however, given that most commentators themselves are reacting against a rising tide of quite aggressive religious extremism. “Militant” secularists, at the extreme, are calling for the banning of religious clothing in the interests of integration. By contrast, draw a cartoon of a religious prophet and you are likely to be bombarded with death threats.

This week, it has become apparent quite how wrong headed articles such as Neal Lawson’s are, when he argues for a greater role of religious groups in providing public services. Those religious groups are on the march outside Parliament protesting, not about the state of public services or poverty, but in defence of their right to exclude homosexuals from any service they might provide. Polly Toynbee, unusually, is the voice of sanity in the Guardian, pointing out how vicious all this is.

On the Today programme this morning, Angela Eagle ran rings around Lord Mackay, pointing out that far from giving homosexuals extra rights, these proposed new laws merely mean that legislation defending lesbian and gay rights merely keep up with existing legislation blocking discrimination on the grounds of race and religion. Here, it seems to me, the religion-ideologues seem to be on a loser, as they tend to be the first to oppose racial hatred and were vigorous in demanding similar rights on the grounds of religion (the case for which is far more questionable).

It does seem to me that the battle for secularism is one that must be won. This isn’t a war against religion, although many ideologues on both sides seem to think it is; liberal democracies can only exist in a climate that keeps church and state apart. For many years in the UK, this has been the de facto position, but as the C of E embraces evangelism and fundamentalism, so the case for formal disestablishment has increased. In the US, a country which has the separation of church and state written into the constitution, the battle lines are different, but the overall issue remains the same.

What is at stake is a political system in which profound issues regarding morality and conscience can be debated without resorting to violence and abuse. Where moral absolutes are allowed to direct legislation, oppression is the inevitable consequence. It is up to secularists – both atheist and religious ones – to passionately argue the case.

Up and Downs on the Fringes

UKIP seem to have got stuck in a one-step-forward, one-step-back grind. No sooner than it has been announced that their Plymouth branch have split asunder and formed their own breakaway faction (who, hilariously, call themselves the New Battle for Britain – you can hear their eyeballs squelching in their sockets as they swivel from here), than they gain two new members of the House of Lords from the Tories.

‘Twas ever thus with parties on the extreme fringes, and all does rather strengthen the case against them being a mainstream party. We may yet see two distinct Eurosceptic fringe parties fight the next European Elections, which paradoxically may see the Cameroonian Conservatives hemorrhage activists yet rally support.

The Trouble with Torchwood

So that was Torchwood Season One, then. Hmmm… It certainly had its moments, but overall I think it was a serious misfire from a team that, up until this point, has provided some cracking telly over the past 18 months. So what was the problem? As far as I can see there a several main issues:

It’s Buffy Season Six
Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is known as the dark season. It’s the one where Buffy gets yanked out of paradise by her friends to resume her slaying career, shags Spike, alienates everyone else and the main villains are a bunch of inept losers. Derided by many Buffy fans, there’s a actually a lot to like in this season, such as the musical episode Once More With Feeling, Normal Again (the episode where Buffy finds herself in a mental institution and discovers that the last 6 years have been nothing more than a paranoid delusion) and the obligatorily apocalyptic season finale, but people disliked the unremittingly depressing tone of the season.

If that went down like a lead balloon in a well established series, Torchwood Season One is a good example of what happens if you try the same tone for a completely new series. For you to have sympathy for a character behaving in a thoroughly dislikable way, you have to get to know them well. Otherwise, you tend to just think of them as a bunch of shallow gits.

Ugly Sex
In order to establish itself as a ‘mature’ show, the makers of Torchwood felt it was necessary to stuff it as full of sex and violence as the budgets would allow. In fact, violence is quite expensive to film well, so in the event it was relatively infrequent and quite derivative (I have to guffaw when I watched the Combat episode of Torchwood Declassified to hear them all going on about how ‘realistic’ the violence was), but sex is cheap. You don’t even need any costumes.

The problem is, much of the sex in this series seemed to be there for no better reason than to fill precious airtime. It was rarely used for dramatic reasons. And it all tended to look very staged, very uncomfortable (all the characters seem to have a look of horror on their faces mid-coitus) and very dispassionate. And worst of all, most of it seemed to involve Burn Gorman.

Now I liked Burn Gorman in Bleak House. He made a great Guppy. But that was because he looks so much like, well, a guppy. My idea of a great Sunday night in is not watching a fish-faced unlikeable twerp getting his freak on. Especially when it involves someone as undeniably attractive as Louise Delamere. Twice.

But he wasn’t the only problem. Take last night’s episode, Captain Jack Harkness for instance. At the end of this episode, the two eponymous captains snog in front of the doomed 1941 version’s colleagues. This presumably struck the makers as being incredibly daring and right on, given the views of homosexuality in the forties, yet it had no dramatic impact (the episode wasn’t about Harkness being gay, repressed or otherwise, it was about meeting a guy who you stole your identity from, 24 hours before he died) and didn’t make any sense. It was completely gratuitous and cheapened an otherwise quite good episode.

Stupid characters incapable of growth
Leaving aside the fact that they never explain why they leave such a small band of five disparate individuals in charge of something as potentially world-threatening as the Rift without supervision. The real issue is why they are such stunted idiots.

Take Gwen, for example. In Ghost Machine, she learns all about the tricksy nature of looking into the future, and how it can become self-fulfilling prophecy, or worse. So what does she do in End of Days? Make exactly the same mistake all over again, without even pausing for thought, or questioning why the clearly dodgy bloke who can walk through time is showing her this.

Indeed, all the characters, with the possible exception of Jack, fall apart during the smallest of crises, fail to resist the temptation to play with alien tech, never think about the consequences of their actions and throw tantrums like spoiled three year olds.

The question that Russell T Davies et al need to answer in Season Two is why should we like these dangerous arseholes?

In fact, the only character that has grown on me as the series has progressed is Tosh, yet she is the one who has had the least screen time. In the one episode where she got the spotlight, Greeks Bearing Gifts, she switches from being a boring backroom character to an actual human one. Of the four, she seems to be the least prone to falling apart and her fears tend to be the most well founded. Yet Jack seems to invest all his trust in stupid, wailing Gwen.

No Metaplot
In short, what is Torchwood about? We know there’s this nasty Rift thing they have to keep an eye on, but who is the baddie? What’s the threat?

Most superior TV series establish this pretty early on, or in the case of Doctor Who and classic Trek, establish a format that renders such a thing unneccessary. Torchwood has been screaming out for a metaplot, but it has failed to deliver.

That’s not strictly accurate. In They Keep Killing Suzie, we learn there is a big, nasty Thing Out There; in Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness, we learn that the Rift is increasing in activity and causing links across time; Bilis Manger emerges as a recurring villain (in two episodes at least), and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, in the shape of Abaddon.

Except that all of that has been very disjointed, too late in the series in coming, and have just been events that the main cast have reacted to. There’s been absolutely no sense of them mounting a counter offensive or a sense that they have any idea what is actually going on.

A lot of this has been down to a refusal by the makers to give the characters any help. By the end of Season One you would expect the rest of the team to at least know as much about Captain Jack as we do: namely that he is a former Time Agent from the future gone freelance. Jack’s refusal to answer any questions about his past (future) smacks more of lazy writing than any real determination to keep things mysterious. After all, every small titbit of information would surely pose as many questions as it answers. One gets a sense that the real reason we haven’t learnt anything is that the writers don’t know either. I get a sense that much of his backstory will be revealed in the next series of Doctor Who, which is great from the POV of the flagship programme, but sells Captain Jack’s own series somewhat short – is Davies truly committed to Torchwood?

Chris Chibnell
In my view, the standout worst episodes have been Day One, Cyberwoman, Countrycide and End of Days. Only after establishing this did I learn they were all written by the same person: Chris Chibnell.

I have no idea who this guy is, but his episodes have characteristically lacked any subtlety, with Countrycide doing for violence what Day One and Cyberwoman did for sex, are full of examples of the ‘team’ running around like headless chickens, have poor characterisiation and make little sense.

For example, in the last episode, it turns out that Jack can kill Abaddon by standing under his shadow (although it ends up killing him as well, albeit temporarily). Why not simply walk out of the way then, and get on with killing everyone else? And if he is the Big Bad alluded to by Suzie, then you’d think he’d have thought about this vulnerability first? In any case, after meeting the Devil himself in Doctor Who’s Satan Pit, this version comes across as a bit of a wet blanket.

The main writer of a series doesn’t have to be best, although Joss Whedon, Chris Carter and Aaron Sorkin all give a good run for their money. He or she however should not under circumstances be the worst. Having had four shots, more than anyone else, I would suggest his P45 should be in the post.

***

The most damning indictment to Torchwood is that I’m looking much more to the Sarah Jane Adventures than the second season. Sex and violence free, featuring a character who is determined to solve problems with brains rather than brawn, SJA is everything Torchwood is not. Explicitly aimed at children (anyone with a day job will have to record it), the pilot episode of SJA was far more intelligent and grown up than whole series of Torchwood put together. To be fair however, Torchwood was still better than most brainless sci-fi on TV. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes in Season Two.

UPDATE: One suggestion just made to me is to make Lembit Opik a consultant for the show, given that he is an authority on Wales, intergalactic phenomena and sex with odd-looking aliens.