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January 20th, 2010 (11:16 am)

Thoughts on Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman, and Triumph of a Time Lord by Matt Hills.

I took a long time over Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and might very well start from the beginning again as I am certain to find more in Robert Shearman's stories on a second reading.
A little while ago, I wrote that Rob Shearman 'dissects love with the incisiveness of a surgeon and with the thought of one who has lived and knows the compromises we make to get through life, but through the voices of those at different stages of their own discoveries. There will surely be many who nod with weary unsurprise on learning that the human race was "founded upon a lie, the words of a pig taken by a thief." Hearts are calcified, organs blasted to measure love (but only of women in this story), and the unemployed turned into trees.'

Looking again at the first story in the collection, 'Love Among the Lobelias', the title suggests to me the sort of book limited characters in 1930s middle-class comedies read. Intended for an audience of circumscribed vision, it’s a perfect title for a work by Shearman’s Devil, whose literary career is founded upon a naivety arising from his underworldly nature, and who seeks respite from torturing souls in Hell but ultimately works among those already bought and sold in Hollywood.

Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is an assortment of dark chocolates, sometimes very high in cocoa, but devoured because we know we like chocolate for its familiarity, its comfort and its excitement, just as we can be bewildered by it. It’s full of unexpected truffles like 'This Creeping Thing', a tale of reluctant affection, a spectral cat, and family life; and the transformative magic of 'Love in a Time of Sharing'. The last story is one for the shy, a tale from a society of league tables and anxious regulation, which only allows a thousand love songs and demands that each composer register their songs before they can be allocated a place in the love song league table. Fittingly, it’s perhaps the least cynical of the lot. Sharply observed tales of the extraordinary, and deserving of a wide readership.

Thirty years ago, a typical Saturday would have included a journey into Newcastle with my parents and sister. We would at one point have voyaged into WHSmith, where I might well have departed with a Target Doctor Who novelization and buried myself in my bedroom in order to rapidly devour the 120 pages of Terrance Dicks’s prose. Thirty years on, and instead of going into Newcastle, the Doctor Who book is posted through the letterbox; I am only temporarily at my parents'; and it’s not Doctor Who and the Underworld, but Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century, by Matt Hills, which grabs my attention. I thought I’d believed what Paul Magrs said a few years ago, that we were at the beginning of Doctor Who studies; but I didn’t really know in what I was expressing faith. Engagement with cultural studies – still a youthful field with something to prove – demands familiarization with unfamiliar perspectives and methodology, but thankfully Matt Hills, who is reader in media and cultural studies at the appropriate location of Cardiff University, knows how to introduce his readers to new concepts. Triumph of a Time Lord is thus a useful starting point for those interested in how a cross-media popular culture phenomenon such as ‘new’ Doctor Who works.

Among those ideas either new to me or whose pedigrees I did not know is Hills’s citation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of ‘adventure-time’, developed by Bakhtin from study of chivalric romance in mind. Hills argues that this is applicable to Doctor Who, from its relationship with action-adventure television which depends on Bakhtin’s ‘momentary’ adventure-time, where the adventure story is depended on each incident being presented as sudden, immediate. There’s a lot to be said for Hills’s suggestion that Doctor Who owes more to the action-adventure generic model than to a science-fictional one, and one suspects that those involved in making it would agree.

Other issues considered are the dichotomy between the roles of Russell T Davies, Phil Collinson, Steven Moffat and others as ‘fans’ and as producers. If fans are traditionally regarded by media scholars as inevitably lacking access to the means of cultural production and can only be ‘textual poachers’, in the words of Henry Jenkins, then where does this leave the fans who break through into the professional world and who become ‘gamekeepers’ in Jenkins’s terms, while drawing heavily on their fan knowledge and experience not only to fashion the programme’s narrative but also its wider storytelling through brand management? Chapter titles such as ‘The Doctor Who Mafia’ and ‘Mainstreaming Who’ are suggestive both of a corporate BBC strategy, and widespread opinion among leading figures in 1996-2005 Doctor Who fandom that any future Doctor Who series had to go out of its way to appeal to the broadest viewership possible, leading to the public definition of the fan or cult audience as ‘other’ by professionals who at the same time would emphasize their fanhood in interviews. Love, but not a supposedly blind obsessive love; the duality itself is an informing discourse.

The relationship between fan and professional identities among the programme’s creators is only one theme of the book. There are chapters on ‘TV Horror’ and ‘Quality TV’, the latter examining why and how Doctor Who after 2005 came to be presented to its audience as ‘high end’ drama through casting, the use of ‘name’ writers, promotion, and how successful this was. There are some particularly powerful examples of how Christopher Eccleston’s distancing of himself in interviews from the series and the style and method of performance it required undermined the BBC’s brand strategy for the 2005 series, paralleled by Gregory Doran’s disdain for Doctor Who expressed while directing David Tennant in Hamlet. Hills also offers insight into the casting of Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor, arguing that he can be seen as a ‘quality’ actor in the same way as Eccleston and Tennant, despite the spinning of his appointment to the role as that of an ‘unknown’. Murray Gold’s music is examined in detail too, with reference to what its orchestral nature brings to the new series when compared to the electronic scores which dominated many periods of ‘classic’ Doctor Who, and its role as a commentator on and interpreter of the narrative. The rules of brand management apparently mean that Hills could not be involved in discussions with production personnel like the authors of Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text could in the early 1980s, though his quotation from brand guidelines – ‘it’s only TV’ – is a telling dose of commercial pragmatism. After all, as early as the 2006 series, Russell T Davies was planning a season finale inspired by how he imagined children, perhaps armed with the licensed toys, would play Daleks against Cybermen, and so helped provide a marketing opportunity for BBC Worldwide and their licensees as well as emphasizing that his script would be imitated on what I'm tempted to call a folk-level out in the playgrounds of Britain.


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: March 18th, 2011 09:07 am (UTC)

Sounds like another good book I wish I'd read. I have a stack of short story I got a while back that I haven't even looked at- it is seriously time to remedy that.