Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Music: A Year in Review (Miley Cyrus Edition)

https://gs1.wac.edgecastcdn.net/8019B6/data.tumblr.com/1b1cd523a20fc541bb17dfe8f546343c/tumblr_murfbvdNQj1qm66obo2_500.gifIn hindsight it's somewhat naively hilarious that I named 2012 the year where I was most surprised by pop music and the year defined by familiar artists putting out extremely unfamiliar material. Really, what the past two years have taught me is to stop making stupidly grand and sweeping statements of generality. I also really need to stop underestimating people and learn to expect to be surprised by anything and everything.

OK, it should be obvious to absolutely everyone who's a regular follower of my work what my pick for the defining song of 2013 is. This blog post is utterly pointless, as is the one for next year as I'm already pretty certain, barring another delay, what my favourite album of 2014 will be too. Of course I say that now, so watch me be wrong and eat my words again in 12 month's time. So, with that in mind and in keeping in the spirit espoused by Miley herself, this series of posts is undergoing a revision. There will be no more countdowns, award-winners or runners-up. From now on I'm simply listing, in no particular order except the one that gives this essay the best shape, the songs that comprised my personal soundtrack of the year.

And it's not just Miley Cyrus either: 2013 was a banner year for pop across the board. This was the most fun I've had with music in over a decade. Maybe it's that my own tastes and lifestyle are changing or maybe it's just because the scene itself is changing and people really are this good and this energized, though I suspect a combination of both. And this is what a scene like that sounds like.


Nestled in a valley about a half-hour from where I live there's a town called Manchester. Manchester has it's own alternative rock radio station called WEQX. It gets its call numbers from Mount Equinox, the mountain in the shadow of which Manchester and EQX reside. Although I haven't compared actual vertical descent, Mount Equinox certainly looks like one of the tallest peaks in the state, as it towers above absolutely everything nearby and its summit, to which I've ventured on several occasions, is a frankly inhospitable place that is regularly obscured by clouds. WEQX is also (as far as I can tell) one of the oldest alternative rock stations at least in the immediate area and the only one serving it.

Over the years EQX has grown in grown in notoriety such that it's been able to upgrade to a 50,000 watt broadcasting signal. Nowadays it seems to be more associated with the capital region of New York, which it also services and that's certainly where it seems to think its most loyal listener-base is. But as far as I'm concerned WEQX is as pure Vermont as it gets. I've been a huge fan of WEQX since I was young, but about ten years ago I stopped listening regularly because I just couldn't get invested in the sort of music they were playing anymore. I can't remember any specific songs, artists or reasons that led me to walk away from the station, I just remember feeling like nothing they were playing spoke to me, and it just didn't *sound* right anymore.

It was also at that point I began to feel very discouraged and disillusioned by the state of the modern alternative rock scene. I decisively turned back to the music of the 1980s that had first captured my imagination and didn't think I would ever look back. My time of relevance, and WEQX's, seemed over.

This year I started listening to WEQX a bit more again. My sister's become a big fan of the station, so whenever I was driving somewhere with her this year she would have it on the radio. It didn't sound like the same station anymore: The DJs were all new, the music was totally unfamiliar, and, to my surprise, I loved all of it. This was exciting. This was enjoyable. This felt welcoming.

“Pompeii” by Bastille stands out to me as one of the songs I heard on WEQX in 2013 that's really stuck with me all year. Which is perhaps a bit ironic, as aside from the minor connection to mountains, it's the song that superficially least embodies what I loved about listening to music in 2013. It's dark, despair-filled and nihilistic: The song is pointedly named after a legendary historical tragedy that literally wiped a city off the face of the planet, and it's absolutely loaded with apocalyptic imagery, cautioning people willfully blinding themselves to impending doom and how the cyclical nature of history means that disaster is naturally destined to repeat itself over and over again. It's also catchy as hell, rising from a pseudo-African chant to a cascade of tumbling, thundering drums and an upbeat, melodic chorus about the End of the World:

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Despite its blatant eschatology, “Pompeii” does fit its zeitgeist very well. Given that this was the year of Edward Snowden and an economy so broken even positive growth and employment numbers wasn't enough to assuage the fears (and reality) of rampant and systemic inequality, a charting hit about how worlds are coming to a close seems more than appropriate.

2013 was also the year I found myself firmly rooted within a circle of anarchist activists. A core tenet of true leftist anarchism is that the current model of society is destined to collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability sometime in the near future, and anarchists should bond together to build the new society in the ashes of the old one.

So maybe there's hope after all. Things have to be destroyed before there can be rebirth.

CHVRCHES-“The Mother We Share”

The first music I truly fell in love with was from the art house punk scene of the 1980s. Though the numerous artists who I would lump under that banner differed wildly in sound and genre, what united them was a strong determination to use the experimental and avante-garde as a way to convey the most complex, and personal statements they could...and an equally firm belief that music didn't have to sound imposingly impenetrable and excluding to do so. Aside from the British punks and their inspirations (the motorik beat and electronics of German art house acts, namely Kraftwerk) these artists also turned to other styles such as Glam rock, psychedelia, spoken word poetry, musique concrète, disco and even non-Western world music and sounds not even traditionally thought of as music. No matter where they came from or what sounds that interested them, when they succeeded they made a truly subversive and rare kind of pop music: Music that belonged just as much to the people and the poetry halls as it did on the pop charts and the dancefloor.

Liking this kind of music in the 1980s made you your own kind of cool. It was one of the only things that united the radical intelligentsia with John Hughes' imaginary target demographic. It might have been “mainstream” and it might not have been (I'm growing increasingly suspicious of that term and anyone who uses it) but the point was that it was important and meant something. I know it did to me: Dazzle Ships by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is possibly my favourite album of all time. It's been a major source of inspiration throughout my life. Often I find it's the soundtrack to the visions I can never seem to properly put into words.

Liking this music in the 1990s was an altogether different story; it made you out-of-touch at best and dangerously retrograde at worst because it had synthesizers in it and synthesizers were only for nerds, dorks and people who didn't know what real music was. Therefore pop music's Chosen Ones (who were apparently Smiths fans who also liked 1950s Rock 'n Roll) had to reclaim its soul and identity (which was apparently to copy and badly misunderstand Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine, two acts who already badly misunderstood Sonic Youth). So much as insinuating you liked anything from the 1980s was an offense punishable by death.

Liking this music in the 2000s was a strange affair. The 1980s were popular again in a big way and you were automatically cool if you seemed to remember them. But it wasn't so kind to the decade's music: While everyone appropriated and fetishized their imagery, nobody who took part in the 2000s' “I Love the '80s” fad really understood what any of that meant for the people who created it. Transformers, retro video games and One Hit Wonders were cool. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark still weren't (unless you happened to live in Liverpool, where OMD were never not cool). People who blatantly aped New Order were cool. New Order themselves weren't. The Killers were the definitive band of this decade: An iconic rock act built around a Las Vegas stage show version of the entire 1980s. I've gone through alternating periods of loving and hating them. I think I'm back to loving them now.

The 2010s were supposed to be the decade of 90s nostalgia. That's how nostalgia works, it goes in 20 year intervals: It's trendy to be nostalgic for stuff that happened 20 years ago, because it's mostly trendy 20 year olds who have a visible interest in this sort of thing. That's why Psychedelia made a brief comeback in the 1980s and the entire reason Britpop and The Killers exist. So, we should expect to be seeing some act becoming The Killers for Blur, Pulp and Nirvana. Except a curious thing happened: That hasn't. Although there are a few people doggedly picking up the 90s nostalgia banner, such as certain corners of Tumblr and everything ever having to do with Buzzfeed, we're not experiencing anything remotely like we saw with the 80s nostalgia fetishization fad. Maybe we're all still burned out from how massive and commercialized that became, but you'd expect to see something: More than this, at any rate.

One would further expect “The Mother We Share” by CHVRCHES, a band that describes itself as a synthpop outfit and cites Prince, Laurie Anderson and and Depeche Mode as major influences would sound aggressively and self-consciously retro. And indeed the synth hits, drum machines, and Kraftwerkian circular melodies that make up the song do very much evoke the 1980s. The heavy use of sampling even reminds me a bit of Dazzle Ships. But this is not done in a cynically nostalgic way, because “The Mother We Share” is not a nostalgia piece. It's very much a song of 2013. And that's why it's so important and why it means so much to me.

It's Laurie Anderson who CHVRCHES most seem to be trying to evoke on this song. The instrumental melody, while pretty and memorable, takes a backseat to singer Lauren Mayberry's pointed, enunciated vocals that border on spoken word. This is made even clearer in the video, the starkest bit of quiet artistry I've seen in music videos this year, where Mayberry and her bandmates exist mostly in silhouetted and half-shadowed profile, immediately reminiscent of Laurie Anderson's video for “O Superman (For Massenet)” and her United States Live touring exhibition. My history with Laurie Anderson is long and multifaceted and worthy of its own post someday, but suffice to say CHVRCHES are not merely appropriating her sound and imagery, they're evoking her legacy and doing well by her by constructing a song that's as thoughtful and sophisticated as it is radio friendly.

This is not a cynical cash-in to a fashionable bit of nostalgia fetishism. This is a return to an abandoned vision of the future.

“The Mother We Share” is a song about solidarity. Mayberry's character reaches out to comfort a friend while at the same time revealing her own story of a relationship come to an end. Mayberry declares

Come in misery where you can seem as old as your omens

And the mother we share will never keep your proud head from falling 

The way is long but you can make it easy on me

And the mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from calling

This alone makes it worthy of this list, because it speaks to the other side of “Pompeii”'s desolation: The fact the future is still coming, and we can make it a good one by helping others and placing value in love and friendship. In the end, it's our shared humanity that allows us to embrace our similarities and differences and heal our wounded collective soul.

But “The Mother We Share” is also somewhat deceptive: In many ways the song it reminds me the most of is my favourite song from last year, “Stay Gold” by The Big Pink, a single similarly indebted to (yet distinct from) the sound of the 80s art house (in this case the source material is the Cocteau Twins). In retrospect this means The Big Pink were actually ahead of their time as “Stay Gold” fits much more in with musical landscape of 2013 than it does with that of 2011 or 2012. This is because not only are both “The Mother We Share” and “Stay Gold” solid updates to a classic sound and musical philosophy, they're also, perhaps surprisingly, capable sports anthems. I first heard “Stay Gold” careening down a virtual mountain on a snowboard in last year's reboot of SSX, and I discovered “The Mother We Share” on a home video of parkour practitioners and skaters training in a skate park at night. And both fit perfectly. The music video for “The Mother We Share” even features a lonely girl wandering through the streets of a big city looking in with yearning at the displays of camaraderie shown by handball players, skateboarders and a basketball team. People who are really passionate about sports, especially extreme sports, see it as a way to connect them to nature and to each other.

Just as I find myself rekindling my bond with the world and rediscovering what it really meant to be an athlete, I've rediscovered my music scene and found it full of kindred spirits.

I never gave much creed to the divide between “nerds” and “jocks”, or that between “jocks” and everyone else. All of the friends I had growing up who were as interested in video games and music as I was were all athletes, and I frequently met them as a fellow athlete. In the 90s, the only remaining vanguard of the late-80s alternative dance culture I loved...was ESPN's Jock Jams series of mixtapes meant to be played at sporting events. But this was the year that definitively put any lingering remnant of that stereotype to bed in my mind: When someone so obviously inspired by not just the sound of artists like Laurie Anderson and OMD (and OMD's experimental musique concrète stuff to boot), but their spirit as well ends up putting out a song like this, it's time to take notice that things are different now. Not that the music is any different, this is the same sort of thing it's always been, but the climate is a far more fitting and welcoming one. My scene has finally received validation: It's not an unhip throwback or a trendy flash-in the pan, it's now and forever an artistic statement as well as a spiritual experience.

These are powerfully resonant things that are as intimate and personal as they are vast and elemental. They speak to the inherent spirituality of humanity that remind us of our connection to each other and to our world that exists even within the urbane and technological mundane we choose to inhabit.

This is what 2013 sounds like. And I no longer feel alone.

Sara Bareilles-“Brave” vs. Katy Perry-“Roar”

Two years ago the idea of Katy Perry showing up on this list would have been as unthinkable as, well, Miley Cyrus showing up on this list. I believe last year I was even quite critical of Ms. Perry, saying something or another about the dangerously reactionary and antifeminist imagery that showed up in her songs and that she herself had a tendency to express.

Yeah, about that. “Roar” is pretty good, you guys.

Now, I never outright disliked Sara Bareilles. I just never had much of an opinion about her one way or the other. Of the singles of hers that were big hits, I thought “Love Song” was a pleasant and commendable sentiment, if not especially original. “King of Everything” was a terrific diatribe against mansplaining, but unfortunately I rather soured on the song after one of my staunchly Right Wing relatives adopted it as her personal theme song and excuse to never listen to anybody remotely to the left of FOX News. But “Brave” is in a league of its own. This is my favourite song of Bareilles' yet and a truly powerful and important statement.

The song is an absolute masterpiece right from the start. The music video cuts between various people spontaneously starting to dance in public, people who are clearly ecstatic to be in tune with themselves and finally allowed to express that. Meanwhile, Bareilles narrates over everything:

You can be amazing you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast, or be the backlash
Of somebody's lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing's gonna hurt you the way that words do
When they settle 'neath your skin
Kept on the inside, no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave
With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave

From there,”Brave” becomes one of the most uplifting, inspirational and affirmational pieces of music I've ever heard. Bareilles is formidable, simply radiating confidence, charisma, compassion and inner peace and strength. A combination that, frankly, I find magnetically attractive. Paired with the sublimely elegant poetry of her lyrics, demonstrative of a seasoned songwriter absolutely at the top of her game, this makes “Brave” the kind of work of art that doesn't come along every day. Not only is this exactly the kind of song I needed at this moment, or indeed what the world needs at this moment, this is one for the history books.

Of course, there's a reason I put “Brave” and “Roar” in the same entry. There was something of a...dispute involving these two songs earlier this year. Namely the fact that they are, in truth, the same song. To have Sara Bareilles release “Brave” and then, not even a few weeks later, to have Katy Perry release a song that is startlingly similar not only in its instrumental section but lyrical content as well was certainly enough to raise a few eyebrows. Actually, let's be perfectly honest. “Roar” and “Brave” are damn near identical. Whether or not this was coincidental is largely irrelevant to me, and I think it should be to everyone else too. Sara Bareilles doesn't want any more discussion about this not only because Katy Perry is her friend, but also because she also sees the controversy as another way for people to try and silence women's voices and keep them from expressing themselves, which is a remarkably admirable approach to take, and frankly correct.

And anyway, there's a far more charitable reading we can give these two marquee songs. Before we get to that though, let's take a closer look at “Roar” first and make some observations about what both it and “Brave” have in common.

One thing both songs share is that they're very clearly sports anthems. “Roar” has, in fact, actually been used as a sports anthem just about everywhere over the past year and seems tailor-made to be one: Its beat is almost stereotypical and Perry name-checks just about every previous sports anthem she can think of. The fact that is has in fact been used in places like ESPN and Monday Night Football also reveals some things about “Roar”: This isn't a sports anthem in the way “Stay Gold” and “The Mother We Share” were. Those songs were far more heady and loaded up with a lot more avante-garde imagery-I called them “elemental” for a reason, and it's no coincidence “Stay Gold” showed up in SSX. These are songs for extreme sports practitioners, and they're of a different breed. “Roar” is meant to played in big arena stadiums to a crowd of football players and thousands of fans.

Except it's really not, is it? See, that's the other thing about both of these songs: They're only superficially sports anthems. That doesn't mean you can't work out or run or board to these songs: You absolutely can and they're great for that. But they're more than that too What they actually do is take the trappings of that genre and use them to dress up an entirely different song to make a larger point. “Brave” was really a call to find yourself and recognise the importance of your own voice and that true happiness and beauty lies within everyone. It's a very quiet, intimate and supportive song that evokes the imagery of songs like “Eye of the Tiger” so the listener feels the strength and motivation to pull through. And this is where it gets really interesting, because this is what “Roar” is too. The difference is that “Roar” is about the singer instead of the listener and, implicitly, about Katy Perry herself.

The contrast couldn't be more evident right from the start. While Bareilles opens up directly talking to us and trying to offer us her support and guidance, Perry flatly opens in the first person and is telling us her story:

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly
Agreed politely

I guess that I forgot had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing
So I fell for everything

You held me down, but I got up
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder gonna shake the ground

These opening lyrics are already gut-punching, as so many women can relate to the exact scenario Perry is describing. This is precisely how women are taught to be silenced by patriarchy and that their voices don't matter. Stories like this are painfully familiar and a dime a dozen. But Perry is offering an alternative, because “Roar” is her story about overcoming all of that and finding her own strength and voice. Katy Perry is now most certainly a feminist, even if she doesn't see herself as one.

The key thing to understand is that “Roar” is taken from Perry's 2013 album Prism, which marks the first time she's written and produced any of her material herself. For Katy Perry, this is almost as big a tone shift and reinvention as Miley Cyrus turning into a rapper. And this change is obvious throughout “Roar” and its music video: It's as positively ridiculous as all of Perry's videos have been and the invocation of Tarzan is at least a little concerning (though it's perhaps just goofy enough to work), but Perry's voice is no longer autotuned beyond recognition and without the overly elabourate production and post-processing of her previous videos she actually looks a lot more like herself then she has in the past too. More importantly, Perry looks like she's having fun for the first time in her career. In this context, “Roar”'s message of self-discovery is very fitting. This is also why the song has been criticized for being used in sporting events, because, just like “Brave”, it's not quite a straightforward sports anthem. Rather, its a personal song about Perry's newfound strength dressed up as a sports anthem in the hope her example will inspire others to take a similar path.

However even so, it's still really hard not to see “Roar” coming up short when compared to “Brave”. it's uncomfortably obvious one song is the work of a veteran singer-songwriter and the other is the work of a pop idol who's never written lyrics before. The most cringeworthy moments in “Roar” (I mean aside from the Nokia product placement in the video) are found in the chorus and refrain, which is where the song dissolves into a veritable cliche storm as Perry just rattles off a bunch of half-remembered movie lines and song lyrics:

I got the eye of the tiger, the fighter
Dancing through the fire
'Cause I am a champion
And you're gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
'Cause I am a champion
And you're gonna hear me roar

Now I'm floatin' like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee
I earned my stripes
I went from zero
To my own hero

But even here I'm far more than willing to forgive Perry. Not everyone is a master wordsmith, and that Perry clearly isn't one, at least not yet, absolutely shouldn't be held against her. Actually to be honest, I don't see how Katy Perry is any worse a lyricist then Bernard Sumner, and New Order is supposed to be a classic and legendary act. Like Sumner, Perry is clearly working through a lot of very real emotions and experiences and, also like him, she doesn't seem all that certain how to put them into words, which is something I think a lot of people can relate to. I know I can. The average person is not going to be versed in hermeneutics theory and philosophy: They're almost certainly going to turn to things they found in movies and music that resonated with them. Why should Katy Perry be any different? Hell, as an amateur media studies scholar and someone who writes essays like this one, it would be simply irresponsible of me to do anything other than give Katy Perry my support.

And this is also what allows us to come to a conclusion about how this song compares to that other one: “Roar” is not Katy Perry plagiarizing Sara Bareilles and “Brave”, it's her responding to them. Sara Bareilles put out a plea to anyone listening her to look inside themselves and find their strength and voice. Well, Katy Perry answered. Taken separately both are rousing, inspirational songs that have the potential to do a lot of good. Taken together, they form a deeply moving and heartfelt call-and-response musical story that provably has made the world a better place. I don't think you can ask anything more of pop music than that.

Miley Cyrus-“We Can't Stop” vs. Lorde-“Team”

And now we finally come to the bleeding obvious pick.

I'm not going into a huge analysis about why “We Can't Stop” is utter brilliance. I already did that for the Center for a Stateless Society here: Go read that post first if you haven't already. I think this single is an absolute triumph, a rallying cry for solidarity, reconstruction and rebirth and I'm frankly thrilled I live in a pop culture climate where something like this is allowed to exist. And it really is a song for everyone: If you're not keen on the original cut, might I suggest Miley singing “We Can't Stop” a cappella with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots? Or how about my personal favourite, Orion Rogers' remix of "We Can't Stop", which turns the song into an unbelievable bit of dubstep-infused sample-crazy space rock? I never would have guessed Miley Cyrus would be the one to get me to respect dubstep.

What I'm more interested in here is some of the things surrounding the larger Bangerz phenomenon and in making a few observations I don't think have been made yet, or at least as often as I feel they need to be made. Probably the most serious allegation that's been leveled against Miley Cyrus this year, and the one that holds the most water and poses the greatest challenge to my redemptive reading of her recent output, is that of cultural appropriation. I think most of the evidence people cite for this argument comes from Miley's VMA performance: While I didn't watch the performance itself, it was clear to me from the bits I saw that it was largely a miscalculation. Not, however, on Miley's part-It was almost certainly choreographed by a third party and no matter how much I would rather swan dive into a ceiling fan than twerk Robin Thicke, I can't fault Miley for getting swept up in the moment, I don't think you should either and she looked like she was having fun at least.

As much of a misfire as the VMA performance might have been, Miley's music itself seems to tell another story. Now, I don't want to go too far down this path as it's not my place to tell others what they should and shouldn't be offended by. There are a lot of different positionalities and experiences coming into play here and all of this should be taken into consideration whenever we have this kind of a dialog. However, as a cultural anthropologist and someone who has at least maybe a little experience with music criticism and the creative process, I do think there are a few facts worth mentioning and observations worth making, and the first is that Miley Cyrus is obviously deeply inspired by hip-hop and contemporary R&B among other styles, and inspiration is not the same thing as appropriation (as my friend Andrew Hickey points out in regards to John Lennon in this excellent Tumblr post).

Bangerz makes this the most clear as the album features a ton of collaborations with some big name hip-hop artists and producers, like Pharrell Williams, Mike Will Made It and Nelly. Indeed, what I've never actually heard brought up is that Mike Will Made It actually requested Miley Cyrus to collaborate with him on “23”, his debut single as a recording artist, along with fellow rappers Whiz Khalifa and Juicy J.

Released just a few weeks after “We Can't Stop”, “23” is fun on a number of levels: Firstly, while “We Can't Stop” and other bits of Bangerz toyed around with it, “23” sees Miley as fully and completely a hip-hop artist. It's a far more straightforward hip-hop song than anything on Bangerz too, with a far more orthodox rap structure, not to mention the expected liberal amounts of product placement and conspicuous consumption that sadly more often than not goes hand-in-hand with hip-hop today. But, like “We Can't Stop”, this is essentially a ruse: Strip away the stereotypical modern hip-hop bravado and random references to Nike and what you're left with is a song that's largely about playing basketball, hanging out with your friends and how awesome Michael Jordan is.

The video is similarly effective and quite delightful: Miley actually gets a substantial part of the song to herself and exuberantly throws herself into the persona of a rapper like she's been waiting for this moment her entire life (actually, this song and this video are contenders for my favourite thing she's been involved in all year). I also really like the casting, cinematography and choreography in general, and this is also the evidence we need to demonstrate “23” is as invested in solidarity as “We Can't Stop” is. The school setting is key here. The rappers take on the roles of both star athletes and academics (I love the part with Whiz Khalifa in the chem lab-There's no distinction between jocks and nerds here, we're all ballers in this club), and while there is the obligatory squad of cheerleaders in the background rooting for them (though critically, the squad is mixed ethnicity), there are a lot of other (mixed ethnicity) girls in the video too whose myriad styles indicate they're part of a multiplicity of lifestyles and subcultures. The blocking is also very important to pay attention to, especially anytime Miley is onscreen with other people: She's never put out in front of anybody else, instead tending to mill about and live it up with the extras. The implication, to me at least, is that she's very much one of them instead of leading them as some kind of posse or entourage.

The key scenes here are when the rappers enter the gym and take their seats on the bleachers: Once again, no one person is put out in front of anyone else or focused on at the expense of another. This group is meant to be taken together or not at all and seen as a team of equals, as one might perhaps ideally want to see in basketball. As for Miley in particular, she's not trying to use Mike Will Made It, Whiz Khalifa and Juicy J. to further her career any more than they're using her to further theirs (it is a collaboration, after all). Also note how, contrary to what we might expect from this kind of song, none of the other rappers are talking about how much they want to sleep with Miley or how nice her boobs and ass are. She's not reduced to a sex object, she's treated with a lot of respect and shown to be a cool person in her own right because she's not their groupie, she's one of them: Their equal, their buddy and their teammate, and ultimately everyone goes to the same school.

This is, in my opinion, exactly the way hip-hop guest verses should work, precisely they way they haven't in a long time and the fact Miley has been invited into that club (and she was very much invited in) is very telling. I mean the song isn't entirely perfect (the gendered language in Juicy J.'s verse in particular weighs the bit down unnecessarily as far as I'm concerned) but ultimately I think this song is just as valuable as “We Can't Stop”. “23” is some of the most fun I've had with hip-hop since the genre's earliest days.

But the song that clinches for me that Miley is a blossoming rapper and not merely someone trying to cherry-pick from its imagery and motifs is “Hands in the Air”, a collaboration with Ludacris which serves the album closer on the Deluxe Edition of Bangerz and is actually for my money the best song on the album (yes, *even better* than “We Can't Stop”). “Hands in the Air” to me sounds like Miley's version of OMD's “RFWK” from their 2010 comeback album History of Modern. “RFWK” was a heartfelt tribute to Kraftwerk done in their style, named after the initials of the band members and told of how important Kraftwerk was to Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries, to the point they felt like the only kindred spirits they ever had. It's a touching ode to the power music has in our lives, and I think Miley is attempting something similar here.

“Hands in the Air” tellingly opens with Miley launching into this curious rap:

I remember dreaming 'bout
The things I do right now
Like I climbed on to a cloud
Scared to look back down
I remember when I was all alone
Nobody round
To hold me down
But now you're here with me tonight
Look at what you found

But aside from this and the chorus, the majority of the song is given to Ludacris and his righteous call for relevance and respect:

It's go hard or go home and it ain't no lookin' back
My toughest enemy's is in the mirror, would you look at that?
I'm top five, dead or alive, one of the best to rhyme
And if I ever take a seat I stood the test of time
Every verse, every song, every feature I was on, better know that I abused it
If I die before my time I'll still be living through my music
I cracked the industry open but still got this shit on lock
Even on a highway up to heaven Luda still would be on top

The choice of Ludacris as a collaborator here is interesting. Ludacris is mostly known as a novelty act who briefly tried to make a claim as the arbiter of southern hip-hop (that is, hip-hop from places like Georgia and Florida rather than New York or Los Angeles) before switching careers to become an actor. He is indeed someone who's struggled with being taken seriously as a legitimate artist, much as I suspect will soon be the case for Miley Cyrus.

What this means is that “Hands in the Air” is actually about what it means to be a pop icon and the effect music has on people. Miley's part of the song immediately calls to mind “RFWK” for me, because in dialoging with Ludacris she seems to be trying to express the impact music has had on her life and how people's voices and ideas live on through their music. Hip-hop is clearly something that's been very important to Miley, and Ludacris is likely someone she identifies with to at least some extent. “Hands in the Air” is Miley the country singer and former Disney Pop icon paying her respects to rap royalty just as “We Can't Stop” and “23” showed that same Miley, along with Mike Will Made It, Whiz Khalifa and Juicy J. extending a hand of friendship to bridge the gap that had previously divided them.

But “Hands in the Air” is also a somewhat somber piece that wonders about exactly how effective music can be as a force for social change and a way to bring people together, as is revealed by the telling sample from “We Can't Stop” that opens the song and Miley's chorus

I'm dancing
To the sound
Of my words in the crowd
Too high to come down
So let me see your hands in the air

Miley's made it big, her music is being played in the club, but she's also a ubiquitous pop culture icon who now runs the risk of never actually being taken seriously and she now might not ever be truly capable of conveying the message she wants to because of her status. And this makes sense: Even Chumbawamba, the definitive anarchist band, eventually petered out in part because they realised pop music isn't really the medium for that sort of thing. For both better and worse, she's as much in the crowd as she is the persona the crowd dances to. In the end, Miley Cyrus is just another voice, no more and no less. As much as Miley wants to give support and solidarity to everyone, she's also searching for it herself. “Too high to come down” indeed. All there is to do is to put your hands in the air. This is a club, after all, isn't it?

But that's way too depressing a note on which to end an essay about how amazing this year was for music. Pop music is, ultimately supposed to be fun: While it might not be the place for activism, it can still be a force for good. There's one more artist and song I mentioned in the header, and it's with her that we can be reminded what this is all really about. After all, we're on each other's team.

Lorde was the breakout industry darling of 2013. A serious bibliophile and self-identified feminist, she's been held up as the Second Coming of music by the usual sort of people who think the pop charts are “like, just way too mainstream, man” which is funny as Lorde is as deeply indebted to and invested in pop as anyone. Yes, Lorde uses a lot of art rock and electronic minimalism in her music, but she also cites Kanye West as a primary influence, so let's be reasonable here (not that there's anything wrong with that, mind).

Lorde's biggest song to date has been “Royals”, which concerns her somewhat bemused fascination with royalty. While she doesn't like the hierarchical oppression it represents, there's a glamour and majesty about the concept that she finds captivating and that she, rightly I think, feels other people are fascinated by as well. She refers to the history of royalty, Master Narratives written by the victors as they may be, as, charmingly, “gossip about rich people”. But for me it's “Team” that best embodies what Lorde brings to the music scene right now. It also happens to be, as far as I'm concerned her best song to boot.

What gets me about “Team” is that the people who slag off “We Can't Stop” because it's about partying and dismiss the possibility Miley might be touching on something deeper in the song as well also seem to be the sorts of people who hold up Our Lorde and Saviour while also completely missing the fact that “Team” is also about a party. The very first verse goes

Call all the ladies out
They’re in their finery
A hundreds jewels on throats
A hundred jewels between teeth

Now bring my boys in
Their skin in craters like the moon
The moon we love like a brother
While he glows through the room

And while the big line is naturally

I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air
So there

That's also followed immediately by

So all the cups got broke, shards beneath our feet
But it wasn’t my fault
And everyone’s competing for a love they won't receive
'Cause what this palace wants is release

the implications of which seem pretty clear to me.

But just like with “We Can't Stop”, we shouldn't disregard “Team” simply because it takes place at a party. The key to this song is in the opening verse: “Team” is, as we might expect, a song about a party where everyone is welcome and treated as an equal. It's about how we shouldn't engage in petty disagreements and arguments, because ultimately we're all on the same side and need to look out for each other. And here's where it should be obvious, if it isn't already, why I paired up “Team” with “We Can't Stop” in this entry: They're basically the same song. “Team” is an alt rock version of “We Can't Stop” and Lorde is Miley Cyrus for alternative kids. The videos too are almost too easy to compare: The one for “Team” is laughably overblown and crammed full of lavish costumery, set design and unnecessarily bleak cinematography. It's just as silly and gratuitously faux-artsy as “We Can't Stop” is silly and gratuitously pretend raunchy because, just like Miley, Lorde knows her audience. As an alternative rock artist, she's expected to put out music videos that are meant to be dark and Gothic and serious in the same way Miley is expected to fulfill her pre-ordained Master Narrative of the “Fallen Disney Pop Princess”.

And this does turn out to be the best outcome I feel: The sort of person who listens to Miley Cyrus is not necessarily going to be also listening to Lorde, and vice verce. It's nice they're both expressing the same sentiment. This is especially fitting (or ironic, I suppose, depending on where you stand) given that there was a bit of a spat between Lorde and Miley Cyrus this October, or rather a spat between Lorde and Miley Cyrus' *fans*. After making an admittedly somewhat thoughtless joke about Miley on Twitter, Lorde was besieged by thousands upon thousands of Miley's loyal fans who took it upon themselves to do what every angry fan has done on the Internet since the invention of the medium. Lorde's own fans responded in kind. Lorde later apologised and asked both groups of fans to cut that shit out pronto, as Miley Cyrus is actually someone she respects and admires a lot.

An olive branch then: A gesture of goodwill and friendship that perfectly embodies what pop music became in 2013. Miley Cyrus and Lorde, the one-time country pop darling turned-outgoing, streetwise rapper and the wry, bookish alt rocker, seeing eye-to-eye at last. And why shouldn't they? Miley Cyrus and Lorde are both pop music royalty, and together they have both the podium and the opportunity to show us how we're ultimately all a bit more similar to each other than not. That's the real power of music: It's something that can be shared and experienced by everyone. It's one of the oldest forms of human communication and expression, and still one of the most important and meaningful. It's a way to connect us as much with ourselves as with others: It's a vehicle for artists and listeners alike to express their dreams, emotions and desires and in doing so remind us of the shared humanity that exists within and between all of us.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Introduction to Classic Doctor Who

"Psychedelic Spacial Dr. Who" by Doomguy1001
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction television series in history. Nowadays though, most people who watch the show are only familiar with a tiny fraction of it: The period dating from the franchise's revival in 2005. But there's a whole 42 years of history that predate the New Series, and, for people over a certain age, this is the version of the show we immediately think of when we think of Doctor Who.

I don't want to add too much to the glut of celebratory discussion today, and there are people far more qualified to talk about the show than me (such as my friends and colleagues Phil Sandifer, Jack Graham or Andrew Hickey): I've really only ever considered myself a casual fan of Doctor Who: It was part of the larger tapestry of action and science fiction shows I remember growing up with and while I always thought it was fun, it was never something that had a profound effect on my life the way it has on the lives of most of my friends (as you can probably tell given what I said last time I mentioned Doctor Who, over at Vaka Rangi).

But a few years back I went through the Classic Series myself to reacquaint myself with it and developed a newfound appreciation for its history, which is seeped in alchemical mysticism and symbolic magick. I figured the one thing I could do to celebrate the show's 50th birthday is to provide a little primer for people who might like Doctor Who today but who are for whatever reason nervous about checking out the bits of it that came before 2005. Since Doctor Who is split up into various creative periods (which were usually, but not always, split up by Doctor), I've divided the list into different categories organised by both actor who played The Doctor and major creative personnel. I've tried to pick one or two serials from each era I think are at once representative of the overall creative and thematic vibe of the era and also show off the series' radical and alchemical heritage the strongest.

Section 1:

Season 2 (1964-1965)

Producer: Verity Lambert
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian (William Russel), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Vicki (Maureen O'Brien)

This season shows the original format running on all cylinders. Lambert and Whitaker had found a way to make Doctor Who a show about strange and fantastic things, and it's biggest charm was that it was impossible to predict where it would go and what it would do next. The guiding philosophy was “whatever we did last time, do something completely different this time”. This was why the original companions were a pair of ordinary schoolteachers: The point was they were recongisable people caught up in strange and wonderful situations. Thanks to Lambert's strong social justice conventions it was also a show firmly allied with the youth and, thanks to Whitaker, dripping with mercury.

One thing that's unique to the Hartnell era is the historical story: Serials where the TARDIS crew would travel back to a period of Earth's history and either play with the genre tropes or try to survive, no alien meddling necessary. Whitaker puts a really clever twist on the historical style here, expressly setting it as a Shakespearean theatre version of the medieval crusades and having a lot of fun mashing up the different genres. This was also the first story not to open on the TARDIS crew, a move Whitaker cleverly uses to code them as narrative intruders and something often taken for granted today. The previous story, “The Web Planet”, similarly blended theatrical stylings with sci-fi concepts and space art set design, but it's arguably the most noticeable here. This is helped a great deal by a guest cast explicitly playing their roles like Shakespearean actors, including future star Julian Glover.

The TARDIS crew stumbles upon a museum that exists outside space and time, somehow managing to arrive "before they were supposed to", and discover they are destined to become featured exhibits. Obviously, this is a problem, and now The Doctor, Ian, Barbera and Vicki have to find away to change their own future. There are a lot of clever twists, some surprisingly good action scenes, William Hartnell gets to play The Doctor as mysterious, something he over time got fewer opportunities to do, and Vicki gets to lead a Mod-themed fascism-toppling armed revolution in space. It's a brilliantly mental concept that never runs out of steam and is only partially let down by poor acting on the part of the guest cast.

Section 2

Season 4 (1966-1967)

Producer: Innes Lloyd
Script Editor: Gerry Davis, Peter Bryant
Doctor: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton
Companions: Polly (Anneke Willis), Ben (Michael Craze), Jamie (Frazer Hines), Victoria (Deborah Watling)
This was a major season of chaotic transition with Innes Lloyd just taking over from his predecessor John Wiles and Gerry Davis serving a brief term as script editor before being replaced by Peter Bryant. There were a good three companion changes and, of course, the landmark switch from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. This change is directly connected to Hartnell's last serial “The Tenth Planet”, where the Cybermen are introduced as “star monks”: the horrific, enlightened dark future of humanity. Whitaker, who is brought back to oversee the transition, uses the regeneration to explore Kenneth Grant's conception of enlightenment and how it might affect The Doctor specifically. Behind the scenes, the switch happened because Hartnell's health was declining to the point it was beginning to affect his acting, but probably also because the production team wanted him gone. Lloyd wanted to turn Doctor Who into an action serial to compete with Batman and needed a younger, more charismatic lead to do that. But both Whitaker and New Doctor Patrick Troughton were too smart to quite give him that.

Patrick Troughton's first story is quite simply one of the series finest moments. He spends the majority of the serial playing The Doctor very mysterious, unreadable, unpredictable and even scary. It's not what his Doctor would eventually become famous for, but it is a chillingly good bit of acting and fits the story perfectly, not to mention becomes more than a little influential on the series' future. A central tension is whether or not this strange man really is The Doctor (remember the show had never done a story like this before) and the key to resolving this is the Daleks. Although they had been massively popular in the Hartnell era, this is the story where they explicitly become The Doctor's alchemical mirror for they, and only they, know who The Doctor really is.

Season 6 (1968-1969)

Producer: Peter Bryant
Script Editor: Derrick Sherwin, Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Jamie (Frazer Hines), Zoe (Wendy Padbury)

Troughton's tenure on the show, through no fault of his own (he was nothing short of a genius), became something of a wasted opportunity. Most of the alchemical potential he and David Whitaker tried to bring back to the show was squandered as Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin remained focused on targeting the action demographics, rendering an entire season and a half of Doctor Who a series of repetitive, identical base-under-siege stories that came dangerously close to tripping into outright xenophobia (and arguably actually crossing the line once or twice. Even so, buried within are still a handful of classics). Therefore Troughton's final year became intensely self-critical as the show geared up for yet another major reboot. This was helped greatly by newcomers Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and especially Robert Holmes, who understood the show's true roots and would go on to be the major architects of the rest of the Classic series.

Practically a godsend as the show faltered, this is an absolute triumph. Although the season finale “The War Games” gets a lot of credit for introducing the Time Lords (we had no clues as to The Doctor's background and history before now), this is the real origin story for The Doctor. This one's all about the nature of fiction and the creative process, imagining a realm outside the universe where stories and ideas can become real. More importantly, “The Mind Robber” explains why Doctor Who is special and what it offers for storytelling that few other shows can. Watch out in particular for the recurring motif of television and things being monitored, and Patrick Troughton's tendency to peer out of TV screens. It's not penned by David Whitaker, one of the rare classics from this era that isn't, but it's firmly within the intellectual tradition he worked in.

Section 3

Season 7 (1970)

Producer: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), Dr. Liz Shaw (Caroline John)

This third (or really fifth, actually) version of Doctor Who is a highly unusual one. For Season 7, it was decided that the show would get a bold re-tooling; As punishment for interfering with the laws of time, the Time Lords ground The Doctor on Earth and cause him to lose the secret to the TARDIS and be unable to travel in time and space. Partially, this was a reaction against the Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin era's losing touch with the concerns of regular people in its attempt to be an exciting monster rumble action series and its uncomfortable tendency to slip into outright xenophobia. Mostly though, to be honest, this was due to costs becoming prohibitive and a need to do away with alien planets. This new Doctor Who would still try to be an action series, but a more socially conscious one and draw its inspirations from tense spy-fi thrillers like The Avengers, The Quatermass Experiment and The Manchurian Candidate. A popular character from the latter Troughton era, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, was brought back as a regular and The Doctor was sent to work for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, a paramilitary organisation tasked with investigating the unknown. Not everyone was on board with this new direction, however, including, interestingly, most of the creative team.

Doctor Who does “Space Oddity”, David Whitaker's sadly final contribution to the show (though helped via an uncredited rewrite by Pertwee-era architect Malcolm Hulke) is at once the story in the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era that most readily embraces the trappings of spy-fi thrillers, but at the same time most clearly problematizes them as a blueprint for Doctor Who. Whitaker is of course brilliant at using The Doctor to deform the narrative and had previously done a genius James Bond send-up in the Troughton era with “The Enemy of the World”. It's also really the second and last time Doctor Who addressed 1960s space fever, becoming oddly prescient in its scepticism that the space race would ever lead to anything. Aside from that, it's an incredibly gripping little thriller with a great, fitting twist. This is also pretty much exactly what I thought Doctor Who was before I learned more about it, so this era, and this story in particular, remains a personal favourite of mine.

Season 10 (1972-1973)

Producer: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Doctor: Jon Pertwee (sort of)
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin)

As the Pertwee era went on, eventually the creative team on the whole could no longer support the more militaristic, action-oriented aspects of the show, feeling it was tipping Doctor Who dangerously close to empire-glorifying Tory politics and hegemony. This was not helped by Jon Pertwee, who unabashedly played The Doctor as a virile leading man (which neither William Hartnell nor Patrick Troughton had ever done) and an upper-class aesthete to boot, seemingly completely missing the mercurial, anarchic core of the character introduced in the show's earliest years. The solution, dreamed up over the course of Seasons 8 and 9 by savvy writers like Robert Holmes, Bob Baker and Malcolm Hulke, directors like David Maloney and cast members like Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning, was to turn to things like Monty Python and Glam Rock visual logic to turn Doctor Who into a giddy roller coaster of campy Glam performativity. Thus The Doctor became a Drag leading man (probably completely unbeknownst to Pertwee) and the mercury shifted other places (pay close attention to Katy Manning's Jo Grant in particular here) and Season 10 sees this approach at it's apex. The 10th Anniversary year also saw the first multi-Doctor team up as William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton returned in the reunion special “The Three Doctors”, which also restored The Doctor's ability to use the TARDIS.

Robert Holmes, in one of his finest scripts, delivers both the peak of the Glam version of Doctor Who and strong evidence it can't last forever and a new model is needed. “Carnival of Monsters” is a delight, running through Holmes' favourite subjects like the marginalization of the working classes, the banal evils of bureaucracy and a toothy critique of those who think Doctor Who is all about monsters and scary things. Notice also the metaphorical television motifs: A return to a theme that Troughton in particular reveled in and a reminder that The Doctor is in some sense connected to TV. Here, Holmes uses it as an exploration of spectacle, and questions whether or not this is irreducible from television and if it's truly an admirable goal in and of itself.

Section 4

Season 13 (1975-1976)

Producer: Phillip Hinchcliffe
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen)

The Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era had been the most popular incarnation of Doctor Who thus far, cementing the show as a Saturday teatime staple. However, that success was nothing compared to Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes' time running the programme. Backpedaling hard away from the Pertwee era's restrictive format and all-too-often facile politics, Hinchcliffe and Holmes catapulted Doctor Who back into the realm of ideas by pitting The Doctor against the Lovecraftian horrors that lurk in our collective consciousness by crashing him into a series of nightmare-scapes inspired by Hammer Horror. The Hinchcliffe era got instant marquee value by casting the unbelievably charming and charismatic theatre actor Tom Baker as The Doctor and winning over a sceptical audience almost immediately. Baker would go on to become the longest serving actor ever to play The Doctor on television to this day (a record seven consecutive years) and become so iconic he would remain synonymous with Doctor Who until David Tennant finally surpassed him as most beloved Doctor in 2006-7. Although it didn't always completely work, the Hinchcliffe era was incredibly bold, confidant and forward-thinking and remains the most popular of the Classic Series eras. 

 Sadly, it was not to last: Phillip Hinchcliffe's steadfast refusal to shy away from the more overtly adult horror aspects of the genre he was playing with a roused the ire of media watchdog, moral guardian and professional buzzkill Mary Whitehouse, who claimed Hinchliffe's version of Doctor Who was "poisoning the youth", dubbing it “teatime brutality for tots”. Rather than stand up for its staff and ideals, the BBC, in one of its more reprehensible moves, turned Hinchcliffe into a sacrificial lamb and fired him after three years to appease Whitehouse.

An incredibly singular retelling of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, drawing heavy inspiration from the Hammer series of film adaptations beginning with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. Robert Holmes simply packs this script full of tantalizing concepts and symbols as a mad scientist tries to revive the greatest war criminal in the universe, we are exposed to the Time Lords' dark subconscious and The Doctor is forced to negotiate with a monastic order of priestesses who guard the secret to eternal life. “Morbius” also boasts some really clever usage of BBC production techniques and an absolutely phenomenal cast that brings the script to life, so to speak. It's Holmes' deliberate attempt to place Doctor Who into a tradition of alchemical and mythical British literature and, just for good measure, he throws us a whopping great retcon that challenges everything we thought we knew about Doctor Who up 'till now.

Season 17 (1979-1980)

Producer: Graham Williams
Script Editor: Douglas Adams
Doctor: Tom Baker (sort of)
Companions: Romanadvoratrelundar, A.K.A. “Romana” (Lalla Ward), K-9 (David Brierley)

After the firing of Phillip Hinchcliffe, incoming producer Graham Williams was told to tone down the horror and focus on comedy, while at the same time being told Doctor Who was too comedic (neither the first nor the last time a producer would be given unworkably contradictory marching orders). It took Williams several years, but with his third script editor, Douglas Adams, he finally found a model that worked: Adams had submitted several scripts to Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes in Season 12, but was told that his scripts, while very good, did not mesh with the classic horror metafiction themes they were interested in exploring. These rejected scripts would eventually become, with some revisions and rewrites, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1978

Adams finally got his chance to write for Doctor Who under Graham Williams and used much the same approach to it that he had on Hitchhiker's. Unfortunately, given the chaos the production team was in, this meant Adams' vision didn't always come through as strongly as he, and we, would have liked, although it works best in this season. Another problem Williams and Adams had was Tom Baker: Baker had something of an ego and had a tendency to steal scenes and walk all over his co-stars, and by this point was firmly convinced the show revolved around him (irritatingly, he wasn't exactly wrong either). This wasn't the first time the actors and the producers were at odds (and sadly won't be the last), but it is the most explosive and several times threatened to outright destroy the show.

Thankfully, Adams, along with Robert Holmes, came up with a solution: Returning to and updating a strategy Holmes had used last time a single actor dominated the show, the character of Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short was created as the show's first Time Lord co-star. By introducing her in “The Ribos Operation”, a story consciously built around themes of “as above, so below” duplication and redundancy and eventually casting the abjectly brilliant Lalla Ward once Romana's original actress Mary Tamm walked off the set, Williams, Adams and Holmes were able to subtly restore the show's mercurial balance. Furthermore, Baker and Ward turned into one of Doctor Who's greatest double acts, and Season 17 saw the show displaying possibly the most self-aware and forward-thinking attitude towards its structure and ethos in its history.

Rightly regarded as a high-water mark of the Classic Series, one's opinions on the larger Graham Williams era notwithstanding, “City of Death” is a sublime romp that cleverly disguises just how intelligent it's actually being. In many ways it's the closest the Classic Series gets to the pacing of the New Series as it flips back and forth between three different time periods, involves cracks in time and features a great deal of running to and from places. The premise is wonderfully insane, involving a massive conspiracy hatched by an extraterrestrial war hero to paint six identical Mona Lisas so he can travel back to the dawn of life on Earth and undo his species' extinction. It's little wonder a basic writing prompt for Doctor Who after this is “do what 'City of Death' did”. The cast is once again brilliant, highlights being watching Tom Baker and Julian Glover (back from “The Crusade”!) screaming at each other and Lalla Ward being delightfully subversive in between bouts of snarking at Tom Chadbon's Detective Inspector Duggan. Amidst all this fun, though is some serious commentary on the nature of mechanization and artistic expression. Adams has an agenda here, and makes a fundamental claim to what Doctor Who should be and should stand for in a time it seemed like few were willing to.

Section 5

Season 21 (1984)

Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companions: Tegan (Janet Fielding), Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson)

Graham Williams and Douglas Adams abandoned Doctor Who at the end of Season 17, finally fed up with the impossible conditions they were being asked to work under. With the production staff all but completely gone, the only one willing to take the top seat was former production assistant John Nathan-Turner. Undeniably the show's most controversial producer, Nathan-Turner introduced a series of sweeping aesthetic and production changes in an attempt to modernize the show. Although his tenure lasted a frankly unprecedented decade and he oversaw no fewer than four Doctors, three script editors and near a dozen companions, Nathan-Turner was far less of a creative influence than his predecessors had been-He was a CEO and an ad man, not a showrunner. More than any other producer, Nathan-Turner was dependent on his script editor to provide a concrete vision for Doctor Who

Sadly, for half of that decade he was paired with Eric Saward, a completely untrained and untested rookie whose biggest credentials were being a hardcore Doctor Who fan. The result can be called nothing short of a complete disaster: Nathan-Turner and Saward accentuated each others faults and together made a series of crushingly poor decisions that culminated in driving almost their entire audience away in 1984-1986 and getting Doctor Who canceled in every way except officially. Ironic, as Nathan-Turner had helped save it just a few years earlier. Despite that, there are still quite a few good ideas here; they just came far more intermittently than in the past and require a lot of rehabilitation and patience.


Penned by one-time script editor and veteran science fiction writer Christopher Bidmead, this is one of the Sward era's rare gems. Bidmead had previously sent off the Tom Baker era with “Warrior's Gate”, “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis”: A masterful trilogy of stories in Season 18 that dealt heavily with the concept of social entropy and decay that have been aptly described as "science poetry". Bidmead returns to this theme with “Frontios”, imagining a place both at the edge of the universe and the end of history itself; a place where even the TARDIS is not meant to go. Putrefication and decay are not only major themes, but major elements of the set design and visual logic. Peter Davison, an incredibly talented veteran actor who, like Patrick Troughton was insultingly wasted on this part, gets one of his rare opportunities to play The Doctor the way he wanted (instead of the ineffectual, emotionally stunted soap opera lead he was often written as) and is a delight to watch here. 

Section 6

Season 26 (1989)

Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Ace (Sophie Aldred)

The fact Doctor Who managed to survive an extra three years after the Saward era is at once something of a miracle and also a technicality. The wasted potential of Peter Davison's tenure and the catastrophic train wreck of his successor Colin Baker's**** meant that the vast majority of the show's intended audience had long since abandoned it and Doctor Who was now seen as an embarrassing relic by the BBC. As a result of demands placed on him by the BBC as well as his own desperate attempt at both salvaging the series and being able to retire comfortably, Nathan-Turner purged the entire Doctor Who production staff in 1987 and took a chance on a bunch of brash young upstarts led by new script editor Andrew Cartmel: A person who, when asked what he thought the purpose of Doctor Who was, gave the absolutely delightful answer “to bring down the government”. 

Cartmel and his team were flagrantly leftist and radical, a sharp change from Nathan-Turner's attempts during the Saward era to make Doctor Who safe and apolitical. In addition, the Cartmel era saw an attempt to restore a sense of mystery to the character of The Doctor, and, under Sylvester McCoy he became increasingly dark, unpredictable and manipulative. This era also saw magic and the power of myths and symbols examined with the most complexity and power they'd ever been. What this all meant though was the show finally had something to prove again, and with an absolutely killer main cast comprising of Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred, Doctor Who became, in my opinion at least, the most intelligent, tight and exciting it had ever been. A shame nobody watched it: The Cartmel/McCoy era ended after only three years when the Classic Series was finally officially canceled in 1989.

Ghost Light”*****

This is, in my view, the series' crowning triumph. “Ghost Light” is a strange, intriguing work that dives headfirst into the world of dreams and symbols. It's not made to be passively watched; it's meant to be carefully examined and engaged with. One of the serial's core themes seems to be studying oppositions, and it gets a lot of mileage displaying the contrast between things like light and dark and masculine and feminine and then blurring the boundaries and reappropriating the logic they work by. Another major theme is Darwinian evolution, or at least the pop perception of it and the effect it had on society's perception of nature. This is a fantastic story for both The Doctor, who staunchly rejects the trappings of Victoriana even as he's a product of it (he is, at heart, a Victorian inventor) and Ace, the series' first canonically bisexual lead. Ace is undeniably the main character here (as she is throughout the last two years of the Cartmel era) and, in yet another of “Ghost Light”'s genius twists, the story eventually becomes about her dealing with her personal demons and finding ways to channel and stoke her rebellious, anarchic fire.


*Like a great many TV episodes from this period, much of "The Crusade" is missing, dating as it does from a period of time where television was seen as disposable entertainment and therefore the concept of archiving not even being a thing anyone would have thought of. Thankfully, the soundtracks for all the serials still exist, as do more than a few on-set photos and screenshots, so it's possible to watch animated reconstructions of these missing stories. If you're uncomfortable watching a reconstruction, swap out this serial for either "The Web Planet" or "The Rescue" also from this season, both of which exist in their complete forms.

**"Power of the Daleks", despite being possibly the most important story in the show's history, is also missing. Again, if sitting down with a reconstruction is a problem for you, check out "The Krotons" from Season 6 instead. It's not as good, but still a great romp that bucks the more distasteful trends of the Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin/Troughton era. Alternatively, you could go with the newly discovered "The Enemy of the World" from Season 5, a terrific Whitaker outing that gleefully plays around with tossing The Doctor and company into a James Bond movie and lets Troughton show off his formidable acting chops.

***Want more Tom Baker? I almost included "The Face of Evil" from Season 14 as it's an underrated highlight of the late Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and introduces Leela, played by Louise Jameson, who is one of my favourite companions (and apparently Matt Groening's too, as he named a character after her). It's the Baker/Jameson duo that I most associate with this era of the show, and their first outing is also arguably their best: It's a tight little story featuring a great central time travel mystery with a lot of fun twists and turns, some wonderfully witty dialog, outstanding acting all around and fantastic chemistry between the two leads. To me, this is quintessential, iconic 1970s Doctor Who the way I remember it and can't recommend it highly enough.

****Why no Colin Baker? Frankly, I suggest newcomers avoid his tenure entirely. I simply can't find a single thing to recommend in it unless you're a serious fan and willing to forgive quite a lot. If you really want an example of what mid-80s Doctor Who might have looked like had it worked, I suggest the Big Finish audio plays "...ish", "Jubilee", "Doctor Who and the Pirates" or "Peri and the Piscan Paradox".

*****While "Ghost Light" remains the best in my opinion, pretty much everything in the Sylvester McCoy era is a triumph, and I'd also draw your attention to his first season, which operated slightly differently than the Ace stories of his latter two years (though no less effectively, I hasten to add). Of those I very much also recommend "Paradise Towers", which does J.G. Ballard as a children's pantomime or "Delta and the Bannermen", which concerns an interstellar war between carnivorous flagmen and insect women set against the backdrop of the 1950s as seen through a British holiday camp. It's also named after Echo and the Bunnymen, so really, where can you go wrong?