Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

“Well, this is all really rather clever, isn’t it?”

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Ring out the bells, it’s Christmas time – and the time for that most divisive of Doctor Who traditions, the saccharine, family-oriented Christmas special episode. Every year since the show returned, these episodes have divided the show’s dedicated fans like no other stories, with a very vocal group always, without fail, proclaiming each one as “the worst episode ever”.

But the thing about the Christmas episodes is that they’re very different beasts to the stories shown as part of the series proper. As a centrepiece of the BBC Christmas schedule since 2006, they have to appeal to a wider audience even than the extremely successful show normally manages. They can’t be steeped in continuity which would alienate casual viewers less familiar with the show’s Byzantine mythology. And as an intended piece of wholesome Christmas fare, they have to be even more family-oriented than the show usually is, and encapsulate the ‘sentimental’ feelings so closely associated with the festive season.

Whether you like or very vocally hate the Christmas episodes is very much dependent on your tolerance for these strictures. If you’re curmudgeonly enough to find all these things objectionable, then you’re going to hate the end product no matter how finely crafted. And for the last two years, there’s been the added factor of the distinctive style that Steven Moffat has brought to the show – a very children-friendly blend of fairy tale and magic (in the guise of technology) that, for some fans, represents a dumbing down of a show that used to eschew such things and praise the virtue of science over superstition.

This year’s story, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, had all these tropes in spades, and as usual, seems to have brought many a fanboy more outrage than joy this Christmas. But fanboys aren’t the Christmas episode’s intended audience; if some of them like it, well, great. But I doubt Steven Moffat’s going to lose much sleep over the ones who don’t. For this fanboy, the episode managed to – just – keep the balance of all these factors pretty much right. As a result, I found myself enjoying it, in fact more than last year’s.

One particular plus was that, unlike last year’s Dickens tribute, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe told a simple, linear story with none of the reliance on temporal paradoxes that’s been so divisive among the show’s fans. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoy this element of the show, but I do think it’s been rather overused recently, so a straightforward story was more than welcome for me.

But if that Moffat trope was conspicuously absent, there were plenty of others in evidence. Like its obvious inspiration, CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this was very much a children’s fairy tale, something Moffat seems to have steered the show towards in the last couple of years. All the fairy tale archetypes were there, and I have to admit, they appealed to my inner ten-year-old. There was a big old country house, a mysterious, magical ‘Caretaker’, and best of all, a portal to another world. Stories of mysterious gateways to other worlds were always a favourite of mine as a child, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed this.

Like Lewis’ novel, this took place in the early years of World War 2. Historical settings seem to work well for Christmas stories, perhaps because adults find the emotions surrounding Christmas to be steeped in nostalgia; even last year’s alien world was basically a pseudo-Victorian fantasy. World War 2 was not the nicest of historical periods, but in keeping with the general style, this focussed less on its unpleasant aspects, and more on the cosy, rose-tinted remembrance of a simpler time, with the bombing and the evacuation a perfect adventure for children.

It didn’t sidestep the nastier bits of war entirely, though, as we saw loving father Reg seemingly plummeting to his doom as  the pilot of a failing bomber over the Channel. This was nicely realised, but while Alexander Armstrong was great as Reg, it was hard to escape the memory of his street-talking comedy RAF pilot in The Armstrong and Miller show!

The ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ trope was much in evidence from the outset, with a typically frenetic prologue of the Doctor casually blowing up one of the standard alien ships intent on taking over the Earth. It’s a mark of how established the show now is that we take the preceding events for granted now; it’s an alien invasion, of course the Doctor’s going to beat it. The details of how are almost irrelevant – and a good thing too, as that kind of simplistic story was pretty old-hat even in the show’s ‘classic’ run.

It was an exciting sequence, full of pyrotechnics and well put together by director Farren Blackburn, who impressed me directing half of The Fades earlier this year. But it required quite a suspension of disbelief to swallow the part where the Doctor plummets into the vacuum of space, then grabs a handy spacesuit and puts it on to somehow survive re-entry and the crater-engendering impact in 1930s England. Fanboys may have been recalling a similar spacewalk in less than fondly remembered Peter Davison story Four to Doomsday; others probably just wondered how come he didn’t die. All right, there was a line that referred to the suit as an ‘impact suit’ that somehow repaired its wearer. But still, I suspect your tolerance of Moffat’s use of technology as magic will have influenced your opinion of the story even at this early stage.

If you could cope with that, though, you were likely to enjoy the magic of the story proper. After his rescue by doughty young mum Madge Arwell (the excellent Claire Skinner), the Doctor promises to return the favour; all she has to do is wish. In the event, it’s her children who do the wishing, which magically does bring him back on Christmas Eve, in time for him to act as a sort of mad uncle/Willy Wonka in ‘redecorating’ the old country house they’ve come to stay in for Christmas.

Matt Smith leaned very heavily on his comic talents as he showed them around the ‘improved’ house, which was like every child’s dream. Taps that dispense lemonade, dancing chairs, a rotating Christmas tree complete with train set – and a mysterious, very large present that turned out to be a gateway to a distant planet in the far future, where a magical (there’s that word again) forest grows natural Christmas decorations. Perfect for a Christmas outing; but as we’ve seen recently, this Doctor is all too fallible, and he hadn’t realised that spacefaring humans were about to melt down the forest for fuel with acid rain.

It was a nice touch to bring hard technology and future energy prospectors into such an overtly magical world, and an even nicer touch for fanboys that they came from Davison-era planet Androzani Major, The three technicians/soldiers were a nice comedy touch in the style of classic series writer Robert Holmes, with their amusing repartee, but it did seem odd to have cast comedian Bill Bailey and have him essentially function as the straight man of the group! Still, some amusing dialogue, with the scanners confused by woolly garments and Bailey’s look of comprehending horror when he realised Madge might just shoot them – because she was a mother looking for her children.

In fact, the whole story was very much an ode to the strength of motherhood and the bond a mother shares with her children – I wonder how much Steve Moffat’s wife (and mother to his children) Sue Vertue served as an inspiration. While the Doctor was there to explain everything, it was Madge who was the true hero, fearlessly chasing her children to an alien world, hoodwinking people from the future, and ultimately serving as the only one ‘strong’ enough to be a vessel for the souls of the sentient forest as they evacuated (like the wartime children) from the threat of imminent destruction.

Again, this was all very much steeped in fairy tale style magic, as the forest was represented by an anthropomorphised King and Queen styled as walking wooden statues. These were very nicely realised – in fact the CG was generally really good this episode – but looked to have stepped straight out of the pages of a classic storybook. As was their tower, ostensibly grown from wood, with its geodesic space/time ship at the top. Again, you had to swallow magic to swallow this, really. If the tower was grown from trees, presumably the ship was too – so how did it fly? What was its power supply? How did it access the time vortex? The trouble is, if these questions nagged at you, you probably have a problem with the Moffat style in general. Like the thwarted alien invasion, he asks his audience to take magic (ie advanced technology) on trust, with very little – or no – exposition to explain it. But to a modern child, technology and magic must seem very nearly indistinguishable from each other.

And it was no surprise – not really – that Madge’s trip through the vortex also had the side effect of rescuing her husband. As her thoughts locked onto him, and the ship became visible in a blaze of light, he flew his bomber straight into the vortex; a scene rather more poetic than the sillier spaceborne Spitfires in Victory of the Daleks, but undeniably similar. Reg’s sudden reappearance on the English lawn was a cheering moment, undercutting as it did the tearjerking scene with Madge trying to tell her children that their father was dead.

I actually found this rather predictable, unfortunately. From the moment I saw Reg’s bomber start to fail in the earlier scene, I just knew that he would be saved at the last minute. The manner of his salvation was well- worked out, but I never thought for one minute that the Christmas special would end with two heartbroken children learning of their father’s death. Not mention that in Moffat-Who, death is rarely permanent for nice characters. But while I sometimes feel that, in the series proper, this cheapens the idea of death and undercuts jeopardy, I have to say that it felt right here. And after all that emphasis on the virtues of motherhood, it was nice to see that the children needed their dad too. If anything, it was as much a celebration of family as any one member of it.

If all this doesn’t mention the Doctor too much, that’s because he was almost a McGuffin in this plot; but Matt Smith was as excellent as ever, switching in a heartbeat from slapstick comedy to emotional connection and even loneliness of his own. The final scene, with him realising that he too could cry with happiness, was rather beautiful – though I can imagine that, for some, this very much tipped the scales of saccharine too far. But it was a lovely surprise to see Amy and Rory again, and for the Doctor to finally embrace the friendship he’d been pushing away from last year. And here again, he had Madge to thank – such a good mother, she even reduced a 900 year old Time Lord to a surly teenager: “OK Mum. I’ll think about it.”

Generally then, an enjoyable Christmas special, light on the convoluted plotlines Moffat’s been so keen on, but steeped in all his other archetypes. I very much enjoyed it, even though the story felt a bit slight for all the spectacle. But as almost concentrated Moffatiness (a word I invented), I’m sure it’s going to be as love-it-or-hate-it as everything else he’s done with the show!

Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

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Another timely slot for the final episode of Black Mirror. The Entire History of You, which posits the idea of an electronic implant to record and play back your every memory, is shown in a week when Facebook users are getting increasingly jittery about the social network’s new ‘Timeline’ layout – by which every piece of information you’ve ever handed to Mr Zuckerberg will be mercilessly laid out for all to see, unless you can figure out the labyrinthine privacy settings.

This is the first Black Mirror not to have been written by Charlie Brooker, with Peep Show’s cowriter Jesse Armstrong on scripting duties. I generally like Jesse Armstrong, and particularly enjoyed his recent new show Fresh Meat, about university fresher experiences, but I have to say that I found this episode of Black Mirror considerably less interesting than the previous two.

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Unlike the previous instalments, which aimed satire at multiple targets (social media, information control, online lynch mobs, reality talent shows), this was based around a single conceit – the ‘grain’, a memory recording implant which can record and play back your memories with perfect clarity – even if you’re astonishingly drunk. It’s actually an interesting idea in an age where your versions of your memories are increasingly digitised and stored online by the likes of Facebook. The trouble with this episode, though, was that having had the idea it didn’t seem to exploit it as well as it might.

The drama focussed primarily on one middle class married couple, Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), and how the device amplified their marital strife. Opening at a job appraisal for Liam in his law firm, there was a nice dig at the litigation culture by suggesting that children in this near future could sue their parents for damage caused by a perceived bad upbringing. Liam clearly had reservations about this, giving him a de facto hero status. But as the story progressed, it became clear that no-one in this was going to come out well.

The story focussed on Liam’s discovery, at a fairly cringeworthy middle class dinner party, that his wife had previously had a relationship with the oily, unlikeable Jonas, who professed to using memory playbacks as masturbation fodder. Plagued by sexual jealousy, Liam proceeded to re-examine his recorded memories like picking at a scab, searching for evidence of infidelity. Eventually, inevitably, he found some – and descended into a spiral of drunken, jealous violence that ended his marriage.

There were some interesting angles in all of this. It’s inevitable that recorded memory, like every other medium, would end up being used for sexual gratification; there was a telling scene of Liam and Ffion having sex, their silvered eyes evidence that they were actually reliving past glories rather than living the act itself. Not to mention the potential for strife in being able to replay every conversation you’ve ever had with your partner while arguing over what was said. Yes, in that situation you can sometimes wish you had such a recording, but let’s face it, it’s only going to make the argument worse – as it did here. One point worth taking from the story is that sometimes, in a relationship, white lies might be essential.

But the trouble is that the concept of recorded memory is a genuinely disturbing one, and the implications for society as a whole aren’t really represented by showing its role in the disintegration of a clearly failing marriage. There were some tantalising hints along those lines – for example, the depiction of preflight security requiring you to display the last week of your memories before boarding a plane, or the concept of ‘gouging’, stealing someone’s implant to sell their memories on a black market.

Unfortunately, that last example was also a demonstration of how badly thought through the concept seemed. Apparently, a gouging victim then loses all their memory recordings. Yet in this world of iTunes backups and Cloud document storage, it seemed really implausible that there wouldn’t have been a remote backup copy to restore in this eventuality – which undermined the climax of the story, as a drunken Liam forced Jonas to erase every memory of sexual congress with his wife.

Then there was the lack of clarity about how private the memories were. Asked to show a ‘redo’ of his appraisal at the dinner party, Liam is clearly uncomfortable and is saved from social pressure by Jonas noticing. But it’s only social pressure – so how much legal obligation is there to share your memories, as with the flight security man? They clearly can be shared involuntarily, as Liam and Ffion tap into their toddler’s implant to ensure that she’s been well treated by the babysitter. All right, so parents can tap into their children, that sort of makes sense. But when would it stop? Most kids would be mortified by the idea of their parents being able to peek into their heads, especially when hitting puberty.

It was also mentioned, to one ‘gouging’ victim who’d decided to live without her recording implant, that organic memories were unreliable, prone to encouraged falsehood. Yet surely in a world where memories are stored electronically, the risk of false memory implantation by hacking would be even greater. And let’s face it, Total Recall and Blade Runner were dealing with these concepts decades ago; they would have been even more relevant here. Also interesting might have been to show how such fake memories could be manipulated to serve social, corporate or political ends. But there was none of that to be seen here.

It could be argued that these details are best served by hints that can be extrapolated by the intelligent viewer. But those hints seemed too thin on the ground to even start to explore these themes. Instead, we got a picture of a marriage failing amid one partner’s eventually justified suspicion of his wife’s infidelity – and even that wasn’t too convincing, as these two seemed doomed from the start, memory implants or no memory implants. By the time Liam, left alone and unsure if his daughter was really his, took the predictable step of gouging out his own implant rather than be tortured by memories of what he’d thrown away, it was actually hard to care.

Which was, for me, probably the worst flaw in this episode. Pretty much every character in it was fundamentally unlikeable, making you want the worst to happen to them from the start. Yes, everyone did end up unhappy, but having not even one character the viewer can empathise with leaves you emotionally disconnected from the story. I had the same problem with Aaron Sorkin’s (admittedly well-crafted and Oscar winning) The Social Network, in which I just wanted everyone to have a horrible time. But then maybe that’s just me.

A disappointing ending, then, to a generally interesting series of dark satire. And yet I’d have to say that the series worked overall in its intent of showing us the dark side of where our cutting edge technology might lead us. Yes, its targets were generally pretty obvious – but then I haven’t seen those targets frequently addressed elsewhere. A number of people have remarked on Russell T Davies satirising Big Brother in 2005 Doctor Who episode Bad Wolf, but that always seemed more like affectionate pastiche rather than the vitriolic condemnation of The X Factor we saw on Black Mirror last week!

I thought Black Mirror, as a whole, worked pretty well, positing thought-provoking questions to which there are no easy answers. A commenter on a previous post noted that the first story at least seemed heavily based on one of Charlie Brooker’s old articles; if so, I still thought it worked, and wouldn’t mind seeing a few more of those brought to the screen. Particularly his extended fantasy of David Cameron being a flesh eating lizard fed with terrified horses by a cowed population! If there’s another series of Black Mirror, that gets my vote as episode one…

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 8

“I love a happy ending.”

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Whoa! Now that’s how to do a season finale. Admittedly, the gang dealt with the risen dead last week, so maybe the episodes could have been ordered better. But these weren’t comic-strip flesh eating zombies. This time, our heroes had to deal with the guilt of those they’d killed since the show began, pushing the characters to the front as all those seemingly consequence-free acts literally came back to haunt them. And along the way, Simon and Alisha would meet their own destinies.

It was actually an episode of two halves, with the ‘standard Misfits plot’ of misuse of powers occupying the first half. In this case, it’s arguable whether formerly fake medium Jonas was actually misusing his power; certainly he didn’t have it removed or get killed. Mark Heap was reliably creepy/likeable as Jonas, though he actually didn’t feature very much. In a way, he was simply a plot device; a way to bring back some of the victims whose deaths have defined the show, as it seemed to almost come full circle in examining itself.

There’s been a fair bit of that this year, and I was worried that so much of it might not do the show any favours. After all, such rabid self-reference was one of the things that seriously lessened the appeal of Doctor Who in the late 80s, in the way that it became near incomprehensible to anyone without an encyclopaedic knowledge of its past.There was no need to worry here, as it turned out. Yes, Misfits had become a little convoluted, with its central time paradox plot; but it only has two previous years to draw on, rather than the decades of contradictory mythology in Doctor Who. And Howard Overman, as a writer, has the knack of making self-reference incidental – most of the time.

This time, you did need some knowledge of the show’s past to figure out who the returning dead were, and what they had to do with our heroes. But an economical ‘previously on’ segment explained that easily enough, as well as neatly summarising the Simon/Alisha time paradox. I had come to think that the resolution of this would be postponed longer and longer to extend the show’s shelf life, so it came as a surprise to see the flashbacks – clearly, it was going to be resolved this week, removing one of the more complex and arcane angles the show’s had. That might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether you like more conventional, less head-fucky superhero stories. But I must confess, I wasn’t expecting it to leave me in tears.

But first things first, and we had a thoughtful romp as three key figures from the show’s past turned up in search of a resolution. First to appear was Sally, the probation worker who had pretended to be in love with Simon to find out how her boyfriend – their first probation worker – disappeared. Her appearance immediately head-tripped Simon, who was clearly still racked with guilt for her (accidental) death. She seemed to have forgiven him, and wanted to make amends for betraying him. But I wasn’t fooled; she’d pretended to care about him the first time for her own reasons, and it came as no surprise that this turned out to be the case when she returned from the dead. But kudos to Overman and actress Alex Reid for almost making me believe she had nobler intentions.

Dead people roaming the streets was immediately reminiscent of this year’s other great youth/fantasy show The Fades, but unlike those revenants, these ghosts were every bit as corporeal as they had been in life. As we discovered with the next returnee, prim, virginal do-gooder Rachel from the series 1 finale. Still incarnated by Jessica Brown Findlay (who’s been busy, what with last week’s Black Mirror and the upcoming Downton Abbey special), Rachel was convinced that the issue she needed to resolve was to finally enjoy all those sinful pleasures she’d denied herself in life, and set about it with a vengeance.

She was corporeal enough to shag Curtis (despite Rudy’s valiant effort to get in there), get drunk, smoke a joint and even throw up messily on the floor of the Community Centre. Elsewhere, Sally was corporeal enough to convince a reluctant Simon that she needed to consummate their relationship in order to move on – but it came as no surprise that she was filming the event, and even less of one that she sent the resultant skinflick to Alisha.

Because Sally was under the impression that what she needed to move on was to take revenge for what had been done to her; to that end, having broken Alisha’s heart, she then tried to throw her off the roof in order to finally take everything from Simon. But in a typically sly twist, that wasn’t it at all. What actually resolved her issues – and as it turned out, his – was finally meeting the last returnee, the gang’s first victim, Tony. Still played by Danny Sapani (and kudos for getting all these actors back), Tony explained to her that his death had been an act of self-defence. And as they kissed, they faded away to, presumably, the afterlife (though in the Misfits universe, as Rachel had previously enlightened us, there is no God – a big concept to deal with in a throwaway line).

And in another twist, after trying all the sensual pleasures and remaining earthbound, Rachel came to the conclusion that she really was there for revenge. As it turned out, she was right. As Simon and Alisha emerged from an extremely erotic make up shag in the toilets, she swiped a Stanley knife across Alisha’s throat and promptly faded away.

I must admit, this took me by surprise. There’d been a doomy air around Alisha all episode, but as Sally had failed to push her off the roof, I’d assumed she was now safe. But that lovingly photographed sex scene with Simon did have the air of a final encounter in hindsight.  And as she died, there was obviously nothing left for Simon in the present any more. It was time to go back to the past and die saving Alisha, so they could have what little happiness they could together.

So all the paradoxes were neatly (perhaps too neatly) resolved in short order. Yes, Curtis’ old time travel power had died with Seth’s iguana. But guess what? There was another time travel power, this one a one way affair which Seth had just sold. It was quickly retrieved from the no hoper who’d wanted to use it to go back in time and become a pirate (as Kelly pointed out, “who’d shag a pirate?) and given to Simon. But then there was the issue that, when future Simon previously met Alisha, he’d been able to touch her without being driven mad with lust. So he needed immunity from other powers. And guess what? Seth suddenly remembered having sold him just such a power in the past. For £10,000, which Simon didn’t have – until Seth, turning over a new leaf to please Kelly, gave him it.

So off Simon went to the past, in a heartbreaking scene on the roof, catapulted back to the end of series 1 and watching the old gang – even Nathan – from the rooftop. It felt like an ending, as we saw him buy his power from Seth then start setting up his fancy hero lair in a still-dilapidated building. The last we saw of him was striding towards the camera, undoing his top to reveal the familiar outfit of Superhoodie beneath – and by that point I was having a bit of a cry.

But was it a happy ending, or a sad one? Alisha was dead, and Simon off to his death. As Rudy neatly summed up, it meant that they spent eternity locked into a cycle of meeting, falling in love and dying. But as Kelly said, that’s actually pretty romantic. No wonder Rudy was emotionally confused enough to split into two again. He may have spoken for all the viewers when he asked, “what, are we supposed to feel happy or sad?” and Curtis gave the only reply possible, “it’s a bit of both.”

Fittingly, the episode gave foregrounding to Iwan Rheon and Antonia Thomas for what seemed like their final appearance, and both were superb. Rheon, in particular, gave a wonderfully subtle performance, as Sally’s reappearance caused him to lose some of his newly gained poise and confidence; but not so much that Sally didn’t note, “you’ve changed. You’re more confident.” As if to please those of us who, er, like Iwan Rheon, his big blue eyes were very much in close-up evidence throughout; in fact, Rudy amusingly described him as “the stary guy”. And there was plenty more of him to see in the steamy sex scene!

It felt like an ending. There was no cliffhanger; as Kelly said, the way forward was for those left to keep their heads down and try to live a happy life. But one part of the time paradox (unless I’ve missed something again) remains unresolved. As far as I know, Simon and Alisha never did go to Vegas, as in the picture that’s been so central to the paradox, and was given so much prominence this week. A hope for them to come back somehow?

Sadly, it seems not. Antonia Thomas confirmed on Twitter after the broadcast that she really had left the show, and Channel 4’s online ‘making of’ seems to confirm that Iwan Rheon is gone for good too. But what about the photo? Well, we saw Simon pack it in his bag before heading back to the past. But remember, it was his future self who gave it to him in the first place. So, in effect, the photo never really existed; it was called into being by the time paradox. As such, who knows whether it would have to depict a real event? Yes, I know this is fanwank retconning, but it makes sense to me!

It was an emotional wringer of a last episode, that traded on how much we’ve come to care about these characters – a tribute to both the writing and the performances. In some ways, this would have been the perfect way to end the show for good, and I actually wonder if that’s what Howard Overman had in mind. But, according to Digital Spy, Channel 4 aren’t that ready to let go of their hit just yet, and have commissioned a fourth series.

In some ways, I’d just as soon not see another series. As I said, without the central time paradox concept, and with the potential for ‘the standard Misfits plot’ of misused powers to quickly become stale, it could easily become much more conventional and less fun. Plus, while Rudy turned out to be a surprisingly effective replacement for Nathan as ‘the comic relief’, Simon and Alisha will be harder to replace – in a sense, their doomed romance has been the heart and soul of the show. But still, it’s worth remembering that back in the first series, there was none of that – and it was still great. If a fourth series there must be, I’ll certainly be watching. And expecting Howard Overman to surprise and impress me as ever.

Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits

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The second story in new anthology series Black Mirror, Fifteen Million Merits may not have been as viscerally awful as last week’s The National Anthem, but if anything it was even more downbeat and depressing.

The setting is a future dystopia, a familiar enough device to satirise the present. This being Charlie Brooker, his familiar pessimistic bugbears were all present and correct, but I suspect his wife Konnie Huq, on co-scripting duties, had more to do with the far more sympathetic characters than we were presented with last week.

The most prominent target of the satire was ‘reality’ talent shows, the kind of lowest common denominator, bread and circuses excuse for ‘entertainment’ that drives me up the wall, so obviously it was going to appeal to me. As if to capitalise on that, the show was cunningly scheduled to start at the moment this year’s X Factor final finished over on ITV; sadly, I doubt any X Factor viewers were likely to tune in and learn anything. Charlie’s satire is powerful, but generally preaches to the converted – which is a pity, because this might have made regular X Factor viewers think twice about their choice of ‘entertainment’.

But with the typical precision of the conceits in Brooker’s opinion column, this was an intricately constructed world in which the satire was aimed at more than just one – admittedly easy – target. The futuristic detail was fastidious in this claustrophobic world where the masses toil on fixed bikes to provide the power to run everything, earning ‘merits’ to spend as they do so. Those too overweight or out of condition to do so are reduced to even more menial labour, or being humiliated for entertainment on a TV ‘contest’ called Botherguts.

So already we’ve got digs at our dwindling fuel supply, our obsession with appearance, and the increasing income inequality of a society in which the masses literally are enslaved to work to death, never seeing the outside world, for the benefit of a tiny few. But this being Charlie, his familiar paranoia about new media was also very much in evidence. In their off hours, the drudges reside in tiny cubicles lined with screens constantly bombarding them with Youtube/Porntube/Facebook style entertainment. In order to watch any of the constantly advertised shows, you have to pay with the merits you earn from constantly cycling to generate power. Not only can the screens not be turned off, but to even skip a trailer or mute the feed incurs a financial penalty as your merits are docked. And if you stop watching, the system will know and loudly pester you to “resume viewing” until you open your eyes.

Even in a world where everything is virtual, the ravenous urge to consume is fostered. You’re not even buying real commodities; everything is virtual. Even including yourself. To most of the world, you’re represented by an avatar – the dopple – and if you buy new clothes, or fashion accessories, or even change your hairstyle, it’s your dopple that gets it, while the real you stays clad in a grey, featureless tracksuit. The ultimate consumption, where money is spent without the need to even produce tangible commodities. And if you think that’s farfetched, consider how you now purchase your music, movies, and even books.

The one thing not included in this dystopian satire is politics – for a reason. We now live in a society in which more citizens are likely to vote on The X Factor than vote for those who govern them, and will even pay for the privilege of doing so. And as it becomes increasingly clear that all governments in the real world are basically subservient to the large corporations, it stands to reason that in a consumerist future, democracy will be irrelevant and politicians, no longer the source of power, will likely no longer exist.

In Brooker and Huq’s vision, the only way out of the lifetime of drudgery is one of the many ‘reality’ shows constantly streamed to the screens, the most prominent of which is a ‘talent’ show called Hot Shots. A pretty transparent clone of The X Factor, this even features a monstrous Cowell-alike judge, Judge Hope, incarnated with a New Zealand accent and a terrifying level of contempt by Rupert Everett.

The workings of this nightmarish, but logical, extrapolation of society are cleverly built up detail by detail as we follow the empty life of Bing Madsen, a young man completely caught up in it. But gradually, Bing begins to finally feel something real. He’s in love with the new girl a few cycles down. And when he hears her sing, it becomes clear to him – what better way to win her heart than by buying her a place on Hot Shots? The trouble is, that’ll cost 15 million merits, and that’s nearly all the money he has.

As Bing’s love object Abi, Jessica Brown is convincingly humiliated when, after hearing her sing, the judges decide that her best shot is actually to work on one of the endless porno shows. But semi-drugged, and tempted by even the slightest chance to get away from her life of drudgery, Abi accepts, and we see her reduced to a dead-eyed, chemically sedated sex doll while Bing, out of money to turn his screens off, can only watch in horror.

Daniel Kaluuya, as Bing, is amazing, building a powerful performance layer by layer. For the first twenty minutes or so, he barely speaks. Then, as he starts to try chatting up Abi, he displays that same disarming likeability we’re used to from The Fades and Skins. But as the horror of the situation dawns on him, he rages with impotent fury. Smashing his screens, he takes a shard of broken glass, slaves madly to save another 15 million merits, then goes on Hot Shots, ostensibly as a ‘performance artist’. Then, holding the shard of glass to his throat, he holds himself hostage as he delivers to the impassive judges a scream of rage and passion so powerful, it seems inconceivable that they – and the avatars of the watching millions – will not be moved.

It’s an incredible performance, that really seals my respect for Kaluuya as an actor, but also for Brooker as a writer. “It’s not even real!” Bing seethes, sweating with rage. “It’s all fake fodder! You sell us shit and it doesn’t even exist!” It’s a powerful moment, but also one that made me reflect on consumerism, dumbed-down culture, and the increasing definition of everybody’s value solely in terms of how much they consume.

But this is a dystopia, and as in all the classics, there’s no getting out of it for the lone hero. There’s one last twist to Brooker’s script, as the judges are moved. Moved to offer Bing a thirty minute slot, twice a week, to vent his passion for the masses. And for a moment, you think Bing might defy them and slit his own throat. But not in this dystopia. In the next scene, life goes on just as before, but with the pedalling drones now glued to Bing, still holding the shard to his throat – itself now available as a fashion accessory for your dopple. As the story closes, we see Bing, still alone but in a bigger apartment, staring out at what appears to be a beautiful, forested vista of the real world. It cuts to the credits, but I’m guessing that vista was just as artificial as the ones everywhere else in this nightmarish future.

George Orwell, speaking of his defining dystopia 1984, said that it was a warning of what could happen if people weren’t vigilant. Brooker’s vision is similar, but he’s assuming people stopped being vigilant a long time ago. Orwell’s Winston Smith, in the novel’s chilling ending, has come to love Big Brother (also the title of a reality show, funnily enough), but this is after months of torture and brainwashing. Bing gives away his ideals far more cheaply, and voluntarily – if anything, it’s an even more horrifying ending. And given how much resemblance his impassioned speech bore to one of Brooker’s trademark rants, perhaps an acknowledgment that even the writer himself isn’t sure if he would do any better in the circumstances. Like last week, there was a lot of food for thought here, and like last week, no easy answers. One to think of, next time you vote for The X Factor, watch some porn, buy Farmville tokens or allow your iPhone to use your current location.

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 7

“Let’s go resurrect my dead girlfriend.”

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With series creator Howard Overman back on scripting duties, this week’s Misfits was another of the ‘homages’ that have been so prevalent this year – and a pretty good one at that. After dissecting comic book superheroes and alternate Nazi realities, this week the show took on 1980s cheesy zombie movies. I say 1980s ones specifically, because in my experience the trend of zombie cheerleaders began about then, although they’ve shown no sign of lying down since…

This episode balanced its homage/ripoff with the show’s usual tropes rather better than Overman’s Nazi episode, retaining the humour that was noticeably absent in that one. Of course, it’s rather difficult to do a cheesy zombie story with an entirely straight face, so in that regard it was actually better suited for the Misfits treatment than the Nazis winning World War 2.

As I mentioned some weeks ago, when it became clear that Seth was looking for a power to resurrect his dead girlfriend, this plot traditionally does not end well. Horror literature is littered with tales of bringing back the dead only to find that the resultant walking corpse is rather more horrible than you might have wanted; probably the first, and best known, is W W Jacobs’ 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw, but numerous variants have appeared since in comics, films and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which did it at least twice).

Indeed, the opening sequence bore more than a little resemblance to a Buffy episode, as Seth and Curtis ventured by night into what looked like South London’s creepiest cemetery to dig up Seth’s dead girlfriend Shannon. Kudos to director Will Sinclair for imbuing this with all the atmosphere of a traditional horror movie, though it wasn’t afraid to show its roots. The exhumed Shannon was unpleasantly decomposed, but when Curtis used his resurrection power on her, the process was reversed and she returned to her former self; almost exactly what happened when Willow revived the dead Buffy at the opening of season 6. Luckily for Shannon though, she wasn’t left buried and having to claw her way out like Buffy!

Frome hereon in, the familiar tale of unintended, flesheating consequences unfolded with lighthearted inevitability. As we waited for Shannon to start feeling inexplicable hunger pangs, Curtis took pity on an old lady by reviving her dead cat. Anyone who’s ever seen ReAnimator or Night of the Creeps could tell that wasn’t going to end well; and so it proved, as Curtis was trapped in the bathroom by the vicious undead Mr Miggles, who’d already chowed down on his owner.

With nothing else to do but come clean, Curtis called in the rest of the gang to deal with “the crazy killer cat”, but having trapped Mr Miggles, nobody could quite go through with killing him. Rudy expressed what we were surely all thinking: “You can kill numerous probation workers, but you can’t kill one cat?!” Luckily, they had no such qualms about vicious old ladies; as Mr Miggles’ undead owner lunged for Simon’s neck, Curtis was quick to ram a hammer claw into her head.

It was clear that this was going to be a high body count episode; as Simon realised what the rest of us had some time ago, he summed up the situation – “It’s like a zombie film”. And in zombie films, there are always a lot of bodies. As Rudy commented when the gang were confronted with a horde of flesheating cheerleaders, “that’s a lot of killing, even for us.”

But first, the story skilfully interwove the spread of the zombie plague with Shannon’s plight and Seth’s dilemma. As Kelly found out she’d been dumped for Seth’s formerly dead girlfriend, she didn’t take it well, and Seth looked suitably ashamed; Shannon, meanwhile, was beginning to discover an insatiable hunger for living flesh, and desperately trying not to slake it by eating her boyfriend and resurrector. Even when he realised what she’d become, Seth couldn’t bring himself to put her down, because he was still in love with her and just couldn’t let go.

That central dilemma was one of the more affecting parts of an episode that was mostly a gory fun romp. The zombies here weren’t the mindless, rotting revenants of Romero’s movies. Like the girl in Return of the Living Dead 3 (and probably many others), they were still the people they had been, with thoughts and feelings they could vocalise. But they couldn’t stop themselves from killing and spreading the contagion. This would lead, as Simon said, to the gang holing up in a shopping mall while the rest of the world turned undead. As the show’s primary geek spokesman, Simon clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to zombie films.

The problem of killing zombies who were still, essentially, the people they had been was later the cornerstone for some amusing gags. Still unable to bring themselves to terminate Mr Miggles, the gang had locked him up in a cat box only for him to escape and infect the troupe of cheerleaders who were conveniently rehearsing at the community centre in order to complete the ambience of a cheesy zombie film.

This led to a hilarious explanation of Rudy’s hitherto unsuspected terror of cheerleaders; as he related to Simon and Alisha how he’d caught his dad having sex with his mum while she was dressed as a cheerleader, even his friends couldn’t help smirking: “That scarred me right through puberty. I couldn’t even have a relaxing wank without it popping into my mind!”

Joe Gilgun was as funny as usual as Rudy got to work through his phobia by helping the gang put down the horde of gore stained, bitey cheerleaders (well, helping in the sense of running away and hiding in a cupboard). But first, there were some cheerleaders who hadn’t quite turned yet, leading to some hysterically awkward pauses as our heroes waited impatiently for them to die while they begged for an ambulance. It’s black humour, sure, but still funny.

And, typically, caught up at the end of it was yet another new probation worker, having turned up just in time to be bitten by a zombie. Having drawn the short straw and the responsibility of bashing her brains in, Rudy effectively summed up the whole series with his apology – “We just want you to know, this isn’t our fault.We’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot.”

Mind you, the death of yet another probation worker (onscreen for such a short time she didn’t even get the courtesy of being given a name) does beg the question of quite how slipshod the Thamesmead police must have got since the first series. Back then, they were all over the disappearance of the gang’s first two probation workers; so much so that it was a cause of major panic when building work threatened to dig up the first’s makeshift grave.

Now, it seems, replacement probation workers are sent out without even an inquiry as to where the previous one has got to. And wherever the gang are putting all the bodies, it must be starting to look like one of those mass graves from the Great Plague. Also, even if the cops aren’t too bothered about probation workers, surely the disappearance of an old lady, Seth’s next door neighbour and a troupe of cheerleaders should prod them into action?

To be fair, the show has playfully acknowledged its increasingly improbable undiscovered body count a lot this year. But while it may seem churlish to complain about a lack of realism in a show based on superpowers, just making postmodern references does slightly undercut the previously realistic setting. Still, with one more episode to go, perhaps the police will start poking around after all…

Outside the zombie-killing romp, though, the episode did have to deal with the emotional impact of what had started all this. Satisfyingly, it ended with Seth realising that his new feelings for Kelly were stronger than those for his undead girlfriend; though it probably helped that Kelly wasn’t trying to eat people. So, once again, it was Seth who resolved the situation in a confrontation with the ‘villain’ – because after all, it wasn’t Shannon’s fault she’d ended up that way. Charlene McKenna did a good job of making Shannon a sympathetic character, but really, the only way to resolve this was for Seth to prove himself by taking responsibility for killing her personally.

Which of course he did, proving his feelings for Kelly and prompting her into a surprisingly emotional declaration that she loved him too. I’m glad this seems to be getting resolved; it’s been a nicely underplayed Big Plot for this year, and Lauren Socha and Matthew McNulty have had some real chemistry together.

So, another ‘fun romp’ episode, its homage/ripoff done supremely well in the Misfits style, and all the regular characters getting a fair crack of the whip. It ended up with the gang’s realisation that, by containing the zombie plague, they’d actually saved the world – as Kelly said, “that’s some real superhero shit.” Of course, they then comically realised they’d forgotten all about Mr Miggles, and dashed off to deal with him as the episode closed. But Mr Miggles isn’t the only loose end – Shannon had also chowed down on Seth’s pet iguana, which presumably was still housing the time travel power Seth placed into it for safekeeping a few episodes ago.

As we know from the Nazi episode, killing someone means their power is lost for good. So how will Simon’s future self travel back in time now to die saving Alisha? Or could the iguana become a zombie, and if so, can zombies still house powers? Who knows, but with only one more episode to go this year, maybe the future Simon’s fate will be coming closer. In a way, I rather hope not, as ending that plot may well end the series as a whole (although it doesn’t necessarily have to, I suppose). Either way, I’m eagerly waiting for next week’s finale…

The trouble with exams…

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Those hard hitting undercover reporters at the Telegraph have been at it again today. After nearly scoring rather an own goal in the Murdoch Sky takeover by entrapping Vince Cable into saying inflammatory things with two pretty young ladies, it seems they’ve now been looking for another potential long running story by latching onto the perceived corruption of the British exam system. Their undercover reporters went to “13 meetings organised by (exam) boards used by English schools”, looking for evidence of what can be painted as corruption. And guess what? After looking pretty hard, it seems that they’ve found some.

The video on the Telegraph website, secretly filmed at one of Welsh exam board WJEC’s teacher training sessions, certainly looks damning. In it, senior examiners appear to tell the attending teachers what areas of the GCSE History syllabus will be covered in the upcoming exam paper. Because this fits the narrative the Telegraph are trying to shape, they comment that their investigations showed this to be a routine occurrence; that “teachers were routinely given information about future questions, areas of the syllabus that would be assessed and specific words or facts students must use to answer in questions to win marks”.

Fresh from his somewhat bizarre expenditure in sending schools across the country new copies of the King James Bible with a foreword he wrote (perhaps at God’s urging), chinless Education Secretary Michael Gove has been quick to leap onto a potentially non-controversial (for the government) issue about which he can be seen to be “doing something”. Eager for any opportunity to get his less than aesthetically pleasing mug into the papers, Gove has commented that such incidents "confirm that the current system is discredited", and has ordered new qualification standards watchdog Ofqual to conduct an investigation, the results of which may, politically, be a foregone conclusion.

The trouble is that, like so many recent media storms, this isn’t as simple an issue as the Telegraph are making out, and their pejorative language isn’t helping to clarify the issue. The sinister, X-Files-style air of conspiracy is generally enhanced when they claim that what they’ve been investigating was “series of secretive exam seminars, which are thought to have rapidly grown in popularity in recent years”, and for which shady examiners charge “up to £230 a day”.

Speaking as someone who used to work for one of the country’s leading exam boards, and administered one of these qualifications directly, I’m afraid I have to pour a little cold water over the Telegraph’s Oliver Stone-ish picture of a sinister cabal of exam boards and examiners conducting backroom deals in anonymous hotels. The “secretive exam seminars” they refer to are in fact very standard training days for teachers in how best to teach the courses prescribed by the board. Every exam board uses them, and the obvious advantage of having senior examiners present the courses is that they generally set the standards for the marking, and so are in the best position to advise on how students can get good marks.

Yes, these ‘sinister’ meetings can indeed cost £200 or so a day (though better financed exam boards sometimes offer them gratis). But the Telegraph story’s implication that this is some kind of bribe trousered by corrupt examiners is, frankly, bollocks. It’s charged by the boards, goes into the overall budget for training and marketing, and used to fund further training programmes. It is not, however much the Telegraph would like it to be, used by corrupt examiners to fly back and forth to shadowy meetings held by the Bilderberg Group, the Masons and the Illuminati.

But let’s look a little closer at the video evidence of the particular case that has sparked so much fury this morning. Are these examiners, as the Telegraph implies and so many people have clearly inferred, stepping over a line and revealing the questions in the upcoming exam to the privileged few teachers whose schools are prepared to fork out the training money?

Well, as with the Clarkson debacle last week, the selective clips used in some news outlets (including the BBC) certainly make it appear that way. But to give the Telegraph credit, they’ve been even-handed enough in posting a much longer clip that gives a better sense of context to the remarks. The oft-quoted soundbite (it’s in big letters on the Telegraph’s front page) is “We’re cheating. We’re telling you the cycle. Probably the regulator will tell us off.” That certainly sounds like someone who knows he’s doing wrong.

But if you look at the whole clip, it’s clear that the trainer is telling teachers that a particular topic is likely to come up, rather than a specific question on that topic. At this point, I should mention (as none of the press have) that every qualification is underpinned by a very carefully worded exam board document called a ‘specification’. Having been involved in developing and drafting these for new qualifications myself, I can tell you that they are obliged to cover the exact details of the course, and that no exam question can be set on a topic outside the areas of study contained therein.

Now I’m not familiar with the exact details of the WJEC History GCSE specification, but judging by the clip, this is a compulsory question which may be asked on one of three potential topics. As topics cannot be repeated from year to year, and there are three of them, anyone could check the past papers (freely available on boards’ websites, incidentally) and make a reasoned guess as to how these three topics will cycle round. In this case, these are newish qualifications, though, so the information couldn’t be surmised yet. But it could be within a year or so.

Undoubtedly this examiner is crossing a line in explicitly spelling it out to teachers, which illustrates how amazingly careful you have to be in wording what you say. But what he’s doing is simply telling the attendees what they could, in all likelihood, have worked out for themselves. It’s not the same as telling them the actual question, which is likely to be a bit more specific than “write something about Germany between 1933 and 1939”.

One teacher then asks whether, as educators, they should be teaching the children all the topics, rather than just the ones likely to crop up in the exams. And the trainer says that in an ideal world, they would indeed. But he acknowledges that teachers, driven by the tyranny of league tables and the political pressure to improve results year on year, may well find this an impossible demand; despite sailing way over the line, he’s trying to help – and these are the sort of questions teachers always ask in these training sessions, for precisely these reasons.

The second presenter is trying to spell out a section relating to modern US Presidents, and has incurred the wrath of the Telegraph by saying “off the record” that no question is likely to come up relating to “the Iraq war”. Again, this is clearly crossing a line, but not to the extent that it might appear. The examiner has just said that this section “now extends to 2000”, and points out the unlikelihood of questions coming up relating to “Clinton or Bush”. OK, it sounds as though the paper should cover Clinton. But which Bush, and which Iraq war? I’ll agree, the most likely interpretation is the ones from 1991, but there’s some doubt there.

Still, having said that, both trainers do seem to cross a line between helpful hints and actually breaching confidentiality. As Chief/Principal Examiners, they would be the ones responsible for setting the questions, and would have the necessary insider knowledge; this is clearly grounds for disciplinary action.

But speaking as someone who’s organised and on occasion presented such training, this debacle shows very clearly how careful one has to be, as a board representative, in wording what you say. Teachers, under pressure to deliver good results, often leap on potentially different interpretations of training speeches or even specifications themselves to justify their claims that markers have treated their students unfairly, and in representing an exam board you have to be conscious of the fact that anything you say is likely to be dissected with the sort of linguistic attention rarely seen outside a legal chamber. I’m not sure that what we’re seeing with these two trainers is outright corruption; more, it seems to be incompetence at knowing how far they can go in their statements as representatives of their exam board.

All of this, however, has been leapt on by the Telegraph and now our esteemed Education Secretary as evidence that the entire system of exam boards is riddled with corruption, and must be fundamentally reformed. The first contention is clearly nonsense – this is one qualification at one level from one (fairly small) exam board. WJEC don’t have the dominance of AQA, OCR or Edexcel, but even they presumably offer dozens, if not hundreds of qualifications at each of a variety of levels, each comprising multiple modules with their own exam papers. Discovering this kind of indiscretion in two senior examiners is like saying that all male film stars must be gay on the evidence that Rupert Everett and Neil Patrick Harris are.

But the idea that the system could do with fundamental reform? I actually think there might be something to that. The trouble with this kind of media shitstorm is the tendency for politicians (who usually have no personal experience of the issues surrounding education) to act in a knee jerk way and change the system for change’s sake, without considering whether the changes are the right ones. Every incoming government (and this one is no exception) wants to radically change the education system; in part, it’s to stamp their own authority in it, and in part it reinforces the standard party mantra that everything the other party did must be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is right. As Sir Humphrey once spelled out the politician’s creed in Yes, Minister: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it”. Or, more populist, Jeff Goldblum’s admonition to Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”.

The most obvious bone of contention is that there are three (major) exam boards, and they’re in competition with each other. This should, logically, appeal to the Conservatives, with their mantra that free market competition guarantees quality. The trouble here is that, in education, standards should be consistent for everyone; how, then, should exam boards compete for schools’ business? Oh sure, there’s cheaper (or free) teacher support, or the advancement of new, innovative, technical systems. But ultimately, what schools want from an exam board is for a high proportion of their pupils to get good grades. With this being the sole criterion for choice, the logical progression is that boards can only compete by tacitly implying that schools will get better results with them – ie, that their courses are simpler and their exams easier. This is, of course, against the letter of the law; but it’s amazing the sophistry that can be employed to circumvent this.

In practice, if the mode of competition is to lower standards, the ultimate result is that well-worn phrase “a race to the bottom”. The ever-increasing numbers of students achieving high grades seem to bear this out; surely it should be impossible for these to increase every year without some lowering of standards?

Again, the reasons for this trend are more complicated, and have as much to do with politics as education standards. Under the current system, the marks required to get particular grades can vary, according to senior examiners’ assessment of an exam’s difficulty. These are set at a meeting presided over by a Chair, who is ultimately the person responsible for the qualification’s standards. The trouble is that, to meet government regulatory requirements, the Chair may be (and frequently is) obliged to overturn the examiners’ judgments to maintain the percentage of entrants at particular grades – this is seen as the only way to guarantee consistency of standards.

But a statistical standard really shouldn’t be how we judge the quality of education. A fundamental misunderstanding that it’s possible to quantify the unquantifiable is, in my view, at the root of much is what is wrong with the current system. That’s what gave us the overly simplistic school league tables under the Thatcher government, the continual tyranny of statistics under the Blair government, and now the addle-headed English Baccalaureate under the current one. None of these take into account the complexities of the issue; in their attempt to boil down so many things into a set of judgmental statistics, it’s along the lines of the oft-heard complaint against the Conservatives – that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

How to change it, then? To be fair to the Coalition, they have got all sorts of committees investigating that very question, although politicians rarely listen to reports that contradict their pre-existing prejudices (just ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs). One common suggestion is to scrap the element of competition and simply have one, publicly owned, exam board. This is the case in many countries (Australia for one) with higher recognised educational standards than this one. On the face of it, that has a lot of merit – one standard, applied consistently to every school, with no ‘dumbing down’ and as much independence from ill-qualified politicians as possible.

In practice, unfortunately, it seems impossible. We have a long entrenched system of competing boards, originally sponsored by the Universities (OCR still is). The practicalities of buying their interests (though OCR and AQA at least are classed as charities) would be highly complex and expensive. And at a time when the government are busy introducing the most nakedly ideological Conservative policies since Mrs Thatcher, it hardly seems likely that a Conservative-led government would suddenly spend masses of public money to, effectively, nationalise a whole sector of employment. Not to mention the fact that they’re keen on introducing even more privatisation to education, with Free Schools and the ability of corporations such as McDonalds’ and JCB to award qualifications – initiatives started under the more-Tory-than-Tory New Labour.

Oh well, if we can’t do that, why not try removing politics from education? Altogether? Reduce the demand to boil results down to meaningless statistics for populist reasons; if no votes depended on the percentage of students getting an A, I suspect we’d soon see a fall in those levels to reflect real standards. But while political popularity is tied to such statistics, it would be a ‘courageous’ politician who would stand up and say “what we need is fewer people doing well in exams”.

A properly independent publicly funded education system, regulated independently with the minimum of government oversight and organised by actual educational professionals would be a real step forward. You’d think that would find favour with the laissez-faire, keep-the state-out-of-things Conservatives. But again, sadly where public money is concerned, the politicians are convinced that only they can make the best-informed decisions – a timeworn fallacy that’s applied to governments of every party over the years.

I appreciate that this has been a long ramble on the subject, but to return to the original point – two bad apples does not a rotten barrel make. The system we have is far from perfect, and I’m always glad when the debate about fundamental changes is spurred. But this knee jerk media-generated scandal is entirely the wrong way to go about that debate, and it’s appalling (but not surprising) that policy makers should so easily leap onto the mob bandwagon. There is scope for real change in this area, but I suspect we won’t see anything I’d consider improvement as a result of the Telegraph’s scandal mongering.

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

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Those who know me know that I’m very keen on Charlie Brooker. It was, in fact, mainly down to his TV crit column in The Guardian that I started this blog in the first place – though I’ve never been able to capture his unique blend of vitriol and surrealism, ending up with a style of my own.

Brooker long since stopped reviewing TV – as he said, it’s difficult being a TV critic when you’re appearing on it so often you might end up having to review yourself. But alongside his increasingly frequent appearances on BBC4 and his growth into a stalwart of TV satire, he’s also been having a stab at being a screenwriter. His first effort, an imaginative combination of zombie apocalypse horror with Big Brother called Dead Set, was a perfect blend of the tastes he has, which I mostly share with him – I actually loathe Big Brother, but there was a lot of fun to be had with a zombified Davina McCall tearing people’s throats out.

And now he’s back with three part anthology series Black Mirror, though apparently only the first two stories are by Charlie himself, the third being the work of Peep Show co writer Jesse Armstrong. This being Brooker, I was looking forward to his usual dark, misanthropic preoccupations. And I wasn’t to be disappointed. The basic premise of this first story, titled The National Anthem, was simple but as twisted as we could expect from Brooker – a popular Royal (the fictional ‘Princess Susannah’, basically a neo-Diana) has been kidnapped, and the hostage video uploaded to Youtube for all the world to see. The kidnapper has but one demand, which must be met to the letter of a list of specifics – the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig. At 4pm, live on every British TV channel. No fakery allowed, and the PM must take the act to “full fruition”. Only then will the Princess be released.

It’s a typically dark, blackly humourous concept for Brooker, who frequently uses his columns for long tirades against the debased nature of society in a way that mirrors the more publicity shy Chris Morris. And it was the debased nature of society that was on display here, too. With that premise, this could easily have been a black comedy romp in the style of The Comic Strip Presents. What we got was far more interesting. Directed with some panache by Faren Blackburn (recently responsible for about half the episodes of The Fades), The National Anthem was played dead straight, almost as a thriller in the vein of Spooks or House of Cards. After all, when you’re starting from an absurdist premise, the best way to exploit it is to play it naturalistically.

So the story progressed as PM Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear as a believable modern Blair clone) tried every avenue he could think of to rescue the Princess without having to resort to the humiliation of acceding to the kidnapper’s demand. The secret services are trying desperately to find the source of the uploaded video, tracking it down to a deserted college campus. This turned out to be a misdirection, but felt like perhaps a comment on the current government’s gutting of higher education. But I didn’t get the impression that Brooker was aiming his satire at any political party; Callow was noticeably not given any stated party affiliation, and his advisers referred simply to “the party”.

No, if anything the satire was aimed at society in general, and particularly the ways that modern media make us all complicit in truly horrific acts. Top of the list of course was social media, and the way it renders governments powerless to control the flow of information the way they used to. Of course, this can be a good thing, as in the Arab revolutions earlier this year. But it can also lead to some truly horrible bullying, as Brooker highlighted with the case of the Twitter abuse of (admittedly fairly awful) Youtube singer Rebecca Black.

An avid user of Twitter himself, Brooker made the social media instrumental to this twisted tale. Downing Street were trying to hush up the kidnapper’s demand with D notices served to news organisations, but of course that’s totally ineffectual these days. Inevitably, the demand was trending on Twitter worldwide, and eventually fictional news organisation UKN became the first to break the wall of official silence already being ignored by the non-British media. All this was (presumably intentionally) reminiscent of the recent wave of ‘super injunctions’ that failed to avoid their subjects being embarrassed even more when their identities were leaked on Twitter, inadvertently making them even more notorious than if they’d just ‘fessed up.

There is an argument that that’s hardly fair, and celebrities are still entitled to privacy too – one of the many subjects currently being debated by the Leveson enquiry into press ethics. This was touched on too, as UKN reporter Malaika had a direct line to a smitten aide inside No 10, gaining access to classified information by sending iPhone pictures of her tits at him. It felt like a bit of poetic justice when she was caught up in the Special Branch raid on the abandoned college and ended up shot in the leg as a result of her prying – a moral judgement perhaps?

More ambiguous morally was the role of Britain’s populace as a whole. Brooker cleverly used different groups of people watching the story unfold as a chorus, then as representative of society as a whole. We watched as the opinions of the online mob were swayed first this way and then that way by the news media – particularly timely at the end of a week which has seen the media crucifixion of Jeremy Clarkson. After an abortive attempt to fake the bestial deed arranged by frosty aide Lindsay Duncan is exposed on Twitter, the kidnapper sends what seems to be the Princess’ severed finger to UKN. Realising the danger to the Princess, opinion polls swing radically to the view that the PM must accede to the demand, and even his own party and aides are counselling that this is the only way left.

I have to applaud Brooker’s balls in actually following through with the premise. In most black comedies of this kind, there’ll be a last minute save to prevent the insane demand of the terrorists being met; not here. Here, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom eventually had to have sex with a pig in front of the whole nation.

Obviously that was going to be difficult to actually show even on Channel 4, but it was cleverly handled. And again, it was played dead straight, as something genuinely horrific. Once again, the population/mob were seen to be in thrall to the media, as streets all over the country were shown to be deserted, everyone glued to their TV sets. Despite an attempt to put people off watching by broadcasting a tone that could cause nausea, the mob remained jauntily baying for their leader’s blood as the characters we’d seen earlier treated it as a genuinely funny spectacle.

And then it actually happened, and we saw the people’s faces turn to looks of disgust, horror, pity and finally sympathy. Confronted by the horrifying reality of what they’d asked for, they were shown shamed as the act played out – for over an hour, as the Viagra-dosed PM couldn’t easily ‘finish’. But even then, they couldn’t bring themselves to switch off. That’s horribly plausible, and puts the viewer directly in their shoes – what would you do?

The horror of the act itself was cleverly conveyed through close shots of Rory Kinnear’s sweating, crying face, then later by his lengthy vomiting into the studio toilet. Then the final indignity happened – the Princess was released, totally unharmed (even the severed finger hadn’t been hers). And she’d been released half an hour before the deadline; the kidnapper reasoning, quite correctly, that everyone would be too swept up in the hysteria to even notice. It was quietly agreed that the PM must never, ever be told. But with the unrestricted flow of information we’d already seen, you had to wonder how long it would be before it did come out.

The fickle nature of the mob was on show again as the credits rolled over a news montage from one year later – Callow was more popular than ever for his ‘sacrifice’, and had been re-elected with an increased majority. But his wife can’t even bear to look at him any more – the true human cost of all this. Meanwhile, the kidnapper – a failed Turner Prize entrant who hanged himself as he realised what he’d done – is being lauded as having created the first great work of art of the 21st century.

This was comedy of the blackest order, and massively thought provoking. There are no easy answers to the issues raised; the internet and social media can be a tool for great good or great evil, and Brooker’s cynical view seems to be that society being what it is, it will tend more to the bad than the good. But it also places the viewer in the position of being one of the onlookers – and can anyone really say that they would have acted differently in this situation? Much as I loathe David Cameron, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t demand he be so thoroughly removed of all human dignity. But would I have thought that way before watching this? And if the situation truly came to pass, would I stick to my lofty principles or get swept up with the mob?

A very good start to the series then, which as its title references, is a ‘Black Mirror’ of modern society – on this evidence, at its worst. Next week’s offering (starring the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya out of The Fades) shows a dystopian future dominated by exploitative TV talent shows. Again, this doesn’t seem so far removed from the truth. But on the basis of this first episode, I’m guessing that it will be another dark distortion of something loathsome from the present.