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“Destiny of the Daleks” – retrospective

exterminated

Poor, exterminated Lan. Strangely, his day will actually get worse from this point …


Having just finished my first ever foray into fanfic – a trilogy of Doctor Who novellas all based on one largely ill-remembered late-1970s serial – now seems like an opportune moment to look back on it …

Doctor Who, in its classic years (1963-89), tended to be at its best the closer it stuck to its roots, and said roots – as one will quickly realise when looking back at Season One – were quite astonishingly dark. The Doctor himself was initially presented as a selfish, amoral figure, essentially kidnapping his first set of companions and threatening, on more than one occasion, to leave them stranded and helpless. The Daleks, first appearing in the second story of Season One, were far from the ranting caricatures they would later often be depicted as, being paranoid and ruthless, yet also intelligent, devious, and not remotely comical. Even their final demise was shown in a subdued, almost tragic light, without victory celebrations or misplaced flippancy. Merely as the inevitably bloodthirsty end to a terrible war that should never have taken place.

1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks” – more or less co-written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and famed comedy SF writer Douglas Adams (editing heavily from the former’s script outline) – could hardly be more different in tone, and not for the better. At this stage in show history – after the very successful, intense, but controversial mid-Seventies tenure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, under whose guidance the show had veered into very dark and violent subject matter – the current production team were still very mindful to keep the show “family friendly”. This is problematic when your most popular baddies are mutant-cyborg expies for the Third Reich, and unfortunately the solution chosen to lighten the subject matter is to make fun of said baddies. The most (in)famous moment of this story is probably the scene in which Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, having rope-climbed to safety from the pursuing Daleks, turns back in order to fling them the taunt

“If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us? Bye bye!”

Ouch. One gathers Terry Nation was less than enthused at his script editor’s approach, which sadly clouds the whole story. There are more intense moments – including one particularly ruthless mass execution scene lifted straight out of “Blakes Seven”, which is Terry Nation all over – but they jar most awkwardly with the general flippancy of the shooting script. The premise itself – that Daleks have now somehow evolved into purely robotic, logical beings, and become stuck in an unbreakable impasse with an opposing race of equally logical androids – feels very misguided, throwing away sixteen years’ worth of establishing the Daleks as anything but logical: in fact, as one character in their first story put it, they are “stupid and ridiculous” for harbouring their pathological “dislike for the unlike”. Since their racism, at any rate, seems entirely intact in “Destiny …” one has to question the quality of their much-vaunted logic.

The other thing this story is probably most remembered for are the Movellan androids – sometimes deemed as partially successful creations, often deemed as miserable failures, but at least memorable enough that they earned a small cameo in the 2017 season. On a purely aesthetic level – given the limitations of the show – they work quite well, exuding a graceful, blasé manner even under threat, and sending out just enough “uncanny valley” vibes to unsettle while still coming across as plausibly humanoid (They are, at least initially, attempting to obscure their AI nature, although the Doctor quickly catches on). There is a lovely, creepy moment when one of them politely and affably replies to a conversation he couldn’t possibly have heard, thus providing an early signal that they are not as human as they appear. On the whole, their characterisation is sparse – hindered in part by the fact it takes them so long to show their true colours – but they end up having some resemblance, whether intentional or not, to a prettier, colder, nastier version of the early 1970s “UNIT family”: the human military allies the Doctor was forced to work with during the 1970-73 seasons, having been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords.

The Movellan commander, Sharrel (Peter Straker), is courteous but utterly ruthless, not unlike the early depiction of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and seemingly just as devoted to causing massive explosions. He is also just as limited in his personal imagination, but smart enough to recognise that having the right scientific advisor on his team would compensate for this … and thus he is keen to retain the services of a certain less-than-enthusiastic Time Lord. Below him, in the role of trusty stalwart, we have Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba, pictured above): almost the android version of Sergeant Benton, always keen to volunteer and put himself in the way of danger for the sake of his comrades, but not very quick-witted, for which he pays dearly (Like his human predecessor, he is better-suited to standing around and looking pretty than trying to match wits with renegade Time lords). The final named Movellan, Agella (Suzanne Danielle), is not given a great deal to do, but her main notable action – sparing the Doctor’s companion from being incinerated in a trap Sharrel ordered her to set – marks her out as the closest thing to a moral centre in her unit, as Liz Shaw and Jo Grant had been during the UNIT years (Apparently, even among DW robots, it is the female models who are the nice(r) ones …). This also seriously muddies various attempts in the script to establish the Movellans as basically humanoid Daleks – just as single-minded and merciless – although perhaps we are meant to read Agella as a rare exception to the rule. She is, at any rate, accorded the dubious mercy of being reprogrammed to serve humans and thus surviving the story, while most of her comrades are deactivated.

The resemblance is probably coincidence, although at any rate it does make a neat bookend to the 1970s phase of the show. The Doctor, by this stage, had been AWOL from UNIT for three seasons, would not encounter them again for several more, and had firmly re-established his bohemian, anti-authoritarian personality. He had now installed a randomiser in his TARDIS, thus enforcing the same chaos and unpredictability on his future journeys as his first incarnation – through his sheer inability to pilot the TARDIS – had enjoyed (There was a plot reason for doing so – to shake off pursuit from a powerful being – but the Doctor’s smile at the close of the 1978 season strongly hinted he was quite looking forward to the mystery tour ahead …). Having finally shaken off the grim ties of military employment, of his Earth-bound exile, and of having to undertake penitential missions for the Time Lords and the White Guardian, the Doctor is now ready and eager to re-embrace his role of carefree spacetime rogue extraordinaire … only to be confronted by a bunch of uptight, pristine, militarised androids who want to force him right back into settled employment. In context, one cannot wonder that he takes such a grim delight in showing them where to stick it.

Indeed, it is in the performances of the leads that “Destiny of the Daleks” redeems itself a fair bit. While Douglas Adams’ witty stylings do not lend themselves terribly well to convincingly threatening Daleks, they do lend themselves to the barbed, sparkling chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (At the time, a real-life couple). The very fact that this story introduces Lalla Ward’s version of Romana – albeit through the clumsiest regeneration scene ever devised – makes it well worth viewing for fans. Merit is also due for its dramatic location filming and – strange as it may seem – its special effects and miniature model work. The late ’70s shows somehow did quite well in these areas, in spite of a sharp decline in set and design quality (and “Destiny …” is no exception: be prepared to see some seriously tatty Daleks and costume recycling all over the shop).

As for the Movellans – in spite of being miserably trounced in this story – they somehow upped their game, as the next anyone heard of them (in 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks”) they had utterly defeated the Daleks with biological weapons. There is no canon word to this day, however, on why they apparently did not follow through with their stated plans of galactic conquest, or indeed what motivated said plans in the first place … or who created them, or why. Perhaps the revived show will eventually shed light on this, now that it has at least revisited the scene of their war … although I must admit, having now written three novellas’ worth of speculative answers to these enigmas, I kind of hope it never does. Even in the murky, lawless world of alt-canon, one would prefer not to be rendered obsolete too quickly. 😉

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Dalek Psychology

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Nearly fifty-two years, several hundred episodes, and ten regenerations later, my favourite “Doctor Who” story still remains the 1963-1964 classic “The Daleks” by Terry Nation, which (obviously) introduced the show’s now iconic monsters. Whilst I would not expect every member of a modern audience to grasp why this monochromatic, low-budgeted serial appeals to me so much against the far better produced stories that followed, I would recommend anyone curious enough to give it a go, and I would challenge anyone to produce something within similar confines (including a tiny studio, antiquated cameras, a couple of basic in-camera special effects, and little-to-no time for retakes) that would achieve such an authentically epic feel, akin to the early “Flash Gordon” serials that the show was consciously riffing off at that time. Within resources little over the level of live TV theatre, like the equally groundbreaking “Quatermass” serials before it, the crew nevertheless pull off such setpieces as a huge and atmospheric alien cityscape, a swamp full of predatory mutants, and of course one of the most convincing, original, unsettling (as their true, hideous form is only ever hinted at in this serial), and strangely tragic alien species to date.

Nerdgasm over… but another reason that this story particularly grasps my attention is because of the following piece of dialogue from Episode 4 between Ian Chesterton and the Thals (A peaceful humanoid race, to whom the Daleks harbour a genocidal hatred): the moment when the characters actually explore the motivation that makes the Daleks into the utter bastards that they are…


GANATUS: Yes, but why destroy without any apparent thought or reason? That’s what I don’t understand.
IAN: Oh, there’s a reason. Explanation might be better. It’s stupid and ridiculous, but it’s the only one that fits.
ALYDON: What?
IAN: A dislike for the unlike.
ALYDON: I don’t follow you.
IAN: They’re afraid of you because you’re different from them. So whatever you do, it doesn’t matter.


Scarcely the grandiose galactic conquerors of later years, it is ironically the Daleks who see the utterly harmless Thals as the scary aliens. Proudly stuck in their closed-minded fanaticism, they couldn’t care less what the Thals have to say for themselves, or how unlikely it is that they could ever seriously threaten them. The mere fact of their existence is maddening enough… which reminds me somewhat of the negativity I have often seen directed online to trans people: the blanking and dismissal of their lived experiences, the attempts to argue them out of existence with dogma and ideology, attempts to silence them and exclude them from public life, the “conversion therapy” that is still legal in many supposedly civilised places, the horror that trans-identifying children are being more facilitated in following their gender identity than in past times… the last point being particularly telling, I think, as children being educated in gender and sexuality issues from early on, and learning to see non-binary people as nothing particularly alien or scary, would be a massive nail in the coffin of the ideologues’ visions of society. Ignorance is easily manipulated into fear, and fear into hatred, and ignorant, frightened, obedient little Daleks make the best footsoldiers. Which brings me onto the main feature, which is my first reblog: an excellent post by Adrienne of Translucidity blog…


Conversations With The Kids: About Being Transgender

A while ago, I wrote about expanding our family’s bookshelf to include books about gay and transgender people. The books prompted a few questions from the kids, but it wasn’t immediately clear what kind of impact they would have. We read them once or twice, and then they went into the regular rotation on the bookshelf.

I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the idea of being gay or transgender, being afraid that this might backfire by giving the kids the impression that these things are noteworthy for being weird, rather than just a normal and expected part of life. It was better, I decided, to let conversations arise as they may, like anything else.

Gay families come up in conversation more often than transgender people do; as the US gradually edges toward marriage equality, stories about same-sex couples occasionally pop up on the local newspaper. This is breakfast conversation at our house. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much visibility of transgender people in the community – but perhaps that is still too edgy for this mostly-conservative area.

Today Simon, my oldest, happened to come into the study when I was reading Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. Oddly my first instinct was to hide the book, the way I used to slip Clan Of The Cave Bear under the bed as a teenager when I heard my mother coming. However, it’s a hefty volume and there was nowhere on the desk to set it down inconspicuously; and of course I realized in the same instant that the instinct to be embarrassed was silly – the very thing I wanted to work against.

“What are you reading?” he asked, always curious.

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.” I held it up.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about people who are transgender, meaning people who were born with one body – male or female – but feel like they should be the other. People can chose to live as a different gender from what they were born.”

“How do you do that?”

“Well…” I stalled for time, thinking fast, trying to put together a simply worded explanation. “Boys and girls have different hormones. If someone feels like they should be a different gender, they can go to the doctor and the doctor can give them the hormones that they should have. For example, boys have a hormone called testosterone. So a woman could take testosterone and start to look more like a man – she would grow a beard.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t ask anything else; my stumbling explanation appeared to satisfy his curiosity for now. I knew as I said it that this was not the most accurate or complete explanation ever. But I think to have tried to convey more nuance might have been a distraction. An eight-year-old doesn’t really want or need the details; it’s enough to plant the ideas where they will eventually germinate. And anyway, subjects which don’t involve either Lego, Star Wars, or Pokemon have a limited ability to hold his interest these days.

As it happens, a similar conversation arose with Gwen the other day. She and Katie were bouncing on my bed (being the largest soft area in the house), when she suddenly asked, “How did you know whether Katie was a boy or a girl?”

“When she was born I saw that she has girl body. She has girl parts, like you do.”

“But what if she is transgender? What if she has…” Gwen searched for the words we had used when reading I Am Jazz, “…if she has a girl body and boy brain?”

So she had been paying attention, and turning the idea over in her head. But now I wasn’t quite sure how to answer her question. How do I know Katie is a girl? How do I know she isn’t transgender? I don’t, of course. And I can’t know until Katie is old enough to speak for herself.

“Well, it could happen that when she gets older, she will tell me that she is a boy. And if she tells me that she’s a boy, then she can be a boy.”

And after thinking about it for a second added: “If you ever tell me that you feel like a boy, you can be a boy.”

She went back to bouncing on the bed.

Original post here


Some will argue, of course, that it is necessary to protect children from such “adult” subjects until they can understand better, but understanding needs to start somewhere, and the only message one gets by wrapping a subject in discreet brown paper is that it is, in some sense, inherently shameful. Some, of course, may even believe that, but I would suggest that may well be due to them having had the idea of its secrecy and shamefulness seeded in their minds, until it germinated into Dalek-mindedness. All nerdiness aside, the fewer Daleks we raise into the world, the better.

Also, and this is no more than my personal belief, but I have long suspected that children have a more finely-attuned inbuilt nonsense-detector than most adults (This faculty, alas, seemed only to get dulled with age). Anyone afraid to let children make up their own minds about the ideology they have to push is perhaps rather afraid they will not take very long in finding and picking the myriad holes in it.

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“Imago” – Part 1 (I hope…)

imago n. […] final and perfect stage of insect after all metamorphoses, e.g. butterfly; (Psych.) idealized mental picture of oneself or another person […].”

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1982)

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(Eleanor, in larval form…)

Did I mention I once used to be a male model? This is obviously in a very loose sense of the term… As I definitely mentioned before, during my late teens I gravitated towards the Gothic genre as a possible means of expressing some of my feminine inclinations without actually transitioning, and was compensated for my basic dissatisfaction with my fair share of compliments. Apparently, I had a pretty fetching look for a “male” goth, and was recommended by a few people to try out modelling. Thinking this might actually be a way to finally get to love my male body-image, or at least loathe it less, and possibly earn a few not-too-arduous pounds in the process, I paid for a quick portfolio, set myself up on a few modelling sites, got signed to an alternative modelling agency, took several free shoots, and never earned a penny.

Unsurprisingly, this did nothing whatsoever to reconcile me to my male-bodied condition, and after the crowning failure of “Big Brother” 2012 hammered home my lack of success in this field – both financial and personal – I gave it up as a lost cause. I then went back to fiction writing, where I could anonymously immerse myself in the adventures of my strong, self-assured female protagonists. Within their metaphorical heads, I felt more at ease than within my own, for reasons that now seem painfully obvious…

And so it was that I came full circle, finally remembered who I am, and resolved to make the most of this second chance, however belated, to be myself. And as for the modelling? Instead of deleting my old online portfolios, I actually revisited them all, seeded them with my new pictures (merely filtered versions of the smartphone images in this blog), changed my gender specific details, and added a cursory explanation of my situation:

“Gender dysphoric model / actress / writer from Cardiff. Going through a pretty difficult situation, as I daresay you can appreciate. I keep a blog of my progress at

https://burnseleanor21.wordpress.com/ (“My Belated Existence”)

Would love to connect with any photographers who could help me get better pictures on a TFP / TFCD basis.”

(From http://www.modelmayhem.com/852215)

TFP / TFCD being industry slang for “will work for free (if I can have some pictures, please)”. Not that I expected anyone to want to work with me ever again, but I was damn sure no-one would pay to shoot with a five-foot eleven, thirty-five year-old transgendered lady with a square jaw, a fair collection of wrinkles, no curves (as yet, though we hold out hope), and as delicate a touch with a make-up brush as one might expect of a Viking berserker with a paintball gun. I was convinced my modelling days were over, and this was just my parting gesture.

I was thus very surprised about a week ago, when a photographer started leaving very positive comments on my new pictures, and upon my tentatively suggesting that I would be interested in a collaboration, he immediately jumped at the chance. I was both scared and elated: I would be shooting on location as myself, in full dress and make-up, in full view of the population of Cardiff. So daunting, yet simply too amazing to pass up. If this felt right, there could be no more pretending or denying from that point, and if I could actually see this through, who else could deny my commitment to my chosen gender and identity? I accepted at once.

As an almost-as-surprising footnote, the photographer / filmographer then offered to pay me for my time. This only happened once before in my modelling “career”, and only because travel expenses were involved. Without a single picture having been taken, I had immediately become more successful as a female model than I had ever been as a “male” model. Without wishing to sound overly superstitious, this whole thing was suddenly starting to feel as if destiny was kicking me up the arse, to put it delicately, and I quickly spent my fee on buying new clothes, props, and makeup for the shoot, desiring that it should go as well as possible. I also discussed concepts with the photographer, and we decided on a name and theme to help guide the shoot.

The word “imago” had been drifting around my head for a long time now, as a result of a deeply sad piece of pro-LGBT advertising I saw in the wake of the Leelah Alcorn tragedy (reproduced below):

depressme

Depressing, but it fired my imagination and gave me a new image for my personal struggle: that of an insect finally breaking free of some old cocoon. Not necessarily a butterfly, though. My cocoon has become so toughened over time, I suspect I will need some pretty vicious mandibles to tear through the thing, which will be painful indeed for anyone waiting to clip my wings when I finally do emerge. I think I would also like to have a venomous sting. Transgender people, like all unjustly derided classes, owe it to society to give as good as they get. I probably will not be the prettiest “imago” in the insect world, but that seems an inadequate reason to remain a poor little wriggling larva for the rest of my life…

Flight of fancy, over. You get the idea. The footage has now been shot; stills have been taken; and Cardiff Bay has now seen me in my skirt, heels, corset top, and enough pale foundation and eyeliner for an entire studio-worth of silent film starlets. The photographer treated me with the utmost respect and consideration, and told me what a pleasure it was to be doing such a shoot in Cardiff, as he would stand no chance of doing it in his rural home location where it would draw a (hostile) crowd. All we got from the passers-by in the Bay were a few curious looks. Again, I realised how comparatively lucky I am to be undergoing my social transitioning in a large and fairly decent city. It is a few miles’ worth of difference between enduring mere ridicule and enduring serious physical danger…

The footage and stills were all shot on traditional film, however, so they will be some time in developing. I eagerly await them, but whether or not we obtain useable footage, the experience alone was totally worth it. Yet again I have been accepted, validated, and allowed to achieve another of my most impossible-seeming fantasies. Becoming a female model and actress? How not realistic can you get…

I think I may have to give up being realistic. Being down-to-earth was all very well in the days before I had wings, but now the imago has taken flight it doesn’t seem to apply half so well.