Thursday, 30 October 2014

Doctor Who and the Song of Goats

I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful…   
Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.

Tragedy starts in the woods.  Shadows flash between the trees, illuminated by flickering flames.  A dancing, drunken carnage builds itself to a writhing frenzy before an unfortunate goat finds its throat opening wide and spilling out a savage crimson song.   

The roots of the word ‘Tragedy’ are so disputed that this is as good an origin story as anyone else’s.  The truth’s long been lost in the vineyards and everyone’s eyes are full of blood, so don’t look in them.  Certainly don’t trust them or anything they seem to say.  Listen to the silence between the words; the rhythm in the lines; the wind in the trees, whatever.  Just don’t look them in the eyes.  Words are stolen godfire and language is a glorious virus.  Mimetic and pulsing, it grows, gorging as it spreads from one individual to another, transparent and ghostly concepts wrapped around words like seaweed.  The individual laws of whatever language is local are reinforced by whoever or whatever’s rearing you.  If you’re lucky enough not to be part of a deprivation experiment, then hopefully that isn’t a sheep.

Greek history started in pottery and poetry.  All the official documents had been lost in the various moves so it became easier, and basically compulsive, to just keep repeating the anecdotal family history until it was true.  Lose the dull bits, keep the juicy stuff.  Everyone had a god in the family if they went far enough back.  Schliemann would start turning up the blood-soaked evidence to back up these ancient family sagas thousands of years later, extracting them from a landscape of hard-baked sand, trickling white scree and lumps that became optimistic walls when the sun turned the sky as clear as bone.

Homer was a popular beat combo.  He ran through more line-ups than Sugababes and Swans put together.  He sang long, long songs; treble concept Epics thundering on and on and on into the night.  One album, a classic really, is based around the embarrassingly scenic route back to Ithaca that Odysseus took after his Trojan encounter with Zeus' magic blue cabinet.  Some time after this delayed return, the product of Odysseus’ one-year stand with the fragrant Circe turned up and shoved the wrong bit of a stingray into his Dad’s chest.  Now, centuries later, Clara’s going to have to suffer as a result.

In the years following this phenomenally unsuccessful example of father-son bonding, the story stopped being fictional and became something much weirder: a new form of performance art.  As the Greeks grew up, they didn’t feel the need to sneak off into the woods for a pissed up barbecue anymore, but still missed being young and wild.  So, like an over-refreshed melancholic flicking through a weirdly-stained-cardboard-box's-worth of photographs and wondering who those beautiful strangers are and where the hell they went, the Greeks built posh outdoor rooms in which they could indulge in a cathartic nostalgia for the good old days when men were men, goats were good luck and intoxicated women offered dodgy travel advice.

Aristotle - who to this day still holds the coveted title of History’s Greatest Over-Achiever - was slightly less than a decade on from tutoring a young god-king who’d one day be immortalised by Iron Maiden, when he wrote Poetics.  Part Bluffer’s Guide, part instruction manual, Poetics breaks Tragedy down into component parts.  Aristotle's handwriting must’ve been appalling, because two thousand, six hundred and sixty four years later, leather-bound academics still can't agree about whose interpretation would win in a fight.

Obviously, you’re familiar with the role of the Chorus, but just in case anyone’s snuck in through the fire exit doors that don’t close properly, here's a quick and inadequate explanation.  The Chorus is something that’s part of the Drama but also removed from it.  It comments on the action as it takes place, offering insights and opinions that the audience can then misinterpret depending on their personal nutritional needs.  In Doctor Who’s fifty-plus years there haven’t been that many examples of the Chorus, but they’re there if you flap your brush over the dust carefully enough. 

In Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos, Arak and Etta stare at the audience and chat sideways at each other about that week’s episode of Doctor Who.  Martin’s got a theatre background, so that’s the sort of thing you’d expect from something that started outside, and didn’t require a load-bearing fourth wall to hold up the sky.  Less obvious is The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, sung by Cap’n Gladys Emmanuel Wrack in Donald Cotton’s The Gunfighters.  The Ballad lacks fans due to a careless misunderstanding in the Eighties that’s somehow knocked-on into the future.  It’s all Chorus, no verse.  You can’t say that the man who wrote The Myth Makers didn’t know exactly what he was doing.  Both of Cotton’s stories fit the Aristotelian tick sheet nicely, and his woefully under-appreciated 1965 masterpiece serves as a tasty prequel to the Odyssey, and therefore Tragedy itself.  Or at least, it did until In the Forest of the Night turned it into something far more important.

Telegonus kills Odysseus with the poisonous bit of a fish.  It’s not instant though.  Dad falls to the ground, kicks up grit-filled clouds of dust and claws at whatever life a myth has.  It doesn’t work.  Within no time at all - if you’re a fossil - father and son harden into concepts.  Hundreds of beards watch the ghosts repeat the story.  Now though, they're caged in masks, tethered in the bodies of long-forgotten, roaring orators.  Names have been changed to protect the ignorant.  Now Aristotle’s got Oedipus to examine, he nails an entire art form to the display board out back, slices through the shimmer and pulls out what makes it tick.

Turns out it’s the words.  The words build the worlds.

Tragedy presents a heightened reality that isn’t real at all, it’s all in the language.  The structure of Tragedy is important because it holds the words together.  The words are also important because they hide truth in the spaces between them.  The actors are important because they’re a new, partly shamanic, life-form.  The rest is glitzy glamorous showbiz sense-bashing.  The audience have bought the ticket and with it comes a full trip.  No-one here gets out the same as they arrived.  Aristotle describes a roadmap that’s as much magic potion as disaster recipe.  Boil it for long enough and it’s just the same old story: a good man goes to war with himself.  The flavours change every time it's cooked, but Aristotle only really rates four methods, and one of those is a definite favourite.

Certainly, the hero must be good, although he is not morally perfect.
– Ho Kim, Aristotle's Harmartia Reconsidered (p.40)

The hero has to be someone the audience look up to: a king, a general, an officer, a teacher – something like that.  They have to be worth looking up to, no anti-heroes.  And here’s where the academic bloodsport begins: hamartia.  The hero has a flaw – or not, depends who you ask – and that’s what ensures that the enactment will end and the audience'll get to go home at some point.  The flaw is an inherent part of the character of the hero, as inescapable as consciousness.  And, like life, it’s usually terminal.

The doom’s already panting hot as soon as a Tragedy kicks off.  It shambles toward the hero like an increasingly less-invisible Imhotep, draped in mouldy bandages, looking for some sort of foretold closure.  Start the clock.  Here it comes.  

The plot clicks forward, its different sections all precisely positioned to reveal the complex whole one inexorable piece at a time, like one of Arcimboldo's fruit portraits, or an inspirational poster of Yoda made up of tiny screen-grabs.  Tragedy works best as a three course meal.

Starter: the hero's ignorance of an identity at an event.

Main Course: anagnorisis and peripeteia.  The order's negotiable, but you should pass from left to right to be polite.

Dessert: Death by Chocolate's perfectly acceptable, as long as the hero ends the feast stuffed, the method doesn't matter.  Sweet or salty pathos can be added, at the chef's discretion.

Aristotle loved the reversal, called 'peripeteia' if you're a professional, a ‘plot twist’ if you're an out-of-depth amateur going down for the first time.  Dollop in a generous portion of 'anagnorisis', or a 'naked lunch moment' if you can't find any.  This is the moment the hero moves from ignorance to awareness, causing the fictional world they've been living in - built with words - to fall apart.  Without all that pesky distortion the situation suddenly achieves a terrifying clarity: they're standing alone and naked, staring down the tooth-filled barrel of a conclusion.  This would be a good time to start running.  Aristotle personally favoured liberal doses of pathos.  The hero has to suffer a disproportionate amount of punishment compared to what their hamartia warrants.  And we’re not talking ‘with hilarious consequences’ here.  This isn’t the story of Job.  This is much more important.  This is 'true'.

Nothing that exists is good or evil until it’s examined.  "Stuff happens," may be as true as it gets, but that doesn’t mean that gods can’t be real.  All stories are true, just don’t look them in the eye.  We create the gods and then the gods become real.  We create characters and then they become real.  We imagine things in the worlds that hide behind our eyes and then we use the disease of language to transmit them into a shared illusion, a consensual reality.  The abstract becomes real and, as a result, things happen: goats die, stages appear, impossible cities suddenly exist, people love, people die and before you know it, there’s ink and blood everywhere.  Fictional characters can't be good or evil, they can only be written that way.  And this is where we hit the snag.  You see, Clara Oswald is a fictional character, but the Doctor?  The Doctor's a god.

Greek audiences were as critical of their poets, in ritual matters, as Christian congregations are critical of their ministers.
- L. H. G. Greenwood, The Shape of Greek Tragedy (p.35)

Every time the Doctor changes the actor he’s wearing, his story starts again.  Whether 2014 is showing us the thirty-fourth series or the eighth season doesn’t really matter because it’s a different programme to the one that aired in the Whoniversary year, and this is part of the reason it’s become a Tragedy: Clara’s in the wrong show now.  Despite what anyone’s told you recently, Jenna Coleman’s performance has always been this good.  It’s the character she’s driving that’s changing.  Doctor Who is a very strange thing.  It’s not really a science-fiction show and it never has been.  It’s actually a cultural phenomenon that’s led to the birth of a folk hero who’s slowly taken on all the attributes of a god.  While the show’s true audience are getting ready for bed, Doctor Who fans comment and babble and blog and podcast in a quietly deafening modern Chorus.

Doctor Who’s a mass-market, mass-appeal production.  Like Tragedy.  It’s an enactment of a reality that doesn’t exist in order to tell stories about true things that have never, and could never, happen.  Like Tragedy.  It’s a multi-sensory, immersive experience crammed with colour and noise and spectacle and a heightened sense of imaginary reality.  Like Tragedy.  And, currently, it’s got a hero.  Like Tragedy.  But that hero isn’t the Doctor.

The story that began in 1963 ended when the Doctor wearing Matt Smith died of old age.  Whatever’s wearing Peter Capaldi - and it’s almost certainly the Doctor - is part of an entirely different story.  Clara’s as out of her depth as Vicki would’ve been when the TARDIS stopped translating for her.  Who knows, maybe Vicki envied poor, mad Katarina in the months that followed.  Whatever the Apocrypha say, we’ll never really know, because although all stories are true, that doesn’t cover fan fiction.

To ask about a character in fiction 'Was he a good man?' is to ask a strictly meaningless question: since Oedipus never lived we can answer neither 'Yes' nor 'No'.
– E. R. Dodds, On Misunderstanding the ‘Oedipus Rex’ (p.39)

Clara is a teacher, which makes her a role model.  She’s an appalling teacher, which isn’t her hamartia, but does help highlight it.  Clara is a good person because she occupies the space in the story where the ‘good’ people fit, there’s no other reason to believe it other than she’s standing in a good light.  What once was sassy comes across as confused rudeness in the world she’s now trapped in.  She lives two lives at once, unable to commit fully to either, cutting corners in both, lying to everyone because she knows what’s best for them – even though, really, it’s what’s best for her.  Clara’s suffered throughout 2014, pushing herself into a tighter space each week.  She’s broken the laws of time in both of her lives, Rupert and the Doctor have been altered forever as a result of her mistakes.  The last time something like that happened, the Doctor died.  Not a dream, not a robot double, no smoke or mirrors: he died.  And then Pete Tyler did something ‘good’ and the god who died was reborn in a more subtle way than those flashy 'regenerations' that don’t fool anyone.

With two weeks to go it’s not yet possible to say for sure when we saw the peripeteia and anagnorisis.  Steven Moffat’s saved that course for himself, so maybe Listen was one, or maybe we haven't seen either yet.  Today, this is all trapped in a super-position.  This is both false and correct.  In ten years time who’ll care?  Who’ll even remember?  Certainly not Clara, because she’ll be gone.  Digital dust buried under relentlessly doubling information.

Clara’s doom reaches out, talons stretching to an impossible length.  She keeps giggling and trying to squeeze further into the shrinking hole her actions have dug for her.  She can’t run any more and she certainly can’t hide.  Her laughter’s got a note within it pitched slightly too high to be Comedy.  And that’s because she knows.  She’s known since the Thames.  The hope that Aristotle offers Clara, is divine intervention.

If only she had a god looking out for her. 

Moreover, every contemporary performance of a Greek tragedy must be an adaptation of sorts, since it involves translation of the language of the original and confronts a profound ignorance of the music, dance, and theatrical context that conditioned its first presentation.
– Helene P. Foley, Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy (p.4) 


ARISTOTLE, Poetics, The Internet Classics Archive.

BBC, In Our Time: Greek Myths,,
13 March 2008

KIM, Ho, 'Aristotle's Hamartia Reconsidered', Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 105, Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 2010

TV Tropes: Greek Chorus 

TV Tropes: Tragedy

Very special thanks to Betsy Chevron for sneaking me into Restricted Materials.

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