Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Let's Talk About...

And how to do it right on television.

The spark for this discussion was finally getting around to watching (most of) the first season of a recent, highly acclaimed drama series upon repeated recommendation by a number of friends.

Friends, I'm afraid I was disappointed.

That's not to say there was nothing good about the show: there was plenty to like, and I do think that I now understand its huge popularity (though I'm still at a loss to explain why so many people have bothered to read the dreadful books on which it's based). Unfortunately, the bad parts were so overwhelmingly bad that they got in the way of any enjoyment I might have derived from the show, and ruined it enough so that I decided I couldn't really be bothered to give up my time to anything more than the first season.

There was a lot that annoyed me about the series as a whole: it's very clear to me that it suffers from being made in separate chunks, made in different places and directed by different people, leaving some strands of the show brilliant, and others pretty abysmal. But what I think got on my nerves most of all was its semi-pornographic nature. Now, I'd like to think that I'm not a prude - if anything, I generally think we need to be more open and honest about a lot of things. But, like everything in film and television, sex scenes really do need to justify their existence. If they don't serve an important plot function or help to explain a particular character, then they shouldn't be there. We don't really need to know what every single character gets up to in the bedroom, any more than we need to know about their toilet habits, or what they eat for breakfast every morning. If you need to be explicit to make a point, I have absolutely no problem with that. I do have a problem with including sex and pornography for its own sake. I think it too easily becomes degrading and objectifying. In this particular case, the sex scenes were pure titillation - preposterous scenarios designed to satisfy the fantasies of extremely immature (mostly male) minds. In case you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about Game of Thrones.

What got me particularly interested in this subject, however, wasn't just how badly it's done in GoT, but the contrast between this and another of what Emily Nussbaum here describes as "sophisticated cable drama[s] about a patriarchal subculture", which according to her has become "television's most esteemed category" of programme. Yet despite the similarities which Nussbaum points out, Game of Thrones has a very different attitude to sex to at least one of its bedfellows (bad pun intended). The other series I've been catching up on lately is a period drama set in the build-up to the sexual revolution, and taking sexual politics as its main theme. In terms of subject matter, this is a series which features a hell of a lot of sex, maybe more than anything I've ever watched before. Arguably, the whole show is about sex, and it comes in all shapes and sizes: between married couples, extra-marital affairs, sex between singles, straight, gay, lesbian, sex as part of happy, equal relationships, sex as a power-trip, sado-masochism, prostitution, voyeurism, male and female masturbation, rape, sex for emotional, social and business manipulation, sex at work, at home, in hotels, in cars, in public, and even some very vague hints at paedophilia. But in this case, what we see is only what we think we see. The series seems to truthfully reflect its 60s setting by not shoving all this in our faces: everybody knows what's going on, yet everyone turns a blind eye to it. As a result, the most explicit thing in five seasons so far is a shot of Roger Stirling's backside as he stands naked at his bedroom window in the middle of an acid trip. Yep, you got it. This one's Mad Men.

At it's best, Game of Thrones is every bit as exciting, politically-charged and non-gender-biased as Man Men. As far as I can tell, everyone's favourite characters - without exception - are the Stark family and Tyrion Lannister. By quite a long way, the most interesting plot strand is that concerned with the interaction between the Starks, the Lannisters, and King Robert Barratheon. These sections of the series have the feel and pace of a Shakespearean history play: Ned Stark and his sons distinctly remind one of Harry Hotspur and the rebellious borderland Percys. In fact, the series was almost certainly a major source of inspiration for the BBC's recent Hollow Crown film trilogy. Eddard Stark is probably Sean Bean's best ever performance; Robb, Bran, and the bastard Jon Snow are also well-written and well-acted. Being me, of course, one of the things I like most about this plot strand is the strength of its female characters. Fantastic performances are given by Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, Ned's wife, and Maisie Williams as Arya, their tomboyish daughter. Even Queen Cersei (a Lannister, not a Stark), isn't bad. I found her character just a little bit one-dimensional: it's easy to see why she's as cold and cruel as she is (an unloving, drunken husband, and an uncaring, aggressive and honour-obsessed father are both major contributing factors), so we do have some pity for her, but I think she is still a little too easy to hate - she doesn't seem to have any "good" side to her to balance out the negatives, which could easily have been achieved, for example, by making her care more about her own children than she apparently does. Nevertheless, she's a lot more interesting than her brother/lover Jaime, who is like a doubly vacant version of Shrek 2's Prince Charming, without any of the comedy value.

Elsewhere, however, it all falls to pieces. The Targaryen siblings are both pretty awful. Harry Lloyd gives a consistently poor performance, and having seen him do a fine job in other things, I can only assume that this is because of the uninteresting and unchanging nature of his character, Viserys. For his sister Daenerys, at least, there is an attempt at some kind of a story arc, but it's an incredibly unsatisfying and unconvincing one, and Emilia Clarke's performance is only a little better than Lloyd's. Both of these characters feature in some of the stupidest sex scenes - in fact, some of the stupidest scenes full stop - in the whole series: what can sadly only be described as sexual fantasy episodes for little boys who know nothing about the real thing.

The first of these occurs between Daenerys and the slave/prostitute Doreah, bought by Viserys to teach his sister how to please her husband in bed. Yeah, it's actually that bad. The scene takes the form of one of Doreah's sex "lessons" and, while nothing is shown explicitly, it ends with Daenerys getting altogether rather to into it. So, not only do we have the sexual trafficking of women and the idea that it's a wife's job to get things right for her husband going completely unaddressed (to be clear, I'm not suggesting that they should have introduced a load of anachronistic feminism, but it might have been interesting, you know, to have a realistic portrayal of how the women felt about this, rather than ending up with Daenerys apparently quite happy with her lot and in love with her brutish husband), but we also get the additional treat of classic fake lesbian titillation. Great.

The second involves the same slave/prostitute, this time engaging in "real" sex with Viserys himself, who now reveals the real reason that he bought her - for his own pleasure, of course. At least this time we're clearly supposed to dislike Viserys, and Doreah shows that she actually has a personality and some interests - she wants to learn about history and dragons - but this scene ends in an unbelievably absurd exchange: as he "has his way" with her, Viserys recites the full names of all of the species of dragon that ever existed (now supposed to all be extinct, but judging by several lingering close-ups of what look like dragon eggs, quite obviously not), and she actually seems to get off on this. Of course, by now we know something about her taught artifice and how she seeks to please, so this might even be slightly plausible if it had been him that wanted to witter on about dragons whilst having sex. But it's not. It's Doreah that brings up the subject, and Doreah who wants to know all about it while Viserys, on the other hand gets bored and frustrated by it. He's not really interested in talking. So yes, I guess we're supposed to believe that she's genuinely enjoying that. Mmmkay....

And it gets worse. The little moment between Doreah and Daenerys isn't the only fakey lesbian sex scene in the series. In fact, the next one's even more explicit. Another of the worst performances in Game of Thrones comes from Aidan Gillen as Petyr Baelish. Again, a surprise, since he's been brilliant in other things (notably Russell T. Davies's groundbreaking Queer as Folk - incidentally a series which is very explicit and still good). Maybe it's an accent issue? In any case, Petyr owns the brothel where this second scene takes place, which again takes the form of a "lesson" (I mean, seriously? People will buy this stuff more than once?), this time taught by Petyr himself. Instead of being involved in the action himself, Petyr passively observes as two of his whores pretend to pleasure each other. Instead of getting fed up with this, however, much like Daenerys, they seem eventually to come not only to enjoy each other, but also to enjoy him watching them - at least, that's what I took away from Ros's invitation to him to come and join them. Somewhat ironically, he declines. Apparently he's above such base desires.

Game of Thrones fans and creators justify all this by calling it "sexposition", defining this as a way of explaining characters' motives against a background which will supposedly hold the viewers' attention better. Wikipedia describes it as "a live-action equivalent to fan service", a manga/anime practice of giving the fans exactly what they want. Basically then, as I understand it, the whole thing is about a) a lack of confidence in the plot to be engaging in its own right, or b) patronising the viewers by assuming that they can't cope with any complex intrigue without having something less intellectual to keep them watching, assuming that they will switch off if their every desire isn't gratified. And I think they might actually even be kidding themselves that this is an original idea. It's like the TV equivalent of buying Playboy "for the articles". Personally, I think it's far more apt to switch serious viewers off than making anyone more interested. It distracts from the plot and frankly, just gets bloody boring. The impact and shock value of sex scenes diminishes in direct proportion to their increasing abundance and gratuity. And it's the same with the violence in Game of Thrones: far too much of it is excessive and implausible, straying into Sweeney Todd territory. There's a fine line between being either terrifying or intensely sexy, and just being laughable. "From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step," as Napoleon had it. The more explicit a film or television programme becomes, the more it draws attention to its own artifice. All filmmakers should have learned this lesson from Jaws years ago. To give a more specific example of the failure of showing too much, there's a sex scene between Ros and Theon Greyjoy, where Theon supposedly pulls out of Ros to reveal a completely flaccid penis. Luckily for the programme-makers, the particular group of viewers that the sex scenes are aiming to please probably wouldn't even know how stupid this is. But seriously, if you can't even do it right, what's the point?

All that said, none of this would bother me so much if there was at least some element of realism in terms of the characters' experiences of these episodes. What makes these scenes so close to pornography is not their explicitness, but actually how narrow, controlled and sanitized it all is. You might, for example, have some justification for showing sex with prostitutes if it was intended to show the repugnance, the griminess and seediness and dangers of life as a medieval sex-worker. Okay, so I know this isn't the real Middle Ages and that it is self-consciously a fantasy, but I did get the sense that they were aiming for at least some degree of historical verisimilitude elsewhere in the programme. The glamorization of the sex industry is bad enough in contemporary settings, but does anyone seriously think any women enjoyed a life like that back then, when it invariably meant living with hatred, ridicule and the constant threat of pregnancy, disease and death hanging over your head? Unless, unbeknownst to me, there are actually antibiotics and advanced birth control in the pseudo-medieval Game of Thrones universe? Medieval women only chose this line of work out of desperation - that means that those seeking it out ought to look filthy, haggard and malnourished. But in the end, it's just decoration: it's not really trying to tell us anything at all about outdated patriarchal systems.

By complete contrast, one might very easily argue that a show like Mad Men would be completely justified in having some explicit sex scenes. Sex itself is really important to the plot, and to the development of each of the characters. We are presented with 1960s New York: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet the series insists upon discipline with this, helping to make the show seem more convincingly of its time. But more than this, it knows that it doesn't need to be explicit, because it has confidence that its plots and its characters will be interesting and engaging enough without dumbing things down - without cheating. It also respects its audience enough to credit them with wanting to watch something intelligent rather than something obvious, knowing that if they're looking for the kind of gratification Game of Thrones provides, then they're really missing the point of the show itself.

Sexual excess in Mad Men goes hand in hand with heavy drinking, chain smoking, drug-taking, extravagant spending, and obsessive careerism, all of which are used by characters in an attempt to fill the gaping holes in their lives and hearts. Inevitably, of course, all of them completely fail to do so. Crucially, then, Mad Men shows us the lack of fulfilment that comes from the instant gratification of every lust and desire, explaining why this is not a good way to live, where Game of Thrones seeks only to give in to them, to provide that gratification to its characters and its audience. Where one gives us motivations and consequences, the other only uses sex as a backdrop for discussing unrelated motives and concerns. One presents us with a sordid world without ever itself being sordid, while the other becomes sordid by its presentation of a world that ought to be so, in a way that seems glorified, santized and pornographic, bankrupting sexual exchanges of any personal or emotional resonance. Nevertheless, while it shows us the damage that carelessness causes, Mad Men is rarely judgemental of individuals. Having "good" or "bad" characters is much too simplistic for this show (which, I might add, isn't always the case with Game of Thrones). Instead, we're asked to understand the personal and social pressures and conflicts that influence each of the characters - to judge the world they inhabit, rather than them per se. For whether individuals act conventionally or fight back and try to resist, the expectations that society has of them remain a significant influence over their behaviour in every part of their lives. There is no such thing as an isolated event. Game of Thrones understands this in a political context, but not in a personal or sexual one.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

More F Words: Film Franchises and Fighting the Power, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises

As waves of disillusionment and frustration have swept over a world in economic crisis, it should hardly be surprising that at least two of this year's highest grossing films have been explicitly political in content. More remarkable, however are the corners from which this social commentary has emerged: one a children's film, and the other a comic-book superhero film.

Politics aren't new to either of these genres, of course. In the world of superheroes we've already seen ideologies clash in Watchmen and the damage done in the Middle East by the American arms trade in Iron Man. Claims have also been made for political agendas in a whole range of children's films, provoking both condemnation and praise. For many years numerous kids' films have arguably taken the side of the underdog against greedy, authoritarian or conservative baddies (see, for example, Monsters Inc., or The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and more recently many have begun taking environmentalist stances (see Wall-E or Happy Feet). Nevertheless, it's still relatively rare to find films in either category that engage openly and directly in complex ways with social and political issues - after all, what both obviously share is a tendency towards the fantastic, stories that aim at least in part for a kind of escapism. Perhaps Batman was an odd choice for Chris Nolan, perhaps children an odd choice for Suzanne Collins. Nevertheless, the massive success of both movies has proven them risks worth taking.

After enduring Chris Nolan's first two arduous attempts at a Batman film, actually enjoying The Dark Knight Rises was something of a shock for me. I've frequently expressed my feelings towards both of these earlier films, but for your benefit, here's a summary of what's been said in more detail elsewhere. With its barely coherent structure and paper-thin characterisations, Batman Begins is, in my opinion, the epic low point of in the career of an otherwise exciting, original and intellectually stimulating director. Only marginally less disappointing was The Dark Knight, which at least had two or three memorable characters and something vaguely resembling a plot. Heath Ledger's Joker was definitely well worth all the hype, with the late actor giving one of the most breathtaking performances I've ever seen in a movie. Still, the rest of it was rather slow and dull: I think I'd happily have cut every scene that he wasn't in. Harvey Dent/Twoface was okay I guess, but wasn't really given adequate time to develop as a character. The ending felt cheap and tacked on, and the inclusion of two baddies left a film which might otherwise have had some potential looking just as bad as Spider-Man 3 (and before you argue with me, that film did have its moments - The Sandman was a brilliant, very much underrated character). As a result, I don't really know why The Dark Knight Rises worked out so well by comparison, but it definitely did.

I'm probably going to upset a lot of people by suggesting that even The Dark Knight Rises isn't perfect, much as I enjoyed it. The whole business with Ra's al Ghul was still unnecessarily complicated and confusing, without really adding anything to the story. I didn't like Liam Neeson in the first film and I didn't like him any better in this one. Nor did I care particularly for Marion Cotillard as Miranda/Talia. I didn't buy into her mini-affair with Bruce that seemed to blossom out of nowhere. True, both she and others amongst our hero's friends had been pushing for it for quite some time, but Bruce in his turn had repeatedly expressed his lack of personal/sexual interest in her, and furthermore, his growing feelings for Selina Kyle were by that point already fairly obvious. Yes she had done charity work and yes she was involved in his business projects and yes, perhaps she knew him better than most people, but until that one scene with the rain, there was absolutely no chemistry between them.

Bane was by far the most interesting character, and Tom Hardy's easily the best performance in the film. Much like Shadow in American Gods, I had heard of men who were barrel-chested before, but until seeing this film, I'd had no image to accompany the metaphor. I do worry about these actors and what they're willing to do to their bodies for the sake of an acting role, but I suppose it's none of my business really. I have heard the complaints about him being difficult to understand, but I didn't really have a problem with this myself. Personally, I found his voice far less irritating than Christian Bale's stupid bat voice. Admittedly he toned that down for this film, but it was utterly ridiculous in the first two and, which annoyed me even more, he still used it when talking to characters who knew his secret identity. I've also heard the claims for Michael Caine being the best thing in it. He's good, and there are some incredibly touching moments, but I still liked Tom Hardy more.

So on to what is probably the most fascinating thing about this film. Claims have been made for The Dark Knight Rises following a specific political line from one end of the spectrum to the other. Interpretations of the film's "message" vary wildly depending on who's doing the interpreting, with some critics angrily disparaging what they see as little more than propaganda, whilst others eagerly approve of a story they believe is sympathetic with their own views. The best course seems to me to be to take Nolan at his own word, and hold back from making rash claims that the film means one thing or supports another. Says Nolan,
We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story. If you're saying, 'Have you made a film that's supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?' – well, obviously, that's not true... If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed... I've got all sorts of opinions, but this isn't what we're doing here. I love when people get interested in the politics of it, when they see something in it that moves them in some way. But I'm not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of 'What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?' He's going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin.
Much like Watchmen, then, The Dark Knight Rises represents a clash between extreme versions of opposing ideologies. Abstract theories and beliefs become embodied by particular characters, who come into physical as well as intellectual conflict with each other. Nolan's films have never really been particularly concerned with character - as a director, it's clear that he's far more interested in ideas and pushing them as far as they can go. This does land him in trouble sometimes, of course - sometimes stories suffer through insufficient or unbelievable characterisation. It is worth noting that this isn't the case with all ideas men - Ridley Scott, for example, in Prometheus, or even Watchmen itself. Nevertheless, The Dark Knight Rises is probably far less culpable of this than most Nolan movies. But if we understand his characters as essentially allegorical, things begin to make more sense: the Joker is Chaos, Two Face is Chance or Fate, Bane is the Angry Mob, Catwoman is Disillusionment, having given up on ideologies and people alike, Talia is the Extreme Revolutionary who believes that everything must be overturned before any good can be done, and Batman himself is a kind of conservative notion of Justice, working from within the system to better it. We're not asked to support any of these, but simply to observe and come to our own conclusions. The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately a non-judgmental film, showing us all perspectives and leaving us to decide for ourselves what we think.

The Hunger Games is probably my favourite film released this year. This summer I devoured the book in maybe two or three sittings, in between handing in my dissertation and revising for an exam on Joyce's Ulysses - it was that important to get it read. As I touched on in my last film post, this movie does something different to most literary adaptations, in that rather than attempting to translate the book faithfully onto the screen, it acts as a kind of companion piece, giving us a different perspective on the action and story. Not only does this mean that readers of the novel can't be disappointed by the film being unfaithful, instead being treated to something new that engages them in different ways, but it also makes perfect sense cinematically. The Hunger Games is a fantastic example of self-reflexive cinematography. Because the film is about a hyped-up on-screen entertainment show, we effectively come to share the perspective of the Panem audience of the games themselves. The film pulls us in, manipulating us just enough to make us engage with the games on their own terms, making us complicit with Panem's whole horrific social system and the murder of its children disguised as public entertainment. Much like Panem's citizens, we find ourselves rooting for particular characters, hoping they'll survive - that they'll win - which effectively means that we're hoping that the other kids will die. And, at times, we may even catch ourselves being secretly pleased when one of the "career tributes" gets their comeuppance. But just before we can get in too deep, we're pulled back up, reminded that these are children, reminded how awful the whole thing really is.

Another element of the story that's unique to the film is the "behind-the-scenes" view we get of Haymitch wining and dining Panem's rich and powerful to persuade them to send expensive gifts of food and medicine to his "mentees" in the arena, scenes which remind us of big business deals that happen every day - that could almost be something out of Mad Men. Haymitch has to become an ad-man of sorts, fighting for business against stiff competition. This, I think, serves to make things even more real, bringing the story even closer to the world we know. We also get to look in on the games-makers, designing and creating obstacles and monsters to make the games tougher for the contestants and more exciting for the viewers. This is where we really begin to understand the contest as a game. The games-makers behave almost like computer-games designers, thinking up ways of increasing the difficulty in each "level" of the game, testing "players'" skills and eventually making them fight super-creatures like end-of-level "bosses". Even the little medical and food packages sent in by sponsors will seem vaguely familiar to gamers, closely resembling the first aid kits, "extra lives" or "1ups" that you might collect in a video game world.

A lot of people have argued that the basic concept behind the story just isn't plausible enough, insisting that parents would never willingly give up their children to fight to the death, or if they were forced to, that other people wouldn't watch it or participate in it. Honestly, I think this is a very naive, overly optimistic view of human nature. The horrible truth is that it's no leap to imagine a world like that at all. In fact, I'd argue that all of the essential components of The Hunger Games to some extent already exist in our world today. In this country, mothers and fathers are already quite happy for their sons to join the military at the tender age of 16: an age considered too young to drive, to young to marry without consent, to young to smoke or drink, yet old enough to go out and fight and kill other people, some of them perhaps just as young as they are. 16 is the upper age limit for Hunger Games "tributes" (a term which encapsulates the seductive language already used to political effect in times of war - words like sacrifice and heroism, and the notion that these people are fighting and killing on our behalf, in our name, in order to protect us all), and is the age of both Katniss and Peeta when they take part. Elsewhere in the real world, much younger children are often kidnapped and forced to fight in wars that they cannot possibly understand. All over the world, footage of war zones is beamed directly into the homes of anxious audiences and, while we're perhaps supposed to be appalled by this violence, these days it's never very long before real and terrible wars become sources of fun and competitive gaming. Meanwhile, reality TV shows command ridiculous amounts of attention, and are often highly competitive, evoking visceral emotional responses in their viewers. Though it's not considered socially acceptable any more, public executions and fights to the death between adults or between men and animals have, historically, been treated as sources of public entertainment, drawing a crowd in much the same way as  reality TV contests and event films like The Hunger Games do now. A relative minority of us with consciences would probably like to think that we're past all that now, but you only need to look back to the execution of Saddam Hussein and how the video footage went viral to realise that this is simply not the case - so much of the world is still baying for the blood of whomever its been told to hate. Consequentially, I don't think it's at all difficult to imagine these things colliding and merging to create the kind of terrible monstrosity that Collins has imagined. And as she's said herself, most of her ideas came from watching television.

Nevertheless, it's not quite all misery and horror. Mostly, but not all. Both the film and the book leave us, crucially, with hope. The film features an important discussion of this between President Snow and Seneca Crane that doesn't appear in the books, in which Snow explains just how powerful this can be. I'm not going to spoil anything for those who haven't read the sequels yet, but rest assured, the hope that Katniss's defiance gives to the people of Panem becomes a pivotal part of the story. Unlike The Dark Knight, The Hunger Games does seem to have something of a moral and political message. It serves to show us that we can effect a change: that none of us is truly powerless, and that we always have a choice. In order to do this, it must first convince us of the necessity of acting and speaking out before it's too late, and the film achieves this by showing us just how bad things can get when we don't. To recycle one of my favourite quotations (generally attributed to the philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke):
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Interestingly, although the real source of this is disputed, there is something that Burke definitely wrote which perhaps fits The Hunger Games even better:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

There's Snow Such Thing As Magic

Steven, Steven, Steven. Just this once, can everybody not live, please? I'm getting sick of all this magic, jiggery-pokery, resurrection of the body business. Everyone made a joke out of it with Rory, which you played along with, and it was all fun and games for a while. But it's getting out of hand now. It isn't just a question of avoiding death altogether. Of course, that's what any good adventure story is about - a lot of near misses. No, the problem with you is that you do go there, repeatedly, and then pretend like it never happened. Please remember that half of your audience are children, and a good number of them will have experienced bereavement. If you can't bring yourself to desist then I think you should see a specialist, because quite frankly, it's becoming deeply irresponsible.

To be fair, this year's Doctor Who Christmas special wasn't one of the worst. Despite the fact that Richard E. Grant and, as fewer people seem to have noticed, Ian McKellen, were a bit wasted in it, I actually mostly enjoyed this episode. The Tim Burton-esque Snowmen and evil snowflake faces were cool, Jenna-Louise Coleman surpassed expectations, and the whole thing looked very very twinkly and beautiful, and was all rather fun.

My favourite thing about the episode was the Victorian detective trio, Strax, Vastra and Jenny. I've long been thinking that Madame Vastra deserves her own spin-off series - the new Doctor Who spin-off for grown-ups. After all, it's not like you'd have to try very hard to make it about a million times better than Torchwood. The addition of Strax has now, I think, perfected the team. Anyone who hasn't watched this yet, do it now! It's so funny it hurts.

I was also very pleased to hear that this episode is heralding a long-term change in the Doctor's appearance. So look forward to frock coats and silly hats galore! Costume in general was a strong point of this episode. The detective team looked pretty awesome, and I absolutely I loved Clara's outfits. But, unfortunately, this leads me on to one of my biggest problems with both this show and the series set to follow it.

When I saw in the trailers what looked like the Doctor picking up a Victorian companion, I was ridiculously excited. Finally, I thought, a companion who isn't just a regular eighteen to twenty-five year old from modern-day Britain! Here's someone with an interesting back story, someone who'll shake things up a bit, add a bit of extra comedy as they try to adjust, and maybe even teach the kids (or even the adults) a bit of history. Back in the long-forgotten days of Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, Doctor Who was actually conceived as a fun way of teaching history and science to children. Over the years of what has now become known as "Old" or "Original Who" there were companions as diverse as a crazy savage warrior lady from another planet, a robot dog, a fellow Time Lord, people from the past and the future - even men who weren't romantically involved with anyone else aboard the TARDIS. But what did you do? You went and ruined it at the last minute, by making Clara and Oswin the same character and, quelle surprise, looks like she's going to be reincarnated as - yes! - a 21st century gal. And of course she got to kiss the Doctor too. Great.

If this was all - if it was just another boring contemporary of mine - then I'm sure I could forgive you. But you just couldn't leave it at that. No, you had to add Clara Oswin Oswald to the pantheon of your ridiculous mythical, magical companions for which literally anything is possible. River Song has been the most irritating example of this so far, but even back into Russell's time, there's been an abundance of stupid plot lines that basically make the whole universe revolve around a particular companion: ooh Rose looked into the heart of the Tardis, ooh Donna is magically linked to the Doctor through the Doctor-Donna Tardis magic business, ooh River is the Doctor's wife and has a time head and has become a Time Lord just because Amy spent time on board while she was pregnant, ooh Rory is an Auton that got magicked back into a real person, and ooh Captain Jack can't die. At least the Doctor responded more appropriately to Jack's predicament. Back then, he was horrified and disgusted by the idea of a person coming back to life. It was wrong, disturbing, Jack was a universal anomaly. Until he wasn't, and resurrection became a Doctor Who norm, even for not particularly significant characters, like the father in last year's Christmas special.

Now, I'm all for pushing boundaries and breaking the mould, and I believe that the only point of having a formula is to see how far you can take it. But rules are still important. Without them, you've got nothing - no plot, no suspense. It stops being clever and interesting and novel, and starts being boring and stupid and just plain unbelievable. If every character is essentially invincible, why the hell should we even care anyway? There's no point at which we're left guessing, at which we're sitting on the edge of our seats flinching even though we know that it will probably be all right in the end because that's the way these things work, because we absolutely know already that nothing can ever happen to these characters. And if it does, it's ok, because we'll still see them again soon, in some form or another. Worse still is that all of this has begun to efface character development. It was ok with Rory, because we already knew who he was before you started killing him all the time. But Clara - well, we know very little about her yet, except that she can't die, and it looks it may well stay that way. Instead of writing characters, you've started writing walking plot points, people who are only interesting for what they do or for what happens to them, rather than for who they are.

I'll give you this, at least: I found this episode less uncomfortably misogynist than things have been for a while. Last year's Christmas special was one of the worst for that, with all its patronising "weak" and "strong" nonsense. Both Amy Pond and River Song were such blatant fantasy figures and you always denied the charges so fervently that it never really seemed worth arguing the toss. I mean, a kissogram? For real? You basically put a stripper in a family show. It's not ok. And all we ever got in return was a stomach-churningly awkward public riposte at the Baftas - not from you, naturally, but from your mate Benedict. The sexism for you is obviously so ingrained that you don't even notice it. Clara - at least so far - seems slightly refreshing. And even if you manage to mess her up, at least we've got Vastra and Jenny now. So, for the present at least, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Let's hope that Clara Oswin Oswald remains more than just a pretty face.