Sunday, 27 December 2015

Is Doctor Who still for kids?

"Blah, blah, blah, blah!"

I was discussing Doctor Who (as I often do) with my sister today and she told me she hadn't enjoyed the past two series very much. My sister has always been a fan of the show since it's 2005 revival, albeit a casual "Saturday night telly" kind of fan rather than a scarf-wearing, DVD owning "moaning about it on the internet" kind of fan like myself. My sister remarked that my seven year old niece doesn't watch it much any more as "she doesn't understand it". I was about to launch into my well-rehearsed and spirited defense of the show when my niece actually chipped in to correct my sister.

"I do understand it, it's just boring. All they do is talk, and talk, and talk."

It wasn't the fact that she didn't like it any more that worried me. After all, kids go off stuff all the time. It was the reason she'd gone off it that worried me. "It's boring." Doctor Who should not be making kids bored! Now I'm not claiming that my niece is representative of all children in the UK. But it's hard to deny that the tone of the show has changed over the past few series. Is the show getting too 'talky'? Is Doctor Who in danger of losing what has always been the most important part of it's audience - kids?

Once upon a time, Russell T. Davies' era as head writer (2005-2010) was full of rousing speeches and emotional exchanges, but it was always balanced with a healthy dose of explosions, running, and visual humour. The Doctor's emotional farewell to Rose at the end of series 2 for example came only after a tense, climactic battle between the Daleks and the Cybermen which resulted in them all getting sucked into a big, inter-dimensional hole. The Doctor and The Master had many a character defining back and forth at the end of series 3, but it was all centred around a very visceral victory for The Doctor, as the prayers of the world transformed him from a wizened goblin into a shining, floating saviour. (Hey, I'm not saying it made sense, just that it was visually exciting.)

Compare those climaxes to the end of series 8 or 9. Series 8 finishes mainly with a lengthy conversation in a graveyard. The army of Cybermen don't actually do anything apart from explode in the sky and Missy is dispatched by a Cyberman who we're told is a character who is only significant to viewers familiar with the classic series. Series 9 ended with a long talk about feelings between Clara and The Doctor, followed by The Doctor losing his memory for vague reasons, followed by another talk about feelings between The Doctor and Clara, this time in a diner. It's not exactly the stuff kids dreams are made of is it. Of course, the RTD era was full of long talks about feelings too, but they were always balanced with action, and visual thrills, and I don't think that's still the case.

If you think that this criticism means that I hate current head writer Steven Moffat's era of Doctor Who you couldn't be more wrong. I have absolutely loved the past two series and Peter Capaldi has swiftly entered my list of top five favourite ever Doctors. I've found Series 9 to be particularly enjoyable, with The Doctor's impassioned anti-war speech in The Zygon Inversion and Peter Capaldi's solo performance in Heaven Sent among my favourite moments.

But I'm a 34 year old man and when it comes to Doctor Who my opinion should not be a priority!

Doctor Who is a family show, it always has been. It's not something for nerds like me to watch alone in our bedrooms and then bitch about on our blogs (much like I'm doing now). It's something for families, like my sister and her kids, to watch together. If you target the families then nerds like me will still watch it, but if you target nerds like me you lose the families. If you target families then the kids grow up and watch it with their kids, and the show endures, as it should!

The weird thing is, Steven Moffat knows all this! In one interview to promote the show's 50th Anniversary he remarked
"I love Doctor Who fans, and I am a Doctor Who fan, but the show is not targeted at them. And to be fair most of them say: 'For God's sake don't make it for us.' They want it to be successful. They don't want it to be a niche thing, because then it would die."
Why then would the man who said this fill his episodes with emotionally charged, character driven speeches that are perfect for fans who want actors to reenact them at conventions but not so great for retaining the attention of your average 7-8 year old? Again, I'm not saying that these speeches shouldn't be there, but for god's sake, let's have an explosion and some running straight after it.

I must emphasise that I'm not one of these critics who say that kids can't follow Steven Moffat's labyrinthine plots. As Moffat has rightly said "We're dealing with children who can read long, complicated books while tweeting and playing computer games all at the same time. You've got to be ahead of them." So I'm definitely not saying that the show should dumb down, or that kids only like explosions. I'm just saying that for the past couple of series, Doctor Who has put exposition and emotional character moments above action and it means that the show may be in danger of losing it's younger audience.

An impassioned speech about the horrors of war is great, but it's not going to resonate with a child in the same way as it is with an adult. Is it possible to make it the centrepiece of an entire episode and retain the interest of your younger audiences? I'm not so sure it is. Why can't we have the best of both worlds? Something emotionally resonant for the older fans to immortalise in gif and meme form AND something for the younger fans to reenact in the playground. Russell T. Davies managed it for four series and a bunch of specials. With episodes such as The Eleventh Hour, and Day of the Doctor, Moffat has managed it too, and I'd love to see him keep on doing it.

I've really loved series 8 & 9, but the moment Doctor Who becomes all about people like me is, as Moffat has said, the moment it dies. With the BBC insisting on scheduling the show at later, less appropriate times it's more important than ever that Doctor Who keeps the kids. Doctor Who must endure and it will only do so by attracting the whole family, not just the uncles.

Friday, 18 December 2015

I asked an economist if he'd vote for President Superman

In Action Comics Annual #3 (1991) the time travelling super-hero known as Waverider takes a peek into Superman's future and witnesses the Man of Steel getting elected President in 2001. It turns out baby Kal-El was technically born on American soil as his Kryptonian Birthing Matrix opened up on Earth, and so he's perfectly entitled to run for President.

Waverider is investigating the possibility of Superman becoming the futuristic tyrant known as Monarch, and as a result the threat of him being corrupted by his new found political powers hangs over the story. Ultimately however Superman ends up being a pretty good President and leads the United States into a bright, hopeful future.

I was curious as to whether Superman's policies, as laid out in this story, would actually benefit the USA and the rest of the world in real life. Would Superman actually be a good President, or would he be just as crappy as all us lousy humans at deciding the world's fate?

And so I asked a respected economist!

John Phelan has a MSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics. He is a Fellow of The Cobden Centre and has written about economics and politics for The Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Standpoint, Economic Affairs, Conservative Home, London Student, City AM, Global Politics and openDemocracy.

He almost certainly has better things to do but nevertheless kindly allowed me to grill him on what effect a fictional alien would have on the US economy!

Me: John, while in office Superman begins to solve America's economic problems by salvaging US gold lost at sea. Aquaman helps him of course.

John: Why would finding a load of gold help? I'd need to know more, but if it's for monetary use, all you'd have would be inflation - look at the Spanish Empire.

The comic says that it's part of Superman's "all out war on the deficit". It also claims that adding the Gold to "the Nation's coffers" causes "the US trade deficit to drop". It says "the overall benefit to the economy will be slow but should be steady if the President continues to deliver." 

So the gold goes into 'reserves' and becomes part of the monetary base of the United States. Depending on what the bank(s) holding these reserves do, they either sit on it, in which case it has no effect at all, or they use as a base to expand credit, in which case you just get rising prices.

I don't see how it helps the deficit. The US could, I suppose, use it to pay its expenses and avoid some borrowing, but, again, that would just be inflationary.

As I say, the Spanish Empire grabbed America and all the gold therein. They thought they were sorted because they had lots of new money. But they didn't have lots of new stuff to spend it on so prices just went up - inflation. They sank back as a world power after that. That's a pretty exact example of just this happening.

The trade deficit is just the excess of the value of what you import over the value of what you export. It isn't actually a problem - would you be concerned if you were getting £300 of stuff in return for £200 of stuff?

Again, though, I fail to see how a bunch of new gold would help. You ship it abroad to cover the trade deficit? Might work for a couple of years, then what?

Superman says "we will of course be making such deposits gradually so as not to affect world markets."

Gradually? Supes has just announced the find to the whole planet! The gold price would crash in anticipation of the full amount coming on the market even if just a little bit actually was released.

Look to when Gordon Brown flogged Britain's gold for a pretty exact historical parallel.

President Superman launches orbiting solar power stations that "free us all from the economic tyrrany of fossil fuels". He "diverts petro-chemicals into the manufacturing of useful, long lived, recyclable products". He also shares the solar tech with "the developing nations of the world".

What were the resources which Supes puts into making these "orbiting solar power stations" doing before? Making cars? Beds? Jenga? The price of all those things will rise and less of them will be consumed. You might think this worthwhile, that's a positive rather than a normative question.

Do you think sharing his solar satellites with developing nations so they can, in Superman's words "grow and prosper without the awful squandering of their natural resources" would work?

Possibly, but it depends on what basis. If you give the same amount of power to someone in Ghana and someone in the US, the Ghanaian is going to have a load of excess power and the Yank is going to find their life grind to a halt.
President Superman is shown learning the language and Holy scriptures of other world leaders while negotiating with them. (The narrator of the story acknowledges that despite Superman's attempts at peaceful negotiation there is a threat implicit in the fact that he's so powerful.)

Best of luck to him.

Does Supes have powers that would enable him to learn a language quicker than an Earthling?

In the 1950s and '60s he had a super-memory, but by the '90s he was a little less powerful so I think it would take him the same time as us to learn them.

Well, economists often think in terms of constrained maximisation - you have a set amount of money and you have to allocate it between a set of different things so as to maximise your satisfaction (utility, in the jargon) derived from those different things. But we aren't just money constrained, we are time constrained as well. We have a fixed amount of time, a budget, to allocate between different activities so as to maximise our utility. Now, if Supes could learn another language in an instant, he might as well do so. But if he can't, if it takes time, then he has to spend time on that that he could be spending on something else - foiling Lex Luthor's plans, for example. If Lex Luthor, or some as dastardly, was up to something heinous, would it not be a more sensible allocation of Superman's time budget to foil that scheme and leave the translation to some spotty graduate with a BA in Arabic? Opportunity cost is, perhaps, the key thing there.

Superman also has a policy of global disarmament enforced by an army of superheroes!

How Nietzschean.

Yeah, that one's a bit scary.

That's why I liked Batman.

What did you think of that panel where Lex Luthor gets arrested after that guy with a wire records him plotting? Is that even legal?

Depends what he's plotting, Luthor is an evil chap. But it is all very creepy to a libertarian type like me. Every loon from Plato on has longed for a race of super beings to rule us base mortals. Trouble is, absent super beings, other base mortals end up trying to do it and you end up with some of the darkest episodes in human history.

Would you vote for Superman based on these policies? What party do you think he would belong to? 

He's obviously a Democrat of the Bernie Sanders stripe, or a sort of William Jennings Bryan Populist. Whether I'd vote for it would depend on who else was running, but it would take a hell of a lot for me to vote for this stuff.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

John Byrne: "Gerroff my land!"

John Byrne is one of the greatest comic book artists of all time and one of my personal favourite comic creators. A groundbreaking collaboration on Uncanny X-Men with Chris Claremont and work on Fantastic Four and Superman that defined the characters for a generation are just a few of his accomplishments. He is a genius.

He is also a deeply unpleasant man who embodies everything that's wrong with comic fans. Or at least that's how he comes across online.

When Byrne isn't angrily lamenting the fact that superhero comics aren't exactly how they were when he was a child he's usually slagging off everybody in the comics industry who isn't Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, or bandying the N word around in a conversation about speech bubbles, or saying Hispanic and Latino women with blond hair look "like hookers", or comparing trans people with pedophiles. You get the picture. Byrne seems to live for disagreement and conflict. On one hilarious occasion he accidentally started an argument with himself!

He can usually be found on his online Forum, surrounded by fans who fall over themselves to agree with everything he says. Those who dare disagree with the great JB are swiftly given the boot and banned from the Forum.

Byrne is currently working on a Star Trek comic that he illustrates by cutting and pasting old photos together. It seems that he's so passionate about keeping the fictional characters he loves exactly how they were when he first encountered them that he can't bring himself to even draw them anymore, (at least not in any form other than private commissions). It's a shame since he's a truly excellent artist.

In Star Trek: New Visions #7 Byrne demonstrated a level of self-awareness that I wouldn't have credited him with and cast himself as a cranky old hermit, threatening those who strayed on to his land with a gun. Amusingly this panel featuring Byrne the hermit seems to go nicely with pretty much any JB quote you'd care to fit into his speech bubbles (or is it balloons?):

I recommend Byrne's Wiki-quote page for further insights into the mind of this fascinating, frustrating man.

I also recommend JohnByrneSays on Twitter. It's run by a brave individual who scours Byrne's Forum so you don't have to, and regularly shares Byrne's pearls of wisdom in tweet form. He also shares Byrne's amazing art on Tumblr, and is a thoroughly nice man, so give him a follow.

Of course you should also check out Byrne's work. His creator owned series, John Byrne's Next Men is fantastic. It explores the dark side of the super-hero and time travel genres whilst simultaneously celebrating everything that's fun about them. His early Uncanny X-Men work, his Fantastic Four run, and his work on Avengers West Coast and She-Hulk are pure superhero fun, and I've written before about how much I love his Superman work.

Check out his work, it's amazing, but it's probably best to give the man himself a wide berth.