No Rest for the Wicked at PopUp Chorus

Monday, 9 March 2015, Motorco.

I love going to Monday night choir practice at Motorco. I make a point of getting there at least an hour before the doors even open each week. It’s such a place of safety and comfort. It never ceases to astound and amaze me that, within about 45 minutes, 200-some-odd people can turn a pop song they might never have heard before into a thing of almost ecstatic beauty.

Such was certainly the case for me on this particular Monday night. I’d been trying to stave off sinus problems and an issue that was affecting both of my ears for about a week. It had gotten so bad that earlier that day, I went to make an appointment at a doctor’s office to have my ears looked at. That night, I could barely make out what people four feet away from me were saying. It felt like I was hearing everything through a sheet of glass, and the sensation of not hearing clearly was terrifying.

In the midst of all this, PopUp Chorus remained a haven. I’d not heard Lykke Li’s “No Rest for the Wicked” before choir practice began. Not because I couldn’t hear it, but because I tend to find that it’s more fun to learn a song on the fly. Songs I’ve never heard before become instant favorites, while songs I know very well going in are bogged down in expectation. Wanting to get it “right” intervenes in the learning process, which is something I happen to really enjoy.

I’d just recently picked up this earth-shatteringly awesome 12th Doctor/Peter Capaldi shirt with a ThinkGeek gift certificate, and this turned out to be the perfect night to give it a test drive. In the video, it shows up just as boldly as you please, and I was glad to do my part to rep for Capaldi’s Doctor Who.

hsnp_doctor_xii_ddThe wild choreography in the video, especially coming from the bleachers, where my buddy and I are quite clearly doing work, was equally impromptu. Not only had I not heard the song before we started practicing it, neither had I given the least bit of forethought to accompanying gestures. What we came up with is a gentle blend of wizardry and theurgy, with a dash of Danzig, and a finishing move that suggests southern folk-rock harmonizing of the 1970s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some people thought we’d planned these things out in advance, or were doing them on purpose to be in the video. We’re always in the video — everyone is. It actually makes me uncomfortable to be a focal point. PopUp Chorus is about community and fun, not the individual. To my thinking, the videos that are made and posted are there to preserve what the choir creates. The true fun of choir practice is the process itself.

When my pals and I are acting up, know that we’re doing it every time, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. I’m doing it because I’m having fun. Sort of “dance like no one’s watching,” if you will. It’s one of the few free spaces to play, laugh, and cavort. It’s like the first day of school every Monday. People are happy to see each other, catch up, and sing. There’s something very nearly holy about everything that goes on at Motorco in beautiful downtown Durham, North Carolina, on Monday nights.

Choir practice is a rare thing. During the time we’re devoting to a particular song, everyone is working together toward creating a new thing. We’re all there to learn, to participate, and do so in a spirit of unfettered joy. People meet up with friends and make new connections. For a few hours on a Monday — traditionally, the least favorite day of the working week — adults can act like children, children’s contributions matter as much as anyone else’s, and every voice has value.

If every city, if every town, had something like PopUp Chorus, the world would be a kinder, sweeter place. I love it. I need it. I don’t know what I’d do now without it. If you live in the triangle and aren’t coming to choir practice, you should really make time to try it out.


Review: Frankenstein, Big Finish Classics

I’d been looking for an uninterrupted opportunity to listen to Big Finish Classics‘ “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” since it came out in October 2014. As the novel’s frame narrative takes place in a harsh and unforgiving arctic wilderness, the bleakness of Snowpocalypse 2015 provided the ideal moment. My house was without power and internet for the best part of a day. Trapped in the forest with unnavigable roads and no contact with the outside world — my phone and computer both died very early in the day — the time was ripe for audio drama on my mp3 player, the only device that was fully charged.

As an audio-only work, Jonathan Barnes’s adaptation of Frankenstein is top-flight in terms of sound design, pacing, and even retains the three-volume structure of Mary Shelley’s novel. Of course, there have been countless adaptations of the novel, and each necessarily changes something of the text to fit the demands of its respective medium. For instance, I recently listened to David Llewellyn’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, also produced by Big Finish Classics, and was disappointed by how much of that text’s substance was thrown out wholesale in order to fashion a cohesive drama.

The thing that keeps the Big Finish Classics adaptation of Frankenstein from being ideal isn’t that it was altered, but the choices for what was altered. The alterations are less significant than in Dorian Gray, but no less odd. I had to go back and search through Project Gutenberg’s etext for the awkward phrase “father-mother.” This is a name that the creature in Barnes’s adaptation uses frequently to refer to Victor Frankenstein. I understand the thrust of it, that Victor usurps both generative roles in the creature’s manufacture, but it’s not in the original, and the overuse of it in this full-cast audio presentation really started to grate on me after a while.

Then, there’s the ending. As I said, I realize that every adaptor makes alterations, but in an adaptation that is, throughout, extremely faithful to the novel, the ending is changed so dramatically as to be disturbing. I have always enjoyed that part in the novel where the creature finds his creator dead and heads out onto the ice floes, vowing to seek his own self-immolation. The experience convinces Captain Walton, whose letters home provide the framing narrative, to turn back from his own Byronic quest.

In Barnes’s adaptation, the creature basically hugs Victor to death, and, in a conclusion in which nothing is concluded, Walton presses on with the search for a northwest passage to the Pacific. It’s much darker and more grisly than the limited redemption offered in the novel, where at least Walton learns something. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, just that I found the choices for deviation to be ill-fitting, and against the spirit of the source material.

As far as what is here, I’m so accustomed to the masterful touch of a Big Finish production, that the quality of Frankenstein is unsurprisingly immersive. This is a 3-hour production fit to be heard by candlelight with surround-sound speakers. The sound effects work, from the squish of viscera, to the creak of Walton’s ship during cut-scenes, to the sparse soundtrack, is something Big Finish excels at.

The voice acting, led by Arthur Darvill as Victor and Nicholas Briggs as the creature, is brilliant throughout. Darvill plays Victor along the character’s full range, from detached to monomaniacal. Briggs is the real treasure here; bringing so much nuance to the creature as a character. Big Finish’s audio engineers distort Briggs’s voice just enough to make him monstrous and uncanny, but not so much that he’s unintelligible. My favorite scene in the novel has always been the confrontation between Victor and the creature on Mont Blanc, where our expectations for the roles of dispassionate scientist and monster are, in the dialogue, completely reversed. That Victor’s ranting and the creature’s measured cadence are here preserved is a treat.

If you’re looking for an adaptation that captures much of the spirit and atmosphere of the source material, this is a terrific one. If you’re looking to not read the novel, I’d advise a straightforward unabridged audiobook of the 1818 text.

Dogster! or, My dog and I are in grocery stores nationwide!

dogster magazine melvin what can dogs eat

Scenes from the premiere issue of Dogster magazine.

Out now on newsstands, in grocery store checkout lanes, pharmacies, and pet stores nationwide, it’s the very first issue of Dogster, the print magazine! My article, “How Bad Are They Really? 19 Human Food Favorites You Sneak To Your Dog,” is a feature story! It’s on the flipping cover! How in the world did this happen?

I came up in academia, where the process of producing a piece takes years of writing and research, to say nothing of the time that elapses between submitting a manuscript and publication. For instance, the germ of my sole contribution to scholarly knowledge, an article on the friendship between James Boswell and Pascal Paoli in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to Corsica, was a paper I gave at a conference in February 2010.

The final draft of my article was submitted that October, and was not published until October of 2013. And that’s nothing to the years of work and iterations of the topic that preceded the conference paper. Years of work, totally unpaid. When it was out, the journal that printed it wanted me to pay them to see the actual physical volume.

The process of normal periodical publication happens several orders of magnitude faster. Thanks to Vicky Walker, the Executive Editor of Dogster and Catster online, who passed my name along to the Senior Editorial Director of the print magazine, Mel Kauffman, I was approached about the assignment in mid-November. The task: to write about 21 human foods that people commonly feed their dogs. This was whittled down to 19. The deadline was 8 December. Writing for a magazine was a new experience for me, and I was simultaneously excited and terrified.

I’d never conducted a proper interview before. Unsurprising, since all of the people I wrote about in academia have been dead for a couple hundred years. Before I interviewed anyone, I talked with two of my favorite people, Anna Maltby and Mandy Oaklander, both of whom are legitimate periodical stars, people who were actually schooled and trained in journalism. These are folks who have written for Time and Cosmopolitan, among many other notable publications, both online and in print. They were extraordinarily generous with their time, expertise, and advice.

Writing is a laborious process for me; when I’m composing a piece for Dogster or Catster‘s web sites, say, on “Why Do Dogs Lick People?” or about “Cat Islands of the World,” it is typically a full day’s work for me. Research the topic. Think about what to write if the SEO doesn’t give me many clues as to structure. Draft 1000 words. Edit the piece. Locate, resize, upload, and caption the art. It takes anywhere from 6 to 8 hours per essay if I’m working quickly.

If it’s something I really want to get right and have it be a good piece of writing, according to my own impossibly high standards — like this one about The Adventures of Milo and Otis, or this, about cats in comic books — a single article can take three full days to produce. This one, on hairless cats that look like Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who…you don’t want to know how long that one took. I get paid the same amount per article regardless, but sometimes, the subject is so important to me, it’s more significant that I do it well than efficiently.

This is print, though. The pay rate was far, far higher than what I usually write for the internet; I thought the assignment, then, should get a proportional amount of attention. I worked at it off and on from the day I got the details through the due date. At the time, I assumed that the new Dogster print magazine would be a sister publication to Dog Fancy, which has been published since 1970, and is now owned by the same parent company. Fortunately, it wasn’t until a day or two before I submitted it — by which point the article was nearly complete — that I found out that Dogster was supplanting Dog Fancy, just as Catster was replacing Cat Fancy. I almost hyperventilated. No pressure! Just replacing an industry icon.

In any event, interviewing, transcribing interviews, researching 19 different food items, drafting, editing, and submitting took the time available for it. Lists are my least favorite things to write, mostly because the research for, say, a disease, is on one topic. Striving for accuracy on 19 different things, writing with a certain tone, and keeping it to 1000 words was difficult. After the first draft was submitted, my editor asked me to expand in certain areas, after which I was at around 1500 words. It makes a difference to the look of the article, which I realized only when I saw the .pdf of the article for a final edit.

That .pdf file, though! I gave my editor a file full of text, and what I got back looked like a proper magazine article. I was astounded and filled with joy at the sight of the mock-up. This was going to be a real thing; something people would see and read at a dentist’s office, pick up at the grocery store, or have delivered to their homes.

The experience of seeing the actual magazine when the preview issue arrived at my home a few weeks ago was even more overwhelming. I shared the collage of images from it at the top of this post on Instagram earlier this evening. Then it occurred to me…holy crap, my face and my dog’s face, to say nothing of the article itself, are on magazine racks across the country. The realization made my head spin a bit. The editorial and production staff have done such a marvelous job.

Dogster magazine is scheduled to come out every two months from here on out. If you’re interested, go to to subscribe! Pick it up wherever magazines are sold! A significant number of people have done their very best work to bring this into the world. It’s a gorgeous publication from cover to cover, and I’m very proud to have played a small part in its creation.

My 10 favorite songs in 2014

I completely agree with Nick Sanborn’s dictum about year-end lists, especially where music is concerned. It’s easy enough to make stuff up, or proclaim something a masterwork that you’ve only heard a handful of times. I like to live with music, to wade through it and wallow in it. When a song catches my ear, I listen to it until I’m either sick of it, or the song and I live happily ever after. is a wonderful service, and it’s been collating listening data for me since May 2005. Aside from mix discs in the car, streaming services that don’t scrobble, like Digitally Imported, or the occasional vinyl record, has borne faithful witness to everything I’ve listened to on laptops and mp3 players over the last decade. I can’t recommend the service more highly if you’re at all fastidious about such things.

The only further conditions I imposed were: a) one song per artist, b) no big carry-overs from last year, and c) no eternal classics. Holdover status takes Clear Soul Forces’ “Gotham City” featuring Idris Elba (113 plays) and Camera Obscura’s “Troublemaker” (103 plays) out of the list. By the latter, I mean songs that haven’t left heavy rotation in years, which disqualifies Massive Attack’s “Paradise Circus” (173 plays), Murray Gold’s “This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home” (122 plays), Mount Moriah’s “Social Wedding Rings” (113 plays), and the Danger Mouse/MF DOOM remix of Zero 7’s “Somersault” (105 plays). Even being that selective, all ten of the following songs are in the overall top 25 for the year. Play counts are accurate as of 21 December.

01. Sia, “Hostage” (249 plays). I love that the crackling fury of Sia Furler’s voice is unrestrained. I love that Sia writes bonkers pop songs that take typical pop-song themes to their most absurd extremes. I love the sound of the xylophone/marimba/glockenspiel tumbling over itself through the bridge, like some kind of mischievous Slinky, ramming home the cartoonish nature of the entire enterprise. There’s nothing I don’t love about Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear (2014), and I’ll gush about it without reservation.

02. PopUp Chorus, “Paper Planes” (224 plays). The most soul-replenishing thing I did all year was join Durham’s PopUp Chorus. I say “Durham’s,” but people come from every corner of the Triangle to create improvised choral arrangements of classic hits and indie gems. Meeting regularly at Motorco, this community choir experience made Mondays not only tolerable, but even worthy of anticipation and excitement. I had this particular song, a version of MIA’s “Paper Planes,” on repeat into the wee hours of the morning as I rushed to complete an essay for Avidly/LA Review of Books on the confluences between Moral Mondays and attending choir practice.

03. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” (211 plays). I’m not much of a dancer, but my friend Heather and I danced like maniacs at both the Sylvan Esso record release show at Cat’s Cradle in May and at their Hallowe’en show in Saxapahaw. Nick Sanborn’s energetic beat-crafting and Amelia Meath’s vocals, big enough to fill an arena and delicate enough to feel endearing and intimate, are more than the sum of their parts. Add to this the joy of singing “Coffee” at PopUp Chorus the week before the album dropped, and the glorious video, only enhanced by its final scene taking place at The Pinhook, and the confluence of joys was inescapable.

04. See Gulls, “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” (205 plays). I came to See Gulls through PopUp Chorus, since their former guitarist, Jacki, also created the original run of videos for our community choir. I liked the couple of songs they had up on Bandcamp well enough, but it wasn’t until a day party at Hopscotch in early September that I officially went over the deep end for See Gulls. My head exploding that day was both witnessed and remarked upon.

That enthusiasm has only gained momentum, as I’ve seen them play six times since Hopscotch. In performance, See Gulls seem to convey a mixture of energy, joy, and liberation. There’s a decided impulse to use the disappointments of love as a springboard into the new vistas opening before them. See Gulls’ “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” encapsulates all of this for me. It’s break-up music that is fueled, not by the frustration of loss, but by a nearly-ecstatic fervor to explore all that comes next.

05. Lost in the Trees, “Daunting Friend” (149 plays). Like “Paper Planes” and See Gulls, my first exposure to this song was through PopUp Chorus. We sang “Daunting Friend” in early June at a choir practice in Chapel Hill, and it stayed with me thereafter. There were times — thinking of all the new people I met this year, the few friendships that truly daunt me, deepening affections, and the prospect of being a part of communities that ensure I never have to feel truly alone — that this song would come on and tears would force themselves from my eyes before I could corral the impulse.

06. Tuomas Holopainen, “A Lifetime of Adventure” (106 plays). From the theme tune re-enacted with live ducks to the sultry slow jam version, 2014 was a year when my life-long preoccupation with Duck Tales was amply rewarded. When Tuomas Holopainen’s symphonic metal album about my first childhood idol, Scrooge McDuck, was announced, you can believe I was primed for it. As a kid, I admired Uncle Scrooge’s single-minded drive to be the world’s richest duck. At the same time, I saw how his family, friends, and long-lost love countered and tempered his ambitions. In a 6-minute track, complete with a massive guitar solo, Holopainen manages to involve all those feelings and memories, as well as the wisdom that derives from them. It’s a real achievement as far as I’m concerned.

07. Lykanthea, “Naked” (101 plays). I spend a lot of time trying to focus and write in front of a computer screen, so finding music I can write to is of the utmost importance. Under the Lykanthea banner, Lakshmi Ramgopal put out two really intense, challenging, and beautiful EPs in 2014, “Sundrowned” in January, and “Migration,” which I adore, in July. Both are free to download from Bandcamp, so if you’re looking for reading, writing, relaxation, or meditation music, you cannot go wrong with Lykanthea.

08. Mandolin Orange, “Cavalry” (96 plays). I only created 4 new pieces of art in 2014, so each one took on larger significance to me. A late coda to my 2013 monthly Doctor Who art project, I didn’t complete a piece for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor until just before Series 8 debuted in late August of 2014. In late May, I attended my first Mandolin Orange show, at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. “Cavalry,” a song told from the perspective of a horse in The Lord of the Rings, moved me quite profoundly, and while I worked out the design of my Capaldi piece, I happened to have the song on repeat.

09. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Southern Grammar” (92 plays). I was in the midst of a See Gulls obsession when Hiss Golden Messenger’s Lateness of Dancers came out in September, so it took a while for me to get into it. By the time Mike Taylor rolled with a nine-piece crew of heavy hitters onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre in mid-November, I’d become much more familiar with the record’s brighter and more cheerful sound. The album version of “Southern Grammar” doesn’t come close to the energy and power the HGM clique put on display for David Letterman. I’m still euphoric about this performance.

10. NehruvianDOOM, “Darkness (HBU)” (86 plays). I heard “Darkness” when this video dropped in July, and it was sufficient to make DOOM’s collaboration with Bishop Nehru my most anticipated hip-hop record of the year. When the record finally came out in early October, it more than exceeded my expectations. Not too many hip-hop albums have a principal vocalist who presents himself as an apprentice and an active learner, rather than as a finished product. As for DOOM’s involvement, it’s his most accessible and compulsively listenable full album of material since 2005’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, The Mouse and the Mask.

Special Mention: Koh Ikeda, “Tobe! Gundam” (97 plays). I watched Gurren Lagann on Hulu this summer; probably the first complete anime series I’d seen in several years. A young boy goes from a menial, cringing life of digging holes underground to flinging galaxies from the cockpit of a giant robot over the course of 27 episodes, which is as insane and wonderful as it sounds.

Following that experience, I wanted to go back to the start of the giant robot genre, so I started in on Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). It’s a bleak show, maybe grittier and more realistic, despite its bright color palette, than Battlestar Galactica. The theme tune, “Tobe! Gundam,” is also surprising, bringing together the despair of never-ending conflict with the impulse to persevere, cloaked in horn-flourishes and crowned by Koh Ikeda’s smooth, crooning vocals.

title card by Melvin Pena

Into the Dalek: Aristotle and the Malleable Nature of Memory

The confusion and pain that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara, and the audience experience during “Deep Breath” (2014) is all the more acute because of how resolute Matt Smith’s Doctor was in the waning moments of “The Time of the Doctor” (2013). Right before his regeneration, Smith declares, “I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

"I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

“I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

The tragedy of that bold statement is located in the “I” itself. The “I” is Smith’s particular interpretation of the Doctor. As long as he persists in comics, novels, and one day, it is to be hoped, in Big Finish audio dramas, he will always be the Doctor he (and we) will never forget. He also knows that the change in “I” represented by the Doctor-to-come is “going to be a whopper,” a knowledge and a dread he repeats during the phone call to Clara at the end of “Deep Breath.”

It should come as no surprise that, of course, as soon as he regenerates, he remembers very little at all: knowledge of how to pilot the Tardis escapes him, and, in the opening scene of his proper debut episode, his best attempt to distinguish himself from Clara is to call her “the not-me one.” Yes, in one respect, the Doctor is, as Steven Moffat once put it, “one man with many faces … not a committee of people with unusual hair.” Anyone who’s experienced a dramatic life-change, particularly a physical one, can tell you that it brings with it certain associated changes in how others regard you, and, in time, how you regard your self.

Memories shift and change over time as well. The facts constituting a given sequence of events are quite distinct from the ways we recollect and narrate them; edits and embellishments appear in every retelling. When people mention characteristics of, say, a “Jon Pertwee story,” it’s not only the presence of UNIT or the Brigadier, but the Pertwee Doctor’s approach to situations, to his attitude as the Doctor, down to the kinds of words and phrases he employs. Each Doctor may represent a monolithic concept of “the Doctor” in his turn, but as there are noticeable differences between regenerations, so too must each one regard past adventures, friends, and foes from a unique vantage point.

The first word, the rhexus by which we’re thrown into the action of Peter Capaldi’s second adventure, Phil Ford and Moffat’s “Into the Dalek” (2014), is a frantic “Aristotle!” Thematically, the story is driven to a great extent by its engagements with the shifting and malleable nature of memory, so let’s explore the connections between Aristotle, memory, and the episode’s treatment of them.

The pains of memory

In his musings On Memory and Reminiscence, Aristotle states that, “to remember the future is not possible … nor is there memory of the present, but only sense-perception.” Clara’s fear stems from Capaldi’s Doctor being unknown to her, just as his fear derives from not yet fully knowing himself. Throughout “Deep Breath,” Clara clings desperately to her knowledge of and comfort with the Doctor who was, and resistance to the jarring immediacy of the Doctor who is.

It has been argued of Clara that she knows all the Doctor’s previous regenerations, but Smith reminds her in “Deep Breath” that regeneration is a rattling experience, and that “the man you are with right now…is more scared than anything you can imagine … and he needs you.”

The “whopper” of change and the difference in subjectivity is clear in the terms of address; Smith refers to his future self as “he,” “him,” “the man you are with,” and “the Doctor,” while Capaldi stresses the continuity, cycling quickly through “he” and “the Doctor” before coming to rest on, “that was me talking.” Smith has never been Capaldi, so his points of reference must be tentative. Capaldi, on the other hand, has been Smith in the past, so only he can provide Clara with a sense of continuity and safety.

"Is that the Doctor?"

“Is that the Doctor?”

Aristotle characterizes memory as both dependent on a perception of time and as something that, to last, depends on a kind of physical impression. He says that the ability to create and retain memories wavers depending on age, specifically that, “both very young and very old persons are defective in memory; they are in a state of flux, the former because of their growth, the latter, owing to their decay.” In his newly-regenerated form, Capaldi’s Doctor is, simultaneously, both 2000 years old and a kind of infant. His memory is doubly shaky as a result.

Only scholars and fans can recollect, with exactness, each detail of the Doctor’s many adventures. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor affirms this in “The End of the World” (2005). When Rose is asking the wrong questions about who he is and where he came from, he retorts, barely able to contain his exasperation, “This is who I am! Right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me.”

"All that counts is here and now."

“All that counts is here and now.”

The Doctor lives in an eternal present; it is the companions and the audience who make an effort to remember the past. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor says as much in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967), when he’s asked by Victoria if he remembers his own family, replying, “I have to really want to … bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget.”

For Aristotle, the present is composed of immediate objects of perception and contemplation. The Doctor, a being of the here and now, perceives, contemplates, and acts. He jeopardizes his effectiveness when he deals too much with memory; we see the pains of memory frequently during the Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith eras when they speak of or dwell on the Time War.

The memory cheats

This is why evocations of “The Girl in the Fireplace” (2006) and Tennant’s dalliance with Madame de Pompadour are so hazy to Capaldi in “Deep Breath.” As an audience with DVDs, iTunes, and video-on-demand, we revisit our favorite stories as often as we like. From Capaldi’s perspective, however, that was one afternoon, two lifetimes, and countless adventures ago. Why should he remember it in agonizing detail?

It’s early days for Capaldi, so the immediate threat takes precedence. The rest is just clutter that the new Doctor must sift through in his regenerative disorientation. When Tennant touches Madame de Pompadour’s mind, and she touches his, she has thorough access to his memory, much like Craig Owens does when Smith knocks heads with him in “The Lodger” (2010). Through the door opened by their physical exchange of memories, a door that “may be stepped through in either direction,” Madame de Pompadour certainly learned more about Tennant’s Doctor than he learned about her. The Doctor needed data to discover the droids’ intentions; for Madame de Pompadour, it was a new and revealing experience.

"A door once opened may be stepped through in either direction."

“A door once opened may be stepped through in either direction.”

Given that, it is not hard believe that the clockwork droids using humans for spare parts should ring only a faint bell for Capaldi. This is Aristotle’s point when he says, “occasionally it happens that … we get a sudden idea and recollect that we heard or saw something formerly.” He continues, “This … sudden idea … happens whenever … one changes his point of view, and regards it as relative to something else.” That Madame de Pompadour made a powerful impression on the Doctor at the time of their encounter is the only reason the exigency in “Deep Breath” rings any bells at all!

“Into the Dalek” and the physicality of memory

When the Doctor pleads with Clara to “just see me” at the end of “Deep Breath,” Clara, really for the first time, actually sees Capaldi as a distinct persona. Clara responds in the mode that is most familiar to her — the way that Aristotle suggests that memory is most enduring — as a kind of physical imprint: with a hug. When Eccleston clutches Rose’s hand twice in 2005’s first episode, when Tennant cradles Madame de Pompadour’s head, and when Smith head-butts Craig, it is the Doctor who initiates physical contact to foster a shared experience of memory.

Significantly, in “Deep Breath,” it is Clara who makes that move. Capaldi protests, “I don’t think that I’m a hugging person now,” but the the intimacy of touch is the means by which Clara bridges the chasm between her lingering memory of Smith’s Doctor and her acceptance of Capaldi’s iteration. She reassures them both in the process.

"I don't think that I'm a hugging person now."

“I don’t think that I’m a hugging person now.”

This leads us “Into the Dalek,” which is ripe with associations between the power of physical impressions and their effect on memory. These are foregrounded by the fact that so much of the action occurs on a ship named the “Aristotle.” The line that so many people find amusing — Capaldi’s assertion that Clara is “my carer; she cares so I don’t have to” — is the keystone of the entire enterprise, because caring is linked to feeling, and feeling to touch and sensation.

For Aristotle, recollection and memory are two completely distinct phenomena. The Doctor continually reminds Rusty of the Dalek’s transformative experience — witnessing the birth of a star — but finds mere repetition ineffective. Like the Doctor only vaguely recollecting the events of “The Girl in the Fireplace” following his regeneration, once Rusty’s radiation leak is repaired, the impression of his brief experience of possibility is muted. Unlike the Doctor, Rusty’s change is more sudden and complete because a “pure” Dalek has no choice; it is returned to its default state: “evil refined as engineering.”

Pragmatism and prejudice

This is what Capaldi understands when he summarizes Rusty’s case in the simplest available terms: “Morality as malfunction.” Capaldi’s Doctor, in his first two televised episodes, as a being both too old and too young to draw or rely on memory, is a rational pragmatist. The data he can trust consists of present perception and the broad strokes of past experience. His memory of the Daleks is hard-earned and totalizing. Exceptions, such as the Alpha Dalek from the Troughton Doctor’s “The Evil of the Daleks” (1967) and the Paul McGann Doctor’s “Children of the Revolution” (2002), inasmuch as they occur to him at all, only prove the rule.

Clara’s understanding of the Doctor as an idea or an ethos approximates the Doctor’s understanding of the Daleks. That’s why his incredulity at the possibility of a “good” Dalek smacks, to her, of “prejudice.” Clara experiences prejudice in its twenty-first-century inflection, though, while the Doctor sees it more in its eighteenth-century meaning.

Edmund Burke’s understanding of prejudice in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is not only positive, but based on experience. Prejudice “engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue,” and, “through just prejudice,” a person’s “duty becomes a part of his nature.” The Doctor has endured the Daleks’ uncompromising brutality in every regeneration. He has no reason to expect anything less than an implacable foe, and his skepticism is usually justified.

Clara’s experience is more limited, and her mind more able to permit doubt. For the Doctor, Rusty’s short-lived goodness was nothing but “radiation affecting its brain chemistry,” and this reaffirms his prejudice. Clara upbraids him for his smugness. It would seem that neither the Daleks nor the Doctor can have their wonted, habitual thought patterns altered. How does Clara open the Doctor to possibility, to learning something new? To manifest her acceptance in “Deep Breath,” the Doctor gets a hug; to express her disapproval here, the Doctor gets a healthy slap to the face.

Clara's pimp hand is way strong

Clara’s pimp hand is way strong.

Clara’s startling physical response impresses upon the Doctor the necessity of a different mental approach. It forces him to “consider things beyond” his “natural terms of reference.” The lesson is fixed more firmly due to its violence; in Aristotle’s words, “just as persons do who make an impression with a seal.” The Doctor and Clara must now turn that approach to dealing with a Rusty now on the rampage.

A “good” Dalek is possible

At the start of the episode, the Doctor tells Clara that they have to get into the head of the Dalek, noting that it’s not a metaphor. At the episode’s climax, the Doctor tells Rusty, “I saved your life … now I’m going to save your soul.” Unfortunately, that is a metaphor. Whether Daleks in general have souls is immaterial; reviving Rusty’s individual memory of a star’s birth is critical to effecting change. No matter what that change is, as long as Rusty stops assaulting the crew of the “Aristotle,” it must be considered a step in the right direction.

So Clara crawls through Rusty’s memory circuits, slapping dormant nodes into activity, and the Doctor reroutes Rusty’s synaptic pathways through his own mind. Each utilizes direct physical contact in order to reawaken this Dalek’s unique, if temporary, perspective.

"I'm part of you; my mind is in your mind."

“I’m part of you; my mind is in your mind.”

The strategy works, but only to a degree. Like the Dalek in “Dalek” (2005), who absorbed some of Rose’s taint of humanity, here, Rusty absorbs the Doctor’s prejudice toward the Daleks. As Rusty departs the “Aristotle,” intent on bringing “death to the Daleks,” the Doctor and Clara know that they failed to achieve their intended goal, to see a good Dalek. But that’s not finally the point.

The point was whether the Doctor and the Dalek were capable of changing their perspectives on each other. Both of these things were achieved. Rusty now perceives Daleks as the the Doctor does: as a threat to be dealt with decisively. The Doctor now sees himself as the Daleks do: as The Predator.

Only two episodes into the Capaldi era of “Doctor Who,” it would seem as though moral ambiguity is taking pride of place, and, accordingly, there are no winners here. The Doctor finds himself as disappointed in the closing scene as Journey Blue was in the episode’s first scene. She found no solace in living at the cost of her brother’s death. Journey is left to live with that loss, and the “Aristotle” is left to continue their struggle against the Daleks. If the Daleks are still the Daleks, though, the Doctor is still the Doctor. He remains a creature of the present. Whether he wins or loses, his guiding principle is to move on to the next adventure.

“The most dangerous place in the universe”

“The most dangerous place in the universe” is not being inside the Dalek per se, but interiority unfiltered, seeing ourselves as others see us. Rusty “is a Dalek,” the Doctor explains, “not a machine. It is a perfect analogue of a living being.” This is how memory functions in Aristotle, as analogy. There is no exact or precise way to define the self’s relation to memory, much less to pinpoint another’s.

This is what eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith might refer to as the limits of sympathy. You can only ever approximate the experience of another; you can never totally understand it, and it’s hubris to think you can change it. The Doctor and the Daleks cannot have a positive relationship. “The Doctor is not the Daleks”: they give each other definition by their fundamental opposition.

That’s why we can take so much comfort from the growing and deepening rapport between the Doctor and Clara. They can change and grow together. Moment by moment, they are finding that they can rely on each other, and build new memories together.


capaldi cybermen the tenth planet the claws of axos axons north carolina nc

Deep Breath: What I Learned

“Deep Breath” was what “Doctor Who” always seems to be for me: Exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it most. In Rose Tyler’s words, the Doctor, when he’s at his absolute best – at the top of his game – shows you a “better way of living your life.” I’ve been looking forward to, anticipating, even needing, a truly new episode of “Doctor Who,” and a truly new Doctor, for years now.

There hasn’t been a regeneration since I withdrew from my doctoral program, and all my life’s ambitions, in July 2011. A couple of weeks after the last time I closed the Word document that had been my dissertation in early December 2010, Matt Smith became the Doctor. I’d understood the David Tennant Doctor. As he reached his demise in “The End of Time,” I empathized with his pain, his loneliness, his feelings of abandonment, overreaching, and failure. I knew where he was emotionally when Adelaide Brooke took her own life at the end of “The Waters of Mars.” He felt he had disgraced himself and the promise he’d made to himself when he began his journey.

I felt the same, having closed the document that had become my entire life, my entire identity, for well over ten years. I’d sacrificed everything for the chance, for the remote opportunity, to be a university English professor. When that was no longer possible, I felt like the Doctor did when he, as Christopher Eccleston and Tennant, talked about the Last Great Time War. Like I’d gotten to the other side, but at too great a cost. Why was I, “only…escaped alone to tell thee,” like Job or Melville’s Ishmael?

Like the Doctor, a full lifetime on from the Time War, a whole new personality and state-of-being onwards, I have obsessed about the past for too long. I’ve let it define me. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Moment calls the Tennant and Smith Doctors, “the Man who Regrets and the Man who Forgets.” Three years on from leaving academia, I completely comprehended that. I’ve become different Melvins since I quit. I’ve had to, in order to survive. If I was still alive, I should do something. I had to become a different person, even though my consciousness was continuous.

“Deep Breath” showed me that such a thing is possible, if not inevitable, if I want to move forward. If I want to achieve my goals, Peter Capaldi’s debut illuminates, I have to change my entire outlook, my entire perception of the world. That’s what we should take away from every regeneration: that changing our fundamental hermeneutic is not only possible, but also vital, if we want to continue to change and grow through our lives.

Before changing into Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith’s Doctor asserts that, “We all change…we’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay…so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” I thought I got what that meant; at least, I understood it as well as I could without more data. So much has happened since I wrote the grad-student-guilt essay for Rebecca Schuman. I feel like I belong in several communities. It’s an amazing feeling after more than a decade of feeling like an outsider. I feel confident that there are people who care for me, and who want me to be the me that I think that they think that I think I am. I want to be the me that they perceive, the one they believe in.

The span of a few moments between rewatching the end of “The Time of the Doctor” and seeing “Deep Breath” was my first post-regeneration regeneration, and I needed it. Capaldi’s first full-length interpretation of the Doctor showed me that change is not only inevitable in our lives – or at least mine – but plausible. There’s a difference between necessary and plausible. Anything can be necessary in a story. There’s a big difference between whether we can believe in and can fulfill that change in our own lives.

Change is such a part of “Doctor Who.” But it’s hard to change, at least for me. I was still lamenting the loss of my ability to teach at the university level while many of my former colleagues, lucky enough to have made it in academia, complain about the return of students to their campuses. I would do anything to be in front of a top-flight university classroom again, even as I know it will never happen to the me I am now. That potential future is gone, and, since it’s gone, I have to stop idealizing it as the only true path for me.

“Deep Breath” also showed me the truth of something I’ve long believed. You’ve heard the truism that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” I spell it a slightly different way, to wit, that “a friend in need is a friend in deed.” The spelling change alters the meaning slightly, or should at least make you consider it from a different perspective. I had very few friends that were what I required while I was in academia. The ones I had were rare and precious. I know this because they’re still the friends I need when I need them, and adaptable to the ways that I need them.

These days, I seem to have more friends and meet new people who are willing to give me support and guidance when I need it, and, when I’m able, in the ways I ask for it. That is the trust and community that Smith’s Doctor is talking about in “The Name of the Doctor” when he says, “they cared for me during the dark times.” That is what friends, not-yet-friends, and total strangers have done for me since I started to change – to really change who I am – over the last year. It’s not been easy. Fundamentally changing who you are never is.

In Peter Capaldi’s first full episode, we see this dramatized. Friends who are willing to change with us are the ones that stay in our minds and hearts; they’re the ones we remember through all our different phases of life. “Deep Breath” revealed all this and much more. What a tremendously uplifting episode! When your hero asks, even in series trailers, “Am I a good man?” that should be the first clue. We need help figuring it out. We change, but we’re better at it supported by people we trust.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important question we can ask ourselves in the first decades of the 21st century. Can I trust the people I associate with, and are we, am I, doing right by those around me? It’s a new show now, and the degree of change it evinced is inspiring. It promises all new things to think about, and all new ways of seeing the world. This is what every new iteration of the Doctor has brought to the show, and why it’s persisted for more than fifty years.

* header image original, “these days i’m saving my strength for running,” on flickr.

Big Finish Doctor Who: Masquerade

One thing I love about classic Doctor Who, particularly the Peter Davison/Fifth Doctor era, is how many stories have an ambivalent ending. The Doctor and his companions certainly make it through to the end, but whether they triumphed, or did any good at all, is up for debate. The Fifth Doctor often finds himself drawn into hopeless situations where the best outcome is simply leaving intact. For all that Peter Davison was, at the time, the youngest actor to play the Doctor, he had a preternatural talent for playing the character as a sort of Time Lord Ulysses, careworn after years of being haphazardly flung around time and space. Stephen Cole‘s “Masquerade” (2014) for Big Finish excels in evoking all these facets of the Fifth Doctor era.

Doctor Who Big Finish Peter Davison Fifth Doctor

Cover art by Damien May

I’ve been excited for “Masquerade” since Damien May‘s gorgeous cover art was revealed. As a scholar, student, and aficionado of the eighteenth century, I’m practically starving for more Doctor Who stories set in my favorite historical period. It was with the David Tennant/Tenth Doctor story, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (2006), that I became a devoted Doctor Who fan.

Another element of classic Doctor Who that I enjoy is plot misdirection, where the audience expects one kind of story and gets something altogether different by the end. Since the Doctor has a habit of dropping in on bad situations in medias res, the audience may get three-quarters of the way through a story before the real stakes becomes clear. “Masquerade” does this well, too. I was all amped for a tale of eighteenth-century French intrigue, and ended up with a zero-sum game of consciousness hijacking and attempted interplanetary genocide taking place in a far-future virtual reality.

It’s all in a day’s work for the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and their fun, blustery, early-20th-century pal, Hannah Bartholomew. Ms. Bartholomew stowed away in the TARDIS at the end of “Moonflesh,” the first of this 5/Nyssa Big Finish trilogy, and popped up in the second, “Tomb Ship,” to the confusion and consternation of all. In “Masquerade,” Francesca Hunt plays Ms. Bartholomew with all the verve and spark that made her so welcome with the relatively-placid team of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa over the course of the two previous stories.

Ms. Bartholomew’s character had a minor arc threaded through the trilogy, reaching its conclusion here in “Masquerade.” I like the idea of a short-term companion on a quest of her own, one who passes through the Doctor’s life on the way to achieving her own destiny. Satisfying, too, to have the Doctor accept that the people he travels with are free agents who must be allowed to make major decisions for themselves, including staying behind — in one form or another — to help recovery efforts. That is, after all, how Nyssa will depart the TARDIS in “Terminus” (1983).

You could even imagine these three stories, ending with “Masquerade,” as the Doctor guest-starring in Hannah Bartholomew’s narrative, rather than the other way around. What she could only believe before, the existence of supernal beings, is proven to her beyond question. How wonderful to find that kind of certainty, and to take such comfort in its discovery that she’s now fully prepared to move on to the next phase.

The nature of Ms. Bartholomew’s life was fundamentally altered upon meeting the Doctor; fitting that the next change should be her own choice, and a selfless one at that. Ultimately, the Doctor cannot save most of the space station’s crew, fix Shadowspace, or appease the diasporic aliens dispossessed by human colonization. However, just by turning up in 1911 back in “Moonflesh,” he and Nyssa set Hanna Bartholomew on a path to finding a new purpose, as well as a community that will benefit from her presence and her strength.

Buy “Masquerade” from Big Finish.
Listen to the Big Finish behind the scenes podcast for “Masquerade.”