The Purge

  • Reading time:5 mins read

So now New Who has been around for about as long as Doctor Who was when Sue Malden first did an audit and realized that the BBC no longer retained big hunks of the first eleven years of the show (many of which have since been filled in; many famously will likely never be). To get an idea of the insanity here, what would this look like if transposed to the modern era? Well, it wouldn’t be precise because of all the differences in production, episode length, episode count. We’ve got all these gap years as well. But, we can make a stab at it!

“Heaven Sent” (Doctor Who series 9, episode 11; 2015)

On first tally, much of the material from 2005-2016 would just be gone; no copies known to exist. That would be up through Peter Capaldi’s second series as the Doctor. After freaking out a little, we would later be able to fill the gaps from copies sold abroad or misfiled somewhere, albeit often in the wrong aspect, resolution, framerate—and for reasons, lots of episodes from 2011-2016 would now only exist in black-and-white, so we’d have to find a way to deal with that.

After pulling in all the favors and scouring the globe, we’d be able to lock down everything from series 6 (2011) on in some form or other, though much of it would need heavy restoration work. we’d have most of series 1, 2, and 5, but 3 and 4 would basically just be gone, the odd episode or fragment aside, and we’d only have half the 2009 specials. We would, however, have plenty of screenshots—and, curiously, complete audio for every episode, carefully reassembled from fan reaction videos on YouTube.

From series 1 (2005) we’d really only be missing the renowned early Slitheen story which all the kids remember being excited about at the time, and a middle segment of the finale, “Parting of the Ways.” From series 2, just half of “The Satan Pit” two-parter.

“Aliens of London” (Doctor Who series 1, episode 4; 2005)

Series five (2010), we’d have in entirety except for this one dull-sounding story where the doctor shares a room with someone, that based on the synopsis and the available screenshots regularly comes in at the bottom of episode polls.

Perhaps the most frustrating loss is of 2009’s epic “The End of Time,” which fan circles generally recognize as the best Doctor Who serial ever on the basis of the pivotal material it covers and the fact that the description just sounds really cool you know—as well as the classic favorite “Planet of the Dead.”

Anyway, you see how insane it was when Ms. Malden bothered to look and realized, oh. you know. we just… threw all that away, huh. We wiped every copy, because by 21st-century standards we needed the hard drive space for ongoing episodes of Graham Norton.

See, you get all these apologists waxing about, well, they didn’t know any better back then; it was a different time. Yes they did, though! Other shows—look, the producer of Blue Peter put in an order that every single episode of her show be retained, in consideration of its long-term cultural value. We didn’t just invent basic foresight and reasoning capability in 1980. (Though we may yet find it someday!) Like any kind of garbage. in any given time period there are always people who knew better. When they did The Fucking Talons of Weng-Chiang, it was 1977. There were many people in 1977 who would have been capable of seeing the racial depictions in that serial and noticing that they were in fact Not Okay.

It’s complicated, right. as things will be. The purge was just this comedy of miscommunication, with some people assuming that of course someone would hang onto things in some other department, other people assuming of course they wouldn’t; people forgetting to put in orders of retention; other people misfiling, losing stuff. What we’ve managed to get back is this patchwork: some from the BBC Film Library, which asserted it wasn’t their responsibility to hold onto the show and that they very much shouldn’t have any copies at all actually; some from the Engineering Department, which only held onto tapes until they were needed for something else, which could be a matter of weeks after first broadcast (in the case of some late Jon Pertwee serials).

Most of what survives is a film prints made for foreign broadcast. Most of those were retained briefly by BBC Enterprises before getting burned to clear shelf space—since hey, they were just copies, right? Other prints made their way accidentally back to the Film Library or the National Film Archive, neither of which was supposed to hang onto them, but they were so disorganized that they didn’t bother to sort them out for disposal. Other prints were found abroad or in church basements or rummage sales, years later.

So yeah, the assertion that, nobody knew any better, nobody thought like this back then—that’s… not true. In the same way that it never is. Some people didn’t! Some very much did! The problem is that nobody talked to anyone, everyone just assuming their map of the world was the correct one.

And that problem, that’s… not one that’s gonna go away soon, huh.

The Long Game

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Lady Cassandra O’Brien feels like she should bother me more than she does. On principle she’s… not great, right, but in practice it’s hard to even frown that hard. The trans element is misjudged, probably. but I don’t see it as malicious. I know Davies has readily evolved as he’s learned, and admitted his past limitations.

There’s also this thing with progressive transgressive humor, right. You start by making a joke about something, someone unmentionable. The transgression isn’t in demeaning the unmentionable; it’s for acknowledging it. admitting to an uncomfortable world that it exists. Making it a joke gets it in the door at all. When later that existence is normalized such that we’re not discussing validity and rights and compassion, the initial jokes can come off as cruel and insensitive—the sort of thing the regressive sort will latch onto, to try tear down what legitimacy has been built.

If you keep moving long enough, any landmark that once was a step forward becomes a step back. But that marker, its inherent value isn’t gonna always sit in relation to where things are now.

Doctor Who came back 15 years ago. Davies is an angry, militant anarcho-humanist. The offhanded trans joke with Cassandra was probably tasteless then as it would be now, but all things considered to me it doesn’t read as mean-spirited. Kind of the opposite, weirdly; it’s in the spirit of, can we get away with pushing the window here? If we make it a dumb joke, just maybe! This is in contrast to some other things one could cite, like the dialogue in any given Toby Whithouse episode—or, you know, Gareth Roberts. As a person. I know how Davies’ mind works, at least in creative terms, and so try as I might to disassemble this, it’s… fine?

That angry queerness is what connects 2005 Doctor Who to the last time the show was regularly broadcast, and in some ways back to its anarchist, marginalized roots. If we’re gonna get prescriptive, this is to my mind the mode that the show should be working in.

With the Cartmel era, Ace of course is meant to be… bi at least, if not finding her feet as a lesbian. And then serials like The Happiness Patrol, well. For those outside UK queer circles, section 28 may possibly not mean much in 2020, but it’s no accident that this tale of the state suppression of public displays of melancholy—everyone is compelled to be happy all the time, right—hits at the exact moment as legislation banning public displays of, depiction of, discussion of, homosexuality. Under the terms of that very law we can’t talk about how it’s illegal to be gay—but illegal to be sad? Just reverse the polarity and the censors will never notice. Then we can paint the TARDIS pink, and fill the story with glitter and candy—

Or… by 2018 standards, I guess we can rescue Amazon from the evil labor organizers so that society doesn’t collapse without its cheap merchandise.

The McCoy era of course deeply informed Davies. The 2005 episode, “The Long Game,” is based on an old spec script he wrote at the time for the Seventh Doctor and Ace. If you reach back, there is sort of a long predecessor to The Happiness Patrol in The Macra Terror—my sometimes-vote for maybe the best story of the Troughton era—which itself is a story Davies referenced at his best and most bonkers, in “Gridlock.”

Which, speaking of trans jokes, is a word that… I just… misread as another word entirely.

Basically, Doctor Who should be batshit and earnest, and it needs to have something to say. My mind so often reels when people assert the opposite, as with the popular fan response to Ghost Light, In that story, Ace gives a haunted monologue about a formative memory of a hate crime she witnessed against her friend. Apparently that whole scene, and by extension the serial and the era in general, is prime cringe because Ace references “the white kids” when she herself is white. “The white kids firebombed it!” the fans will chuckle at each other.

The same fans who think the one flaw in Talons is a shitty giant rat puppet.

(Which is, incidentally, the very best part of the serial. It’s so charming!)

It was such a good thing for this fandom when all the teenage girls began to rush in about 15 years ago, terrifying the aging-out middle-class white cis dudes. And that’s who Davies brought to the game. That’s who he wanted. That’s who he knew would make a difference.

Davies was right. For its own health, the fandom needed a massive change in its gender makeup. It was a Big Trans plot the whole time. His long game, if you will.

Grasping On

  • Reading time:6 mins read

In hindsight it says a lot I think that the thing to first draw me in to Steven Universe was “Cry for Help.” There were lots of feelings I had no clue how to process. The scenario, it spoke to me—in a way I had trouble identifying.

Steven Universe s02e10: “Cry for Help” (2015)

It’s not direct, 1:1. But, like. I needed to see that.

It’s so hard to validate sometimes when a thing feels wrong and everyone you turn to is saying to you, what, you signed up for this; what are you complaining about; actually you owe this to the person making you feel this way, for putting up with you all this time.

The whole nature of my arrangement, it was like a big switcheroo, and I was trapped.

My body no longer belonged to me. I was no longer a person. I was just… an acquisition. For someone else’s use, at someone else’s whim. I was a prop for their benefit, and I had no more say.

Again, “Cry for Help,” it’s not exactly the same scenario. (Pearl is the one doing the coercion, for a start.) But, like. The point of the story is, our problems, the dangers we face, they aren’t really about bogeymen most of the time. People are people, and everyone is capable of great or terrible things, sometimes in the same breath. For practical reasons if nothing else, nearly all meaningful violence comes from people close to you. It’s hard to abuse a person without a foundation of trust.

Steven Universe Future s01e04: “Volleyball” (2019)

On some level, I knew things were wrong. I knew I was in a bad situation, and I didn’t know how to get away. But I just couldn’t address it. Not directly. Any problems I faced, I told myself they were my own fault; I just wasn’t strong enough. I needed to bear with it, try harder to prove my use to someone who didn’t even see me as human. I didn’t have the words or the resources to admit what I was facing, how wrong it was. And there was always some new emergency that was somehow mine to clear up.

I had ignored the show before that episode. Then I saw the response online. I looked up some reviews and saw what it was about. I dug up a copy and I watched it, repeatedly.

And just, seeing that coercion.

And, knowing, in some raw piece of what was left of me: oh.

There are so many abusive relationship dynamics in this show. It’s really something else—for any TV series, let alone a show aimed at twelve-year-olds. So many moments, it feels like the show is checking in on the viewer, saying, you see this? This isn’t okay. If it looks in any way familiar, go and chew that over for a minute. Maybe talk to someone.

Steven Universe s03e15: “Alone at Sea” (2016)

One of the reasons I like Lapis so much is, not only is her story just one big mound of whoomph identification over here; she’s also… not very likable. Lapis is a major fuckup. She’s prickly, and nasty, and inconsiderate. Not on purpose; just because, that’s what trauma often does to a person.

She knows how awful she can be. She knows how much she can hurt others without meaning to. It’s just, she just doesn’t know how to manage her pain and fear and depression well enough not to. The worse she responds, the worse she feels, because she doesn’t want to be like that. Every time she lashes out, all it does is affirm her own self-image that little bit more.

It’s not cute. It’s not cozy and sad and pathetic. Lapis is bitter and broken, and she has zero faith in herself. But, she also is so full of love and care and gratitude, that she wishes she knew how, had the basic fucking energy, to express.

It would be so easy to paint a character like Lapis as, oh, that poor little waif. Pity the mirror girl.

But no, Lapis is an asshole.

And it’s amazing.

And just, so… real.

Steven Universe Future s01e08: “Why So Blue” (2019)

90% of the time, Lapis is Extremely Not Helping. Because in the event she does anything, she doesn’t trust herself not to fuck it up or hurt someone or just lose control. But when she can keep it together? There’s no stopping her.

All that trauma, leading to all that bad behavior, all that conflict, all that grief and self-loathing, that’s the bulk of the show, just seeing how this plays out. Seeing people bounce off each other, bite each other’s heads off, weather each other’s abuse in the wake of things way bigger than them, that we never get to see clearly. Because they’re just the world Steven was thrown into. Much like us.

With Steven Universe, the real story happens long before the show begins. The show is about the fallout and the consequences of decisions ages in the past. What do we do now? What does this mean for us? How do we fix this? Can it even be fixed? Why is this on us? How is this fair?

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

This is in part why “Change Your Mind” has to happen as it does, why the trans allegory plays out in its slightly occluded way. Rose isn’t there anymore. She can’t end her story. She can’t fix things. She will never know closure. But we can still find a way to address her problems and move on.

We can give her a proper elegy, make sure the reasons behind her decisions are as clear as we can make them, and try our best to accept the present for what it is, and make the best of it that we can. Like Lapis, like Pearl—like Steven, like Amethyst—Rose was a fuckup, and she was in pain. That pain set all of this in motion. We can try to address the causes. Then for our part we can do better, we can be better. We can make a better life than we were handed.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what everything is always about.

The throughline of Steven Universe is about working through the crap that has been left for you by forces outside your control and finding a way to live your life again.

And yet people remain baffled that Future plays out the way it does. As if it’s not the only possible resolution. As if the whole reason for this reckoning was for any other purpose than to come out the other side and find a way to be human.

On Fucking Up

  • Reading time:3 mins read

Flaw is character. Flaws are what make us actual people, and not just cartoons. Flaws are what allow for beauty and growth and potential. Without flaw there is no hope. Stories often pay lip service to or structurally apply this ideal. It’s fun to root for the underdog, the misfit, so long as you know they’re in the right all along and they’ll show everyone in the end.

The best thing about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed every character is, how much they hurt themselves and each other as a result, and how committed the show is to showing them compassion anyway, without excusing their behavior, until they can learn to do better.

The thing people hate about Steven Universe is how deeply flawed the characters are, how much that drives the story, and the show’s refusal to pass judgment on them as people no matter how much it emphasizes the damage they do.

Because in our culture compassion is endorsement. To address a thing means to legitimize it.

So when Pearl… does what she does to Garnet, and for all the appropriate horror and weight, the show doesn’t write Pearl off entirely and rather spends this whole arc exploring the fallout of her decision, the peanut gallery chimes in about the show’s problematic attitudes toward rape.

So when, in desperation and to mixed success, Steven attempts to talk down the Diamonds—convince them to use their power to help people instead of hurting them—rather than look for a way to kill them outright, we get two-hour-long screeds on how a bisexual nonbinary Jewish woman is a Nazi apologist.

What makes the show magical is that it will not draw hard lines about people; only about the damage and the growth they cause and experience. It shows that anyone is capable of positive or negative change. It shows how attitudes and behavior are systemic, and how they cause a chain reaction that manifests in cycles far outside one’s control or direct understanding.

It’s a show about unconditional love and hope for change in a world that sucks where people repeat the garbage they’ve learned and don’t know how to do better even if they understand and accept the harm they do. Where the first step often is just accepting the pain and moving on.

And fuck if that isn’t the most relevant message in the world.

But we’re a culture that roars for blood and righteous retribution, where the only people who do bad things are people who are innately bad, and where some people are just more human, more deserving, than others.

Maybe if we had a few more positive philosophical models like this show, our cultural narrative would shift a bit. As it is, it’s a moral outlier. As anything that prioritizes kindness over righteous obedience will be. Because that’s what an unkind oligarchy has taught us is trouble.

Steven Universe is the best TV show ever, seriously, and if you haven’t yet you need to watch it until you understand it.

Which may take a while, as it’s fucking strange, and queer, and neurodiverse, and doesn’t signify or indicate or move or talk or think like any other show out there. But it’ll change your mind, change your life, if you allow it.

Revising the Past

  • Reading time:3 mins read

When I think of my childhood it’s basically just flat melancholy. So to engage with the pastel melancholy nostalgia of Steven Universe, it just—whoof. That wasn’t my life exactly, but in several emotional dynamics it feels so familiar—a past I recognize, yet with an optimism; a version where things can get better. The loneliness, the neglect, the emotionally unstable adults who act like needy little siblings to the children; the knowledge that you’re always doing everything wrong; the vague unprocessed dysphoria; very little sense of what’s normal or how to connect with others—it’s all part of the radiation.

So many episodes of the show, at least tonally, emotionally, they paint this picture of scenarios that could have been that way. They weren’t, and probably wouldn’t have been, but I understand them, almost remember them, in a way that I just don’t get from other stories.

I’ve talked about this before: I don’t emotionally engage with stories. I approach media with this satellite view, where I study how the pieces fit together to communicate meaning and I think about the way it’s done, how clearly it says its thing and whether that’s interesting. I think a big part of that is, I don’t feel like most things that people have to say are really meant for me. I engage with them like an alien, appreciating them on the basis of all the other abstract patterns I’ve seen in the last 40 years.

This show, for once something actually speaks my language. It communicates the way I communicate, prioritizes the things I find important, thinks and feels about things in a way I find intuitive, notices the details I notice, ignores the things I don’t care about, is queer and neurodiverse in ways that I never fully appreciated I was until decades after the harm was done. So many of the emotional consequences it shows to the scenarios it depicts, not only do I not see those, shown in that way, in other stories; they’re some of the truest, realist shit to my experience, often beyond what I’ve been able to process or communicate on my own.

To be able to reframe a neurodiverse, queer childhood and see it for what it is, and know that for all the universality of some experience it didn’t have to be as bad as it was… that’s a lot. The amount of healing it provides, just to see an alternate possible past, where for all the unavoidable problems one faces, unconditional love and acceptance are possible and reasonable to expect from others.

I get why people might not understand this series. It’s fucking weird. And it’s the only story I’ve met that more or less reflects my own perspective on the world. So, like. Other people, you get every other story that’s ever been told by anyone. I get this one.

Reality Bites

  • Reading time:3 mins read

The thing about that passing revelation in “Growing Pains” is, one can’t help but think of Lars. For the entire show we’ve seen Steven just take these extreme cartoonish injuries and thought little of it, so it came as such a shock when Lars banged his head, and that was it.

There was this tangible confusion. We’re watching this silly cartoon. He’s got to be fine, right. Steven lives through this all the time. Why get realistic now? The Off-Colors kind of echo our instincts, if not for the astonishingly brutal signifiers. They don’t quite get it.

But, like. Steven wasn’t any different. Episode after episode, his own bones were getting shattered over and over again. The only reason he’s still alive is the magic holding him together, knitting his pieces in real-time.

He was just used to it; he always seemed fine, no one showed him any particular concern, so he just dealt with the pain and kept going. So he didn’t really have that much reason to think other humans would be all that different. Yeah, they’d probably be a little more fragile but…

Lars’s death is the first moment the real implications of mixing this fantastical and the mundane really land. Like, you’re mixing normal people with relatively normal physics into this cartoon nonsense—and they’re going to break. They can’t play by the same heightened reality.

And it turns out Steven literally embodies that. Since the beginning the show has involved him staggering that line between the worlds, not treating either with the appropriate gravity, not quite understanding the separation or the consequences. Even after he sees the way this stuff affects the people he cares about, this danger and disregard that surrounds them every moment that he’s never taken all that seriously, it remains unclear how much he himself is affected. He seems fine.

But he’s not. He’s just being kept alive.

Which in turn brings back that sort of chilling line from the movie, not that much earlier.

It’s like. Steven, you’re disregarding your own pain that much, your own body’s signals, you’re getting that much neglect, that you don’t even realize you’re basically dead a hundred times over already. That’s your normal. Even after seeing your friend die, you don’t get it.

Life is fragile. None of what you’re doing is normal or healthy. You’re just as breakable as Lars, you deserve the same level of care. You’re only still here by virtue of a miracle, and you can’t even rely on that always saving you. Priyanka has some serious asses to kick.

The amount of neglect in Steven’s life that would lead for this revelation in episode 174 out of 180 to be any sort of a surprise… like, we saw it. We saw how reality works in this world. All it took was one knock, and Lars was gone. And yet, Steven just keeps eating the abuse.

Aside from some passing contextual alarm out of Greg, Priyanka of all people is the first adult in Steven’s life to show him an appropriate response, to treat him as a human child with his own physical and emotional needs. And he just has no fucking clue what to do with this.

This is how things get normalized. Our attitudes toward ourselves and others. Our assumptions about how the world works. How we build up unrealistic expectations. If there had just been one adult in Steven’s life showing him appropriate care, he would know what it looked like.

What it does not look like is this:

How the Right Ignites the Left

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Just so we’re clear, the Bow business was not great. Not malicious, it would seem, but just so very Dumbass White^TM, in a way that can only go unchecked if there are no Black people in the room. Everyone concerned seems aghast in hindsight, and so on. Fine. But that’s a legitimate grievance. Everything else about the livestream, though, and the online firestorm in response? It’s in such intense bad faith, and in such a specific familiar way, that I can’t help but wonder.  

There are a few things that precede these events, you see. Not long before this livestream, Noelle came out as non-binary—in some puttering, early, confused capacity, as one does. (Speaking from personal experience.) They also began to express they may be neurodiverse. And then they had a long, long interview with Rebecca Sugar, where the two of them compared notes. As it turns out, Double Trouble was… sort of, in part, a self-insert character. Stevenson had been thinking about this character for years and years, and using them as a way to work through some things before they really understood why.

Up until all of this, Stevenson was held up as some bastion of progressive showrunning. But after this series of revelations, we see baseless accusations of lesbophobia (?!?!), of ableism, and of creepy attitudes toward non-binary people.  

You see how this works, right. It’s all great to talk about marginalized identities until marginalized people start doing the talking, at which point everything they say comes under the most intense scrutiny. When Noelle came off as a normal white lesbian girl, they were largely free to talk about whatever. But now that they’re exploring their gender identity and neurology, and revealing how much of this stuff was actually personal—and that they’re on good terms with, comparing their own work to, the last person to take this dark turn toward the margins of society? Oh, ew, throw them to the wolves.

The specific way that passing statements were twisted out of context with the worst possible interpretation, it’s like 2018 SU Crit territory all over again. Or just the TERf/alt-right playbook. Not that there’s any real ideological difference. Once you nail a plausible accusation, it doesn’t matter if it gets refuted; the impression remains: there’s something off with this person; it’s best to approach with caution.

Of the scurrilous accusations, lesbophobia is especially pointed and significant. Where it comes from: the host of the stream, when introducing a participant, read off the name of her podcast, which includes the word “dyke” because it’s a podcast by a queer woman about queer stuff. Right? So this gets abstracted out to, THE PRODUCTION TEAM USED THE D-SLUR. Which by metonymy gets translated into Noelle Stevenson in particular. Which is… not what happened, and just, you know, fucking hell, come on. There’s no good-faith way you could come to this reading. 

What’s important is why we see this bizarre frame. It’s important because Stevenson just came out as non-binary. To emphasize this, there’s a similar kind of misrepresentation to suggest that the production team was intentionally creepy about Double Trouble, casting them as sort of a predator. Again: Double Trouble is Noelle. (Sort of, partially.)  Similar story for the purported ableism, in regard to Entrapta’s neurology, etc., when Stevenson is also apparently neurodiverse. 

What this framing is trying to assert without saying it directly is, okay, Noelle is creepy, deviant, and lesbophobic. And the Bow thing, which sucks and is real, comes as a convenient wedge issue so that people don’t examine the other claims too deeply. It’s a perfect storm to try to take down a gender traitor, basically.