Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 035. …ish by Phil Pascoe (August 2002)

Language is something I have a great love for, and so it’s no surprise I was a huge fan of …ish. The sequence in which Book finds that the suffix “ish” is corrupting the language, denying it meaning, making things uncertain, really sent a shiver down my spine. It’s an archetypal modernist idea that language should break down, or that is to say it’s something which has become more expressly challenged and undermined in the literature of the 20th century, even if Western civilisation’s initial fear, of language as meaningless noise dates back to at least the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. At the heart of …ish is the idea that minds are constructed from the words we know, itself stemming from Book III of John Locke’s 1689 work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: words and concepts become impossible to separate, and so what we understand is intrinsically bound up in the words we have at our disposal. Our minds can do nothing without the acquisition of random sounds that label things. If that’s not a fascinating concept for a Doctor Who story, I don’t know what is, and much like the villain in Whispers of Terror, a “word-creature” is something which works best in the audio medium. Australian writer Phil Pascoe, making his debut here with his only work for the Whoniverse, comes up with a refreshing story where, as we’ve noted before, the threat is part of the medium in which it reaches us: in-story it is words that damage and yet it is only through words that we can comprehend this damage. Pascoe grounds language very much in our day-to-day reality, too, referring to such common things as repeating words to test them out ad nauseam and wondering why you choose a particular word for a particular space in a sentence.
He also addresses “rigidity” of language; the Lexicon and its pedantry, obsessed as it is with “official definitions”, is challenged by Warren, who wants “mutiny against the minutiae” (god, it would have been wonderful to have written this script wouldn’t it!). And yet the response to the fixity of language, that is to say the deconstructionism to which Warren subscribes, is ultimately far more condemned than is the fusty old establishment. There’s something rather wonderful about the nerdy professors with their linguistic enthusiasm and it’s hard not to feel Pascoe has a kind of warmth towards them, whereas, even if challenging the absolutism of language is a good thing, the prospect of linguistic concepts completely and utterly disintegrating is very much an emblem of terror here. It’s worth quoting the Doctor’s interchanges with Warren over the matter of the Omniverbum spreading through the universe, destroying language at will: “Words playing games with us… We won’t need faculties or universities or articulate worlds any longer. No more “write it this way.” The end of the stranglehold of certainty.”/“No more bedtime stories, no more poetry. No one able to speak to another. Words never spoken, only ever repeated?”/ “Free-flowing dissemination of meaning, unlimited semiosis!” Ultimately, the Doctor comes down on the side of words actually meaning something; of course he must.

What a perfect concept this is for Colin Baker’s verbose, loquacious Sixth Doctor. It’s one of the stories that is most adapted to his style, and feels like a uniquely Sixth Doctor adventure in the way that, say, Bloodtide doesn’t (fun though that was). Baker gets to really let rip here in the way he did in The One Doctor, and the story is all the better for his grandiloquent grandstanding. The moment in which he is introduced to the lexicography symposium as “the well-known raconteur, that bon vivant of bons mots, the Doctor” and calmly intones “thanks for warming them up for me” as he takes to the stage is a hoot.

Nicola Bryant is great in her first appearance since way back in Whispers of Terror. She and Colin do a solid job, particularly as they are split up early in the adventure which allows their bickering to be toned down as they both respond to different facets of the world they’re exploring. I adore that Peri knows masses of botanical terms beginning with “peri-”: it’s a charming little scene that shows Pascoe has thought about her character beyond “she’s there”, as it seems a lot of other writers treat Ms Brown. She gets to spend quite a bit of time with Book and is given a more cerebral storyline than she normally gets, pondering what language means and asking Book all the right questions. By the time the Doctor and Peri are reunited in Part Three one is practically chomping at the bit to hear them together. That they defeat the Ish together, providing definition discrepancies between England and America, is an absolute joy (especially the nod back to “lieutenant”, my favourite joke from The Twin Dilemma). What a team they make.

For me, this story felt like a clever critique of post-structuralism or indeed post-modernism en masse. We’ve discussed already how the Doctor (and our) moral compass is aligned with those who seek to protect the meaning of words. The crucial thing to note – which is something I’ve felt about post-structuralism for a while anyway – is that it is madness if taken to its logical conclusion. It only gets us so far. “Reality is a kind of communication”: this is unavoidable. Breaking things down, deconstructing them, is something I feel is perfectly healthy, human, inquisitive and logical, but one has to assume some kind of baseline meaning, even if it is only pretence of meaning. Even if one cannot see the purpose of something, one can still use words to express one’s existential angst. Meaning never complete dissolves, and thank goodness for that. Post-structuralism is presented as something revolutionary here, something attacking the old guard, but the irony of that is that in our own world post-structuralism is emphatically reactionary: if nothing means anything at all, there can be no more revolutions. Why should anyone ever help the oppressed or care for the sick?

At the heart of Pascoe’s script is an emphatic assertion that post-structuralism is no way to live one’s life, and though it could be a tad faster-paced at times, the fact that he gets to this strong conclusion via a lot of clever ideas, a cracking premise and a whole host of witty lines makes this another very strong Big Finish outing in my … Book.

Other thoughts:
“…ish. Almost a word, not quite. A fragment. Something slightly askew.”
The music (by one-off composer Neil Clappison, who like Pascoe never returns to Who, giving this audio quite a unique feeling) is subtly different to what we’re familiar with, quite eerie and downplayed.
Book is a cracking idea, freely borrowed from Douglas Adams.
“Interesting? A convocation of linguists, lexicologists and logomaniacs? Everybody from all dog-eared corners of the articulate cosmos! Peri – this is interesting!”
“English! The language of Chaucer.”/“Chaucer?”/“Well, of Shakespeare.”/“Shakespeare?”/ “Of ME!”
“It takes a rare perspicacity to devote one’s life to the lexicographer’s craft.”
“The convener of this congregated cornucopia!”/“Hi. I’m his translator.”
“Mastery of English, eh? I’d reverse the roles, personally. It’s English that has mastered me. English! What a remarkable, versatile language, ever expanding, adapting, surviving, but never compromising its integrity nor its poetry; one of the foremost achievements of humankind, a living language in the truest sense – and a language worth living.”
“Hey! Hi! We’re the only people in here not wearing tweed!”
“I hate to be one of those people, and you probably get this all the time, but would you still sign my dictionary?” Chris Eley as Warren has a wonderfully eccentric and mercurial charm, breaking into offices, and rather cleverly he comes across as one of the more amiable, anarchic, younger Doctors – a nice contrast to Baker’s bombastic presence. It’s no surprise Peri warms to him.
“What is all this? Has all this ever been anything other than a game?”
“I reckon words are meant to speak through us. Or even speak us into existence.”
“When? When will violent death ever make sense?” Things only make sense in the context in which you find them, much like words do in a given sentence.
“Her penchant for clarity and correct usage bordered on occasion on the monomaniacal.”
The suicide note riddled with spelling errors reminds me of exactly the same plot device in a book I loved as a child – one of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, The Wide Window (2000). I wonder if that influenced Pascoe at all as it’s a reasonably unusual MacGuffin.
“Paragraphs, sentences, declarations, even a single word has a value.”/ “Significance is a commodity?”
“An amanuensis?”/ “A hologlyph!”
“The letter of the law is a foreign alphabet here!”
I think I made a loud hooting noise when Warren’s swear word turned out to be “Shibboleth!” – absolutely marvellous.
“corruption within the systems themselves” – the threat emerges from within itself. Words possess the power to turn against the people who use them; they’re intrinsically unreliable and slippery.
The Terry Nation DAL gag is very cheeky…
“It’s not logos we need to think about, Cawdrey, it’s ‘logos’!” Groan.
“Maybe you’d better start at the beginning – and I don’t mean ‘aardvark’.”
Re-animating Osefa’s consciousness à la “ghosting” in Silence in the Library or the Angels in Flesh and Stone. Actually, the whole media as a glitch through which horrifying things can happen is an oft-examined Moffat trope, too.
The creation myth behind the Word: “Patterns of energy, left over from Event One, converted into chaotic sonic oscillation, developing over colossal distances and over hundreds of thousands of years, a soft rumbling, building, building to a deepening roar, striving towards meaning.”
“They say, in space you could have heard it scream.” Hehe.
“I think I need to sit down,” the Doctor says on learning of “the birth cries of the universe.” Nicely downplayed.
“Words, words, words…” of course Pascoe was going to quote Hamlet at some point.
The part 2 cliff-hanger (ish…ish…ish…) is as eerie as it is bonkers.
A few of the conceits are slightly difficult to visualise – escaping the Lexisphere, for example: no real indication is given as to how they do it – but I’d posit that’s forgivable in a story this clever and fun.
“Without those basics of language, their minds are unable to cope and simply switch off.” – a gleefully unique, dark concept.
“It’s what isn’t being said that’s important.” (nice aside, Doctor)
“Only some ways of communicating suit its purposes…or porpoises. Dolphins have a language too, you know.”
Conceptually speaking, linguistic transcendentalism is really very well done: the longer the word, the more specific its potential meaning, and thus the longest word in existence would be so dense in meaning reality itself would warp around it.
The transgalactic babel masters, bleeping out the offending syllable, are another clever little conceit in a story packed with interesting ideas.
“Immaterial and material hands do not shake. But I recognise you nonetheless. I have met your words before.”
“A lexicographer’s lackey is going to bring about the dissolution of all language… Can’t you appreciate the irony?”
“My vocabulary is suitably immune to wandering suffixes.”
Pontificating and rhetoric are supplanted by narrative – “Instead of a speech, I am going to tell you a story. It concerns a friend of mine. Someone about whom I have had ample time and due occasion to consider, a man whose love of language has never gone unrequited.”
“Here we are, at your universe’s first encounter with a sentient meme, and it’s all me me me me!”
The Doctor’s mind is effectively directed & scored, although rather differently from The Shadow of the Scourge.
“Legibility, how I’ve missed you!”
Cawdrey’s fate is rather sad, but a nice sense that the story has serious consequences.
To top it all off, we get another gloriously self-aware gag, this time referring to The Adjective of Noun.

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