Dear Steven Moffat: Into the Dalek

Doctor Who Into the Dalek

Dear Steven,

When Into the Dalek ended I felt rather sad. That’s not because it was over; I mean it was fine, but I’ll talk at you about that in a moment, no, it’s a sense I had – an old feeling. It was, I dare say, similar to the repressed memory of Rusty the Dalek, brought on by an in-built flaw, in this case not a radiation leak but the episode’s design, and not a vision of beauty like Rusty’s, but dread long buried, a state of mind that I call the Brannon Braga Effect.

Brannon Braga was, as you should know from the “‘Condensed History of TV Sci-Fi” tape you were obliged to watch when you became showrunner, a long standing contributor to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise. Fans slowly began to despise him, for a Braga script jettisoned human drama and meaty storytelling in favour of conceptual madness. He was a technocentric storyteller with the keys to the kingdom. As Trek entered a downturn, Braga became all-powerful. When Enterprise debuted, he was the big space cheese and many attributed that show’s creative stagnation, recycled plots, and general aimlessness, to burn out. Braga had simply been around too long. He was tired, Steven, and the depreciating vitality of his scripts and reliance on deranged concepts, symbolised the malaise. By the time new blood was pumped in, in the form of nu-boss Manny Coto, it was too late. The viewers had turned their phasers upon themselves. They never saw Coto’s excellent stories.

What shocks me is that I’m feeling Bragaed just two episodes into this new run. I like Capaldi’s Doctor, I like the dynamic between him and Clara, but I felt distanced from this story, as though mentally ticking off familiar elements. I think the comic writer in you thought that a Dalek riff on Fantastic Voyage was morbidly funny, and I suppose I agree, but I’d have preferred a story laced with intrigue and substance, rather than a minitaurised tour of a robot Nazi.

Of course all of this was just a device, literalised and writ large, for exploring the episode’s big theme, and we now realise, the hook on which you’ve hung the series. Is the Doctor a good man these days? At first the question seems facile, absurd even. Who, no pun intended, could doubt it after fifty years and a million seasons? But I suppose you’ve piggy backed doubt on to this latest iteration of the character, using the regeneration to introduce an element of distrust. I’m afraid you’re going to have to work hard to convince me that our man’s got a tarnished soul, and I can’t understand for the life of me why Clara would have her doubts, having enjoyed the Doctor’s warmth and protection for some time now, but this is the age of uncertainty, I get it, the era of the psychologically dense Doctor, so we must play along, even if we don’t believe it.

I suppose in a bid to revitalise the character and introduce an element of mystery, this is your version of the Cartmel Masterplan, the truncated scheme of yesteryear, in which Andrew Cartmel developed a backstory that would add hidden layers to a man we’d never thought to scrutinise. However, I’d argue his idea was rather better than yours, rooted as it was in biographical detail, rather than philosophical musings and self-doubt.

Last week you introduced a moment of ambiguity; the possibility that the new Doctor is a murderer; this week you pushed us toward that conclusion, showing a certain callousness when he sacrificed a mono-dimensional background character to save the group and himself, and a sociopathic streak when, confronted with the man’s remnants in a soup of protein, he deadpanned, “he’s the top layer, if you want to say a few words”. It was a good line, Steven, but I rather thought you gave the game away when lifeless story element Gretchen was sent to her death and ended up in the mysterious Missy’s afterlife apparent. The message seemed to be that this woman, whoever she is, is hoarding those the Doctor’s sent to their deaths; a group we’ll soon be calling Team Grievance.

I wondered if “heaven”, which I’m beginning to suspect is a TARDIS (as you’d need a scooping mechanism that could be in any place and time, as required), was a means to have it both ways. Are we to infer the Doctor, while searching for his moral dimension, will kill a character a week, only to redeem himself in the finale by saving them all from Missy’s clutches? Or will we discover that Missy has orchestrated each situation, essentially forcing the Doctor’s hand? If that’s the plan, Steven, doesn’t this season’s grand design just amount to another big tease? Where’s the meat? If you want to deepen the Doctor’s character you will, at some stage, have to show him making irreversible mistakes. That said, he could have a hundred incarnations and it’s likely he’ll never top the War Doctor’s genocide.

The weakness of Into the Dalek, I felt, was that it was no more than its hook. Sure, we got to think about whether the Daleks were redeemable, and by extension, whether the Doctor was experiencing the converse malfunction, a certain relaxed attitude toward killing, underlined by the Dalek appropriating his Skaro-racism and using it to butcher fellow pepperpots, but what was lacking was a catalyst for the Doctor’s transformation. Regeneration is convenient but it’s not enough. If you’re serious about moving the Doctor toward the Valeyard, whom you may wish to re-introduce by the way, and who might have been a better big bad for this season than a woman modeled on the world’s worst online pick up, then we’ll need the very thing you may not have it in you to give us: character changing moments wrapped in story complications. Drama, Steven. Drama.

This is why you now have an air of Braga about you. You’re backing up emotional arcs with recycled concepts – reaching for the Daleks because they’re an easy opposite for the Doctor to play off, a spin on your tessellating manship, complete with robot antibodies. I want those character moments Steven, but I want them arising from the collision of Doctor and story, not Doctor and concept. Only then will this new man’s adventures feel fresh.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Hardly an episode goes by these days without a bit of sexual politics. Last week, a lesbian kiss. This week, gender roles. Boorish new man and former solider Danny is Pink, feminoid female solider Journey, blue. Keep it up, Steven – you’ll have society recalibrated in no time.

P.P.S: Clara’s an English teacher who reads The Guardian. I suppose when it comes to breaking down stereotypes and thought terminating clichés you give with one hand…

P.P.P.S: Next week, Robin Hood? For the last time, Steven – you don’t have enough episodes in each series to indulge in the equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck stories. He better be a thieving android.

Old Beginnings: 

The Matt Smith Years: 

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Why would Mark David Chapman, killer of John Lennon, ever want to be released?

Lennon and Chapman

It was another “aw shucks” moment this week for Mark David Chapman, the man whose only noted achievement thus far, is the premeditated murder of pop icon and former Beatle, John Lennon. Chapman, serving twenty to life for the crime, has been eligible for parole since the year 2000, and has dutifully turned up to board hearings every two years since, pleading to be released back into the Lennonless world he created. The only question that troubles the mind of the humble observer, is why? Why would the man responsible for slaughtering one of the most famous and fanatically loved men of the last century, want to live without state protection?

If one were cynical, one could argue that the very act of bartering for freedom proves that Chapman’s as insane, if not more so, than the day he travelled to the Dakota Building in New York, and mooched around outside with a loaded gun in one pocket and pen for signing autographs in the other, while Lennon was been interviewed inside about his hopes and dreams for the future. For surely only a man many times removed from reality would think that an admission he was “an idiot”, a suspicion long held by Lennon’s devoted acolytes, and that the musician he shot five times was “a great and talented man” would placate those who’d already modelled their belated revenge plans on his own moment of madness, buying a gun and staking out a spot opposite the Wende Correctional Facility, east of Buffalo, in anticipation of his release. Almost as removed from reality in fact, as a man who read a novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and saw therein an incitement to murder. For disproving the cherished assumption that literature improves people alone, many would argue Chapman should never be released.

If “idiot” is the strongest word Chapman has to be describe himself, 34 years after the event, it’s fair to say he hasn’t yet fully grasped the magnitude of the offence. You’re an idiot when you kiss your girlfriend’s sister at a party or show up for an appointment with your bank manager without your passport. When you decide that a man whose greatest insult to society was collaborating with the Plastic Ono Band deserves to be shot to death because he’s a hypocrite, on which basis you should be prepping a global genocide, and follow that with a trip to his home, being careful to get his signature on your copy of his latest album first, because you know you won’t get a another chance, then later, when he returns from a recording session, crouching down in a combat stance you’ve seen on TV a few times, maybe an episode of CHiPs, but you can’t quite remember, and unloading your .38 special into his chest and shoulder, you’ve transcended the idiot realm and moved to lunatic territory, and not just a lunatic, but an imbecilic one at that.

Poor Mark, whose only crime was to snuff out one of life’s originals spurred on by religious zealotry, self-importance, and the idea that singer songwriters should live by their lyrical sentiments, so perhaps Johnny Rotten should die for not taking that holiday in East Germany, must suspect that he’s being punished because he killed John Lennon and not Dave Lennon, the manager of the bar on East 54th street. If justice is blind shouldn’t it release Chapman, as it surely would have, if his beef had been over a mounting bar tab? Sure, you can see it that way, or you could argue that if you sought infamy for killing John Lennon, you should be punished for killing John Lennon, and accept the fact that by doing so you’ve made yourself harder to release than Yoko Ono’s greatest hits.

Chapman must sit in his cell every night and dream about his first day of freedom – eating out, polishing off a beer, downloading a movie from the Internet and wallowing in a future that’s made pornography free at the point of demand. In his mind, even if he’s recognised, people will just whisper over his shoulder, kids will run up to him and ask his name, then run off giggling when he confirms it, and employers, who are Stones fans for the most part, will shrug off his past, because he’s done his time and Double Fantasy wasn’t much of an album anyway, probably the start of an ‘80s decline. Yeah, another five years and Lennon would have been collaborating on the Frog Chorus, so not to worry Mark, when can you start?

So the Wende parole board must ensure that Chapman’s never released, because a man not quite intelligent enough to realise he’ll be harassed, vilified and almost certainly murdered, is too crazy to walk the streets. Besides, it wouldn’t be safe; he’d be killed. Remember Mark, instant karma’s still out there, and it can’t wait to knock you right on the head.

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Dear Steven Moffat: Deep Breath

doctor_who_deep_breath-restaurant

Dear Steven,

The nature of time travel is that sometimes we end up where we started yet everything’s changed. Once again we’re standing on the start square of the Whoniverse’s monopoly board; you the quill, me the cosmic knocker, and we play our game. There’s a new Doctor and a new era to be manhandled, though consensually. Naturally this game of transmission and review isn’t a war of attrition; it’s no battle between your creative faculty and my sneering, pedantic afterthoughts, but should only one of us be destined to survive Peter Capaldi’s tenure, please God let it be me.

The title of Capaldi’s debut is well chosen. This is a pivotal moment in the history of New Who (if you can call a programme ten years returned, new). You know it and the BBC certainly knows it; in fact more than a few suits at broadcasting house spent last night fighting cold sweats, palpitations and gut churn. Why the anxiety? Because you’ve convinced them to go all in, moving all their chips to the part of the roulette table marked “trusting the audience”. The area had to be dusted first of course, but here we stand, for the first time since the 1980s, with a middle-aged offer to the show’s fans. The Doctor’s all grown up and he’s not interested in relating to you anymore. It’s your turn to identify with him.

There’s to be no sexual tension between this Time Lord and his assistant, no infantile prancing, no pop cultural masturbation. For a programme that’s shamelessly courted the young on their own terms since 2005, a basic confusion between an audience proxy figure and a character they may wish to emulate, this is a brave move. In an era when the halfwits that run TV obnoxiously assume that no child, be they five or fifteen, will take an interest in a show unless it’s pitched at playground level and demographically cleansed, with the older leading actors sent to an entertainment farm to be turned into glue and other useful products (the very thinking that produced the youth club ghetto that is BBC3), this is conventional wisdom upended. To half-quote the tag line from an old new era, “it’s about time”.

So this was the moment we discovered whether the brains of today’s Whovians are wired like every previous generation’s, or if 21st century children are neurologically stunted, incapable of identifying with an older man as a role model. Would they see the Doctor or just skin and grey wire hanging from a calcified skeleton? Eighty minutes was probably a long time for a nation to hold its breath, and I wondered if anyone would be left alive to comment when it was over, but if the kids of the ‘60s accepted William Hartnell’s curmudgeon before the end credits, and the sprats of the ‘80s, tuning into a new era of Star Trek, took to a grouchy, authoritarian chrome dome, in the form of Patrick Stewart, then perhaps we’d get to breathe out after all.

God knows you’ve primed the little bastards. Yes, attentive viewers knew that Matt Smith’s valedictory trilogy wasn’t just a celebration of the show’s history but a reminder of the salient details, namely this was a show founded on the pairing of an older man and young companions, the real audience proxies. You hammered the point home with John Hurt, who introduced today’s kids to the concepts of advanced age and gravitas. You used him to ridicule the modern show’s preoccupation with student-like silliness, its tendency toward grandstanding, overstatement and bullish machismo. Then, just as tadpoles nationwide were getting over that, their specious worldview destroyed, you aged Matt Smith in his final episode, going as far as to add 900 years onto the ganglinoid so that his climatic regeneration would seem like a Benjamin Button moment, rather than the opposite. The message was simple: “look kids, the Doctor’s the Doctor whether he’s a prancing jester or a wizened grump. Got it? Message fucking received? Good, now meet Peter Capaldi, aged 55.”

That, one imagined, was enough; after all the kids may have a head full of duff programming but they weren’t stupid, right? But with the future of the brand at stake, for Doctor Who stopped been just a TV show some time ago now, it’s clear you felt you had to do even more. As Deep Breath got underway the first surprise wasn’t a dinosaur stomping along the embankment in Victorian London, nor Peter Capaldi emerging from the TARDIS for some dementia on the dock, rather the realisation that the Doctor’s age had been incorporated as a story element, the didacticism so tangible you could wear it like a tramp’s coat. You’d made subtle noises, now it was time for the message to be spelt out, because fans of David Tennant and Matt Smith were still out there and extremely dangerous.

This meant that Clara had to wait for her chance to become a fully-fledged character in her own right. Her status in this episode was to be the unconvinced part of the audience; the section that vomited when they saw Capaldi’s face for the first time; even if it meant backtracking on established elements of her character. Why, for example, was she so baffled by the realities of regeneration? Had she not seen every iteration of the Doctor, and presumably internalised the no so difficult to grasp concept that when he changed, his outward appearance varied? She’d met the First Doctor, after all, and he looked about 75. Had the Trenzalore incident wiped her memory too?

Of course Clara wasn’t the only one backpedaling, so too were you. Naturally Madame Vastra didn’t have a line into the Doctor’s psyche, she was trying her hand at psychoanalysis, it being newly fashionable, but it was still difficult to accept the idea that the Doctor’s youthful countenance, hitherto imagined as a lottery, was in fact an externalised plea for acceptance, and that by morphing into an old man with Clara present, the new Doctor was showing he trusted his friend, like a lover with dysmorphia peeling off their clothes to reveal a penis shaped like a horseshoe. Was the fact he was about to die incidental in the timing then? C’mon Steven, did you seriously expect us to believe this shit?

Sure, it was clever. Everyone’s got body issues, right? Teens especially hate themselves don’t they? They’re forever replacing their own faces with David Tennant’s in Photoshop, such is their self-loathing, so one could imagine millions of them sitting in front of the television, ready to hate Peter Capaldi when the episode began, identifying with him and his apparent need to loved, just ten minutes later. He was just like them; he hated the way he looked too. If you didn’t get a BBC bonus for that, Steven, you were robbed.

Yet still you weren’t finished. The kids were ready to accept Capaldi, they’d grown to like his sardonic wit and hint of menace over the intervening 70 minutes or so, but you had to be sure: the naysayers needed one final push. It arrived in the form of an endorsement from non other than intrusive Gallifreyan ganglinoid, Matt Smith. In a scene that screamed, “go for broke”, he rang Clara from his final episode to tell her and the audience to support the new man. It was all very well Vastra telling them, sorry Clara, that if she loved him she’d stick with him, now came the word from the Doctor himself. “Children of Earth,” he seemed to say, “that old man is me, so forget your ageism, tacitly validated throughout this episode by the decision to push it front and centre, rather than ignoring it and cutting this scene, as should have been the case, and get behind me. I mean, him! Get behind him!”

So the unfortunate predominance of an elephant in every scene, aside, did Deep Breath work? For the most part, I thought it did. I had reservations. I was flummoxed by the inclusion of cartoon sound effects in the early scenes (the weird boing that accompanied Vastra touching the Doctor’s face for example), in fact I wondered if a disgruntled employee had broken into the BBC and altered the episode’s masterfile using a folder of aural atrocities marked “NEVER USE”, and I thought you sometimes lapsed into broad comedy, as if, having vowed to divest the programme of maddening zaniness, you’d lost the thread while experimenting with the new tone, but our new Doctor’s a funny guy, and you can take some credit for that.

In a story about new faces, some generated, some stolen, I liked the look of a mordant Doctor that relished the scornful putdown. His line, following the plucking of Clara’s head, “sorry, it was the only one out of place”, was great, so too deadpan dialogue, impossible to say on any other show, such as “destroy us if you will, they’re still going to close your restaurant”. The 12th Doctor’s a wit, Steven, and a wry one at that. In a clutch of scenes longer and therefore, more satisfying than we’ve been used to since 2005, we came to realise that the era of indiscriminate bullshit is coming to a close, and not a moment too soon.

Deep Breath had a plot of course but I haven’t dwelt on it, as you didn’t. I enjoyed the feel of the adventure; it had a Sherlock Holmes on laudanum vibe (there was even a Lestrade); but it was clear that your clockwork villains existed merely to give Capaldi’s Doctor something to look into, as they were a conspicuous variant on Weeping Angels, felled via the suspension of a bodily function. You can get away with that in an introductory opener, Steven, but we will be expecting real stories and new ideas as the series progresses, and let’s face it – you owe us after three years in charge.

That leaves just miscellanea to discuss, old fruit. For future reference I think you should drop the Doctor’s Dolittle thing. Dinosaurs and Horses don’t have human brains – they were and are automatons, so a translation of their thoughts wouldn’t add up to much more than a Russell T. Davis emotional scene. Kudos for working an in-show explanation for the real police box on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street; the locals will enjoy that. Oh, and give Murray Gold a boiled sweet – his score was restrained and enjoyable, even if the new theme tune arrangement sounds like it was sampled from a kazoo and run through a synthesiser.

Wait, just one last thing! As well as Clara’s determination to rid us all of the old age prejudice most of us never had, I thought you were laying it on thick with the Doctor’s protestations of having zero sexual interest in his companion. Again, I understand the kids needed to know a new boundary had gone up, and the days of casual flirting were over, but couldn’t you have just shown us? Like a new appearance, changes in personality are par for the course when it comes to regeneration. We know this, Steven. We’ve been watching this shit for a long time y’know.

Man, I’ve missed you. Have you missed me?

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Good news. I’ve been discharged from the fanboy clinic at Graubünden. They say I’m a cured m- oh fuck.

P.P.S: I regenerated my blog as you can see, and yes I know you don’t like it.

P.P.P.S: Wait, there’s a woman out there claiming to be the Doctor’s girlfriend and custodian of heaven? What? Okay, we’ll talk about that next week.

Doctor Who: The Youthful Years

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Why the Yes Camp in the Scottish Referendum don’t want you to think about the Cultural Union (or think)

Sun Setting on Union

The story of Ohio morgue attendant and necrophile, Kenneth Douglas, rightly shocked all that read it. We’re repulsed by the idea of a degenerate drunkard fostering further indignities on women whom, in many cases, had been murdered the same day. Crimes like Douglas’ are an affront to society, they undermine civilisation, yet – and here’s the leap, so brace yourself – we’re relaxed about other kinds of opportunist desecration; the practice of pawing over the corpse of dead states in a bid to appeal to its hereditary population’s worst instincts, for example. That’s right, I’m talking about Scottish Nationalism.

There’s just a month to go until the referendum on Scottish independence and all the talk’s been of currency unions, democratic deficits and oil revenues. These are all important questions but they’re also administrative. The debate about the United Kingdom, because that’s the country under threat, and you could be forgiven for missing it, should be more fundamental. The talk should be of cultural union, integration, a shared history – but for the nationalists these are inconveniences, dismissed with a little disingenuous rhetoric.

No one in the Yes camp wants to think about these things, else their fantastic narrative, making Orwellian mincemeat of once clearly defined terms such as “progressive” and “future”, would disintegrate. Salmond’s army of saltire waving, pound note rolling, phonetic tweetin’ gumps, imagine they’re on the right side of history. They talk about their message of hope, contrasted with Better Together’s fearful pragmatism. That’s a compelling argument, provided you don’t scrutinise it.

Arguments with nationalists are dispiriting affairs. It feels like quarrelling with a cult, because it is. In virtual spaces, on social media, they gang up on you, like delinquents in an alley, peddling their positive message with underlying aggression and hate. “We don’t get the governments we vote for”, they say, but if you argue this is less considered psephology, more a provincial state of mind, for surely other parts of the UK don’t get the governments half their populous voted for either, yet are mysteriously unmoved when it comes to thoughts of breaking up Britain, and wouldn’t argue (with a straight face) that you’re only enfranchised if your party wins, they say you’ve misunderstood the point. This is handy because it disobliges them from thinking about yours.

“Scotland’s a separate country” they say, which was true once but hasn’t been, in sovereign terms, for 300 years – not in their lifetime, nor the lifetimes of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents, and the child snatching couple their great great grandparents imagined to be their great great great grandparents. If you won’t accept this category error, arguing that what they really want isn’t the future but a romantic past and country forged on 18th century political grievances, as relevant to today’s world as measures to control highwaymen, you’re a colonial apologist, an obnoxious imperialist, exhibiting the kind of English arrogance and by extension, imagined racial characteristics the SNP insist are nothing to do with the referendum question.

Quite right too, for were it so, if the Yes camp had set themselves up as a movement to liberate Scotland from London’s evil grip, they’d be fighting a divisive campaign, but as everyone who’s read the propaganda knows, Salmond and Sturgeon may have rushed to join a party that was relaxed about hating the English as saplings, but they certainly don’t feel that way now. No sir, they simply want to destroy the cultural union with England and Wales so they can, er, better enjoy the cultural union with England and Wales.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve not heard anyone talking about the cultural union; perhaps it’s so obvious, everyone forgot to mention it. This, some would say, prominent aspect of the political and economic union is verboten for the Yes campaign, as it’s a snapshot of England and Scotland as they exist today, not as they existed during those acrimonious periods in history that better fit the separatist narrative. To speak of the cultural union is to talk about the present, and facts, like two formally independent states with pooled sovereignty living in peace and relative prosperity, a shared heritage and, to the nationalist’s despair, a million Scots living in England and Wales, who don’t consider they’re strangers in a foreign land.

Because nationalists loathe people with a pluralist and inclusive mentality, for such thinking’s the enemy of the parochial mind, they’re quick to dismiss these outliers as an irrelevance. The racket that is the referendum’s residential franchise was imposed with a view to excluding these legitimate voices from any say in the independence debate.

The Yes brigade, who get very hot and bothered when you mention the Scots that live elsewhere, argue these people don’t have any understanding of today’s Scotland, that they’re divorced from the zeitgeist, so they aren’t entitled to vote. Sure, they could live in Berwick, or have left a month ago to take up a new job, or have moved to Caerphilly to live with the partner they met on a camping holiday, but what do they know? Why should they have an interest in the legal status of their homeland and themselves?

But having a residential franchise isn’t just about reinforcing an archaic idea, namely that the world stops at the border, nor excluding the rest of the UK from the conversation, it’s about ensuring that those who have real experience of the union, who’ve lived it, enjoyed it and feel part of it, aren’t allowed to poison with experience, those marching toward independence. As long as the Union’s an imposing abstraction divorced from the values and interests of the Banffshire farmer, it’s a doddle to dismiss. For those of us who’ve trod it, lived in it and been in love with it, it’s the country we live in – not separate states but one state with historic demarcations.

Nationalists believe that all of this is easily unpicked, and they can’t wait to start. But even if redundant clannishness triumphs on September 18th and the politics of the 18th century clamber on top of the 21st and violate all that’s been achieved in the intervening years, Yes voters may find it harder to extricate themselves from our United Kingdom than they think.

A sixth of their countrymen will be marooned in what’s left of the UK and just under half of those that remain in Scotland, including, if polls are to believed, a majority of the middle class, will have been divorced from it against their will – people who know that Britain isn’t just a word but an inclusive mentality; an idea that’s always belonged to the future not the sectarian, nationalist past. Imagine waking up in a new country that had voted to look inward and jettison all that. For some, it just might be unbearable.

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Please Sir, can I have a better State Education System?

Crown Woods Demolished

During a recent trawl of the internet I happened upon an article by my A-Level English teacher, Patrick Yarker. His piece for Workers Liberty lamented the death of Crown Woods, my old, elephant man comprehensive, and its replacement with a selective quad of colleges, built by business and in hoc to its mercenary preoccupations. For Yarker this was the death of the comprehensive dream and the commodification of childhood.

I found my old teacher’s attack on edu-business sound; no parent worthy of the name wants their son or daughter’s textbooks sponsored by Pepsi (Coke, perhaps), nor to have their child segregated according to specious points of differentiation. But as a child who spent three years in the school Yarker venerates, I found many of his conclusions regarding comprehensive education naïve, which is what we call idealism that’s been tested against experience and found wanting. The following is a response to the piece you can read here.

Dear Patrick,

As my former English teacher I hope you’ll take responsibility for any errors in spelling and grammar below.

You began with your first experience of Crown Woods, so let me briefly tell you about mine. I came to the school from Humphry Davy, a former Cornish grammar with an intake of 800. In my first two years there I was educated on a “lower site” with a small group of around 150 pupils. That school felt like a community, everyone was friendly and personable – in short, it felt like a school as I imagine a school to be. In contrast Crown Woods was impersonal and anonymous. In addition to being unwieldy I thought it was an ugly sausage factory, not a building one could take pride in or forge an emotional connection with.

This is superficial of course but it speaks to something fundamental, namely how the ethos of a school, as manifest in its intake and space, effect the psychological disposition of the children who attend (then later choose not to). You lamented the destruction of the school’s “classrooms, labs, gyms and workshops” but they were characterless spaces and it’s just possible they fostered characterlessness.

You talk about the values of comprehensive education, but I suggest the delivery model was at odds with the principle. Comprehensive education implies, perhaps demands, a full or total education, but in the last century we rightly came to distrust any system prefixed by “total”. Social integration, which must be a part of any total system of development, seems noble in the abstract, but how can such a system be tailored to the needs of individuals? You say Edu-business reduces children to an abstraction – an “it”, but doesn’t a catch-all model do the same?

No one, buoyed by idealism, would create a system that wilfully segregated children, but here schools are fighting social forces far stronger than a state education provider. Trying to militate against such forces using state power is like holding an umbrella up to a tornado. Social segregation begins in the home; it starts with domestic indoctrination, class consciousness, and whatever passes for parental values. In the playground children self-segregate for the most part – they’re compelled, in a bid to shore up their fragile identity, to seek out children ostensibly similar to themselves.

It would be sublime to believe that kids can transcend their “type”, that they can break out of the straightjacket they’re put in at birth, but as children get older they begin to note the fabric of this straightjacket on other kids, delineate the edge of the straps. Typically young bucks and does that grew up with a mixed group of friends will hone their process of selection in late adolescence, looking for those who share their outlook and interests as they socially position themselves. In other words, by the time comp-kids are adults they’ve typically rolled back the forced integration of their school years. All they have to show for the experience are memories of children that they found either effete or degenerate and senseless. This is a child’s one true shared experience: playground streaming.

I’m cheered by the idea that there’s no such thing as general academic ability; that everyone’s born with limitless potential. No child feels that, you understand. The pupils of the old Crown Woods had an intuitive understanding of intelligence, honed from primary school onwards. Of course innate ability, whatever that means, isn’t something other kids can measure. If it’s not known to the children themselves, as it’s uncultivated, then it won’t be obvious to other tadpoles.

Yet kids aren’t bad at reading what’s behind the eyes, at sensing who’s curious and who isn’t, which child’s thoughtful and which are forever struggling to catch up with their mouths. In a comprehensive you’re bedfellows with those whose temperaments are anathema to your own. Were the kids of Crown Woods wrong to follow their instincts, categorise and self-select, based on what they found? Or could it be that if potential isn’t cultivated from the get go, it soon becomes limited, like (and here comes a cliché, so apologies, I may get marked down) a muscle that’s never used. Perhaps we’re unfixed at birth, but at fifteen? Thirty? When is it too late to take Danny Shunk, with his scatological fixation, propensity to flash his genitals, and belief that Shakespeare’s a type of weapon, and turn him into a genius?

You alluded to the benefits of the comprehensive principle. As a product of that system I don’t accept I’ve enjoyed any social benefit. I may integrate more easily with people from different backgrounds, but this malleability hasn’t led to an embarrassment of social riches. At Crown Woods these kids almost wasted as much of my time as I did.

So what of students helping others to learn? The basic problem for educationalists that put their faith in that idea is this: every precocious child who takes time out to help his less focused, less thoughtful peer, is a child who’s not been challenged. If the classroom is out of balance; if there’s fewer curious children than curious, student-talk is subject to the compulsory pressure of peer groups, which will often veer toward the tangential and trivial. In a culture where curiosity is viewed with suspicion, because it makes the incurious insecure, the opportunities for kids that want to learn are significantly reduced. The default assumption in your piece is that these structural principles improved schools but I saw no evidence of an intellectually stimulating environment at Crown Woods, just a place where the curious struggled to get on.

If you want to beat the “fixed quantum” principle you need a more holistic education system; one that compels parents and households to be part of the developmental cycle. There has to be a constitution; one that each family is obliged to sign up to – including fundamental principles like social difference as an injustice (if fixed as a problem early, perhaps kids would grow up compelled to solve it, rather than perpetuate it) and the child’s right to learn, in other words, each family would be responsible for the uninterrupted learning of every other, a policy that by extension would prohibit impediments such as bullying and intimidation.

Only by instilling this principle from the start could you hope to address the cultural malaise that sank Crown Woods. No child should be written off young, or labelled, but that requires a nuanced and individuated approach to teaching that the comprehensive system cannot accommodate. In fact, given it’s an exercise in collectivisation, it’s hard to see how it could ever succeed on that basis. Each and every one of us is unique; we have different psychological barriers and respond to different kinds of learning. Crown Woods College isn’t the answer, but nor was the school it replaced.

Best,

Ed

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