Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Little known facts (/theories) about the Doctor

As many of my close friends know, I'm a huge Doctor Who nerd. Not in any obnoxious fanboyish way, but I certainly don't take the show lightly either. Put it this way if you understand references like "reverse the polarity" and "70's or 80's?" then we're about on the same page. Unlike many other serious fans I try not to get too caught up on the minutia and technicalities, or how accurate the science may be. Don't get me wrong, the science can be VERY questionable and as someone who is passionate about science it definitely bugs me when that happens, I'm just not prone to ranting about it. I'm more fascinated by the general themes of the show and the way it conveys its stories.

Despite my fandom, I stopped following any news pertaining to Doctor Who at the start of this year because I didn't want to find out who the next actor would be well in advance (which wasn't easy). I felt like I over-analysed Matt Smith before he picked up the role and that negatively effected my reception of his performance. I wanted to see how much of that effect is inspired by first-impression and how much is my own bias tainting the experience. It was a challenge forcing myself never to read Youtube comments or look for updates on the upcoming specials, but I nearly made it all the way.

Obviously, my efforts to remain ignorant about the next Doctor Who actor were sharply curtailed by his tiny appearance in the 50'th special. (Which was outstanding, by the way). Though I confess I may have caught a fleeting glimpse of him splashed over suggested videos on Youtube and the BBC website when checking for the broadcast time of the recent episode (I tried not to look so I didn't make out much detail, but still mostly figured out who he is). At least they weren't too far in advance of his actual cameo, so I don't feel very cheated.

Now the cat's out of the bag, however, and we've had a few more seconds to digest his particular take on the Doctor, I'm free to discuss my thoughts on him, so that's something. First, though, I thought I would do something to honour this change of Doctor Who era.
To that end, I've collected several observations over the course of enjoying the show that not everyone acknowledges or knows about, and in light of Matt Smith's departure, I thought now would be a good time to offer some of those details to the curious or nerdy.

So without further ado (what does that even mean, have I been "adoing" all this time? I'm so sorry!), here are some rarely known facts about the Doctor. Afterwards I will briefly address my own feelings on the latest regeneration and where the show may be going from here.

1. The Doctor, and perhaps Timelords in general, possess near super-human strength.

Confused by this? It doesn't seem very implied, does it? But there are several things to bear in mind. Firstly, the Doctor has been through some serious trauma and displayed incredible resilience to it. Everything from being bled almost to complete exsanguination and still having the strength to carry his companion around (for seemingly no reason) to falling out of an aircraft and crashing through a glass roof to land face-first on the floor, and he always picked himself back up. We've seen the doctor get beaten, tortured, knocked out, poisoned and various other injuries and every time he still struggled back to his feet and persisted.

Superhuman strength might be a general Timelord trait. In "The Impossible Astronaut" River Song remarks that the child who had been inside the astronaut suit (spoiler, it was actually her) must have been "incredibly strong" to force her way out of it, and as she's saying this the camera pans to the peeled metal and destroyed restraint mechanisms. We learn that River was engineered to be the perfect enemy of the Doctor, but we never hear anyone explicitly say that she was made to be stronger than a Timelord. Now, maybe she is, but all we know for certain is that they were trying to make an ACTUAL Timelord and River was as close as they could get. Part of that process, apparently, involved giving her remarkable physical strength.

In the Rings of Akhaten we see him holding up what seems to be an incredibly heavy stone door. Now granted he is (somehow) using his sonic screwdriver, but the fact that he is physically reacting to the strain implies that in some way all it's really doing is acting like an extension of his own arm. You might argue, I suppose, that since canon establishes that the screwdriver operates through a "psychic interface" that maybe it's exerting a psychic strain on his mind to generate enough power to hold the door back, rather than a physical strain (though canon also establishes that the "power" of the screwdriver comes from its charging dock in the TARDIS, not the mind of the user). In that sense perhaps the screwdriver is acting more like artificial telekinesis. Perhaps, but the writers don't really seem to put that much thought into these things, so really I think it's just that the door was very heavy and the sonic was extending his reach, but he was ultimately holding up the door with his own physical strength.

In the classic series we see the fourth Doctor get grabbed by an android of some kind (I forget which episode this is), one who is clearly far stronger than a human. Rather than buckling under its grasp we see him fight back, grab at its hand and slowly wrench it away from his person as if vastly overpowering it. In that vein, Nine has a wonderful habit of ripping people's arms off with his bare hands, be they alien manikins or robots, as does Ten when wrangling with a Pyrovile familiar. In fact we see Ten perform several strength feats including shoving a firmly wedged man through a small gap in some wreckage and, in that same episode, yet again wrestling a robot's hands away. In this case the robot was explicitly stated to have "ten times" the strength of a human.When Eleven is bound by handcuffs in "The Wedding of River Song" we see him lunge forwards despite several trained soldiers holding him back and will himself close enough to grab and hold onto River's wrist despite their struggle against him.

Perhaps his hidden strength is the reason our tragic hero always seems to have a spring in his step. Perhaps it contributes to his bravado when facing off against incredibly dangerous beings. It may be a pleasant boon to his Martian karate throws and the reason why he was happy to fling people about despite being in a very mature regeneration at the time. Maybe he doesn't even understand how strong he is. For him it's probably normal. Nevertheless it isn't uncommon for him to swing Daleks about or floor an android with a single punch (which we'll be getting back to later). Whether the writers intended it or just to make him seem impressively resilient when faced with physical challenges, the circumstances dictate that the Doctor, and perhaps all Timelords, are naturally gifted with immense physical strength. Hell, in his first episode, "Robot", the fourth Doctor straight up karate-chopped a brick!

Why doesn't he use it more? Well, he's the Doctor. He tries to avoid using muscle so long as there's a way to use his brain instead. But when necessary, he will get physical. We'll go further into detail on that later as well.

2. The Doctor is WAY older than even he thinks he is.

Consider the evidence. We know from various examples that a single Timelord lifetime spans literally centuries. The second Doctor claimed to be about 450 years old, and having only recently regenerated and still knocking about with the same old companions, we can deduce much of that time was spent as the first Doctor prior to his leaving Galifrey. Much later, the fourth Doctor would claim to be "something like 750" years old. At this point we're already getting the sense that he's a little hazy about his age. Which would make sense when you are both that old and living a life that is literally outside of linear time. How do you count the days when you spend them hopping all over the calendar? He keeps this (general) age fairly consistent for most of his run as the fourth.

Then, however, the sixth Doctor proudly proclaims himself to be 900 years old. Sound familiar? He later stuck with the "900" figure through most of the first few seasons of modern Who. It seems like it was a kind of mildstone for him after which he didn't really want to keep counting properly. Yes we see a lot of "I'm 903", "I'm 906", but at the same time, we're also noticing him slowly age. Unlike the ninth Doctor, for whom we see almost no break between adventures, the tenth does actually take a few breaks between televised stories to wander about and brood. He does this very rarely, but it does happen at least three times. Donna even mentions that he "looks older" after travelling alone grieving for the loss of Rose. Perhaps the grief wore on him a little? More likely it's because he had been alone for a very long time, and as we know from Matt Smith, it can literally be centuries before he will start to visually age even a little bit. We'll get back to that in a moment.

But for now back to the classic series. Later on we will hear the Seventh doctor claim to be 950. That sounds like another suspicious rounded ballpark number doesn't it? We also see him as a notably aged looking version of the seventh Doctor in the TV movie, in which he explicitly states that he was "nearing the end of his seventh life". This could be interpreted two different ways. He could be narrating from a future perspective, knowing he was about to be murdered and as such explaining his life was about to end, but I think it seems more sensible to assume that what he was really saying is that he was at the end of that regeneration's natural lifespan, which would explain his aged appearance. As I said, we know from the first and eleventh Doctors that he could easily age as much as 400 to 600 years before he actually looks old - so factoring in that he was already fairly mature in this regeneration, that still makes it at least a few centuries since he first admitted to being 900!

The 50th special clouds this theory somewhat. Eleven claims to be "1200 and something", which seems completely contrary to what we've already learned. He also says "unless I'm lying", which seems to deflate the theory that every one of them KNOWS he is not actually 1200. Then, reinforcing this contradiction, we see that the War Doctor identifies himself as being about 800 in a confident manner that the other two seem to have no issues with. Is this his actual age? Were six and seven just grandstanding when they claimed to be over 900? More likely, in my opinion, 800 is just a number he settled on to mark the general period of his life towards the end of the Time War. A kind of reset, if you like. I get the sense he one day decided "It's silly not to know how old I am, so from now on I'll just say I'm 800 and start from there". (We'll call this his "faux age".)

This also tells us something new, however...

If 9 claimed to be 900, and the War Doctor claims to be 800, and if we are to assume that he has started his tally anew in order to create a more consistent age for himself (meaning, he actually stuck to this tally), that implies Doctor number 9 spent about 100 years knocking about before bumping into Rose at the start of the first season, where he actually was 900 years old. So even though the writers may have been intending to tone down his age by including this conversation in the 50th special, it actually ADDS an extra entire century to his tally! So how old does that make him?

Well, first we have to decide how much we're going to trust him. There are some minor discrepancies here and there (more likely attributable to hack writing than anything). For example... if the first Doctor was over 400 before looking like an OLD man, are we really to trust Eleven when he first told us, in "The Impossible Astronaut" that he was 200 years older than when we last saw him? After all the Master managed to make Ten look like an OAP just by artificially ageing him 100 years. Could Eleven really live that long without visibly ageing AT ALL? I really don't know, but an argument could be made that perhaps he only really spent a few decades on the run and simply decided to start calling himself by a more realistic age. An argument could be made, but I think if we're going to ignore EVERYTHING he claims about his age, not just the ones that blatantly don't make sense, then really we have nothing left to work with. We'll assume he was telling the truth, attribute Ten's rapid ageing at the hands of the Master to the Lazarus tech NOT his natural lifespan, and maybe throw in an extra few years to fill the gaps between his visits with the Ponds or Clara to round things off.

So let's see...

Let's assume he was telling the truth when he claimed to be 950 something during his seventh incarnation. Since we see him as an aged version of himself in the TV movie, and we know how slowly Timelords age, that means it's been multiple centuries since he was 950. Let's say 3 centuries to be balanced (a full 450 year lifespan would be too presumptuous as he was already mature when he first regenerated into that form, and two centuries is too little as canon establishes the Doctor can live that long without ageing at all). So that makes him about 1250. We don't know how long the eighth Doctor lived before regenerating into the War Doctor, but he clearly was notably aged (though not OLD) since the TV movie. Let's add another 3 centuries, as, like the seventh already being old, the fact that he is still youngish means there's no reason to assume the full 450-500 lifespan has passed, which the first and eleventh Doctor's have both demonstrated is required to send him all the way from young to old.

So at the time of his regeneration into the War Doctor, he was probably at least 1500 years old. But wait, I'm missing something aren't I? In that same minisode with the eighth Doctor we see the War Doctor newly regenerated as a YOUNG man. When we next see him he is very aged. VERY aged. Yet again we have an entire lifespan lived out by a single incarnation of the Doctor, which as we have established is anything up to 3 or 400 years all the way up to, in Eleven's case, well over 600 years. Add that to the figure we've already gotten so far, and it's beginning to become clear that the math just doesn't make sense unless he is FAR older despite calling himself 800, so far we're up to over 2000 years old. On top of all that, thanks to the dialogue between the Doctors in the 50th special, we now know to add at least a further 100 years before Eccleston takes over and he starts calling himself 900 again (his faux age). That makes him chronologically at least 2100 at the start of series 1 of modern Who.

How much time you think has actually passed between the on-screen introduction of the ninth Doctor and the dawn of the eleventh Doctor is up to you, but I'd say it has to be well over a decade despite what he claims (and I'm being very generous there). Let us not forget Donna noticing that Ten "looks older" after moping about after losing Rose. Given how slowly he ages, who knows how long that period really was? But then, we see Moffat take the reigns of the show and demonstrate very little regard for the how long the Doctor lives. Unlike the previous writers, that managed to squeeze in two entire doctors in the space of a few short years, this one gets to live for well over 300 by his own reckoning (using his faux age, he is 906 at time of regeneration, then 1200 "and something" by the 50th special, which really equates to 2106 to 2400 "and something"), and that's not even counting the Christmas special, in which he ages yet another 300, followed by yet another jump into his future at an unspecified age in which he is far older.

(Note; at one point it is stated by Romana that the Doctor has been travelling in the TARDIS for 523 years, and while this does establish his age at the time of him leaving Gallifrey (about 230 given the other available data) it does NOT establish at what point in his life the first televised stories took place, nor how aged he looked at the time of leaving Gallifrey. Having said that, the use of stock footage in "The name of the Doctor" suggests he was, in fact, already elderly-looking at the time of first entering the TARDIS. Some have suggested the first life a Timelord leads is far more mortal, having only one heart and ageing faster, but I think we can more likely attribute this discrepancy to the trend of bad canon writing that has permeated the latest couple of seasons and simply dismiss Romana's earlier comment as "misinformed" to excuse it. Enough time off-camera does not appear to elapse following the transition from the first to second Doctors for us to say that most of his 450 years of life up until that point was spent in his second incarnation. This strongly suggests he lived most of those years during his original life, which in my view overrules the discrepancy. Of course, we're still left with the problem Moffat has created, of the Doctor looking old at the age of 230, in which case maybe the theories about a Timelord's first life are true. Nevertheless, everything else still fits and no new contradictions are introduced by this problem.)

So, think you know the Doctor's age? You sure don't. Neither do I, but according to the rules set by the show itself, he has to be at least over 2700 years old at this point! Far, far older in fact. Probably by a wide margin. It's impossible to pin an actual number on this, but if I were to be generous I would go so far as to say he isn't more than a stone's throw from his third millennia! Now obviously you can't take it too seriously, the writers likely have no idea how old they really want him to be which is why they keep retconning it, but if you want to be faithful to the mythology of the show, he has to be far older than he is admitting, despite the fact that three of his incarnations all seem satisfied him claiming to be far younger than this. The truth is, he probably has absolutely no idea how old he is. No wonder he just makes it up.

3. The Doctor doesn't need to eat as much as human beings.

This one is simple deduction. With a handful of exceptions, the camera basically doesn't break away from the Doctor through most of his time during his ninth and tenth incarnations. Each adventure tends to set up or lead right into the next, making it almost one long unbroken day. He eats like five times on screen (I'm not trying to offer an accurate number there) and whenever his companions eat with him they seem to consume more than he does. He eats christmas dinner once or twice and we see him get through a full back of chips in "Last of the Timelords", but for the most part it's just a buffalo wing here or a generous helping of "peanutbutter fingers" when in someone else's kitchen.

This "fact" is up for debate, and there's really no telling how often he eats off-screen. An argument could be made that we don't really see the companions dine all that often either, but at the very least I think we can agree that he doesn't have a very big appetite. Even when he's not jumping from one adventure to the next entirely by himself without seeming to eat for days on end, when his companions do the same it's not unheard of for them to proclaim how starving they are after a while and sit down to eat while he's off adventuring (as Rose did in "The Impossible Planet") even if, as in Martha's case in "Gridlock", they find themselves losing their appetite when offered recycled waste biscuits. It still seems to be the case that the companions eat or get hungry on screen way more often than the Doctor.

Of course, eleven does develop an odd fixation with fish custard, but there are exceptions to every rule. After all the sixth Doctor never seemed to lose any weight despite being more portly than any of the others, though to be fair, he did regenerate that way. It's up to you if you believe this one, but I think it makes sense that a more advanced species, especially one that can live for thousands of years and as such may come to suffer depleting resources, might have evolved a more efficient metabolism.

4. The Doctor is (still) a proficient hand-to-hand fighter.

Due to the massive variation between the different incarnations of the Doctor in personality, preference, and in some sense skillset (2's musical talent, for example) it's often assumed that only the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was skilled in hand-to-hand combat, which he wasn't shy about showing off. However it is my belief that those old skills are still there when he truly needs them, and perhaps the Doctor's decision to run and avoid conflict is less to do with vulnerability, and perhaps more to do with him having mercy on his enemies.

This sentiment is nicely expressed in "The Family of Blood" in which the antagonists are punished by a vengeful tenth Doctor, and realise at that moment that he had only run from them because he was being kind. Fittingly, it is also one of the rare episodes in modern Who in which we see the Doctor exert physical force over someone as he violently shoves one of them into a black hole, showing that even though he avoids conflict like he's made of wet newspaper, he has a strong arm when necessary. Ten was extremely pacifistic as Doctors go, but even he occasionally wrestled with the Master over a remote or brandished a cutlass when necessary.

A more telling demonstration of his physical prowess, however, requires a jaunt back to the ninth Doctor. Among his martial talents is the ability to catch a poisoned dart between his fingertips, as well as being able to deftly block and then rip off an attacking robot's arm (back to the strength again). Also, in the final episode of Eccleston's run we see him face the fact that his companion, Rose Tyler has seemingly been killed. Captured by enemy soldiers, the positively steaming with rage Doctor is escorted to a cell with Jack Harkness. Right before being ordered into the cage, he and Jack exchange a look, upon which they swiftly dispatch the soldiers. The brutal parry face-first into a solid wall that we see the Doctor use doesn't skip a beat, and is the kind of response one would expect of a hardened warrior.

This should come as no surprise as we are already well aware by this point in the Doctor's story that he fought in the Time War, likely on the front lines. We learn more of this as the show progresses, and now, after the 50th special, we know he actually spent an entire centuries-long lifetime battling the Daleks and other enemies in the Time War. I would imagine he couldn't have gone all that time using nothing but his usual quirky devices and cunning schemes. At some point he had to have picked up a gun. But was there any close quarters combat involved? Well it certainly seems like he had some practise, and there was obviously plenty of opportunity for it. I doubt one can fight a century's long war on the front lines without ever needing to throw a punch.

Returning to the 11th Doctor we see multiple examples of him apparently knowing his way around a fight. Yes there is that comical scene in one of the minisodes where he gets hit with a ball and jumps up in a karate stance, but no I'm not taking that very seriously. While it may be a sign of his old Martian karate instincts, but more likely it was just part of his usual goofy persona that always tries to look silly. However we do see him straight up KO the android scientist played by Bill Patterson with a single punch when running to stop him from blowing up. We also see that he's pretty good at taking a punch, like when Rory decked him in "The Big Bang", not unlike when the tenth was floored and popped back up yelling "hell of a right hook" with admiration and seasoned recognition of the skill of the one who struck him.

But all of this is concerning modern Who. What about classic Who? Well in one particularly impressive scene that is just drenched in baddassery, fourth Doctor uses an exquisite arm-lock throw to take down a man who was trying to kidnap an unconscious Sarah Jane. The sixth Doctor, although rather gracelessly, certainly displayed an emotional capacity for violence when he attempted to choke Peri in his post-regenerative haze. The seventh Doctor virtually beat the Master to death in a one-on-one fight during their last confrontation in his final episode (even though he was under the influence of an animalistic rage due to the environment he was in, he still won the fight fair and square). On top of that, the Fifth Doctor displayed exceptional skill with a rapier in a fencing match with one of his enemies, a skill which, as I mentioned, is also demonstrated by the tenth Doctor.

The classic series was a lot less willing to show this kind of direct violence after the third Doctor, which seeded this impression of a pacifistic, almost weak (despite his cunning) protagonist which in turn has continued to a lesser extent through the modern series. But when we see the Doctor march confidently towards an enemy of extraordinary power, maybe we should remember that it isn't necessarily just front. Sure, he may favour a manipulative speech or a tricky deception, but maybe at the same time he knows that if he really had to, he could bitch slap his enemy half way to the end of the universe. It isn't just his mind that is powerful, after all he can't always have a bunch of wires and kitchen utensils handy to make a cockamamy contraption every time an enemy attacks.

5. The Doctor is virtually immune to cold.

We actually see many examples of this over the course of both the classic and modern series, some of which are questionable in canonicity. For example, the animated adventure "The Infinite Quest" which is never mentioned again in the actual show, in which we see the tenth Doctor casually stroll out into weather that Martha can barely tolerate. We also see something similar in the episode "planet of the Ood" in which they emerge from the Tardis onto a snowfield where Donna immediately remarks on how freezing it is but the Doctor barely reacts.

His tolerance of cold was shown implicitly in several classic Who episodes as well, but is never really made a point of. It's arguable that he is just good at hiding his discomfort with these conditions, but when we see him drop out of a spaceship into the frozen vacuum of space without flinching, or cling to Clara to keep HER warm when they materialize in the cold town of Christmas in the latest episode without showing any sign of cold himself, it seems evident that he has some sort of advantage.

Where does this ability come from? Maybe he was raised in a part of Galifrey that was incredibly cold? Perhaps it is a "Timelord power" such as his regeneration, his mild telepathy, or  his ability to conserve oxygen in his body for several minutes as demonstrated multiple times in the classic series. Even the Dalek nanogenes seem to be incapable of infecting him, and until recently the Cyberman were incapable of assimilating him. It seems being a Timelord comes with all sorts of perks. Nevertheless, it adds an interesting element to him that may be explained if we ever learn more about his origins.

6. The Doctor's family died long before the Time War.

This will come as less of a surprise to seasoned Who nerds. The second Doctor, when accused of being so decrepit that he probably can't even remember his own family, admits that he can if he really tries, but the rest of the time they "sleep in my mind". It seems obvious he is talking about people who long ago died, certainly he wouldn't be flying around the universe alone if he misses them. The reason for the first Doctor running away from Galifrey has never been given, but since he brought his granddaughter with him (and there is some debate about whether they were really related or if "Grandfather" was a term of endearment) I think it makes sense that he fled to escape the memories of his family dying. Bringing Susan with him was like holding onto the last piece of that life he had left.

Make not the mistake of thinking that the Doctor's life of peril only began when he ran away. It's true he lacked something of the backbone of the man we now know, at one time being more than willing to bash a mad-man's head in with a rock out of fear of his own survival or even contemplating betraying his own companions to get out of a fight spot. Despite all that, the Master told us that the Doctor was already hard at work saving the universe even when he was just 90 years old, when he sealed the rift of the Medusa Cascade. We can also deduce from the Doctor's admission that looking into the Untempered Schism "hurts" that he was also drafted into the Timelord Academy and had to go through that rite of passage, cementing the fact that he was well on his way to becoming an active time traveller from as young as 8, and probably where he got his first doctorate that would eventually lead to his new name.

And let's look at that. Why does he keep his name a secret? Is it because he has some dark skeleton in his closet? This was heavily implied throughout most of season 6, but the pay-off ultimately was that the War Doctor WAS his dark secret, and really it had nothing to do with his name. I think he left his name behind because he wanted to put his past behind him. He told Donna he lost his family a long time ago, and that it still stung him. That kind of loss would seem to be more than natural causes, and certainly it precedes the Time War, as to feel that sort of pain on missing someone would confirm what I said about him not abandoning them to travel time and space. He left Galifrey BECAUSE he lost his reason to stay there.

Perhaps, given the way he never looks back, the way he dances about the cosmos like a whimsical fairytale character, given the fact that he tries never to get close to anyone, and the dangerous way he has always lived his life even when he was much younger... perhaps the death of his family was his fault. I know I would change my name and run away if that happened, wouldn't you?

Peter Capaldi

Well with that out of the way and a new world slowly approaching next Fall, let's talk a little about this momentous change. I will admit, as one of the many critics of Matt Smith who were still attached to their "first" Doctor (in my case Tennant), I'm actually going to miss the timey wimey floppy-haired idiot more than I was expecting. His final parting words, despite sounding like something a stoner would say while analyzing a magic eye painting, were suitable and moving. Unlike Ten, who fought against his death to his dying breath, Eleven accepted it with a sober contentedness, complimenting without undermining the previous regeneration.

As for Capaldi. My first thoughts? Bad way to go. Never re-use an old actor to play The Doctor - are you kidding me? Look what happened with Colin Baker. Aside from him being a generally dislikeable Doctor his first adventures were irrevocably undermined by the nagging question: "Wasn't that the guy who played the jerkish Timelord in that one episode?". Good call, choosing someone who previously played an unpleasant character to now play a Doctor with an unpleasant demeanour. Great way to exacerbate the effect and make him even less well-received. The Hellishly bad first episode of his run didn't help matters either.

Don't get me wrong, Capaldi is a GOOD actor. He really is. Other than being a bit grating and simple as a roman his performance was fluid and moving. His role as the amoral, stressed out bureaucrat in Torchwood was vividly cringe-inspiring, not as an indictment to his skill but because his performance asked for that and he played it almost too well. But now we have this guy being recycled from those previous sickly roles in which he was so visually memorable and we're being asked not to be reminded of that every time we look at him. Hell, I didn't even like it when they pulled that with Martha Jones. Every time I watch that first episode to have Freema in, I find myself distracted by that glaring detail.

In the pro side, I have to give the casting credit for choosing someone visibly distinct from the previous two men to fill the role. I feel that the 50'th special really validated a lot of what I first said in objection to the casting of Matt Smith. As brilliant an actor as he is, he is just too similar to Tennant. Very slender, youthful(ish), side-parted big, floppy brown hairdo, old man business suit. Seeing them side-by-side you could easily imagine that one is meant to be a younger version of the other, were it not for the fact that Ten's head could easily fit inside Eleven's about 2.5 times. I am glad they went in a very different direction this time, which is what they should have done last time. Just like how every previous Doctor was visually unique relative to one another.

Capaldi's brief cameo also seemed to have undertones of seriousness. A certain intensity and power in his blood-shot eyes that I welcome after enduring nearly 4 years of Saturday morning cartoon performances and plots lifted straight from the scribblings of an aspiring children's bedtime story writer. I want to see a man who isn't all flippity floppity swagger and exaggerated eccentricities. I want an adult show, or at least one that doesn't feel like a children's show with adult elements.

His performance is going to have to be exceptional to shrug off the taint of his previous Who roles, and judging by the depth of those roles, he may well be capable of it. Re-using an actor though... really risky, not the way I would have gone. I wish they hadn't done that because now I feel the burden slightly falls to me to actively try to NOT see him as those other characters. If they liked the actor so much, they should have not used him THEN and kept him for NOW, same as they should have done with Freema. Mind you... Martha, despite her character's flaws, managed to make that role her own and her previous appearance was only a problem when watching that episode. Maybe it will be the same with this.

I hope the new guy is up to the task. He's old (which limits what stunts he can get away with, but it has worked well in the past) and his face conveys a certain, very specific kind of character. There are only so many ways you can go, with a face like that, and mad-man-with-a-box isn't one of them. Maybe that's a good thing. We'll see. I look forward to finding out, and I hope he makes me eat my words, just as Smith did, when I say... I don't really like him, and wish they had picked someone else.

Nevertheless his fleeting introduction after Smith's departure was interesting, funny, mad-hat as is to be expected, and didn't at all remind me of his previous characters. It wasn't enough to really sample his personality, but then Smith's introduction was absolutely nothing like how he would later shape the character. I think there's a chance this could well go somewhere interesting. 

Good luck, Capaldi. You have some big and clownish shoes to fill.

As always I may update this blog at a later date if I think of more of these rare facts. I certainly have more than I simply haven't remembered while writing it so there's a good chance this will happen. Thanks for your time, and Merry Whomas!

Sunday, 1 December 2013


On my side of the pond we don’t have thanksgiving, but I like to think we appreciate the motivations behind the holiday and share in the general sentiment of gratitude and love that goes along with it. But sometimes I feel like the idea behind this holiday is kind of lost in modern cultural translation. And no I’m not talking about the historical horrors and abuses underlining it or any of that nonsense, I think it’s fine to let a holiday move on to a new meaning.

What I mean is, we have lost perspective of what to give and why. Instead of giving thanks for what we have, we thank each other for giving. An honourable concept, certainly, but perhaps a little too intertwined with static concepts centred on the bounty of food you are blessed with and other such thank-worthy, but somewhat trivial things. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but the name always felt like it should call to something more than that.

Perhaps, instead, we should re-purpose part of this season to something less specific. Something more generally about gratitude and appreciation. Thanksgiving is over, but perhaps the spirit of giving thanks need not end with it. I’m proposing a new holiday. A single day dedicated to a simple concept. Giving thanks not or what you have been given, or will be given, but for what you already have. A thanks-having.

Think about it. How many times has this happened to you?

You wake up to find that something is wrong. Maybe you’ve suddenly acquired a terribly sore throat, or a pulsing headache. Maybe the sweet bliss of sleep had allowed you to temporarily forget having lost something. An item of furniture, a job, a friend. Waking up to that negative change is the worst moment of your day.

You wish you could go back to before it happened. To before the pain or loss wasn’t there. You catch yourself looking back on past-you with envy and anger. Wishing that person had taken more joy in what they had while it was there. Even a relatively mundane problem like an ailment can torment you as your sore throat or headache or whatever it is burns away at your nerves and instils this terrible sense of discomfort that you can only imagine escaping.

You can no longer remember what it feels like to have a throat that lacks that ragged, clawed raw feeling. You wish you could again sample just a moment of normalcy where that blasted ache went away and gave you the sweet few seconds of reprieve like all the pressure in your head had simply been diffused with a gentle pop of a balloon. That tiny sliver of what every other day is like would be the greatest relief to you, and yet in everyday life how often do you take the time to truly appreciate it?

Perhaps this scenario is altogether more serious and heartbreaking. Maybe a loved one has gone from your life. Their place at the dining table conspicuously barren. Maybe that stab of not seeing them there still gets you every day. Did they truly know how much you loved them? Of course they did, you tell yourself. And yet you find yourself wishing for just one last chance to look them in the eyes and say it all while you commit to memory every curl and crease, every splash of colour, every unique peak or valley of their voice. You wish you had that perfect moment where the two of you both completely knew all was well in the world that you may revisit that instant at any time.

The truth is of course they knew how you felt, and no memory is really that pristine. These standards we hold our past selves too are unfair and little more than fodder in the eternal war we wage against ourselves. Nevertheless, why do we go through life mourning the things we lose, suffering the burdens we have acquired, always wishing we had taken the time to really “know” those times where all was well? Why not just do it? Why not dedicate a day towards ticking off a check-list of things to sit and just... enjoy?

It is a common argument in philosophy that we NEED the bad things like pain or loss in order to give the good things value. Perhaps that explains why pain even exists at all. As a biological mechanism I always found it silly. An internal alert that never shuts up chanting “SOMETHING’S WRONG” in your ear as if you could magically snap your fingers and set it right instantly. I always looked upon that system as utterly flawed – but then, perhaps there is merit to this idea. Maybe without it, life would be even more complacent and dreary.

I have, in the past, heard people attempt to argue against this point by saying things like “I don’t need to nearly lose my leg in order to take joy in the fact that I still have mine”. I find that to be disingenuous. We’ve all experienced that moment of absolute panic where something we love or depend on was nearly lost to us. A child left behind in a supermarket. A favourite toy mysteriously gone missing. Your life endangered. That moment when you get it back is undeniably ecstatic, and filled with a far deeper appreciation for having it than you ever experienced before.

Maybe we do need the bad, but there’s no reason to wait until it arrives at our doorstep to at least attempt to cherish the good. There’s really no point in waiting until we nearly lose something before we dedicate ourselves to that moment of true appreciation for it. Let us all agree to do that anyway. At least once a year, let us take note of everything that is actually right in our lives and simply love it. Is this something that anyone finds easy to do? Has society trained us to value only the negative? Even if so, let us break that programming for this one day.

Right now, pick something on your body that isn’t hurting. Imagine the coming day when that part of you inevitably fails or finds itself under attack by the cruelty of life. The moment when it is in unbearable pain, and you’re there cradling it, wish you could return to a moment when all was well. THIS moment right now.  As you are there, trying to envision a return to that status quo which seems so impossible, you are also here, right now, actually able to experience and memorize that boring normalcy in all its simple splendour.

I’ve tested this in years gone by, and it DOES actually work. When I have found myself lacking a pain I had been feeling, I took the time to do exactly what I had been chiding myself for not doing. I took a moment to simply enjoy not being in that pain any more. To attempt to understand what it feels like not being in that pain. What DOES a normal, unhurting throat feel like? What DOES a headachel-less head feel like? I meticulously scanned these feelings that I may know, next time it happens, that even if I've lost the good, I took the time to truly experience it while I was able.

I forced myself to appreciate what I had so that next time my future self would not find his anguish further salted with the knowledge that he never really took advantage of that chance to be grateful for what he had while it was there. It does actually take the edge off when you return to that pain. It alleviates that extra little weight you feel from wondering what normalcy feels like. If only we could learn to do this with everything our life grants us. How much richer might life be? How lighter would the darker days become?

Of course, the memory you’re trying to forge as you dutifully take note of your blessings is not perfect. Even when you are in pain next, it’s not like you can escape into your memories and really experience that relief. But the mere fact that on some level you actually know that you did take the opportunity to analyse what it feels like to not be in pain seems to somehow mitigate that longing for that same relief even when you’re suffering.  Even if you can't truly revisit that feeling, you know that you did all you could to memorize it, and somehow that's better.

At the end of the day what we’re talking about here is regret. Regret makes everything worse. Regret sours the good times with undertones of “could have been better if I...”. It tarnishes the best of memories with overall sense of “it’ll never be that good again”. Regret makes the things we should be grateful for into shaming devices on behalf of those with less, as we assault ourselves with forced empathy to turn our contentment or success inwards into a loathing for our privilege.

Yet I dare say, as someone who is themselves impoverished, that I would far more appreciate you enjoying what you have rather than squandering it with such futile and patronizing sentiments. Be thankful for what you have and don’t waste your life waiting for it to end or lose meaning. Live in ownership of your success, not constant fear of it. Even if it’s just one moment, be glad that you have what you have and forgive yourself for having it. I do.

Never allow yourself to be in a position where you find yourself not only losing what you had, but regretting the fact that you couldn’t simply take the time to be happy while you had it. And that’s what I want this holiday to really be about. Taking inventory of your gifts and privileges, but not feeling guilty for having them. Celebrate them! You don’t need to be told to spare a thought for those less fortunate, you should be doing that anyway. But when was the last time you spared a thought for yourself? Not lashing yourself for trespassing some immaterial line between comfort and selfishness.

Well this is the time. This is your time. Thank for what you’ve been given, thank for what you have. Whether you thank a deity, your parents, nature or even yourself (now there’s a concept!). Be thankful, be grateful, and let yourself really live in the moment. It’s okay, you have my permission. Do what the nice internet man says. He’ll take the hit. He’ll pay the imaginary price that your ingrained self-deprecation is demanding must be paid. You just leave that with me, and give yourself the gift of blissful self-awareness for just one day.

Give yourself the gift of selfish joy, allowing yourself to simply be with no strings attached. To take pleasure in everything you have without attempting to purchase it with an equal balance of shame. Give yourself the gift of acknowledging everything that is right in the world. It hasn’t ended. We’re not yet in nuclear wars. Wishing for world peace and an end to hunger is a noble sentiment, but at the same time, we don’t need to reach for the stars to have wishes granted. There are many wishes you have yet to make in darker days to come that for you, presently, are already granted.

So on this day, this thanks-having, I challenge you to write a small note of everything you can think of that isn’t wrong in your life. Every part of your body not currently hurting. Every luxury or convenience in your home. Every friend or loved one still in your life. If you’re young, take that much-envied chance to really grasp what it means to be young and enjoy that energy and power that comes with it. If you’re old, take some time to reflect on all the happy memories you already have, and the fact that you are still here to make more.

Take stock of all these things, and please... just be aware of them. Be aware of what it feels like to still have them. For them to be right and functional and normal. You don’t have to force it, you don’t need to be rolling around with joy. But perhaps, if you can manage a smile... next time things are much harder, the memory of that quiet little moment, that tiny contribution to the positive side of the scales will make things seem... not quite so bad.

The greatest bounty you’ve ever had that you should be grateful for, is life.
Wishing you a happy thanksgiving, happy thanks-having, and genera happiness.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

It gets better?

I never liked the word "bully". To me it sounds too trivial, it smacks of that simplistic babytalk quality, the fumbling childish kind of adjective that might be the name of one of the Seven Dwarves or the title of a kindergarten singsong. It isn't easy to take seriously someone who says they get "bullied", it's like if they said they got flippied or whim-whammed. It fails to capture the scores of injustice and heartaches that never quite go away. It fails to deliver on the tragic seriousness of the concept. But then, I guess if the word was more accurate, if it truly represented the spirit of what was endured, it would be a harrowing blow to the ego merely to confess it.

Mommy, I was soul-tortured at school today.

The "It Gets Better" campaign seems to have run out of steam by this point, but it served a good purpose while it was out in the zeitgeist. The one thing that bugged me about it though was this proclivity for focussing on only one branch of a larger issue. I understand how severe homophobia is in some places, and I'll always be the first to attack that sort of hate head on. But when you're going to focus so much attention on bullying, especially during childhood, there's no need to be exclusionary. Bullying is a major issue that effects people of all stripes and colours for various reasons. It's not just one subset of people.

To be honest, I think homophobia is a strong word to use against children. The reality of the situation is that kids are vicious little buggers who manage to single out the first differentiating factor they can find with eagle-like precision and will ruthlessly peck away at that single element until their genetic compulsion to test the other members of their roost for weaknesses is sated. This mentality doesn't really stop at childhood either, and may, over time, actually create the prejudices we now liberally slap labels on and consider that the start and end of the conversation. It happens because it's natural, it's to be expected even if it's not to be excused or defended - which is not what I'm doing, by the way.

The reason I point this out is because bullying isn't limited to only one social group. It's universal. Not everyone will experience or knowingly participate in it to any serious degree, but it will still nonetheless happen to some extent in every school, every setting in which you condense a lot of young people into a small space. A few years ago I concocted what I call the "contagious bully" theory, that is, the idea that we all have a bully inside us waiting for a chance to be invoked. Often times we descend into a mob mentality without even realising it, and even may unwittingly participate in bullying without ever making the connection. One bully taking liberties with someone will immediately set a new social standard that says to all bystanders "this is alright", at which point they all feel liberated of a rule they were previously compelled to follow and find it more acceptable to join in, no matter how reprehensible the activity may be.

The contagious bully is just as much about the victim as the bully themselves, but I'll get to that in just a moment. The point is, we all naturally fall into a co-operative dynamic, and generally someone who suffers bullying will find that it's no single individual, but rather some mysterious collective decision that everyone around them seems to have made to make their lives a living hell. The reason is, it's not really just "a bully" at all, it's not something unusual or beyond the pale, it's the way we naturally are. It's the animalistic nature of every human being to single out and relentlessly attack an individual to push themselves up another rung on the hierarchical ladder. Whether the distinguishing feature they pick out is your apparent sexuality, your race, gender, hair colour, the way you walk... they'll find SOMETHING because they are hard wired to. So there's no point in pursuing an anti-bullying campaign and trying to make it all about one sort of bullying, like it's an isolated problem you can magically fix.

And that's a problem I have with most anti-bullying measures, to be honest. The tendency to treat it like something you can fix. I don't think it is, and I think it's unfair to expect schools, parents or meaningless platitudes to repair a problem that isn't really a problem at all. It's merely human nature. I've seen some attempt at helping that are moderately sensible. Therapy - always a good idea. I've seen people like my friend Elizabeth begin programs that teach these kids martial arts, not as a matter of self defence, but more as a vehicle for delivering self-confidence and providing them an outlet. That's good. Where most other anti-bullying measures fail, is by trying to tackle the bullies themselves, rather than the victims.

It's all good and well to say "it gets better", but does it? Does it magically just sort itself out? Do you wake up some day in an adult's body and realise all those memories are so far away they are scarcely even real to you any more? That's a fantasy every sufferer of bullying has and longs to see fulfilled. I know, I've been there too. But somehow I came out of it with a perspective that seems rare among bullying victims. And that word, right there... "victim", has a lot to do with it.

Victim is more than description, it becomes a badge you wear. After being hammered for so long with feelings of oppression, powerlessness and self-resentment, victim becomes the label by which you identify yourself. It changes you. Intimately, personally, it changes you in ways you don't even notice. But other people do, because other people still carry that same predatory nature that first turned them against you. When humans smell weakness on one another, some primal urge to eradicate it from the species possesses them with a bloodlust. Once you see yourself as a victim, you begin to exude an invisible aura that screams out "victimise me!". The way you carry yourself, your mannerisms, speech. Like a rabbit in a dark field a paranoia sets in, you become aware of everything around you, and like the stalking fox, your twitching ears become just as noticeable to the subconscious minds of the changelings in your midst.

What I'm saying is, attitude determines consequence. When you begin to see yourself as a victim you inspire a cruel hunger in those around you to take advantage of that weakness and further victimise you. Studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment show us with scary detail how inclined we are to fall into these dominant or submissive roles given even the smallest incentive. It's not that hard to understand why, either. As a social species we are compelled to establish some kind of pecking order or hierarchy. At the same time, sibling rivalry and childhood aggression are designed to weed out the runt of the litter as a sort of natural eugenics. That's what evolution is, when you think about it, so it's really no surprise to me that these instincts can be so powerful that they can make otherwise innocent or decent people turn into monsters at the drop of a hat.

When you resign yourself to the role of victim, you not only accept that judgement, you reinforce it. As you sadly hang your head low to try and be less noticeable to the bullies, you only become more noticeable. As you try to steer out of their way, you make them want to chase you. This is why people who have been bullied tend to find that the same thing happens again and again, even when they move to new areas. It follows them around like an odour they can't scrub off. Similar mechanisms also explain why people who have been subjected to intense bullying can sometimes become bullies themselves. They have been taught that you are either weak or you're strong. They've had the social imperative to test other people in that same way imprinted on them the same way that language or counting are. Young minds are extremely fertile to such conditioning.

Don't tell me "it gets better", at least not without explaining why and how. And don't tell that to young kids who will then spend the next few years of their lives waiting for some magical epiphany to sort everything out. It won't happen. I'm not saying nothing can be done about bullying, what I'm saying is, the first part of solving the problem rests on the shoulders of the person who has the problem. You can't police human nature, you can't force kids to stop being kids, and speaking as someone who has lived that nightmare, I can tell you, intervention only makes it worse. The playground seen through the eyes of student and teacher are two very different worlds, much like a prison. There's a system that the kids naturally construct, an unspoken code, and the authority figures play little role in that. Nothing makes you stand out more to bullies than having the spotlight of the school shone upon you thanks to the (usually unwelcome) intervention of parents or meddling teachers.

You're not going to survive bullying by hiding behind authority figures, and even if you could, it would do you no favours. The cliché advice you always hear is to stand up to the bullies. Sure, that's one way to go. But here's the problem, if you've already gotten a lot of negative attention from them, standing up to them is sort of like a punching bag taking a swing at the boxer. Soon enough, everyone gets wind of it, and all the boxers want a piece. It becomes a status thing. Sure, you can stand up for yourself, but against how many? Because it's not like the movies, there's not just one bad egg with a Mohawk and a single earring who flushes your head in the toilet and steals your lunch money every day. It's not one gang, or one type. It's everyone. Everyone is the bully, because you're the one giving off the victim signal that makes them smell blood.

Standing up to a bully is a great way to learn that might makes right, and even if successful, is generally the sort of reasoning that leads to bully victims BECOMING bullies. I know, I nearly went there too. I tried every coping mechanism you can think of when I was in that situation. That's why I also know that the other stereotypical piece of advice everyone gives, to ignore them and they'll just go away, is also bullshit. While a punching bag that fights back might be an attraction, one that doesn't is by no means boring. After all if that were the case no one would get bullied in the first place. Ignoring them doesn't work, standing up to them doesn't work, and trying to get others on the outside of this unique social dynamic to interfere does nothing but inflame things. So what the hell can you do?

It's not a pleasant thing to say or to hear, but the simple truth is there is no easy fix to bullying. A large part of getting through it is just keeping your head down and enduring it. It won't go away, but it won't destroy you either, unless you let it. Fantasising about the day it will all be better is fine, but it can also make the days pass very slowly. I'll tell you what you should do that I didn't do, and that's focus on building a better future for yourself. I lost hope at a young age and didn't really commit myself to my education. In hindsight, I wish I had put a lot of the time I spent feeling sorry for myself into studying and setting myself up for something that I quite frankly lacked the optimism to envision at the time. But even that won't actually help you get through the bullying.

There is no magic wand. Nobody can step in and fight the battles for you, and unfortunately, like it or not, it's just a catch 22 situation. Fight back if it gets physical enough to pose serious danger to you. Inform authority figures if it moves from something psychological to something that costs you blood, money or good standing with your school. I am NOT saying to ignore "serious" bullying, of the kind where a vendetta forms between two students and one makes it their mission to destroy the other. What I am saying is, when you find that your life is just generally miserable, that you seem to attract or inspire predators in everyone around you. When the whole school seems to have turned against you, don't try to find some kind of reset button to make it all go away. Accept it. Accept that it will be over eventually, and start moving in that direction.

I am not saying any of this to make anyone feel hopeless or trapped. I'm saying it because a painful reality is better than a false truth. It doesn't matter if your headmaster declares a zero-tolerance policy. It doesn't matter if your parents talk to their parents. It doesn't matter if you push back, run away, hide, avoid or even play the same game and get in good with even bigger bullies. Human nature will finds its way. The best way to stop being a victim, is to stop deciding that you are. Stop believing it, stop feeling it, stop caring what these other morons say about you. It won't make it all just go away, but even if the very most you can do is limit how receptive YOU become to that pain, that's still better than wishy washy sentiments that you can't take to the bank.

If you want to get out of a bad situation, let me assure you. It DOES get better. But angels won't descend from above and simply deliver those better days to you. You have to go out and find them. I know you might not think you're strong enough to do that right now, but neither did I, neither do any of us. It still happens. It happens because it must. It happens because your need to survive is just as strong as theirs. If you are hurt by what they do it's because they are injuring in you something that is quantifiably real, a tangible need to survive, a live spark that they are sensing and trying to extinguish. You can't hurt a caged person with threats of putting them in a cage. If you are suffering, it's because you have something to lose, and that proves you still have something to survive FOR.

I mentioned I have an odd perspective, and by now I think it's becoming evident. Most bully victims I know (there's that word again) end up angry and vengeful towards their malefactors. I share the anger, but in a more general sense. I hate any sort of bullying whenever I see it. But I bear those people from my past no ill will. Why? Because they were children. I did things when I was younger that I would never do now. Why? Because I was a stupid young kid with no wisdom or maturity or capacity to understand the consequences of my actions. It is unfair to hold a grown person responsible for the actions of a child they can barely remember being. We do most of our development as individuals way after those years. I know people among my friends and family who only figured out what they want to do in life or who they really were well into their fifties.

It's so sad to see how other people let their pasts define them. How they carry those scars like the markings of an exclusive club or some childish rite of passage. They magnify the impact of their past injuries by obsessing over them, whilst paradoxically using that martyred status like a pedestal to elevate themselves to the state of being somehow better than everyone else because they went through that, and now they have the right to judge. I see these people commenting on news stories about barely self-aware little children bullying one another in scandalous ways, saying how they hope these kids get expelled from their schools and end up growing up sad and penniless. Wishing harm or psychological distress upon them. And I think to myself... "who's really the bully here?" The pre-teens that are pulling on each other's pigtails? Or the grown men and women who sit there snidely lowering their thumbs happy to throw those poor kids to the lions over one mistake?

Don't let your past define your future. You may have been hurt become, perhaps in very deep and personal ways, but understand that it's just something that happens at that age. Whether it was an adult, or a child that wronged you (and I've experienced both, I still vividly remember my Spanish teacher teaching my entire class to chant "Shut up, Founder" in Spanish whenever I tried to participate and learn (she actually used my real name, obviously). It doesn't matter, because carrying or treasuring those scars only achieves one thing. It gives the people who ruined your past the power to destroy your future as well. Do they deserve that much credit? Do they deserve to have THAT MUCH power over you? Don't give that to them. Don't give them the satisfaction. Don't waste your time or energy hating them. Chances are, by the time you're old enough to be over it, they won't even remember you. And if they do? If they are that sad? They probably don't have much going on in their lives by that point. You, on the other hand, will.

Remember, if it's very serious, you eventually may have to do something about it. Involve someone. But there's a big foggy line that needs to be crossed before it can get that bad. It was about as bad as it could get for me at times, including having guys jumping up and down on my head, trashing my home, stabbing me through the shoulder blade with needles, you name it. I don't, however, consider it to have gotten to that degree of seriousness, now that I have the clarity of hindsight. It was hell at the time, but it was also just what happens when you let other people convince you that you are weak. You become weak, and you attract more cruelty. None of that was really bad, for me though. For me the worst part was the psychological bullying.

The rejection, the whispers, the pennies and stones that would periodically come flying over your shoulder. The general sense of being resented or regarded as some ugly human wart that no one wanted within touching distance. I didn't cry or complain when I was punched or stolen from. It was the rumours, the occasions where an entire classroom agrees to do something wrong and then unanimously blame it on you, the atmosphere of general hostility that was so perfectly implanted into the way everyone behaved that it would even come to infect the teachers. I understand the burden of having been chosen by your entire world for being the scapegoat, the mule, the punching bag, the nothing. Bullying is a great deal more complex than a small gang of Bulk and Skulls tipping your bag onto the floor for fun. And it doesn't have to involve switchblades or lighters to be devastating.

I'm telling you it can get better, and I'm also telling you how. Deal with it. Tolerate it. Don't let it define you, and live for yourself. Whether you're gay, minority, or an average white male with seemingly no attributes that should make you stand out, but for some inexplicable reason you just find yourself surrounded by hate. You don't get past this by hoping, you do it by letting go. It's okay to grow up angry, just be angry at the right things. It's okay to grow up scarred, just let those scars be lessons, not trophies. There is no bravery or heroism in simply going through a shitty experience, but in being able to forgive afterwards?

That takes balls.

Thanks for your time, and I hope that if anyone who reads this has ever been through something so terrible, that they end up being happy and at peace with themselves. Never look in the mirror and see what they wanted you to see. If you really want poetic justice for your bullies - that's the best way to do it.

Wishing you peace and happiness,

The Founder

Friday, 20 September 2013


Yes, it is true. I am not ashamed to admit it. I am a Grammar Nazi.

It's an unfortunate title that obviously evolved out of deliberately mocking comparisons by the non-grammar inclined, and it's even more unfortunate that this title seems to have stuck and now embeds itself in our vernacular as the only real choice available when self-identifying as someone who gives a shit about not looking like a gerbil with a keyboard when in dialogue over the net. I don't particularly care for it, really I'd consider myself more of a Grammar Socialist, but the spirit behind the title is something I very much stand for, and will now defend to the best of my ability.

I suppose the main reason I'm doing this blog post is because I'm getting a little tired of the trend of anti-intellectualism that I'm noticing more and more on the web. It's always been there as a background noise but lately it's becoming more pervasive. There seems to be this general consensus that learning, intelligence and anything that could be looked upon with jealousy are inherently bad, and I find that worrying. There was a time where education was regarded that way, and everyone was stupid but the unpopular kids. Then the nerds grew up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and geekiness became cool. Now we're slipping back down to the worship of mediocrity, and people who battle to keep the standards high get demonized as self-righteous or snobbish. I want to put a stop to this once and for all.

We Grammar Nazis get a tough rap on the nets, there's no shortage of trolls wearing the title to justify their acting like pricks to people who really don't have it coming. Then there's the Grammar Nazi's Grammar Nazis, the people who incessantly try to correct us on our grammar as some twisted kind of poetic justice, which really only compounds the negative impression we get as it descends into a dictionary battle that just pisses off the bystanders. Then there are the people who try to be Grammar Nazis, but don't actually know basic spelling or grammar (or gerbils in jackboots, as I call them). Those are the worst. The in-fighting between all these groups reinforces this stigmatized impression of us as assholes, making it very difficult to defend yourself, because at some point you end up reasoning with a mob.

When it comes to this topic the Internet can be divided into roughly three groups. Grammar Nazis, gerbils, and people who pretty much know how to spell but find the Grammar Nazis intolerable rather than the gerbils. Of course, this means the deck is stacked against those like myself. On the one hand, everyone who is possessed of even a passable degree of literacy feels a tiny stab in their guts when they see people who for the life of them just can't understand the difference between "there", "they're" or "their". On the other hand... nobody likes a smartass, and everyone likes putting one in their place (even if it means behaving like a far more insufferable smartass in the process).

I can understand it from their point of view. I really can. Grammar Nazis must look somewhat like the obnoxious stereotypical comic book nerds battling one another about the technicalities of what happened in issue #321 of the Spastic Disaster Series, or the square-jawed body-building jocks looking down on those around them for not being as obsessed with the spandex-thonged glistening muscular bodies of their weightlifter idols as they are (in a totally non-homo way of course). The fact is when you have an elective group of people whose lives revolve around a particular speciality, it is justifiable to call them annoying and obnoxious when they spend their time poking at the lay people around them for not also being experts.

But that, right there, is my problem. Good grammar is NOT a speciality skill, it is NOT something that only those who have been educated in a specific way should understand. It's a life-skill, that means it's a basic part of the curriculum which you need to survive in the modern world. As elemental and necessary as knowing how to tie your shoelaces. Yes, it's true there are SOME people who take it to the next level, and snarkily flick verbal beans at one another with derisive, esoteric wit about one another's misuse of ellipses or dangling participials. It's true that not everyone needs to have THAT much knowledge of grammar to survive, but I'm not saying they should. I'm far more concerned with the basics.

I get it though, even with that aside I look like a dick when I go up to someone and point out what they're doing wrong. I mean, come on. Who wouldn't look like a dick doing that? In a vacuum, I freely admit that that just plain sounds like dickish behaviour. But I'd like to ask you for a moment to put aside that reactionary mentality. To take a moment to flush away all your current opinions and thoughts on the matter, and try to view it from a completely objective point of view. As if you'd never encountered anything like it before. Ask yourself... is it really rude to do this? What, exactly, makes it so rude? Bear with me here.

Let's say you're hanging out with a friend, you know, in the real world. That place I am told exists somewhere to the side of my monitor. You're hanging out, you're having fun, trading Pokemon cards or dancing to the Eminem music or whatever hip, young people do these days, and maybe you decide to go do something more entertaining. So naturally you go to the Museum of Historical Scissors. What better way to bond than over some well-preserved flint blades? Now here's the thing, while you're there you keep noticing that your friend pronounces it "sKissors". What do you do?

While I'm sure there are one or two exceptions... there always are (usually offered by people trying to be clever by attempting to derail your point) I expect that most people wouldn't think anything of it. They would simply say "You mean sCissors, right?" or some such statement lacking any negative connotations, to politely correct their friend, and be on their way to enjoy a riveting two hour lecture on the evolution of sheers from basic farming tools. Clearly this is a healthy friendship. When you see someone making a mistake, you HELP them. This is a sensible reaction. It's not only harmless, I'd go so far as to say it is the right thing to do.

People don't spontaneously lose their shit the moment they realised they got a word wrong or misplaced a vowel. It's not the rudest thing in the world to help them see it, and it isn't received as some malicious attack in the outside world. Most of the time the only way you learn a new word or what one you already use really means is by someone else pointing it out for you, so it's actually beneficial to our vocabulary. In fact most sane human beings probably wouldn't even bat an eyelid and, dare I say, might just even be grateful. You see, the truth is it's only on the Internet where we have developed this odd social barrier against fixing problems just to protect the fragile egos of those who may end up experiencing a split-second of feeling stupid.

Are we really so thin-skinned as a generation that we can't handle the simple act of someone pointing out a mistake without it leaving us so traumatized that everyone else must chip in to keep us safe from it? It's not like it's a harmless problem either. We're talking about people who honestly don't know where commas go, how the simplest of words are spelled. Are you going to tell me that education ISN'T a big deal in the modern world? Please. Education is the single factor that stands between the human race that built computers, the Empire state building, internal combustion, the cure for the black plague and the Internet, and the human race whose solution to the problem of "What do I do with all my feces?" was "Let's tip it out the window".

Education. Is. Everything. This isn't just about me not being annoyed by you not knowing how to type or speak, we're talking about communication here, that which separates us from every other animal. People who aren't raised to understand basic English (other languages I'll get to in just a moment) are lacking a fundamental life-skill that is exactingly imperative when it comes to finding employment, being successful, finding a mate who isn't willing to settle for gerbil, and in turn contributes to the domino effect of general enlightenment that will lead to them being an intelligent person with informed political and social opinions. You can't get through life as a sensible human being if you don't even have the most basic tools available to you.

We all have an obligation to look out for one another, and by extension, the future of this race. If someone doesn't know how to operate a door, are you being a dick for holding it open for them? If someone can't work the coffee machine, is helping them some kind of transgression? Might we consider it wrong every time someone stops someone else to say "There's something on your face" or points out that your shoelaces are untied? Should I also feel offended by the instruction manuals in every device I buy, or the store clerk who stops to ask if I need help when I look lost? There are few real world circumstances in which pointing out a mistake someone has made is not usually received as a helpful gesture.

Of course, tone and attitude play a big role in that. "You missed a spot" is seldom heard in a tone bereft of snideness, and perhaps that's a big part of the problem. How do you convey a helpful tone via text? It's all too easy on hearing correction to default to a caustic cadence for the delicate egos of the unhugged, sexually-repressed manchilds in this soft age of bubble-wrapped sharp edges and censorship. Anything remotely critical is immediately turned into an attack, and when graced by the protective anonymity of the 'net which so allures our inner elitists, isn't it also possible that those criticisms are sometimes deliberately spiced with a touch extra subtle mockery? I'd be lying if that wasn't the case, even for me.

Having said that, I honestly don't correct people who I see using poor grammar to be malicious or a jerk, I do it because I care about the horrendous, declining state of education in the modern world. Granted there is a certain karmic satisfaction, but the core goal is to fix a problem, not rejoice in it. I didn't do well at school, at all, and it was a very crappy school, but even I somehow came out of it with an understanding of the difference between "than" and "then". What on Earth is being taught in schools these days that causes so many students to enter the big, wide world with the knowledge of infants? It's like not knowing how to walk, you NEED to know the difference between a comma and an apostrophe.

Now, personally speaking, I reserve my Grammar Nazi powers for the villainous and douchey. Unless it's a shockingly poorly written post with EVERYTHING misspelled, I let it go. Anyone can make typos or slip up and type the wrong word, happens to me all the time. I'm not interested in pointing out obvious mistakes, only correcting people who genuinely don't seem to know they are making them. I generally wait until I see someone who is acting like a douche to someone else but in the process repeatedly messes up, then it's fair game. I use it not only to take them down from their assumed position of power and remind them what humility is, but also to contribute to the education they need to overcome such assholeish behaviour as well.

To be very clear on what kind of context we're talking about here, I'm saying that I won't just walk up to someone and point out that they can't spell. However, if I see someone making racist, bigoted or generally mean-spirited remarks towards someone else, either accusing them of not knowing English while hypocritically misspelling half the words, or simply accusing other people of being "dum" or "stuepid" - that's when I crack my knuckles. Consider it a mechanism of social justice, or a love of irony. It is never really something that comes out of left field though. They always deserve to have the soap box kicked out from under them.

Of course, this just pertains to my use of correction as a form of ridicule, I am less conservative about occasionally offering up a little *you're or *their to nudge someone who clearly never learned these simple distinctions in the right direction. This is with no sour undertones however, and is better judged in terms of that "there's something on your face" helpful mentality. Part of the reason there is no derision intended in these circumstances pertains to my next point, which I'm sure is something most people would immediately (and probably already did) recognize to be a flaw in the Grammar Nazi etiquette.

Language barrier.

It's true that there are many people for whom English is a second or third language, and for such people, it is more than easily forgiveable if they don't happen to have quite as polished a vocabulary as native English speakers. They may well be fluent in their own languages, which is probably a lot more than I could claim to be, so obviously I am far more lenient in such cases. It's usually fairly easy for a trained eye to recognize a non-English speaker when you see one, the ordering of their words, the general phrasing. Obviously I give these people a free pass, even if they are being douches. I am certainly not one of those obnoxious people who take the attitude that if you're going to post on the internet you "must" know English.

It can be hard for some people to tell when they're dealing with someone for whom English isn't their main language, and to be fair some people speak the language so well, it's almost too subtle to notice. If I do call someone out on their grammar and they end up telling me this is the case, I'll happily apologize and congratulate them on how well they do speak it - before continuing to eviscerate whatever stupid shit they were saying to begin with. If you think someone isn't native to the language - let them go, that's a fairly obvious policy (which some people, regrettably, seem to neglect).

Note - I also reserve the same policy for those with disorders that make spelling and grammar more difficult, although being born with a difficulty is no excuse for acquiescence to low standards.

The goal isn't to convert the world to speaking English. I'm just as happy with people doing the same thing I do but in other languages. It's about protecting the fidelity to your chosen language and ensuring its purity, protecting it from misuse and abuse, and taking steps to prevent it from becoming the meaningless gibberish of an idiocracy over the coming generations. I don't think it's wrong to want to prevent that. If we're not going to respect language then why even bother with anything? Why don't we all just make random noises at each other? Because language has a purpose, and if it is to be useful, it needs rules that must be adhered to.

Since I generally remain reticent on other people's English skills until in some kind of conflict with them (and even then, only when they have it coming), it doesn't become a problem until I cross swords with someone, wherein it (hopefully) serves to distil a higher quality of argument from that person, as they attempt to compete not only with my case, but also my speech pattern, and hopefully help encourage them to become smarter. That's not to imply I'm automatically smarter than they are, in fact they may well be far superior to myself, but that's the point. They have to at least be on my level in order to take me down a peg, which is very difficult if they can't really convey their argument due to their own ineptitude.

I mean, not only does it make communication difficult, but it's also reflective of how well-educated you are likely to be in other areas as well, so it simply destroys all credibility. Do you want to look like you don't even know what you're talking about? If I'm debating with someone who can't help but look like they're typing with a turnip, how is anyone supposed to take them seriously? If you're going to stand any chance of disagreeing with people on a matter and not looking like a fool doing so, you'll need to learn to wield the language with some dignity and grace. Best case scenario? They leave, learn how to communicate more effectively, and come back a smarter person for it. I've seen it happen. Hell, it happened to me.

I mentioned that I went to a terrible school earlier. The truth is, while I did walk out of that landfill with a passable understanding of basic grammar, my general spelling skills were lacking, as was my vocabulary. I was never very good at getting across the thoughts and ideas that swam about in my brain soup (which I may be going into greater detail on in a future post...) but the point is, I rose to the challenge. I realised that I wasn't giving the best first impression, and I wanted to be taken seriously. That was one of the first steps on my road to re-education and general self-improvement, and I don't regret it. Sometimes you just have to look like a dumbass in order to recognize that you're not one, and find a way to show it.

Look, I'm not saying I'm a saint, or that there is a complete absence of predatory gratification in what I do, but my core motives are decent. I won't deny that it does make me genuinely angry to see the language getting massacred by idiots, and I won't pretend that I really welcome it when such correction comes my way, whether justified or not. But if you really asked yourself where you wish to stand on this spectrum, from intellectual to gerbil - where would you want to find yourself? You don't leave your house without pants on, you don't try to handle money if you can't count, you don't go to a restaurant and eat your pasta with your bare hands and if you don't want to look like a clown, you don't try to argue with people via text when you can't even spell. There are some things you just need to be able to do.

But are we really "Nazis"? Is this in any way a fair comparison? I don't think it is. There's no censorship implied in telling people to speak properly. There's no social police element to the passive act of simply pointing out the shit someone has tracked in. We have not the power to make you stop talking nonsense, only to ask you not to, and occasionally mock you for not knowing how. What's wrong with respecting the language I speak so much that I care whether or not other people do it justice? To me the English language is beautiful, its rhythms and patterns almost song-like. And if I hear someone butchering a song I like, guess what? I'll point it out. I do understand why this can seem rude, but I don't apologize for doing it.

Grammar Nazis aren't the bad guys, we just care more about you not looking stupid than you do. We give a damn about the shockingly poor state of education in this modern world, and the consequences that can have in every other corner of life. I know many of you hate seeing someone try to one-up someone else, but would you really prefer a world in which no one gets called out on it when they do something wrong? A world with no accountability or standards? Aren't you really just protecting people from the consequences of their stupidity, and thus enabling the stupidity itself? If you stand between a GN and his/her prey, what you're really announcing to the world is that you care less about who is in the wrong than you do about enforcing this egg-shell-laden landscape of social censorship and the insulation from basic education.

So who's really the Nazi?

All I want is to make sure that we're all on a level-playing field. Gerbils who can't spell are at a disadvantage, to say nothing of the validity of their points. You can't defend a position if you can't get three words without making yourself look like a moron. I did use to be a bit more vitriolic in the past, and maybe did it a bit more often, but time mellows, so I do understand the temptation to do so. My advice to other GN's is to hold off until it seems absolutely necessary. Doing this won't win you any friends. At the same time, however, don't let the fragile sensibilities of those around you dictate what you say. When you see an error, it is the duty of every conscionable person to correct it.

It isn't rude to do this, it isn't mean or vulgar or symptomatic of an attention-seeking mind, it's just standing up for the language we are all using as a medium to get across thoughts and feelings. If we abandon that medium, if we let it degrade into something less, something duller, what a travesty that would be. Protecting that language, even if it makes you unpopular, is not only objectively right, it's morally right, and the only place on Earth where people are so sponge-soft that they can't handle such simplistic correction is here on the net, where anonymity not only helps invoke such criticism to begin with, but also grants free licence for those at the receiving end of it to stomp their feet and pout and cry like whiny little babies simply because they, like all of us, dislike being reminded of their own fallibility.

For that small moment of inconvenience over which you flail and flounder like weak-minded little monkeys, you have learned something that you would have found far easier to unlearn had it not been delivered with such pointed barb, and for that you're welcome. You're welcome even though you cry and accuse, for the fact that you know something today that you didn't know yesterday. And should that education snowball, as you look up these words in attempt to disprove my correction, and gradually begin to care about being right, you're welcome for that also. We try to improve the world around us, albeit sometimes with a bit of venom, certainly, because if we don't - who will? Before we were Grammar Nazis we were just "people who know how to spell", we've been around as long as stupidity has, and we're the reason there exist rules to maintain and preserve the language in the first place. You're welcome.

So why am I a Grammar Nazi (or Socialist)? Why not just keep my mouth shut and let people spew whatever nonsense they want? Because I care. I honestly do. I care about people having the skills to improve their intelligence and help them convey good ideas. I care about not letting idiots infect other people with their stupidity. I care about communication and the enormous benefit it has had to our species. If only other people would care half as much as I do about not tarnishing such a valuable tool, maybe we'd all be a little bit better off. But at the end of the day, if you're going to sing my song at me, you better damn well know the melody.

UPDATE: As always, none of my blogs are "finished", and always subject to updating or alteration. I have elected to include in this article a short, hopefully memorable guide on how to be a Grammar Nazi effectively and without douchiness. Not all GN's behave in accordance with these rules, but those who do tend to be of a higher calibre in my opinion.

Edicts of the Grammar Nazi.

Rule 1. Never correct a typo.
Remember, the aim is to educate and improve the knowledge of others. Correcting a mistake serves no purpose and only makes you look like a jackass. When in doubt, phrase your correction as a question; "Did you mean to say X?" or simply leave it alone. The likelihood of it being a misspelling over a typo should be factored into this decision, for example "thier" is more likely to be a typo, whereas "there" used as a possessive pronoun is more likely a case of poor education, and requires swift correction. Let us also agree that this same rule implicitly applies to colloquialisms and slang.

Rule 2. Be as polite and dignified as possible.
That which distinguishes GN's from trolls is our ability to carry out the unenviable task of correcting the belligerent while retaining some class and decorum in doing so. Mock where mocking is necessary, hold back where it is not. Though requiring more restraint, it is objectively better to wait until someone makes a fool of themselves, rather than go out of your way to make a fool of them. Again, never forget, the goal is to improve, not denigrate. When helping someone else with an error, etiquette demands a certain level of patience and approachability.

Rule 3. Respect language barriers and disorders.
The goal is not to convert the world to speaking your language, and whatever culture you are a part of is not the only one on the internet. Always think before you attempt to correct. Analyse your subject, observe their sentence structure and try to judge if it seems likely they are not native speakers of the language they are using. Likewise, if you suspect, or are informed that the subject is suffering from a literacy disorder, do the right thing. Walk away. If there is any doubt in your mind that either of these options might be the case, just ask. Sometimes it is preferable to contact them in private to offer your tutelage in an environment free of embarrassment. Remember, though, that such limitations do not grant these people free licence to act like ass-hats.

Rule 4. Pedantry over advanced grammar is best avoided, except in case of serious douchebaggery.
Nothing puts people off more than GN's talking like human dictionaries, throwing out oblique technicalities and archaic rules just to look superior. Reserve this level of grammar correction for the sorts of people who have made themselves a worthy target by attacking or debasing other people first and can't be taken down by simpler means. Note - in case of stupidity, go with the obvious faults first. There's no need to add criticisms which most people might find unfair, especially if there are elementary mistakes already present. That just makes you look like you're piling on. Restraint is an excellent tool of any educator.

Rule 5. Never be afraid to educate.
Do not be intimidated by bullying and the ganging up on you of illiterate internet gerbils. Do not be squashed into silence by the unkempt mobs who sully their own potential with the worship of ignorance. Nothing good ever came from the sort of person who decided the correct thing to do about lacking basic knowledge is to ignore the problem or enable that ignorance in others by ignoring it too out of a misguided sense of politeness. If you care about the state of humanity today, and worry about how it will look tomorrow, do your part now. Sometimes intimidation will battle confidence, but at the end of the day, remember one simple fact - you are literally in the right, and they, the wrong. Is this really a world in which the truth about whether or not something is correct is less important than whether or not we feel a moment of discomfort upon being corrected? SHOULD it be? You decide whether that is the case with your actions.

Of course, the golden rule in all things internet, is know when to walk away. If you let trolls dictate your life, your argument will be as endless as it is ineffectual, and your life will be wasted. Grammar Nazis are a necessary mechanism of the internet (and education in general, when you think about it), and the modern age has developed an ecosystem in which we are truly fundamental.

We teach the lazy schoolkids what they should be learning in class when they are busy insulting people over the internet on their cellphones. We correct the people who simply never bothered to learn, or were unable to, and would, if uncorrected, go on to infect others with their anti-education. People learn by being corrected these days more so than just being informed in the first place. It's our job to be the bad guy who takes care of that.

We're here to help, not to insult. Forget that, and you cease to be a positive force in this inter-connected world, and fail in your duties as an intellectual custodian.

Thanks for your time, and take care.

No gerbils were harmed in the making of this blog.