Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for November, 2010

Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 21, 2010

One of the things I liked best about the last season of Doctor Who were the Roman soldiers from The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. Obviously, as a Classicist, my default position is to be happy when anything from the ancient world shows up in a modern medium – and that goes double when it’s happening specifically in the context of my favourite TV programme. :-) But these soldiers went one step further for me. By encouraging us to accept them at first as ‘real’ human beings, but then gradually revealing that, even within the terms of the story, they were in fact fakes (plastic Auton replicas, to be precise), Steven Moffat whisked us off into the realm of the meta-referential – yet another thing which I absolutely love. The suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but better still is an author who occasionally draws attention to the fictional nature of his or her narrative, reminding the audience with a nod and a wink that what we are actually doing is indulging in the pleasure of a really good story. Yay!

A good meta-reference should say rather more than just “Oh, by the way: none of this is real”, though – and I thought that Moffat’s Roman Autons lived up to this. In the context of his story, they made a major contribution to the very important plot-development task of establishing the power of Amy’s memory, since their whole existence turns out to have been extrapolated from the picture books which she read as a child, and the costume which Rory wore to a fancy dress party:

The denouement of this story, and of the entire season, depends on this concept, so it really does need to be properly established in advance. Meanwhile, beyond the story, the Roman Autons also worked for me as a great piece of commentary on the way that we in the present relate to the Romans of the past – and particularly the role Roman soldiers usually play in screen portrayals of the ancient world. We cannot ever encounter real Roman soldiers directly – much as time-travelling fantasy shows such as Doctor Who would like to pretend that we can. So all they can ever be to us are words and pictures in books which we bring to life with our minds – just as Amy does here. And one of the contexts in which we have collectively done that is in our screen portrayals of the Roman war-machine marching off to conquer and subdue – just like thousands of little battlefield miniatures:

Every director who has ever master-minded a Roman battle scene has known that he (or she) is fundamentally playing with life-sized toy soldiers. And now here is Steven Moffat, making that gloriously explicit.

Anyway, with all that swirling around in my head, you can imagine my delight when this little fellow appeared as part of this season’s line of Whovian merchandise:

This takes what was already a fantastic joke to a whole new level. Now instead of watching human actors playing plastic Roman soldiers on my television, I have my very own model of one of those soldiers which is actually made of plastic. A plastic plastic Roman. What could possibly be cooler than that?

That’s not all, either. Because while my new toy was still in his packet, it was perfectly clear what he was. It says so on the front: “Roman Auton”. But out of the packet – well, what is he now? Stripped of his label, he suddenly looks exactly like any other plastic Roman – the very toys that Moffat’s whole clever joke was based on in the first place. It’s only my subjective experience of having seen him in the packet first that makes him remain a plastic plastic Roman for me, as opposed to just an ordinary plastic Roman. I am constantly endowing him with a whole extra level of identity just through the power of my mind – much like Amy in The Pandorica Opens, in fact. :-)

In all fairness, I should probably add here that my little legionary is not the first plastic plastic Roman on this planet, and nor was Moffat the first person to put living toy Romans on television. That path had already been carved by Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel (2009). In those films, the character of Octavius is a miniature museum display figure who comes to life every night – and he was released as a plastic toy figure in 2009 by none other than McDonalds:

Mind you, I think there’s no contest over which is the higher-quality figure, there.

It’s also worth noting that Character Options, who make the Doctor Who toys, have a track record of releasing somewhat tongue-in-cheek products. These are the people who offered up not only a Cassandra action figure to go alongside the season 1 episode The End of the World, but also a ‘Destroyed Cassandra’ for the season 2 episode New Earth. Yes, that’s right – an empty plastic frame sold in a packet with the words ‘Poseable Action Figure’ printed on the front:

They have, in fact, also released an ‘Underhenge Stone Roman Auton’, from the scene when those alien entities standing near to the Pandorica become fossilised as their home planets wink out of existence all around the Earth:

This time, he isn’t actually made of stone – what a swizz! But then again, should we expect him to be? Maybe when an Auton turns to stone, it takes on the appearance and consistency of stone while still remaining fundamentally plastic at a molecular level: just as it does when it takes the shape of a human being? And in any case, like his equivalent in the original TV episode, he does still constitute yet another lovely comment on the nature of our relationship with the ancient Roman world. Because of course another way in which we’re used to interacting with the remnants of the Roman past is via surviving stone images of soldiers and generals:

These are quite literally “after-images – fossils in time”, which is also what the Doctor calls the stone aliens in the Underhenge.

I’ve managed to resist actually purchasing a plastic stone Roman for the time being. I’m happy enough with the plastic plastic one for now. But I’ll also be keeping half an eye out for the day when Character release an empty packet with the words ‘Dematerialised TARDIS’ written on the front. You know they’re thinking about it…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, films, television, toys | 7 Comments »

Defending the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 16, 2010

Anyone working in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences has felt cold winds blowing of late. I’ve felt them very directly myself. When the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds announced last year that all departments and services across the entire university needed to start modelling 20-25% savings on the basis of the cuts to Higher Education funding which he knew (very presciently) were coming, one of the first responses from our so-called fellow-departments in the School of Humanities was to propose the closure of Classics. But my own department is far from the only one feeling the pinch. Other similar cases of late have included:

And there are doubtless others I’ve missed. Now, of course, the total removal of the direct teaching budget for Arts and Humanities subjects is being proposed as part of the measures in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Anyone would think that the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences had no value – that they were a trifling luxury and a drain on the national resources.

Except that they’re not. This isn’t the first crisis which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have faced. We’ve already got very used to defending ourselves by identifying what we have to offer to the wider society and economy within which we operate, and articulating that to the appropriate audiences. Detailed reports commissioned by the British Academy in 2004 and 2010 and by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2010 (PDF document) have shown that Arts and Humanities subjects play an essential role in equipping graduates with the analytical and communications skills needed for today’s knowledge-driven economy, that they foster the necessary political and cultural conditions for economic growth, and that they contribute directly to the economy. That’s before, of course, we even bother to mention trivial matters such as cultural enrichment, or the ability to make sense of the changing attitudes, discourses and values at work in the world around us.

Increasingly, public figures have been speaking out about the value of Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects. These are just some of the examples I have gathered:

The central message of all of these articles is clear: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences not only enrich their graduates as individuals, and the cultures within which they operate collectively, but they also make a measurable contribution to the balance-sheets of the universities where they are taught, the companies where their graduates are employed and the nations in which they are pursued.

And, going one step further than individual speeches and articles, the collaborative movement to stand together and make this clear to those who fail to understand it is growing. Martha Nussbaum will be giving a public talk on the subject in London on 16th December. I’d encourage any London-based readers to go – but apparently space at the event is already fully booked out. That shows the growing extent of collective concern about the subject.

And just two days ago, a group of scholars and students in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, working together with business people who support and value their work, set up a collaborative blog for the purpose of speaking out for our subjects, as well as a related petition. This has the potential to be a great gathering-point for everyone who sees the value of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – especially for people who don’t work in those fields themselves, but want to show their appreciation for what these subject areas can contribute to our culture, society and (yes) economy.

I’ve already signed the petition myself, and will repost what I wrote here for ease of reference:

“Now more than ever, the UK needs graduates who have been highly trained in the skills of rigorous analysis, critical evaluation, digesting and making sense of large quantities of information, and communicating their findings to others clearly, accurately and persuasively. These are exactly the skills which arts, humanities and social science subjects deliver. Furthermore, the academics who teach these subjects are already highly experienced in drawing the attention of their students to these skills as they encounter them, and helping them to develop them further. I know this because I am a Classics lecturer myself, and skills development is central to our curriculum. Undermining all of this now would deal a severe blow to the future of our modern, skills-based economy – to say nothing, of course, of our cultural landscape.”

Whoever you are and whatever you do, I would strongly urge you to do the same.

Posted in higher education, politics | 2 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: