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In the Critics this week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, a host of contributors tell us their favourite book of the year, Andrew Harrison explains the politics of Doctor Who and Rachel Cooke is enamoured by Last Tango in Halifax.

Cybermen.
Whovian politics: cybermen don't seem to like traffic wardens. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

This week’s issue of the New Statesman begins with the “Books of the year”. Contributors and friends of the publication have been asked to choose their favourite reading from 2013. We feature contributions from John Gray, Ali Smith, Ed Balls, Stephen King, Rachel Reeves, Sarah Sands, William Boyd, Alan Rusbridger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Simon Heffer, Andrew Adonis, Craig Raine, Felix Martin, Frances Wilson, John Burnside, Jesse Norman, Alexander McCall Smith, Richard Overy, Jason Cowley, Mark Damazer, Lionel Shriver, Jemima Khan, Geoff Dyer, Laurie Penny, Vince Cable, Alan Johnson, Leo Robson, Jane Shilling, John Bew, Ed Smith, Richard J Evans, David Baddiel, Michael Rosen, John Banville, David Shrigley, Chris Hadfield, Tim Farrin, Toby Litt, David Marquand, Robert Harris, Michael Prodger, Michael Symmons Roberts and Sarah Churchwell.

Have you ever wondered about the politics underlying Doctor Who? It may not be as simple as you think. In fact, it may not even be a singular political message, as Andrew Harrison explains: “Doctor Who has had plenty of nasty things to say about our society over the years but the politics and ethics of its hero has proved as malleable as its core cast.” Harrison traces 50 years of Whovian politics and assigns its political randomness to the constant reinvention of its creative team and authorship. This is a show that isn’t afraid to discuss apartheid, Thatcherism, depersonalisation through technology, tax worries and liberal interventionism. In its modern form the show is “more personal, less didactic but alive to the notion that the personal is political.” So Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is a commendation of the common people and David Tennant’s Doctor shows that “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem – a very Noughties fate.” Nonetheless, it remains that the Doctor is “the last great Enlightenment figure: egalitarian, ever curious and dedicated to reason and principle that the sonic screw-driver is mightier than the sword.”

Rachel Cooke rejoices in the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax. She argues that whilst it may be easy to dismiss the show,

Sally Wainwrights’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping.

Cooke admires the complexity that derives from its simple premise – two childhood sweethearts reuniting as septuagenarians – as the show addresses the anxiety and embarrassment from their grown up daughters and even the role of social class has to play. Most of all, she is impressed with the familiarity garnered by the show’s attention to detail. This is visuals and script working harmoniously together to become “terribly touching.”

However, Cooke does dismiss the new series of Borgen coming to BBC4. She writes: “My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise.”

Opera has been going through a bit of a revival recently with the injection of several well acclaimed theatre-makers. The most recent of these is Complicite’s The Magic Flute. Alexandra Coghlan asks why John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, and the Met’s Peter Gelb are introducing these directors who are not well versed in the ways of Opera. She finds the answer in the sentiment that “directors with no background in opera” are “fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its tradition.” Yet, she is quick to note that music must remain central, there has to be “an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core”. When it comes to the production of The Magic Flute, however, Coghlan feels that the emotion has been lost from Mozart’s opera. The special effects and innovative stage design make it truly “magic” but lacks “humanity”. She concludes that Opera “is learning so much from theatre, but there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.”

This week’s Critics section also features: