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.

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:

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

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.