Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”

Get Rekt Skrubz: A Brief Analysis of MLG Videos

This article first appeared in Cherwell on 4 November 2016. This extended version restores some content that was originally cut for space. I’m very proud of this piece, and I hope it can help us internet-dwellers remain watchful in the future, especially given what happened the week after this piece first came out.

“Dear FAZE POTTER, you have been accepted at Hogwarts school of MEMES AND QUICK SCOPING.” Such is the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Noscoper’s Stone’, a short film which, at time of writing, sits at 3,219,168 views on YouTube. It’s a prime example of the MLG video: a short, humorous montage of clips from a popular film or TV show, overlaid with text, memes, and video game assets. These videos have become very popular in recent years, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, but like everything else, they come with a dark side.

MLG refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports organisation—like FIFA for professional video game players. In the same way sports broadcasters produce edited highlights of matches, MLG produces montages of players’ most impressive gaming moments: impressive kills, deft bits of strategy, that sort of thing. These montages started hitting YouTube in the early-2010s, along with a flood of copycats, usually amateur players crudely editing together their own footage. This was, obviously, a bit of a joke. Imagine if every pub league football player started putting out edited highlights of their own performance. The videos made use of several stock elements, including blaring dubstep, anguished shouting, and references to popular memes. They were loud, obnoxious and totally ridiculous, which gave them a cultural presence in excess of their actual popularity. It was only a matter of time before the meme lords got to work.

The process was gradual, but between 2011 and 2014(ish) MLG videos transitioned into what they are now: montage parodies of popular media, having moved beyond video games and into film and TV more generally. This new breed of video was similar to its forbears in its over-the-top obnoxiousness and frequent references to video game culture, but the presentation was both more ironic and far more information-dense. The modern MLG video is a compressed tissue of quotations, audio and visual, its humour coming not just from references but the speed and inventiveness of those references, not to mention a significant uptick in editing quality. What was once amateur backwash had become slickly-produced gold; the alchemy of the internet works again.

The MLG effect, like most great art, is better seen in motion than dryly described. You only need to see Albus Dumbledore say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts School of Memes, Weed, and Good Banter” once before never looking back. But the structure and style of MLG is not new in itself, having borrowed most of its tricks from the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition. Jarring shifts in pitch and rhythm are a standard trope of experimental music, and the irreverent remixing of disparate texts is basically Postmodernism For Dummies. MLG is western culture doing what it always does, folding the marginal back into the mainstream in a way which strengthens the latter and legitimises the former. And, as ever, the margins bring their revolutionary power along with them.

The power of MLG is that nothing is above reproach. News, movies, politicians—none of them are immune to this remixing spirit, and there’s nothing they can say that can’t be cut off and replaced with a text-to-speech program making references to cannabis. MLG’s power is its constant and relentless humour —nothing it says is taken seriously. And it is precisely this quality which, as well as being powerful, makes MLG profoundly dangerous.

Do a YouTube search for ‘Donald Trump MLG’ and you will get a slew of results, obviously. Trump is the most-memed politician in living memory. But the most popular videos do not, as one might expect, frame Trump as the deluded, incompetent fool he is; rather, they seem to actively root for him. One of the top results shows Donald Trump “reking” journalist Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate, and another simply shows clips of Trump’s speeches and interviews overlaid with images, often of Donald Trump himself. The presentation is joking, but the effect is to hammer home the message more forcefully than a sincere depiction ever could. This is what makes MLG, and memes in general, so dangerous as propaganda tools.

White supremacist memes featuring Trump are ten-a-penny online, and racist, misogynist and Islamophobic rhetoric has seeped into mainstream discourse. Pepe the frog, once a benign comic book character, has been co-opted by the internet’s worst to such an extent that the he was recently declared a hate symbol. It would be ridiculous to say MLG is going the same way – making a good one requires more effort than most of these people are willing to expend – but memes are beginning to have a material impact on politics IRL.

Nimble America is a non-profit organisation whose activities consist of promoting the Donald through ‘meme magic’ and the power of shitposting. Their aim is to flood the discourse with so many images and perceptions of Trump that support becomes a matter of instinct, rather than reason. In the words of Adam Hess, Donald Trump is “proof that if Hitler was alive today he’d be the biggest thing on Twitter.”

I’m not trying to start a moral panic about memes. But we do need to think more critically about what we encounter online, and with an eye towards memes’ material impact. And if we could avoid shady crooks like Nimble America while we’re at it, that would be good too. Above all, we must be vigilant, and conscious that the ends do not always justify the memes.

Thrift shopping: still cool in 2016?

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 3 June 2016.

The year was 2013. Justin Timberlake, after a long absence from pop music, released his long-awaited comeback single, the high-class ‘Suit and Tie’. It was a smash hit. Or rather, it would have been, had it not been kept off the number one spot by… well, technically by ‘The Harlem Shake’. But also by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ breakthrough hit ‘Thrift Shop’. The two songs formed a mirror image of each other. Both focused on the power of fashion, and were infused with an extremely cocky swagger. But the boys from Seattle won through for two reasons: firstly, they simply had the better song. Where Timberlake’s offering was twinkly and just a bit slow, ‘Thrift Shop’ was catchy and energetic, its main sax riff instantly recognisable. Secondly, they had a sense of humour – where Timberlake banged on about his own attractiveness, Macklemore rapped about the joys of wearing second-hand clothes, so it’s not hard to see which of the two was the more likeable. Thus began a career full of promise.

Their last flash of relevance came in 2015, with the magnificent ‘Downtown’. Once again, this song had an obvious counterpart – namely Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ smash-hit ‘Uptown Funk’. But where ‘Uptown Funk’ was polished, ‘Downtown’ was an odder beast. The verses are slipshod but funny – opening with Macklemore getting ripped off by a moped salesman, the song presents a bizarre odyssey about the coolness of mopeds, with undertones of sixties pop and eighties rap. It’s a self-indulgent joy with a more accessible vision of cool than the exclusive ‘Uptown Funk’, precisely because it is so uncool.

‘Downtown’ shows Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at their best. Melodious, strange, and self-aware enough for the humour to work, it’s unlike anything else. The two deliberately stuck out at an odd angle from the rest of the pop scene, a fresh voice adding a touch of levity to an all-too-ponderous music industry. Following the release of their second album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, I hope they do stick around. But I really can’t think of a better way to go out.

Public Service Broadcasting – the future of pop?

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 27 May 2016.

Inform – Educate – Entertain. This was the title of London-based archive-funk duo Public Service Broadcasting’s debut album, and it also serves as a kind of mission statement.

The band’s main gimmick is the use of archive clips and famous quotations to form the lyrical content of their pieces, along with live instruments to create a kind of anachronistic EDM/funk sound. It’s a listening experience best equated to simultaneously listening to both Radio 4 and 6 Music, while watching a history documentary. It’s the sort of thing which ought to suffer from the classic problem of being more interesting to read about than to listen to, but the band make it work through the sheer cleverness and skill of their compositions.

But these indie darlings also embody a number of recent trends in the mainstream pop scene, and shows where they might lead – as they put it themselves, they bring “the lessons of the past through the music of the future.” Public Service Broadcasting dispense with singers entirely, instead sampling their songs’ entire vocal content. Singers are by no means gone from the mainstream pop space, but producers are gaining serious ground as stars in their own right. Hell, even for traditional ‘pop stars’ the producer is increasingly visible and important – Justin Bieber’s recent comeback owed far more to Skrillex than it did to Bieber himself. Vocals are becoming just one production aspect among many, and PSB present a pure expression of that sentiment. In the age of streaming and singles, album sales are at an all-time low. The Long Playing record is history. So why not take advantage of that? PSB are not exactly a pop act – number 21 on the album charts is the closest they’ve got – but they represent the best instincts of pop music as it stands today, and for that they deserve to stick to stick around.

A Beginner’s Guide to The Mechanisms

Photo: Nicole Williams

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 22 April 2016. This was part of a new feature designed to introduce readers to obscure bands they might not otherwise have heard of, so naturally I chose my own personal indie darlings, the Mechanisms.

The Mechanisms are utterly unique. Each of their albums feature sci-fi re-imaginings of classic folklore, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Arthurian myth, perfectly capturing the nerdy passion of Oxford at its best. Most of their songs consist of folk standards, re-written to suit a plotline, making them a sturdy base line from which to work, and the performers sell their roles (of bloodthirsty space pirates with a penchant for storytelling) with arresting conviction.

Recorded in 2012, their debut album Once Upon a Time (in Space) tells the story of a brutal interplanetary dictator and the rebellion led against him. It is probably The Mechanisms’ most accessible album. There are rookie errors – the voice acting, for example, is rather weak – but there’s an absolutely mesmerising story at its core, along with some of the band’s catchiest tunes. Their second album, Ulysses Dies at Dawn, contains an even headier combination of styles and images, this time creating a grim cyberpunk version of Greek mythology. While a bit less accessible, the final image is absolute genius. Their recent EP, Frankenstein, is strong, with a lean and disturbing tale of a rogue AI, even if the underlying composition feels fairly workmanlike.

The Mechanisms still play Oxford occasionally (you may remember their appearance at the Bullingdon in January), and are currently working on a new full-length album. For fans of folklore or folk-music, this is not a band to be missed, and the fact that it’s right on our doorstep gives us even less of an excuse.