TV Tuesday: The Wipers Times (2013)


OK, so. The Wipers Times was a humour/satire newspaper put out by some British soldiers during WWI; the name is the common British pronunciation of the Belgian town of Ypres where they were stationed when they started it. The Wipers Times is a 2013 TV movie about the guys who did it and their various tribulations. Michael Palin has a small role as a brasshat who defends them from another brasshat who doesn’t like them.

The Wipers Times is reasonably well-made and definitely well-acted. Ben Chaplin has aged very well, and brings the right mixture of quirky and serious to the role. The production values are nice, although there are some weird ideas, like turning ads and articles from the paper into little black-and-white sketches with the characters in costume. This does not quite work, since attempting to do a 1916-style film only makes you think “but movies didn’t have sound in 1916.”

The problem is basically that there is no story. That’s the history for you; the thing is an artefact that illuminates life in the British army in WWI. It’s … I mean, there might actually be an interesting story to tell about the technological aspect of it, but other than that? In any army, hell, in any large organisation, there are going to be corny soldiers’ jokes, shit-house rumour, resentment of the staff officers and inside gags … hell, memes. I’m sure that in today’s military there are scurrilous newsletters, email lists, Facebook groups, webcomics, forums, etc. that perform the same role. In fact, I can think of one just off the top of my head: the U.S.-Marine-Corps-centred comic strip Terminal Lance.


In essence, these are no different from the satirical newspapers kids make at school or the gags that circulate in office emails, except that the jokes and the situations are darker. It’s a common behaviour of people under pressure, and it’s a fascinating look at their lives, but a TV drama is exactly the wrong way to tell the story.

Fundamentally, the interesting thing about The Wipers Times (as opposed to The Wipers Times) is its writing, and its writing is interesting rather than good. These guys aren’t comic masterminds; they’re just ordinary people telling gags under pressure, which is a very human thing to do. But … so what?

As I said, it’s well-made, and it’s a moderately-engaging way to pass 90 minutes while you’re tidying or making dinner or something, but The Wipers Times is less interesting than The Wipers Times.


TV Tuesday: The Wipers Times (2013)

Winding down for the holidays

It’s not that I’m going to be unproductive over Christmas, but I’m not going to be doing much online: I’m going to be painting, catching up on my reading (I’ve already finished a couple of long-postponed books) and generally trying to get the chaos of my work/intellectual life under some kind of control. Next week I should be back to something like more regular posting, hopefully with slightly more substantive posts for everyone.

It’s been a busy year — I’ve started more projects than I’ve finished, and of course we also bought a house — but I think that in many ways it’s been successful. Not absolutely perfect, but I’m still reasonably proud of it.

I will try to get the Robot Face Smith Holiday Special out on Friday — I’m just not going to have time today, which is a shame because I usually try to get ol’ Smithy out on Wednesdays. But Friday is more appropriate anyway.

Winding down for the holidays

More podcast stuff

I’ve mentioned before that my pal Jesse and I have been working on a podcast about classic Doctor Who. We’re currently five episodes in to our first season and if you like the classic era I think you will enjoy our show. You can find all the previous episodes here.

One of the things that’s been really interesting about this process is the way in which Doctor Who is a little showcase of the traditions of historical fiction.

Kind of relevant? 

And one of those traditions, of course, is being cleverly self-referential. If you look at a lot of early Who episodes, you’ll see that they’re not even so much about going into different historical periods as they are about exploring different genres of historical fiction. So for instance The Gunfighters isn’t about going back to 19th-century Arizona, it’s about being in a Western. The Romans has elements of farce — really weird, murdery farce. Most of the rest of the historical episodes are more or less straight old-fashioned historical adventure fiction.

Fair enough, right? But in our most recent episode, The King’s Demons, the reveal hinges on the fact that the Doctor and his companions turn up in 1215 and find King John acting like … well, like Bad King John. In some episodes, this would just be his characterisation, but in this one it’s a clue that all is not as it seems, since the Doctor “knows” that the historical King John wasn’t like that at all. As it happens, I don’t agree with his assessment of what the historical John was like, but that’s another story.

So which is it? Is this an anthology show of adventure fiction or a witty deconstruction of it? With Doctor Who it’s sometimes both.

More podcast stuff

Approaching holiday excitement!

The end of term is almost here, and with it two weeks of comparative freedom! I have already made a detailed list of things I want to do, from catching up on reading to recording more podcast episodes to doing some work on my various freelance projects.

I might be able to get to a museum exhibition, although outside of term is usually a horrible time. If I can, anyone got a recommendation? Celts at the British Museum seems like the obvious one, but open to suggestions!

Similarly, I am planning on doing some Movie Monday, which I have not in a while, and welcome recommendations, particularly if not too harrowing and available on Netflix or Amazon.

But I am also devoting one day — Christmas Eve — to doing nothing. I am gonna sit around the house and play video games and maybe have a bath. And it’s gonna be great.

Approaching holiday excitement!

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession

If you follow my gaming blog, you’ll know that I spent the weekend with my lovely wife in Barcelona, which was as beautiful and interesting as everyone always says it is.

In some ways, it reminded me of my trip to Budapest. If I’m in London or Paris or somewhere in the US or even Oslo or somewhere, I’m surrounded by monuments to a history that I’m reasonably, if imperfectly, aware of. But in Budapest I’d see some proud equestrian statue, walk up to it, see the name on it and be none the wiser.


I know a leetle bit more about Catalan history than Hungarian history, but only a little; my knowledge really ends in the high middle ages and then picks up again with glancing references in Patrick O’Brian novels, which I think we can all agree is not too great. I did recognise the statue of Ramon Berenguer III, and even correctly identified that he was not the guy I knew about, who was Ramon Berenguer I, although I did not know that dude had twin sons and named them Ramon Berenguer II and Berenguer Ramon II (well, OK, he didn’t include the II, but you know what I mean). Listen, Ramon Berenguer el Vell, I don’t want to tell you your business, but that is super confusing.

Anyway, this came into focus when I visited El Born Cultural Centre, once the site of a city market and now a display of the foundations of a neighbourhood knocked down to build fortifications after the Siege of Barcelona.


It was fascinating, but it revealed to me that I know pretty much nothing about the War of the Spanish Succession. In my head I just think of it as kind of the final step in that 17th-18th century transition that leads to France becoming Top Nation again. But of course that’s not what it means in Barcelona.

I wish I had taken a photograph of some of the placards describing the siege, because the only conclusion I could draw is that Barcelonans (is that a word?) are still pissed off about the War of the Spanish Succession. Obvious comparisons to other things that happened in the 18th century that people are still seething about suggest themselves, of course, but to me it was a valuable reminder of how much I still have to learn and how much the stuff I have to learn means to somebody somewhere.

So can anyone recommend a good beginner-level history of Spain? Would also accept history of Catalunya in particular.

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession


I stayed up late for foolish reasons two out of the last three nights, and I am writing this post in a state of slight doziness. I was just thinking that it has been an interesting couple of days in terms of the history I’ve had to talk about. Today alone I’ve tutored about 17th-century Ireland and England, the Vietnam war, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and a leetle about early 19th-century stuff, although mostly literature.

I always thought of myself as a hedgehog, but lately I’m quite enjoying being a fox.

I promise that I will return to the subject of representation in historical fiction at some point, but right now my brain is too fuzzy.

Speaking of fuzzy (heyoooo!) I have just recently uploaded yet another episode of the Doctor Who podcast I co-host. That’s up to three, count ’em three episodes! Why not check it out?


Steampunk and representation revisited

It’s been a busy day — productive but busy. And as I often do at the end of the day, I sit thinking about the blog and not having much to say.

The good news is that my post from Tuesday attracted quite a bit of attention, and many people posted interesting and sincere comments on the relevant Facebook post. I was talking about it with a friend yesterday and I mentioned that although I had enjoyed reading the posts, many of them were responding to things I hadn’t said. In particular, censorship, even self-censorship, was decried in a couple of responses despite the fact that I hadn’t said anything about it at all.

My friend mulled this over and then observed “you didn’t say much about anything.” And it’s true! It was a three-bullet-point open question, but because it was about a topic people care about (diversity, representation) and think is cool (steampunk) it got people discussing; just sometimes they were discussing something slightly different from the post itself. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

I find questions of representation in historical stuff a little tricky; it’s nice to see historical diversity represented, but there are periods where for certain kinds of media there are no good options. I was thinking about this the other day in the context of Red Dead Redemption. It has an unusually late setting for a western — around 1910 or so — and while this may not be any more complicated than “you know, like The Wild Bunch,” it does get the game out of having to apply the usual “edgy” Rockstar approach to the national trauma that underlies most examples of the genre, i.e. the Civil War.

I actually thought that it was doing the same with Native Americans, but in fact the third chapter of the game addresses Native American relations with white Americans in a characteristically ham-fisted manner. Of course, by this point you’ve already sat through the whole Mexico section, which is as visually striking as it is eehhhhh Greeengo sorry I was having a flashback there. As always, the saving grace (check this – ed.) is that the game portrays everyone as filthy, venal, bloodthirsty degenerates, not just its Mexican characters. What I’m saying is that you won’t even make it to the Native American bit if you’re not detached enough to stomach the Mexican bit.

Viva la revolucion, I guess? 

Anyway, my point is that I think the Civil War would have been one of those minefield subjects that would have been really hard to handle in GTA “mixture of photorealism and high absurdity” style. You’re either going to trivialise it or insert a giant heavy-handed buzzkill into your cowboy game. Mind you, I thought that about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a movie that portrayed the Confederacy as literal monsters. So what do I know?

To tie this back in to Steampunk, what most people think of as “Steampunk” is what I like to think of as “Victorian Scientific Romance.” And that means something not unlike pulp — perhaps without the seamy elements of pulp, but with dashing heroes, dastardly villains, etc. And when your genre expectations contain those things, you wind up with stereotyped portrayals. That’s a feature, not a bug.

But when those stereotyped portrayals are ones that are not quite gone from the actual world we live in, it gets a little … awkward.

No nearer a conclusion than before? Check. No definitive statement of a position? Excellent. My work here is done.


Steampunk and representation revisited

Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

So, some time ago there was one of those brief kerfuffles over calls for more diversity in steampunk fiction and art — some steampunk fans want more people of colour in the genre, while others read this as people calling them racist just because they like a fictional genre that tends (nowadays) to take a (more-or-less) uncritically positive view of 19th-century Europe.

This made me think of three things:

  • Steampunk celebrates (loosely) European, particularly British, history and culture without having an overt racist element. That is pretty rare, and you can see how that might appeal to people who are attached to their cultural heritage but don’t want either to give house-room to racists or constantly beat themselves up.
  • But the way in which steampunk (in its modern meaning) does this is to elide the context within which technology developed in the 19th century. And that context is one of colonialism; kind of unavoidably so.
  • But that’s the nature of historical or historically-inspired fiction. If you don’t focus on some aspects of the history and ignore others, you don’t have fiction, you just have a history lesson. Take Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance. No one (that I know of) objected to the lack of a scene where Jack Sparrow cruelly tortures some Catholics.

Of course, there are grounds for complaining about the way in which historical texts focus on things — so, for instance, most westerns dodge the presence of African-American cowboys like Nat Love. And that sucks. If people want to point out that most steampunk fiction elides the nasty aspects of a 19th-century setting while sort of dishonestly retaining its surface trappings, that’s fair. And if you’re going to ignore racial injustices in that era, the easiest way to do so is to remove their effects. So there’s no grounds for complaining if people want cyborg Ghost Dancers who really are bulletproof, or an elite regiment of Sikh mech pilots.

I’m not necessarily convinced about that first point, that the sanitisation of Victorian history is why steampunk appeals to people, mainly because a) not all steampunk is like that at all, and b) I think most people are attracted to it at a very simple aesthetic level. After all, this is the main criticism of steampunk fans — that they’re attracted to the appearance of technology but don’t really care about how it functions; that’s the “stick some cogs on it” meme. If people don’t care about how machines work full stop they’re hardly gonna care about how they work in their social context.

Anyway, yeah. Just thinking out loud again.


Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)