23 October 2014

1989, 25 years on: Hungary

A Hungarian flag with the communist coat of arms cut out - while they were actually removed after the 1956 Uprising, it remains a potent symbol of the events of 1989 (Guilherme Paula on Wikipedia)

Hungary, the second of the communist dominoes to fall, has definitely got one of the more interesting histories of any country in Europe. This landlocked former part of the Austrian Empire, its native population originated from the Urals and resulted in Hungarian being one of the three national languages in Europe in the Uralic family... so it doesn't sound like much else on the continent.

Of course, there is another reason of interest... because Hungary had already gotten rid of the communists before - for a short while.

The takeover

Hungary had been a member of the Axis powers during the war, participating in the war against the USSR and assisting in the Holocaust in a pretty large way. When the war started going badly, they began secret negotiations with the West, that eventually led to a German occupation... but eventually that was pushed aside by the Red Army.
The Soviets treated the Hungarians harshly - 600,000 were deported to the USSR and of those, two hundred thousand died in captivity. Just one of many crimes that the Soviet Union carried out over the years and one that should probably get more prominence.

1956

The death of Stalin in 1953 and the later 'Secret Speech' of 1956 saw reform elements gaining influence in the governments of the soon to be created Warsaw Pact, including Hungary's prime minister, Imre Nagy, although he was removed from office in 1955. 
  
On 23 October, a large student demonstration that had started peacefully turned violent with the ÁVH (secret police) opening fire on the crowds... who then started to arm themselves. Hungarian soldiers sent to relieve them instead joined the crowd and the following morning the Soviet forces in Hungary, at the request of Working People's Party Secretary Ernő Gerő, began to intervene in the situation. An armed uprising, with all the associated things that involves (lynchings, citizens arming themselves etc.), was in full effect. By 28 October, the government had collapsed and Nagy became Prime Minister again.

Nagy announced constitutional changes and later that Hungary was going to leave the Warsaw Pact, to become neutral. The USSR decided against intervention on the 30th, but for various reasons that differ between sources, changed their mind the following day.

In November, a massive Soviet intervention in Hungary saw the new government removed from power pretty swiftly. Despite some strong public condemnation, the West could do little; there was a risk of things escalating into a global war and events in Suez had damaged the reputation of the NATO powers (if they could intervene in Egypt, why couldn't the Soviets intervene in Hungary?). About 50 million dollars (in today's money) was raised to support the refugees via appeals, including on US television.

Western European communist parties splintered badly over this; between those who supported the invasion and those who opposed it; much of their former power had gone not to return.

Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy (Yugoslavia having broken from the Soviet bloc), but despite a written assurance of safe passage from the new leadership, he was arrested on leaving, tried in secret and hanged. His trial and sentence weren't announced until they were done and he was buried in an unmarked grave... his hands and feet tied with barbed wire (he was dead! What did they think he was going to do?).  

Immediately after, the Hungarian water polo team played the Soviet one in a semi-final match at the Melbourne Olympics. An angry Hungary team won the contest 4-0 in what was dubbed the "Blood in the Water" match, with violent conduct from the outset and the tie being ended with a minute left to play after a crowd invasion that resulted from one of the Hungarians getting an eye gash after being punched. Hungary beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final and half their Olympic delegation defected to the West afterwards.

The intervening years 

After the initial violent retribution, János Kádár (a leader in the uprising who had switched sides when told that the old leadership would otherwise be restored, although it could be argued that he should have said no anyway) lifted many of the restrictions and while still authoritarian compared with the West, it was less so than the other COMECON countries.


There were some economic reforms and the country got relatively high living standards (for COMECON), but Hungary ended up with many of the same problems of its neighbours; high foreign debt, low-quality domestic goods and housing shortages, despite the widespread construction of Panelház, tower blocks of the sort that were widespread during this time on both sides of the Iron Curtain and are still numerous today; 17.5% of the population of Hungary lived in one in 2011. International tourism played a big role in Hungary's economy, both from the West and also from other Eastern bloc nations - in 1978, the US returned the Holy Crown of Hungary's former kings to the country, it having been held in Fort Knox since being recovered from the Nazis by US troops in Austria in 1945.

Kádár himself lived a modest lifestyle; unlike other Communist leaders.

1989


Kádár retired in 1988; the economy was failing - and so was his health. He would die on 6 July 1989. Károly Grósz succeeded him as General Secretary and Prime Minister at his recommendation, but it became that his 'moderate' reforms were not widely supported even within his own party; he was replaced as PM in November by Miklós Németh, who in December made his views clear that moving to a market economy was the only way to avoid social catastrophe. Wages were falling in real terms and foreign debt was becoming a big issue.


(It is important to remember when dealing with the former Soviet bloc that the real power holder was the First or General Secretary; the President and/or Prime Minister was frequently, but by no means always a different person and had little real power)

In March, the Central Committee admitted to itself that they were going to have to go multi-party and after big demonstrations on 15 March (the day Hungary marks the 1848 Revolution, a failed attempt at independence from Austria), began meeting with a 'Round Table' of opposition groups. These largely behind the scenes negotiations would carry on for much of the year.

As well as the new PM, another leader was working behind the scenes to bring down communism - Imre Pozsgay, who worked his way up to the Central Committee. He managed to persuade (or he so he claims) the leadership not to launch a coup in April.

On 2 May 1989, Imre Pozsgay got the Hungarian Army to begin to remove the border fence with Austria; this was the first chink in the Iron Curtain. Moscow did nothing about it (and nor would they), even when the Hungarians actively encouraged holidaying East Germans to cross into Austria and thus to West Germany; including via a Peace Picnic in August where several hundred crossed over with no attempt by the army to stop them. The Austria-Hungary border was a much simpler affair to dismantle than the one between the two Germanies, which was among other things heavily mined.

In June, the Politburo admitted Nagy had been executed illegally after a show trial. He and two other victims were dug up and reburied in the same plot, but this time it was a proper grave with a memorial.

A deal was reached on the Round Table Talks in September; the opposition split over the issue of the presidency, with the moderates implicitly accepting Pozsgay as president and the radicals being against.

16-20 October saw an epic and historic session of parliament; as the Hungarian legislature voted after the agreement to completely change the system; ensuring direct presidential elections, multi-party parliamentary ones, guarantees of rights and a separation of powers. On the 23rd, the Presidential Council dissolved itself. That same month, the Communist Party became the Hungarian Socialist Party... but a majority of its MPs didn't join and Imre Pozsgay didn't become president. The Communists were pretty much done.

Free elections followed in May 1990 - the centre right Hungarian Democratic Forum won, with the former communists ending up fourth. The former ended up as leaders of a centre-right coalition.

The same year, Hungary withdrew from participation in Warsaw Pact exercise and Soviet forces left in 1991, the same year the Pact ceased to exist.

Hungary today

The Socialist Party, now very different from its predecessors, would return to power from 2002-2010 as leader of a coalition and later a minority government; it would do badly in the 2014 European Elections (only getting 10% of the vote), with the result being the resignation of its entire presidium.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004; it is also part of the Schengen Agreement, so where before there was an electric fence with Austria, there are now not even regular border checks - Hungary also has this situation with Slovakia and Slovenia, but not yet with Croatia, Romania and of course Ukraine.

However, there have been problems in recent years. The country suffered heavily in the 2008 crash; there was a lot of borrowing that left it vulnerable. It eventually needed IMF and European Central Bank bailouts to avoid a collapse.


Then in 2010, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister from 1998-2002 (and also involved in the Round Table talks), returned to power, with his coalition Fidesz gaining a two-thirds majority; enough to impose a new constitution on Hungary. The nationalist conservative government (who were David Cameron's only allies in opposing Jean-Claude Juncker getting the EU Commission job) put in a new Fundamental Law that has been heavily criticised for reducing checks and balances, trying to impose a Christian ideology on a country not hugely religious and limiting the freedom of the press. 

Orban is one of Europe's more dangerous leaders; there is also a strong far-right party in the country that doesn't like Roma or Jews very much.

Hungary, the second of the countries to escape communism, could end up going to fascism again if it is not careful.
 

20 October 2014

A Pacer, but not a Sprinter (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.9, "Flatline")

Clara, with some assistance from the Doctor who is trapped in the TARDIS, has to stop some two-dimensional aliens.
  • Clara was doing the Doctor-y stuff this week and doing very well at it; you could do an entire series (or novel) with just her.
  • There were some great scenes with Capaldi in the TARDIS and we've now firmly established "pudding brain" as a catchphrases. Many a laugh, that's for sure.
  • The creatures were scary, if a bit two-dimensional (ba boom tish).
  • Does Doctor Who not have the kudos to actually use a DMU type that hasn't been retired from the main network for over a decade? I'd love to see a Pacer get destroyed.
  • Definitely not doing the 'everyone lives' trick these days, that's for sure.
  • Bristol? Not a choice I'd make, but nothing wrong with it.
  • Stan was a real nasty piece of work; wasn't the actor in Auf Wiedersehen Pet?
  • That banishment speech? So done before. It was supposed to feel epic, but it was just derivative.
  • The plot thickens with Missy...

Conclusion

Certainly one that engaged the attention with a good deal of humour, although I have to admit the train bit annoyed me.

7/10

18 October 2014

Not Quite First Class, but heading there (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.8, "Mummy on the Orient Express")

The Doctor and Clara (surprisingly) board a hyperspace version of the Orient Express, where an invisible mummy is picking people off.

  • Capaldi was again great in this episode; I doubt the Doctor is heartless deliberately, but he certainly comes across that way.
  • I'm sure that Clara's flapper outfit will get some positive comments among the fans; she's definitely been given a Fan Service Pack this season.
  • I'm glad that they chucked in the line about it being slightly bigger than the 'real' one; you know what the fans can be like.
  • Frank Skinner was rather good in this; I've not seen him in much as a serious actor and hopefully he'll do some more.
  • This wasn't the best paced story in the world; the resolution was a little sudden.
  • Some great lines in this; I particularly liked what seemed to be a Tom Baker impression by Capaldi, but Coleman got some good ones too.
  • Gus... total psycho; reminds me of GlaDOS from Portal.
  • Jelly babies in a cigarette case? Classic.
  • Still would like Danny Pink to actually leave Earth.

Conclusion

An enjoyable episode, but by no means a classic.

7/10

10 October 2014

Clacton and Heywood

UKIP has gained its first elected MP; the party switcher Douglas Carswell getting elected by a five-figure majority for the Eurosceptic party.

In addition, Labour got its majority in Heywood and Middleton slashed to 617, but did manage to retain the seat.

One is always in danger of drawing too much from a by-election, especially in a place like Clacton; very white, in coastal Essex; a high-profile by-election of an ex-Tory defector. A big blow to the Conservatives sure, but how big was Carswell's personal vote?

Heywood is of a bit more concern to Labour... but the close result's impact is diminished by the fact that only 36% of the electorate turned out - it was 57% at the 2010 general election. The casual Labour supporters assumed it was safe and didn't turn up.

Not a reason to panic, but we do need to focus on GOTV efforts next year; UKIP are the beneficiaries of apathy.

09 October 2014

That's going to give some people arachnophobia (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.7, "Kill the Moon")

  • A superb performance from Capaldi here, with lots of humour and also lots of 'menace'. I'm reminded of "The Waters of Mars" (which also featured the Doctor acting like that)
  • Jenna Coleman - excellent. Spending most of the episode in a spacesuit allowed us to focus on her acting skills rather than her outift.
  • Courtney Woods turns up again... and she's not annoying at all. I've changed my mind about kids in the TARDIS; she'd be welcome back.
  • Great stuff from Hermione Norris. Bumping off her two colleagues allowed for focus on an excellent actor, but does she ever do anything apart from cynical.
  • Nice to see some Mexicans in space... unfortunately they ended up dead. We didn't even get any of their names... not even a haunting photo.
  • Spider effects were great... and Capaldi is of course not the first Doctor to be face-hugged in something.
  • Lunar surface frankly needed some micro-craters. It's getting hit by stuff all the time.
  • I'm sure there's some conservation of matter/energy errors here.
  • Lots of nice little references here... including to Blinovitch!
  • Next week looks like a Clara-lite episode; that will be interesting.

Conclusion

An excellent, highly thought-provoking episode, with possibly big ramifications for the show.

9/10

02 October 2014

Cool enough for school (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.6, "The Caretaker")

Gareth Roberts has written two previous stories where the Doctor has gone undercover as a human. Teaming up with Steven Moffat, he's done a third and it's better than the last time.
  • Peter Capaldi is demonstrating a considerable talent for comedy that I hitherto didn't realise... but then again, I didn't watch The Thick of It.
  • Jenna Coleman is continuing to excel here; loads of great lines and I see Gallifrey Base has a thread on her skirt.
  • I hope that Danny Pink gets to travel on the TARDIS at some point; he'd be good once the Doctor learned to fully accept him.
  • The whole gag with the teacher in a bow tie... excellent. I can see why the Doctor thought that (then again he does have an inflated opinion of himself)
  • Will we see the invisibility watch again? Possibly, possibly not.
  • There wasn't a huge amount of plot in this, more comedy with a plot tacked on.
  • I like the bit in the parents' evening about the "disruptive influence".
  • Courtney reminded me of that kid from "Nightmare in Silver" last year.
  • Nice little homage toThe Bill with the PCSO there.
  • Next week looks very interesting indeed.
Conclusion

Enjoyable, but by no means a great... I did start clock watching.

7/10

28 September 2014

50 years and counting (History of 'Doctor Who')

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140913225613/tardis/images/1/1a/Listen_%28TV_Story%29.jpg

The face of the future

When Orla Brady was offered a guest role in "The Time of the Doctor" as a space priestess, she accepted it without even reading the script. Peter Capaldi almost did the same when he guest starred in "The Fires of Pompeii", but was convinced otherwise.

That's a sign of the prestige of Doctor Who. A show where you can escape from the repetitive cop drama or kitchen sink roles and travel into space; something that doesn't just apply for the actors - even the title sequence is enjoyable, which is something I can say about few shows today[1].

It's one reason why the show is now in its 34th season, with 812 full length episodes to its name as of November 2014. Another is the fact that it is not bound to one particular actor or one particular producer; the show has turned them over at a rate greater than pretty much any other show that I can think of... with the possible exception of Saturday Night Live[2].

There are other reasons though:

  • The general quality of the leads: It's true to say that there has never been a bad Doctor. Even Colin Baker, whose Big Finish works are very good and very popular. The companions may be hit-and-miss, but when they hit, they hit. It's a pity few of them have gone on to really big things.
  • The plots: not just bad aliens come to take over Earth and are killed by good humans, this show brought us 'aliens' who were here before humans.
  • Some of the concepts: other shows may have their cool spaceships like the Enterprise and Serenity (ironically, considered junk in its verse), but a telephone box bigger on the inside that can travel anywhere in space-time?
    • Also, a character who when faced with death can change his appearance, allowing for a total of 13 actors (in the main show) to have taken the leading role... as well as for each to put their own perspective on it.
    • The sonic screwdriver. I'd want one.
  • The lack of reliance on special effects: Let's face it, much, correction most, of the special effects from 1963-1989 don't stand up to modern scrutiny; but they've never been the be-all-and-end-all of the show. Indeed some of the best effects have been the simpler ones; the Dalek extermination, the TARDIS materialisation... and the original title sequence.
  • The fans: Without the devotion and continued work of the show's many fans, it would not have come back... and many people wouldn't be working on the show today had they not been fans.

All in all, Doctor Who has survived because it's not just a good show... it's a brilliant show.

****

When doing such a long work as a history of a 50-year-old sci-fi programme, one has to use a variety of sources. This list won't be comprehensive, so I apologise to anyone I've missed out, but the following have proven invaluable.

 

Books

  • The Television Companion (First edition 1996, revised edition 2003 – I own the 1996 edition) by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker – a standard tome for the book that covers each story with transmission dates, trivia and excerpts from contemporary, as well as more modern reviews. A must-have -  it's proven very useful for my reviews of incomplete stories.
  • The Discontinuity Guide (First edition 1995, second edition 2003 – I own the first) by Paul Cornell, Keith Topping and Martin Day – another of the standard reference books for the show, I picked this up in a charity shop and it was a positive bargain. It covers all the classic era stories (plus "Shada" and "Dimensions in Time"), with quotes, goofs and a brief analysis for each story.
  • Whology – Doctor Who: The Offical Miscellany (2013) by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright – an official compilation of facts, statistics of varying randomness and lists for the 50th anniversary; including the Doctor's family tree! This goes up to "The Snowmen" and excludes "Shada" from various calculations.
  • Doctor Who: The Vault (2013) by Marcus Hearn - another official anniversary book, covering the history of the show with many previously unpublished pictures, especially of merchandise.

 

Magazines/Fanzines

  • Doctor Who Magazine – running since 1979, mostly monthly but originally weekly under title of Doctor Who Weekly, the official (but editorially independent) mag published by Panini, who took over the British arm of Marvel Comics in 1985, has a regular comic strip, features galore and many an exclusive. It also holds the world record for longest-running magazine based on a TV show.
  • Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games – Issue #18 contains a comprehensive list of every DW video game yet released.
  • Radio Times - running since 1923, this high-quality British TV listings magazine is always good for some interesting facts.

Podcasts

  •  DWO Whocast – Dave Keep has some particularly good insights on the classic run, although he no longer hosts the show.
  • Radio Free Skaro
  • Splendid Chaps – a series of live shows from Australia for the anniversary year.

 

Websites and blogs

****

While this has been a real labour, it's also been a labour of love. I've been a fan of the show for over half my life and I estimate the amount of money I've spent on this show as at least a thousand pounds, including a train trip to Cardiff to do a walking tour[2]. I have to say that the research I've done has been at times illuminating for me; I've definitely learnt a lot from this.

I've certainly made some inaccurate statements (I seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick over Holmes writing while script editing - it appears to be a union thing) and I'd like to apologise for those.

Thank you very much for reading this and I hope you enjoyed it.

[1]Current exceptions to this: Person of Interest, Game of Thrones and er that's about it.

[2]While my experience with SNL is distinctly limited (it doesn't air in the UK and I don't do torrenting), I have experienced a number of its alumni in other shows, such as Amy Poehler in Parks & Recreation, Julia-Louis Dreyfus in Veep or before he appeared on SNL, Kenan Johnson in Kenan & Kel. Also, one of my favourite films is The Blues Brothers, who of course started on the show!

[3]Lessons learnt from this: The Class 43 HST feels faster than the Class 395 Javelin despite being 15 mph slower, Cardiff is a very nice place and I should go First Class more often.