Thursday, 1 July 2010

Mything the Point

What’s the difference between RTD and Moffat?

RTD, for all that he’s an atheist, has a fundamentally religious view. I mean that, while he may not have any belief in an actual god, his basic outlook on life (at least as it finds expression in his writing) is religious in tone and is informed by religious mythology. RTD can’t think about concepts like ‘the end of the world’, or ’saving the world’, or ‘regenerating’, or any of this stuff (all very much the bread and butter of pulp fantasy fiction, which is all Who is really) without connecting it, maybe subconsciously, to religious concepts and stories. (Well, he can, but for the purposes of this theory, I’m going to pretend that he can’t. So there.)

‘Bad Wolf’/'Parting of the Ways’, ‘Gridlock’, ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘Sound of Drums’/'Last of the Time Lords’ and the other season finales… they’re all soaked in religious language and imagery, in Christian symbolism. And the theme of fiery judgement is never far away, nor is the idea of someone sacrificing themselves to redeem the world. Isn’t ‘The Ark in Space' supposedly his favourite classic story? No wonder.

I might also mention the fact that his most Whoish work prior to Who (much more Whoish than either of those kids’ fantasy serials he wrote) was about the second coming of Christ. This isn’t unusual. Douglas Adams was another atheist sci-fi writer obsessed with religion. H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapleton, Arthur C. Clarke… in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a half-decent sci-fi author who doesn’t spend a large amount of his time thinking and writing about religion in one form or another.

Moffat, on the other hand, has no such underlying religious conception. He plays with these concepts on a technical level. He’s much more interested in playing around with plot for its own sake, twisting it around like origami. But there are some problems with this.

Firstly, he doesn’t tune into the mythological/religious basis of science-fiction (which is a reiteration of mythology in the secular age of technology). Secondly, he seems to lack any real interest in evil… which is problematic because Doctor Who, like religion (and, incidentally, like Shakespeare), is absolutely obsessed with evil (and not always in a simplistic way). You might be tempted to bring up Jekyll now… but I’ll remind you that, in Moffat’s conception, even Mr Hyde turns out to be an expression of the fierceness and danger inherent in love.

Consequently, his stories tend to be about malfunctions. They’re about things going wrong, usually technology. Nanogenes, automatic repair systems on spaceships, etc… but also chronology (any supposedly linear, predictable system, really)… and, when dealing with chronology, he can use that as a way of playing around with plot for its own sake.

The problem with playing around with plot for its own sake is that you tend to tie yourself into narrative knots that are very hard to cut through while retaining dramatic values. For all Moffat’s supposed mastery of the time-travel jigsaw plot, the greatest instance of this kind of thing yet found in 2005+ Who is RTD’s deceptively simple trick with the tie in ‘Smith and Jones’. Not because it’s more complicated and twisty than any Moffat bit of “timey wimey” stuff (it clearly isn’t), but because it serves a purpose for both plot and characterization. The real cleverness of it lies in the punning. The Doctor ties the story into a neat little bow with his tie. He goes back to create the confusion that alerted him and Martha to each other in the hospital, simultaneously giving her proof of time travel before she’s even stepped into the TARDIS.

In ‘The Big Bang’, Moffat pulls off something similar when he reveals that the peculiar sequence from ‘Flesh and Stone’ actually fits into another story. The scene has genuine dramatic power, despite being a bit of narrative trickery concealed within a time travel macguffin… though the travelling-back-through-Amy’s-timeline thing is cheating really, a bit of baseless gobbledegook, evidently just made up on the fly and inserted into the story to make it possible for the Doctor to save himself via Amy’s memories.

Most of the time, however, ‘The Big Bang’ relentlessly undercuts itself with its constant mucking about with chronology. Moffat obviously intends us to be going “oooh, that’s clever!” every few minutes. The most egregious example of this is the stuff about Amelia’s drink. It serves no purpose but showing off. It is, essentially, exactly the same thing as the ‘tie trick’ in ‘Smith and Jones’ but stripped of any plot or character significance. However, it’s also probably the least damaging instance, precisely because it has no import for the plot. When, by contrast, you have vital plot points that turn out to be nothing but trickery (i.e. the future Doctor appearing and, apparently, dying), you are looking at a story that isn’t really a story but is just pretending to be. There is absolutely no reason for that sequence to be in there. There’s no reason why the Doctor couldn’t just come up with his plan and clamber into the Pandorica without first getting shot, going back in time by 12 minutes, whispering to himself and appearing to die. It’s not only gratuitous and artificially complex, it also creates a feeling of the drama being undercut. (In fact, if there’s one single factor that repeatedly neuters the dramatic values throughout the entire 2005+ show, it’s the refusal of the dead to stay dead.)

Anyway, the point is that you can do a story in which time (i.e. plot) ties itself into knots and make it interesting as long as the knots are not the whole basis of the story, as long as the story is about something more than that, i.e. ‘Day of the Daleks’, ‘Smith and Jones’, even ‘Blink’ saves itself from being about nothing but sitcom characters caught in plot knots by thinking a bit about what the passage of time really means for people, how it changes them, etc. But when you have a story that, really, is about nothing but plot taken apart and then reconstituted like one of those puzzles with several equally valid solutions…

The other thing that Moffat lacks is, as I said, any real interest in evil or malice. He occasionally tries (i.e. Prisoner Zero is rather nasty) but, really, his baddies are usually malfunctioning, runaway systems or predators. He even writes the Cyberman in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ as an empty, unoccupied machine still running on its old programming (i.e. as a malfunctioning, runaway system) and casts his rogues gallery of Who monsters as uniting to save the Universe!

The ultimate expression of both of these tendencies (plot knots and no evil) came in ‘The Big Bang’, in which the big enemy, the Doctor’s opponent, was *drum roll please* just a malfunctioning, runaway plot!

RTD’s season finales usually left me underwhelmed… but I can’t help thinking that they were all fundamentally more interesting than Moffat’s first effort at an end-of-season blowout, precisely because they all locked into the legendary, mythic aspect of sci-fi and concerned themselves with the Doctor struggling against galaxy-powered malice. It’s hard not to look at ‘The Big Bang’ and see nothing but a well-crafted exercise in manipulating plot, in pushing plot to the limit of its tolerances within the Who milieu. Admittedly, there are some intimations of a theme concerning the relationships between fairytales, childhood imagination, stories, history and... and something or other. But it's all rather garbled and facile. You'd be much better off just rewatching 'The Mind Robber'.

Religious stories rarely make much sense, but they often resonate powerfully. Moffat’s style is more like a labyrinthine whodunit, in which the murder turns out to have just been an accident with a misifiring gun all along.

You’d think that, as an atheist, I’d be unhappy with RTD’s religion-soaked stories… but at least they had some political content. You see, one reason why religious stories are so resonant is because they often have strong political themes. The better (earlier) Gospels, for all their frequent deformities and obscenities, are revolutionary tracts that offer a (for the time) radical political message. They were, after all, popular political expressions of a people subjugated by empire. Of course, the concentrated forces that have appropriated, reinterpreted and controlled these stories for centuries have done a good job of stripping them of this context and content. Whether the people running things are scammers or no, successful religions tend to find their first recruits amongst the poor and downtrodden. Religion, as Marx pointed out, is an expression of and protest against very real suffering and alienation. That’s what ‘Gridlock' is about.

As well as being a reiteration of mythology, sci-fi is (and always has been) drenched in politics (how could it not, religion being a political ideology?) Look at the foundational texts of science-fiction. Frankenstein is about a scientist who plays God (he creates another man in his own image, endows him with free will and then banishes him to wander alone in a cruel and incomprehensible world) but it is also about the Age of Enlightenment, about the radical new ideas sweeping Western society, about the revolution going on in how society relates to the individual, about the role of education in forming personality, about the ideas of Rousseau, etc. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is a satire of the class system, with the workers oppressed for so long that they evolve into troglodytes and the idle rich devolving into helpless children, but is also highly redolent of the Garden of Eden and the serpent. The War of the Worlds is both a critique of British imperialism (casting us as the natives being conquered) and a reiteration of the Christian apocalypse.

None of this need surprise us. For centuries, Christianity was the dominant social ideology in Western culture, and was part of the underlying mental grammar of just about everyone in the West. The people who rebelled against the establishment at any time almost always cast their objections in terms of religion. The fiery radical priest John Ball couched his demand for universal equality in terms of the common ancestry of all men from Adam and Eve. The Levellers and the Diggers likewise. The abolitionist movement in both Britain and America did much the same. Protestantism itself began partly as a result of disgust at the corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church, comparing it unfavourably to Christ the pauper. In our own age, it's all too easy to think of dark alliances between political rage and religious ideology... but, lest we get too Sam Harris about this, it's also possible to find alliances between progressive politics and sectors of religion. It's the sigh of the oppressed creature, and sighs can be the expression of murderous rage... or progressive outrage.

Anyway. This inherent political dimension to religious storytelling could be precisely why science-fiction (as myth reiteration) is also so concerned with politics. I dunno. Ask a proper scholar and see what she thinks. (Sorry, how silly of me... any scholar of science-fiction will obviously be male.)

RTD’s mental connection to this religio-mythic element in sci-fi is probably what causes his stories to be so political. For example: The Master in ‘Sound of Drums’ / ‘Last of the Time Lords’ is not just the Anti-Christ, bringing the tribulation and controlling mankind through their own original sins, he is also a Blairesque opportunist who flashes his fake smile at the TV while using the state apparatus to arrest innocent people and scheme for war.

Which I dug.

One last remark. There is another Who story involving a bit of timey-wimeyness and a drink. It’s called ‘Warriors’ Gate’. The Doctor walks into the cobwebby, ruined Tharil dining hall and sets right a goblet that was left on its side centuries ago. Later in the story he is taken back to the moment that the Tharils began to lose control of their empire, when they were attacked at the height of their power by the revolution they thought they could dodge forever. Disgusted by their treatment of their slaves, the Doctor pours wine into the very same goblet (but centuries before he first saw and righted it) until … well, until the Tharil’s cup runneth over… and then knocks it over in a gesture of splendid, ironic contempt for their decadence; decadence built on the suffering, servitude, abuse and unrequited labour of those the Tharils call “only people”. It is an amazing moment. It unites plot, theme, myth and politics. It brings home to you the tangled and circular nature of time at the gateway. It connects the past, present and future… but it does this not only in terms of the temporal shenanigans that form the conceptual heart of the story, but also in terms of the story’s political message about the temporary and fragile and brittle nature of all power built on the cruel usage of others.

Both RTD and Moffat have done excellent work but… well, they don’t write stories like that any more.

The Megropolis 1 Budget - at a glance:

The Gatherer today unveiled harsh new plans to deal with the economic crisis caused by loss of investor confidence after Pluto was ruled to no longer be a planet.

The Medical Tax on Q-Capsules is to raised to 20%. Also to be raised is the Medical Tax on all other types of capsules ranging from A to P. And from R to Z. Also, purchase of these capsules is to be made compulsary. It is hoped that the energy boost provided by a steady diet of these capsules will contribute towards higher productivity.

Cider-flavoured pills remain exempt, much to the relief of the Usurian Cider-Flavoured Pill Production Company.

A new 20% tax is to be levied on extremely plummy accents in all PCM plant workers.

The tax on ill-fitting, pastel-coloured clothes is to be increased to 20%.

All co-workers with names that sound amusingly (but rather arbitrarily) like a double act of comedy female impersonators are to henceforth have all their taxes raised. By 20%.

A 20% suicide tax is to be introduced for all D-Grades, to compensate the Company (praise the Company) for loss of profit (and tax revenue) resulting from the self-inflicted deaths of those who refuse to pull their weight.

The current 0.2% tax on ludicrous hats is to be scrapped. This will stimulate the ludicrous hat industry.

To help business, a new 100% tax immunity is to be introduced for people with no head hair. Scissors, razors and old age to be banned.

The suns to be privatised. At below cost price. Regulation of prices of UV-rays to be abolished.

Tough but fair. Remember citizens… we’re all in this together. Until things are going well again, whereupon fuck you. Praise the Company.

(This was originally posted after Osbourne's budget. You guessed that, didn't you?)

Decimate! Decimate!

There (was) one of those ‘10 worst Doctor Who stories ever’ threads currently doing a brisk trade over at Gallibase at the moment and, yes, the fires of list fever and whingeaholism burn in my geek heart also, so here’s mine.

My criteria are nothing to do with bad acting, bad effects, shakey plots or anything like that. I can usually tolerate those with a grin on my face. I’m looking for stories that betray the central ethos of the show, that embody or exhibit cynicism, crass commercialism, cliché, group-think, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and silence or ignorance about things that matter.

Here are my ten rotten eggs, in no particular order.

1. ‘Victory of the Daleks’
- or, to give it its proper alternative title – ‘Merchandising of the Daleks’. Of course, the Daleks have always been an intensively milked cash cow, but this squalid episode brings the cynicism involved to a new subterranean low. The production team have not only redesigned the Daleks, they parade the (ugly) redesign in a selection of vibrant, collectable primary colours. Gotta catch ‘em all, kids. This sort of thing has always gone on, but to see it done with such obvious and slick calculation by the people actually writing the scripts… well, it turns the stomach. Plus, this story presents mass-murdering terrorist, aristo class warrior and racist imperialist Winston Churchill as a twinkly old rogue with whom the Doctor can be an uncritical hug-buddy. What’s next, an episode in which the Doctor teams up with his old pal General Pinochet to fight an army of sentient novelty mobile phone covers? Utterly revolting. Not even the close-ups of Karen Gillan’s freckles can save this one from the lowest, hottest circle of Who Hell.

2. ‘The Shakespeare Code’
– sub-Blackadder clichés take the place of any real attempt to portray a fascinating man in a fascinating place at a fascinating time. Ignorant bardolatry takes the form of a depiction of Shakespeare as a hyper-intuitive Gallagher brother celeb/yobbo. Martha relapses into cypherhood for the course of this story. Dreary doggerel masquerades as lost Shakespeare material. Reality is saved by lines of J. K. Rowling while no real attempt is made to engage with Shakespearean material, to express why it is so valuable. The kids are simply told: Shakespeare was a GENIUS… which is a good way to keep them thinking that his work must be unapproachable. Even the title is stupid – it’s a riff on that excremental “novel” by Dan Brown… for absolutely no reason, unless it is covert self-mockery. Which I doubt.

3. ‘The Unquiet Dead’
– At the height of a reactionary media scare about immigrants, this episode (accidentally) presents us with an anti-asylum seeker parable in which Charles Dickens learns that the message of A Christmas Carol was deeply mistaken: charity to the downtrodden isn’t necessary for the full development of the human soul after all but is, rather, a foolish and dangerous extravagance on the part of the self-serving and guilt-ridden. Oh, and just to round things off, it is implied that the world is saved from the evil immigrants by the ghostly immortal soul of Gwyneth, thus rubbishing Dickens’ stubborn naturalism and siding with the supernatural.

4. ‘The Reign of Terror’
– In contrast to ‘The Aztecs’ which honestly tries to take a nuanced view of Aztec culture, or ‘The Crusade’ which depicts Muslims as a complex and rounded bunch, ‘The Reign of Terror’ takes a black and white view of the great French revolution. Taking their cue directly from Baroness Orczy and Blue Peter, the sans culottes are all shown to be vicious sadists, corrupt idiots and lecherous thugs. The foreign agents who rescue aristocrats are heroic and dashing while Robespierre is depicted as just a cold hearted tyrant. A few mealy words about the revolution not being all bad do not change the fact that, overall, the revolution is dishonestly sketched as a dangerous outbreak of irrational villainy.

5 – ‘The Mind of Evil'. Implies that people in prison are neurologically impregnated with original sin. If you're in jug, you're Bad - that's a given. And it's because you've got Evil in your brain. Nothing more to it than that. I don't know if this is reductionist biological determinism, a religious notion, or both. But either way, I don't like it.

6 – ‘The Two Doctors’.
Proof that even geniuses can make terrible mistakes, this tale smuggles in a rather wonderful and satirical anti-meat subtext… while depicting the second Doctor as a reactionary genetic determinist who thinks in terms of inferior and superior races. “Really Doctor,” says Dastari, “I expected something more progressive from you.” So did I. In the end, the Doctor’s disapproval of tinkering with Androgum DNA is proved justified, with even Dastari realizing that the Androgums are just inherently inferior. And how are the Androgums depicted? As heavy-browed, warty, big-nosed, red-haired people incapable of controlling their lower urges… i.e. in terms of racist stereotypes used, at one time or another, against Jews, the Irish, you name it. Utterly unforgivable.

7. – ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’.
No attempt has been made to make this story make any kind of sense on any level, with the Doctor’s actions being so illogical and contradictory as to make him inexplicable. But I could live with that… were it not for the sexism and racism with which this story is larded. Victoria is the locus of a casual sexism in this tale that is noticeable even by the standards of the time. The main human villains, Klieg and Kaftan, are without context, provenance or proper ethnic identity – they are just foreign, in the most generic way possible. Toberman – the only black man in the story – is a semi-mute, backward, violent lummox. The other humans may be foolish but they’re all essentially well-meaning and sane – presumably because they’re all Western and Caucasian. This is all the more unforgivable because other Cyberman stories from the same era (i.e. ‘The Tenth Planet’ and ‘The Wheel in Space’) manage not to connect non-Caucasian ethnicity with evil.

8 – ‘The Family of Blood’.
Pro-war liberal and “theist” Paul Cornell not only has Tim go to war (instead of being a conshy and red cross volunteer as in the book) but then has the Doctor wearing a bloody poppy – the symbol by which the establishment that organizes and conducts our imperialist slaughterfests both appropriates and controls our memory of them.

9 – ‘The Impossible Planet’/ ‘The Satan Pit’
has the Doctor giving headroom to the idea that the Christian devil might be a real entity, thus implying the possibility of the Christian god. Why is the Doctor prepared to countenance this idea? Because the Beast responds to his scientific positivism (which is itself clumsily expressed) with the usual fatuous rubbish about science itself being just another form of faith. Does the Doctor respond with the proper scoff of derision that such piffling drivel warrants? Does he say “Well, now I know you’re not the devil – the devil would have better arguments.”? No, he looks worried and then dodges subsequent questions about what the beast is. I’m sure the writer of this garbage imagined that he was being sophisticated, which only makes it more obnoxious.

10 – ‘The Dominators’.
I try to squint at this and see a parable about youngsters (including one sceptical, daring rebel) proving more effective than fuddy-duddy oldsters in their brave resistance to reactionary imperialist invaders… but that reading isn’t really tenable. In fact, this is a sneering attack not only upon pure pacifism (I wouldn’t mind so much if that was all the writers took aim at) but also upon all notions that calm, reasonable, rational, non-violent debate might be the proper response to warmongering.

Dishonourable mentions must also go to ‘The Monster of Peladon’ for depicting radical strikers as unstable hotheads and inter-class unity as desirable, to ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ for portraying the Doctor as prepared to commit murder as long as those he kills aren’t humanoid and to ‘Fear Her’ for equating the Olympics (which, in case we were in any doubt, is nothing but an orgy of pointless jockery, jingoism and commercialism) with human love and hope.

The original version of this little bit of spleenvent had 'Warriors of the Deep' at position 5... but, after a conversation with a friend and reader (he's a sucker for punishment), I decided to release it from the Shabgraff Pandorica and substitute 'The Mind of Evil'.

From Our Skaro Correspondent

(This was originally written in the aftermath of the election. I read Private Eye, you see.)

In the recent elections held by the surviving Kaled Elite (scientific and military), neither Davros nor Gharman recieved a full majority.

Gharman felt that his performance in recent debates within the Kaled bunker had increased his surport, yet this failed to translate into the “complete landslide against any further development of the Daleks” that he had been expecting. “It seems that, in these trying times… what with the Kaled Dome being destroyed and the rest of our race being exterminated and everything… people decided to stick with what they know” he said yesterday.

“We have a hung Elite,” said Davros’ trusted deputy, Security Commander Nyder, “which is precisely what we ought to do to all members of the Elite who betray Davros: hang them. Slowly. With piano wire.”

However, after several rounds of negotiations, a deal has been struck between the Davros and Gharman factions.

“We’ve had to make a few concessions,” said Gharman. “Firstly, Davros will remain as leader. And we’ll carry on trying to kill all the Thals. And that weird bloke with the scarf whose been hanging around here lately will have to be caught and executed. And, yes, development of the Daleks will continue. However, Davros has partially agreed to our key demand that the creatures should have a moral sense, a judgement of ‘right and wrong’. In a major concession, Davros has agreed to give the Dalek creatures fully half of our proposed set of moral instincts. They’re going to get ‘wrong’. But this is a place to start. From here, ‘right’ is something we can work towards. I want to stress that, while some in our faction might be uneasy about this, I feel that we’ve scored a major victory. After all, I am now Davros’ deputy leader, Kavell will become Minister of White Tunics, and Kravos – our young star – has been made Under-Minister of Heart Pumps.”

Terry Nation is 80.

Workers of the Whoniverse

(This was originally written for May Day.)

Some people think Doctor Who is inherently left-wing. This is bullshit. But… like much bullshit, there’s a fibrous grain of truth in there somewhere if you don latex gloves, break the crust and delve deeply enough into the contents of the pat.

Doctor Who started just before the worldwide explosion of dissent and protest that represents the real point of what is called (inaccurately) “the 60s”. It ran through the years of the Vietnam war, the end of the post-war economic boom, the worldwide wave of protests by students and workers, France in ’68, the Prague Spring, the height of the civil rights movement, the ascendancy (and murder) of Martin Luther King Jnr., the rise of the women’s movement and feminism, the rise of the gay liberation movement, etc. It ran during interesting times. It reflected the massive changes in social attitude that were transforming Western culture – how could it not, being a product of Western culture? It reflected something amorphous and overhyped (but real) that we call “the liberal consensus”, which is easy to take for granted now but which was a drastic change in the whole nature and consciousness of Western capitalist society, brought about by the struggles of kids, students, minorities, oppressed people and workers. It was, for the most part, shaped by creative people who were interested in their world and had a tendency to be open-minded, liberal and tolerant in their outlook, i.e. people like Barry Letts. And, later, it reflected the backlash against these changes which were lead, on this little island, by Margaret “Evil Edna” Thatcher, a backlash of which a younger generation of lefty/eco/liberals like Andrew Cartmel were strongly disapproving.

Moreover, the show was originally a product of a state-funded public service broadcaster that didn’t have to compete in the marketplace in order to survive and had a mandated role to reflect the entire nation. Beyond wanting there to be someone for the kids to identify with (and Dad to lust over) there wasn’t much time spent on demographics and other such marketing preoccupations (at least not compared to today). Reith may have been a reactionary old patrician, but Reithianism in the abstract is almost a quality-not-quantity ethic with paternalistic distortions. And the cheap-and-cheerful nature of the old series gave it a strange freedom, at least some of the time. The BBC always used the show as a cash cow, but it has only become so near-crucial to BBC prestige and revenue in recent years. And there is also the philistinism of management to remember – a BBC bigwig might send an angry memo to a producer if he thinks an episode is too scary for the nation’s chidlers while missing the fact that the same episode is sub-textually critiquing Western imperialism.

Given all this, and given the variety of writers who contributed to it over the years, it would be amazing if Doctor Who hadn’t occasionally aligned itself with workers – especially during times of heightened class struggle. After all, there were times during its original production run when even sobre and pessimistic people thought that youngsters, workers and radicals might change the world a very fundamental way. As it was, the struggles of such people heavily influenced mainstream culture, if slowly and unconsciously. In a time during which being a Maoist was to be mainstream in most universities, it’s no more surprising that the (presumably non-Maoist) makers of Doctor Who should have their hero claim friendship with Mao than it is that they should have him tripping through psychedelic surrealism (as in ‘The Time Monster’) despite not themselves being LSD users. Memes are bullshit, but ideas can be viral. When counter culture is strong and insurgent, it effects the mainstream… if only because the mainstream is heavily influenced by what is commercial and therefore tries to sell counter culture back to people when it becomes popular.

Frequently, Who will point out the corruption, callousness and brutality of masters, but they tend to be masters of slaves rather than of labour. Frequently, economic relationships are not depicted at all. When workers do appear, they tend to be stick figures in the background who are either irrelevant or need the Doctor to help them. Or they are ignorant, semi-comedy oafs. The best example of this is probably ‘The Green Death’, the culmination of the Letts/Dicks tendency towards right-on, tree-hugging, soft liberal/lefty polemics. The workers are portrayed as “funny little Welshm[e]n” who can be quite nice and kind at times, and who grumble at the nasty boss, but who also sneer ignorantly at the people with the real solutions: the middle class, University-educated, scientifically-trained, semi-hippy, right-on, soya-munching kids in the cute little commune. The other representation of workers to turn up like a bad penny is the “hotheads” thing. The Peladonian miners have legitimate grievances (the show is lefty enough to admit as much) but their sensible, moderate leader is the good guy while the radical amongst them is a “hothead” who descends into homicidal madness because he suspects that his comrades are being sold out. Meanwhile, the Doctor notes approvingly how the moderate miners’ leader stands shoulder to shoulder with the Queen and the High Priest (who have been oppressing his fellows) once they are threatened from outside. Yeurch.

When not being patronised and/or pitied, workers tend to be ignored. They just get left out, even when the show is at its most bolshy. We get a brief mention of “plebeian classes” on Gallifrey but we never see them. (This blog is named for these disdained, policed, strangely absent, seemingly vandalism-prone proles of the Doctor’s home world.) The show harps on about the evil of militarism, imperialism, fascism, racism and slavery. The show has some criticisms of organised religion. It frequently lashes out at the rich and the powerful. Sometimes it even takes on capitalism itself, situating evil forces within the context of business and corporate power. The show often seems to be sympathetic to revolution. The show has many nasty oligarchies felled by rebellion. All well and good. Inspiring even. But the rebels tend to be cookie-cutter resistance fighters rather than ordinary working people driven to revolt. Once in a while you get mention of a strike… with fish people on the picket line. There is a stripping away of wider context, even in some of the series’ most powerfully political episodes. You get sub-textual attacks on fascism… but you don’t, for instance, find any hint of it as a counter-revolutionary reaction against high levels of working class struggle (fair enough really – the Trotskyist analysis of fascism isn’t the kind of thing that keeps viewers glued to the screen between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury). Even some of the most angry attacks on capitalism lack any portrayal of workers, i.e. ‘The Caves of Androzani’.

But, as I said, occasionally a story comes along in which the workers are strongly present, in which they seem to be real people, to have a chance of winning (by themselves as much as with the Doctor’s help) and to have a chance of being a positive force, of changing the world. And it even happens occasionally in our dreary present. The series is today made by people who grew up watching it and loving it. Once in a while, even a New Labour-supporting writer with an O.B.E. and a future career in Hollywood will find himself writing a script in which an ordinary working woman stands up to the soldiers who are taking the immigrants away. Maybe it’s the influence of the old show working on his soul. Who knows?

And so… here it is, the Shabogan Graffiti guide to the three best Doctor Who stories that show the people who create all the wealth of society throwing off their (mental and/or physical) chains and fighting back.

'The War Games'

Soldiers are workers too. The guys at the front, bearing the brunt, are usually not (for the most part) the sons of privilege. The cannon fodder is drawn from the ranks of the poor and propertyless. On the ground, the Iraq war was kids from American urban wastelands devastated by domestic neoliberalism vs. reluctant Shia and Kurd conscripts. ‘Twas ever thus. And the soldiers we meet in ‘The War Games’ are clearly workers (or peasants). Okay, Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are posh, but the rest of them are common as muck.

From bluff Yorkshireman Russell to the defiant black Northern soldier Harper, the kidnapped soldiers are the workers of the world. They’ve been duped and brainwashed by their cynical leaders. They’re pawns on the chessboard of the ‘Great Game’.

And the players of the game? The English General Smyth (“the Butcher”), the German von Weich, the Confederate (also von Weich – are they clones? ...well, the Generals are all the same!) who sneeringly calls Harper “boy”… The commanders on all sides are actually allies in a conspiratorial abuse of the workers who are fooled and forced into fighting each other for no reason but to further imperialist ambitions. The real war is the war waged by the rulers against the people.

But the people see through the conditioning (or some of them do – Lenin would’ve probably called them a vanguard) and form the Resistance. Black and white, all nationalities… even Arturo Villa joins his bandits to the cause. Scared kid Private Moor saves the day by fragging the officer. Jamie and the Redcoat with whom he’s imprisoned join forces despite their natural mistrust and escape together. In the end, the War Games are stopped by this international union of soldiers in revolt.

And when was this made and shown? 1969. The year that the worldwide anti-Vietnam protests reached a crescendo.

'The Mutants'

Two words: Stubbs and Cotton. They’re a cut above yer usual sci-fi guards. Why? Because they behave like real people. Well, they behave a bit like real people (this is still Doctor Who after all). They call their boss “his nibs” when he’s not about. They grumble when the alarm goes off because they’ve got to cut short their tea break. They’re not idealised. Stubbs is prepared (though obviously not eager) to kill “Mutts” before he gets savvy to what’s really going on in the system he serves. For ages they’ve carried on standing their posts, despite casually saying that the Solonians should’ve been given their independence years ago when anybody bothers to ask them.

These are clearly meant to be normal working stiffs. Stubbs has a regional accent (a rarer and therefore more pointed detail back then) and Cotton is a black man with a Caribbean accent (again, a rare and pointed detail). The choice of a Caribbean actor (albeit a very bad one) to play Cotton is indicative (I don’t know if it’s specified in the script that Cotton should be a black man but it hardly matters). The Caribbean was a nexus point of empire – the natives were all but annihilated by Westerners and the islands were subsequently used as a crucial staging post of the slave trade. (Also, in the context of black slavery, the word “cotton” is itself redolent of many pertinent associations.) And it had to be a conscious anti-racist statement, in the early-70s context of racial strife and a resurgent National Front. Stubbs and Cotton are best mates, despite their ethnic difference. The sci-fi context makes them both “Overlords”, i.e. both defined by their common humanity… but they go on to redefine themselves as being against some of their fellow humans, i.e. the Marshal and what he represents. This is the key thing about them: in the course of a struggle against the forces of reaction, they undergo a change. They see and hear things that bring about their political awakening. They shrug off “false consciousness” as they fight alongside Ky and the other Solonians. Just as white and black workers can join forces, so can they join forces with colonial people that their own nation has subjugated.

Everybody knows that ‘The Mutants’ has things to say about apartheid, but mostly we nowadays think of apartheid in connection with the old South Africa. But Rhodesia was an apartheid state too. It had only been a self-declared independent republic since 1965 and, in 1972 was still run by the racist white-minority government of Ian Smith. It would not be until 1979 that pressure from nationalist resistance fighters and revolutionary guerrillas would force Smith to come to terms and hold proper elections, in effect granting “majority rule”. The Marshal is very reminiscent of Smith. He refuses to go along with the official policy of peaceful relinquishment devised by a crumbling system. He dreams of doing what Smith did, declaring independence from the Empire while retaining the minority rule of the “Overlords”.

In 1972, people could still see the turmoil in Britain’s colonies (or former colonies) on the TV news. A generation had lived through a process of imperial divestment, during which the British Empire dismantled itself because the Second World War had left Britain economically bankrupt. The Earth Empire in ‘The Mutants’ is clearly the British Empire (rather than the French or Portugese) because it is taking itself apart. Britain had little choice but to peacefully grant independence to her former colonies once they achieved non-communist “stability” because empire had become too expensive. France, by contrast, squandered lives and treasure trying to hold onto her possessions, only to be defeated at length… but in France in ’68, many students and workers and ordinary people had expressed their solidarity with those brutalised by their own country’s empire, which had once included what the French called Indochina… which had since become the target of another empire, and the focus of more protest.

'The Sun Makers'

Some idiot once wrote that, in this story, the rebels are worse than the baddies. I dunno what story he was watching, but it ain’t the one I know as ‘The Sun Makers’. The Others might be a motley and even unsavoury lot but they’re hardly as bad as the planet-enslaving Collector and his pet Gatherer. Mandrel makes nasty threats that he doesn’t try very hard to make good on. The Doctor, ever a keen judge of character, doesn’t seen worried by Mandrel even when he’s waving a red hot poker in his face. Leela has some choice words for them that are very pertinent. She calls them cowards and that, essentially, is the trouble with them. Mind you, you can’t blame them for running away from life in Megropolis 1.

Some other idiots have occasionally argued that ‘The Sun Makers’ is a right-wing allegory because it depicts a tyrannical state and rails against taxes. Well, that’s fine if you’re dumb enough to buy the bullshit lie that conservative politics really is all about defending personal liberty from big government and punitive taxation. In fact, ‘The Sun Makers’ couldn’t be clearer about its political sympathies (even if you stick your fingers in your ears during the playful misquoting of Marx). The tyrannical state in this story is the Company. They are effectively one, or the Company exercises such control that they might as well be. This isn’t a big state stifling the liberty of free enterprise and free consumers. This is a big state as a vehicle for corporate domination. The Company is a private concern, engaged in “commercial imperialism”. The Company has, essentially, carried out a hostile takeover of the government. This is one big state that’s been privatised.

The icons of modern conservatism (i.e. Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Bush II) are usually, for all their populist anti-government rhetoric, ultra-statists. They might reduce bureaucracy here and there (usually by cutting public services, etc.) and deregulate business, but they always strengthen the state’s machinery of enforcement, regulation, control and surveillance of its citizens, i.e. the poor schmoes who do all the work get spied on and arrested more. Meanwhile, we have de facto economic planning in the hands of radically undemocratic and monolithic organisations. We just call them corporations, but they act like states within states. And they get more and more powerful all the time.

Was the Iraq war a state affair? Well, the costs were pretty much covered by the state (i.e. by the American taxpayer) but the opportunities and profits were tendered out to the companies that swarmed in like vultures. Neoliberalism wants to turn the state into a heavily armed enforcement service that monitors and controls and taxes the population while acting as a munificent pimp for corporations, farming out every other task of the state to them, garnished with massive subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare).

The state gathers and the Company collects.

This is pretty much what Bob Holmes wrote about in ‘The Sun Makers’. His income tax bill seems to have got him thinking about the future of neoliberalism. Strange but true. Maybe he was looking at Chile and General Pinochet’s great experiment in merciless Chicago school ultra-monetarism, which he inflicted on his people via brutal repression. How else did he manage to write a Doctor Who story in 1977 that can be read as a companion text to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein?

But the key thing for the purposes of this little essay is the way the workers are portrayed as changing in the course of the struggle. The Others are clearly former workers who’ve opted out. Mandrel’s grade status and former workplace even become plot points. Cordo is the lowest of the low; a timid, despairing and bankrupt drudge, the son of a lifelong corridor sweeper. But they end up uniting across the grade barriers, across their former differences. The Others go from cowardly hiding and petty criminality to leading a general strike. Cordo goes from contemplating suicide to jubilantly leading a revolution. Bisham is an executive grade whose moment of curiosity lands him in detention; initially, he lies back and accepts his doom.. but he ends up uniting with B and D Grades to topple the government. The workers with hand and brain.

Okay, they need the Doctor to get them started, but in this story the Doctor is almost like a personification of Information itself. He tells them things. He makes them curious. He makes them angry. He poses the right questions. He turns off the gas that makes them anxious and passive (surely this is thematically linked to his taking over the TV station and the news service?) and thus gets the ball rolling. It isn't long before he wanders off with Leela and leaves the united workers to pursue the revolution on their own.

The Doctor’s role as catalyst notwithstanding, this is a full scale workers’ revolution. Moreover, it’s explicitly linked to industrial action in the scene where Goudry and Veet incite the strike. It’s idealised, sure, but the portrayal is not without sceptical irony or some healthy moral ambiguity. Mandrel’s former colleagues Synge and Hackett obviously join the revolution from fear rather than immediate enthusiasm (though they seem to end up happy enough to help), and Marn simply switches sides when she sees which way the wind is blowing.

And then we have the matter of the Gatherer and his little tumble... Well, you can wring your hands about him if you like. I have to do my own tax return so, frankly, I’m not feeling merciful.


I've deleted my original attempt at a Shabgraff blog. Firstly, people were getting Trojan Horse alerts when they visited it. Secondly, the dashboard at that site was hard to use and fiddly. Hopefully, Shabgraff will find a final resting place here at I'm going to repost the entries from the old blog (and take an entirely cynical opportunity to alter bits of them that I've thought better of since their original appearance).

Like so...