Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sex, Death & Rock 'n' Roll

The Curious Orange, before he got the Lee & Herring gig.

In the mid-1980s, Doctor Who (perhaps influenced by a cultural context in which a strict matriarchal figure was punishing the British people for their own submerged desires) developed a habit of delving into surprisingly murky and morbid corners... and no story has corners quite as murky and morbid as 'Revelation of the Daleks'. The undercurrents in this strange tale include unrequited love, lust, suicide, alcoholism, putrefaction, mutilation, cannibalism and even – obliquely – necrophilia. This is a story that has a perverse, sexless, destructive, sado-masochistic anti-romance at its core, relegating all the stuff about galactic conquest to the sidelines.

Naturally, displaying obtuseness that is almost customary, most commentators have missed this and worried volubly about the least of the story’s delectable sins: the onscreen violence, which is only startling when judged against the largely implicit jeopardy of the Davison era and hardly compares to the extremes of, say, ‘The Brain of Morbius’. But ‘Revelation’ looked tame even then, even by the standards of material made for kids. Have you seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? It’s torture porn for finger-painters.


The literary novel that we're *supposed* to talk about in connection with 'Revelation' is, of course, Waugh's The Loved One... but, while I don't dispute the Waugh connection, the book that I always find myself thinking of when I watch 'Revelation' is Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is a novel that seriously worried some people at the time of its publication, not just because of its determinedly ambiguous morality and gay undercurrents, but because of its sheer, unbridled (and supposedly un-British) sensuality; its focus upon physical details, upon heady emotions and upon lavish descriptions of colours, fabrics, flowers and, most especially, aromas. The eponymous Dorian even spends some of his long life dedicated to the study and enjoyment of perfumes.

We encounter smells in many Saward scripts. In ‘The Visitation’, the TARDIS crew encounters the smell of sulpher and then of the alien gas soliton. In ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, the bacteriological weapon used against the staff of the prison ship causes the infected to stink even as their skin bubbles and drips off. In ‘Attack of the Cybermen’, the defrosting Telosian tombs give off the smell of bad meat. In ‘The Two Doctors’, which Saward script-edited, the Doctor launches into a little soliloquy about the evocativeness of smell as he and Peri stand in the kitchen of the deserted space station, sniffing the rotting food and – it is implied – the corpses that the Sontarans left in their wake. In ‘Revelation’ we have Bostock who stinks “like rotting flesh” because his personal philosophy forbids him to wash. The smell of the butcher’s shop window is heavily implied by Stengos’ appearance.

Also, as in Dorian Gray, there is a noticeable emphasis on flowers. The Doctor and Peri walk through banks of them on their way to Tranquil Repose; Jobel and his staff are first seen amidst floral decorations; Tasambeker is offered a flower in a cruel parody of a compliment.

The echoes of Dorian continue. ‘Revelation’ is a story unusually interested in surfaces, even if only to highlight the tacky tastelessness of the funeral business. ‘Revelation’, like Dorian, is a story in which inner corruption is hidden by superficial beauty. What does the cosmetic undertaker do but hide the corruption of a cadaver under make-up, creating the illusion of an unblemished loved one sleeping the sleep of the just? The desire for unearned immortality is shared by Dorian Gray and the unscrupulous, frozen, ruling class that seem destined to get their wish horribly fulfilled inside Dalek casings.

'Revelation' might, in very broad terms, inherit a setting and a character from The Loved One, but in just about every other respect, Waugh is jettisoned. Waugh's novel (easily his worst) is about British ex-pats amidst the cultural peculiarities of mid-20th century California. Wilde's novel (in my view, one of the very greatest English novels of the 19th century) donates far more of its concerns to 'Revelation', even if they are the more superficial ones: surfaces, appearances, corruption, immortality, art and odour... and the body.


I think that ‘Revelation’ is - perhaps more than any other tale in the canon - about the body. This is quite a large statement, since the list of Who stories that have tried to creep kids out by showing them bodily possessions, bodily infections, bodily mutations, bodily transformations and bodily mutilations is very long. Funny thing is, relatively few of the stories that have featured these things have also really been about the body. ‘Black Orchid’ features disfigurement (both voluntary and involuntary) but that isn’t really what it’s about… if, in fact, it could be said to be about anything. ‘The Seeds of Doom’ dwells lovingly on gradual and grueling physical consumption/transformation of animal by vegetation, but the point is the frightening idea of a natural world that rebels against us, of an inverted food chain as in ‘The Day of the Triffids’. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ features infection by a toxin that mercilessly destroys the body from within, yet only the fever brought on by the closing stages of the poisoning seems to relate to anything beyond pure plot, as Peri’s burning temperature meshes with Jek’s febrile temperament. Jek himself is, in his Richard IIIish way, consumed by his own disfigurement, but this is only a symptom of his morbid narcissism. ‘Inferno’ features werewolvish transformations, but these are more like manifestations of man’s partly brutish nature than meditations on the animal body itself. Cybermen stories have consistently failed to harp on the one potentially scary thing about the Cybermen: the way they physically invade and transform us, revealing a compatibility between organism and artifact. ‘The Ark in Space’ is probably the nearest the series ever came to true and pure “body horror” before ‘Revelation’, but even here, where the horror of compatibility is forcefully expressed, the compatibility with the insectile is stressed as psychological and cultural and social even more than physical. Apart from ‘The Empty Child’ (which is a whole can of worms by itself), the nearest the new series has come to doing a story about the body is probably ‘New Earth’, which has mutants, medicines, cat people and a grotesquely fat man who is turning to stone... the physical concerns continue into the main subplot, which is a ‘body-swap’ comedy of the type that Hollywood produced by the hundredweight in the late 80s (all of them, as far as I can recall, starring either Tom Hanks or people who built their entire careers on looking and sounding vaguely like Tom Hanks). Mind you, it should be noted just how much 'New Earth' owes to 'Revelation'. In the secret, gothic depths below a professional institution seemingly devoted to healing, ghastly experiments are afoot which treat humans as raw material, blah, blah, blah.

I mentioned, above, the failed potential of almost all Cyberman stories to confront the body as a theme or as an opportunity for provoking horror... well, as Tat Wood points out in About Time vol. 6, 'Revelation' is really a Cyberman story but with Daleks instead of Cybermen! Saward was, as everyone knows, obsessed with Cybermen... however, the Cybermen in his stories tend to act and talk more like macho mercenaries than emotionless creatures of pure logic. Of course, there's always been a problem with the Cybermen. Arguably, the only ones that ever really seemed plausibly emotionless and even faintly logical were the ones in 'The Tenth Planet'... but even they are acting irrationally when you really analyse them. It was a bad mistake to ask TV hacks to write monsters who were totally logical; they usually find it hard enough to write human characters who behave according to the ad hoc logic of normal, everyday sanity... but, I'm supposed to be writing about Daleks not Cybermen... which is the same mistake Saward made in 'Revelation'. Everything in 'Revelation' makes it the perfect context in which Cybermen can be properly reimagined as the predatory robozombies that they always coulda/woulda/shoulda been. 'Revelation' is about death and resurrection via technology, about the merging of technology with biology, about the horror of compatibility, about the infiltration of the emotional mind by programmed dogma (Stengos), about the contrast between the eccentricity of human passions coming into conflict with bland and sinister uniformity (there is even a scene in which someone kills Daleks with rock 'n' roll), about humans as meat, about humans as product, etc., etc., etc. The story seems tailor made for the Cybermen. Even the Jobel and Tasambeker subplot fits in beautifully. The rather tragic Tasambeker could actually find relief in losing her emotions whereas Jobel could be semi-redeemed by his ferocious attachment to physical lusts and pleasures. This is a story that could have allowed the show to, for once, actually explore the concepts and implications of the Cybermen rather than just using them as stomping heavies. And so... they put Davros and the Daleks into it. Moreover, Saward actually uses the story to turn the Daleks into Cybermen, i.e. by having the Daleks (for the first time) harvesting humans and transforming them into new Daleks.

The really strange thing is that this happens again in 'The Parting of the Ways'. The 2005 finale episodes would make much more thematic sense as a Cyberman story, though Russell T. Davies stamps his own imprimatur upon matters by making these remade, half-human Daleks into crazed religious fundies. Irony drenches matters when you consider that 'Revelation of the Daleks', a title so arbitrary and irrelevant when applied to the closer of Season 22, would have been a very apt title (on several levels) for 'Bad Wolf', whereas 'Bad Wolf' is what 'Parting of the Ways' should've been called. 'Revelation' of the Daleks' should, of course, have been called 'Resurrection of the Daleks'... which opens the question of what 'Resurrection of the Daleks' should've been called. How about 'The Parting of the Ways'?

Anyway, that's enough title shuffling. Back to the point.

Interestingly enough, the actual Cyberman story which does do more than any other to confront the sheer horror of physical invasion posed by the Cybermen is the Season 22 opener 'Attack of the Cybermen' (which wasn't written by Eric Saward... honest guv). Whatever the overall weaknesses of the story (and they are considerable) it does manage to (sort of) remember that the Cybermen are predatory zombies rather than just robots. As mentioned, the defrosted Telosian tombs emanate a nasty smell; the torture of Lytton for information demonstrates that the Cybermen think of pain as an exploitable weakness of the fleshlings (a point somewhat undermined by their habit in the 80s of yelling and giving every appearance of agony when shot); the half-converted Lytton begs to be put out of his misery and uses his last ounce of self-will to stab the Cyberleader, who then gushes gouts of green hydraulic fluid over him.

It should be no surprise that this happens in Season 22, a run of episodes absolutely obsessed with wallowing in bodily fluids. Now, one can sneer at Saward's desire to make Doctor Who all gory and gungey, but he's tuned into his cultural moment, at least in terms of the genre in which he had found himself working. Saward's tenure (roughly, 1982-1985) coincides with a remarkable period of shift in the aesthetics of mainstream fantasy and sci-fi movies, away from the heroic style epitomised by the ultra-influential Star Wars films (the original ones, I mean... the proper ones) and towards a grottier, grimier, ickier set of visual and thematic concerns. The original Star Wars itself had been a step in this direction, for its time. Unlike the pristine environments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the "galaxy far, far away" in which Luke, Han and Leia strut their seventies stuff has dirty space canteens full of exotic aliens and waste disposal chambers full of smelly garbage.

But Ridley Scott's Alien (a film that Saward attempted to remake in a Who context at least twice) self-consciously goes a quantum leap further. By co-opting the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger to do the alien spaceship/creature designs, the producers opened a whole can of very wriggly worms. Giger tapped directly into the unspoken, submerged (possibly unconscious) concerns of the shlocky script and produced some of the most remarkable and influential production design concepts in cinema history. The derelict alien ship discovered by the blue collar astrogrunts is a twisted dreamscape of ribcage corridors, pregnant bulges, labial slits, vaginal openings and penile extrusions. The aliens themselves are separated units of this Freudian nightmareland, created as they are from spidery mobile hands that grab your face and cover your screaming mouth, fleshy probes that thrust themselves down your throat and lay their eggs inside you, aggressive penises with gnashing metal teeth that give birth to themselves through your chest, giant phallic tubed heads and barbed tails that grope you before their grinning faces split open and erupt into yet more fanged cocks, dripping thick goo. Alien may be about space people on a space ship getting killed by a space alien... but its also about lust, rape, sexual sadism, pregnancy as parasitism, childbirth as painful violence... all the horrors that we sometimes detect in the sexual and the physical. Sometimes people look at me funny when I talk like this. But, really, this film has Ian Holm (with white, milky fluid dripping down his face) trying to kill Sigourney Weaver by shoving a rolled-up porn mag into her mouth. This is hardly a subtext at all.

The other interesting thing about the aliens in the Alien movies is that they are "bio-mechanoids", examples of a kind of being that Giger had been imagining and painting and sculpting for years. They are not just made of rude bits and pieces, they're also made of tubing and pistons and pumps. Their skin is patterned like fleshy circuitboards. Look at the way the alien is hidden in plain sight in the final sequence of the original film. As Sigourney strips to her smalls, she wanders round the escape shuttle, oblivious to the fact that the alien is sitting curled up amidst the wires and control panels and pipes that line the walls of the ship. It isn't obscured, or crouching in the dark. It is just sat there. But she doesn't see it, and nor do we... because its head looks like part of the machinery. The same trick is pulled (far less successfully) in the later films.

There are probably all sorts of arthouse and/or cult movies that got there first, but Alien is the one that really got everyone's attention. Ridley Scott didn't invent the idea of "body horror" but he did do it very well and make it phenomenally successful. David Cronenberg had been plugging away making films about the relationships between injury, infection, mutation, deformity, consciousness and sex (sorry, I mean SEX!!!!) since the 60s. Cronenberg, routinely called a genius nowadays, toiled in the wilderness for years making startling, eccentric, deeply unnerving and sexually charged horror films.

Interestingly enough, the Saward tenure on Doctor Who more or less coincides with a shift towards science-fiction in Cronenberg's films. Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) all come from this period. Cronenberg's films had harped on about scientists and experiments before, but these films are the ones that start worrying about the future of technology and how it will effect human physical existence and experience. These films break new ground in their depiction of tortured human bodies penetrated and meshed with the machines of the future, machines like computers, televisions, video players and telepods.

You'll have noticed that these sci-fi/horror movies I've been talking about have a common theme: the meshing of technology and biology. They also tend to be highly politically charged. Videodrome is about a right-wing conspiracy to infiltrate the minds of TV viewers, turning them into slaves who will commit political assassinations to order. John Carpenter's semi-masterpiece They Live, also from around this time and part of this shift, is about... well, it's about an ordinary American working class man who has been laid off, has to take casual and non-unionised work, lives in a kind of shanty town for the poor, witnesses a violent police attack upon said shanty town and then acquires a pair of magic sunglasses, through which an ordinary American cityscape looks like this:

...and politicians, businessmen, cops and rich people look like this:

Through the glasses, dollar bills are just white oblongs with 'THIS IS YOUR GOD' written on them. The ruling class and their lackeys all turn out to be aliens... an idea also broached in a truly extraordinary film, also from the late 80s, called Society.

I don't want to overstate this. Carpenter's The Thing - a rare example of a remake that comprehensively wipes the floor with its lacklustre original - is a film from around this period that does just about everything imaginable with and to the human body short of meshing it with technology... and it's also noticeably, even remarkably, apolitical for Carpenter. But, on the whole, there is a mini-trend in genre movies around this time for sci-fi and horror to merge, for these mixed genres to feature mergings of human biology with technology, and for these stories to have strong political subtexts.

Much of Saward's oeuvre fits this general pattern... and he was only amplifying and marrying-up tendencies that had already been in Who for some time. The show's second ever story was a political allegory featuring cyborgs! And since 'Inferno', arguably since 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', it had been on the radar of Who creative teams that their show worked as 'horror films for kids' (I forget who coined that phrase but it's perfect). Saward seems to have drawn on the trends in sci-fi/horror filmmaking to synthesize these trends, though he was less interested in the politics than in the cool biomechanoids splattered with gore.

And that's part of how we ended up with Lytton's crushed hands, and Stengos' mutated head - complete with pulsating veins - sitting inside a transparent Dalek casing.

But ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ does more than just present us with cool images. Like Alien (which is clearly an influence on Saward) it really is, in a very essential way, about the human body… and, in a submerged way, about sex (we’ll get to this a bit later). In fact, the story’s preoccupation with physicality is almost obsessional, certainly when compared with most other Who stories. It is quite prepared (ready, happy, eager) to get nasty about the body. There’s a kind of constant background squelch of physical ickiness. ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ gives a booze-swigging coward lines about how he’ll “know the name and function of each organ as it plops out” when he is tortured to death, harps on about bodies decomposing to the point where they “froth” or need to be “ladled” into suitable containers, has crooked accountants make queeny double entendres about “double entries”, smirkingly brings up the subject of nose-picking, shows us a room full of pickled yet living brains and introduces a character who stinks like bad meat because personal hygiene is against his principles. But ‘Revelation’ goes further than that. It doesn’t just mention smells and snot and hint at sodomy. It mentions all sorts of ways in which the body is, or becomes, disgusting and ruined.

Leaving aside the various ways that the story references decomposition, let’s think about disfigurement. Natasha is only threatened with disfigurement before the distinctly unenthusiastic Takis puts the brakes on Lilt’s naked sadism. But just consider, for a moment, the number of people in the story who are disfigured or mangled in some way. First, of course, we have Davros. For much of the story he appears to be nothing but a head in a jar; later, when the real Davros appears, we learn that there’s a bit more of him than that… but he’s still crippled, wheelchair bound, eyeless and one-armed. This is an inheritance from previous continuity, but it still chimes with Orcini’s faulty artificial leg, the leprous mutant who attacks the Doctor and Peri, and even Tasambeker’s crippling awkwardness. The deformity seems to radiate outwards from Davros, making him look like a warping influence upon the world around him. Stengos, in particular, mirrors Davros. By the time Natasha finds him, he’s also a disfigured, mutated, disembodied head meshed with technology, half enclosed inside a Dalek casing. It’s almost as if Davros, who titters like a flasher as Natasha comes closer to finding her father in this state, is trying to recreate himself. Well, he’s always had “a fanatical desire to perpetuate himself in his machine” and, according to the Doctor, Davros has “finally done it… he’s finally managed to create Daleks that can reproduce anywhere.”

Reproduction. Children. Davros and his creatures. Stengos and his daughter. Meanwhile, Tasambeker longs to make her disdainful and contemptuous boss into a sugar daddy, even as Jobel lusts after girls (including Peri) young enough to be his daughter. When stroking his own vanity by cruelly taunting Tasambeker, Jobel’s worst insult is to compare her (and unfavourably at that) to his mother. Anybody who recognises in Jobel the shade of his pseudo-template - the slavish mummy’s boy Joyboy - will know what this suggests. The half-glimpsed hints that gather around these conjunctions are creepy in the extreme.


Yes, we’re finally onto the sex. The intonations are incoherent and quiet, but they are undeniably sexual and they are the darkest sexual intonations to be found anywhere in Doctor Who. Even those married cousins ‘The Curse of Fenric’ and ‘The Empty Child’ have nothing to match ‘Revelation’ when it comes to furtively murmured sexual undercurrents. ‘The Empty Child’ is saturated in sex (from the girl/woman child/mother Nancy to the omnivorous lothario Captain Jack; from the butcher and his other way of trading meat to that whole conversation about “dancing”; from Algy’s cute bum to the “man” that sent an evacuated boy running back to the safer option of nightly bombing raids) but, while it acknowledges that sex is scary and dangerous, it doesn’t seem to despair of the possibility that most options – including promiscuity and teen-parenthood – can bring fulfillment… indeed, if it has a ‘message’, it is that sex is linked to the fulfillment of real humanity, counterpoised against the emptiness of repression and denial. Even ‘Fenric’ - with its monsters that emerge from the teenage female psyche, mother-hatred, emotional rape and strong intimations of repressed public school gay crushes ending in violence and paralysis - cannot end without suggesting that “dangerous undercurrents” can be banished by having a bit of a swim in your suspenders. Shall we therapeutically regress ourselves back into the show’s black and white superego (skipping tastefully over the Australian woman with a huge, evil, pink snake in her subconscious), all the way back to the early days? Ahh, but things were simpler and more innocent back then when the galaxy was monochome and in 405 lines. ‘The Rescue’ can only (just) be interpreted as being about a teenage girl menaced by a pervert in a fetish costume if you squint at it very hard with ironic determination; ‘The Romans’ refuses to even notice the fact that it makes farcical comedy out of the way a fat murderer attempts to molest a slavegirl; Edith in ‘The Time Meddler’ is assaulted by rampaging Norsemen, but only because Dennis Spooner is raising his authorial eyebrows knowingly at Viking stereotypes.

By contrast, in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ we are presented with a tubby, toupéed, lecherous embalmer of corpses (first seen showing off amidst a display of peacock feathers: the symbol par excellence of male sexual strutting) who extends his love of playing with bodies to his living female staff members, sexually harasses Peri (taking her every cringe as encouragement) and enjoys himself by viciously insulting and demeaning a young woman who fawns on him like an over-excited puppy. When asked why she dotes on the man who constantly humiliates her, she is unable to answer… but why does anybody keep voluntarily going back for more punishment? Their Master/slave relationship is truly discomforting to watch; her every groveling submission only making him into more of a bully. Her inner hatred of Jobel is toyed with by Davros until she seems ready to murder the object of her hopeless affection, expecting no reward but to be freed from her body and made into a Dalek. It is left ambiguous whether this idea genuinely appeals to her, or whether it is just her sycophancy to Davros and fear for Jobel that makes her seem to accept it… but one can almost understand how the idea might appeal to her: the idea of shedding her body. When Takis playfully, mockingly, gives her a flower, she throws it away like contact with something beautiful is a reproach to her. It seems to be this action that entices Davros to start playing with her… perhaps he sees himself in her gesture, empathizing with the trapped rage that makes her want to destroy and reject beauty. In any case, by the time she reaches Jobel she has decided to warn him. But Jobel is clear: he’d rather “run away” with his mother than “own” her. Despite the pre-watershed code-words, it’s obvious what Jobel is getting at. In his supreme arrogance, Jobel takes her warning as an attempt at ingratiation with a transparent ulterior motive (he may even be partly right) and rather than let anyone imagine that she might be anywhere near his league (ha!), he spurns and needles her until she snaps. How does Jobel manage to upset her so much that she plunges a syringe full of embalming fluid into his heart? Well, there’s the mother comment… but he also says something that, on the face of it, seems almost kind. “You’ve spent too many hours alone in this preparation room,” he says quietly. “Someone as impressionable as you should lavish a little more time on the living rather than fantasizing with the dead.” The italics are mine, but Clive Swift does give those words suggestive emphasis. Remember that pleased little smile on her face when she gets permission to tart up the corpse of the murdered guard? Davros refers to how Jobel likes to “play with the bodies of the dead”. Maybe Tasambeker does too. What kind of “fantasizing with the dead” does this awkward, downtrodden, disliked, vilified, lonely, masochistic woman get up to when she’s all by herself in the preparation room with unresisting, silent playmates? I’m not saying that the intimation was necessarily deliberate, or even conscious, but it’s there all the same. Killing for Company was published the same year that ‘Revelation’ was broadcast. We have waded, perhaps by accident, into very deep and dark waters indeed.

Mind you, even at this point, as Jobel pierces Tasambeker so effectively with his needling that she is driven to pierce him with a needle in return, the story cannot resist undercutting itself ironically with a reminder of the absurdity and fragility of the body and bodily dignity. As Jobel, the preening narcissist, drops to the floor, gasping his incredulity at the idea of anybody thinking they could manage without him, and dies… his ridiculous wig falls off, revealing the pathetic bald pate of a vain old man.


This seems like an appropriate moment to end this session, as someone once said. I have more to say about this bottomless pit of a story, but it'll have to wait for another time. Expect politics. Lots of it.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The War News

The new leader of the War Lords, The War Ed, delivered his first speech as leader today, winning muted and embarassed applause when he said that "we have to face up to the fact that, in retrospect, the War Games were probably, well, er... perhaps, maybe, not all that totally a good idea... umm, sort of?"

His brother, The War Dave, looked all pouty and crosspatch and was seen to ask the senior War Politician sat next to him, The War Woman, why she was clapping when she voted for the War Games. "I'm clapping because I don't want the Time Lords to dematerialise me," she said, earning herself a curled lip and sneering glare from The War Dave.

Later today, The War Dave announced that he would be "stepping back from frontline War Politics" (apparently unconscious of the queasy irony of suggesting that he'd ever been on the "frontline" of anything, unlike loads of ordinary people that he helped send to kill and die) "to concentrate on sitting in the corner with my arms folded, sulking."

Alien Nation

"The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien."

- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Troughtonite Revisionism

I reposted my Hartnell stuff from Timelash II pretty much as it originally appeared. I've rejigged the following Troughton stuff a fair bit, however, so you'd better read it all over again very carefully, in case you miss a syllable of my searing insight and sage wisdom.

'The Underwater Menace'

I could easily tear this story to pieces, yes? And feed the pieces to my pet octopus, yes??? But this story has sense of humour! I too have sense of humour!!!! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!

Look, if you think this story is any more silly than any other Doctor Who story... well, it isn't.

Look at the amount of thought that went into the costumes and sets. Polly spends a lot of the story with a detail from a doric column on her head! Look at the detail in which Atlantean society is depicted. There's a throne room, a temple, a lab, a hospital, a market... there are priests and acolytes, beggers and traders, slaves and workers, guards and orderlies... there are intimations of popular dislike for the forces of the state... Look at the variations in the personalities. Look at the way people change - from the king to the sadistic doctor to the disillusioned priest... And our heroes team up with two marooned sailors and a brave servant girl to form a little multi-ethnic band of rebels who instill industrial action... a strike that wins! And helps to bring down the government!

Yeah, I know... it's daft. But it's no dafter, fundamentally, than 'The Caves of Androzani'. Yes, 'Caves' is infinitely better in many ways... but that's not the point.

This has been called the Doctor Who version of Plan 9 From Outer Space... which is wrong, wrong, wrongarama. We laugh at Ed Wood movies because they're badly made. This isn't badly made. Actually - if you look at the verve and pace of Episode Three, the detailing of the designs and costumes, the wit of the dialogue, and the technical achievements - it's rather superbly made!

The great underwater strike ballot ballet is amazing for the time, given that they probably made it in the cupboard at Lime Grove in 14 minutes on a budget of 2 shillings and fourpence. Yeah, you can see the strings a couple of times... but so what? Would you've thought it was all real but for those glimpses of wire? Is it really - I'm saying REALLY - any more fake looking than the CGI in most Hollywood blockbusters? Does that really - I'm saying REALLY - look REAL? Nope, of course not. And in addition to looking unreal it looks plastic, computery, synthetic... whereas the fish people's underwater stuff looks physical, looks touchable, looks human. It's like Ray Harryhausen animation. It's obviously fake, but it has a beauty and a reality that goes beyond mere realism. It looks like its happening underwater! There are even bubbles! Yeah, they're some form of obvious effect - but they look fantastic anyway! And the amazing, defamiliarizing music! It's spooky, weird, discomforting. It screams MODERN in a sublimely 60s way... and I'm not talking about the naff version of the 60s that we're all supposed to laugh at now. I'm talking about the 60s way that still screams of daring and iconoclasm. This stuff was made by eccentric geniuses using old bits of tape! Give me this over all the boring, bombastic, synth-emo, film score pastiche, bow-wow bombast that Murray Gold can belt out. A thousand times, I say this.

Also, we laugh at Ed Wood movies because the deluded no-hopers who made and starred in them had no sense of the irony of what they were doing. Watch Episode Three (tragically, the only surviving episode) and tell me the cast didn't understand the irony of what they were doing... except that makes it sound like they're sniggering up their sleeves. And they're not. The disillusioned priest sounds genuinely disillusioned. The Doctor sounds genuinely appalled by Zaroff. Zaroff sounds genuinely mad. They're playing it straight, but within the confines of the outlandish, outrageous, daft, way-out adventure serial mode. The cast are pitch perfect. Also, they're clearly enjoying themselves. Watch the scene where Ben and Jamie pretend to interrogate the disguised Doctor in the market. How can you not share their pleasure at what they're doing?

Yeah, this recycles all the tropes of the Flash Gordon style B-serial... but without the glibber-than-glib characterisation, the swaggering jingoism, the cheaty cliffhangers. It does that B-serial thang... but with people who seem to think and feel, albeit within the confines of utter nonsense. But what is inherently trivial or stupid about nonsense? I reject that idea utterly. Nonsense can have integrity. 'The Underwater Menace' has oodles of integrity. The integrity of delight. If you can, without delight, contemplate Anneke Wills in a surgical smock, indignantly saying "you're not turning me into a fish!" to Colin Jeavons with huge fake eyebrows, then... well, may the wrath of Amdo engulf you.

And Zaroff is utterly priceless. I love the bit when the Doctor asks him (in a wonderfully patient voice) why he wants to blow up the world and he responds "you as a scientist ask me why?" as if the Doctor has asked him a self-evidently ludicrous question... and then there's the hysterical laugh that infuses his voice as he says "you demand? You demand?" at King Thous. It's a great performance. Of course, Zaroff is *just* a mad scientist. But so is Davros. So is Sharaz Jek.

I'm happy to read stuff into Who. It's one way in which I enjoy the texts and I refuse to apologise. But I'm quite happy to enjoy the supposed trash on this level too. Why not?

This story shows that even at its silliest, Doctor Who literally cannot help itself. It cannot help noticing the complications involved in how people feel about religion, socially useful myth though it may be. It cannot help noticing the contradictions involved in the scientific project in a world of power structures and apocalyptic weapons arrays, divided between a "West" and an "East" that blame each other for everything. It cannot help noticing that it is the product of an impoverished backwater that used to be an empire and still can't move on. It cannot help itself noticing oppression, tyranny and the power of people to combine to escape and/or defeat the rulers (though, sadly, the King survives and tritely mends his ways). It cannot help itself noticing the colour and texture and freedom of communal social life. It cannot help noticing the irony of its own status as a text. It cannot help itself being wonderful.

I adore this story. There, I'm out and I'm proud.

'The Macra Terror'..., in its adorably schlocky way, a jumbled statement of the anxieties of mid-60s Britain. A world of holiday camps where the working classes went for sojourns consisting of enjoyable humiliation and cheerfully-totalitarian regimentation. (Thanks to Miles and Wood for saying smart things about the Butlins vibe.) A world in which a new generation were questioning the friendly platitudes of an older set who seemed, at times, like a benevolent and philistine dictatorship. A world conscious of prosperity built on North Sea gas, full of politicians appealing to "the spirit of Dunkirk", i.e. the paradoxical appeal to freedom through conformity, and prosperity built on the burning of toxic substances.

'The Macra Terror' is also the precursor to The Prisoner. Now, The Prisoner is altogether more radically odd and suggestive... and The Prisoner probably wasn't influenced by 'The Macra Terror'... but they're both expressions of similar things that were aloft in the cultural air... and, the fact is, 'The Macra Terror' got there first.

'The Macra Terror' is also the precursor to 'Gridlock', which is still the masterpiece of nu-Who. 'Gridlock' doesn't just slot in the monsters from the old story, it actually develops the ideas and ambitions of the older story. 'Gridlock' is a statement of the anxieties and absurdities of its times, just like 'The Macra Terror'. In both stories, the Macra are germs in the social wound, parasites on industrialisation, parasites on human effort and cultural malaise, embodiments of repressed knowledge.

It's telling that nu-Who is at its very best when also being most thematically faithful to the classic series. Both Macra stories illustrate that the show is at its best when it tries to do things that you don't see anywhere else, when it gleefully dives into semiotics, when it gives itself freedom to indulge in satire and metaphor, when it is unabashedly political and when it free-associates with language and ideas.

The Colony, unlike most of the bog-standard Troughton-era bases, is an entire world in miniature. The authority figure is not gruff and unstable... he's the soul of calm and courtesy. He's in just as much 'denial' as, say, Jarvis or Robson... but, in this story, so is everyone else. The base is under seige but, as Simon Kinnear once put it, everyone has decided to pretend it isn't happening.

The only man who admits what's going on is labelled a lunatic and subjected to trippy brainwashing. When somebody tries to defend him from the authorities, they insist that he's "as cheerful as any of us!" (not sane or harmless) as though cheerful acceptance is the only test of social acceptability.

Even those who see the Macra remain unsure about what they are, almost as if they can't bring themselves to see them properly. Are they insects, crabs or giant bacteria? Or all three? Even their name - evidence of real, free-associating thought on the part of the creative team - could be a riff on "macroscopic" or on Macrocheira Kaempferi (which is the latin name for the Japanese Spider Crab, the largest known arthropod). Of course, the latin for crab is "cancer"... which is kind of what the Macra are, a cancer in the body politic.

Further evidence of the linguistic cleverness is to be found in the name of the Colony's leader - he's "the Pilot", as though he's descended from the pilot of the ship that brought them, or the captain of the 'ship of state'. Of course, pilots just steer; they're not navigators. In the same way, the Pilot of the Colony doesn't decide for himself, he obeys Control. Which brings me to the near-constant riffing on the word "control". The word is used in all its senses - as a location (i.e. the Control room), as a state of being, as political power, as control over ones own mind, sanity, perceptions, etc. Sometimes each sense is used in the course of a single scene. And lets not forget that "control" is something you do to infections and infestations and pests.

Medok is the most Doctor-like character (hence his name?) in a story that sees the Doctor - gloriously - become a kind of instinctive, anti-authority troublemaker. Troughton's Doctor is at his most bewitchingly, lovably mischevious in this story. He walks into a world of neatness and insists on staying scruffy. He stays awake at Sleep Time. He breaks the rules on principle. He teases authority at every turn. He makes disobedience a point of honour and wisdom, stating his inherent distrust of all power as a kind of manifesto. He's an expert in confusion.

This story contains one of my very favourite Doctor-moments in the whole series, old or new. The Doctor, upon hearing some horribly happy little totalitarian work-ditty, groans and says "Did you hear that rhyme? The man who wrote that should be sent to the danger gang, not us!" It's utterly delicious. The Doctor as an ironic, sardonic enemy of both tyranny and the ugly aesthetic banality that accompanies it.

'Tomb of the Cybermen'

Here's what I wrote about it elsewhere:

"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."

This stands.

'The Dominators'

I'm very conflicted over this one. The political subtext is reactionary bordering on offensive... which put this into my list of top 10 hates.

But... I'm very tempted to feel that everything else about the story is so bad it goes all the way round and comes out at good again. The Quarks are so ridiculous they become charming, the Dominators are so extravagantly unpleasant and stupid that they become an unwittingly great pisstake of all fascists (using the term loosely, in the manner of Rik from The Young Ones), the Dulcians are so hilariously rubbish they become endearing, the plot is so aimless and repetitious that it starts to look like a deliberate tactic to make a statement about the futility of all action. So bad it's good? It's almost so bad it's Sartre!

And - perhaps best of all - we have a heroic, brave, inquiring, sardonic, witty guest hero... who is tubby and balding, has a stupid name and is shown to fail with girls.

Even the politics can be viewed another way, if you squint determinedly. One way, it's a sneering attack on pacifism and any notion that rational debate and humane scepticism is how to confront aggression... another way, it's about fuddy-duddy oldsters who sit back and let fascism win while the kids fight it out. Totalitarian militarism confronts bourgeois complacency and the two tesselate perfectly... meaning that only the youngsters throwing stones can save the world.

I'm confused now.

(A poster at Gallifrey Base - who goes by the semi-accurate handle of 'Mickey the Idiot'... his name really does appear to be Michael - posted this interesting observation about this story:

"I really like some of the design of it. Discussing this recently, the idea occurred to me that it's really about a Classical Art planet being invaded by a Modern Art planet. Maybe sometime the story isn't just what's in the script? Turn off the sound and it's all about a race of Ancient Greeks who believe in proportion, the Golden Section, and how their life gets turned around when Pop Artists with Brutalist shoulders introduce them to the Machine Art of Eduardo Paolozzi."


Yet another poster at Gallifrey Base raised Gareth Roberts' famous and 'controversial' comments about this story and asked - rhetorically, I imagine - what those who dislike this story's politics think should be done to combat people like Al-Qaeda.

Personally, I think this is a rather tenuous analogy. I mean, I must've missed the bit in the televised story where it comes out that the Dulcians had been arming and funding and training the Dominators for years in order to set them against a rival planet. Maybe it's in Ian Marter's novelisation which, I confess, I haven't read for ages.)

'The Mind Robber'

Just one of the best things ever, this story is a gloriously trippy metafictional journey into Doctor Who's own status as a text.

'Robber' picks up the Troughton era handbook for writers, stamps on it, scrawls insulting and anarchistic slogans upon its pages, rips it up and sets fire to the pieces. There is no isolated base, no croaky computer, no catalgue of disposable characters who are laser-beamed to death, no unstable authority figure, no creeping infiltration, no standard fight sequence for Jamie, no scene where someone goes into a bonkers tirade and storms out of a control centre... instead we have a deeply trippy ride through sheer weirdness; a totally unpredictable variation of content, style and pace from episode to episode; an intelligently created elllision of symbolism and literalism; a classic surreal quest narrative drawing on Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland yet beholden to neither.

The Doctor and his friends leave their universe and enter a non-spatial, non-temporal buffer zone... and this buffer zone is a world of fiction. An empty nothingness until imagination works upon it, it soon fills with robots and unicorns and princesses and forests of words.

They've landed in a metaphysical space instead of a physical one, and the threats they encounter are metaphysical too - they run the risk of being translated into other identities, of losing their faces, of being turned into bit players in other people's stories, of being made into fiction themselves (which, as this story constantly reminds us by constantly saying the opposite, they already are).

They are stalked by the ultimate variety of faceless, functional, baddie goons: toy soldiers. As if to swipe at the mechanical nature of so much scriptwriting, these goons have got dirty great wind-up keys sticking out of their backs. In this story, the ultimate threat is to become the functional plaything of the desperate hack writer. The soldiers not only hunt our heroes, they also represent what our heroes are threatened with (both literally and figuratively): being clockwork cyphers who just 'go' when the lazy writer winds them up and sets them off.

And this is the central threat, even of the somewhat contrived Earth-invasion plot that surfaces towards the end. Mankind would become fiction. Ironically enough, via the creative imagination, we'd all be stripped of our free will. We'd be crushed inside the pages of a book by a domineering Master Brain that controls even the writer with a stentorian bark that is channelled through his own mouth. That's what it would be like to be a character in someone else's book, or a fact pushed around by someone else's editor, or a mortal pushed around by a god (which is exactly what a writer looks like from the point-of-view of a character).

This is Doctor Who investigating its own nature as part imagineering stream-of-consciousness fantasy, part lumbering and mechanical genre hack-work. This is Doctor Who investigating its own origins in myth and legend, in children's fiction and historical romance, in satire and allegory. The Doctor wanders around in a pseudo-Narnia. The Doctor solves the kinds of puzzles to be found in kid's annuals. The Doctor becomes Perseus. The Doctor co-writes a face-off between a succession of heroes and villains who are part historical reality and part fictional confabulation (Blackbeard, Cyrano, etc). And the Doctor meets Gulliver.

It cannot be an accident that Gulliver is one of the Doctor's own antecedents in fiction: a restless traveller who finds himself banked on foreign shores where he encounters strange people and uncanny creatures representing human foibles and political follies. Swift's story is often mistaken for pure escapism for kids, but is packed with the bitterest and darkest satirical comments on human politics and behaviour... very much like Doctor Who, though ironically enough not for most of the Troughton era up until this point.

Perhaps, above all, the thing to admire most about 'Robber' is that it triumphantly makes the best of its behind-the-scenes problems. An extra episode needed at the last minute? Just get Derrick to write a new Episode 1 featuring only the regular cast! Result? One of the most unusual and sinister openings of the show's history. Frazer's got the lurgy? No trouble, just write a temporary change of actor into the script! Result? One of the most amusing, memorable and strangely unsettling events ever depicted by the series.

Now that, we must surely all agree, is the sheerest of sheer class.


It occurs to me that 'The Mind Robber' can also be read as being about aliention and reification in the Marxist senses of those words.

The Master of the Land of Fiction is clearly offering the Doctor a job when he asks him to take his place. He even refers to it as a "responsible position". He (the Master) is clearly the servant or employee of the Master Brain. He was also a paid employee of Ensign magazine, churning out thousands and thousands of words for them to print and sell. In other words, he was (and still is) a worker. He toiled to produce a product, was paid a wage and (presumably) watched as others pocketed the profits. Whatever the Master Brain (and the power it represents) gets out of running the Land of Fiction, the Master clearly doesn't see any of the coin.

You can argue about whether writing stories constitutes "socially necessary labour" (I'd say that it does, personally... human culture is in many ways based on stories and it's pretty clear that we need them in order to be fully human... they're part of what the young Marx called our "species-being"... which is something that the Land of Fiction implies by its very existence) but clearly the Master spends much more time than he really needs to churning out all those words. His labour creates a surplus which is pocketed by the publishers... or a profit of some kind that is taken by the Master Brain.

Moreover, the necessities of the market demanded that he write a certain type of story, commercial adventure stories which may not really express his full creativity. (Certainly, the story as a whole strongly hints at a feeling that trite adventures involving handy swords and with-one-bound-he-was-free endings are highly unsatisfactory. It hints at this in an ironic and self-aware way, as it must.) Similarly, in the Land, the Master tries to construct a story about the Doctor and his friends that pleases the power he serves... a story that the Doctor resists being a part of, partly by rejecting handy swords.

On Earth, his stories would have risen up to confront him as a vast block of printed type, as piles of magazines, as things outside of himself or his control... that's what happens when workers make things under capitalism. They are not expressions of his creativity exercised for its own sake; they are not the produce of an unexploited person and a free producer... unless the person happens to be lucky enough to be a financially independent artist or something like that. Similarly, the work he does in the Land is not an expression of his unalienated self-expression. He works for the Master Brain and works to produce the effects it desires. (You could almost see the Master Brain as a personification - thus a reification, in the Marxist sense - of the market itself, which is so often treated or spoken of as a kind of infallible god which should be allowed to rule society for our own good.)

In short, the Master fits (broadly) the Marxist picture of the worker who is alienated from his species-being and from the products of his labour.

He is clearly a slave to the Master Brain. As such, he's really as menaced by the Land of Fiction as the Doctor. He is confronted by products of human intellectual labour in the form of books, characters from books, characters from folklore (the telling and retelling of legends is a human production as much as anything else), wind-up soldiers, etc. In the Land, words (themselves human productions) confront humans as things outside of human control, as trees and forests. Books - commodities produced by labour - attack and threaten to swallow you. If that isn't a way of depicting alienation, of humans estranged and menaced by the products of their own labour, then I don't know what is.

Capitalism materialises the labour of humans into commodities with use-values and exchange values (i.e. books and magazines), thus reifying human labour time. The Land of Fiction takes it further, continuing the process of reification until the characters (themselves commodities and products of labour) are fully materialised, to the point where they walk about and speak for themselves. Again, alienation is depicted when the product of human labour materialised in the form of the Karkus attacks the Doctor and Zoe.

Alienation appears in another way when Zoe and Jamie are "turned into fiction" and appear before the Doctor as blank, empty cyphers who get stuck in the grooves of their dialogue. They've been alienated from their human nature by being made into a commodity (fiction being a commodity, remember). They start behaving like stuck records, like people on an assembly line suffering from line hypnosis.

All this might seem like a helluva stretch... but you have to bear in mind that all the books alluded to, all the legends invoked, all the proverbs cited, all the characters who appear in the story... they're all products of human labour of one form or another.

'The Invasion'

Easily the best ever televised Cyberman story, because it largely sidelines the Cybermen and concentrates on a human villain who is both well written and well acted.

The implication that the Cybermen fit neatly into Vaughn's worldview because he's capitalist who believes in standardisation, technology and quasi-fascist leadership (and a megalomaniacal psychopath) is kind of prescient of the modern analysis of the corporation to be found in the work of people like Joel Bakan. Again, Simon Kinnear said some very clever things about the corporate way in which the Cybermen behave in his article 'Money, Money, Money!' (DWM 410).

Vaughn is almost a personification of the corporation. He controls politicians, puts computers to work answering phones, exploits the labour of scientists, employs muscle when necessary (in the real world, corporations don't need private armies... they're quite happy to use the public-funded armies of the nation states in which they live as their hired muscle), smiles and charms and lies his head off. Moreover, he has neither body to punish (bullets don't hurt him) nor soul to damn.

Sadly, this story continues the trend of having the Doctor cosying up to human establishment figures. Also, Isobel is absolutely hateful. Still, nothing's perfect.

'The Krotons'

Very good, on the whole. This is Troughton's version of 'The Savages', only less po-faced. Mind you, Bob Holmes hasn't quite found his leavening wit or his gift for characterisation yet... but he's already showing an instinctive grasp of what makes the show tick.

'The Krotons' is a politico-mythic fable with a satisfying mix of adventure and high-concept ideas. Crystalline aliens that can dissolve into a liquid suspension - how cool is that?

David Maloney's direction is excellent, filled with imagistic concepts that heighten the drama and enrich the ideas. The dot pictures that resolve into the Doctor's face; the fish-eye lens; the moment when the chain snaps, etc.

This is a very 60s production concerned with themes of obedience or rebellion against authority, the control of education, the rationing of knowledge, student revolt, the utilisation of talent by power that views humans as resources and nothing more. It's easy to see why, in 1969, someone with satirical and political sensibilities would be writing about angry students rebelling against faceless authorities that control information and ruthlessly supress dissent. It is this very satirical and political sensibility that will, once melded with an emerging feel for characterisation and dialogue and humour, see Holmes emerge as the greatest Who writer.

For now, 'The Krotons' is probably the most direct engagement with the revolutionary mood at the end of the 60s yet found in Who... of course, 'The War Games' is not far away.......

'The Space Pirates'

Why is story so often forgotten? Or used as an example of how even Almighty Bob started badly? Two obvious reasons:

1. The only episode we still have happens (natch) to be the crap one. The Doctor’s hardly in it and Caven – the superbly vicious villain – isn’t in it at all. It’s mostly comprised of scenes in which the moronic Space rozzers trade insults with the irritating Milo Clancy. Rubbish American accents abound. Moreover, two of the episodes for which we now only have audio (1 and 6) are highly visual and do not work well on CD, even with Frazer Hines’ helpful commentary. Thank you once again Pamela Nash.

2. No monsters. It’s been the downfall of the reputation of many a good story.

And ‘The Space Pirates’ is a good story. One of the better late-Troughtons in fact, and infinitely more enjoyable than many a highly praised base-under-siege runaround. Compared to the story that came before it - Brian Hayles oddly uninspired ‘Seeds of Death’ - ‘Space Pirates’ shines like polished argonite.

Hermack and Warne are militaristic, organised, square-jawed, macho/camp representatives of officialdom. Like most such people in Robert Holmes’ world, they are clueless dorks. They’re more than just a narrow mickey-take of Star Trek. Apart from anything else, as far as most Brits were concerned, Star Trek hadn’t been invented yet. Even if Holmes had seen it, his Space Corps bods don’t act or speak like Kirk and his mates. In fact, when Hermack (old hammy Brit) booms chummily to “Ian” (respectful American subordinate), it’s more like Picard and Riker... but, tempting as it may be to credit Holmes with the astonishing feat of satirising TNG twenty years before it was created, I don’t think this can be anything but coincidence. No, the Space Corps wallies are prototypes of a classic Bob Holmes riff: the authoritarian control freak who fails to control anything and gets all his guesses wrong. The way in which the representatives of law and order are depicted as dumb time-wasting losers, while all the real thinking and constructive action comes from the Doctor and the raggedy old-timers, is quite delicious.

Is it a space Western? Only partly. In fact, only the character of Milo Clancy bears much resemblance to anything to be found in Westerns. He’s an old-time prospector; he dresses and talks like one. Too much like one, in fact. Supposedly, Gordon Gostelow even changed loads of the dialogue to sound more yee-har, howdy-ma’am, what in tarnation, darn-tootin’ cowboyesque. I’m sure we’re all grateful. If Dudley Foster had gone by the Gostelow Method, Caven would’ve had an eyepatch, a parrot, a wooden leg and would’ve said things like “Ha-harr, splice the mainbrace Mr Dervish, ye scurvy swab, or I’ll send ye down to Davy Jones’s locker!”.

Which brings us to what the story is really about… Pirates! In fact, there’s a fairly big clue to this in the title. All the same, many people miss the fact that this is, fundamentally, a pirate story. Caven is far more like a Blackbeard archetype than a cattle rustler. Argonite might be like Californian gold… but it could just as easily be pieces of ate. The space pirates go about “preying on defenceless cargo ships” rather than sticking up interstellar mail trains or robbing galactic banks. Hermack and the Space Corps are far more like 17th century British Naval officers, patrolling the Caribbean waters on behalf of His Majesty’s Revenue, than frontier lawmen. (Here, I acknowledge a direct debt to Miles and Wood.) By understressing these links to the pirate genre - and by not being as thunderingly literal as, say, Douglas Adams – the story scores big points.

Also, we see in ‘The Space Pirates’ the first twitchings of Bob Holmes’ liking for vast, implied backstories and backhistories. He hasn’t yet got the economy of his later work, in which he can conjure up colossal swathes of off-screen history and context in just a few lines… but it’s a start.

But the best thing about this story, as we might expect from Holmes, is the characterisation. It’s very strong indeed. Caven is brutal and ruthless but also loquacious and cynical. He has some great moments ridiculing the orthodox morality of others. Dervish has been blackmailed into complicity; he has a conscience but lacks courage. Unlike the gutless Fewsham in ‘Seeds of Death’ he doesn’t suddenly grow a backbone when the script requires it. The astoundingly thick, pompous and inefficient Hermack is Holmes’ earliest foray into parodying the sheer uselessness of authority figures… but even he is more than just a caricature. He flirts confidently but unsuccessfully with Madeleine, showing that he was meant to come over as both vain and inept. Milo – though irritating, owing to Gordon Gostelow’s silly performance – is an appealing character: a benign but cantankerous old refusenik who will not respect authority. Madeleine Issigri has believable motives. The scene in which she learns that her father is still alive is highly affecting, as is the scene in which Milo tries to reawaken Dom Issigri’s memories of their shared past.

That’s a key success of this story. The central guest characters (beyond the Space Corps buffoons) seem to be people with pasts, with shared histories about which they can reminisce, with emotional links to each other, with memories, with feelings. For once, there is real pathos underlying the usual capture/escape/corridor shenanigans.

Even Zoe is in character this week. She’s a savant from a futuristic technocracy… so she’s as good with science and technology as the Doctor but doesn’t know about candles.

Okay so there are some rubbish lines (“he’s liable to explode like glyceriltrinitrate!”) but there are also some marvellous ones. “You mean I’m disqualified?” sneers Caven when Sorba complains about him shooting a man in the back, “Don’t you want to play anymore?”

The single worst thing about the story is probably the ending. We are denied a tender scene in which Maddy is reunited with her father; instead we get a naff gag and everybody guffaws like they’re on Scooby-Doo. Or drugs. For ages. Of course, these days we’d get a ten minute reunion scene during which Murray Gold would do everything to make us cry short of actually coming round to our homes and squirting lemon juice into our eyes.

My favourite thing about the story? Hermack’s call sign: “V-Master”. I always think it sounds like one of those gimmicky food slicers that are advertised on early morning Sky TV. You know; the ones that people buy for twenty quid, use once and then stick at the back of the kitchen cupboard for a decade before they throw them away. A bit like one of those newfangled solar toasters.

'The War Games'

Somebody on the DVD documentary calls this a "light anti-war story" or something. But I don't think its an anti-war story at all. After all, the Doctor is perfectly happy to let Carstairs shoot people all over the place in order to protect the Ambulance, or for the Resistance to fight and kill the guards. His explicit aim is to organise the scattered Resistance groups into an army with which to fight the aliens. But this is not only (usually) self-defence, it's also revolutionary violence. It's war against the aggressor and/or against the system that runs the war games. This isn't an anti-war story; it's an anti-imperialist story.

Here's what I wrote about this story as part of a different post:

"Soldiers are workers... 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’."

...the 'Great Game' that we're still playing over control of Central Asia, the Middle East and the attendant advantages in access to fuel wealth... as the tortured and slaughtered people of Afghanistan can testify...

"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."

(Wise words from me there.)

The late 60s were indeed revolutionary times. In '68, the Tet offensive saw American imperialism in Vietnam on the defensive... students tore up Paris, French workers held a general strike and then a wave of workplace occupations... strikes swept Britain... the black American olympians turned their backs on the Stars and Stripes and gave the black power salute... West German students marched with pictures of Rosa Luxemburg and Hungarians rebelled against Stalinism... anti-war protestors lay siege to the Democratic conference...

How does ex-communist Mac Hulke respond to all this? We'll never know, but it seems possible that his lefty sensibilities infected Terrance Dicks' story about people put on a game board (one of Dicks' favourite stories). 'The War Games' is certainly the most direct response to the times, after a reactionary run at it in 'The Dominators' and an oblique take on student revolt in 'The Krotons'. It's also the most radical. Even the Doctor goes back to being (at least partly) the old anarchic trickster (bluffing Gorton, fooling the War Scientist, etc) and then organises a guerilla war against the imperialists!

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.

Some more things I wanna mention:

Smythe keeps his evil, secret, alien communication screen behind a portrait of King George. Von Weich keeps his behind a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm.

"I believe they call it the 'war to end wars'" says the Doctor. The same dishonest rationale is hinted at by the War Chief later in the story.

The fog of war. The soldiers get engulfed by a fog or mist when they try to stray beyond their set boundaries. It causes them anxiety, befuddles and confuses them.

The semiotics of spectacles. Distorted eyes, distorted vision of the world. Desk-bound bureaucratic murderers like Himmler. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in which he describes the party man with the spectacles that catch the light and make him look like he has blank discs for eyes.

Court Martials like the one Smythe conducts actually happened. A lot.

Jamie teams up with a redcoat... but goes back to attacking them on sight once the Time Lords have wiped his memory. He has lost the things he learned through struggle. And the Doctor laughs. Mind you, the English bastard does try to shoot him in the back... and Jamie has the right to chase the invader out of his country.

Ransome. His big gripe with war is the paperwork. And the subalterns who don't fill in the forms. "Do you realise," he tuts, "in the last push, we lost 10,000 shovels." I wonder if they 'lost' anything else in the last push?

As a depiction of imperialism... isn't it all a bit conspiratorial? Vulgar Marxism? Well, as someone said, vulgar Marxism explains most of what happens in the world. And Rumsfeld's "stuff happens" is an even less acceptable diagnosis of reality.

Rumsfeld wore glasses, didn't he. And Cheney. Might explain Hitchens. Brainwashing. "You heard the evidence my dear, it's all proved... I'm afraid he has got WMD and is in league with bin Laden."

The vertigo of anachronism. Romans charge you... and it's scary because you can't wind the car up fast enough.

The scene where Smythe and Von Weich play Risk with counters and a board, laughing as they joke about turning each other's flanks. Of course, they're laughing about sending men to kill and die. But then, people like that do.

The anti-imperialist struggle even involves in a lecture to Pancho Villa about the equality of women.

The Doctor bursts into the op-art Hell of the Interrogation Room and says to the guard "Don't you point that thing at me!" Outrageous, glorious little bastard!

We really should see the human soldiers team up with some alien guards who realise that they are exploited too.

Beyond all this metaphor stuff, nice though it is, the end of this story makes you think to yourself "...but they'll end up back in the wars they came from when they get sent back home..." which leads to the further thought " are the people sending them to fight the real wars any better than the War Lords?... or the Time Lords?"

The Time Lords are utter hypocrites to mindwipe Jamie and Zoe (and, by implication, Carstairs, Russell, etc). They've condemned the "brutal methods of mental processing" used by the War Lords, but then proceed to mentally process people themselves. But the liberals are always the murky reflections of the fascists... and imperialism is the process within (or effect of) capitalism that reveals the fundamental connection between them. At the Nuremburg and Tokyo tribunals, where "liberal" and "progressive" and "democratic" values passed judgement on the relics of defeated fascism, Nazi or Japanese war criminals were absolved of guilt (or simply not charged) over crimes that the Allies had also committed, i.e. horrific bombing of civillian population centres.

We run into problems for the anti-imperialist theme precisely because the Doctor's ultimate aim in the story is reformist, i.e. to put things back the way they were but with the worst excesses curbed, for which he needs to collaborate with Power. The abducted humans can't simply take over the War Lord's planet and rule it themselves (for some reason), so they need to be restored... but, of course, this means restoring them to the world that was sending them off to kill and die, the world that resembles the War Games near exactly. Reformism in a nutshell. But, by the end, the Resistance has won by itself. It has stopped the war and taken over the control centre... though the logic of the story makes this a coup by a small band rather than a mass movement. All the same, it always seems to me that the humans would probably be better off staying put than going home. But that doesn't get Troughton regenerated, does it?

You could interpret the Doctor's plea for the Time Lords to get involved and help people as being congruent with the position of the "humanitarian interventionists", you know, people like Nick Cohen and Hitchens who think you can expect British and American imperialism to work for humanitarian ends... but for that analogy to work, the Doctor would have to be making his plea to the War Lords, not the Time Lords. See the problem? Stitch that, Euston Manifesto.

The first new face the Time Lords offer him appears to be Karl Marx.

That is all.

Vive la Resistance!

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Power of the Zargoids (Reconstructed)

What follows is a substantially rewritten version of something I wrote AGES ago and originally posted at my old site. The original version struck me as woefully inadequate (and embarassingly gushy... which is a fault of mine) when I reread it recently.

Is ‘The Power of the Daleks’ a parable about a democracy destabilised by fascists or about an authoritarian society destabilised by liberals, or even people who think of themselves as leftists? Well… the answer is, of course, yes.

If this is about the rise of fascism, there are some problems with it. Bragen works as a sort of fascist, scheming to replace a relatively soft regime with an authoritarian one which he will rule with an iron fist. But the presence of the Daleks muddies this, separating the barbarism of fascism from fascism as a political movement. The Daleks have always been symbols of totalitarianism so, when they turn on the astonished rebels, it makes it hard to see the rebels as analogous to the Nazi party. If the rebels are Nazis, it should be they who are persecuting the ethnic minority in the colony… and that’s the Daleks! And the depiction of fascism is inadequate anyway because it is depicted as the work of one man acting on his own psychological motives. The story manages to notice that fascism emerges from social democracy, that it is a mass movement which can mobilise some popular support and appear radical… but predicates it on one man’s ambition and offers no context for it, no recognition of the fact that it is a form of class war waged at times when the capitalist system is (or perceives itself to be) under intense threat from crisis, instability and rising working class resistance and mobilisation.

But a full analysis of fascism as an actual historical phenomenon isn’t what the story is trying to do. And, in any case, the rebels are never conclusively identified as a fascist movement… and nor is the Governor’s regime ever conclusively identified as democratic. It might be an unelected oligarchy, for all we know. It has military undertones, almost like the colony’s social superstructure is built upon the ranks and hierarchies of a military expedition. Hensall seems happy for Bragen to acquire more and more police muscle as long as he thinks they’re his to call upon. Hensall’s government certainly seems to operate very much behind closed doors amongst small groups of plummy-voiced men… but then so does ours and we’d call ours a “democracy”, meaningfully enough as long as all we’re doing is distinguishing it from places like Saudi Arabia. In any case, it’s perfectly possible that the rebels are a liberal or leftist movement reacting to an authoritarian regime.

The rebels don't seem to be an ideologically revolutionary organisation. They certainly behave like one… although they may simply be a non-revolutionary organisation forced into clandestine meetings by authoritarian repression… though, the guards who’d do the repressing are commanded by the rebel leader, so…. hmm, it’s all a bit confusing. In any case, if they are ‘left-wing’ then they’re unusually uninterested in class or exploitation. It’s hard to say what they’re motivation is, beyond purely pragmatic objections to Hensall’s style of leadership, or his husbandry and management of resources. Such concerns are the real interest of social-democratic parties, though historically they have tended to cloak their managerial leanings behind nice rhetoric about reform and rights and freedom and equality… which the rebels don’t do. Janley makes it clear to Lesterson that the rebels would not radically alter the status quo when she assures him that he’d do better for resources under their regime. The rebels are reformists who start a revolution in order to make reforms. Whittaker is a little confused here, perhaps. I know I am.

One problem we have is that we never really get a sense of what sort of economy the colony has. Private property doesn’t seem to exist in the capitalist sense, but this certainly isn’t feudalism or communism either. The invisibility of economic relations creates difficulties analysing quite a few of the most superficially political Doctor Who stories, ‘The Savages’ for example. The key is to realise when a story is disinterested in specifics and is working with generalities; ‘The Savages’ offers an essentialised portrait of exploitation… and ‘Power’ offers an essentialised picture of power politics.

Fundamentally, the title holds the key. The story is about power. It's not about specific ideologies but about how people fall into power relationships, how such relationships fall apart, how power is linked to both survival and violence, how violence becomes a deciding factor in politics, how violence becomes the continuation of politics by other means. From Janley's moral blackmail of Lesterson over Resno's death, to the way the rebels are fetishistically fascinated by the Dalek gun, the story is full of themes and moments that revolve around the concepts of power, control and survival. Even the Doctor is concerned with his own personal survival, recovering as he is from a regeneration. Interestingly, in this story, it is hinted that the Doctor's change was triggered by (and powered by?) the TARDIS. "Without it I couldn't survive!" declares the Doctor. The TARDIS is a survival machine for him, feeding him power. Like the colony complex to the humans; like the Dalek machine to the creature within.

There are many Dalek stories in which the barking little Skarosian bastards are almost bit-players, or could be substituted by the Zargoids of Splarg for all it would matter. This isn’t one of them. This is one of the few stories that not only really thinks about what Daleks are, how their minds work, etc. but also thinks about what they highlight about the people they bully and zap.

The Daleks want to enforce their will, their dominance. The Daleks, as ever, are a figurative representation of military/totalitarian cruelty. They are a reflection of Bragen, just as Bragen is a reflection of them. But they are seen as fundamentally worse than Bragen, as inimical to all human life. This is how they work within the rather confused politics of the piece. They are the mirror in which Bragen the fascist sees himself both reflected and magnified. Confronting them, he confronts his own values writ large and espoused by beings with bigger guns than him. But this goes for the rest of the colony too.

The Daleks need power - like the humans. The Daleks have to scheme, deceive and manipulate because, at the outset, they are weak and outnumbered – like the rebels. The Daleks know, instinctively, that their survival depends on their domination of the humans. True to their nature, they instantly see that they and the humans are two species trapped in the same survival situation. They must dominate and destroy in order to be resurrected. They realise that the best way to charm a human is to grovel, to serve "LIQUID" and profess servitude – just as Janley serves Lesterson to start with, just as Bragen defers to Hensall while he has to. The Daleks claim to be servants... but the concept of self-submission is so unfamiliar to them that they don't even quite know how to inflect the words. By the end of the story it is Lesterson who, in his childlike insanity, declares to the Daleks "I am your servant". Full circle. Like the Daleks, Lesterson wanted to use and exploit another life form, like the Daleks he recognises that the superior race must survive and the inferior be eliminated. He starts out taking his own superiority for granted. By the end - awestruck by the Dalek production line - he is quivering before the Daleks, his evolutionary superiors.

The entire story picks over the ways that the Daleks both differ from and, crucially, resemble the humans. The Daleks personify the pitiless quest for literal power, political power, evolutionary power. To the extent that the humans resemble them, they contribute towards turning their colony into a tyranny and then a slaughterhouse.

But the ways in which the races differ are also interesting. In perhaps the greatest moment of the story, a puzzled Dalek asks Bragen, who has just murdered the Governor, "WHY-DO-HUMAN-BEINGS-KILL-HUMAN-BEINGS?". The Dalek, a member of a race that exists to kill, is genuinely astonished by Bragen's action. Bragen has acted to decrease the numbers of his species, thus lessening their chances of survival (the exact opposite of what the Daleks have been up to throughout the story). To the Daleks - the great social-Darwinists of the cosmos - ideology and personal feuds are irrelevant (this is before the 80s when they got bogged down in their own civil war). Only race matters; race, power and survival. To a Dalek, a member of a species that are all the same and are implacable in their sense of purpose, the murder of a fellow Dalek is ridiculous. It's our individuality that makes it thinkable for us kill each other. Of course, that doesn't answer the Dalek's question. Neither does Bragen. He doesn't know. Hyperbole alert... but I find the irony of this almost Swiftian.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Book of Pecksniff

All the extracts from Blair's book that I've been reading in the papers... they've reminded me of why I used to always refer to Blair as "Pecksniff". It was my special name for him, even back at the start (I'm proud to be able to say I never voted for him).

Pecksniff is described in Chuzzlewit as "a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there." That what Blair is. An utter hypocrite. A series of empty gestures towards morality, probity, mature realism, conviction, progressivism, etc. But you follow the gestures and see that they go absolutely nowhere. And then you turn back to the gesturer and, just for a second, you catch the smirk.

The unctuous self-righteousness that leaks from every pore even as he ruthlessly furthers himself with every word and deed; the pained sincerity with which he winces over the foolishness of those who are misguided enough to disagree with him or doubt his word; the Christian piety with which he carpet bombed population centres. And all of it fake. Even now, it's clear that his dominant emotion concerning the Iraq war, and the subsequent fall out, is self-pity.

But the man is soaked in blood... and he knows it. All this "ooh, the scary thing is that he really believes it" bullshit. You can't write material like that forensically picked over here without knowing that you're being studiedly dishonest. The irony is that his own obfuscations and shifty evasions reveal the utter moral bankruptcy of the man better than anything else ever written about him. In a way, with the book's artifice concerning the case for the war, he's finally admitted the truth.

And we're supposed to care that all the royalties of the book are going to charity! So what? The bastard could give every other million he owns to charity and hang himself in Fallujah and it wouldn't make any bloody difference.

Oh, er... he's a bit like a Cyberman or something. There, that's made this post relevant to this blog. I'm covered.