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.


  1. Fabulous meditation on one of my favorite stories. Can't wait for part two :)

  2. I thoroughly, THOROUGHLY enjoyed this post. Your musing on the episode titles and the quip about the big pink snake were hilarious, and this sentence...

    "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..."

    ... is a work of art. Kudos :)

    As an aside, Philip Sandifer makes the point in his review of this story that this is where the show largely ceases to be Doctor Who, he's marginalised from the narrative and the entire season has been ramping up the violence and gore so much that it's hard to see what he CAN do to avert disaster. And I note that this review leaves the Doctor himself out pretty much entirely. Just a wee observation, I wonder what you make of Mr Sandifer's claim? (I could go over there to see if you've commented on that post but I'm lazy).

    Anyway, like I said, I really, really enjoyed this post, thank you :)

    1. "And I note that this review leaves the Doctor himself out pretty much entirely."

      You're right. I hadn't realised!

      (I think Sandifer's reading of Season 22 as an 'exorcism' is knock-down brilliant.)