Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Companion Relief

So, it's now pretty much official.  Amy is there to be leered at.  We now have plots that hinge on Rory being unable to stop himself staring up her skirt.

Let me just repeat that:

Doctor Who, in 2011, has episodes (albeit charity 'comedy' ones) in which vital plot points rest on a man staring up a woman's skirt without her knowledge or consent.


To add insult to injury, the episode coyly reminds us that the man in question is the woman's husband, as though that makes it okay...  So spying on a woman's privacy and getting off on it is permissable as long as your relationship is sanctified by holy wedlock, is that it?  

Still, Amy doesn't seem to mind too much, so it must be okay.  After all, if a woman character in a show written by a man makes a sexist comment or displays a sexist attitude, that proves she's okay with sexism, as long as it's all, like, jokey and ironic 'n' stuff.

But Amy wouldn't mind, would she?  Firstly, she's Moffat's meat puppet and viewer titilation service.  Secondly, she's a self-involved, self-adoring harpy... just like so many women in Moffat scripts.  But that's okay 'cos she's 'feisty'... which means that, while she may be an unflattering misogynistic stereotype, she's an unflattering misogynistic stereotype in a modern, liberated, post-feminist kinda way.

In fact, Amy is so far from minding being leered at and leched over that she deliberately uses her body as a way of getting favours (i.e. driving test passes) from the poor, helpless men she enslaves with her feminine wiles.  Women, eh?  They really fancy themselves, don't they?

Well, Amy is now so self-involved and self-adoring that she literally fancies herself.  She flirts with her own doppelganger, providing lesbian fantasy fodder for Rory (but that's okay 'cos he's her husband, remember?).

I'm sure Wossy was amused too... if that's a recommendation these days.

The Doctor then saves the day by twiddling his "wibbly lever".  I can't help thinking that this is almost too perfect as a metaphor, both for how Moffat now writes the show and for how millions of lechy mysoginist fans now watch it.  Stare at Amy, fiddle with the wibbly lever and, before you know it, the episode has reached a satisfying climax.

As the Doctor says: "Euurrrgghh... so this is how it ends..."  Not with a whimper even, but with a sexist wank.

Still, it was all for charity, wasn't it?  Fitting.  After all, what is Comic Relief but a great big load of sanctimonious, sentimental, self-righteous masturbation?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Darkness in the Garden 2.0

To celebrate the DVD release of 'Kinda' (alongside its sequel 'Snakedance') here is a guest post by Rob, also known at Gallifrey Base as vgrattidge-1.

ADDITIONAL: The text below is different from that originally posted, having been revised and expanded by the author.  25/4/11.

‘Kinda’ raises a lot of questions and embraces an unusually (for Doctor Who) complex approach to its subject matter. It’s a rich script by Christopher Bailey – one that looks at invidualism vs collectivism in two (very different) societies; colonialism; propaganda; History; male aggression, and madness, while drawing on Freudian theory, Christian imagery and Buddhist concepts in order to explore these ideas in multiple ways. A stylized theatrical piece, if one inflatable snake and a pot plant jungle gets in the way of some of the most interesting writing (not to mention performance, music and direction) of the classic series, then that’s to lose sight of one of its greatest, most thoughtful and arresting serials ever.

‘Kinda’ is about many things. It’s about the power of the community over individuals (in this case men, reversing a convention but avoiding the ‘Planet of Women’ trope), so as to prevent aggressive, warlike behaviour. This is couched in the idea of an alien tribe who, if they don’t share everything (especially their dreams), are prey to monsters who will use them as mediums to pass into the real world from the darkest corners of their Id.

The Mara (the Buddhist word for temptation) is certainly a “real” creature here, but is the evil it revels in to be found within us or beyond us?  Is it a demon of our minds, or something that uses our minds as a way of gaining access to the material world?

Bailey bats around psychosis, the Oedipus complex and paranoia both within the parameters of Freudianism (the scenes with Hindle in the base) and via several Buddhist concepts (the scenes in Tegan’s dream and with Panna, the wise woman of the Kinda tribe) in order to explore this dichotomy. Brilliantly, he sticks to posing questions without offering pat answers.

Initially, this seems like a reactionary message about war-like men needing to be contained and about a pre-agrarian community being superior to a high-technological society; essentially, the message of the egregious Avatar with its noble savages and BIG BAD COLONISTS. But while the Kinda are indeed a bunch of “serene dream catchers” (winks at Jack Graham) with odd bits of knowledge (they are aware of DNA – perhaps a leftover from a time before the Mara was first unleashed), they also have to halt progress and exist in a state of enforced servility in order to survive. The ‘ideal’ they most certainly are not! Dr Todd may see innocent children in a Garden of Eden but this is a romanticized view of a society forcibly held in stasis in case the wheel of History starts up and brings the conflict that Panna fears will change things irrevocably on Deva Loka; we should note how her vision of the Mara’s return is brimming with nuclear-era countdowns to apocalyptic destruction (‘Kinda’ being a near-contemporary of Threads and Z For Zacharia).

Meanwhile, the colonists are an example of what happens when rampant, imperialist aggression asserts itself. And while the satire of colonialism might be blunt (pith helmets galore!), Bailey shows its own inherent destructiveness – Hindle has been brought up to see a world of order and structure and simply cannot deal with Deva Loka. And he is as caged as the Kinda – part of a structure and a colonial machine that alienates him and denies him the sense of innocence he craves. Meanwhile, the Kinda’s attempts to cage their men-folk in case they should give into their destructive impulses has given rise to other, quite subtle ways of dealing with outsiders.

The Box of Jhana is a propoganda device designed to make aliens see things the way the Kinda do; in itself, this is not such a bad thing – but their fear of the return of the Mara (which is a metaphor for the return of rampant male aggression and expansion through conflict and land-grabbing) means they (as is key in Buddhism) are trying to negate History. As in ‘The Keeper of Traken’, History is brought back to a society that has tried to do without it. But, even though the Doctor is on hand to repel the Mara that successfully makes it through to the material world, only his benign individualism seems to get the thumbs-up come the end, while the colonists and the Kinda are both criticized, although sympathetically because they are both caught in different but equally devastating traps, which make the people in their societies lose their individuality, even their dreams and desires.

When Hindle and Sanders go native, they have just exchanged one trap for another (or one box for another)...the Kinda are just better at war – using propoganda; the Box of Jhana is said to heal – to drive away darker thoughts through a shared communion with the Kinda – but doesn’t it actually condition people to accept their way of life? Is this not a highly successful cultural invasion of the mind, in place of the expensive cultural invasion of the environment by the technological might of the colonists (ideology over military might)? Essentially, this is a war that the Kinda win and, at the end, Sanders and Hindle reject their own culture. But have they actually been coerced to do so?

The thing is, at the end, the Kinda are denied History once more (something the Doctor seems to lament in a cryptic remark before he leaves in the TARDIS). They will not progress. They will not change. They are stuck until the Mara returns to start the clocks of History, no matter how devastating that might potentially be.

So, we have one society that has free rein to conquer through its technological might but has men who exercise power without judgement (Sanders misreads the situation and Hindle can't deal with it) and another that must contain its darker impulses and effectively castrate the males (by denying them the right to speak) in order to prevent self-destructive violence. However, although women are not punished for possessing knowledge and wisdom (which neatly subverts the Christian symbolism on show), it is Tegan who is the first to be “possessed” and then manipulated to pass the Mara onto (a male), Aris, to start the clocks of History (and therefore, empire, conflict, progress, creation and destruction). Interestingly, Janet Fielding’s performance plays up a sense of sexual satisfaction when she is “infected” by the Mara, suggesting that this is one more impulse that the Kinda must suppress, given its destructive and aggressive power. And, as Freudian theory is nothing without sex, the circle is squared once again!

Bailey’s script is intelligent and dialectical: while he seems to be saying that men are the destructive element that should be contained, he also shows how the social passivity that results from this makes the Kinda superstitious (they believe their souls can be captured by mirrors), sheep-like (they seem to possess little or no individuality) and simultaneously gullible and fickle (they follow Aris because he is the only male with voice; essentially defeating Panna’s ultimately flimsy control just because he gets a shot of Mara-assisted testosterone!). They suppress their desire to shape the world around them - but what's the first thing Aris does when he gains voice? Yup, he gets the Kinda to build (in this case, a replica of the TSS Machine).

At the same time of course, the Kinda are presented as more sophisticated than the colonists because of that enforced lack of aggression and their unique understanding of their environment... So, which is Bailey criticizing – the destructive capability of men such as the colonists (or, potentially, the males of the Kinda tribe), or the stasis that occurs if societies attempted to dam progress (the Kinda have no ambition of any sort)? In a sense, he’s criticizing women (certainly Panna) for ending History, but he’s also giving them wisdom...Hm, don’t come here looking for clear answers!

The Doctor says “Paradise is a bit too green for me” and one senses that he has the measure of the Kinda and their problematic society, just as much as he has the measure of the colonists and their drive to shape everything in their own image. We can assume he pities the trappings of both groups, while he himself has attained a certain kind of freedom.

So much is at work here that it is a credit to Bailey that he manages to weld it to a fairly traditional Doctor Who base-under-siege-come-monster-story. As mentioned, Freudianism is a big theme, with Tegan’s inferiority complex about her companions allowing her neurosis, or (if we slide from the Freudian to the Buddhist frame of reference), a 'demon of her mind’ to make her aggressively and sexually powerful enough to infect a male Kinda, whose re-masculation drives him to want to make war on the colonists, which will feed the Mara/psychosis in his head.

Added to this is the Buddhist concept of life as suffering underpinning the Kinda society; this tribe are continually on guard against the evil impulses that curse us all, except theirs can be made material because of their telepathy.

Bailey makes a collage of psycho-analysis and Buddhism yet more complex by creating an overlap with Christianity. But Dr Todd’s perspective of Deva Loka as Paradise is false because this is a world in which its native population are basically acting as a dam against evil impulses by suppressing their individuality; as such she fails to see the metaphorical serpent in this Garden of Eden until Aris makes that serpent real (well, sort of...). That Hindle also goes mad as a result of his Oedipus Complex regarding Sanders and his culturally-inherited inability to accept (what he sees as) disorder on Deva Loka - our Hindle's not much of a pluralist, is he? - allows Bailey to explore yet another aspect of madness without the Buddhist symbolism.  Out in the jungle we have spiritual metaphors for madness, while in the base we have a more formal, western reading.

While the production has been vilified it seems fitting that Deva Loka (a place of subtexts, memories and dreams), is this artificial world that is clearly symbolic; the various perspectives of what it represents can be projected onto it without the ‘concrete’ identity of a genuine location getting in the way. So, to the Kinda, this is a world with dark dimensions that must be held in check; to the colonists it is a chaotic jungle that must be ordered, and to Dr. Todd it is Eden – three attempts to organize the world rather than see it as essentially chaotic. But each approach has its problems and this examines the “human” need to organize against the chaos of existence – we all project a world onto the world (or a map onto reality) and here the viewer gets several alternative maps of Deva Loka to project onto the mere suggestion of an environment created in Television Centre!

I should leave the last words to the proprietor of this blog when he says that 'Kinda'...

...is the end of an extraordinary run of stories. Everything from 'Full Circle' to 'Kinda' is either a masterpiece or near-masterpiece. Even the weakest of these stories ('Four to Doomsday') is chock-full of amazing ideas and fascinating concepts, sophisticated wit and off-the-wall imagery. Sadly, from now on, the great stories will come in fits and starts. There's some amazing stuff on its way, but that run of consistently-excellent stories is now over.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Abide With Me 2.0

This is an edited and partly-rewritten version of something I posted at the old site.

In a world in which 99% of all TV is 99% predictable 99% of the time, ‘Gridlock’ seems like an impertinent rejoinder to everything else on the screen, as though the Doctor Who production team are blowing contemptuous raspberries at the people who churn out all the beige wallpaper that constitutes most modern telly. ‘Gridlock' hammers every bit of mass-produced, by-the-numbers, formulaic drama that clogs up the channels. Then, just for good measure, it laughingly refuses to play by the rules of Doctor Who, old or new.

There is no invasion and no tyranny to topple; there are no corridors and no captures (well, there’s one… sort of) and no escapes; there are no fascist guards, no rebels, no evil masterminds; there is no ticking time-bomb, no race against time, no evil plot for the Doctor to foil. Other writers might have made the story about the Doctor trying to stop everyone dying because of the BLISS patches. In ‘Gridlock’, RTD has the Doctor arrive when this is all over and almost everyone is long dead. Imagine what ‘The Ark in Space’ would’ve been like if the Doctor had arrived years after the Wirrn had already eaten almost the whole of the human race… mind you, even then there could’ve been a Doctor-and-rebels-fight-monsters tale. In ‘Gridlock’, there are no monsters in the proper sense. The cat people are both nice, the Face of Boe is without malice. Even the Macra are not allowed to take over the script or be this week’s baddies. Their fate is not even alluded to at the end. The Doctor’s priority is to clear the gridlock. The death of the Macra that feed on the exhaust fumes is a by-product of his main aim (one assumes that some of the unscrupulous entrepreneurs of the undercity are going to get rich selling lots of crab meat). Some fans have criticised what they perceive as the way the Macra were underused… but really, did we need another story about the Macra running a colony of slaves? I know the original Macra tale is sadly missing, but a story that was all about CGI Macra being naughty wouldn’t have brought it back. Besides, ‘The Macra Terror’ is a tale of its time, expressing the anxieties of the 60s generation about brainwashing, conformity and consumer culture. Putting the Macra at the centre of ‘Gridlock’ would’ve made ‘Gridlock’ a story about the Macra, yet another bad old monster stomping about.

‘Gridlock’ is almost unrelentingly surprising, even to people me who, let’s face it, watch far too much telly. Not only is ‘Gridlock’ unpredictable, it’s tricky too. It deliberately leads you down blind alleys and then presents you with a basket of kittens. Just when you think it’s going to be about urban guerrillas kidnapping Martha, the urban guerrillas turn out to be a nice guy and his pregnant girlfriend who just needed an extra passenger. Just when you think it’s going to be about a dystopian tyranny in which the nasty old government is deliberately keeping people in a jam, the government turns out to be long dead. Just when you think it’s going to be about the Doctor leading the oppressed to revolt, the oppressed tell the Doctor they’re not going to help him because they’ve got the kids in the back. Just when you think it’s going to be about Novice Hame getting her revenge, it turns out that she has found redemption. Just when you’re sure that the fast lane is reserved for cars with three passengers so that the Macra can be sure of getting enough meat per can… it turns out that the three passengers rule is just an archaic leftover of when the motorway actually worked and the Macra are just getting lucky. Just when you think it’s going to be about the Macra setting up a system and manipulating their human slaves (yawn, just like last time), it turns out that the Macra are parasitic upon a situation not of their making. The script keeps setting you up for some revelation of structured conspiracy and instead produces another layer of morbidly absurd accident… which is, in case we hadn’t paused to notice and appreciate this, the exact antithesis of almost all TV and movie sci-fi since The X Files made paranoia the dominant fantasy mode.

‘Gridlock’ not only has a narrative texture like little else seen before but also a visual texture to match. Even its antecedents ‘The End of the World’ and ‘New Earth’ look tame by comparison. Moreover, the episode’s riotous visuals are coherent in that they stem from and complement the story being told on both literal and metaphorical levels. For once, the whole thing looks multicoloured and multitextured for a reason. The reason is that this twofold.  Firstly, the episode wants to portray the epilogue to the end of civilisation, so it uses the visual style of the pastiche associated with what's called 'postmodernism'.  Secondly, the episode is an extended celebration of human variety and multiplicity, contrasted with the nightmares of a cityscape gone wrong: dilapidation, drabness, and congestion. “Change and decay in all around I see” as the lyrics of ‘Abide with Me’ put it.

The only glimpses of the outside world we see (until we’re two thirds through the episode) are of the “undercity” and the subterranean motorway. The undercity is a rotting urban wasteland which seems to service the travellers when they can briefly disembark at a layby (this is, presumably, when they pick up food, fuel and other essentials; the mood sellers in the back alley imply a whole underground economy parasitic upon the gridlock in very much the same way as the Macra). The denizens of the undercity are personified by the smock-wearing pharmacists and their black-robed customer/victim. People don’t want to live in this shithole, that’s why they’re prepared to live for years in a traffic jam instead. They’re hoping for something better, all hoping for a better life somewhere else. They’re not on the motorway for fun. They’re escapees, pilgrims hoping to make it to Sugarcandy Mountain. Their occasional foraging/shopping trips in the undercity must only strengthen their resolve to keep going and get away, to make it all the way to the better life that they half know is impossible to reach. The rest of their lives are spent inching forward in their aircars inside a tunnel of poisonous smoke... but when they think about the undercity, it must seem worth it. Escape must seem so good. Of course, like drugs and religion (two other temptations in which they dabble), their escape is fake. But, all the same, it must just feel good to be going somewhere, to be moving, to be heading away from the bad stuff, to be making plans for the kids to have a better life. Years spent in a car would be a tiresome life, but preferable to eking out an existence in the City of Last Things.

And they can always buy some moods for when they weaken. The city itself is the only advert for their wares that the pharmacists need; a familiar syndrome to anyone who knows anything about the link between drug abuse and urban poverty. The black robed girl is content to buy some complacency from an unscrupulous mini-capitalist on a street corner. Those little patches are symbolic of booze and junk and TV, of all the things we pay for to help numb the boredom and the pain instead of doing something about them. Interestingly, the pharmacists don't just sell pleasant moods, they sell ANGER too. Any emotion is preferable to numbness, emptiness and boredom. Within the jam, inside the cars, things are different. The drabness of the undercity is left behind. A whole panoply of human social existence is thrown at us. The different colours and styles and shapes, the different takes on life, the sheer strangeness that we can encounter just by dropping into somebody else’s personal space.

Also, ‘Gridlock’ revels in the sexual diversity of humanity. We have a straight couple but we also have an elderly lesbian couple (one of whom is yet another of RTD’s affectionately drawn geeks) and a woman who’s had a litter of kittens by a cat/man. To talk about a “gay agenda” seems redundant when confronted by ideas like this. It's a human agenda.  In this story, even animals aren't off-limits, as long as they’re old enough, sapient and bipedal. The lesbian couple in ‘Gridlock’ are extremely important because the portrayal is utterly free of the exploitative muck that usually clogs up representations of girl-girl relationships. They’re not young and glam, a turn-on for the lads. Nor are they miserable and stunted, a comfort to the bigots. Positive images of human sexuality in many variations.

The production design employs pastiche (or blank parody, to use Frederic Jameson's phrase) to further emphasise the cultural post-apocalypse and the paradoxical diversity of human social life. The people have only the fragmentary ruins of culture left, but - and this is crucial - they've either decided to trust the ruins or turn them to use.  Source after source is ransacked and jammed crazily into Russell T. Davies’ postulated future, a future of scrambled history and recontextualised images. Brannigan’s flying jacket, the police shield, Sally Calypso’s hairdo, the old ladies’ china tea set, the towering cityscape and the posters inside the car owned by the two Asian girls (which recall Blade Runner, another film that used pastiche to create an image-soaked, post-apocalyptic, po-mo future of bunched-up history and decaying consumerism… with techno-blimps booming “a new life awaits you in the offworld colonies…”).  This represents the condition of moderntiy in decline and fall, but also opens a field of opportunity for the refugees.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is pulled into service, providing us with the couple at the start, instantly conjuring up ideas of a society built by hardy settlers. Wood’s famous and much parodied image is a lightly-ironic but affectionate paen to the descendants of those Americans who travelled (sometimes for years, stuck in little caravans that they made into moving homes) to make a new start in the wilderness. New New York is a rebuilt and reimagined version of old New York, the city we know, that was created by waves of settlers and immigrants. Like settlers, immigrants always think that things are better and more free somewhere else, somewhere over the horizon. Let’s not forget that New Earth itself is the place where humanity made its new home after the destruction of the old. It’s a new world, built by settlers, colonists, people who (presumably) trekked through the wilderness of space and carved out a recreation of home… very much like the antecedents of the people in Wood’s famous painting.

(I used to think the guy in the suit was a reference to Magritte.  I don't read 2000AD, you see.)

The concentration in image and representation is significant.  In a way, the gridlockers are trapped in a giant representation.  Motorways lead somewhere, this keeps you circling. You’re not on a journey, just in a picture of a journey. You’re not in a city but in a pretence of a city. You’re not in a society, you’re on someone’s Friends List.

Ah, is that what ‘Gridlock’ is about? The internet? Maybe the apocalypse that decimated New New York came from computers rather than drugs, or some strange mixture of the two. Perhaps it was software patches and a computer virus. The language is ambiguous. And the gridlock seems worryingly familiar to any internet junkie. Like the motorway, the internet is a fake escape... an 'e-scape', if you like. All of us shut up in our private boxes on the “information superhighway”, all sat at control consoles, looking at screens, communicating via technology with the people on our Friends Lists and shutting ourselves away from the daylight… while beneath us, the monsters of the repressed stir in the waste (technological, cultural, material) that we create. There are, as we all know, monsters lurking within the internet, feeding off it; predators who claw for the straying sheep. Is that the significance of the black wolfwoman and her two chained female captives?

Which leads us to the monsters. The monstrousness in ‘Gridlock’ is the monstrousness of the by-product. This whole story is full of monstrous by-products. The virus is a by-product of the patches and the patches are a by-product of the rampant apocalyptic unease. The gridlock is a by-product of the virus. The toxic smoke is a by-product of the gridlock, as are the creatures that live within it. As soon as the Macra appear we assume that they created the gridlock for their own purposes… but like the society of New New York, the Macra have devolved from the highpoint of their civilization. They’re there because of the gridlock, not the other way round. The monsters (both of the literal and figurative variety) aren’t at the centre of this tale, they’re at the edges, emergent properties of the malfunctioning, dying society of New Earth. Is it any wonder that the Macra live in the filthy smoke belched out by the motor city? Carbon fumes are the ultimate by-product of our civilization, a by-product that is destroying our world.

If you view ‘Gridlock’ on its own, the Macra are inessential; make them giant slugs and call them the Zargoids and it wouldn’t matter. However, if you remember their first story they suddenly become thematically perfect for ‘Gridlock’. Even in their first appearance they were bacteria as much as crabs or insects, germs breeding in the body politic, infections in the social wound. They’re our antithesis (they breathe what poisons us) but they depend upon us, upon our industrialisation. In ‘The Macra Terror’, they lived on the fossil fuels mined by a smiling, happy, consumerist totalitarian state that played the community card and then sent its citizens to the loony bin if they uttered unorthodox thoughts. A very 60s nightmare. A nightmare that reflected a Britain of holiday camps, of commercialised rebellion, of North Sea oil, of politicians invoking the Dunkirk spirit. In ‘Gridlock’, a very 2007 nightmare, the Macra are living on the noxious fumes of a motor society that now exists to keep people alive by stranding them in a futile and absurd merry-go-round. They’re living on the lead and carbon monoxide. But, as ever, this isn’t about the future. It’s about us. It’s about the hidden killers that live in the exhaust fumes (literal and metaphorical; gaseous and psychological) of our absurd society.

However you look at them – as the dark side of the digital information age, as the toxic by-products of industrial civilization, as the harbingers of killer climate change - the Macra in ‘Gridlock’ are the monsters of the repressed, waiting to devour us if we face them.  They're the hidden things at the back of our minds that we don’t want to think about; unpalatable facts that we dismiss as “air vents”.  This, by the way, makes 'Gridlock' very gothic.  The gothic is all about being confronted by that which has been repressed. 

Thatcher said “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families”. Separated from society, staying as individuals or families, staying safe in gridlock, we can cheat the monsters and pretend they’re not there. But get three people in a car and suddenly that’s not a couple, that’s beginning to look like a society. The temptation of the fast lane is too much. And then they get us. And then we see what our world has really become, a breeding ground for monstrosities that breathe our pollution. 

The Doctor guesses that the people in the traffic jam know (on some level) that their civilization has vanished, that they are alone and going nowhere, that the places they were trying to reach are as gone as the places they left. Why else would they be so discomforted by his questions?  If they didn’t know they were trapped in a representation, they wouldn’t have to stop off to buy mood patches. They’re stuck in a quest for a better life over the horizon, a quest that they all know is doomed to failure. Their only option is to stop, but they can’t because they’re committed to the journey. In a sense, since the jam was their only possible destination, they’ve already arrived but can’t disembark. They can’t stop. They can’t go up. That just leaves down, into the fast lane where they meet the things they were trying to blot out with hope, hymns, drugs, isolation and wilful complacency. Down in the fast lane, they meet the by-products of the jam: the smoke from the exhaust-pipes and the deadly, snapping, carapaced truths that lie within it.

Is ‘Gridlock’ a religious allegory? It is possible to read New New York as a picture of some kind of crude religious cosmology. A gleaming Heaven above, Purgatory in the middle and a Hell full of monsters below. But, if you read it that way, you soon notice that 'heaven' is empty. No God to be seen. There may be a religious theme here but there's no mysticism. The Face of Boe might sacrifice himself to save the gridlocked people but he isn't then resurrected. He doesn't convince as a Christ figure. Besides, you can just as easily decide to read 'Gridlock' as a Freudian picture of the mind by substituting Heaven, Purgatory and Hell with superego, ego and id.

Some people have suggested that 'Gridlock' is a religious allegory because the people in the jam sing hymns. But that’s a bit like saying that because of the mood patches, the episode is a drugs allegory. Okay, the patches clearly denote drugs (legal mood stabilisers and anti-depressants as much illegal stuff) but they’re just one part of the picture. In a way, the religion on display is a drug too. An occasional fix of hope and camaraderie.

This story is more about alienation.  It approaches this via a depiction of faith as a social product and a social expression.  Startlingly, it fits directly into the classical Marxist view of religion.  Marx called religion “the opium of the people”, everybody knows that, but he wasn’t just sneering. He also said, before the bit about opium, that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” Religion is subjectivity constructed to express and fend off alienation. Alienation, for Marx, is the syndrome whereby people are robbed of their subjectivity in a society that takes their labour - and the products of their labour - away from them and then uses it to dominate them in the form of capital (i.e. technology that is not used for the satisfaction of real human needs, etc.)  This is absolutely implicit in 'Gridlock'.  The people of New New York are tyrannised by the effects of the technological product, communicate via technological products, live in technological products... technological products have destroyed their society, destroyed even its capacity to produce anything but waste products and/or monstrous by-products.  Capitalism has eaten itself alive... the only remnants being the petit bourgeois mood traders.  Even the upper reaches of the system, the government, has been desolated by the maximum socia/technological entropy generated by the system.  Marx once ironically described "the heaven of the state" where all must appear just and fair and right and good, so as to disguise the squalid reality of a system based on exploitation.  Well, in 'Gridlock', the council chamber is a ruined heaven, decimated by the runaway processes that it once presided over.

But Limbo is still there and people are making the best of it.  Inside their little cars, the people have created colour, texture, comfort and meaning.  Domesticity on the move, family life within a small space, prayers of communal determination, hymns to the eventual salvation, a pilgrimage to the promised land. Their pseudo-journey has taken on religion as the heart of their heartless world, a construction of meaning from meaninglessness. Escape is their real religion and their real drug. Like both religion and drugs, their escape is an illusion. But their lives are not illusions, their children and relationships and friendships are real. Domesticity may be an escape, and a compromised one, but it also has value in itself. E. M. Forster wrote novels about this sort of theme… though, admittedly, none of them had giant crabs in them.

No, ‘Gridlock’ isn’t Doctor Who’s answer to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress... but it does show people trying to use religious ideas as a guide and map, just as in Bunyan.  But crucially, in ‘Gridlock’, the pilgrims don’t make any progress, at least not on the pilgrimage road. They have mistaken the map for the territory. 

‘Gridlock’ is a humanist allegory because human social life, in its successes and failures, is depicted as the source of all meaning. ‘Gridlock’ features hymns as human social defences against despair, not messages to a mystical God. The story isn’t starry-eyed about people. It depicts them as sometimes unscrupulous, predatory, complacent, self-deluding and lonely… yet what hardy and stubborn determination they have to find colour, life and meaning in their relationships and in their own selves. Even locked away from each other in little boxes, people refuse to be squashed and isolated entirely. Even when trapped inside an absurd system, people find ways to make sense out of senselessness.

There is a reason that this episode features hymns so prominently, desides the depiction of alienation and solace. What are hymns but attempts to unite a congregation in communal meaning. And ‘Abide with me’ is well chosen. To “abide” means to live, dwell, endure. Live with me. It isn’t a hymn of praise but rather a plea for God’s companionship. In this context, ‘Abide with Me’ signifies not only the human instinct to construct meaning, but also our desire to live in community and communality, to dwell together, to comfort and be comforted. Hymns might be expressions of delusion, alienation, protest... but they’re also an expression of togetherness. ‘Gridlock’ itself is an agnostic hymn to the social, to the manifold follies and possibilities of human communal existence.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that perhaps Marx was wrong about revolutions being the locomotive of history.  Perhaps revolutions are what happens when the passengers on the train pull the emergency cord in order to stop the train careening towards a disaster.  He saw the system as rushing onwards to catastrophe.  To escape the catastrophe, you have to stop the onward rush.  Well, the people in 'Gridlock' didn't manage to pull the cord in time (neither are we managing this, so far) but they did manage to escape the crash.  The next thing for them to do is to break out of their limbo, to break out of the continuum in which they are stuck (to use another of Benjamin's favourite metaphors).  They do this, with a little help from the Doctor.

This is, of course, the Doctor’s journey too. The Doctor is stuck in gridlock, running away from a dead home, running on escape and bliss and forgetfulness, travelling in absurd circles inside a box, always moving but never getting anywhere permanent. Now that Rose has gone he’s reverted back to the lonely man he was when we met him again in ‘Rose’. He doesn’t want to talk to Martha, to tell her the truth, to properly engage with her as a person, to take her on more than one trip, to do anything more than just show off to her. And there’s no wonder he finds New Earth so attractive. It’s a recreation of a destroyed world, recreated by the survivors. He’d like something like that for himself. He’s attracted to the idea of surviving and rebuilding, as anybody from a destroyed home and a dead race would be. It’s very apt that as he rescues the gridlocked people from their absurd and accidental apocalypse, as he makes social life possible for them again, the Face of Boe finally tells him that he is not alone.

After all, isn’t that what ‘Gridlock’ tells all of us? That we are not alone.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sound and Fury

The comedian Ed Byrne says that the only ironic thing about the Alanis Morrisette song ‘Ironic’ is that it contains no irony. Well, one of the many ironic things about ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is that it contains no code, and little that meaningfully refers to Shakespeare… and yet its title is rather apt. Really, the episode might just as well have been called ‘Billy Shakespeare and the Goblet of Fire’, yet the very arbitrariness of the title, and the fact that it tries to make the audience smile at a modern cultural reference, makes the title perversely appropriate for the story… because the story itself throws lots of modern cultural references at us but fails to engage with Shakespeare as a man or an artist.


When it was shown, 'The Shakespeare Code' was probably the most visually spectacular episode of Doctor Who yet made. It still looks absolutely marvellous. But there is a complex of ironies here.

There's always been a kind of affinity between Shakespeare (as a category of play) and Doctor Who. Like Shakespeare, Who is a sort of genre of its own, which comprises many different types of story, some of which are of dubious canonicity and some of which are hard to categorise. Doctor Who is highly theatrical. Doctor Who, like Shakespeare productions, can be very camp. Doctor Who often presents highly implausible plot developments. People who criticise RTD for sloppy endings should check out Cymbeline in which the god Jupiter turns up (in a real deus ex machina!) to sort out the plot. Doctor Who, like Shakespeare, tends to buy into the 'King list' theory of history. Many of the early historicals are clearly indebted to Shakespeare, or to various writers’ idea of him. And Doctor Who, like Shakespeare, often presents us with fictional social worlds (shown in microcosm) in order to explore political themes. Both Shakespeare and Doctor Who create little worlds representing great societies which exist ‘offstage’, as it were.

Moreover, Doctor Who grew in a BBC culture that considered TV drama to be like 'televised theatre'. Who always strained against this... what with Sydney and Verity both being grounded in commercial telly... but most of the classic series looks much more like a televised play, with occasional inserts filmed on location... highly reminiscent, in fact, of the early seasons of the BBC Shakespeare series.

In many ways, Doctor Who's development over the years is a perfect example of the way that TV drama has gradually shifted away from this 'televised theatre' tradition, towards the prevalent style now, which is to make TV dramas look as much as possible like little films. 'The Shakespeare Code' may be the ultimate example of this trend in fruition... yet the irony is that it looks cinematic mostly because of its huge, impressive central set... which isn't a film set at all but an actual theatre! What's more, this theatre was built as a recreation of a place where Shakespeare and his company put on his intensely political plays, plays that built fictional worlds in order to examine politcal ideas and themes, plays that confronted their audience with unusually strong depictions of women, plays that had no choice but to summon up huge armies and black nights using only words, there being little in the way of special effects available... though the theatre of the English Renaissance certainly did attempt spectacle (with opulent costumery being a particular draw).  And, I must admit, the conceit of the audience applauding after the defeat of the Carrionites, as though they've just witnessed a special effects triumph, is genuinely funny.

'The Shakespeare Code', however, is set in a time and place that begs to be explored on a political and social level (as Shakespeare did), yet is apolitical and uninterested in worldbuilding. It's also decidely dodgy in its depiction of women. It's entirely reliant on its ability to dazzle us with special effects, entirely repudiating overt theatricality despite being set in (and filmed in) a theatre, and purporting to depict the life of a great playwright.

It actually starts trying to think about theatricality, via the relationship between reality and language. In fact, the relationship between reality and language is at the very heart of the story. And yet, language is actually devalued by the haphazard and garbled way the plot ends up depicting its putative power.

This is a serious set of problems. The last is all the more ironic, given that the story centres upon the person of Shakespeare, who used language to create (and tear apart) alternate 'realities' on stage.


The relationship of language to reality in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is soon revealed to be nothing more than a cheaty disguised magic. It looks, sounds and behaves exactly like magic (employing, as required, every witchcraft cliché in the book) but the Doctor is allowed to scoff at the idea that it actually is magic. We are told that it’s actually science of a different type… but the lines about Carrionites basing their science on words rather than numbers give the game away. You see, numbers are words. “3” is no less a word than “three”. They are different ways of signifying the same concept, just as are “horse” and “cheval”. Both numbers and words are the same thing: audible and textural symbols, pictures of reality.

‘Logopolis’, which frankly embraces scientists as monks/wizards, is based on this concept. ‘Logopolis’ is about maths? Why is it called “City of Words” then? For a brief, exhilarating moment, it looks like ‘The Shakespeare Code’ might mine the same seam... despite my having doubts about Bidmead being high on Roberts' hero list.  Sadly, it lasts for a couple of lines and then evaporates. Even if we grant that words and numbers are, on some fundamental level, different... and even if we grant that science can be based on one or the other... and even if we grant that Carrionites can use words to directly change reality (the Logopolitans do it, so we’ll let Roberts have that one)... then we are still left with the problem of why Carrionites use bad poetry as their method of communication and attack.

Let’s face it, the Carrionite couplets are pretty awful.  Are they really meant to represent transcendental, dimension-puncturing, alien supertechnology? If their culture really is based on language this banal, then we must hope they never return and stumble into Clinton Cards. They’d probably be able to use the doggerel inside the Mother’s Day cards as some sort of interdimensional superweapon. God only knows what they could do with Alanis Morrisette lyrics.

The Doctor comes out with something about the words of a play promoting emotions in an audience (nothing to do with actors, musicians or anybody else involved in staging theatre then) and supposedly this show us how words can alter reality. This is part of the episode’s underlying theme of art being all about prompting and manipulating the emotions rather than challenging the aesthetic sense, the political conscience or the intellect. This is very much in keeping with the mawkish tendencies of modern Who and it is a sentiment that Shakespeare, for all his populism, would probably have rejected. But, to return to the point, how do we get from feeling sad because Cordelia is dead to ripping open inter-dimensional portals? And why, if emotion is part of the mix, is the necessary ‘code’ such gibberish, utterly unlikely to move anybody in the audience to do anything but go “huh?” (I can't help suspecting that this is what Roberts thinks Shakespeare sounds like to a modern TV audience.) 

After all the stuff about words rather than numbers being capable of summoning Carrionites, the speech that will supposedly enable the Carrionites to manifest themselves contains a whole string of numbers! The story ought to be able to explain this to us but it can’t. It doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Apparently, the emotional impact of words is enough to punch holes in reality. But it works with numbers too. It works when actors speak emotionless words without understanding them. It even half-works when the actors are rehearsing to an empty theatre… so is it not about emotions but just about words and polygons? In which case, why bother having the spell performed in front of an audience? Where exactly does the power of the words come from if it isn’t from their status as words, their beauty, meaning, performance or reception? What else is there?

It isn’t just that the concepts underlying ‘The Shakespeare Code’ are bollocks. Zigma energy is bollocks too but nobody minds. The problem with the bollocks in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is that it’s badly thought-out, self-contradictory, lazy, uninterested bollocks.  Maybe (I’m casting around in desperation now) the power of the words comes from the author? The Carrionites do seem to need Shakespeare… But why?  Ah yes... because he’s a GENIUS.


The Shakespeare presented to us is not a person in any real sense. He’s a GENIUS. There is no sense of him having to struggle for his words or work at his writing. He seems superhuman; he sees through the psychic paper and makes leaps of intuitive understanding simply because he’s Shakespeare and Shakespeare was, to use Martha’s word, “clever”. The Doctor, in his drooling hero-worship, implies that Shakespeare was born a GENIUS (presumably it’s genetic... which is biological determinism... which is reactionary bullshit). Shakespeare himself is seen to endorse this idea. Never mind that the idea of ‘genius’, particularly of the artistic kind, is a very modern idea that stems largely from the Romantic movement.

No room is made for the fact that Shakespeare collaborated with others, probably often adapted and rewrote others’ work, learned as he went along and developed his style from early talent into its later greatness. The Doctor calls him “the most human human” (whatever the blithering fuck that might mean), yet Shakespeare is robbed of his humanity. The story makes his words the result of magical inspiration, not talent or toil… something which implies a massive lack of respect for his work.

Beyond the crashingly anachronistic Russell Brandesque laddishness, he is presented as a sort of übermensch; a man inherently more insightful than anyone else around him simply by virtue of his status as icon... or, to use a different word that seems to get more to the heart of the problem, a celebrity. By making him into a superman, they make him less than human. And this is the fundamental problem with the whole notion of the "celebrity historical", going right back to its half-hearted birth in 'The Mark of the Rani' (which itself stupidly and inaccurately reduces the industrial revolution to the work of a few GENIUSES): the 'celebrity' is gawped at and worshipped by the story as though the programme makers are paparazzi stalking them for Heat Magazine.

The personality of the real, human Shakespeare can only guessed at. He seems to have been ambitious, well educated, romantic, fond of his children... perhaps less fond of his wife, etc. There's a whole publishing industry devoted to worthless speculation about his personality. More pertinently, he may have been a secret Catholic sympathiser. He also seems to have been liked by his colleagues and contemporaries. But none of that tells us what he was like. We don’t really know if he was a prudish man or a frequenter of brothels, if he was teetotal or a boozer, if he was modest or a braggart, if he was mild or fond of the odd pub brawl (there does seem to have been a summons for GBH).

The trouble with ‘The Shakespeare Code’ isn’t that it misrepresents Shakespeare (we’d need a substantial, accurate picture to distort and we haven’t got one) but that it doesn’t really attempt to represent him at all. We don’t even get a proper guess at what Shakespeare may have been like. We get a GENIUS. We also get, in outline, a caricature of a figure very much of our times: the celeb artiste. You can easily imagine the character in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ appearing on chat shows or doing I’m a Playwright, Get me Out of Here! if his career went on the skids. Even this, in itself, wouldn’t be so bad if what we got was a witty satire of such a character… but we hardly get a character at all.

Shakespeare, in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, isn’t a human being. He’s a cultural icon familiarised as a modern media archetype. They don’t want to present him as the bald, middle-aged, baggy-eyed man of the famous picture (not sexy enough)… yet he has to be given his ruff at the end, just to make him into the icon we recognise, to make him visually complete. It’s a very sterile approach and a very safe one. Doctor Who ought to be about confronting audiences with things they haven’t seen before, things that are uncanny and unfamiliar. But ‘The Shakespeare Code’ presents us with a jazzed-up English Heritage icon rather than a flesh-and-blood man. The episode obviously thinks its being irreverent by showing Shakespeare as a star who joshingly insults his audiences but, while this might jar with some popular preconceptions about the man, the behaviour itself is so familiar from our own time that it still fails to surprise.

Sadly, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ shrinks from attempting to give Shakespeare any semblance of a genuine 16th Century psychology or to even refer to the complexities in his character. He was a loyal Elizabethan but also, possibly, a recusant Catholic who had seen members of his mother’s family arrested, tortured and executed as traitors. He was both an artist and a commercially minded theatrical entrepreneur (he probably wouldn't have comprehended the opposition that we are inclined to see here). He spent most of his time away from home and family, living alone in London. He might have been bisexual (though it’s simplistic and facile to cast Elizabethan sexual attitudes in modern terms) if we tendentiously take the Sonnets to be autobiographical. This last is referred to, but only in a throwaway joke. At least, in this instance, it’s rather a good joke. At least some of his poems, brilliantly wrought works of high beauty and intensely dark emotion, were nevertheless written for rich patrons who could cough up the cash.  They were not improvised as chat-up lines. The death of his son Hamnet is dutifully ticked off the List of Things to Mention and Shakespeare dutifully looks a bit melancholy… yet there is no real attempt to find out what this means to him (beyond the casual bit when he trots out the obligatory “to be or not to be” in completely the wrong context).

The death of Hamnet is deemed to be of significance by modern Doctor Who because it is directly to do with emotion, because it’s likely to effect the audience on a maudlin emotional level. (Later it is revealed that Shakespeare’s grief is itself enough to open some sort of gateway into our world for the Carrionites, as though Shakespeare’s superhuman status means that his emotions effect cosmic reality. More bardolatry, more elitism, more confusion of the concepts.)

Sadly, many far more interesting facets of Shakespeare’s character and personal history are deemed unworthy of attention because they refer to the political and social context of his life. There is, for example, his possible association with the Catholic underground and his friendship with Kit Marlowe (rival playwright and part-time government spy).

I suppose it could have been worse. The episode might, for instance, have tried to suggest that Martha actually was Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. We might have had scenes where Anne Hathaway got into a cat-fight with Martha. I can easily imagine the current production team sniggering over a scene in which Mrs Shakespeare starts wrestling Martha in the street shouting “Get away from my man, bitch!” while a crowd of Londoners gather round and cheer like a Jeremy Kyle audience.

After all that, it’s funny how the Carrionites seem not to actually need Shakespeare to write the words himself! They just need him to take dictation while going cross-eyed under the influence of a voodoo puppet… well, you could get Jeffrey Archer to do that! Or even Dan Brown. The words that form the ‘code’ are not Shakespeare’s words but Lilith’s; Shakespeare just happened to be holding the quill… so the strength of his superhuman talent for words is irrelevant, as are his dimension-puncturing emotions. He ends up being Lillith’s secretary… which, in case this had slipped us by, makes him utterly irrelevant to the workings of the plot.

They really might just as well have had the whole story set in the present day with the Carrionites manipulating Rowling into putting their code into the next Harry Potter book and summoning their race onto the film set when Daniel Ratcliffe says the line. Rowling’s words are, apparently, able to seal dimensional rifts just as well as Shakespeare’s handwriting can open them. Is Rowling a GENIUS too? A genetic freak with magical abilities and a superhuman intuition like Roberts’ version of William Shakespeare? Well, according to ‘The Shakespeare Code’, artistic worth derives not from technical merit but solely from the ability to emotionally stimulate a mass audience. Maybe that makes Catherine Cookson a candidate for artistic demi-godhood too. Along with Liberace, James Last and Hitler. Remember, it isn’t the quality of the words that matters, it’s how they effect the emotions. Some of those Nuremburg speeches really ought to be required reading in schools. Okay, they may be incoherent, bombastic, specious, fatuous, banal and filled with ideas of incomparable evil… but they sure made the audience quiver!

After all, this is the same writer who will, in the following season, assert that Agatha Christie was a GENIUS because she sold lots of books.  Well, I'm sorry, but Deepak Chopra sells lots of books.  Do we really want to go there?


There are also, sadly, big problems in the way the episode presents Shakespeare’s world. The 1599 that we visit in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, and the Shakespeare who lives in it, are both constructed from images and clichés without social or political context. They are constructed, for the most part, from old episodes of Blackadder (which used the three 'witches' and borrowed the speech patterns of feigned madness from King Lear to much better effect than ‘The Shakespeare Code’ managed). I’m not saying that the story should have centred upon the political ructions and religious controversies of the age (the days when stories like that are considered capable of getting healthy viewing figures have long passed) but still, setting a story in Shakespeare’s day and not even mentioning the Reformation is a bit like basing a story on a meeting between the Doctor and George Orwell without once mentioning totalitarianism. Which would be pretty fucking dumb, frankly.

In view of all this, it almost seems redundant to mention factual howlers. I’m not, generally, the sort of person who nitpicks over the potatoes in ‘The Time Warrior’, but I may as well mention that the Globe was only polygonal because truly circular buildings were impossible to construct using Tudor building methods and materials. Not only is there no mystery to us, there would have been no mystery to people at the time. Asked “why fourteen sides?”, Shakespeare would have known the answer exactly: because that’s how you build something that looks circular. And Love’s Labours Won is known to have been published, rather than simply disappearing immediately after the first performance. And Love's Labours Lost almost certainly wouldn't have played at the Globe when it was new, earning thunderous applause from the groundlings; it appears to have been written as a bit of showoffish look-at-how-erudite-I-am material for an elite audience. It was used at the Globe, much later, but shows no signs of having been a hit. Even today it is considered a difficult, slippery, highly-cerebral, verbally inaccessible play.

Of course, Gareth Roberts makes it very clear that he really isn’t interested in Tudor London. What a fascinating setting he thumbs his nose at! A place full of bubbling religious and ideological conflict, a proto-police state swarming with informers and spies and torturers, an outwardly pious Babylon, the centre of the English renaissance, a hub of artists and thinkers, a pit of squalor lorded over by the rich. None of this gets a look in. Roberts is too busy telling us how the world of the Elizabethans was exactly like ours only in funny clothes. This wouldn’t matter so much if what we got worked as a 3D world, a place we can believe in. The darkly comic world of I, Claudius has more to do with the manner and morals of bourgeois 20th century England than the real ancient Rome, but we accept it because the world presented to us seems to have depth, to have nooks and crannies, to have side streets and byways, to have things going on around the corners. But Roberts’ 1599 London is made of clichés and nothing more: Blackadder’s hand-me-downs, at best.

To return to the theme of irony… it really is very sad to see the Doctor finally meeting Shakespeare while Doctor Who refuses to engage with his world in a way that would have recalled some of its greatest past successes, the historicals which borrowed elements of Shakespeare’s method to such fine effect. It isn’t just that ‘The Shakespeare Code’ misrepresents Tudor London. ‘The Time Warrior’ and ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ don’t bother trying to accurately depict their settings either, but they have satire and knowing pastiche instead... indeed, some of the great pseudo-historicals of the past base their success on a witty awareness of the impossibility of accurately depicting history. ‘The Shakespeare Code’ tries to replace an earnest depiction of its setting with a list of stock jokes.


For a story that revolves around a man who revolutionised the way characterisation was conceived of and executed in drama and literature, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is very short of proper characterisation of any kind. We have the Master of the Revels who has no existence beyond his bluster, the actors who don’t exist beyond their vain preciousness (they are actors after all... what do you want, something other than cliche?), the lady who runs the boarding house who is just a buxom wench and nothing more, the madman, the nasty attendant at Bedlam, the tetchy Queen Elizabeth… cardboard cut-outs all. Even Martha devolves into a sort of companion-shaped gap in the picture, asking dumb questions and fixating upon the Doctor at the expense of all else.

It’s telling that the scene which tries hardest to explore genuine characterisation is the Doctor and Martha’s bed scene. The message is clear: this week’s setting is a backdrop for Martha’s unrequited lust and the Doctor’s pining for Rose.

Unforgivably, Roberts can’t even be bothered to give the villains a proper motivation. Even the Krillitanes had more motivation than the Carrionites. They want to come to Earth and destroy it. Why? Because they’re witches and witches are nasty. They kill that chap at the start? Why? Because the episode needs a pre-title sequence. They don’t have any kind of mindset beyond cackling. They do Bad Things because they are Bad. Roberts can’t be arsed to do better than this. He wants to get back to the jokes, the cultural references, the sexual innuendo and the effects sequences before the audience (as he appears to percieve it) gets bored. Meanwhile, the villains can be scared off by having their own names shouted at them (which must make social life a tad difficult). Of course, this trick only works once. After all, the Obligatory Big Confrontation between Our Hero and this week’s Lead Bad Person has to go on a bit longer than the altercation with Savouryfinger or whatever her name was. If all David Tennant had to do was shout “Lilith!” then she wouldn’t have time to trot out the obligatory bit of taunting about how he’s all alone and misses Rose.


There is also the question of the gender politics. I can't help notice an extremely dodgy attitude to women submerged in this story.  (I'm not saying, by the way, that Gareth Roberts is a womanhater or anything like that... just that his use of stereotypical tropes about witches allows some nasty undercurrents to slink in unnoticed.)

We have a sisterhood, with one member called Lilith... which is kind of interesting, given the title of the story. One of the things that Dan Brown gibbers on about in The Da Vinci Code is the Catholic Church suppressing the "sacred feminine", which Brown fatuously connects to all sorts of nonsense about pagan goddesses, inaccurate accounts of Mary Magdalene and the myth of the millions of witch-burnings. There is, of course, a grain of truth hidden somewhere in this morass of ordure: organised religion has been systematically guilty of oppressing women in multifarious ways; most organised religions are heavily patriarchal in their internal structure, ideology and their social effect (we could argue about why this is but it would take us way outside the scope of this essay). Of course, Brown's book is itself highly sexist, not least in its 'worship' of the feminine as a receptacle for an essentially patriarchal conception of intellectual, spiritual and sexual power. The trouble is that 'The Shakespeare Code' manages to be even more reactionary than Dan Brown... because it presents us with evil in the form of a female organisation, made up of hideous old witches, who turn out to be exactly that: hideous old witches. They look evil because they have the temerity to be female while also being old (i.e. experienced, wise, sexually unalluring, unable to procreate)... and rather than buck this trope of patriarchal culture, they conform to it. They look evil... and they are evil.

The use of the name Lilith is telling. Lilith is a figure from Jewish mythology. She was, so to speak, Adam's first wife, created at the same time as him, before God plucked the altogether more subservient Eve from his rib as a replacement. Lilith leaves Adam, refusing to obey him, and has an affair with an angel. She has been a recurrent and reinvented figure in various traditions, almost always standing for female independence, sorority and disobedience... conceptualised usually as a demonic or semi-demonic being, or at least highly sinister. In the Western tradition she is constructed almost as a personification of the self-involved romantic/Romantic doom foisted upon poor victim men by heartless, remote females (as in the Pre-Raphaelites, for example). She has a tendency to hate children and to spend ages brushing her long hair and gazing lovingly at herself in a mirror. It's apparent from this short summary what she embodies: the male's terror of the woman who does not revere him, who does not submit to his rule, who does not wish to be a seedbed for his potency, who refuses/fears the role of mother, who does not look at him with awe but instead considers herself and the rest of her sex with esteem (such shocking selfishness!). In short, she's the opposite of the hopelessly lovestruck Martha, or the accommodating buxom serving wench who gazes adoringly at the GENIUS writer. She's the woman as enemy.

Not only does Roberts' script do precisely nothing to challenge this underlying notion, it actively embraces it. It makes men into the helpless puppets (literally) of a gang of ball-busters. It shows us men driven mad by female power. It shows Western civilisation (the Globe theatre is as good a symbol as any for this notion) menaced by a cloud of cackling women. It even has the Doctor chased away at the end by Queen Elizabeth I, the symbol par excellence of remote, autocratic, virginal, non-sexually compliant, gender role-defying, self-determining female power.

It's all the more ironic, given that the story revolves around Love's Labours Lost... a play which is about the various ways in which women can be independent, can challenge male self-esteem even within patriarchy, can construct their own destinies, can judge men on their terms, can be the intellectual and verbal equals of men, can even choose to delay their marriages for reasons of their own... all without also being evil, or even unlikeable!

Even the Weird Sisters in Macbeth (and they are "weird sisters", not witches) are not straightforward depictions of female evil.  They are highly complex representations and ambivalent figures (and looking at them in detail is well outside my scope here) but they tempt Macbeth into doing things he has already considered, and he makes their predictions come true himself by deciding to construe their words in a way that conforms with his own conflicted desires.  They are not simply cackling hag demons.

I'm not claiming, as some do, that Shakespeare was a proto-feminist. Indeed, although he pays far more detailed and sympathetic attention to female psychology, the female social situation and female inner life than any other dramatist of his time, he still writes embedded within the thoughtworld of a deeply patriarchal society... and it shows. However, the point here is that a writer in 2007 should surely be able to do better, on this subject, than one writing in 1599... not because we're so much more advanced and moral, but because feminism and other types of liberating politics have been highly visible and influential for decades.


In an article for DWM, Roberts once mocked the idea that Doctor Who should carry political messages. He ridiculed the notion that anything worthwhile could come of the green themes in ‘The Green Death’. Everybody knows pollution is wrong and they don’t need Doctor Who to tell them. His Big Finish audio ‘Bang-Bang-a-Boom!’, co-written with Clayton Hickman, seems designed to heap scorn upon those hateful episodes from the Trek franchise which indulge in asinine liberal/bourgeois philosophising about Arabs and Israelis… which is fine with me, except that the play seems to imply that all such attempts to use science-fiction as a space for political metaphors is inherently fatuous. Certainly, Roberts has disdained the worldbuilding/microcosm/metaphor approach that I mentioned above, at least in his televised episodes... though, in fairness, that may be because he hasn't been asked to do an alien planet/future story yet.

But, all in all, Roberts appears to have rejected the idea that Doctor Who, or sci-fi generally, can or should try to Say Something political. He even takes a moment in 'The Shaksepeare Code' to imply that global warming is a myth that only ranting, doommongering, soapbox-loonies go on about. Roberts himself may not believe this, but people do... which itself demonstrates the point (which he has questioned) of creating art which, say, attempts an ecological polemic.  He's got a point about 'The Green Death' (and Star Trek), but there's no reason why all such attempts must collapse into patronising didacticism.

This is all the sadder since Roberts' sophomore New Adventures novel, Tragedy Day, was a bravura exercise in caustically satirical social-sci-fi worldbuilding.

There's yet another irony here. 'Freedonia' is mentioned in 'The Shakespeare Code'. Freedonia is of course the quasi-Ruritanian country in the Marx Brothers' classic comedy film Duck Soup... the only one of their films to be set in an explicitly fictional country, a microcosmic/metaphorical social world of the Shakespearean kind. Duck Soup engages in the kind of speculative and/or satirical discursive worldbuilding that Doctor Who (and 'soft' sci-fi generally) inherited and developed from its origins in the humanist literature of the Renaissance, from Spenser's Fairie Queene, Golding's translation of Ovid and Shakespeare's confabulated Illyria, Bohemia, Elsinore and Venice. Duck Soup may not be Orwell, but it uses a fictional world as a space in which to poke fun (very, very broadly) at things like government, taxation, pageantry, polite 'society', diplomacy, espionage, war, etc. In this way, Duck Soup is more like classic Doctor Who (or Shakespeare) than 'The Shaksepeare Code'.

Anyway, here I take my bow and leave a stage bereft of flowers... the scattered, perfunctory, embarassed, insincere applause ringing in my ears.

[Exits pursued by a Carrionite.]

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Bombs for Peace (Again)

So, Western imperialist powers (especially the US and UK) spend years trying to undermine, attack and destabilise Gaddafi... presumably because his regime engaged in some nationalisation and brought some economic independence, not to mention his support for various "anti-imperialist" groups. The West indulges in occasional homicidal bombing raids that achieve nothing but the slaughter of innocents (including Gaddafi's own baby daughter). 

(Don't get me wrong, by the way - I'm no fan of the evil old bastard... though, if we're doing body counts, he's probably less blood stained than most leaders of the "free world".) 

Then Gaddafi starts making grovelling offers to deactivate his own WMD programme... which the Western powers repeatedly ignore until they can paint it as a victory for the Bush/Blair moral crusade... 

As part of his new chumminess with Blair & Co., Gaddafi opens Libya up to foreign banks, foreign corporations and the IMF. As per the usual script, along comes structural adjustment, i.e. privatisation, austerity, etc. Gaddafi is announced as a reformed character now that his regime is becoming integrated into neoliberal globalisation. 

Then the Middle East ignites. The people of Tunisia and Egypt rise up and topple their dictators. The Libyans follow suit and launch a revolution that staggers in its bravery and bloody costliness. But, of course, it's only a more dramatic and intense demonstration of the cruelty and brutality of the regime that the West now considers an ally. 

So what is the response of the political/ideological system that has been snuggling up to Gaddafi for several years? Why, use the Libyan people's revolution as an excuse to dig up the rotting corpse of "humanitarian intervention" (a corpse that I hoped these new revolutions might bury forever) as a way of crowbarring US imperial influence into a process that needs it like mice need cats. 

So... we bomb the Libyan people when we don't like Gaddafi (because he's an evil terrorist, etc.), sell him weapons when we like him again (because he's gonna let the IMF in), and then start talking about bombing the Libyan people (again) when they rise up to topple Gaddafi after we've cuddled him to our bosoms.

Irony overload. And bloody typical. And absolutely fucking outrageous.