Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Balanced and Objective

The BBC doing what it does best: "In Iran's iconography of villainy, Britain holds a special place. The UK is seen as the mastermind behind the overthrow of previous Iranian governments. Conservative hardliners believe Britain has in its blood the desire to decide who rules Iran."  Textbook stuff from James Reynolds "BBC Iran correspondent".

Make it all a matter of opinion: "is seen as".  Put it down to someone at the so-called 'extreme': "hardliners".  Pathologise the unacceptable view, make it sound like childish paranoia, sneer at it under your hand: "Iran's iconography of villainy".

Fact is, if people in Iran feel that way about us, they are justified.  The British government, lead by Winston Churchill, were the original movers in the plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mossadegh, because he wanted to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which funnelled oil profits out of Iran to Britain (in other words, he had the temerity to think that Iranians should benefit from Iranian resources).  Churchill put up the money.  The CIA took over the plot.  They hired mobsters and Nazi collaborators in Iran.  CIA agents started riots.  They started a coup which lead to the ascension of the Shah's dictatorship and the reign of the SAVAK secret police, described by Amnesty as the worst human rights violators in the world.  Murder, terror, torture, tyranny.  But Western oil companies kept their revenue, so that's okay (though the Americans elbowed Anglo-Persian - now BP - out somewhat in favour of an international consortium in which they had hegemony).

Now we and the Americans are once again gearing up to attack this country that we have already harmed so badly.  For the hegemony of the American empire and the desperate, clawing need of the tottering neoliberal system.  I don't know what shenanigans have lead to our closure of the British Embassy in Tehran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from the UK... but you can be sure it's got less to do with outrage at Iranian protestors and more to do with imperialist scheming.

And why?  Because Iran has a nuke program?  Well, maybe.  But why, precisely, are we allowed to have nukes, the Americans are allowed to have nukes (they're the only people who've ever used them on another nation, remember) and Israel (a brutal, racist, apartheid state) is allowed to have nukes... but we mustn't let barbarians like Iran have them... because they'd impinge on Western imperial domination.  Why are we the ones who can be trusted?  Because we're the good guys.  We - the ones who nuked Hiroshima, organised that coup I was just talking about and have bankrolled the horrific treatment of the Palestinians - we are the civilised people.  This is the objective and balanced assumption underlying the BBC's coverage.

Well, truth is not balanced or objective.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Skulltopus 2: Bad Night at Fang Rock

Further to this post, in which I sketched out the ideas of the author China Miéville concerning the relationship between the tentacular and the Weird, and the superpositioning of the Weird and the hauntological in monsterology (please read that before you read anything below), here's my first attempt to look at Doctor Who through that lens.

'Horror of Fang Rock' (1977) seems like an obvious first port of call.  Set just before the First World War (in other words, in the years of the rise of the semiotic octopus, just before the explosion of the Weird), the Rutan is a tentacular monster, though the tentacles are rarely seen and, on the whole, the creature seems more like a jellyfish (even down to its "affinity with electricity").

It seems to be a manifestation of the nebulous electrified military modernity that the character Reuben so resents and fears.  It seems permeated with technology through its affinity with electricity.  It uses the generator, speaks of its ability to shape-shift as a "technique" and leaves bits of its own alien tech all over the place, including a "signal modulator" that chimes thematically with all the concentration on the lighthouse's wireless telegraph.  It also espouses an ideology of empire and militarism, and uses an arrogant tone of snobbery with regards to the Sontarans, which is entirely fitting with the story's intense focus on class.

(So, there's an obvious connection here which I've made before.  'Fang Rock' is set in the early 20th century and features a tentacular monster which seems to carry metaphorical weight to do with imperialism, technology, militarism, global conquest... just the kinds of things that tentacles were being used to signify in the early 20th century political propaganda posters mentioned by Miéville and in my first Skulltopus post.  Obviously, this connection is complicated by the fact that the story I'm talking about was written, made and broadcast in 1977, not 1907 or 1917... but the connection is tempting all the same, as a possible example of semiotic drift, of the cultural bric-a-brac of one age hitching a ride into another via that previous age's representation as a period.)

The story, as a whole, seems more sympathetic to the working class characters than the 'upper class' ones. However, the various strands of the drama which explicitly deal with class only arrive at an open and easily comprehensible liberal critique of snobbery, privilege and inequality, albeit a barbed one.  The nature of the Rutan threatens to sharpen the critique, though it is ultimately far too contradictory a figure to function as a straightforward metaphor, of either a reactionary or radical nature.  The Rutan personifies the oncoming dangers of the twentieth century in a form that associates itself with militarism, military technology, class and imperialism.  However, beyond this core of metaphorical specificity, there is a difficulty in pinning down the Rutan.

It cannot be said to metaphorically embody British imperialism, specifically.  True, it appears in a story in which British imperialism is referenced... but then so is the imperialism of other nations, albeit via the xenophobia of Reuben, who mentions various nationalities engaged in imperialism at this point, saying that none of them can be trusted.  Moreover, the Rutan attacks an island populated entirely by British people.  This is not a difficult semiotic point to parse.  Nor can the Rutan be easily and clearly identified as representing ruling class imperialism.  The story as a whole is intensely concerned with the dynamics of social position, yet the Rutan fails - or refuses - to resolve itself into a part of any clear polemical strategy.

The destruction the Rutan wreaks is general.  It kills all ages, sexes and classes.  It kills the self-consciously 'honourable' officer-and-gentleman who made his name enforcing empire in India.  It kills the titled nouveau riche and his secretary/mistress.  It kills the lighthouse keepers, old and young, and the sailor.  If it stands for the lethal destructiveness of the oncoming era of technology and imperialism... i.e. the 'Great War' that is, to the people in the lighthouse, only a few years away... then it depicts the dangers as generally applicable, regardless of social position.  This is a very deliberate tactic of the text.  There is no other real reason for all the guest characters to die...

...unless it's to imply that Fang Rock will become the setting of a Marie Celeste-style legend.  The last episode ends with the Doctor quoting Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's The Ballad of Flannen Isle, a poem about an actual mystery concerning the unexplained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900... which suggests that the story was structured in such a way as to make such a quote appropriate.  This is interesting because it suggests the incomprehensibility of a puzzle, of an attempt to reconstruct a 'crime scene' that will defy accurate reconstruction, of subsequent mythic retellings of the weird goings-on at Fang Rock.

Whatever the rationale, this kind of general slaughter is quite usual in Doctor Who.  The best examples of something similar (i.e. the monster kills all but one or a very few survivors) are to be found in horror films, or horror-inflected films.  In SF, the examples that immediately suggest themselves are Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing... which is interesting.  In both films, as in 'Fang Rock', the alien menace is nearly/almost/kind-of/not-quite tentacular in the full octopoidal sense.  In both films, as in 'Fang Rock' (which antedates them both), there are small groups with complex patterns of social status and hierarchy within them (think of Ripley's initial amused contempt for Parker and Brett; of the way Bennings rudely barracks Nauls the black cook).  Also, both films are heavily "Weird-inflected" (to use a term Miéville has used to describe Alien), in that both feature monsters of unstable physical shape and unknowable mentality (incidentally, that's why I don't like the Director's Cut of Alien - because by reinserting the 'cocoon sequence' Ridley Scott makes the complete disappearance of Brett and Dallas more comprehensible, more purposeful, thus less frightening).

For now let's simply note that 'Fang Rock' depicts a miniature 'British community' - various ages, sexes and classes represented - attacked indiscriminately from outside without regard for the differences within.  You could argue that the reason for the general slaughter is to be found in the failure of the humans to 'pull together'.  In other words, the barbed liberal critique of class collapses into a somewhat moralistic sermon about how, divisions and inequities aside, the British must unite across such barriers to defend themselves against attack from outside.  Looked at this way, the story's liberalism slips into conservatism.  It becomes not merely moralistic but nationalistic.  The imperialism that the Rutan seems to represent becomes forthrightly foreign and aggressive, an alien imperialism of which the British are the victims, to which they must respond, and to which they will collectively fall - if they don't pull together, realise that they're all in it together, keep calm and carry on, etc.  The 'upper classes' come in for some stick, as they sometimes do from various strands of reactionary conservatism, for no longer being sufficiently responsible and effective to 'do their part', unlike the idealised 'rough diamonds' that are the dutiful and comparatively morally elevated working men.  In this mode of reactionary thought, the nation demands that each man do his duty... the responsible working man is to be admired for doing so, whereas the decadent aristocracy is to be scorned for failing.  It's worth noting that the position of lighthouse keeper is freighted with associations to do with duty, lonely sacrifice, guarding the nation's coast, protecting trade, keeping all sea traffic safe, etc.  However, it's also possible to read the text as demonstrating the various ways in which class privilege makes it impossible for the people who enjoy it to co-operate effectively with those below them.  There are constant misunderstandings in the story across the lines of class, with the toffs missing as many cues as the workers and the workers displaying as much savvy as the toffs (think of Vince's naivety about the telegraph message, immediately followed by his understanding that he must burn Palmerdale's bribe or risk being hanged).

When the Rutan steals or copies a human form, it chooses the form of Reuben, the most entrenchedly and doggedly 'old-fashioned' of the working class characters.  His form becomes its chosen vehicle.  Even when it discards his "ridiculous shape", it retains his voice, albeit altered (a point to which I'll return).

But again, it is impossible to fully resolve how this aspect of the text effects the meaning of the Rutan as a depiction of imperialism.   The Rutan remains indeterminate.  Reuben is idiotically xenophobic (much to the Doctor's weary irritation), an aspect of his personality which itself might be seen as undermining the possibility of reading this as a story about the foreign imperialism that he mentions, or as implying that imperialism occurs because of (or functions through) the ignorance, hostility and suspicious nationalism of common people.  In this view, the Rutan's racial chauvinism becomes associated with the xenophobia of the proletarian within an empire; it becomes relocated from the imperial system to the imperial subject.

On the other hand, if we choose to interpret the Rutan as 'using' Reuben (it does, after all, kill him and dump his body in a dark and dirty hole in the course of copying him) then we might see the story as imputing a view of imperialism as the callously lethal forced employment of the working class and the subsequent post-mortem treatment of them as refuse; as a process whereby even the bodies of the workers are stolen from them.  Moreover, when the Rutan appears as itself but continues to use Reuben's voice, that voice is altered... not only by a vocoder, to suggest mechanical reproduction (referring back to the Rutan's strangely and invisibly mechanical interior nature) but also by losing all traces of Reuben's accent and working class modes of speech.  Indeed, the Rutan's voice - though recognisably still voiced by the same actor who played Reuben - has a posh edge to it, an arrogance and swagger which chimes with the militaristic, propagandistic, snobbish, elitist, officer-class tone it strikes in its comments.

So, is there any kind of case for calling 'Horror of Fang Rock' an example of the Weird, albeit only a kind of temporarily resurrected and anachronistic example of it, hauntologically repeating on us via semiotic drift?  Well, we have the early 20th century setting, a tentacular monster which is explicitly formless (even in its 'true' shape it looks more like a dollop of jelly) and protean, with an ability to 'shape shift'.  There is an intimation that the desired effect was to leave the aftermath of the events on the lighthouse as an impenetrable puzzle in the manner of the Flannen Isle mystery.  Furthermore, the monster appears to represent - in a politically irresolvable manner that suggests, from some angles, a reactionary reading - the oncoming nightmares of 20th century modernity: military technology, ruthless imperialism, conquest, general and ignoble slaughter, etc.  The monster has a core of unplaceableness, of unpindownability.  It seems to represent both British imperialism and foreign imperialism attacking Britain, to be both a rebuke to Britain and an alibi for Britain.  Perhaps most particularly, there is the hauntological feel of the piece, which gives way to a non-hauntological monster.  Reuben's talk of the legendary "beast of Fang Rock" and of Ben's soul being likely to walk since those who die unnatural deaths "never rest easy", along with a certain BBC ghost story aesthetic, combine to suggest the hauntological as a feint, only to push such possibilities away once the monster makes its pseudo-fleshy pseudopodia fully visible.

Well... for the reasons above, it might be fair enough to go ahead and call 'Fang Rock' "Weird-inflected", but only to a slight degree.  Many Weird tales are maritime (Hodgson's Sargasso Sea stories, for example), but so are many non-Weird stories.  The mystery of what happened at the lighthouse will be a mystery only to those who find the bodies.  We know exactly what happened.  We saw it all.  The Rutan killed everyone.  We know how and we know why.  Its lethality is clearly and (pseudo)-scientifically explained in terms of electricity.  Its motivation is clearly explained in political, ideological and pragmatic military terms, even if the precise inflection of its imperialism is impossible to fully parse.  If we accept Miéville's definitions, then the Rutan fails to be Weird at the most fundamental hurdle: it is intelligible.  At the crudest level, the problem is that it speaks.  It converses, rationally and intelligently.  It has a point of view, stated aims, even an ideology.  It has a being, an ontology rather than a hauntology or a Weirdity.  (Though it does retain enough of the spectral or phantasmic to make itself insubstantial when Leela throws a knife at it.)

Moreover, it means... and, however irresolvable (confused might be a less charitable word) that meaning may be, it doesn't mean meaninglessness.  It evades a single, unitary, clear-cut political meaning, but it doesn't evade meaning itself.  It might reflect the bemused and suspicious fear of modernity seen in the character of Reuben, it might reflect a kind of oncoming 'general imperialism' in which imperialism of an international and thus non-localisable kind is 'the problem', but however fuzzy and deferred that meaning becomes, it still is a meaning intended to mean.  The problem embodied in the Rutan is blurred, nebulous, non-local, indeterminate, irresolvable in linear terms... but it isn't fundamentally unknowable.  And it seems to convey things that we (like Reuben) recognise and already fear, hauntology style.  Moreover, we're clearly being asked (as we so often are in this show) to draw moral conclusions.  'Fang Rock' rejects the idea that the horror of modernity makes modernity incomprehensible in principle, and rejects the idea that it is morally neutral.  For all that it flirts with reactionary import, it doesn't come anywhere near that radically scared fugue state in which the 'reactionary ecstatics' of the Weird despaired of meaning entirely.  Doing something like that - i.e. a monster with no apparent motivation, no mentality, no ideology, no discernible purpose, no comprehensible methods even - would likely have been percieved (probably wrongly) as too extreme or unsatisfying for the kid viewers.  It would also approach something that the Weird often does but which Who can never do, simply because of its function within the culture industry: abandon or neglect narrative.

All the same, there is something interesting in the way 'Horror of Fang Rock' comes close to the Weird in some ways, suggests it, skirts it, toys with it, distantly reflects it, attempts (unsuccessfully) to meld it with the hauntological.  This - I'm probably going to argue - is a recurring inflection in Doctor Who.  It's to be expected, given that Doctor Who is a kind of shaggily indiscriminate collage, rudely assembled by too many cooks from the cultural debris of a century and more of genre, pulp and semiotics.

Last word (here anyway):  It's interesting how Doctor Who's constantly repeating foreclosure upon the idea of the supernatural, which is part of its (generally spurious) inner identification of itself as supporting empiricism and materialism (which itself stems from the original idea of it as 'educational') seems to also foreclose upon hauntological readings... something that 'Fang Rock' demonstrates, with its refusal of the hauntological logic despite the employment of the hauntological affect, its use and subsequent disavowal of "fisherman's tales" of "mythical sea creatures", its rumination on the superstitions of the different classes, the moment it gives Leela to express her (paradoxical) 'belief' in science over shamanism.  And yet, the more I look at the show as a whole, the more I seem to see attempts on its part to 'get around' this foreclosure and to represent the haunting, implicating, being/non-being monster that returns the repressed. Hence the peculiar materialist gothic, a strain that runs through it.  Think of the Cybermen, who are simultaneously the embodied nightmares of the technological and bandage-wrapped crypto-Mummies... but with cloth-faces like the linen thing from the Weird/hauntological buffer zone of M. R. James.

I shall probably be looking at Zygons in this series.  And Krynoids (which, in passing, become much less scary when they speak and explain themselves).  And Axons.  And, I suspect most especially, the Fendahl.  And I'll probably have to look at that Tennant two-parter... you know, the one which attempted to grapple with metaphysical themes, the gothic, the satanic... by invoking the resolutely non-gothic, non-ghostly visual tropes of the Weird, ie Lovecraftian Cthulhu-esque slave monsters in revolt.

More later.


In his fascinating essay 'M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire' (the link is to a PDF), the author and theorist China Miéville wrote:

The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.

Miéville charts the way that the cephalopodic suddenly erupts into late 19th-early 20th century "teratology" (monsterology), with conflicted foreshadowings and pre-disavowals (Verne, for example, and Victor Hugo) leading up to a story called 'The Sea Raiders' by H. G. Wells, in which previously unknown squidular monsters suddenly surface and go on an inexplicable rampage off the British coast, and on to the "haute Weird" of William Hope Hodgson and, especially, H. P. Lovecraft.

In this Weird tentacular, Miéville sees much significance.  His argument, as I've gathered from the essay mentioned above (and from listening to various talks he's given), is that the squidular, tentacular and cephalopodic, but especially the octopoidal, arises as a teratological metaphor to supply a need felt by those writers travelling through the crises of modernity at the turn of the 19th-20th century and after.  In their formless and protean nature - many octopuses and squid have developed natural camouflage abilities, making them capable of astonishing feats of transformation - the octopoda seemed to be the shape to use in order to convey shapelessness.  Moreover, the very "novum" or newness of the tentacular (in the West) as a symbol was attractive to those seeking to convey something that had not been conveyed before, that perhaps cannot be coherently conveyed at all.

The octopus - as I've mentioned on this blog and in Panic Moon, following my reading of Miéville - suddenly appears in and conquers the 20th century political propaganda poster (you can see an amazing array of such political octopus propaganda at this blog... to which I have contributed myself).  I've suggested (rather obviously and, I'm sure, unoriginally) that the many arms of the octopus, radiating outwards from the central hub of the body, make it a perfect graphic figure for representing the putative multifarious global reach and manipulative ability of centralised power, whether that power is military, commercial, ideological, whatever.  Exactly the kind of centralised but increasingly global power that was arising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The octopus poster tends to show the creature reaching to many places at once.  Miéville himself has spoken of the octopus as suggesting manipulation.  He has noted how, in these propaganda representations, the octopus is used to signify just about everything from "perfidious Jews" and "perfidious Bolsheviks" to "capitalists", "unrestrained railroad building" and "landlords".  In other words, it means everything... hence it means nothing.  The octopus became immensely "symbolically fecund" in the early decades of the 20th century, but with no set cultural consensus about what it probably meant (unlike vampires and werewolves, say, which had - and still have - very well established, longstanding semiotic baggage).  It was the consequent ability of the tentacular to, so to speak, mean the meaningless, that made it enormously attractive to that wave of writers known as 'the Weird' (i.e. Hodgson and Lovecraft).  According to Miéville, even Weird writers who did not employ the tentacle tried out other such strategies, seeking new symbols to convey impenetrable and morally neutral meaninglessness.  Miéville notes (in the essay to which I linked) that the gap between the various pre-Weird 'try-outs' (i.e. Verne and Hugo) and Wells' stor

saw the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the so-called ‘Long Depression’ of 1873-1896, the rise of ‘new unionism’, and the ‘new imperialism’ and murderous ‘scramble for Africa’.  Increasingly visible, especially in the last, the crisis tendencies of capitalism would ultimately lead to World War I (to the representation of which traditional bogeys were quite inadequate). It is the growing proximity of this total crisis – kata-culmination of modernity, ultimate rebuke to nostrums of bourgeois progress – that is expressed in the shift to the morally opaque tentacular and proto-Lovecraftian radical Weird of ‘The Sea Raiders'.

The First World War represents the moment when all the certainties of modernity - rationality, progress, enlightenment - seemed to collapse in upon themselves, to become untenable, to become inadequate as descriptions of a world that had suddenly become indescribable, a world that had become a slaughterhouse... or a revolutionary experiment, in the wave of revolutions and near revolutions that spread out from Bolshevik Russia in the wake of the war.  Miéville has noted the way that, for Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness, the indescribably frightening revelation takes the form of... [SPOILER ALERT]... a slave revolt by the Shoggoths.  Lovecraft, an Anglo-Saxon chauvinist who was horrified by 'race-mixing', was quite typical of the early 20th century 'high Weird' wave, in that he was a reactionary (despite, incidentally, being a self-identified "socialist" who supported FDR's New Deal!).  Miéville identifies the Weird (not the 'new Weird', by the way, of which Miéville himself is an exemplar) as a kind of "reactionary ecstasy".  Lovecraft was also a materialist, but an ecstatic one who longed for the numinous.  Miéville once described him, memorably, as "Julian of Norwich plus race hatred and materialism".

It's well worth reading Miéville's essay (linked to above) because it develops these ideas in greater detail, while also looking at the paradoxically relevant figures of various 'ghost story writers' (if you read it, you'll see why I put that phrase into cautionary inverted commas) like Le Fanu and, particularly, M. R. James.  Miéville's concern there is to compare the Weird, in all its tentacular glory (and much of it is glorious stuff) with the spectral... what has come to be broadly called (included in?  analysed as?  obscured by?) the hauntological.  (For a quick intro to the genesis of the interesting, amusing, poetic but ultimately unconvincing wrinkle in the fabric of trendy theory that is hauntology, see here... I especially like the bit about Tintin).  (The best, most persuasive writer I know of on this subject is K-PunkFor instance.)

Miéville identifies M. R. James as a figure who, in some ways, straddles the hauntological and the Weird, going beyond the tired and routine observation that most of James' ghosts are not ghosts, to note that "the adversaries of James’s stories are disproportionately and emphatically Weird" because they tend to be physical and touchable, to be hairy or chitinous or slimey or amphibious or made of cloth... and even, on two occasions, to be tentacular.  Miéville writes that James'

use of more traditional ghosts and/or occasional folk-ish figures is repeated alongside Weird figures that in shortly forthcoming work would be repudiations of them. James’s corpus represents an under-one-roof co-existence – that would be all but unsustainable at any but that unique fulcrum moment – of what will later be seen to be hauntology and the Weird, the oppositional dyad.

In this context, the key James story is without question ‘Count Magnus’. Here, the ‘strange form’ from whose hood projects ‘the tentacle of a devil-fish’ – a Weird, inhuman, Cthulhoid figure who sucks faces from bones – is the servant of ‘a man in a long black cloak and broad hat’, a malevolent human ghost. This is an astounding crossover, its categoric transgression eclipsing any Marvel-DC or Cerebus-meets-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtle shenanigans. James creates the ultimate tag-team: Hauntology deploys Weird as its sidekick.

This crossover/transgression is the exception to the rule, possible only at the moment just before the Weird-proper emerges.  Miéville suggests that the hauntological and the Weird are two distinct and incompatible ways of thinking about certain aspects/problems of modernity.

The Weird, then, is starkly opposed to the hauntological. Hauntology, a category positing, presuming, implying a ‘time out of joint’, a present stained with traces of the ghostly, the dead-but-unquiet, estranges reality in an almost precisely opposite fashion to the Weird: with a radicalised uncanny – ‘something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it’ – rather than a hallucinatory/nihilist novum. The Great Old Ones (Outer Monstrosities, in Hodgson’s formulation) neither haunt nor linger. The Weird is not the return of any repressed: though always described as ancient, and halfrecalled by characters from spurious texts, this recruitment to invented cultural memory does not avail Weird monsters of Gothic’s strategy of revenance, but back-projects their radical unremembered alterity into history, to en-Weird ontology itself.

Weird writers were explicit about their anti-Gothic sensibility: Blackwood’s camper in ‘The Willows’ experiences ‘no ordinary ghostly fear’; Lovecraft stresses that the ‘true weird tale’ is characterised by ‘unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces’ rather than by ‘bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule’. The Weird entities have waited in their catacombs, sunken cities and outer circles of space since aeons before humanity. If they remain it is from a pre-ancestral time. In its very unprecedentedness, paradoxically, Cthulhu is less a ghost than the arche-fossil-as-predator. The Weird is if anything ab-, not un-, canny.

The hauntological uses the spectre or phantom or revenant as a signifier for the forgotten, the unspoken, the buried, the hidden, the covered-up, the guilty secret.  The Weird, by contrast, is not about what we don't want to know, it's about what we can't know.  It is, as its literary practitioners constantly insisted, about the unnameable, the indescribable, the both previously unimagined and presently unimaginable, the hitherto unexpected and currently incomprehensible.

Hauntology and Weird are two iterations of the same problematic – that of crisis-blasted modernity showing its contradictory face, utterly new and traced with remnants, chaotic and nihilist and stained with human rebukes.

Miéville suggests that the incompatibility between these two modes is heavily suggested and/or confirmed by the fact (rather startling, on reflection) that, despite our species' apparent obsession with and ingenuity about the creation of monsters, there are hardly any examples to be found, in literature or art, of the skulltopus, the merging of the octopus (Weird) and the skull (Gothic, hauntological).  He announces the creation of a skulltopus as something like a manifesto objective, in order to sublate the unsublateable.  He even draws a skulltopus for us - the picture is to be found near the end of the essay... and strangely compelling it is too.  I understand he now has a skulltopus tattoo.

I find Miéville's ideas both fascinating and highly seductive (which is near enough to 'persuasive' to be going on with for now).  With all this in mind, and remembering this blog's USP, I'm going to be looking at various Doctor Who stories which seem to touch... even if sometimes only very tentatively and tangentially... upon some of these issues.

I can't promise that any of this will happen soon... but you never know.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Historical Memory

On June 16, 1918, Eugene Victor Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio.  He urged workers to resist the draft. 

He also said this:

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.

They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.

He was arrested and charged with sedition later that month.  At his trial, he addressed the court.  He made the following statement:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Amnesia Day

I don't wear a poppy.  Laurie Penny has written a very good article, expressing many views that I agree with, here.  I don't engage in the silence at 11 o'clock either.  I know that most ordinary people who do observe the silence and wear the poppy do so for sincere reasons.  But I myself cannot stomach it.  I think my reasons are less intellectual and more to do with the sheer, physical revulsion I feel at the hypocrisy on display in images like this:

What's the collective noun for warmongers?  A troop?  A collateral?  Well, whatever.  There they stand, doing their best sincere and sombre faces.  All guilty of sending people off to fight and kill and die and maim and be maimed in order to protect the interests of the American empire and neoliberalism's access to markets.  And wrapping it all up in the rhetoric of 'sacrifice' and 'freedom'.  The poppy, the cenotaph, the silence, the 'Ode to Remembrance'... I can't help but see it all as cynical and calculated.  As ideology.  As an attempt by a warmongering, imperialist state to normalise the idea of war, to appropriate our memories of loved ones lost or ruined in wars fought for the interests of others, to associate the wars that 'our' country is currently fighting with wars from the past that we've been carefully taught to perceive as 'moral' and 'necessary', to control our responses to the latest news from Iraq and Af-Pak.

Mind you, it's more than just a straightforward bit of reactionary spin; these days people are more anti-war (at least in broad terms) than just about ever before, so the old rhetoric of patriotism is, while not dead, certainly less user-friendly than it used to be.  Remembrance Day still carries jingoistic connotations for many, but for many more there is a need for a different perspective.  There are several different social and political perpectives overlaid upon each other in our cultural understanding of Remembrance Day.  A common variety of liberal spin on it is to remember the 'pointlessness' of, say, World War I.  To tut and shake one's head at a war now culturally understood by many to be a kind of outbreak of mass insanity (see the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth), or an illustration of how bad our system used to be, or a bleak but romantic tragedy about sensitive poets.  It's the great noble failure... perhaps with some cynical, port-swilling, incompetent generals to sneer at and blame for the whole thing.  (It's been packaged and sold to us in this way, as has Vietnam to Americans.)  And, of course, there's the redeeming moral clarity of the 'good war' that followed it, the anti-Nazi war, the war that stopped the holocaust, etc.

What's lost in all this is real history.

Both wars were brutal squabbles between rival imperialisms, competing for territory and markets.  WWI wasn't a failure by the criteria of the British ruling class at the time; it was a success.  The British empire ended up with more territory than ever before.  WWI didn't end because sensitive poets made the generals and politicians see the light, nor did it end because of an Allied military victory.  It ended because the Russian and German people rose up in revolution, smashed their ruling monarchies, demanded peace and - all too briefly - started to create workers' states.

The conditions for the rise of German fascism were created by the vicious carve-up at Versaille, combined with the crisis of capitalism called the 'Great Depression'... but there might well have been another imperialist war waged by Germany, even without Hitler and the Nazis.  Germany had been squeezed out of the increasingly balkanised world financial and currency markets.  But Hitler - like Franco and Mussolini - was well-liked by many members of the British ruling class as a bulwark against Bolshevism, and appeasement was still what most of them wanted, even after the war started.  Halifax congratulated Hitler on his achievements.  The British ambassador to Nazi Germany was considered by the foreign office to be almost a Nazi himself.  Members of Churchill's cabinet - most particularly Rab Butler - were involved in trying to arrange a surrender to Germany.  Before the war, Czechoslovakia was abandoned to the Nazis despite having been promised British protection.  British and American businesses did good trade with Nazi Germany, even during the war.  Britain only declared war once it was realised that Hitler represented more than just a continuation of what was percieved as a normal and reasonable German ambition to dominate Mitteleuropa.

Democracy wasn't what Britain entered the war to protect.  When Britain declared war, it declared that its empire was at war too, including vast swathes of colonial subjects who were not consulted.  The British ruling class never questioned its own right to possess an empire, even while trying to stop Germany from having one.

Meanwhile, our disinterest in the persecution of the Jews was near total.  And even well into the war, the Allies refused to lift a finger to impede the frenzied mass-murder of the holocaust.  Auschwitz was never bombed, nor were any of the railway lines used in transporting murder victims, despite the fact that the Allies knew perfectly well what the lines and camps were being used for.  Meanwhile, German civillians were punished with horrific aerial bombardments... while the factories owned by American companies were carefully left intact where possible, to the point that German civillians twigged and started to use them as air raid shelters.  Such companies were never prosecuted for treason.  In fact, a lot of them recieved compensation from Allied governments after the war for accidental damage to their property done by Allied bombs.

The above merely scratches the surface of the cynicism and collusion which gets smothered by our day of 'remembrance'.

Similar murky realities are obscured by the poppy day rhetoric when it's applied to our current dirty military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan... not to mention what British troops have gotten up to in Somalia, Sierra Leone, etc.  This isn't lack of 'support for the troops'.  I protested against their being sent and I demand that they be brought back right away.  That's more supportive than any sentimental platitude which leaves unchallenged the wars in which they are fighting.

Platitudes leave unmentioned and forgotten too many important facts, too much vital context, and too many dead people.  How about the fact that thousands of Allied troops were deployed to Soviet Russia immediately after being withdrawn from the frontlines of the First World War?  How about the fact that our democratic governments immediately attacked and invaded the new worker's state, also aiding the Whites in the civil war, a bunch of Tsarist and bourgeois gangsters who rampaged through Russia with savagery and ferocity that both eclipses and contextualizes the much-more-talked-about Red Terror?

Poppy day obscures the fact that even when fighting Hitler, we were fighting an enemy who was produced by the same system of capitalism and imperialism upon which our own nation was based.  Poppy day doesn't represent the kids who were murdered by the army during WWI for desertion and 'cowardice'.  It doesn't represent the victims of British and/or American imperialism, past or present.  It doesn't represent the genocidal wars inflicted by America upon the Phillipines or Nicaragua.  It doesn't represent the people we kicked off the island of Diego Garcia.  It doesn't represent the Iraqis killed by that helicopter while trying to surrender.  It doesn't represent the innocent people slaughtered at Hiroshima and Dresden and Fallujah.

Remembrance Day isn't what it should be called.  When you remember one vital thing and forget hundreds more, that isn't 'remembrance'.  That's amnesia.

I've just realised what the collective noun for warmongers is: a lie.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Nice Guy, Nasty Cosmos

The great Timelash II rehash finally hobbles to a close.  Here's the last roundup.  Seasons 19-21.


This is a story, like ‘Logopolis’, that achieves greatness despite its many flaws. Flaws first:

“Take your hands off me – this is an official uniform!” and “We’re perfectly harmless, unfortunately!”

Seriously… who the hell talks like that? I can forgive “I know so little about telebiogenesis” because Nyssa is an alien scientist child prodigy aristocrat. But Tegan is supposed to be a down-to-earth working woman. And, on that subject, it becomes abundantly clear during this story that the programme makers aren’t going to exploit the contrast between the two characters’ backgrounds and attitudes for interesting dramatic conflict. Nor are they going to milk the business of the Master inhabiting Nyssa’s father’s body for dramatic potential either… though, to her great credit, Sarah Sutton is still trying to use her face to express anguish at the Master’s appearance.

Ainley, it need hardly be said, excels as the delightful Portreeve (channelling Olivier to the point that it becomes beside-the-point that it’s always obvious who he is) but suddenly goes crap when called upon to play an obtuse, snarling Dick Dastardly. At times, when playing the Master at the end, Ainley moves and looks like no-one other than Groucho Marx (my second favourite Marx, as it happens... but there's a time and place for everything). As in ‘Logopolis’, we needed a better villain. It seems hardly credible that a dunce like this Master could devise a trap of such subtlety and beauty as Castrovalva, let alone characters like Ruther and Mergrave. (One can only assume that they come as much from Adric as from his captor.) Ironically enough, we’re meant to be wrong-footed into suspecting Shardovan of villainy… because he’s a villain stereotype in black clothes and a black moustache.

The first two episodes are a bit of a trudge. There are lots of good bits, but they could easily be condensed into one episode. Again, Bidmead makes the TARDIS into an almost metaphysical space, a peculiar and vaguely-sinister labyrinth with healing rooms that smell of roses, rooms that can be ‘deleted’ as though the whole structure exists as data on a hard drive, rooms that seem to have been placed in the Doctor’s way by the TARDIS itself (to help provide him with a new identity) and medicine chests with Alice in Wonderland-style bottles inside marked ‘The Potion’, ‘The Ointment’ and ‘The Solution’. “Ah my little friend… if only you were!” Gorgeous.

Sadly, the business with the TARDIS being sent back to the hydrogen inrush is a bit of a mcguffin… and, again, as in ‘Logopolis’, Bidmead feels the need to have characters naming and explaining this story’s Big Theme to each other… just in case we miss it when it pops up. Having said that, the business with the Index File being listed in the Index File under Index File is very clever, both conceptually and linguistically. But the second half of Episode Two, featuring Tegan and Nyssa slowly carrying a box through a (admittedly beautiful) forest, is possibly the most boring thing ever committed to film. And it robs ‘Kinda’ of the location shoot that it needed and this story doesn’t.

But then…. ahh, but then we arrive at Castrovalva, and everything clicks wonderfully into place. Suddenly, instead of inexperienced young actors trying their best with often-clunky dialogue, we have a screen full of experienced old thespianic troopers, relishing lines of delicious, archaic, polysyllabic grace and wit… with nods to Shakespeare (“is this a holiday?”)… representing a complex and detailed society of bibliophiles and chemists and librarians and washer-women and recreational hunting and magic tapestries and hilariously jarring sexism… in a beautiful set reminiscent of both Escher and the Southern European late Renaissance… lit like a Vermeer painting… lovingly directed with a camera that prowls up and down, from level to level, looking up at people, looking down at people, looking down over people’s shoulders, etc… With Paddy Kingsland’s lyrical score in the background, the scenes with the Portreeve’s night-time visit to the Doctor and Nyssa’s morning walk through the town square while Tegan sleeps, are among the most beautiful ever filmed for Who.

When the conceptual ideas at the heart of the story kick in, we get wonderful scenes like the confused Doctor being re-taught how to count by a little girl… and, even better, the scenes where Mergrave and Ruther place landmarks on a map many times because they can be approached by several routes. The idea of a world created five minutes ago, populated by people who’ve been created to believe they’ve been alive for years and filled with books that tell of a long history… the idea of space itself folding and closing in on you… the idea that we are so much a part of space that our consciousness is created by it and works according to its rules even if they’re eccentric… these are great, thought-provoking, deep and inherently Whoish ideas… and they’re done brilliantly using dialogue and performance… of course, the effects weren’t really up to creating the Escheresque absurd architecture that the script screams for… why didn’t they do some new CGI for the DVD release? Of course, we can always watch Labyrinth, which can do visually what ‘Castrovala’ actually bothers to think about.

The tapestry is the key to it. A genuine 'space' all to itself, a 2D world made of pixels of thread. It shows what is happening on its surface, demonstrating 3D space and time in its own reduced continuum which works with different dimensions and at a different speed. It could be television itself... or Castrovalva... or the art of Escher... but it's also the pretty frontispiece over a trap, created by the trapping and enmeshing of the creative imagination within a web... a web broken by the free will of a character who was created to be a tool and a slave but who chose to become a human being.

The excellence of the direction shows again in the final few moments, with the last shots of the Master - trapped in the dark with the victims he created, torn at by them in their existential panic - genuinely hellish.

In the end, for all the vagaries of the first two episodes, and the inherent disappointment of the Master, ‘Castrovalva’ triumphs in the second two, blossoming into one of the most genuinely conceptual, thoughtful, witty, clever, beautiful and - to me - moving stories in the canon.

Four to Doomsday

Looks amazing. Very off-the-wall. Imaginative. Lots of great dialogue ("you may keep the pencil"). A sense of history. Great villain - Stratford Johns plays Monarch with a lovely line of ingratiating bonhomie, masking autocratic arrogance and megalomania.

It's just an alien invasion story really, but a decidedly odd one... told from the P.O.V. of the alien ship as it approaches.

Enlightenment and Persuasion. That's imperialist euphemism-speak for colonial policy, isn't it? Like hearts and minds. Bring enlightenment to the natives and persuade them to do as they're told... by any means necessary.
At bottom, some of the underlying ideas are a bit banal (democracy better than monarchy, flesh and blood better than circuit boards, etc.) but banal ideas have never been done this stylishly before.

Anything that has a trio of giant frogs quoting Jean Renoir at each other gets my vote.

The Blue Peter-style displays get a bit wearing, especially when they all happen at once. And the end, with everyone laughing and smiling is very Scooby Doo. And the regulars' new hairdos are pretty awful. And the characterisation of Adric and Tegan is appalling. Just shows they should've dumped them both ASAP and just had the Doc travelling with Nyssa.

Flawed, but fascinating.

I haven't really written about Kinda myself, but here's an interesting guest post about it by my forum buddy vgrattidge-1.

The Visitation

The idea that its a mystery how people can love both war and beauty is very fatuous. Is there a single culture in history, including some of the most warlike, that hasn't also loved art and beauty? The Spartans perhaps. Can't think of any others.

Black Orchid

It's nice to see the TARDIS crew letting their hair down and having a crack for a change. The Doctor has a game of cricket, Tegan enjoys spectating and then has a dance and a flirt with a cute old geezer, Nyssa makes a friend, Adric pigs out at the party and Nyssa tells him off, etc. Cute. They're behaving vaguely like real people for a change.

Shame it couldn't just be that. Sadly, it all gets wrapped up in a daft Agatha Christie pastiche with no mystery, zero tension, loads of infodump dialogue, etc.

And there are the usual intimations of colonialist racism which a pastiche of this kind could hardly help but inherit from its source material.  The white explorer goes up the river into the 'heart of darkness' (different continent, I know, but the principle is the same) and finds only horror.  He comes back mutilated and mad because of his contact with the natives.  The benevolent figure of Latoni mitigates this a tad, but the implication is that, once touched by the natives, only natives can deal with George.  George, meanwhile, suggests a link between disfigurement and evil (a link seen elsewhere in the show - Davros, anybody?) which is an enduring problematic in Western fiction.

Arc of Infinity just achingly bad - not because it's overlit (though that doesn't help) or because of the dull and pointless location footage (which is only saved by the squirmingly hilarious crapocalypse of seeing Peter Davison startling innocent Dutch bystanders with his facial Rice Krispies), but because it thoughtlessly wallows in a badly-recalled version of the show's continuity, making itself simultaneously self-involved and lazily un-epic.


Ahh, now that's more like it!

It's hard for me to not see 'Snakedance' as the latest in an irregular thematic sequence of stories dealing with the nightmare of history... 'City of Death', 'Warriors' Gate', 'Kinda'... and now this.

Manussa. A world of bored aristocrats, anxious mothers, tedious pedants, dodgy traders, cheap relics, tatty amusement arcades, trick-or-treating (the attendent demon), fake fortune tellers, loquacious showmen, redundant rituals and decadent prosperity.

Manussa is very much a development of Traken. Less fairytale, more anthropology, more economics... but the there are many traits in common, particularly a stifling bourgeois complacency in the face of evil. (Is it too much to relate all this to the social atmosphere of Thatcher's Britain?) Deadly secrets hidden under a smug smile.

Like Traken, Manussa has (and dwells upon) class and hierarchy... though Manussa is brazen and proud of its inequalities while Traken tries to deny them. Of course, both worlds have an ideology to explain them. On Traken, people become powerful politicians because of their "purity of spirit" (and we saw how that worked out) whereas on Manussa, people are royal because they claim descent from an ancient liberator. You only have to look at the pols who fall over themselves to appropriate Poppy Day to see how this kind of ideology works.

Manussa has two extra things: boredom and history.

Boredom? Well, Traken society may be complacent but the Trakenites look interested and happy, whereas the Manussans (at the top and bottom of the social ladder) all look and speak like they are bored to death with trudging through mundane prosperity.

History? Traken never feels like it has a past. Manussa feels real because it looks like its present society has been improvised and cobbled together on top of past societies. Time can be seen in layers.

The boredom and the history meet. The nightmares of history are reduced to silly games, toys, parades, tatty merchandise and inevitable tedium. The Mara is to Manussa what the Nazis have become to us. Unspeakable evil that has been ridiculed, commercialised and trivialised. Like us, the Manussans play with evil at their peril. (Just look at how the EDL and scum like that are gearing up to try and exploit the recession, helped by the glib scaremongering of the tabloids and our culture's trivialisation of fascism by using it as a buzzword to apply to anyone we want to invade or persecute.)

The horrors of history always return, produced by 'progress' as much as regression, if you don't find the still point.

I've looked at the (much underrated) Black Guardian Trilogy, here.

The King's Demons

Want to alter history?  Substitute your android for the King.  'Cos King's make history, don't they?  All by themselves.

Also, whenever Kamelion is on screen I always expect Judith Hahn to walk on and start patiently demonstrating him to us.

The Five Doctors

They say old Who was lacking emotion.  Well, there's a lot to say about that... but by the evidence of this story...

FIRST DOCTOR:  This is Susan, my granddaughter. 
FIFTH DOCTOR:  Yes, I know.  (Shakes her hand) can see what they mean.  This is the first time he's seen his granddaughter in hundreds of years.  And that's it:"Yes, I know" and a handshake.

Glib isn't in it.

Warriors of the Deep

A tedious, "action thriller" script that is under the erroneous impression that it has Stuff To Say about racism, war, genocide, etc. Horribly made. The bright lighting allows you to see every centimetre of the make-up smeared gurning faces of the guest cast as they overact all over the place. Turlough has some good moments, but that's about all that can be said for this ghastly mess. The Doctor is particularly repellent here, wringing his hands and whingeing even as he kills everyone.


All sorts of problems with this. The music is awful, as are some of the performances (Peter Gilmore, I'm looking at you... Mark Strickson, there are moments in this story when I can't look at you).

But, on the whole, this is really good. Very interesting, eccentric, grisly ideas. Largely good production design. Davison is on top form, seizing the opportunity the script affords him to play the snappy, intellectual, wry, acerbic  sneaky, sarcastic, old-man-trapped-in-young-man's-body version of the Doctor. I love the way he flim-flams the Gravis.

You get a picture of a totalitarian society from the point of view of the totalitarians... and yes, it sympathises with the ruling class far more than the ordinary people... and there seems to be an acceptance that people are basically just ruthless animals when they are not controlled by society (hierarchy)... but, I don't need to agree with a story to enjoy it.

Also, like so much of Bidmead's output, this is all about entropy.  Decay, malfunction, depopulation and extinction.  The Tractators, in their way, are fighting entropy with their grisly machines and their gravity drive.

Resurrection of the Daleks

A gauche, gallumphing orgy of wrongness. Painful, wannabe-butch (i.e. camp) dialogue. Several different plots fight each other mindlessly for supremacy, slaughtering each other's protagonists... until nothing is left but a mess, with fragments of aborted narratives and the torn bits and pieces of lots of cardboard characters littering the floor.

I looked at Planet of Fire, here.

The Caves of Androzani

A brilliantly constructed, superbly characterised, perfectly paced script with crackling dialogue, political satire, inky black humour and a raw, emotional intensity to some scenes that is frankly startling... interpreted (rather than just filmed) by a uniquely interested director, under whose auspices the story is given an amazing guest cast, a powerful central performance from the leading man, some of the greatest incidental music ever created for the show (from a composer whose previous scores had given little hint of what he could do when pushed), a compulsive rhythm that ratchets up the tension to screaming point, great lashings of dark irony and a feverish feeling of slow catastrophe that builds to the most visually and emotionally powerful regeneration ever.

Some people say it's "overrated". Not a whit. In fact, if anything, it's underrated. Even the story's staunchest advocates usually concentrate on the heady style... but the style only brings out the strengths of a script that bursts with character, subtexts, ambiguities and suggestions. Is Spectrox a medicine, an elixir of youth… or a drug? Is it addictive? It certainly seems compulsive in at least some senses. Why does Morgus talk about it as something like a preservative while Jek calls it “the key to eternal youth” and implies that it can keep Peri alive forever? Is Morgus cutting it with something else? Something that dilutes its real power? How ironic that a substance with the notional power to bestow immortality manages to kill just about everyone it touches.  Still, that's the commodity for you.  It promises the world even as it kills you.

In the hands of someone other than Graeme Harper, with an actor less committed than Christopher Gable, Jek could've seemed like just another disfigured madman purloined from fairytales and melodrama. Harper and Gable seize upon the sheer emotional power of the writing to create a study in narcissism, hate, self-hate, self-love and obsession that becomes genuinely tragic. Is there a single more powerful moment in 80s television than this terrifying exchange…

JEK: (raging) Do you think I’m mad? 
PERI: (utterly terrified) No. 
JEK: (suddenly quiet) I am mad.

Watch the scene in which Morgus and Stotz reach their new understanding, considering the new economic facts of life as Morgus' empire (and, it is implied, the whole structure of Androzanian society) starts to totter. "I'm descended from the first colonists," brags Morgus coldly. Stotz reminds him that things have changed. "You're just a man with a gun... there'll be none of the 'one point for me, four points for you' business." Has any other scene managed to so subtly convey so much plot information, so many clues about character and personality, so many hints about how a conjectural society works... and also, at the same time, sourly comment on the contradictions and fragilities and brutalities of capitalism?

Thatcherism, unemployment, class, snobbery, imperialism (the “pathetic little local war” is Northern Ireland, Vietnam; every war fought by a big power for imperialist reasons), the "war on drugs", anti-aging products, parliaments in the pay of business… they’re all swiped at in this depiction of the “war of all against all” that prevails in the corporate system. Holmes ransacks Jacobean revenge tragedy, Dune, The Phantom of the Opera, Marx (overproduction) and turns them into a local, insignificant, small-scale squabble… with epic implications.

Okay, the whole Magma Beast subplot is unfortunate… but who can complain when the other two cliffhangers are probably the greatest the show has ever produced? The nerve-shredding climax to Part Three, with the Doctor nosediving into almost certain death yet yelling defiance, is almost unbelievable from a show that, only the previous year, had indulged in the smug, shallow complacency of ‘The Five Doctors’.

Okay, Morgus’ personal organizer is a video remote… but who can complain when he then looks into the camera and delivers his paranoid suspicions direct to camera/audience like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale?

The greatest thing about this story is probably the structure. Misunderstandings (born of paranoia and fear) snowball on top of each other in a deadly chain reaction that starts with the usual bit of Doc-and-friend-arrested-as-spies nonsense and ends with a planetary eruption (of mud and dirt rather than lava), an entire social system beginning to crumble, a general bloodbath steeped in grim irony (Jek is found by his killers because he switches on a fan to keep a dying girl cool) and the annihilation of the fifth Doctor, his last word being a gasp of guilt that reveals why he has sacrificed himself rather than let an innocent kid die.

The Twin Dilemma

The "grinding engines of the universe... the crushing boredom of eternity" speech is great.  It feels like a summation of the themes of the series since Season 18.  Entropy, the tedium of time and the nightmare of history.  It all comes crashing over the Doctor as he has his post-regeneration nervous breakdown.  This is brave stuff, even if the trashy production values undermine it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Things Fall Apart

Here's a round-up of my Timelash II on Season 18.  I was holding this (and some of the stuff about Seasons 19-21) back because I was going to rework it into something bigger, but that isn't happening (too much else to do), so...

The Leisure Hive

Bidmead's script tinkerings somewhat dilute the essential idea of a leisure planet in favour of wannabe-big-conceptual stuff... which is pretty dull and lumbering, if we're honest.

The planet fails to convince as a leisure resort, which kind of undercuts all the lengths they go to to stress that the whole race have become employees of a going concern. All that boardroom stuff where they discuss investments suddenly looks redundant. What's it there to contextualise?

The stylistic overhaul is huge, ambitious and largely successful. There's a new willingness to try stuff out. They're happy to go all dark and quiet during the scene where Timson is stalked by the West Lodge Foamasi. I particularly like the slow, melancholy opening.

Mind you, the seeds of the later-80s problems are already visible. The Doctor is now wearing a uniform, etc.

The politics is weird. The war was about... what? Argolin militarism? So, their response to their catastrophic defeat was to become capitalists specialising in leisure? Umm, okay... And their enemies, who now want peace, are apparently statists who have outlawed "private enterprise"... apart from a kind of mafia faction... er...  Y'know, it's potentially good stuff but, somehow, it fails to fit together.

It's darn good as a first attempt at an overhaul of the basic dramatic and aesthetic values of a show in decline... but we'll have to wait until 'Full Circle' before they get it to work.

You wouldn't think this was the start of one of my absolute favourite seasons, would you?


This is daft. But I have to confess to having a seriously soft spot for it.

There are some good ideas buried in there. The Dodecahedron makes me think of Kepler, and his obsession with the perfect shapes that he thought contained the secrets of the universe... which was a conflict within him between science and mysticism which he sought unsuccessfully to reconcile... the problem is that the nearest thing to such a character in the story is Zastor, who's hardly there at all.

Some of the music is great. The Screens have an impressive monumentalism to their design.  They suggest (to me anyway) some ruined statue of Ozymandias lying rusting in the silicon desert of the real.

Sadly we have a silly jungle planet too. And someone who wants to run the universe for no particular reason.

Also, we have casual racism in the casting: the Gaztaks are multi-racial because they're a band of criminals.  Of course, I realise this happens because they're pirates... and pirates were supposedly (I know next to nothing about the actual history of pirates) a multi-racial bunch... but this also explains why there are no black Tigellans... which underlines the fact that, in this story, normality is civil society and civil society (i.e. scientists, religious people, police, politicians... all inside the city, within the community, under the state) is exclusively white.  A multi-ethnic mix becomes a sign of the external, the motley, the threatening, the lawless, the anti-social, the nomadic, the uncontrolled and uncivillised outside force.  It's an implication, nothing more.  And quite mild by any standards.  Nothing to get worked up about.  But it's still there, all the same.

Full Circle

Season 18 finally comes together.

Okay, we get pretty much the first 80s-style soapy domestic scenes aboard the TARDIS... but in their melancholy nature, they're still rather lovely and a far cry from all the bickering that would later clog up 80s tales. No Tegan with bad US-sitcom style insults. Just two people who are rather fond of each other, quietly beginning to face the need to part.

The story itself is steeped in irony of a particularly caustic kind. The Doctor's barely-concealed contempt for the initiative-free Alzarians contrasts nicely with his rage at Dexeter and at what he takes to be the cynicism of the Deciders... but it turns out to be less cynicism than just more ineptitude (intellectual and moral), which stops the story from being a simplistic morality tale about shifty leaders. Instead we get a story in which everybody seems to be doing everything more or less wrong without meaning to, in which the best intentions are obscured and hindered by incompetence, prejudice and/or fear. Even the kid rebels (who prove themselves more gutsy and intelligent than the adults) are blundering around in ignorance.

In a story which seems so concentrated on the process of maturation, it can hardly be an accident that we get one of the few depictions of an alien/monster that is also a child. Of course, the child dies. Partly through the workings of science (which this story depicts as intrusive and violating as much as enlightening), partly through the hamfisted glory-seeking of Dexeter, partly through its own ignorance of technology, partly through its trust in the only kind face it has ever seen. True pathos (as opposed to sentimentality) leads to the Doctor's glorious tirade against the Deciders, but he has the maturity to calm down when forced to admit that he doesn't have a monopoly on understanding... and he leaves the Deciders with the choice whether to press the button or not.

The themes of the story are highlighted and enriched by the notion that the Alzarians can't pilot their own ship. They must travel aimlessly, like evolution... if they have the guts to travel at all. This final revelation heaps on the absurdity and irony whereas a more straightforward and less interesting story would just have left the Deciders as cynical procrastinators. Social entropy resulting in the loss of knowledge. Class and hierarchy based not on the rottenness of rulers but on control over surplus (the technology and the ship and the books, which are cultural capital when the Deciders can decipher them and just the baubles of authority when they can’t).

Of course, it gets evolution wrong in all sorts of ways... though it's better than I've previously given it credit for (when I said that it depicted evolution working by "a kind of teleological lamarckism") because, as I recently realised, the Alzarians are only humanoid because they evolved to fit inside the Starliner.

Ultimately, you can forgive the technical errors because the story expresses (with careful irony) some essential truths about our kinship with the beasts: we bear the lowly stamp of our origins, we look on our ancestors with a kind of existential horror, we have insight that they lack, but in our technocratic comfort we've lost the spark of ruthless initiative that must have helped them survive until they became us.

State of Decay

...depicts feudalism as literal blood-sucking. It offers a luridly symbolic picture of how such a society works. To be flippant and theoretically inexact (in the extreme), the Great Vampire is the base and the tower is the superstructure. The architecture of tyrannical hierarchy is constructed on the basis of absolute exploitation. But the structure is tottering. The reversion from the high-technological civilisation of the astronauts backwards to feudalism is ‘the wasting’, the loss of social traction upon the forces of production that leads to the wasting of lives and thoughts and machines and methods and people, that leads to rooms full of rusting computers and unused rocket ships masquerading as castles. The forces exist to provide a better life for all, but they are outlawed and neglected into entropic disintegration by a system that refuses to relinquish its power.

Also, it’s also got vampire bats in it, which is kewwwwl.

I looked at Warriors' Gate, here.

The Keeper of Traken

Fourth masterpiece in a row.

The ancient man in the throne. The statue in the decaying grove. These are images that are hardwired into my brain. I saw them as a small child and they have stuck with me, the way that ideas from myths and fairytales do. The rest of the story may not always live up to the amazing aesthetic impact of these two elements (it all gets a tad twee and art nouveau for my taste...) but still, there's no denying that this is a richly drawn world... richly drawn in story too... because this is a "real" world... with living rooms and safes, cloisters and private offices, groves and public streets, bribeable petty officials and weddings and step-mothers and kings and... ahh, we're back to fairytales now, aren't we? But that's okay... fairytales have their origins in real times and places, in real fears and social conditions.

This tension between the 'realistic' social complexity of the world and its alternate nature as fairytale may well be what makes this story so interesting... as well as the usual (consistent is a less perjorative way of putting it) Season 18 emphasis on entropy and history.

The idea of a place so good that evil beings are immediately paralysed and calcified seems too simplistic... but, as we see more of Traken society, the more we realise that their ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are more to do with order and disorder... actually with stasis and change... than anything truly ethical. Maybe it isn’t “infinite evil” that gets turned to stone but, rather, anything that tries to bring disruption and disorder… or just change. Is there social perfection here or mass lazy acquiescence? There certainly doesn't seem to be any democracy; more like a relatively benevolent oligarchy… of course, an oligarchy can afford to be relatively benevolent in times of plenty. But there is still talk of summary executions. There is still greed, ambition, class snobbery, distrust, superstition. A smothering complacency... that the Master is waiting to exploit.

This is one of the best manifestations of the old bastard. He isn’t calcified, he is hidden inside a pretence of being calcified. He complains of his immobility… but that seems more like a self-inflicted side-effect of waiting so long for his chance at grabbing the Source. He's playing a waiting game with Kassia and her whole world, without ever daring to venture out into it… just in case. He plays upon and uses the original sins of the Trakenites, fuelling his jealousy and resentment. He is, almost literally, the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Again, the tension between the fairytale and the social complexity.

What does the Serpent do? He lurks in a garden and misleads a woman with temptations and false promises, leading to her causing the downfall of a utopian mode of life. Well, obviously, the Melkur/Master chimes with this. But it's more complex than this. Genesis is an immensely powerful text because it says deeper things than that. It's an attempt to understand where the world of work and pain and alienation came from, when we all feel, deep down, that we were meant for a better life. It places the deeper blame - rightly in some ways, wrongly in others, I'd argue - on history itself. Change and decay.

Change of any kind is inimical to the Trakenites. They live in a cloying “web of harmony” that stifles nature and all the chaotic and entropic things that nature needs. But they also seem to live outside history. They've reached the 'End of History', a bland millenium of bourgeois order. The Master reintroduces the Trakenites to death and disorder and change… and, however nasty his motives (petty spite and small-minded imperialist delusions), he actually may have done them a kind of favour. Like the serpent, he’s kick-started history by destroying bland perfection and offering dangerous knowledge. He’s brought them back into history by bringing them back into the nightmare of conquest and expansion and political innovation. This is 'progress' and we don't have to like it to see that, sometimes, it needs to happen.

He has restarted the clock, albeit briefly… of course he will soon stop their clocks forever.


'Logopolis' (literally, "City of Words") brings Season 18's preoccupation with entropy to a culmination. Entropy has been a preoccupation of Doctor Who from the very beginning. What is 'An Unearthly Child' about if not social entropy... it's even about the loss of heat for Godel's sake! What is 'Gridlock' about if not the breakdown of a social system, with chaos infiltrating the layers where the energy has drained away, with human physical and social energy uselessly pooled in a cul-de-sac?

Funny thing is, in 'Logopolis' entropy behaves more like a corruption of information. Entropy has of course been adapted to information theory... especially with regards to transmission which, interestingly enough, is a key concept in 'Logopolis'. The story seems to think that reality is made of information and, indeed, this is one way of interpreting the trend of the physical sciences. Oddly, this chimes with many ancient religious ideas.

'Logopolis' is much more myth and legend... theology even... than it is science. The Logopolitans may be superficially mathematicians, but as sages who "mutter, intone" reality into existence (or transformation) they are much more like wizards uttering spells or priests reciting the scripture. They're like monks... and monks, historically, were the people who created and preserved all the texts, all the history and philosophy. They created their world - and much of what we know of their world comes from their words - by means of language. Moreover, the idea that reality is made of words - implicit in 'Logopolis' - is one that has resonated through many religious conceptions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Christian Genesis ("In the beginning was the word") in which God literally speaks the universe into existence and need only utter a decree for new structure to arise.

In keeping with the idea that entropy is more a corruption of information than a measure of uselessly pooled energy within a system, the cosmic apocalypse in this curious tale is as much a silencing or darkening as it is a crumbling. The pages of the book of the world are being erased, leaving only terminal blankness and silence. Time ends, history stops, silence engulfs all reality and all structure unravels... all because the Master imposes silence upon the speaking, muttering, chanting, thinking world. His callous, self-seeking philistinism is the antithesis of all speech and all language, hence of all physical and social reality, of all history and all future.

Parenthetically... it's interesting how the work of a science-minded guy like Bidmead, who is probably a materialist or physicalist of some kind, instead relies upon such an idealist conception of reality... but then this does often happen.  Look at Dawkins.  He presents himself as the arch-materialist... yet memes are pure idealism.

Back with 'Logopolis', we also have Tom's final turn as a man who has lost his old friends but must soon change to fit his new ones, a man warned by his own future (by his own immortal soul?) that he will soon have to watch the universe shudder and totter, and then that he himself will die. He's quiet, heavy, sad... and wonderful.

Okay, it looks very cheap. But this is Doctor Who after all, and such things go with the territory. How can you really complain about the aesthetics of a story that serves up so many dazzling and haunting images. The TARDIS inside itself like Russian Dolls; the TARDIS as a sinister labyrinth; the TARDIS as a cloistered thinking-space made from crumbling masonry and overrun with vines; the TARDIS as a puzzle box rather than a spaceship. Then you have the dish, emblematic of transmission and information, glowering over a city of monastic cells that also look like the crenulations of a massive brain.

Much of the plot is... odd, to say the least. And Episode One is seriously clogged up by the unnecessary saga of Tegan's journey to work, complete with her monomaniacal wittering about planes and the "hilarious" business of silly females who, natch, are hopeless with machines. And then there's the Master. He just manages to stand for the silencing of thought and knowledge... but he does it inspite of his inherent feebleness as a character. Really, a story like ‘Logopolis’ needs more than a bog-standard, black-clad, moustache-twirling, megalomaniac Dick Dastardly.

But, in the end, I think you have to applaud 'Logopolis' with all its flaws. It's a unique piece of television: mythic, erudite, heartfelt and thoughtful. The inconsistencies of the plot, the weakness of some of the characterisation, a few moments of horrible dialogue and the presence of Tegan make it impossible for me to quite rate this as highly as the four masterpieces that preceded it... but it's a close run thing.