Monday, 31 December 2012

Shabby Efforts

I'm sometimes rather startled to realise just how much Doctor Who I've missed.

I mean, chronologially, the last actual TV episode I saw was 'Night Terrors'.  I watched that ages after transmission, as part of a foolhardy attempt to catch up with the series (which I finally gave up watching upon transmission roundabout the time of 'A Christmas Carol', which I liked about as much as I like Ian Duncan Smith).  I was hoping that I'd either get my mind changed by the catch-up session - i.e. become persuaded that Who under Moffat isn't just empty, bombastic, cynical, reactionary, sexist, culty drivel - or, alternatively, that my justified hatred of what I was seeing would give me something to furiously blog about.

As it turns out, my undignified little scrape with 'Night Terrors' (see here) put me off the project again.  Initially inclined to be soft on it, despite some nitpicks, I was soon convinced by commenters that it's actually the story where the Doctor becomes David Cameron, lecturing the clueless working schlubs on how to solve their problems by being better parents.  Dispirited, I quit again.  So, I've not seen anything after 'Night Terrors'.  And I feel just peachy about this, to be honest with you.

Besides having been driven away from the TV show, I was surprised to realise, as I was following Sandifer's analysis of the Virgin New Adventures at his blog, how many of those I'd missed back in the day.  I always thought of myself as a follower of the line, but it seems I neglected to read a fair few of them.  Still, I was going through college and university at the time.  I had other things to read.  The menus of pizza restaurants, for example, and loan forms, and letters about my overdraft.

It's the same with Big Finish.  I've heard, I suppose, about a fifth of their Who output - at most.  I guess I just haven't tried hard enough. 

And as for the late-90s BBC novels line... well, I think I've read all the Lawrence Miles ones and all the Chris Boucher ones, but beyond that... I think I tried reading one by Justin Richards once.  It was called 'The Burning', as I recall.  It's possible that my copy (with the first 12 pages lightly thumbed) may still be being used as a wedge under a table leg in a rather seedy set of student digs on the South coast.  I wouldn't be surprised.

I actually suspect there are a lot of fans like me.  In this respect, anyway.  But the point I'm limping towards is this: there are lots of things that a sizeable number of Who fans know about that I simply don't.  I don't know what's so bad about those John Peel Dalek novels, for instance.  Never read 'em.  Never will.  I also don't know (not from personal experience anyway) what's so bad about 'The Eight Doctors' by Terrance Dicks, though I know that it is generally considered to be absolutely awful.

So I was fascinated to learn at Philip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum that this book sees Dicks

managing to be more prone to waxing poetic about the need for great and noble leaders to rule over the common rabble than ever. The stuff with the Shobogans in the Sixth Doctor segments is absolutely vomit-inducing, with Dicks establishing them as the Gallifreyan working class/criminal underworld (these seem to be the same thing in his mind) who the Doctor enjoys getting drunk with and dispensing favor to. With astonishing creepiness, Dicks ends their plot by saying “even the Shobogans were content with their lot” and leaving it at that, a line that comes horrifyingly close to just saying that the working class are just meant to be poorer than the nobles.

This interests me for obvious reasons.  I have, for one thing, made the Shabogans into the... emblems? motifs? mascots? heroes? ...of this blog.  Also, of course, there are the implications of someone with attitudes like those described above being so central to creating Who over the years.  Of course, it's not news exactly... but it is interesting.

And, as I say, it worries me slightly because I suddenly feel a little self-conscious to realise that I've got a blog called 'Shabogan Graffiti', and yet a fair few of the people reading it are likely to be more familiar with how the Shabogans have been characterised than I am.  Still, it's not as though I'm unused to being surrounded by people who know more than me.

However, I do want to make a few things clear.  It's Shabogans, not Shobogans.  I've checked it on the BBC website.  So there.

And it's pronounced "Shaboogans", just in case anyone was wondering.  George Pravda knew best and must be obeyed in this.  I mean c'mon... his very name means 'truth'.

Oh, and one other thing... they are quite definitely not content with their lot.

What's in a Name?

Why do some monsters have names while others don't?

The best place to start may be with the Cybermen.  After all, they went from having names to not having names.  Moreover, they did it more or less within one particular story, 'The Moonbase' (if I remember rightly, they had names in the script but these were not mentioned on screen).

The first thing to mention is that this is the story in which they went from being threatening because they are emotionless and logical to being threatening because they're one of those "terrible things" bred in those "corners of the universe" that "we" have to fight, when they were no longer fighting to save their planet but to steal ours, when they lost their human hands, when they started (so early!) saying things like "Clever, clever, clever!", i.e. when they became overtly and deliberately evil.  But there has to be more to it than that.  After all, vampires keep their names.  Loss of humanity and the acquisition of evil intent are not enough to strip them of their names.

Moreover, the Cybermen are not the only Doctor Who monsters to lose their names.  There's also the Daleks, who lost their names when they stopped being Kaleds (or Dals).

This loss of name is very important.  In the 'Moonbase' Cybermen, it seems more like the final stripping away of individual identity.  It works similarly for the Daleks as for the Cybermen, and has similar wider connotations when it comes to both these races.

(Notice, by the way, how blithely one talks about 'races' in this sci-fi context... a way of putting things that would be wholly unacceptable in Western liberal discourse nowadays if applied to, say, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians... which isn't to say that the racialist patterns of thought don't still pertain in the attitudes of many, just that they are not usually openly stateable anymore.  This is an example of an entire cultural discourse - in this case, that of racialism - taking refuge in a 'pocket universe' within culture once the wider culture has largely rejected and banished it, or at least talk of it.  The discourse of racialism hides out, in disguise, in the SF 'Recycle Bin' once it has been guiltily deleted from the cultural 'Desktop'.  Sometimes such things even get deleted from the Recycle Bin but, as we know, they remain on the hard drive, waiting to be forensically recovered.) 

Veering back to the point... notice how the conversion of Lytton or Stengos into Cyberman or Dalek involves the loss of identity, thus the loss of name.  When Stengos sees his daughter, his first word is her name.  He remembers her name, and hence his own, which is what launches his psychological struggle against his Dalek conditioning.

The named/nameless distinction maps roughly onto the biological/robot-or-cyborg distinction, and both are really about individuality vs. the loss of individuality.  The Daleks and Cybermen act far more on a kind of groupthink than, say, the Silurians.  The mechanically-augmented Rutans too seem like a hive mind (the individual Rutan refers to itself as "we").  The robot or cyborg is the expression of the non-individual, the impersonal, the standardised.

At one end (the Left end, one could say), this horror of the artificial as bringing the destruction of individuality is connected with the capitalist productive mode, with mass-production, industrialism, alienation of humanity through commodification and the menacing autonomy of the product (i.e. the Autons as gothic emblems of commodity fetishism).  At the other end (the Right end) it is connected with collectivism (i.e. the groupthink mentioned above).  (By the way, this also seeps into the Left end, with the Nestenes being a group entity... though, to me, this seems connected to the way in which 'Spearhead from Space' recuperates its incipient critical convergence upon capitalism by introducing the Weird at the last moment as a scrambling effect, see here.)

The critique of collectivism implied by these monsters of conformity, mechanisation, organisation, groupthink, lack of individuality, etc., connects with the prevailing conception of collectivism as being inextricably bound up with authoritarian statist government, an absence of formal democracy, an official political ideology, regimentation of the individual, the destruction of privacy, the imposition of conformity, etc.  This conception lumps together those two bogus-collectivisms, fascism and communism, in the manner of the influential theory of totalitarianism.

The Daleks and Cybermen are the two great monsters of Doctor Who, a product of the liberal capitalist culture industry in the aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War, and they actualise this set of notions almost too specifically.  Akin but seperate and ultimately opposed, not from moral imbalance but because of their essential similarity, both emerging from differentiated but kindred forms of anti-individualist state control, the Daleks and Cybermen are differentiated but kindred forms of the dehumanised, collectivised, technologised totalitarian robot/cyborg monster. They are the Nazi and Soviet forms of the same totalitarian species.

I guess this is the place for the inevitable 'Cyberia' pun, yes?
The Daleks emerge from a fascist collectivism: the regimented, indoctrinated, Nazi-esque Kaleds in 'Genesis of the Daleks'.  The Cybermen eventually find their own genesis (courtesy of Big Finish) in a snowbound revolutionary emergency government: the policed and surveilled Mondasians in 'Spare Parts' live in a mirror version of the '50s (the high point of the Cold War), ruled by the "champions of the proletariat" who are suppressing private enterprise.  Even the critical nature of life on Mondas, and the Cybermen's onscreen tendency to find themselves fighting for survival as well as attacking people, seems like a haunting half-memory of the fact that the Soviet regime was under external attack for much of its existence (the Russian Civil War and, later, Operation Barbarossa).  The two 'big' monsters of the show seem like echoes of the two great 'cousin' totalitarianisms (as they were seen by people like Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski).

In this light, the confused similarity and interpenetration of these monsters seems as salient as the fact that, until long after the end of the Cold War, they never met.  The Daleks and Cybermen are both races of robots with flesh hidden within them, i.e. bodies augmented and changed by technology.  They are both said, at various times, to be emotionless, dependant upon rationality and logic.  Both have absolute leaders which function like centralised brains (the Cyber Controller, the Dalek Emperor... with Davros, all his Hitlerian attributes notwithstanding, something of an outlier... though, of course, he eventually merges with the Emperor in 'Remembrance of the Daleks').  They both recruit by forcible conversion.  They both employ (body snatcher paranoia style) covert infiltration, brainwashing, mind control and/or replacement of people by 'duplicates'.  They are both aggressive imperialisms that attack secure, human (implicitly Western) structures (the Moobase, the colony on Vulcan, etc.).  They are both defined by regimentation, conformity, unanimity, groupthink, ideology.  They both have absolute political philosophies that motivate them: racial chauvinism (Nazism) in the case of the Daleks, ruthless utopian utilitarianism (Communism, as it was percieved) for the Cybermen... so it's not hard to see the differentiation amidst the similarities, or their referants.  Both alter the mind of the human as conversion takes place (c.f. Lytton and Stengos).  The Daleks are even said to be played "indoctrination tapes" in their infancy according to Ben Aaronovitch's novelisation of 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

It's surely not hard to see how all this echoes the perceived features of 'totalitarianism': regimentation, conformity, thought control, leader cults, ruthlessly mechanised military utilitarianism, state ideologies, the destruction of individuality and personal freedom, insidious encroachment upon the freedom of others, etc.

So, Daleks and Cybermen are different iterations of the same thing, or at least of intimately similar things.  (Which isn't to say that either always mean exactly the same thing from story to story over their long histories.)  And yet they never meet.  They remain divided from each other by an absence, a gap, a field of silence.  There is a peculiar frisson whenever this silent field is almost breached, as when both races are mentioned and shown in succession at the end of 'The War Games', or when a Cyberman briefly appears on Vorg's Miniscope shortly after he mentions Daleks.

(Interesting, by the way, that near-breachings of the silence occur in those two stories.  The former is about humans as fodder for regimented imperialism.  The latter features a grey-faced, bureaucratic, statist nomenklatura.  And, once again, neither story will permit a qualitative distinction between Right and Left totalitarianism.  The War Lords could be Soviets as much as Nazis.  The Inter-Minorans look like bigoted slavers as well as censorious commissars.  And, being very interesting stories, both can also be read as harbouring some implied criticisms of British imperialist behaviour.)

Of course, when they eventually do meet, the Daleks and the Cybermen come into immediate conflict... just as Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia ended up at war.  There is even a moment before this happens when the Cybermen moot the idea of a pact - "Together we could convert the universe!" - mirroring the Nazi-Soviet deal often referred to as the 'midnight of the century' (though it is less widely recalled that the Russian willingness to deal with the Nazis stemmed at least partly from a desire to protect themselves from attack by a fascist power that the European democracies were appeasing... interesting, isn't it, that Molotov-Ribbentrop is always called a "pact" while Munich was an "agreement".) 

The story that best expresses the widespread cultural notion of totalitarianism, with its lack of qualitative differentiation between fascism and communism, is 'Inferno', which - irritatingly - has biological monsters (albeit ones which are inextricably linked to machinery because of their origins).  On the whole, however, the totalitarian idea is expressed in Doctor Who via the robot/cyborg monster that has lost its name, and hence its individuality.

Daleks and Cybermen are embedded in the basic assumption - implicit in 'totalitarian theory' and its colloquial and/or revisionist variants - that political forms other than bourgeois liberal capitalist democracy are pretty-much-inherently tyrannical and destructive to the freedom of the individual (the implicit flipside being that liberal capitalism offers the only opposite path and that all challenges to it run the inevitable course into tyranny).

The basic circular chain of associations that mirrors this within the semiotic system of Doctor Who runs like this: robotic/cybernetic = anti-individualist = totalitarian = robotic/cybernetic.  In a superb example of the promulgation of ideology through the culture industries, freedom is thus assumed and asserted to be the freedom of the individual, apparently exemplified by the fundamentally Western 'humanity' of, say, the crew of the Wheel.

Notice how hierarchy, rank, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc., are all essentially supported via the implicit comparison with the featureless Cybermen, i.e. the comparison of the nameless and un-individual with human diversity.  The liberal celebration of gendered, multi-racial and multi-cultural humanity is bounded tacitly by the fact that the white guys remain in charge, high-status professional females remain adjuncts and romantic interests, Oirish people remain comically pugilistic and loquacious, other ethnicities stay down the pecking order and act in stereotypical ways even as they enjoy their place in a fundamentally Westernised (i.e. business-like) power structure, etc.  The humans, with their hierarchical and utilitarian military/scientific structure of position and value, weather the internal challenge of the unstable commander and emerge with their system bolstered by contact with the totalitarian cyborgs.  And bear in mind... I could've used 'Tomb of the Cybermen' to illustrate how this works, so I'm actually pulling my punches here.  The point being that there's no need for a story to be as offensively reactionary as 'Tomb' for it to be promulgating capitalist ideology.  It works with stories that seem to celebrate ethnic diversity (though, to be fair to 'Wheel', it's got nothing on Star Trek when it comes to pushing a bourgeois ideological agenda via lip-service to liberal multi-ethnic casting.)

Between them, the Daleks and Cybermen represent the two flavours of 'totalitarianism' that menaced the free West (i.e. the liberal capitalist order), their innermost and most essential evil being the suppression of individual liberty.

Individualism and liberty are cornerstones of bourgeois democratic ideology.  They are the quasi-truths upon which capitalism has based its prevailing 'optimum mode', i.e. electoral democracy (which leaves the basic class structure intact and untouched by genuine popular sovereignty), property rights, free trade (at least in appearance), a free media (at least in appearance) and the ethical ideology of human rights.  While undoubtedly a great advance on feudalism, or upon capitalism as it originally developed, or upon capitalism as it is still practiced sucessfully in many parts of the world, the above features of the Western capitalist order are all based on a fundamentally 'market' idea of social life, with all of us confronting each other as competitors and dealers, seeking our greatest advantage, freedom, etc.  The individual as the focus of human life (rather than the social) is an expression of bourgeois property relations but presents itself (partly truthfully) as an ideal of freedom, the fruit of progress.  (Of course, such freedom as exists is largely the result not of 'History' or 'Progress' or enlightened leaders or the free market, but of organised popular struggle... but that truth is largely suppressed.)

None of this is to say, by the way, that individual freedom is actually 'bad' or unimportant... on the contrary.  But the best expression of how our culture really views individual freedom is the fact that corporations are legally classed as people, thus entitling them to many personal liberties, while real people are usually far more circumscribed and punished by the law than the corporations they work for or buy from.  As usual, capitalism's boasts are lies.  It is actually a very bad system when it comes to the individual liberty of most people (who have to spend most of their lives working for others just in order to live) while there is nothing inherently destructive of personal freedom and individual liberty in the idea of social collectivism.

Nevertheless, these ideas are cornerstones of liberal capitalist democratic ideology in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Capitalism IS democracy and democracy IS an aggregation of individual liberty... meanwhile, collectivism is inherently undemocratic and will always destroy personal freedom and self-determination.  To be fair, the great self-trumpeting collectivisms of the 20th century were destructive of personal freedom in many ways, but the idea that they were 'socialist' may be evaluated by remembering that 'Nazi' actually stands for 'National Socialist', and the Nazis' favourite early slogan was "Death to Marxism", their central idea being the Bolshevism was a Jewish conspiracy to conquer the world. To think that their (or Stalin's) authoritarian statisms were collectivist or socialist is to fundamentally misunderstand collectivism or socialism... indeed, it is to misunderstand these ideas in the exactly the way that Hitler and other capitalist leaders wanted people to misunderstand them.  The Nazi hatred of Bolshevism, the American anti-communist rhetoric, the banalities and misprisions of 'totalitarian theory', the hollow impostures of the nouveau philosophes and the revisionist historians of revolution, the tendency of the modern U.S. looney-right to call Barack Obama a socialist, the assumption of those in favour of humanitarian interventionism that - unlike Ba'athist bullets - bombs from liberal capitalist countries are somehow humane, the widespread feeling (evinced in 'Inferno' for example) that fascism and communism were so alike in their opposition to individual freedom as not to need differentiation.... these are all (amongst other things) expressions of that over-arching ideological notion: the liberty of the individual is essential to capitalism (which is thus inherently democratic) and inimical to collectivism (which is thus inherently totalitarian).

That, essentially, is what's in a name: the individual human right... to live under capitalism forever.


NOTE: There's a lot more to be said about this.  The Cybermen, for example, may stem partly from reactionary conceptions of totalitarianism as the only possible alternative to capitalism... but they also sometimes work as an unflatteringly honest mirror to capitalism.  They are, initially, the dark side of Wilson's "white heat of technology".  As Simon Kinnear once pointed out in Doctor Who Magazine, they can sometimes look and act and think like the psychopathic corporation... indeed, this thought leads to all sorts of other issues.  The extent to which corporations work like authoritarian states, for instance.  It's no accident that the Cybermen have frequently meshed with and emerged from capitalist concerns, from International Electromatics to Cybus Industries.  But going into this would mean going into how the Cybermen (and, incidentally, their cousins the Borg) reflect the ethic of the self-interested rational actor of the mythology of mainstream economics: the unicorn-like utility maximiser of the theoretical equibalanced market, always perfectly well-informed and logical... and, in some versions, morally obliged to be utterly ruthless.  It would also involve going into the way that Communism (as it actually existed after the decline of real revolution) was actualy a form of bureaucratic state capitalism.  All of which would take us well away from our brief for this post.  But don't worry, I'm obsessive enough to write it one day.  Meanwhile... happy new year!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Vixens and Saxons

Some disjointed thoughts about 'The Time Warrior'.  Is it sexist?  Is Linx really a girl?  And what is the correct Socialist attitude to Irongron?

1.  Men Are From Earth, Sontarans Are From... umm... Saturn?  No, couldn't be.  'Saturn' is an anagram of 'Rutans' for a start...

'The Time Warrior' is the chronicle of a failed romance.  Irongron and Linx.  The odd couple.

Made for each other.
The initial attraction. The slowly dawning mutual realisation that they have much in common. They take turns helping each other out. Terms of affection pass between them: Linx is Irongron's "brother" and will be his "general". Physical intimacy follows, as Linx allows Irongron to see his face then almost takes his arm as they leave to deal with the android knight. Irongron gives Linx a familiar nickname (albeit a rather unkind one).  Then the inevitable falling out. Linx feels disappointed. He questions Irongron's commitment. They squabble. There is a physical fight. Violence always changes a relationship irrevocably. An uneasy aftermath. Awkward attempts to rescue and preserve the friendship. "Thanks good toadface... er, good Linx". Irongron helps the bound Linx in an act of residual solidarity. They stand face to face, close together, Irongron fascinated by Linx's visage.  "I was struck down from behind," says Linx, not wanting to lose face in front of Irongron, but also sounding almost as though he is pleading for sympathy and solidarity. Then there is the final drunken argument.  Linx is ready to move on but Irongron doesn't like the idea of being dumped.  He does the dumping, he doesn't have it done to him.  "For the last time Linx," says he, "let there be no more talk of leaving!"  But Linx makes it clear, his spaceboots were made for walking and that's just what he'll do.   Then, of course, the ultimate break.  Linx was going to leave and destroy all Irongron's stuff in a final act of scorn.  The drunken, spurned Irongron tries one last time to delay the dumping.  He gets physical again.  Linx puts him down.

They were made for each other, but that itself is what makes their union impossible.  That and the inevitable social stigma against same-sex and different-species relationships (talk about a double standard!). 

Am I actually arguing for a gay subtext?  No, perhaps not.  But there is something unusually... well, 'relationshippy' about the way Irongron and Linx come together and then fall apart.  Linx even tries to get rid of Irongron's friends, or at least to push them out of an inner circle which increasingly includes just him and Irongron.  Irongron, meanwhile, does a lot of tipsy complaining to his best mate about how unreasonable Linx is.

"My Sontaran doesn't understand me."

2.  Sexism and the Citadel

I've argued elsewhere that 'The Time Warrior' is actually fairly good on the issues of feminism and sexism (everything being very relative, of course).

The most cogent objection to this is to be found, unsurprisingly enough, in Philip Sandifer's post about 'Time Warrior' over at the Eruditorum.  Sandifer argues, firstly, that the show goes out of its way to make the Doctor more sexist simply in order to give Sarah (the feminist) something to vocally object to... meaning that the actual effect of the attempt to engage with feminism is to make the show more sexist rather than less.  I don't quite buy this, not fully.  I think it depends on underestimating the amount of sexism inherent in pretty much all previous depictions of female 'assistants'.  They're not perhaps always as bad as folk memory would have it, but they're still pretty damned awful a lot of the time, as is the Doctor's usual underlying attitude.  It seems to me that if the Doctor is more overtly sexist in 'Time Warrior' this is a matter of more honesty than more sexism.  The new thing here isn't the sexism, sadly, but the openness about the sexism.   This is an inadvertant irony rather than evidence of a change of attitude, but I still think the point stands.

Secondly, and more damningly, Sandifer indicts

the extended sequence in Episode Two in which Sarah's complaining about how Irongron and company are sexist is played for laughs, where part of the joke is that Sarah hasn't figured out that she's gone back in time and so is complaining about sexism to people who cannot possibly understand what she means and genuinely don't care. In other words, feminism is played for laughs - har har, look at how the dumb feminist gets it wrong and complains that the medieval brutes are sexist. She's so dumb.

Again, I'm not fully on board with this.  Thing is... that isn't really what's happening in that scene.  Firstly, I'm not all that sure that the scene in question is "played for laughs".  The moment when Sarah realises that she is in actual physical danger from Irongron is rather chilling and Sladen's face conveys real shock.  Secondly, Sarah's not being overtly feminist in that scene, she's being a person from 1973 (or 1980 if you want to round up) who suddenly finds herself in... well, in whatever year 'The Time Warrior' happens in (I'm not going to consult L'Officier or Parkin... you can do that yourself if you're bothered).  She really says nothing about women's rights, feminism or sexism in that scene.  The closest thing in it to a remark from Sarah touching upon these issues is her casual, grinning reference to "buxom serving wenches".  This isn't a scene about how silly feminists are.  This is a scene about rationalisations coming crashing down.

The scene moves forward from the shock moment I mentioned to illustrate a certain savage disregard of women, revealingly shared by Irongron and Linx.  For Linx "the girl creature" is "secondary", evidence of "an inefficient system".  For Irongron, women are there "to do the lowly work."  There is something of the titilation of reaction here, the invitation to be amused by the flouting of right-on standards.  These days we'd say it was 'deliciously politically incorrect' (if we were idiots).  We are probably meant to be amused by Irongron's open sexism.  'The wimmin's libbers wouldn't like that - tee hee!'  You could certainly relate this to Sandifer's point about the increased sexism being an ironic by-product of the engagement with feminism.  Holmes is using 'the Middle Ages' as a contrast to Sarah's attitudes.  He's put in medieval sexism (which seems like an inherently daft phrase but I'm at a loss to think how else to put it) so that Sarah can react to it.  We've got an openly feminist character and, as a consequence, we immediately get a panorama of unusually open sexism.  This seems unarguable.  However, as I said, I think this is a refiguration of something already present rather than a new development.  This is the standard sexism of "stay here Polly, this is men's work" and "leave the girl, it's the man I want" recast in an explicit form.  And, on the whole, I think the actual effect is that 'Time Warrior' becomes aware of patriarchy to the point that is ends up evincing, admittedly by default, a certain sympathy for feminist ideas... or rather, for what it imagines (rather dimly) feminist ideas probably are.  Okay, it concieves them negatively: as the antithesis of something... and of something caricatured and comic and extreme.  Still, it's surely an improvement to have these matters being deliberately pondered from a broadly sympathetic position.  It's got to be better to make Linx's fascination with Sarah's gender difference a thematic point, a resonance with the extreme gender inequality of human society, than to just unthinkingly have the aliens refer to "the human female" as usual, as though femaleness is an adjunct to the term 'human', which thus means 'male' unless specified otherwise.

There are certainly problems with 'Time Warrior'.  Holmes undoubtedly pokes fun at Sarah's youthful idealism and naivete... but I think it is explicitly her youth and naivete that is being mocked when she is put into situations that bamboozle her, or even (as in the scene mentioned above) her displaced position in history.  Her political convictions emerge relatively unscathed... though this may be partly because they are expressed so vaguely as to escape outright contradiction.  She is certainly shown to get the wrong end of the stick frequently, and to be rash, etc... but is this actually any worse than poking fun at Jo Grant for being clumsy and unqualified, or at Zoe Heriot for being emotionally stunted and intellectually arrogant?  (Again, we have to decide if we're watching an actual increase in sexism or just a greater degree of openness about the sexism... not that there isn't something problematic in the technique of being openly sexist in order to throw feminism into relief.)  Of course, her feminism is associated with her youth and naivete, and yes the depiction of a feminist could have been much better... I mean, feminism as an actual set of ideological convictions is absent, replaced by vague stroppiness and bossiness... but, as I was hinting before, there is a negative case made for Sarah's viewpoint via the way the story takes pains to showcase (albeit in a watered-down form suitable for Saturday tea time) the sexism and misogyny of medieval society.  Yes, this can be read as a paradoxical upping of the sexist ante in response to a feminist character... but, in addition to the question of whether this really means more honesty rather than more sexism, there is also the issue of whether what we're seeing is itself sexist or a depiction of sexism (though I wouldn't want to be taken as saying that there is always a hard and fast division here).

Look... the common women in this story are shown to be a sort of slave caste, lower even than most of Irongron's 'dogs'.  Lady Eleanor is a different matter (thus showing, as does the business of the guys on Irongron's gate getting no meat, that social class is as profound a division as gender) but even she is specifically shown as being reliant on the say-so of her considerably less impressive husband, reduced to giving "orders for dinner" when he refuses to act on her counsel.  Later, of course, she persuades Sir Edward to let her send Hal to assassinate Irongron, an act of initiative that earns her a specifically sexist insult - "narrow hipped vixen" - from her intended victim.

There are moments when, as mentioned, there's a sexist charge to this ('This is all very un-right-on, isn't it?  Snigger snigger!') but, as I was saying, I think the overall effect is to acknowledge a context (i.e. centuries of institutionalised patriarchy) to Sarah's nebulous and stroppy discontent.  This is clearly less than perfect, but it strikes me as an advance on almost anything pertaining to this issue yet seen in the show. This is, after all, the same programme that thought describing 'Kingdom' as "hard, efficient, ruthless" would mean that the audience would splutter with astonishment when it turned out that 'Kingdom' was a woman.

It may be a crude measure, but it's a fact that there are no less than two strong female guest characters in 'Time Warrior, both of whom are manifestly smarter than the men around them.  One of them even gets to say the words "we are slaves".  Of course, in just about any other context, a group specifically described as slaves in a Doctor Who story would be likely to end up freed by the end (though less reliably in the Pertwee era, tellingly enough, c.f. the Functionaries in 'Carnival of Monsters')... but the failure to address this slavery is less about this specific story and more about the conventions of its genre.  After all, the women are not the only subjugated group in this story to have their subjection entirely ignored - or even tacitly approved - by the Doctor.  This is down to the fact that History has an unalterable inner structure in stories like this, a status quo that cannot be altered, a 'writtenness' that cannot be overwritten.  Indeed, the whole objective of the Doctor in this story (as in other historicals and pseudo-historicals) is to protect the status quo, the writtenness, the established structure, of the past.  This implicit conservatism of the historical genre provides a context to the Doctor's failure to react against the enslavement of the women, just as it provides a context to his failure to react against the subjection of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans (see below).  That his disinterest applies to both sets of slaves is evidence that this is a structural matter, stemming from the rules of this established genre.

"Mmmm... potatoes!"
As it happens, the women do better than the Anglo-Saxons in 'The Time Warrior'.  Their subjection is at least acknowledged (something which illuminates how much it matters when something is openly mentioned rather than just being routine background hiss).  And, crucially, Sarah gets that scene later on when she explicitly recommends to the female drudges that they set themselves free.  The phrase "set yourselves free" carries a brief but real incendiary charge whenever it is spoken in our culture, even in this context.  Whatever else may be wrong with this story, and this scene, the fact remains that Sarah says the phrase "set yourselves free".  Irongron's chief female scullion pours scorn on Sarah's words, yet she is clearly the cleverest of the castle's normal residents.  If Holmes' sin is to be cynical about feminism on the basis that many women are indoctrinated into patriarchy despite being intellectually superior to the men who rule them... well, that's actually fairly good going.  For Doctor Who.

Of course, things are rather spoiled later on when the Doctor and Hal make an effort to warn Irongron's men about the imminent explosion of the castle without bothering to tell the female servants.  For all we know, all the women die in the big bang at the end of Episode Four.  Unhelped, unmentioned and unmourned. Sarah, who was just exhorting those women to free themselves, never even asks about them as she watches the castle reduced to smoking ruins.  That's a BIG fumble.

By the way... Irongron's and Linx's mutual scorn for women ties in to the (mostly) unserious things I was saying earlier about them being engaged in a kind of romance.  Irongron makes a singularly unconvincing remark about Sarah being "not un-comely", which is telling in its very half-heartedness, in the way it is structured as a hedgy double-negative - so unlike his usual forthright manner.  He uses animal metaphors for women a lot.  As mentioned, Lady Eleanor is a "vixen", Sarah is a "little chicken".

3.  All Their Cadets in One Basket

Interestingly, Irongron uses an animal metaphor to describe Linx too.  He calls him "a broody old hen".  An explicitly female animal, referring to the incubation of eggs... appropriate enough since Linx had just been talking about Sontaran cadets "hatching".  But it indicates an ambivalence towards Linx's gender status, an ambivalence that is justified because, despite everyone in the story referring to Linx as "he", it seems clear (from his speeches in response to encountering Sarah) that 'he' is actually... well, the terminology defeats me.  He (I'll continue using the conventional personal pronoun for the sake of convenience) isn't hermaphroditic or androgynous since he evinces no sign of explicitly male or female traits.  I suppose the best word would be 'asexual', but in the scientific sense.  He's not a gendered-being that shows disinterest in sex so much as a gender-neutral being from a species which breeds via the asexual reproductive technique of cloning.

This isn't explicit in 'The Time Warrior' but is implied by Linx's remarks about human sexuality, coupled with his remarks about "hatchings of a million cadets at each muster parade" at "Sontaran Military Academy".  It seems strange to say that this kind of jargon implies cloning... yet the implication is buried in there, along with others.  The Sontarans have "been at war for millennia" and they value efficiency in reproductive matters.  Their reproductive cycle sounds as though it is organised by and conducted through their military training establishment.  To breed is to breed new soldiers.  To breed is to breed new cadets.  The Military Academy breeds the kids because that's what the kids are for: sending to Military Academy.  (Not, by the way, that far removed from the way feudal lords and kings would've viewed the production of sons.)  This all sounds like a state of emergency, as though the need for a constant supply of fresh troops has overridden all else, even biologically-evolved sex.  True, Linx boasts to Irongron that "there is not a galaxy in the Universe that our space fleet has not subjugated" but this is self-evidently a silly claim, revealed as such by its very implausible hugeness.  I think a truer glimpse of the state of Sontaran life comes in an unguarded comment Linx makes later, that one about rejoining "our glorious struggle for freedom".  The Doctor misunderstands this remark, understandably enough (it's the sort of thing conquerors say), because he instantly comes back with a non sequitur about there being "no such thing as the super-race".  But, coupled with the remarks about Sontaran reproduction, which make it sound like a production line under the control of the military, it's a justifiable reading of the story to see Linx as a representative of a race under threat of defeat and extinction... perhaps even as the victims of Rutan aggression.

We never find out which race started the Sontaran/Rutan war.  Whichever race the Doctor is talking to, Sontaran or Rutan, he needles them by saying that they're losing.  However... while we might doubt his taunting assessment of the Rutans in 'Horror of Fang Rock' as "defeated", there's better reason to take seriously his factual statements, since the Rutan doesn't quibble over them.  The Rutans "used to control the whole of the Mutter's Spiral" (a much more plausible notion than Linx's claim - made to someone he thinks of as a gullible savage who can't possibly know any different - that the Sontarans essentially still rule the entire universe). The Rutan itself refers to his peoples' "empire".

Moreover, the behaviour of the two races makes it look somewhat like the Sontarans are reactive while the Rutans are aggressive.  Their respective debut stories both feature lone representatives who fall to Earth, but while Linx finds a buddy (almost a soulmate) and hides out, the Rutan goes on an all-out murder spree.  Linx lands by accident too, unlike the Rutan who is a scout and has back-up on the way to nuke the planet.  All Linx wants to do is leave.  (Of course, later stories bugger this up.  However, even in 'The Sontaran Experiment' Styre and his Marshall are planning to invade an unoccupied planet, and then seize on a feeble excuse to call the whole thing off at the first sign of opposition.  You could say this is just evidence of their slavish adherence to procedure, something set up by Linx's parroting of official military assessments in 'The Time Warrior'... but then slavish adherence to procedure at the expense of action is itself a sign of timidity.)

Also - and this is very significant - the Sontarans have names while the Rutans don't.  This makes the Rutans far more akin to the monster type that includes the Daleks, Cybermen, etc., rather than the type that includes the Silurians and Ice Warriors.  Names matter.  The possession, articulation and/or recollection of a name means a great deal in these tales.  There are 'good' Silurians and Ice Warriors.  Such things are possible.  Those races have arguments, differing perspectives, personal free will, individual autonomy... they at least have the possibility, the capability, of ignoring orders or rejecting the group will.  I'm hoping to post something else later about the issue of monsters with and without individual names.  Here let it suffice to note that Sontarans have individual names and nowadays we have nice Sontarans, but no nice Daleks or Cybermen.  It turns out to be possible for Sontarans to be nice individuals (much as I personally think it sucks unwashed donkey balls).  This, I think, is because the possession of individual identity which is implied by names is part of Doctor Who's conception of 'freedom', whereas namelessness (often linked to a mechanical or cyborg nature) implies an eternally unfree collectivism (connected to notions of 'totalitarianism') which in turn is often linked to aggressive conquest.

Bearing that digression in mind, let's run with the idea that the Rutans were an aggressive collectivist empire who started the war when they attacked the Sontarans as part of their programme to control the Mutter's Spiral.  The Sontarans became a race ruled by military necessity, to the point of changing their reproductive system to a form of mass cloning based on the needs of the military for new recruits.  However, they haven't fully neutered themselves, much as Linx might seem 'asexual'.  If the single Sontaran reproductive system involves laying eggs... can't it be reasonably said that, in a sense, the whole race has become female?  At any rate, all this renders their status distinctly unstable within the gender dynamics at work in 'The Time Warrior'.  It may be the inner reason why Irongron can have a relationship with Linx which, in some ways flippantly outlined above, is structured like a romantic entanglement... but without there ever being any real and tenable sense that the relationship will bear a 'gay reading'.  Linx is not a male.  Indeed, beyond his formal asexuality, he is better described as a default female... at least when looked at from one angle.  Irongron senses as much and expresses this when he refers to his buddy as a "broody old hen".  In the society of the Middle Ages, Linx is disorienting for the men surrounding him.  He is clearly not a 'man' yet he reflects - even down to his spacesuit which resembles a suit of armour - their own intensely male warrior culture.  You can't have a gay romance between a man and a non-man.  But, by the same token, you might be able to have something with the shape of a romance between a man and a representative of a cloned species.  After all, cloning is all about eggs.

But there's another point here, already hinted at above...

4.  1066 and All That (or Robin Irongron and His Merrie Band of CHICKEN HEARTED KNAVES!!!)

We've reasoned that Linx may be a member of a race fighting for survival, struggling (in his words) "for freedom".  We've conjectured (not without tenable if tenuous reasons) that the Sontarans may have been attacked by the imperialistic Rutans, that the Rutans were the original aggressors.  The invaders, perhaps.

Well, this suggests another reason why Linx would get on very well with Irongron and his cronies.  Irongron, you'll remember, can "make nothing" of Sir Edward's "Norman scribble".  Irongron and his mates are, in short, Anglo-Saxons.  Sir Edward and his bunch are evidently Normans.  Moreover, going by Sir Edward's full name, we're in Wessex - the patch on which the first English (pre-Norman) kingdom was founded.  This is Norman power dominating the old stamping grounds of King Alfred and the base of his successors.  Sir Edward is the local Lord and Irongron is the outlaw surrounded by a band of followers.  In short, they are Sir Guy and Robin Hood.

That's what the Robin Hood legend is about: the conflict between Norman power, imposed from outside after the Conquest, and popular Anglo-Saxon resistance.  It is, at least, a kind of fantasy wish-fulfillment story of Saxon resistance, told by a crushed native people ruled by foreign occupiers.  If Linx's people were invaded and/or conquered by the Rutans, Irongron could probably relate.

(This will hardly be the last time Robert Holmes will riff on Robin Hood.  Just look at 'The Ribos Operation' for instance.)

The conflict between Normans and Saxons is one area where the story is not really very ambiguous at all.  It wholeheartedly supports the Normans against the Saxons, the conquerors against the conquered.  The Doctor immediately sides with Sir Edward and his wife, calling them "civilised people".  And, within the frame of the story, this is only too understandable, since Irongron and his gang are vicious marauders.  The oppression of women is mentioned but the oppression of Saxons by Normans is not.  The Normans seem passive, peaceful, the victims of Saxon aggression.  (Though, interestingly, it's the Anglo-Saxon women who clearly have the worst of the whole arrangement.)  On the whole, the story makes the Saxons into the invaders, aggressors, occupiers.  "I took this castle by force of arms.  Those who stood against me I slew."  This is the Norman picture of someone like Robin Hood.  Irongron is Robin as the thief, outlaw, terrorist, killer.  This is the Iraqi Resistance as described by the Americans.  This is in the tradition of storytelling that has the peaceful settlers always the objects of the unprovoked aggression of the Indians, that has the Israelis as the victims of the Arabs.  The roles of invader and invaded, of oppressor and oppressed, are reversed.  (And while the inner structure of the historical or pseudo-historical does provide a basis for this, as I said above, it's also true that 'Time Warrior' - like 'Reign of Terror' - goes above and beyond the call of duty in excusing the Doctor from the need to side with oppressed groups of humans.  It's not just like when he ignores slavery in the Roman Empire during 'The Fires of Pompeii' because History and the historical genre can't allow him to change it.  In 'Time Warrior' he doesn't just ignore the oppression of the Saxons, the oppression of the Saxons isn't there to be noticed.  On the contrary, it the Saxons doing the oppressing.  At least the story doesn't do the same thing with sexism and depict the Middle Ages as a time when men were oppressed by women.)

I'm not saying that there weren't thoroughly nasty Saxon outlaws, nor am I suggesting that the thigh-slapping, Errol Flyn, jolly-nice-chap version of Robin bears any relation to historical reality.  However, without ever forgetting that Robin is a myth, we can still appreciate the power of what he represents.  And we can still take sides.  This is not an insignificant issue, politically speaking.  The awareness of what the Norman conquest meant echoed down the centuries to the radicals of the 18th century, like Tom Paine.  It was the foundation of the English aristocratic and monarchical system as they knew it.  Even today, sadly, there is plenty of relevance for us in the story of the invaders and occupiers, and of the social outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.

The Doctor sides with the Normans and the story sides with the victors' version of history.  It sides against the people's myth of Robin and with the Norman rulers' myth of themselves as the embattled representatives of civilisation, of the people they rule as savages who must be put down and kept down.

It makes me remember that, in 'Horror of Fang Rock', the Rutan can be heard referring to the Sontarans as "rabble".  Well personally, I'm always on the side of the ones that get called rabble.  That's why the proper socialist attitude to Irongron would be to support his right to date whoever he wants, oppose him when he oppresses the women in his kitchen, but support him when he fights the Norman imperialist invaders... and, it must be said, their pet wizard.

Lady Eleanor is not amused.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Overwhelming Presence

Just been reading the lovely Colin Baker's (less than warm) remarks about his encounter with Jimmy Savile on the... umm... Daily Mail website.  Bleurgch.  I won't link.

Found this delightful comment below.  As ever, click to enlarge.

It may be trolling, of course... but I doubt it.  It has the ring of genuine idiocy about it.

It restores a little bit of one's faith in humanity to see that even the Daily Mail readers downvoted this icky little splat of blinkered, slavering, buttmunching cockwitttery.

Just shows.  It's a jungle out there.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

People Like Us

Lawrence Miles on 'nice-but-then' syndrome:

Re-writing the whole world in order to prop up a specifically late-twentieth-century agenda is bad enough, but WALKING TO BABYLON sets about re-writing the whole of history. Lady Ninan is supposedly a resident of ancient Babylon, but speaks and acts like a twentieth- century post-feminist liberal, thus "proving" that "people like us" have been making the world a lovely place in which to live throughout history; despite living in a city under constant threat of foreign attack, the Lady lets Bernice, a complete stranger and obvious alien, stay in her house without any form of introduction simply on the pretext that "people like us" have to stick together; Bernice has a relationship with a (Victorian, or early Edwardian?) traveller- cum-archaeologist who, despite the Victorian era's notoriety for male violence, bigotry and misogeny [sic] turns out to be such a "new man" that he becomes a stereotypical perfect gentleman from a Barbara Cartland novel; the two of them embark on a relationship which has every possible jagged edge systematically smoothed away by the text, almost as a demonstration of how nice, kind, polite and utterly unthreatening men can be picked up in any historical period; he's even completely unaware of the existence of male prostitution (!) - despite being well-schooled in history and hailing from an era in which most of the major scandals of the day involved public figures being found in homosexual brothels - in order to sledgehammer home the fact that he's so non-existant as a sexual presence that he can't possibly cause Bernice any harm or heartache, and as all good twentieth-century liberals know that's what good relationships are made of. 
It's not just the fact that any historical context is thrown straight out of the window. It's the fact that it's been done to facilitate such a false, banal, "consensus-approved" romance. The uber-politics of WALKING TO BABYLON are presented as an ideal, but to put it bluntly if I lived in an "ideal" world this sterile then I'd kill myself in a week. It'd be going too far to compare the novel to the kind of disinfected, state-endorsed culture described in books like 1984, but I'm going to anyway because that's how it made me feel. 
Yet WALKING TO BABYLON went straight to the top of the New Adventure polls when it was released, and in a sense it's not surprising. It tells the audience exactly what that audience wants to hear. Act in the "proper" manner and you, too, can live in a lovely soft- edged universe where everybody believes in exactly the same principles, regardless of their background or century, and you might even get to have sex with - according to your preference - either (a) Bernice or (b) a pretty, blushing young man who might as well have been lobotomized for all the personality he's got. This isn't a romance, this is Newspeak- culture, and like all Newspeak-culture it works because it's essentially reassuring.
- Lawrence Miles, interview, 2001. 

(From an interview found and posted on Facebook by Richard Pilbeam... otherwise I'd never have seen it.)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Children in Need

The BBC's failure to protect kids from Jimmy Savile is revolting, but it's hardly the beginning or the end of their disinterest in violence against children.  Certain children, anyway.  The keepers of Pudsey are strangely uninterested in the child victims of powerful and influential people... be they depraved DJs or depraved states that happen to be Western allies.

For instance, as I write this, the state of Israel - a brutal, aggressive, nuclear armed, apartheid state which is mysteriously supposed to be less of a threat to world peace than Iran - is murdering Gazan children.  (It does no good, by the way, to trot out that old chestnut about them not deliberately aiming at the kids... if you get a machine gun and spray bullets blindly into a school, it's no good later claiming you were only trying to hit the cigar-smoking TV personality lurking in the corner.)

This is nothing new, nor is the BBC response, which is as routine as it is pusilanimous.  Indeed, cowardice in the face of the powerful Israeli lobby (not to mention the backing Israel gets from the USA and our government) is the most charitable interpretation.  A less charitable - and probably more accurate - interpretation would be that those BBC content providers covering the 'conflict' in Gaza are unaware of the way they are loading and slanting their words.

Some examples?  Try these from the BBC website today.  Click on them to make them bigger.

Note that the 'Key Points' are all to do with the so-called 'targeted assassination' of a Hamas leader.  Note the phrase "militant groups", presumably including Hamas, a democratically elected party.  Note the prominence given to Israeli officials, who are allowed to frame the Israeli operation as being aimed at "terror targets" in response to "days of on going rocket attacks on Israeli civilians", the aim being to "protect Israeli civilians" (the only civilians who matter, or even exist, apparently).

No mention of the Gazan civilians, including young children, slaughtered.  Can you imagine how differently the page might read if the Palestinian rockets had caused any comparable damage to Israel, or if Iran had bombed somebody and caused as much suffering?

This one from today too:

Here's the headline.  Note the relative sizes (and thus importance) given to Israeli and Palestinian deaths... bearing in mind the ratios and the fact that Israel is immensely better armed.  Notice the decontextualised way the attack becomes "cross-border violence" in line with the BBC's usual way of depicting Israel/Palestine as a two-tribes-squabble issue, rather than the brutal domination of a subjugated captive minority by a powerful state.

Yesterday, the blog Electronic Intifada published a "statement from international academics who recently particpated in a conference on linguistics at the Islamic University of Gaza which decries major media outlets’ failure to report on recent killings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces in Gaza."  The statement spells out the issue far better than I could, and takes in the BBC's role as peddling the unbalanced and dishonest message.  You can read the whole thing here.  Here's a quote:

Articles that do report on the killings overwhelmingly focus on the killing of Palestinian security personnel. For example, an Associated Press article published in the CBC world news on November 13, entitled Israel mulls resuming targeted killings of Gaza militantsmentions absolutely nothing of civilian deaths and injuries. It portrays the killings as ‘targeted assassinations’. The fact that casualties have overwhelmingly been civilians indicates that Israel is not so much engaged in “targeted” killings, as in “collective” killings, thus once again committing the crime of collective punishment. Another AP item on CBC news from November 12 reads Gaza rocket fire raises pressure on Israel government. It features a photo of an Israeli woman gazing on a hole in her living room ceiling. Again, no images, nor mention of the numerous bleeding casualties or corpses in Gaza. Along the same lines, a BBC headline on November 12 reads Israel hit by fresh volley of rockets from Gaza. Similar trend can be illustrated for European mainstream papers.

News items overwhelmingly focus on the rockets that have been fired from Gaza, none of which have caused human casualties. What is not in focus are the shellings and bombardments on Gaza, which have resulted in numerous severe and fatal casualties. It doesn’t take an expert in media science to understand that what we are facing is at best shoddy and skewed reporting, and at worst willfully dishonest manipulation of the readership.

Here's a shot of the BBC article the statement links to:

This is an earlier report, from 12/11/12.  Note that no Israelis are reported as killed by rockets before the Israeli attack on Gaza.  The shocked Israelis are higher up the article than the dead Palestinians, who don't make it into the headline.  Would dead Israelis be mentioned as an afterthought in paragraph 3?  I'm guessing not.  Still, two of the dead Palestinians were "militants", so that's all right then. 

Just as the media is now engaged in a concerted effort to derail the child abuse scandal into a relentless concentration upon the Newsnight scandal (thus drawing all our eyes away from the possibility that the several sectors of the British establishment - including the government and Conservative Party - were engaged in paedophile rings) so too the real issue in Palestine must be obscured.  Just as the BBC is happily flagellating itself to appease the unappeasable reactionary press, so it is voluntarily refusing to see the ongoing horror of Israel's behaviour in Palestine... but it seems unfair to pick on them particularly.  As the linguists' statement says, the BBC are just going with the general flow.

I bang on about the BBC because I pay for it directly.  Just as my taxes and the taxes of Americans go to support Israeli aggression (through aid and government sponsorship of UK arms sales, for instance), so my licence fee goes toward helping them get away with it.









The 1917 Zone - Part 1: Tim Nice-But-Then and the Curse of Downton Abbey

The first in a new series of posts looking at the way Doctor Who has tackled World War One.

Looked at from a certain viewpoint, 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood' makes all the right noises.  All the proper sounds issue from it when it is tapped.  It notices social hypocrisy about war, perhaps even moralising about it.  For instance, while the young boys at the school are taught how to be good little soldiers, a veteran of the Crimean war is to be found begging outside the town hall.

There is also an acknowledgement that war is unpleasant.  The boys tremble and cry when forced to actually point weapons at an approaching enemy, with even the odious Hutchinson is seemingly relieved at the realization that they've been shooting at empty scarecrows.  Joan lost her husband at Spion Kop (a battle of the Second Boer War, which would've been a British victory but for the farcical incompetence of the British generals).  The Headmaster has his speech in which he describes using his dead mates as sandbags.

There is an attempt at balance, at the dramatic demonstration of values rather than the elaboration of a didactic authorial point-of-view.  Yet, the characters' values are not allowed to go uninterrogated.  Irony is much used.  So the Headmaster rounds up his boys to fight, responds with angry self-righteousness to the taunting of Baines/Son, and so on... but also evinces sincere horror at the idea of allowing what he thinks of as a little girl to be caught in the crossfire.  Of course, there's another irony there because he's prepared for male children to be sent into the line of fire.  Females, especially working class females, are to keep silent (presumably unless cheering you on your way to the carnage).

There's an awareness of open sexism and racism in the episodes, issues that other forays into the past - 'Daleks in Manhattan' for instance - have almost entirely ignored and effaced.  Baines and Hutchinson look down on Martha and Jenny and make their nasty little racist joke.  John Smith assumes that Martha's talk of aliens is a case of "cultural misunderstanding"; a primitive failing to comprehend the difference between fiction and reality.  Joan scoffs at the idea of a black maid training to be a doctor, apparently finding this concept even more immediately and self-evidently ridiculous than time travel or aliens.

The Class Struggle in Trumpton

There's quite a common fad nowadays in TV drama, perhaps best exemplified by Mad Men: setting a story in a past era allows lots of implied sneering at crass, blatant, old-style sexism, racism, etc... all underwritten by a kind of tacit, back-slapping awareness of how much better we are than the people back then, now that we're all enlightened liberals, cured of such silly shibboleths.  In 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood' there is at least an awareness of class as a factor, though 'classism' is depicted as just another category of prejudice alongside racism and sexism.  This representation of 'classism' arises through the implicit contrast of the Trumptonesque community that is depicted - Mr Farmer, Mr Baker, Miss Maid, Mr Teacher, etc. - with the willingness of the story to notice inequalities in the way people are treated.  Class is thus effaced via the Trumptonisms while also hinted at as a way in which a minority group of scullions are ill-treated and disadvantaged; a safe way of noticing inequality that permits liberal clucks of disapproval while leaving real class struggle obscured.  There is no inkling that class society may be the fundamental problem, that this may even be the reason why the society of Britain in 1913 has an Empire into which it will soon be feeding an entire generation like steak into a mincer.

Nor would one expect any such inklings.  This story is an artifact of mainstream entertainment production.  It is to be expected that it will fit snugly into the hegemonic ideology of the industry.  It occupies the liberal mainstream and takes the standard approach to the national past: it interrogates aspects of that era which we think we can now look back on with a degree of condescension, disavowing elements of the past that we have supposedly progressed beyond, thus salvaging and embracing wider notions of national identity and heritage which thus seem to have weathered necessary critique.  The solution is implied by the critique, thus rendering the critique a form of support for the wider notion of national progress, of a national virtue more fundamental than the transient flaws.  This is a strategy very much used in such mainstream entertainment, a way of representing our 'national' past (and, in a slightly different mode, our present).  Look at 'The Empty Child' / 'The Doctor Dances' for an in-Who example.   The sexual morality of 1940s Britain is subjected to critique by aspects of the story (i.e. the implied abuse of children co-existing in a society that stigmatizes very-young unwed mothers, different levels of acceptance towards gays at different class levels) but the "damp little island" emerges vindicated by the mending of the central fractured relationship and the surrounding context of progress triumphant, i.e. the supposed national heroism of fighting Hitler, and the promise of social safety nets in future ("don't forget the NHS").

Missing the Target

I think the most telling scene in 'Human Nature' may the one where Tim Latimer is forced to practice using the Vickers gun against some dummies.  It shows the story's highest moments of critique but there is a gaping hole in the scene which shows, by its very near-absence, the issue upon which the story tries to foreclose, partly unsuccessfully, as it turns out... (something I'll write about later).  The scene emphasizes that boys are being taught warfare at school.  Imperial warfare, yes, because the Headmaster says that their targets are "tribesmen from the Dark Continent".  The Head overrides Tim Latimer's qualms about shooting people armed only with spears in the most condescending terms, telling him that he hopes that the boy will one day have a "just and proper war" in which to "prove himself".  This brings on a flashforward in which Tim sees himself and Hutchinson engaged in that very future war, seemingly about to die (as it turns out, the Head is right about Tim "proving" himself... the moment he forsees here is the moment that, we will later learn, both prompts and endorses his decision to take part in the war, instead of being a conshy Red Cross volunteer as in the novel).  Tim hesitates and consequently gets a beating from the sneeringly sadistic Hutchinson, with Smith's approval.

Everything about this scene screams at us that we are supposed to disapprove.  The way the scene is evidently expected to surprise most viewers (those not public school educated) by depicting children being taught how to use machine guns, the incongruously youthful-look of the actor playing Tim, the bluff and blimpish attitude of the Headmaster, the idea of him actively hoping for a war, his notion of war as a proving ground, the overplayed loathsomeness of Hutchinson, the shock of seeing Smith (the quasi-Doctor) consent to the corporal punishment of a child, the stony-faced Joan as she looks on in evident disapproval, the racism inherent in the reference to Africans, the foreshadowing of the horrors of the trenches, etc.  It's all calculated to make the average early-21st century Western liberal everyperson squeal with disapproval, even down to the "beating" that Tim is condemned to.  Is there anything more likely to cause gales of outraged horror than the idea of pulling down a young boy's trousers and thwacking his bottom with a stick?  The scene wields this like a triumph.  'See how horrible it was back then?'

More seriously, we are quite evidently expected, as audience members, to empathize with Tim's moral scruples.  Yet notice what is not said.  Tim doesn't object to shooting at "tribesmen" on the grounds that he has no business being in their country.  He objects on technical grounds, on the grounds that the level of weaponry is mismatched, that such an uneven conflict is unfair.

Of course, we wouldn't expect anybody in such a situation, in that place at that time, to object on anti-imperialist grounds or anti-war grounds.  Nobody in a British public school in rural England in 1913 would be likely to interrupt a lesson to object to imperialism in the manner of the radical Left of the time (indeed, when the crunch came, the majority of the European Left shamefully accommodated themselves to imperialism, nationalism and war).  Nor would anyone in such a context be likely to enunciate objections that reflect our widespread present-day liberal embarrassment over the Empire (bearing in mind that, these days, even apologists for the Empire like Niall Ferguson have to admit that it entailed much that was morally dubious).  However, the scene avoids only the crassest possible method of inserting modern concerns/attitudes into the mouths of characters (the Walking to Babylon method, one could call it, after the novel in which a Victorian male and some ancient Babylonians think like modern Western liberals so that Benny can like them).  If it aims to present a snapshot of the past untainted by our desired attempt to see our own concerns reflected in the thoughts and actions of the characters, it fails.  It succeeds in rejecting modern ways of thinking only to the extent that it rejects any focus upon the issue of British imperialism.  The scene forecloses noticeably upon this issue, while openly addressing other (more mainstream, less radical) modern moral concerns.  It shows us, quite clearly, the problems of the past by which we ought to be shocked... and imperialism doesn't figure, except perhaps as an implied by-product of racism (which is a reversal of the real sequence).  Racism is among the targets of the scene, certainly.  However, this very proffering of racism as an evil of the past effaces both present-day racism (which we like to think of as a rare departure from the norm... which it isn't) and any further investigation into why the Headmaster would characterize the practice dummies as "tribesmen".  He does it because he's a bit of an old racist.  End of.  Gosh, they were politically incorrect back then, weren't they?  Tim's objection to shooting the "tribesmen" despite their lack of modern weaponry is forcefully waggled in our faces as evidence of his (apparently natural and intrinsic) moral extra-sensitivity, his ahead-of-his-time-ness, his like-us-ness, for which he will be martyred to the cane by the posh barbarians of nearly-a-century-ago.

Marching Onwards and Upwards

We are plagued by Downton Abbey syndrome these days: the past re-imagined and sanitised to make it palatable to modern sensibilities.  There are various methods.  The most extreme method is to simply ignore things (for instance, it would surely have been very unlikely that Solomon in 'Daleks in Manhattan' would be able to walk around 1930s New York without anyone discriminating against him on the grounds of race).  Otherwise, aspects that seem unfortunate to us are depicted in a way that makes them seem like aberrations, or as atavistic holdovers amidst the whiggish march of liberal progress.  The real barometers of History are an enlightened few - those most forward-thinking, those most like us, those furthest forward on the upward curve of liberal cultural evolution - grieve over these aberrations and try to combat them, or at least flout them.  They are in the story to represent us in the past.  To be nice - like we are - but back then.  The nice-but-then characters anticipate and/or champion a modern liberal social outlook, despite being decades (or centuries) away from the historical period in which it will develop.  Thus Garrow's Law (a kind of Judge John Deed in period costume... I promise you, it's every bit as ghastly as it sounds) has the 18th century lawyer William Garrow feeling political sympathy and romantic empathy for a persecuted gay couple, thus mapping 21st century liberal notions of sexuality and political morality onto a past era which would've found them incomprehensible.  

Downton Abbey itself is based on this kind of retroactive moralising, but from a deeply disingenuous and outright Tory point of view (in the sense of 'benevolent' patriarchy and one-nation paternalism, not the really-existing-conservatism of ultra-freemarketeering rhetoric).  Downton Abbey's portrayal of class takes in the Trumptonesquerie of the 'we're all in it together, and we all have our role to play' view, mixed with a half-amused (oh-ho-weren't-they-politically-incorrect?!) and half tutting presentation of cultural mores and manners.  The attitudes are depicted so as to simultaneously shock and titilate modern sensibilities.  Class is manifested in terms of cultural attitudes that are funny in their old-fashionedness.  Magge Smith's character is the tell-tale marker of how we're meant to see things: she's outrageously snobbish but her snobbery is evidently supposed to be likeable for its outrageousness, its truculent pig-headedness, its obstinacy.  The old battleaxe is lovable for the very attitudes which are presented as the quaint eccentricities of a noble relic.  She, and the past she comes from, are ultimately absolved.  Meanwhile, Hugh Bonneville is the essence of the benevolent patriarch of one-nation Tory myth.  He's the nice guy who happens to have a duty of care for everyone thrust upon him by his elevated position.  The presentation of the 'Great War' in DA takes a similar route.  It was a catastrophe that engulfed everybody in Trumpton... sorry, Downton, equally; there were some horrible things like shellshock; some of the attitudes of people during the war were amusingly/shockingly 'of their time'; the root cause was cultural rather than structural; the ruling class had a duty of care and, by and large, they made good, etc.  The show even tries (ludicrously crudely) to depict some of the social changes brought about by the war, by having the upper-crust characters suddenly interact far more intimately with the below-stairsers.  The whiggish march continues as His Lordship enjoys a tortured bromance with his valet, etc.  In many ways, Grantham (the Earl of) is a nice-but-then character.  He's not 'the same' as us, but he's one of those who paved the way for the world to reach our wonderful plateau of tolerance and equality... indeed, by the Tory standards of his show, we may have gone to far down that road as a society.  He's a lost ideal that we should aspire to emulate: the man who made drastic class divisions work for everyone, the way they were 'supposed to', without our modern excesses.

'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood' is not as bad as DA, but it has a bad case of nice-but-then syndrome.  In just the Vickers-gun-practice-scene, both Tim and Joan are nice-but-then characters.  What the nice-but-then characters disapprove of is very telling.  It is a way to measure what the text expects (so to speak) its audience to disapprove of.  It is a measure of the normative assumptions that the text's creators take for granted.  What they are given to frown at is a way of measuring the parameters of the politically conceivable within the text.  The scene we've been looking at acknowledges the issues of racism, jingoism, blimpishness, physical brutality in education, etc., but, as noted, it forecloses upon the issue of imperialism.

Moreover, even those sins it notices are safely packaged away within the past, within the bad-old-days that may be acknowledged as bad to the extent that bad things like these happened then.  We, from our position of modern-minded, liberated, liberal, tolerant, progressive, humane nowness, can afford to tut at the silly and unpleasant behaviour of the people of 1913.  We can compare ourselves to them and (especially when we see ourselves vicariously present and stony-faced in the persons of the nice-but-then characters) feel mighty good about ourselves.

Of course, this sort of thing didn't begin with Mad Men or Downton Abbey.  The nice-but-then character is not a new invention.  In 60s Doctor Who, just off the top of my head, there's the guy in Nero's court, freeing slaves because he's a secret Christian (don't get me started).  Indeed, the nice-but-then character may be embedded in every foray Doctor Who takes into the past.  It may literally happen within the narratives of 'An Unearthly Child', 'Marco Polo', 'The Aztecs', etc., with Ian and Barbara - the 'civilized', late-20th century Westerners - trying to explain friendship and human rights to the savages, Easterners and natives of yore.


Lots more of this to come, I'm afraid.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Cruel and Cowardly

Trigger Warning.

So, Jimmy Savile and all that.  The hidden well of suppurating pus beneath the now-picked scab of BBC light entertainment.

It would seem that vast amounts of Doctor Who were made by an organisation that, in its widespread branches and ascending echelons, actively colluded in facilitating and covering-up the abuse and rape of children.  Lots of children.

By itself, this observation is irrelevant to the wider scandal, and to dwell on it from the fan standpoint would surely amount to morally myopic solipsism of the first degree.  What matters isn't how we feel about it, or how it changes our viewing of contemporaneous episodes.  On the list of things that matter, that's so far down that it's in an appendix, in small print.  Yet it surely demands some thought from those of us steeped in the show, in the history of it and the watching of it.

Most of us fans have - via the videos and DVDs and toys and... ahem... websites - given unreasonable amounts of our time and loyalty and extra money to the BBC.  The same organisation that cosetted and enabled a man who, beyond being a routine right-wing shitsmear of a type all-too-common in the entertainment world, was also a known child rapist.  The BBC, the makers and marketers of the children's own show that the adults adore, instititionally sat on the knowledge and did nothing.

We shouldn't, of course, be shocked out of any illusions about the BBC being a beneveolent, lovable old auntie or any such mindless, sentimental bollocks.  I'm now past the point where I'd be happy to take part in any 'Proud of the BBC' campaigns.  I guess even Mitch Benn would probably not write the same lyrics, were he writing today.

No, no.  The BBC News helps naturalise and peddle and thus facilitate wars, invasions, corruption, hard-right government policies, police brutality, neo-liberal assumptions galore, and a thoroughly establishment view of reality.  This is it's notion of balance and objectivity.  Andrew Marr and Jeremy Vine and other such clueless parrots of capitalist realism, spewing endless reiterations of hegemonic ideology.  BBC drama and comedy and entertainment shows - Doctor Who included - generally promulgate deference, hierarchy, cultural racism, heterodoxy and conformity, heteronormativity, contempt for the working class and bourgeois values.  The BBC, as a force in the culture industries, instinctively advocates respect for authority and royalty and capitalism and established power.

That it is loathed and hated poisonously by the Murdoch press and the rest of Britain's reactionary print media is testament only to the fact that, being publically owned, it doesn't earn profit for the capitalist class directly, and even cuts into a wedge of the market.  Being nominally accountable to the public, it is occasionally capable of mild deviations from the ideological ultra-lunacy of the press, red-top or 'quality'.  From the standpoint of Melanie Phillips and persons of her loathsome ilk, it's communism to even affect neutrality over, say, Israel/Palestine, even if the real effect of your coverage is to perpetuate all the reactionary lies peddled about the conflict.  That the BBC isn't 'as bad' as the Daily Mail is no excuse.  It may even be its own special kind of crime, since the appearance of sanity and neutrality gives its heavily ideological programming a veneer of respectability that the Mail lacks (for all but the most far-gone).

It's also a hierarchical institution, run by relatively wealthy, expensively-educated members of the social elite.  It should be no shock that it will engage in ruthless arse-covering, upward arse-kissing and total disregard for the rights or testimonies of people lower down the pecking order.  That's what hierarchies are like.  That's what they're for.

Even so, and granting all of the above, I'd be worried about myself if I weren't still shocked by the corporation's wide-ranging complicity in and cover-up of child rape.  I am.  I should be.  So should we all.  We should all be uncomfortable when we next sit down to watch a favourite episode, knowing that it may have been filmed in the same building where Savile was sat, perhaps fondly remembering his most recent conquest, secure in the knowledge that the people upstairs would do nothing about it.

Anyone anxious to re-watch 'In a Fix with Sontarans'?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Playing with Dolls

UPDATE, 25/09/12:  If you read this post, please read on through the comments too.  Some astute readers used the comments section to set me straight on some issues both of fact and interpretation.  As a result, my attitude towards 'Night Terrors' is now considerably more negative than my initial reaction (which you can read in the main review below).  In fairness to myself, I do spend most of the piece saying what I don't like about 'Night Terrors', including identifying some of what I call the "latent hostility" towards working-class people... but I failed to notice the wider context of the episode and so also the scale of the problem.  I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong (of course, I do really) but I hate that I blogged before giving myself sufficient time to think.  

Okay, my foolhardy project of catching up with all the Doctor Who I've not seen in order to re-synch with the new stuff (and hopefully provide myself with blogging material) continues.

Last night I finally watched 'Night Terrors'. Much to my astonishment, I didn't absolutely hate it. I mean, it wasn't particularly good... but it wasn't actively offensive most of the time either. Which is fairly good going for Moffat-era Who written by Gatiss.

I was horrified by the idea that the Doctor now hears and answers prayers like God, with the pleas of a little boy travelling up to him through the heavens, but that was somewhat neutralised later by some technobabble explanation that made it sound very much like a special case.  In the end, I liked that the Doctor actually seemed comparatively less full of himself, and more like a guy making it up and thinking it out as he went along.  Matt Smith should be encouraged to slow down a bit more often.  He had some nice, quiet moments (inbetween all the usual frenetic gibbering) that were very likeable.  He does 'kindly' rather well.

There were cliches galore, of course.  An old lady complains about her knees.  A yobbo guy with a pitbull.  Hoodies, etc.

Where would any mainstream BBC drama be nowadays if it had to try and depict a housing estate without the employment of hostile cliches?  I think the latter stages of RTD's depiction of Rose's estate are the last example of such places being sketched without such latent hostility.

But... there was an interesting visual stress on the uniformity and blandness of the housing estate, bathed in that sickly yellow night-time street-light aura.

And this made the opulent but fake interior of the 'mansion house' into a fairly interesting visual counterpoint.

Of course, it was entirely predictable that the mansion would turn out to be a dolls house.  But even that was kind of covered when the Doctor immediately realises it when he ends up there, treating the conclusion as though it's self-evident.  It looks like evidence of two tracks of thought at work in the story.  We're more on the Doctor's wavelength than the other characters... which is not self-evidently the wrong way to do it.  It does, however, hammer home the idea of the Doctor's intellectual superiority... which is questionable.  Is it really superiority to think in such a ludicrously illogical way?  Within the confines of cult TV, I suppose... which only emphasizes the way in which Moffat-era Who consciously operates in a universe run along the lines of cult TV.  To be clued-up about how reality works in this show is to think like a cult TV writer.

Parenthetically, I wonder what sex the Croatian traffic warden was.  Why wasn't the story about him or her?  Unsympathetic, I guess.  At least, that would be the assumption.  The story can only engage us because Alex and Claire are 'typical' Brits, i.e. native born, white, heterosexual, etc.  Still, the neutral mention of an Eastern European worker (albeit in a job that is typically stigmatised) is relatively good going these days.

On the subject of gender politics... this is the second time in the same season that a father/son reconciliation/understanding is treated as monumentally significant, leaving the mother absent or near-absent in the background.  Also, Claire's infertility is simply a plot point (this issue © Richard Pilbeam).  We never get to hear how she feels about it.  She's not involved in the resolution of the problems.  In fact, she seems never to be told that her son is actually an alien cuckoo and she's got a barren womb (O, poor woman... robbed of her ability to be a true mother, a female's only true role and goal in life!).  This is typical Gatiss.  Remember the abused Mum in 'The Idiot's Lantern'.  Nobody bothers to wonder how she'll feel about her son reconciling with the man who's been terrorizing her for years.  The Doctor and Rose simply remind the young man that he should be nice to his Dad, whatever he may have done.  In 'Night Terrors', we get an insight into how Alex feels about Claire's infertility, but Claire's feelings seem irrelevant to the story, even non-existent.  In the end, it's implicitly better that she be kept in the dark about the workings of her own body.

I'm beginning, as I write this, to wonder if I was too hasty when I said that the episode wasn't actively offensive.  Maybe it just looks better because it's sandwiched between loads of Moffat-written 'strong women'.  Claire, at least, seems able to think about things other than Her Man.  She's depicted as being something more than just a wife and quasi-mother.  With Alex sacked, she's the family breadwinner.  Of course, she's a nurse... which is a responsible job outside the domestic environment (good) but is still one of those female jobs that is 'sympathetic' in the terms of patriarchal fiction.  A 'caring', 'nurturing' job.  A kind of displaced motherhood.  The classic example of this kind of thing is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which there was only one regular female character who wasn't a 'carer' of some kind... and she got killed almost immediately.  Too scary.

(Well... there was Ro Laren, who was the hardbitten non-conformist who gradually melted to Riker's charms, however she might refuse to admit it.  Sigh.)

I mention TNG because they also had an episode called 'Night Terrors' which was scarier than this because it dared to be quiet.  I think quietness is the key to real scariness.  This episode of Doctor Who rather fumbles its own self-imposed mission to be horror-film-style-scary by doing the usual thing of never letting the jabbering dialogue stop, let alone the music.  Look at the opening.  We have a squeaky child's swing.  Why do we need Murray Gold's bland gloop gurgling on underneath.

In the end, the dolls weren't particularly scary because:

a) we'd already seen them in trailers (a persistent problem for nu-Who, even without the 'help' of the Radio Times),

b) it was entirely predictable that they'd twitch into life, and

c) they didn't really seem to have any reason to be there or to do what they did.  Saying "We just want to play" and converting people into more dolls... what did that have to do with anything?  It was all very formulaic, standard and obvious.  Cue the inevitable nursery ryhme music.  (Yes, the exact same thing irritates me about 'Remembrance of the Daleks', before anyone cries hypocrisy.)

There was a rather good moment which looked like an implicit critique of the Doctor and the show, when the Doctor is in the bedroom with the kid playing with toys while the father/adult faces up to the frightening/painful/grubby reality of money worries in the next room.  The story touched upon austerity and unemployment.  However, it cast it in rather silly terms - villainous (working class) landlord/super vs virtuous, sacked family man.  The landlord (well, supervisor, as I say) is a chav stereotype.

Big screen telly, tasteless carpet, etc.  The depictions of working people were, at least, less insufferably cutesy than those in the similar episode 'Fear Her', even if they were more cynical and hostile.

Of course, the end let it down.  Into a pit of syrup.  The monsters were eradicated by the boy 'believing in himself' and 'facing his fears' (puke) and, natch, by the re-establishment of the nuclear family unit and heteronormative contentment.  Earlier in the episode, I found myself responding to Alex's fear and frustration, but his mechanical switcheroo between "But he's an alien!" back to "But he's my son!" just felt like the gyrations of a wind-up dummy.  Ironically enough, it all looked (to me) a bit like the writer was moving his dolls around inside his little house.  Daddy doll hugs Little Boy doll and then Mummy doll turns up and they all live happily ever after.  It seems unfair to be too hard on Gatiss about this because it really is standard procedure nowadays.  If they remade 'Snakedance' they rewrite it so the Mara was defeated by Lon realising how much he loved his Mum... well, his Dad probably (see above).

At least we didn't get something I feared: the nasty supervisor guy turning over a new leaf.  That would've been truly vomworthy.

On the whole, not all that bad.  Probably the least irritating episode since 'Vincent and the Doctor'.  Surely, the best Gatiss TV script... though that's not saying much.