Friday, 27 January 2012

Skulltopus 7: Tentacle, Plastic and Bone

The first fully-fledged tentacular monster in Doctor Who - in the senses of being both properly cephalopodic and of being a central monstrous antagonist of the Doctor's - is the Nestene entity at the end of 'Spearhead from Space'.  That's seven years in before the show does a proper tentacular monster with real plot significance.

Apart from 'Image of the Fendahl' (which we'll get to one day) and the Cyber-head in 'The Pandorica Opens', 'Spearhead from Space' is also the closest Doctor Who has ever come to merging or (horrid word coming up, but needs must...) juxtaposing the skull and the tentacle.  If you don't know why I think that's significant, please go back and read my other Skulltopus posts, starting here.

The Nestenes manifest as a tank full of tentacles...

Yes Jon, pull a comedy face and go cross-eyed.
That's the perfect way to express mortal terror.

...inside which we can see a pulsing, vaguely obscene-looking anus/oesophagus/lung thing.  Meanwhile, the same story's main images of the monstrous are unfinished-looking plastic replicas of human beings.  There is something faintly but definitely skull-like about their faces, especially when they're not wearing wigs.

Note especially the empty eye-holes,
a detail lost in subsequent appearances.

If I were writing an Auton story now, my first priority would be the creation of a way for the tentacles and the plastic to co-reside in the same entity.  This never happens in 'Spearhead', but the Autons do stand and wait in the room where the Nestene tentacled thing hides.  At the end of the story, Channing reverts to a cruder Auton-form (once again making the Auton face skull-like, in that its appearance is linked to death in the more sophisticated Nestene replicas).  A line of green matter is spattered on the dead and reverted Channing's plastic face.

Bless you.

This is the closest that the plastic gets to merging with the alien flesh.  The proximity of the plastic skull and the green organic squidgy creature is tantalising.

It Adds Up

Doctor Who - because of its (spurious) materialist/empiricist/educational remit - has a set of internal rules that generally make the explicitly supernatural off-limits.  The show tends to have been made with the intention of at least outwardly championing the Enlightenment values and certainties.  As I argued here, this self-imposed attempt to foreclose upon the supernatural guides the show towards material (and materialist) monsters.

However, owing to the converging influences of children's fiction, mythological narrative (to which both SF and kid's adventure fiction are much indebted) and the gothic (usually mediated through 20th century popular horror, most especially Universal and Hammer monster flicks), the show simultaneously inherits an underlying magical conception of reality and a tendency to make its monsters metaphorical and hauntological (if not usually spectral in the full sense), i.e. haunting us with the 'repressed'.

Add the influence of 'soft' social SF literature, the prevailing 'lefty liberal' ethos among BBC creative types (which Barry Letts has spoken about) and the social context of pre-Thatcher Britain (in which there prevailed a broad 'liberal' socio-economic consensus), and you get a show that ends up representing this or that material nightmare of modernity in a great, mostly-liberal, allegorical morality play for kids.

We end up with loads of stories about hi-tech war, totalitarianism, industrial genocide, biological racism, commercial slavery, etc.  Yet these are all modern phenomena, products of the industrial age, thus - in the analysis that I accept - products of capitalism... and that's without going into how capitalism actively generates and even needs them.

The show keeps harping on about issues that, in the end, trace back to the capitalist system... but this issue is usually not noticed and certainly should not be acknowledged, even when it becomes - as it sometimes does - imminent.

The show is, ultimately, a product of capitalism, even if, for decades, it was relatively  independent of the stifling atmosphere of commodification produced by the system, owing to its being produced by a relatively independent 'public service broadcaster' with a social remit other than profit.  (By the way... this was always partial and compromised.  The Daleks saw to it that the show survived because they were an instant hit and were thus instantly marketable.  We all know that merchandise has been produced off the back of Who by the truckload.  The BBC was never any kind of pure, totally non-commercial attempt at a functionalist, benevolent, state-run industry.  Only people ill-informed enough to think 'socialism' means state control of society could imagine that such a creature had, for good or ill, ever once existed at Broadcasting House.)   

Doctor Who is part of the capitalist culture industry, with a very distinct niche within it.  Moreover, no amount of 'liberal' socio-economic consensus or 'lefty liberal' internal ethos can, on their own, amount to a deliberate, radical, structural critique of capitalism.  However, there can come a point where the liberal complaints and anxieties stack up in such a way that capitalism becomes the elephant... or perhaps, the giant squid... in the room.

Vernacular Tentacular

I think that, starting with 'Spearhead from Space', Doctor Who starts bringing the tentacular into play when it can no longer entirely put off a confrontation with something that it usually avoids and omits, something that it doesn't want to face but to which it keeps being lead back... namely, capitalism.  Not greedy individual capitalists, not evil businessmen, not corrupt businesses, not evil corporations... but capitalism as an exploitative social system.  70s Doctor Who, uses the tentacular monster as a way of semiotically evading - and, in a dialectical / paradoxical way, also meaning - capitalism as a system which links and/or causes different forms of oppression.

In a children's adventure series, one which fulfills a very distinct role in the culture industry and in mainstream mass popular culture, there are certain things which cannot be talked about... capitalism as a systemic whole, with exploitation, racism and imperialism woven inextricably into its essential structure, is untouchable and unmentionable. And yet, obsessed as it is with the mightmares of modernity, how can Doctor Who always manage to leave it unmentioned?  It frequently finds itself sliding towards this danger zone.  In the 70s especially, when this happens, tentacles usually appear.

According to China Miéville (see my account here), tentacles entered the Western tradition - ushered in by that style / affect / trend known as the Weird - as a deliberately incoherent, unprecedented and unfreighted 'novum', a scream of meaningless horror and incomprehension at the oncoming collapse of enlightenment certainties brought by the crises of late 19th / early 20th century modernity.  Doctor Who somehow misappropriates the tentacle.  The Weird use of the tentacular is, by Miéville's account, as a signifier for the meaningless, the indescribable, the incoherent, the incomprehensible, the unrecognisable.  Who creatively misunderstands it, pressing it into service as a way of obfuscating capitalism whenever it starts to notice that it is a systemic generator of modern nightmares, whenever its own metaphorical and hauntological style threatens to produce metaphors that are too penetrating about where modern nightmares come from.

Tentacles and capitalism become temporarily linked in the internal language of signifiers which constitute Doctor Who.  This continues as a fully-fledged semiotic connection throughout the 70s, dying out somewhat but occasionally recurring in a reduced form during the 80s and onwards.  I've looked at 'The Creature from the Pit', suggesting ways in which it can be seen as terminating the semiotic connection, here.


I've looked at some of the early history of the octopoidal in Who here, suggesting that Terry Nation may have been responsible for laying the groundwork for a connection between tentacles and capitalism, partly by using the tentacular in something akin to its Weird 'blank' mode, partly by invoking tentacles at narrative moments where people are being exploited for labour and/or commodities.  (The Animus in 'The Web Planet' is a whole different kettle of ballgames which I'll get around to one of these days.)

As times changed, protest and class struggle erupted and the swinging 60s became turbulent and, at times, revolutionary.  In 1967, Doctor Who tries for the first time to engage with some of the new notions that are rocking Western society.  The result is 'The Macra Terror', which features monsters which seem to genuinely experiment with merging the gothic and the Weird (see here) and which seem to express some unease with British capitalism (see here).  This is the prelude.

In the high-point of the show's engagement with the radical 60s, 'The War Games' puts forward an anti-imperialist message... however, it falters into a weak reformism at the end and, crucially, fails to bring in capitalism in any way. 

Automatic for the Products

And then came 'Spearhead from Space' by Robert Holmes.  Holmes had already shown anti-authoritarianism of 'The Krotons' and done some riffs on mining corporations and piracy in 'The Space Pirates'.  'Spearhead' is more radical than both put together - possibly even more radical (in the sense of getting to the root of things) than 'The War Games' - even though the radical implications are almost certainly unconscious and show through very obliquely and elliptically.

I've gone into all this here, and suggested that the eruption of the tentacular at the end of 'Spearhead from Space' might be a sign of the show in flight, as it were, from a thematic convergence towards a critique of capitalism as systemically alienating, soaked in commodity fetishism, exploitative, oppressive, racist and imperialist.  (If you now think I've gone mad, click the above link and see my reasoning.)

This use of the radically incoherent tentacular at the end of 'Spearhead' is reinforced (though only just) by the sequel.  'Terror of the Autons' simultaneously develops and softens much of the unease about capitalism that is submerged in the original Auton story.  The implied critique of mass produced consumer culture and a representation of alienation through hostile commodities is carried over. The death in this story emanates from mass produced products, from consumer goods. 'Terror' lacks the immensely potent and oneiric spectacle of the shop-window dummies springing to life, smashing out of their windows and, bedecked in finery and price tags, strolling down the consumerist high street, surrounded by shop signs and brand names, slaughtering workers and shoppers...

...but it generalises the same nightmare.  If the attack in the high street was the spearhead, this is the reign of terror.  Everything plastic, everything produced, every commodity, is now out to get you.  Even the promotional gifts are now likely to kill you.  'Spearhead' didn't suggest that the baby dolls made at Auto Plastics were literally dangerous.  In 'Terror', the toy will spring to life and lunge at your jugular, the novelty inflatable chair will eat you alive... even your phone will strangle you.  To the Master, all this death is just his way of "trying out a new product".

Where was the director, that's what I want to know.

While wider in scope, the threat in 'Terror' seems almost comic in its clutter.

As in ‘Spearhead’, the evil nestles and coils in the factory and the businessman's office. As in ‘Spearhead’, the factory owner / manager is enslaved by mind control and colludes with the Nestenes as they mesh with his means of production.  The Nestenes want to mass produce themselves and takeover the market. They also find a way in under our noses by disguising themselves within the context of policemen and police cars. Ask these bobbies where they’re taking you and you’ll find blank-faced, eyeless horrors lurking under their latex masks. They’re there to stop you opposing the immanent ascendency of the evil commodities.  Even more than in 'Spearhead', uniformed officers are protectors of property.

However, the Master takes the edge off them as villains.  And the way the Autons speak like robots makes them less sinister and more comprehensible.

As in 'Spearhead' hierarchy and class show themselves.  The Master disguises himself as a workman; he asserts power over Rossini by pointing out that he is really Lew Russell; he hypnotises people all over the place (a new detail at this point).  Rex Farrell is dominated by his father.  McDermot is murdered by the Master (the title itself shows that Holmes associates evil with hierarchy) when he will not keep to his place in the company pyramid.  Farrell interprets his slaughter as "termination of employment".  Waged work is again much in evidence.  The scientists take tea breaks and have packed lunches.  The Doctor mistakes Jo for the tea lady and so treats her contemptuously, meanwhile he uses his supposedly greater intimacy with "Tubby Rowlands" to intimidate Brownrose (!).  "Wrong sort of chap getting into your department these days".  We all know what this is supposed to mean.  Red brick oiks infiltrating the corridors that should rightly be the province of those who drifted down from the dreaming spires.  (You don't have to share Paul Cornell's assessment that this makes the Third Doctor a Tory... though, in some respects...)  And, of course, this kind of British class hierarchy is very much to the fore when the Doctor is visited by the Time Lord.  He is dressed "incognito" as a stereotypical Threadneedle St / Whitehall toff and needles the Doctor by referring to his degree.

There are even, once again, hints that the story has noticed the racial order of capitalism.  Whitey runs the factory, the radio telescope... even the circus!  Meanwhile, Roy Stewart is asked back to play essentially the same racist stereotype he played in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' but this time the character - Tony - is almost a parodic version of Toberman: he is written as a circus 'Strong Man' who "don't say much"!

However, this very comic mode makes it hard for the character to have the same uneasy impact as the Asian workers making white plastic babies at the factory in 'Spearhead'.

In fact, the over-the-top, grotesque, gaudy, comedic air of the whole piece tends to soften the impact of much in the story.  The Autons still look like products of human labour confronting humans as something hostile and alien, but the potential for them to form part of a systemic critique is diluted even as it is generalised.  At the end of 'Spearhead', a story that seemed so quietly and unconsciously preoccupied with alienated labour, hierarchy and consumerism - and which even hinted at imperialism, and at racial and gender hierarchies - the Nestenes manifest as an incoherent but undeniably substantial mad box of tentacles.  When the Nestene entity arrives and hovers over the radio telescope dish at the end of 'Terror', it retains the outline of the squid but lacks solidity and sharpness.  It is less needed, so it is kept as unfocused as the rest of the story.

The fact that they couldn't afford to do this onscreen may also have had something to do with it.

But then along came 'The Claws of Axos'... but that's for another time.

Dem Bones
As I've said, I think the tentacles that appear at the end of 'Spearhead' mark the moment when Doctor Who tries to obfuscate a conclusion that is haunting it.  Just as they haunt us with their submerged associations, so the Autons haunt the show through which they stalk with the same associations.  With their skull-like faces, they are very gothic, very hauntological (in that material way that Who does hauntology).  Yet the end up serving the quasi-Weird, the incoherent tentacular.  They get close to their octopoidal master but never merge with it.  As China Miéville predicts, the skull (gothic) and the tentacle (Weird) cannot merge, even when they try.  The tentacle rejects the haunting message of the skull.  And yet, tentacles keep turning up in 70s Who when the show notices capitalism.  I've written elsewhere about how 'The Creature from the Pit' terminates this connection.  Well, there's something else to note about that: there are skulls in that story.  Indeed, they litter the pit in which the creature is kept.  Organon uses as skull as a candle holder.

Maybe he was just pleased to see them.

It's almost like the gothic is reasserting itself even as the quasi-Weird is shown the door.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Skulltopus 6: Macra Revisited

According to China Miéville, the classic, early 20th century haute Weird of Lovecraft and Hodgson is the nebulous, meaningless, reactionary scream of incomprehension that greets the onrushing horror of modernity.

I think that, for 70s Doctor Who, a resurrected and processed form of the Weird is what the show draws upon when it finds itself haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot face: the knowledge that the modern nightmares upon which it dwells are generated by capitalism.  When the themes of a 70s Doctor Who story suggest the possibility that capitalism could be noticed and indicted in systemic terms - particularly in terms of the exploitation of the worker, race and/or imperialism - the show tries to jettison the hauntological (realising that it is itself being haunted... nay, stalked) in favour of the Weird.

I intend to justify these outrageous claims in a forthcoming post.

In my last post - here - I casually asserted that the Weirdish ab-crabs in 'The Macra Terror' are a "prelude" to the connection the show will make in the 70s between the tentacle and capitalism.  It occurs to me that I need to expand a bit on my Skulltopus post about the Macra - here - in order to make myself clear on this point.

I think that the Colony in 'The Macra Terror' is a picture of mainstream Britain in denial during the radical late 60s, of a prosperous capitalist world that runs on repression, oppression, obedience, media conditioning, hierarchy.  The Colony strongly hints at being capitalist in various ways, not least the Butlins vibe that everyone talks about, the Pilot's sitcom businessman manner, Barney's salon and spa, etc.

Most explicitly, the story concentrates on the mining of gas... and Britain in 1967 was right in the middle of switching over to North Sea Gas.  In the story, the gas (a toxic substance that humans don't need and which actively endangers workers) is mined for the benefit of other, hidden, possibly insane reasons/persons - in this case, the Macra.

The Macra, as I noted elsewhere, are extremely hauntological (in that material/pseudo-materialist way that things are hauntological in Who) in that they actively and literally haunt the Colony while clearly representing something that the characters all know must be denied.  In the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon, I hint that this repressed knowledge is the knowledge that they are exploited - specifically and explicitly as workers - by an irrational tyranny, and that this ties into the way that the radical currents in the late 60s were popularizing a critique of Western consumerist capitalism as tyrannical and alienating.

And so, whether it be cause or effect, we get Weirdish monsters.

They are giant crabs, as in some classic Weird fiction... except that, when you listen to the story (especially since you have to listen to it) they are also categorically indeterminate, big/small, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly, even - especially - when they see them.

Moreover, the Macra's own mentalities are extremely contradictory, incoherent, self-denying... to the point of bordering on psychosis. They are so desperate to deny that the Colony's happy and prosperous capitalist world of makeovers and mining (i.e. of productive industry and leisure industry) exists to serve their needs that they end up frantically denying their own existence!

The hysteria of the Macra's screams of "Macra do not exist!  THERE ARE NO MACRA!!!!" (over a TV screen, lets not forget) sounds, to me, very much like the way that mainstream media in capitalist society will go round the houses - sometimes to farcical degrees - to steer conversations, debates, discourse and criticism away from the central economic facts of our society (on the rare occasion that anyone liable to raise them in the first place ever gets on the media).  The Macra deny their own existence, just as capitalist media culture tries to make capitalism vanish into 'democracy' and 'the West' and 'free trade' and 'the economy' and many other euphemisms.  Capitalism tries to make itself invisible, and to make its exploitative core invisible, via its hegemony over culture (back to Gramsci we go) and through the obscuring of class consciousness by various forms of alienation and commodity fetishism (back to Lukacs we go).

Once again, the social wound in which the Macra breed is all to do with hierarchy and exploitation, it operates through productive work for the benefits of people other than the workers, it guards itself using a leisure industry and a hegemonic system of ideas that touts notions of social cohesion, cheerfulness, pulling together, altruism, team spirit, the state as honest broker, enjoy your time off, etc... and all this, not in a totalitarian state (when people say that the Colony is totalitarian they are totally missing the point) but in a society that strongly hints that it is capitalistic even while it uses methods of thought control and repression.

Of course, the production draws heavily upon the semiotics of totalitarianism - most particularly the Cartier/Kneale TV adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four - but it also subverts them and... well... de-Sovietizes them to a large extent.  There's a makeover salon and a version of Miss World for Polly to enter.  The holiday camp thing has been noted many times... but the really important thing about that is that holiday camps look like (to use Miles and Wood's phrase) "a little bit of Eastern Europe just outside Cromer".  The regimentation, the smiling authoritarianism, the moral puritanism, and the solidly working class background of most guests, makes the holiday camp an ideal - almost inevitable - way of commenting on the way capitalist Britain and communist dictatorships had certain eerie similarities.  In the late 60s, when people like Herbert Marcuse were suddenly selling lots of books, this was a notion whose time had come.  People were starting to see tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain.  This is why 'The Macra Terror' prefigures The Prisoner.  In that show, Number 6 is never sure which side is holding him.  The unspoken horror of it is that it could be either or both.  It doesn't really matter.  As one of the Number 2s says, both sides will one day regard each other and realise that they are "looking into a mirror".

That's why 'The Macra Terror' (which came before The Prisoner, let's not forget) was near-the-knuckle stuff.  I know this sounds like a strange thing to say about Doctor Who at the best of times... but all the same, this was about as close as mainstream popular TV could get to noticing that capitalism was pretty bloody horrible, not as an exception but as a rule.

The way in which the Macra are radically obscured (Weirdified) is the camouflage, the misdirection.  They - and many of the other Weirdish monsters in Who - arrive when the show itself is being haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot notice or accept without ceasing to be what Doctor Who is (that is, a staple aspect of the culture industry catering for children in capitalist Britain, existing within that cultural hegemony).  The show, via its materialist or pseudo-materialist gothic dynamic, is constantly drawn to the nightmarish effects of capitalism, often unable and always reluctant to notice that they are capitalist effects, occasionally drawing on the fundamentally non-gothic monster (while still, paradoxically, using the non-gothic in a hauntological way) as a method of escaping from or fudging the conclusions it is edging towards, the conclusion... or perhaps realisation would be a better word... that industrial war, modern imperialism, modern slavery, fascism (all repeatedly addressed by the show) all have their roots in the same system.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Skulltopus 5: Fair Exchange, No Robbery

Erato the Tythonian in 'The Creature from the Pit' doesn't much resemble an octopus, but nevertheless he/it is a shapeless, amorphous creature that extends a probe which is (briefly) a bit tentacular... though this tends to be obscured by the fact that it also supposedly resembles a cock:

If this picture reminds you of your genitals,
seek immediate medical advice.

Neither seems to have been the writer's intention.  Indeed, in the novelisation, it is specifically stated that "you couldn't call it a tentacle".  The probe is repeatedly described in terms of hands, fingers and fists.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Erato is meant to be a kind of giant, disembodied brain.

However, the probe is a long, flexible, green, non-humanoid limb... so let's not fear to call it a quasi-tentacle, whatever Fisher says.

In any case, the Tythonian is - at least until it starts talking - reminiscent of the Weird... if only via its unstable and amorphous blobbiness.

In this post, I suggested that 'Spearhead from Space' erupts into tentacles at the end partly as a way of obscuring something else that is going on in the story, namely a convergence of various themes towards a potential critique of modern British capitalism as a system of hierarchy, racism, imperialism, sexism and exploitation.  (Click the link and read it if you think I've gone mad.)

I'm planning, in forthcoming posts, to suggest that Doctor Who in the 70s adopts the tentacular as a recurring way of simultaneously fleeing from and signifying capitalism.  There is a prelude to this: the Weirdish ab-crabs in 'The Macra Terror'.  There's also a transitional story at the other end, just before the semiotic connection largely dies out in the 80s.  This transitional story is the final story of the 70s to feature the tentacular even as a suggestion.

Transitional Form

Philip Sandifer, at his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, has described 'The Creature from the Pit' as "a proper anti-capitalist screed".  He describes Adrasta as "a selfish arch capitalist who is perfectly happy to thrive while everyone else suffers" and notes that Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles are wrong to write off as anachronistic the idea that Adrasta could've been intended as a Thatcher figure (the story was written during the election that she went on to win).  However, his argument is considerably more sophisticated than this and rests more especially on something he identifies in the script: the subversion of the (by now) standard Doctor Who 'evil ruling class vs. rebels' trope.  Sandifer identifies this story as coinciding with the great shift in the 'centre ground' of British politics that more-or-less coincided with the advent of Thatcherism.

The key thing is… the way in which both sides of an apparent political debate were in one sense indistinguishable because they both adhered to the same premise... [For example] the way in which the trade unions, Callaghan, and Thatcher all took for granted that maximizing profit was the right thing to do. The idea that they were opposing sides in many key ways serves more to cut other perspectives out of the debate entirely than it does to actually describe a fundamental philosophical difference between them. And this sort of false opposition is exactly what Fisher is trying to do with the culture of Chloris...

As Sandifer develops it (ruing all the time the way that the production team managed to miss it) this relates to the way that Adrasta (evil ruling class) and Torvin (rebels) are both obsessed with getting and keeping metal.  Their priorities are the same, despite their other drastic differences.  Sandifer also raises the issue that, once it becomes clear that Erato isn't a 'monster', the audience might immediately suspect that the story will turn out to be about a failure of communication... but, as it turns out, Adrasta and Erato's initial communication went just fine.  She didn't fail to understand him because he was a scary, huge, green blob.  On the contrary, she understood him perfectly.  That wasn't the problem.  The problem was that his message was unwelcome to her because, as Sandifer puts it, she "was only willing to look at the world from her own capitalist perspective...  Adrasta did misunderstand, but not because she didn’t recognize Erato’s individual subjectivity, but rather because she didn’t recognize that there was another way for the world to be".

I'm sympathetic to the idea that Fisher's story might, in its reduction of the obligatory 'rebels' to a bunch of thieves every bit as greedy as their planet's evil ruler, be mirroring cultural shifts in the Britain of its day.  These were, after all, the early years of neoliberalism.  Monetarism was on the rise (with Thatcher only its most aggressive mainstream standard bearer rather than an innovator).  Keynesian certainties had dissolved.  Thatcher would prove to be the gravedigger of a 'social democratic consensus' that was, by this point, already wounded and tottering.  This was the broader symptom of a big downturn in working class struggle and resistance (the Miner's Strike of a few years hence would be a last roll of the dice).  If post-war liberal ideas seemed a long time dead, the radicalism of 1968 seemed (paradoxically) even deader.  Thatcher would go on to acquire the nickname 'Tina' for her habit of proclaiming that "There is no alternative!"  She meant that there was no alternative to her Hayekian brand of class war.  More broadly, the consensus seemed to be that there was no alternative to capitalism anymore.  This 'capitalist realism' (as Mark Fisher has ringingly called it) is with us still... though, thankfully, in these days of Occupy Wall St., it seems to be much less hegemonic.

However, I have issues with the rest of Sandifer's account.

At the most basic level: in what way is Adrasta a capitalist? She doesn't pay any wages, produce anything, market anything, sell anything, pocket any surplus value, invest in production, etc.  Meanwhile, she has serfs!  Adrasta seems much more like a feudal seigneur (lots of seigneuries were run by women, especially in France) who is desperately trying to contain the encroachment of capitalism, in the terrifyingly modern shape of the shapeless monster.

Adrasta used to own a viable mine (plenty of mining went on in feudal Europe) but she purposefully shuts down that operation by shutting Erato up in it, thus preserving her monopoly on metal by retarding her own ability to produce any. This is interesting, given that one factor which went into the transition from fedualism to capitalism in Europe was to do with mining. As in other fields, the technology available to miners in feudal Europe (i.e. the development of the productive forces) became a barrier or drag factor on further development. This story might just covertly acknowledge an assumption of Marxist history: that the conflict or contradiction between the forces of production and the social superstructure is part of what drives historical change. Adrasta - and, by extension, the whole of feudal system on Chloris - is caught in such a contradiction. The 'free trade monster' comes to develop the productive forces and she has to lock him away in her mine (which she has left unused and undeveloped in order to keep hold of her social power)... this is like the decadent feudal aristocracy fighting the oncoming revolution to a bourgeois mode of production. Look also at how the story associates the downfall of Adrasta with the end of the "dark ages". Everyone will be happier once the new social order changes the economic base!

I posted the above (pretty much) at Sandifer's blog and he took issue with me (and Alex Wilcock, who'd already raised similar points) on the grounds that, without money being involved, there seems to be no 'exchange value'.  Rather, there is just exchange.  The trade between Chloris and Tythonis seems more like barter.  Ergo, this looks more like socialism (i.e. co-operative, planned production and distribution on the basis of mutual satisfaction of need) rather than 'free trade'.

These are good points.  However, I think they rest upon the idea that exchange has always been as central to human societies as it is under capitalism, which isn't right.  Exchange has always gone on, but was relatively peripheral to feudalism and previous modes of production.  Capitalism, by contrast, is by definition a system of generalised commodity production.  In other words, it is only under capitalism that most things are produced to be exchanged.  The very notion of trade, intruding into the 'closed system' of feudal Chloris, carries with it the inevitable suggestion of capitalism.

What is also lacking in Sandifer's account (and, to be fair, it's almost entirely lacking from the story) is the matter of labour.  Someone, somewhere, at some time, will have to work to cultivate, harvest, refine, package and ship the chlorophyll.

It's inevitably going to be the erstwhile serfs who end up doing this... and none of them are to be seen at the end, let alone in power.  Even Torvin's band has disappeared.  We're left with the Guardmaster and Organon apparently running things.  Socialism isn't on the agenda.  There is no sense in the story that class has disappeared.  There's no cooperative society of free producers in evidence, or even on the cards.  Even if we ignore all other considerations, and imagine the trade between Tythonis and Chloris is pure barter on the basis of mutual satisfaction of need, the idea that this would constitute anything like socialism is still inadequate, because socialism is the collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and so no such social condition obtains on Chloris when the Doctor leaves.

For the Chlorisians, the process of production will radically change.  It will cease to be mainly about subsistence and payment of tributes to the landowner.  It will become production for exchange.  This is irresistibly suggestive of the whole process of 'enclosures' and what Marx called the "primitive accumulation of capital", i.e. the historical moment when feudal property relations are forcibly destroyed, common property is appropriated, the peasant is expropriated, the concentration of property into the hands of a rising bourgeois class begins and a new proletarian class begins to form.

There is also the matter of the status of metal.  In Adrasta's feudal set up, the metal was valuable because it was mined and used to make useful things (i.e. blades for holding back the jungle, plough bits for cultivating the land). But this old system is changing.  Crucially, there is no hint in the story that Adrasta has been producing metal for trade before the arrival of Erato.  She's been producing it for agriculture, horticulture, military uses and the luxuries of the seigneur.  By putting a stopper in her own mine she manages to confine Erato (and the new economic order he represents) but also sets her own system on the road to decline.  When the Doctor arrives on Chloris, metal has become valuable regardless of what kind of metal it is, regardless of what shape its in, regardless of what it's used for.  Everyone wants it, from Adrasta to Torvin.  But why?  Presumably it is being used to buy things... increasingly scarce food, perhaps, from people who need metal in order to scratch some rump agriculture and/or farming together.  Metal has thus acquired not just use value but also exchange value.  It has become, in effect, a modern bourgeois commodity, arising from the decline of the feudal mode of production!  Moreover, it has (or so I deduce) started to behave like money, the 'universal equivalent', the commodity the equals all others.  Erato's new economic order will fit into and develop these nascent tendencies.  He will buy chlorophyll with metal.  If the new trading arrangement leads to a surplus of metal on Chloris, the value of metal will become increasingly detached from scarcity and take on even more of the features of the currency as commodity.

All this, by itself, isn't capitalism... but it all looks highly reminiscent of the historical transition between feudal and bourgeois modes of production.  Adrasta's efforts to prop up her old system involve an attempt to retard the emergence of a new set of economic arrangements based on commodity production and exchange rather than on the feudal cultivation of land by serfs.  So we end up back where we started.  With the Tythonian as heralding the break up of feudalism and the onrush of capitalism.

Of course, much of the above is improvisation on the basis of scant information in the text and, as such, cannot really be used to work out what the text itself is 'saying'.

There is so little extraneous information in the text itself that we must fall back onto essentials.  Let's quote Sandifer again.  This story is about

two planets that have an imbalance of resources are rectifying the imbalance through cooperation. It's not just an economic arrangement, but an arrangement between two planets with the wrong populations for their resources to redress a natural balance.

But isn't that the liberal capitalist argument to a tee? Free trade is a natural, harmonious, optimal way of addressing natural imbalances and ensuring the maximum happiness (and utility) for all... once obstacles like obstinate, reactionary local elites have been swept aside. That 'The Creature from the Pit' fails to see the flaws and hypocrisies in this way of looking at things only shows that this is a story in which the basic ideological arguments of free trade are taken as the central moral truth of things.

This was an extremely fashionable delusion that was rising to a new status of cultural hegemony when 'Creature from the Pit' was made and aired.  The fetishizing of the market, of trade, of money... the pretence that free trade was the way to liberalize society, bring down old elites, end the 'dark ages'... the notion that the logic of the market applied to society was the way to bring harmony where there was discord, truth where there was error and hope where there was despair.

The Creature from Grantham

This story is where Doctor Who resolves and ends its association of the Weirdish and the tentacular with capitalism, an association that recurred several times throughout the 70s (and which I'll go into in further detail in a forthcoming post). 

In 'The Creature from the Pit', capitalism is not a systemic generator of modern nightmares.  It is not something that the show wants to flee from noticing or acknowledging.  It can be signfied without any evasion or danger of condemnation.  So, the quasi-tentacle resolves into something uniform, coherent, a jelly with a voice, a mind (it is a giant brain), a high-status personage with a prestigious official job that is represented as laudable and well-meaning.  The free trade monster starts out as apparently incomprehensible and becomes something comprehensible, loquacious, affable, helpful... something the heralds a new and better order based on an idealised view of commodity exchange.

This story is Doctor Who apparently making peace with capitalism in the form of a panglossian view of free trade vs. reactionary old forms of obsolete feudal elitism, with the market as the road away from serfdom.  That this characterisation of Thatcherism is spurious (Thatcher was nothing if not a statist and a protector of ossified old privilege) makes no odds.  It's a self-characterization that is an inherent aspect of Thatcherism as a brand of conservatism.  Look at Murdoch, who characterized himself as anti-elites, attacking unions on the grounds of breaking up restricted practices.  Look at nationalization promoted as a way of democratizing and increasing efficiency.  All that bunk.  'The Creature from the Pit' is Who buying into that consensus that Sandifer was talking about, not critiqueing it.

The old tentacle connection is finally vanquished when the show, in tune with its times, starts to feel able to represent capitalism as a social good rather than a source of unease.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Skulltopus 4: Attack of the Plot-Device Monster

The tentacle was already well established as a staple of monsterology long before Doctor Who was even a glint in Sydney Newman's eye.  When Who selected the tentacle as its semiotic method of evading/signifying capitalism  - as I'm going to argue that it did in the 70s - it selected it from a pre-existing toolbox full of potential signifiers.  But it didn't suddenly stumble upon the octopoidal.  It had encountered tentacles before, albeit only occasionally.

On the whole, the show's early years are pretty thin on tentacles... but there are quasi-tentacular manifestations in 'The Keys of Marinus' (the Brains of Morphoton have stubby little almost-tentacles), 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' (the Slyther) and 'The Web Planet' (the Animus).  The only proper octopus monster in this era is the Mire Beast from 'The Chase'.  It lives underground and exists solely to provide a way for our heroes to escape from the Aridians without deliberately sentencing them all to Dalek-death.

Oh look... bar the Animus, those were all written by Terry Nation.  Hmmm...

By this point (the early 60s), the 'novum' of the tentacle had passed, but it had entrenched itself in the grammar of Western teratology.  In the process, it had been greatly sheared of its original strategic meaninglessness.  Even so, the Mire Beast doesn't even try to mean anything.  It's almost as though a plot device monster so arbitrary and irrelevant had to be an octopus because the octopus still carries the Weird connotations of meaning meaninglessness.  It means nothing, so what do we make it?  An octopus.  They mean nothing.  Perfect.

I'm simplifying.  And I'm making it sound conscious... which it almost certainly wasn't.  But I'm kind of thinking aloud here.  Give me a break, can't you?  These things become less conscious and more consistent the more deeply the semiotic connections bury themselves into culture.  They become like syntax.  We don't usually use syntax consciously.

Of course, 'meaning nothing' and 'having no meaning' are not necessarily the same thing.  The symbol '0' means nothing... but it doesn't have no meaning.  Indeed, it's meaning is nothing.  (This point is hard to get across in text... it's one of those occasions when, to be absolutely clear, you really need to use vocal inflection.)  This may be the same binary inherent in any sign that is adopted to evade meaning.  It may be inherent in the Weird use of the tentacular.  By trying to use the meaningless to mean meaninglessness, meaning is assigned.  This is as much a dialectic as it is a paradox.  The internal contradiction drives the change from the haute Weird tentacle to the tentacle as a standard monstrous limb-type throughout Western fiction.  The tentacle initially emerges as the perfect way for the Weird to express what it feels to be the incomprehensible and meaningless horror of modernity via its 'novum', its unprecedentedness in Western literature, its semiotic emptiness.  However, the meaninglessness of the tentacle becomes its meaning... or rather, it's most prominent feature.  Its very arbitrariness allows it unfettered entry into almost any context, sometimes even conferring an advantage upon it when someone like Terry Nation is looking for a default monster that will have nothing to do but get the writer out of a plot cul-de-sac, or look cool.

It sounds like I'm having a go at Nation... but, actually, I think his selection of the octopus, his insertion of it into such an inappropriate context (an octopus that lives underground on a desert planet... I mean, what the fuck?), and for such a menial narrative task, actually redounds to his credit.

Pastiche is essential to Nation's method (and to Who's in general).  Nation tends to get a bad rap these days and.... weeeeell, yeah, okay, he's a very inconsistent writer.  But, he could be very canny, especially about how exactly to mix 'n' match the stuff he... *ahem*... utilised. And he's by no means as constantly derivative as some might claim.  He can sometimes work magical feats of selection and synthesis. It shows in his selection of the octopus as a creature of incoherence and meaninglessness, fit to appear in such an inappropriate context and for such an empty reason.  Like the original Weird tentacles - H. G. Wells' giant squid monsters in The Sea Raiders... which just appear, wreak havoc and bugger off again without any explanation - Nation's Mire Beast just eats, shrieks and leaves... as does his Slyther.

'The Chase' features a section which parodies hauntology in the form of robot versions of Dracula and Frankenstein in an amusement park.  In that section of the story, Ian even perfectly expresses the essential nature of the hauntological: "it's uncanny, strange and weird... but it is familiar".  As noted, the tentacle is also pretty "familiar" in Western monsterology by the early 60s, but nowhere near as familiar as Dracula.  The tentacle still looks incoherent and evasive compared to the monsters in the haunted fun house, which are revealed to be nothing but exhibits.  The Doctor seems wedded to an old idea of the hauntological.  He thinks the fun house was a kind of materialised 'collective unconcious'.  Actually, it was a closed repository of dead and obsolete gothic figures.  Next to the craptastically 'old skool' gothic robots in the amusement park, even the Mire Beast looks vital, scary, menacing. I don't think the implicit comparison is insignificant.

The next thing that occurs to me - and I'm as surprised to find myself going this way as you probably are - is that maybe, when he was casting about for a plot-device monster, Terry Nation not only adroitly selected the tentacular (with its blank function inherited from Weird meaninglessness) but also laid the groundwork for the connection that I think Doctor Who (via Robert Holmes) made in the 70s: the tentacular as an evasion of - and, paradoxically/dialectically, a symbol of - capitalism as a system.  He found, in the tentacular, a kind of 'blank sign' which he could press into service... and then something else happened.  His (admittedly injudicious) semiotic literarcy started to lead him places...

Look... even I am not prepared to argue that 'The Chase' contains the basis for a systemic critique of capitalism, except perhaps as an illustration of the idiocy that capitalist culture can produce... however, it is interesting to note that the very first Doctor Who story to feature an actual octopus monster also features depictions of Western rulers (i.e. Elizabeth I and Abe Lincoln, who also appeared in Madame Tussauds in 'Spearhead from Space'), has a section set in New York (the financial hub of Western capitalism) and specifically atop the Empire State Building, and has another section aboard the Mary Celeste (a merchant ship carrying cargo for international trade).

We might also note the section in which we see mini-tentacles in 'The Keys of Marinus' also features a world of luxury and plenty which, seen without brainwashing, is a tatty world of exploitation and lies.  The gorgeous fabrics turn out to be "dirty rags", the amazing scientific instruments are actually chipped old cups, etc.  The very first intrusion of the weird tentacle, in only this very minor way, is conjoined with a story about people being mentally influenced (to live in luxury or to be handmaidens, etc.), about people being controlled by unseen forces, about people being tricked into viewing their austere world as a paradise of freedom, leisure and plenty, about a wealth of commodities (food, clothes, equipment) that is actually illusory.

Nation's noticeable personal lack of aversion to capitalism notwithstanding, it's extremely tempting to connect Morphoton to Western capitalism, given that, when this story was made, the long post-war boom was just starting to decline, the struggles of what would come to be called 'the 60s' were just beginning, etc.

Even the Slyther in 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' turns up at the point in the story (geographical point and narrative point) where we start to see people's labour being exploited by Daleks who suddenly look like colonial masters of a subdued native population.  The Slyther appears at roughly the same time we encounter the two women in the shack and Ashton... all of whom are engaged in trade, exchange in commodities for profit.


The Animus in 'The Web Planet' is a little more complex.  This entity has looked very Lovecraftian to some, to the point that it has been identified as Llogior from the Cthulu Mythos in various New/Missing Adventures novels.  I'll (hopefully) be looking more closely at the Animus - as it relates to the Weird - in another post.

Friday, 20 January 2012

A Fragment

The man leans over his pad.  He makes scribbling motions with his pen above the first blank line.  He looks up at the Doctor, who is sat on the other side of the desk, smiling guilelessly.

“Name,” says the man.

“Signifier,” responds the Doctor immediately.

The man looks up, puzzled.

“What?” he asks.

“Determiner,” says the Doctor.



The man hesitates.  He narrows his eyes in a way that entirely fails to make him look shrewd.

"Look..." he begins.

"Learn," interrupts the Doctor.

The man hesitates again.  

“What are you doing?” he asks, quickly so as not to give the Doctor a chance to jump in.

“What do you mean?” enquires the Doctor, innocently.

“Why are you answering me with gibberish?”

The Doctor looks crestfallen.

“Oh,” he says, “sorry... I thought you wanted to play Word Association.  I didn’t realise you were asking me questions.”

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Thalira, or The Two Planets

From the late, great Paul Foot's book The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined:

...Benjamin Disraeli wrote a novel about Chartists.  It was called Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845), a deeply sympathetic and beautifully written account of the rise of Chartism and of its appeal to the suffering masses.  The central theme of the novel is the distinction between 'moral force' Chartism, espoused by the unblemished heroine, Sybil, and 'physical force' Chartism, described with obvious distaste.  The theme of the novel was that the conflict between the good on the 'moral force' side and the evil on the 'physical force' side became so bitter that it could not be solved by working people.  The solution had to come from outside, from on high, from a brilliant, sensitive and eloquent Tory MP, Charles Egremont.  Sybil's disillusionment with her rougher supporters, who include her beloved father, begins when she reads an account of an emotional speech in Parliament by Egremont, who then conveniently arrives in the middle of 'physical force' chaos to carry off his beloved and make a lady of her.

It occurs to me that, if you take out the romantic ending, this pretty much describes the basic plotline of 'The Monster of Peladon'.

Tory scum.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Strange Matters

There is something very gothic about Doctor Who, in the hauntological sense.  I mean that the show keeps on doing monsters that represent, in various ways, 'the return of the repressed', monsters that represent buried anxieties, or anxieties that we have attempted to bury.  But the monsters tend to be steadfastly material in quite straightforward ways... and to embody material, social, historical nightmares (fascism is a big one that immediately suggests itself).

It's important to stress that this isn't a contradiction, as such.  Indeed, in many ways, it's 'business as usual' for the gothic.  You can't get more hauntological than vampires, but they tend to be interpreted as representing deeply materialist concerns, from veneral disease to monopoly capitalism (and, these days, teen romance... which is about as materialist as anything gets).  However, while they may represent material, social, historical anxieties, vampires are not straightforwardly material.  They are, like most classic gothic/hauntological monsters, profoundly spectral - or at least ab-physical.  They dissolve in sunlight, cast no reflection, can appear and disappear at will, can physically transform into bats or wolves, can reverse physical time by becoming young again after feasting, can defy gravity by crawling down sheer walls, etc.  And vampires are at the more solid end of the hauntological spectrum.

However, Doctor Who has tended to (rather spuriously) consider itself a champion of an empiricist, scientific approach rather than one which has any truck with the supernatural, making vampires into alien races or mutations created by pollution, for example. (This is, as I say, rather spurious, partly because the writers of the show have usually been less interested in scientific accuracy and more interested in telling stories, often reiterations of myth - and quite right too.)  But the thing to notice here is that, despite the very gothic/hauntological method of many of the show's monsters (haunting us with our repressed anxieties), the show does not usually represent them as spectral or phantasmic or undead in the full supernatural sense.  They may appear and disappear, but its because they've got transmats, not because they're immaterial, undead things that flit in and out of tombs.

In other words, the show wants to have its cake and eat it.  It wants to have hauntological monsters that are alive, that are physical, that are hard and material things, that are organisms or robots.  This is not a denial of the hauntological-as-supernatural, but a recoding of it.  Like much SF, Doctor Who is immensely concerned with myth-reiteration, with retelling legends in the idioms of the age of science and technology and industrialisation.  I'm not here going to go into the various ways that Doctor Who's conception of reality is fundamentally magical.  What I'm trying to tease out is the way that, despite its repression of magical thinking, magical thinking keeps returning to the show and sneaking its way in.  It does this (if I may briefly anthropomorphise a concept) by disguising itself in a materialist form, and by inserting the hauntological method into narratives that are fundamentally about materialist concerns.  The inner logic is magical, the language is materialist.  The thematic preoccupations are drawn more from the language than from the inner logic.  Doctor Who uses the language of materialism to tell magical stories about nightmares of modernity.  This is why the show repeatedly tells stories about monsters that haunt us in a material way with the repressed knowledge or fear of modern nightmares like fascism, industrial genocide, high-tech war, nukes, imperialism, etc.

This is partly why there seems to be something of the trad gothic... something vampiric, zombieish, Frankensteinian, demonic... about so many monsters that, on paper, are straightforward automatons or war machines. Again and again, monstrous flesh lurks within the clanking technological enemy.  A webbed claw emerges from a Dalek casing.  Androids per se are always just the tools or weapons or foes of other races... they are never the main enemy.  The main enemy has to be more gothic.  It has to be Davros, awakening from death and covered in cobwebs.  It has to be Cybermen: walking techno-zombies with cloth faces and empty eye-holes that make them look like bandaged skulls.  When robots are the star threat, a big deal is made of them being like "walking dead".

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Black & White Era

Readers of this blog (all 12 of them... on a good day) might be forgiven for thinking I do nothing but obsess over the politics of Doctor Who.  Undoubtedly, I do do that, and far too much of it.  However, in my defence, I will say that most of what I post here is the product of long-term, off-and-on, occasional, when-I-get-the-chance pondering and tinkering.  My last post, for instance, had been loitering in the 'Draft' category for months, getting steadily longer and more tendentious, before I posted it.  I spend a lot of the rest of my time thinking about and doing other stuff.  However, my practice of letting my 'essays' (I hate calling them that, but what else can I call them?) percolate means that I'm very bad at reacting quickly.  However, there are some things to which I desperately want to react quickly because I care about them so much... usually because they make me so ANGRY.

Luckily, there are people out there who

a) broadly share my political perspective,

b) are much cleverer and better informed than me, and

c) can react quickly.

So, on the subject of the recent synth-controversy and twitterstorm about Diane Abbott, here are three reactions which, between them, pretty much say everything I want said.

Here's Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb:

First of all, what Abbott said was, in a very loose sense, correct: 'white people' do indeed love to play divide and rule.  Not all of them, good lord no.  Not you or I.  Not the good whites (there are some good whites).  But I think we all know that there's a troublesome minority in our midst, the ones who give us all a bad name, whom we must root out and expose, and hand over to the authorities.  That's all I'm saying.  Second, I would rather have a politician who expresses things bluntly and occasionally blunders but is usually on the right side of the argument (Abbott, for all her flaws, is better than most Labour politicians in this respect), than a calculating mountebank who plays for position in the spectacle. 

Here's Michael Rosen at his new blog (which I fervently recommend, by the way):

As a broad statement about history, Diane Abbott is to my mind more or less right in that the elite that has ruled over the British Empire and continues to rule is of course 99.9 per cent white and one of the ways it has ruled was, say, to use black troops from one part of the empire to fight another, or to use 'mulatto' elites (as they were called) to rule over 'pure' black populations and so on. In terms of how Diane Abbott acts as a local MP - now an apologetic one - is for me less clear. I don't feel as if I tried to rule over her, trying to set black people against each other in the matter of education. To tell the truth, I felt that she did that herself. She set herself apart from all of us in Hackney at that time who were children or had children in state schools, many of whom were and are black.  Perhaps, there is a tortured argument to be made that the very reason why she felt she had to send her child to a private school is because of discrimination and racism. Her comments about white teachers would appear to suggest that, though  presumably most of the teachers at the private school were white too. Even so, I can't figure out how you fight racism that way.

That said, I would defend the broad political truth she was trying to express even though it needed clarifying. Depressingly, all we have now is the apology and the conversation we might have had about racism and society goes back a step. Yes, seeing her say sorry is much worse than the original tweet.

And here's Dorian Lynskey at 33 Revolutions Per Minute:

What this absurd flap demonstrates is the desperate longing of some privileged people to wear the rags of victimhood. Any whiff of black-on-white racism, like misandry and heterophobia, is an excuse for these delicate souls to downplay the dominant prejudice and argue that there is a level playing field of bigotry or, on the crazier fringes, that there is a “war” on white people/men/straight people/motorists, etc. Coming so soon after the Lawrence verdict, Abbottgate is a nasty attempt to pretend that, hey, there’s racism on both sides now. A black man gets knifed to death by a white mob; a black MP writes a carelessly worded tweet about white people. It all evens out.

Why is all this being peddled on a blog about Doctor Who?  Well, because it's my blog and I can do what I like with it and if you don't like it you can fuck off.  Also, because I've lost count of the number of times I've found myself, against my better judgement, embroiled in some fatuous 'debate' with fanboys about racism in Who, only to have the conversation veer inexorably towards just the kind of cretinous, self-pitying, entitled, complacent whingeing about 'political correctness' and 'reverse racism' being displayed in Abbottgate.  Such fanboys - you know, the ones who think Toberman isn't a racist depiction because he saves everyone and some of the white characters are also stereotypes - are no doubt fulminating about Abbott (if they've even poked their noses out into the real world long enough to sniff that much reality).

There really is nothing more revolting than privileged people complaining about the problems of being privileged and criticising the oppressed for daring to mention it.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Empire of Vanilla

Some things I've noticed about 'Spearhead from Space'

There's a lot of wood in this story.

This suggests a contrast, a conflict even, between older forms of production - the appearance of the hospital, and the Seeleys' cottage, suggest artisanship - and newer industrial technology and mass production, represented by the factory and the evil plastic which creeps out of it.

There are lots of workers in this story.  There's a Nurse.

There's Mullins.
Mullins, one of the many wage labourers in this story...
seen here in the act of labouring for his wage.  

There's a workman in the street, talking to the copper before he investigates the (off-screen) breaking of shop windows (implying the role of the police as protectors of private property and business).  There's the guard at the front gate of UNIT HQ.  There's the guide at Madame Tussauds.

There are the workers in the plastics factory.

I don't know, but I'd guess that these women - together with the male worker
seen earlier in the episode, operating heavy machinery - are actual workers
in the factory where these scenes were filmed.  One of the women is Asian,
which is a pretty big clue that she's a 'real person' rather than an extra.

Some of the workers are 'fake'.  There are Auton Porters who help kidnap the Doctor.  There's an Auton secretary at the factory.  Note how the Nestenes still employ a young woman in a short skirt as a secretary, even if she is made of plastic... but then such women are usually treated like mannequins in practice anyway.

These waxen-faced, blank, zombified workers strongly suggest an extreme form of alienation: line hypnosis, a psychological condition where people are lulled into passive, unresponsive fugue states by constant repetition of the same mechanical tasks - found most famously in people who perform extremely simple tasks at conveyor belts.  More broadly, it suggests the deadened, flattened affect of people who find their Fordist jobs dull beyond belief.

Think this is a stretch?  But the story makes a point of commenting upon automation.  The monsters are called Autons.  We see, as noted above, faceless factory workers at their tedious, repetitive, assembly-line jobs.  And General Scobie, the swaggering old reactionary establishment figure par excellence, upon hearing that the plastics factory has become largely automated (which means a load of people have lost their jobs), makes a crack about automation being a splendid idea because "you don't find machines going on strike!"  In other words, workers should be treated like and behave like machines.... and replacing them with machines is the next best thing.

There is much literal commodification - often of people - in this story.  Ransome is paid off... even his name suggests a payment for a person.  Seeley tries to sell his "thunderball" and nearly gets his wife killed.  Mullins sells the Doctor to the journos.

"I understand you pay for stories?"

But 'Spearhead' really harps on about life being commodified... most particularly by its concentration upon production.  The factory is where human-shaped commodities are produced.  We know why the Autons are so threatening, so uncanny... Ransome helpfully tells us.  It's because they walk and chase and attack, despite having been "made in the factory".  They are the product, the commodity - after us.  As with much SF, including - perhaps especially - Doctor Who, they are evil conceptualised as/through the autonomous product.  They are the unit that shifts itself.


 In the July issue of Panic Moon fanzine, I sketched the outlines of a Marxist reading of 'Spearhead from Space'.  The gist of it was that the Autons are an expression of alienation and commodity fetishism.  Please bear with me while I reiterate some basic principles.  We'll get back to Autons eventually, I promise.

Alienation and Commodity Fetishism

Human beings have always made things.  Productive labour is perhaps the most important aspect of what the young Marx called human 'species being'.  How we make things changes over time.  The rise of capitalism brought the factory system.  The division of labour.  Specialisation without expertise.  Organisation of time.  The creation of new kinds of cities that worked as battery farms for thousands of corralled workers.  Mass production.  Heavy industry.  Conveyor belts.  Fordism.  Mechanisation.  Computer-run facilities.  Humans started to make things faster than ever before, in greater numbers than ever before. And the things started to confront the thingmaker as alien, autonomous, controlling, dominating.  When you have to watch a clock to make sure you clock in and clock out at the right time, it's hard not to feel like you are answerable to the clocks, even if you work in a clock factory making clocks.

The things we made became increasingly wondrous.  The engines became bigger, faster, more powerful.  They allowed man to fly.  And to drop bombs that killed hundreds of thousands in seconds.  Products are double-edged things, to put it mildly.

The things we make... the engines... the artefacts... they behave like this because they are the products of capitalism.  They are commodities.  Made to be sold.  The system demands continued production and circulation of commodities, so products seem to breed and teem and change and mutate and multiply like bacteria.  Increasingly, they seem to have minds of their own.  They move without us, they talk without us, they do things and say things we don't understand, they assail us with cryptic error messages, they catch viruses.  They fly without pilots and destroy villages in Pakistan.  Those last ones we call "drones", naming them after living things (with irony as mordant as it is unconscious, we call them after the mindless worker bees in the rigid insectile hierarchy).  It's amazing, when you stop to think about it, just how CONSTANTLY we think and talk about inanimate stuff, about products, about commodities, as though they are alive... and powerful.  The stock market is a product.  Yet we report upon its twitches and tremours and undulations and ululations and sneezes and farts as though we are reporting the natural bodly processes and moods of some great beast, to who's whims we are subject.  This is an expression of what Marx called commodity fetishism.

Meanwhile, humans are made into commodities.  Capitalism created and depended upon the modern slave trade... and even 'free' labour (which is better than slave labour) is bought and sold on a job market.

The stuff breeds and teems as people die in swathes.  From hunger, from AIDS, from despair, from by-products, from environmental backlash, from sheer grinding poverty.  This happens because the ruling principle is profit rather than need, and because the people who make everything do not do so under conditions of their own choosing.  They are on the job market, so they end up making stuff for the stuff market.  We make what we're told, as many as we're told, for purposes we don't choose.  Indeed, there is no purpose beyond the creation of commodities.  Things are made to be sold.  The iPad is not made in order to express human creativity.  The iPad is made by people whose creative lives have been yoked to the creation of iPads by people who think they can sell iPads in order to make profit that will keep their iPad-making racket going.

Stuff is made in order to be saleable in order to fund the making of saleable stuff.  Marx contrasted this kind of labour - the forced labour of those who must work to eat - to the labour that we undertake because it is part of our humanity.  "Milton" Marx wrote, "produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature."  The waged labourer who works in the mass production of copies of Paradise Lost produces only capital - and capital is not hers.  Her human productiveness is redirected into work for the production of something that does not express her nature, that she does not own, that does not enrich her, that she produces only in order to put food on the table.

That is human creativity slaved to a system of general commodity production.  This is alienation.

At least the dolls seem happy.

Not only is human creativity subverted into the production of commodities, human creativity is also subverted into the production of the materiel of the system of commodity production.  We are all glowered-over and dominated by the stuff we and previous generations have made but which confronts us as enemy force. This is old labour, petrified into threatening and ruling facts.  The machines that drive people out of work, or make their work excrutiatingly dull, or make their work dangerous... everything that is owned by the capitalist, or which goes into the capitalist system of production, which enables the system to expropriate the surplus created by the alienated worker... all capital, in other words... was made by workers, by their past labour.  This is 'dead labour', lording it over the living.

The power relationship is omnipresent yet hidden.  Consumerism offers spurious control of and through products.  We in the rich world splurge at the shops, investing in things as though they are charms and icons and totems.  Sexuality is branded, packaged and commodified too.

We expect the sexy things to change how we look, how we are perceived, how we feel, how we think, how we eat, how we have sex.  Our bodies are translated into fake, airbrushed, inhuman objects and then sold back to us as icons of unreachable perfection that we must strive (and pay) to attain.

"They're flexible, that's why we've captured the market"

The Autons look, to me, like the product, the stuff, the commodity, (all of which is capital by means of its expropriation from the worker and its entry into the system of accumulation, circulation and profit)... come alive and attacking.  They are labour that has been expropriated, made alien to the labourer.  They are the automation that is made by workers and then squeezes workers out of the production system.  The dead labour that dominates living labour.  They are the manufactured thing, the thing that is "made in the factory", confronting us (as Marx put it) as something "hostile and alien".  They are perfect emblems of the way that capitalism (and, distinctly, consumerism) turns the human image and human needs into commodities, of humans themselves commodified through the sale and purchase of their labour power.

Note that they attack in the consumerist high street,
surrounded by shops and advertising and brand logos.
Note that they have price tags on them.

House of Cards, House of Wax

There is something uneasy about the modern world as 'Spearhead' presents it to us: it is filled with displays of hierarchy, deference and contempt. 

The military hierarchy is much in evidence, as are the attitudes of ranks to inferiors and superiors.  Munro snaps at the UNIT soldiers who shoot at the Doctor, despite their having orders to keep anyone away from the police box at all costs.  The Brigadier creeps round General Scobie and even Liz - who has been drafted unwillingly into UNIT - makes nice to him.

This is something that we see a great deal in the Pertwee era's representation of life in Britain, though it will soon prove to be found mostly in government projects and naval bases, the contempt usually displayed by a succession of easy hate-figures... bureaucrats, men from the Ministry, etc.  In 'Spearhead' we see (as already noted) a great many ordinary people, often workers in ordinary workplaces, with the hierarchy, deference and contempt ingrained in the everyday functioning of life.

Dr Henderson is contemptuous towards Mullins (gesturing at him impatiently to stop hoovering the corridor), snaps at his Nurse and snarks at lab technicians whom he supposes to have faked an x-ray... but he's creepily ingratiating towards his bluff, posh, arrogant superior.

Everybody's at it.  The journalists curtly address Mullins as "Porter".  Even the Doctor is extraordinarily rude to the guard at the entrance to UNIT HQ.

Seeley is treated as beneath contempt by everybody in a uniform, even lowly grunts.  He is detained - by people who have no stated right to detain him - against his will, patronised, interrogated, threatened, etc.

He is a poacher, of course.  But this raises the issue of private property again, and of the power of the law to punish those who dare to trespass upon the privileges of the propertied.  Whigs & Hunters, and all that.

Seeley, of course, attempts to assert male authority over his wife.  Wonderfully, she tells him to mind his manners.

But hierarchy appears in a more explicitly political way, reflecting something about the wider society... yet it does so in a way that is hardly noticed.  It appears as an almost incidental, background detail.

In 'Spearhead', Madame Tussauds has a room full of leaders and rulers.  Statesmen, presidents, politicians, bishops and pontiffs.  We see Lincoln, Washington, LBJ, Kennedy, Nixon.

The Nestenes have chosen to hide amidst these people.  They have substituted their replicas for all the "top civil servants, government types" and hidden the real oligarchs in a museum.

This may be the most telling detail in the story, yet it masquerades as background colour, as a gimmick, as a setting and nothing more.

It reminds me of how the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's The Shining is absolutely draped in Navajo designs, thus turning the film into one of the most disturbing meditations I know of on the conquest of the West and the genocide of the Native Americans - all the more disturbing for being almost entirely silent about it.  Torrance and his family trek out West and camp on the site of an "old Indian burial ground"... and the place is haunted, not by the Indians but by the malignant memory of the decadent highpoint of the society that displaced and slaughtered the Indians, that built its imperialist prosperity on their ransacked graves.

Note the Navajo designs around the elevator doors.

Note the gallons of blood.

Torrance is driven mad by his weak and self-serving sympathy with a temple of luxury and consumption (and, in a related way, of male power and mysoginy), constructed on a lake of blood.

In the same way, though less overtly hauntologically, 'Spearhead' smuggles in - silently, unconsciously - a diagnosis with what's wrong at the top of capitalism, to put alongside its diagnosis of the fetishized commodity which confronts the worker as an alien threat.  It notices that we live in a society that is ruled, that this power is both fake and immensely powerful.  It shows us the rulers of the world, in a line from the great bourgeois revolutionary Washington right up to the political administrators of Britain (mirroring the Atlanticist nature of post-war Britain's alignment with America).  It presents the rulers as a grand spectacle for paying tourists to gawp at, but also shows them as fake things, hollow dummies, tatty replicas and, potentially, as stalking killers waiting to awake.  Power becomes a collection of unreal images, potentially zombified tools (weapons) in the hands of something that is "hostile and alien", that manifests as walking products, as the human form commodified, as work alienated from workers, as evil animated parodies of the human image and human labour, as autonomous manufactoids with hands that - far from performing work - flip open to reveal annihilating weapons.

As if all this weren't unsettling enough, the story goes on to hint - silently, unconsciously, as before - at white power, at the racial hierarchy which exists within Western capitalism, at the link with imperialism and colonialism.

You doubt me?  Watch the scene where we see the dummy bigwigs are waiting in Madame Tussauds to take their places at the apex of capitalist society and rule on behalf of the evil commodities.  You'll notice that, alongside all the generals, politicians and presidents, there are dummies of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

We've already seen Washington hovering over the other presidents.  Washington was a slave owner.  We've already seen the British generals and politicians.  Capitalist Britain ruled India through military force.

And what are the Nestenes?  Channing tells us.  "We have been colonising other planets for a thousand million years," he says.  They are, self-confessedly, imperialists.  Invaders, enslavers, colonial masters. 

And all the Autons, without exception, are pink.  Pink is their default colour scheme.  Pink is what they think is the colour of human.  The pink Auton is the vanilla model.

They are this way because of the inherent racist hegemony of white faces on British TV (and the Western capitalist culture industries more generally) in the early 70s.... but that doesn't undermine the point.  If anything, it underlines it.  The episode comes quietly, furtively, unconsciously, inadvertantly, dangerously close to a critique of the values embedded in its own implicit aesthetic.

Coming over here, taking our jobs...

In light of this, let's go back and have another look at the Auto Plastics factory.

This may be the single most politically
charged image Doctor Who ever created.

In a story that seems unconsciously preoccupied with capitalist alienation, that depicts the system as profoundly white, that associates the system with conquest and imperialism, these images are 'ground zero'.

This is getting dangerously close (without any conscious intent, I've no doubt) to expressing a joined-up, radical unease about capitalism as alienating, exploitative, racist and imperialistic.

This story situates the 'alien' threat within a very visible depiction of a system in which people are arranged in hierarchies based on their relations of production.

The main monsters are emblems of workers commodified, and of the commodity itself - the product of human labour - as an alienated and hostile force.

It depicts human production - via a capitalist factory - materialised in a form that dominates and attacks people.

It depicts people attacked by walking media images that smash their way out of shop windows and go on the rampage in the consumerist high street, still wearing the (once) fashionable clothes they were supposed to be advertising and covered in price tags.

This all smells strongly of an implicit critique of how people are alienated from their own labour by working for others, and from their very human image via consumerism.

Also, the story hints that, at the apex of all this, there sits a powerful bunch of people who are fundamentally fake and fundamentally white.  By putting Washington, Lincoln, King, Gandhi and a bunch of ruling-class Brits in the same room - not to mention adding LBJ and Nixon, during the era of Vietnam and only a few years after worldwide anti-war protests had peaked - the story gets very, very close to openly and implicitly critiqueing racism, imperialism and colonialism as parts of the same system.

And the presence of the near-invisible non-white working class, busily producing units of white capitalist culture for the profit of a white man who runs a white company, threatens to openly notice how non-whites have been gobbled up as cheap labour by this system.

The potential conclusion is that if you're a non-white worker within this system, you are subject not only the same alienation awaiting the white worker but also to another kind: the kind that sets the basic image of humanity as white and then contrasts you with it.... and sets you to work in the factory, maintaining - via the production of the commodity, i.e. capital - the very system that creates all these layers of oppression.

The presence of the emblems of racism and imperialism (masters and opponents) within the museum, and the imperialist nature of the Nestenes (who tessellate and merge so perfectly with the human system of which they are planning a 'hostile takeover'), nearly takes this story into the realms of outright, but sub-textual, subversion.

One casual mention of the East India Company would be all it would take to bring these threads together openly.

The Nestene entity itself is where all this might have met in some kind of coherent form.  Instead we get something - and this is surprising- almost unprecedented in Doctor Who up to this point: something tentacular, something drawn from the relatively new Western literary style/affect/trend known as 'the Weird'.  We get something radically incoherent.

It's almost as if terror of the themes being played with in this story - themes that so nearly converge to become a joined-up and radical critique of capitalism as systemically exploitative, imperialistic and racist... and, moreover, to do this in the context of modern Britain - has caused Doctor Who itself to flee for comfort and disguise in the realms of the undefined, shapeless and incomprehensible.

When the monster that sits on your Tooting Bec loo is so freighted with things that kids' telly isn't supposed to notice, let alone mention... the realm of the Weird tentacular could be a place to hide.

But that's another essay.


There is also the question of gender. 

In 'Spearhead' the Autons are all male, including all the shop window warrior Autons.  The replicas are all male.  Almost all the powerful people represented in Madame Tussauds are male. 

Explicitly sexist relationships are demonstrated.  There is Seeley.  There is the female nurse in the hospital, patronised by the doctors.  There is Liz Shaw, dragged away from her work at Cambridge against her will and judged for her looks by a male authority figure.  There are the male executives at Auto Plastics, playing with female dolls.  Ransome hoped to profit by further commodifying the female form.  In the novelisation, Ransome's doll wanders around saying "Mama", further showing the way consumer culture markets female roles. 

And, as noted, there are the female workers in the factory.  They work to reproduce capitalist culture's commodification of women, of its characterisation of them as children, of its socialisation of little girls to think of themselves as mothers-in-waiting, etc.  They are shot in such a way as to leave them faceless, as nothing but pairs of hands... which is, of course, a way that working people are described.  "We need more hands," etc., as in Dickens' Hard Times.  There is the waxen-faced female secretary in the short dress who subserviently leads Ransome to her male boss's office.

In addition to the many threads of potential radical comment that I've already listed, 'Spearhead' also contains the worrying potential to notice female commodification and marginalisation in Western capitalist society, and to link this (as it might link racism and imperialism) to the locus of capitalist production and reproduction: the factory, the assembly line, the point of alienated labour.