Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Skulltopus 11: Changing States

Before the Skulltopus series moves on to the Baker years (and beyond), I feel the need to settle accounts with the Pertwee era, particularly with Peladon.  Also, I need to clarify something about the way capitalism is portrayed and perceived in - and by - Doctor Who.

The maggots in 'The Green Death' are the Pertwee era's last gasp of the Weirdesque.  'Green Death' is also the last Pertwee story to properly notice capitalism.

Admittedly, there is some riffing on 'greed' in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs'; and 'Monster of Peladon' regurgitates (in a reduced form) the political semiotics of its parent story.  However, in these stories, while class is in evidence... class struggle even!... there is no tracing it back to anything recognisable as capitalist social relations.

I'll get to this, but first I want to loop back to address something about 'Carnival of Monsters' that I should've mentioned previously: Vorg as an entrepreneur and how this relates to the society in which he finds himself.  Firstly, Inter-Minor isn't recognisably capitalist.  The latent revolution in 'Carnival' - the imminent revolt of the Functionaries that President Zarb (the panicky social democrat) is trying to placate and Kalik (the fascist) wants to crush - tracks back to race (the story does some heavy riffing on race) but stops there.  It comes close... at one point mentioning a strike... but we get no sense of particularly capitalist relations.  There are no wages, no profits, no recognisable industrial workplaces and only the barest suggestion of a market at the very end.  Vorg, like other Robert Holmes creations, can be read as an embodiment of a more likeable version of free enterprise.  Like Milo Clancy or Garron, Vorg is a private operator, a colourful chancer, an individualist, a guy on the make who seems vital and amusing when stood next to grey statist authoritarians.  But Vorg's polari version of laissez faire is ultimately judged harmless, or even constructive.  He gets some stick for keeping "livestock" in the scope... and it's possible to read the scope itself as a metaphor for commodity fetishism, displaying how commodification of living people involves their compartmentalisation and alienation from proper awareness of the endless rut in which they circle.  However, I think this is far more about race as an artificial construct than it is about commodification (I'll try to address this in another post some time).  And, ultimately, Vorg's carny capitalism seems to be a potential force for change, progress and reform in the insular, ultra-statist backwater of Inter-Minor.  He ends the story fleecing Pletrac... but the tone the story takes with this implies that a dose of Vorg is just what the Inter-Minorans need.  To the extent that capitalism appears in 'Carnival', it does so through the rosy lens of Vorg.

Now, back to the post-'Green Death' Pertwee era.

'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is a densely political text, hugely ambivalent and needing a great deal of unpacking.  There is, as I say, some harping on about the evils of 'greed' and an implied anxiety about industrial pollution... but, ultimately, the story essentializes the social dystrophies of capitalism into malformations in human nature, which are (it is implied) exacerbated when people go around believing things.  This is in line with Hulke's liberalism - he really was a liberal, you know, rather than a communist - though the sheer pessimism on display is a new development, probably related to the ebbing of protest and struggle in the mid-70s.  Hulke is at his most radical ('The War Games' in '68) when protest and struggle are at their highest, so its no surprise to see him slump into despondency and disillusion as social struggle does the same.  (I went into this, in brief, in the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.)

Now, 'Monster of Peladon'.  Hmm, what can I say about this story?  Dear god, I hate it.  Going into why in detail would take an entire post by itself.  Or an entire series of posts, more likely.  (Yes, yes, okay, I'll get around to it one day - I know you love it when I trash stuff, you mean-spirited people.)

Suffice it to say, 'Monster' is aware of the exploitation of workers but doesn't think this bad in and of itself.  It's just that the workers should be treated well and get a seat at the table of government... or rather, an ex-worker should.  After all, there's nothing "only" about being a miner... just as long as a miner doesn't become aware of the class struggle, whereupon he becomes nothing but a violent, callous, fanatical, looney-left agitator type, who needs to die so the sane miners can come to an equitable understanding with the people who live off them.  There are also callous fanatics in government, of course.  The reactionaries.  Thus, the clash of the fundamental interests of rulers and ruled becomes an unhinged pathology in the minds of extremists - be they raving Scargills or misguided Thatchers - to be solved by all parties pulling together in the national interest against a foreign foe.  The imperialism of a great power is almost depicted when the Ice Warriors turn up, ostensibly to ensure the continuation of a smooth flow of resources from the client state to the empire... but they turn out to be members of a subversive group working for a foreign power.  This is like representing the 1954 coup in Guatemala as the work of American communists who wanted to send all the bananas to Russia, rather than a CIA operation on behalf of the United Fruit Company.

More fundamentally, there is a very much reduced consciousness of capitalism in this story.

The original Peladon tale heavily implied capitalist trade and development as something positive, as progress that was coming to sweep away the 'old ways'... but, in its liberalism, it saw a certain dark potentiality which it manifested in the person of Arcturus.  He was a quasi-skulltopus because 'Curse of Peladon' was using two clashing system of signs: the gothic, to represent the 'backwardness' of fedualism, and the Who-version of the tentacular Weird, which had come (in 'Spearhead from Space' and 'Claws of Axos') to be furtively associated with capital.  Arcturus merges the two systems because he's a representative of the capitalist future but he's also a reactionary protectionist who wants to restrict Peladon's access to markets (he wants their minerals for his people alone) and who allies himself with Hepesh, the figurehead of the old, feudal values.  Centauri, meanwhile, is the 'nice' form of the capitalist tentacular, offering free and unfettered access to trade, etc. This was a reflection of the liberal view of the UK's imminent entry into the Common Market.  (I go into this matter here.)

'Monster', however, was broadcast after miners' strikes had brought down a Tory government.  Miners were by far the most powerful and organised group of militant workers in the country and were winning inspiring (or terrifying, depending on your place in the class struggle) victories.  Accordingly, in its liberalism, 'Monster' flees from the whole issue of capitalism, even as it deals with the subject of labour unrest.  This is its key tactic: stripping the unrest of its economic context.  It transforms the Federation into less an implied trade and development grouping and more a military power in conflict with a machiavellian rival.  It notices that 'progress' has done little for the miners but blames this on the enemy, on the war, and on the truculence and superstition of the miners themselves.

Unavoidably, people at the time of broadcast would've been reminded of real-world miners' struggles of the day, but within the text itself the Peladonian miners seem like generic sci-fi rebels crossed with Mummerset yokels.  Their objections are not about working conditions or wages but are instead focused on resentment of authority and backward fear of technology.

And, crucially, their masters (local and federal) seem like military statists rather than a private company.  They are mining for a combination of the feudal Peladonian state and the representatives of the Federation, itself apparently an interplanetary 'state of states' which is demanding their minerals for defensive war rather than for trade per se, and certainly not for profit.

This matters to the tentacles.  This is why they don't erupt again, except in the recycled figure of Centauri.  'Curse' used tentacles to signify capitalism, as had previous stories... but it does so happily, seeing capitalism as bringing progress both economic and social.  'Monster' was made at a time when this view was already harder to sustain, so it evades capitalism almost entirely.  Having already used tentacles to signify capitalism in 'Curse', Hayles can't reverse this dialectic and then use them to evade capitalism in 'Monster'.  He must edit out both capitalism and, as a result, the tentacular.  That's why 'Monster' is so careful to make the miners into the subjects of states, to make their product into a military necessity rather than something to trade.  In the widespread cultural understanding of capitalism, this tactic is all that is needed to all-but remove capitalism from the text, even by implication.  Even the Federation aliens have become not delegates vying for trade but mining engineers, technicians, enforcers, etc.

Now, in the real world, there is no reason why capitalism can't function as a state system rather than through private enterprise.  Indeed, to a large extent, it does... and always has.  The essence of capitalism is not private property but rather the generalisation of commodity production through wage labour, leading to the accumulation and reinvestment of capital.  Capital can take the form of the state.  To be crude: workers can be paid to make commodities by the state.  States, whole economies, can - and do - work this way.  The old 'communist' states - and even some that cling to life - worked this way.  Most economies today are 'mixed' in that they have a private and a public sector, though neoliberalism has greatly undermined the scope and power of the public sector globally, at least outside the realms of military and police power, which it has increased.  Even in largely 'free market' economies there are vast sectors in which the state employs masses of people, directs labour, pays wages and, through this process, extracts surplus in the form of products and/or services, surplus which generates revenue which goes into accumulation and reinvestment.  The essence of capitalism.  The failure to understand this simple issue - which, in fairness, has been systematically obscured with propaganda and misprision from virtually all corners (the mainstream liberals, the free-marketeers and the reformist or authoritarian variants of the left) - has lead to a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what capitalism is and, consequently, what socialism should be.  This is a digression, but a necessary one.

The point that needs to be made here is that capitalism is generally misunderstood as being quintessentially about private enterprise... so when you leave private companies out of texts, as they are left out of 'Monster of Peladon' and much of the rest of Doctor Who, you seem to leave out capitalism itself.  My central idea in these 'Skulltopus' posts is that Doctor Who flees to a version of 'the Weird' when it needs to obscure capitalism as a systemic generator of the modern nightmares with which the show is obsessed.  This is a rather clumsy way of talking about actual writers, actually resorting to certain strategies in their writing (albeit unconsciously) when they feel that what they are writing is veering towards something unsayable within the Who context (unsayable because we are trained to think of children's entertainment as needing to be non-ideological, and critiques of capitalism seem ideological whereas tacit acceptance of capitalism seems ideologically neutral).  In a social context in which few people fully understand that capitalism can and does function economically within political forms of statism, even forms which legally prohibit private companies, a writer is not going to feel this 'veering towards the unsayable' about a text which leaves out private companies.  He or she will not feel capitalism looming as a presence within the text, no more than will most of the texts readers and/or viewers.

This is one major reason why the exploitation of wage labour seen in, say, 'Doctor Who and the Silurians' causes no unease which sends Doctor Who into a hunt for tactical incomprehensibility.  The employees in the background are less subject to hierarchical pressure than those in, say, 'Spearhead from Space'; they do not seem to connect with any social or technological nightmares of modernity since the story concentrates instead upon putatively biological moral flaws in 'Man'; and, most especially, they are employees of the state rather than of a private firm.  Their work seems geared towards the utilitarian aims of the state rather than to the profit of a private capitalist.  It is the same with 'Monster of Peladon'.  The Peladonian miners may have made viewers think of present-day miners' struggles, but within the text they seemed not to relate to capitalism precisely because they are the paid subjects of a state system rather than a private company.

What this misses, of course, is that the state as we know it is a capitalist state, an emanation of the capitalist system, fused with capitalism, a form of capitalist social relation, a form of alienation, etc. But, fascinating as this subject may be, it is way outside both my expertise and my remit here.  It is, for instance, fascinating that the Peladon stories (unwittingly) depict a fedual state evolving to fit capitalist social relations... since the modern European state system arose under fedualism and adapted to fit capitalism as the new system grew within it.  But you don't want to read my amateur musings on this.  Still less, in my view, do you want to take any notice of what Brian Hayles says.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Beyond Redemption

I think there is something inherently dodgy about the notion of 'redemptive readings'.  It seems to imply a determination to look at a text in a positive way that is at odds with what could be called 'proper scepticism'.  This objection is itself open to the objection that it's silly to approach a piece of entertainment product with 'scepticism', especially when it is part of a series of which one is supposedly a fan.  But, this loses sight of context and agency.  There are various ways of choosing to watch the same thing.  When you sit down to enjoy an episode of a show you like, for fun, you're a bit odd if you're not expecting, hoping and trying to like it.  When you're watching it with the express intention of analysing it and then writing about what it means, proper scepticism becomes appropriate.  Trying to like what you're watching becomes a somewhat iffy strategy in that context.  Besides, doesn't the necessity of trying to find ways of praising what you're analysing tell us something in itself?  This muddle also loses sight of the distinctions that are always to be found within the concept of enjoyment, distinctions that are all too often spuriously aggregated.  You don't have to think something is politically or morally correct in order to like it (though, in practice...).  No more do you need to think that something is aesthetically sophisticated or beautiful in order to relish its aesthetic.  Conversely, you may dislike a beautifully made piece of art which offers praiseworthy political or moral analyses.  Or you may take enjoyment from the act of hostile reading itself.  I, for instance, very much enjoy hating and criticising certain things, and I don't see anything wrong with this.

This is by way of a preamble to talking about 'The Two Doctors', which has been subject to an attempted rehabilitation from the charge of being reactionary on the issue of race.  The re-evaluation of the story has been pioneered and best expressed by Robert Shearman in About Time 6.  The essence of his argument is that the Androgums are a comment on the concept of the monster as employed by Doctor Who.  They are characterised as generic monsters but it is disarming when people treat them as such because they do not look like monsters.  They are treated the same way as the Sontarans - all of them racially evil and hateful - but, because they do not have potato-heads or eye-stalks, this poses a problem.  We notice the inappropriateness, even tastelessness, of generalising about the evil of an entire race when they look like us.  We don't blink when the Doctor describes the entire Jagaroth race as vicious and callous but it bothers us when the same racial villainy is implied about aliens who look human.  Philip Sandifer recently summarized and expanded the case admirably, here.

I'm enormously tempted by this reading... and, maybe, if I'd approached 'The Two Doctors' with the express intention of finding a 'redemptive reading', I would've happily seized upon it.  Apart from allowing me to enjoy 'The Two Doctors' (a story that, in many respects, I rather like) with a lighter heart, it would also address an issue that I have criticised in Who in the past.  The issue is best demonstrated in 'Resurrection of the Daleks', in which the Doctor appears blithe about slaughtering Daleks using biological weapons but cannot make himself gun down Davros because he's a humanoid (just about).

However, with all due respect to Shearman (which is a lot of respect), I think the 'redemptive' argument for 'Two Doctors' misses something very important: the Androgums are - in a way - made-up and costumed as monsters.

They are the jumbled ethnic 'other' as monster.

They are clothed in garb that is inflected with the 'ethnic' and/or 'exotic' and are given physical characteristics - red hair, heavy features, florid complexion, warts, etc - that directly connect with very old stereotypes that have been used against several groups to indicate lowness from birth (in very much the same way that David Lynch's movie version of Dune had recently used similiar characteristics to represent the Harkonnen kinship group as biologically evil).

To be sure, the Androgums are not consistently reminiscent of any particular group of stereotypes.  To a certain extent they chime with stereotypes about Scottish people (think, for instance, of the roughly contemporaneous MacAdder from Blackadder the Third... a violent, lecherous, orange-faced, ginger-haired lunatic).

Similar stereotypes - red hair, violence, dissoluteness, primitiveness - have long been used in the representation of the Irish and Irish culture.  There is also something reminiscent of the Arab in the Shockeye mix.  He seems to be wearing a hat that is somewhere between a turban and a 'Tam O'Shanter'.  He wears harem pants under a decoration hanging from his belt that is halfway between a plaid (it's hard not to see an echo in Jamie's tartans) and a rug.  He has a curved, scimitar-like blade.

It will be noticed that all these stereotypes suggested by Shockeye represent groups - the Scots, the Irish, Arabs, etc - who have historically been victims of English/British imperialism.  As usual, the imperial culture derides, demonizes, vilifies and appropriates the culture of its victims.

Above all, however, if the Androgums recall any set of stereotypes, it is stereotypes about Jews... very, very old ones at that.

It's hard for us to imagine now but, when depicted on the Renaissance stage, Jewish villains like Shylock and Barabas would probably have worn ginger fright-wigs and huge comedy noses (which is disconcerting in the light of so much effort by more modern actors and producers to emphasize the complex and sympathetic aspects of Shylock). Here is some background, courtesy of Peter Ackroyd in his book Shakespeare - The Biography:

...we must never forget the stridency of the Elizabethan theatre.  Shylock would have been played with a red wig and bottle nose.  The play is, after all, entitled the 'comicall History'. 
...the stage image of Jews essentially came from the mystery plays, where they were pilloried as the tormentors of Jesus.  In the dramatic cycle Herod was played in a red wig, for example; it represents the origin of the clown in pantomime.  It was the costume of Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.  It is, in effect, the image with which Shakespeare was obliged to work.

Shakespeare refers somewhere to Judas as red-headed, something often found in Italian and Spanish art.  Judas was always painted as 'more Jewish' than the other apostles, for obvious reasons.  As Michaelangelo asks the Pope in that Monty Python sketch: "Are they too Jewish?  I made Judas the most Jewish."

Even hundreds of years after Shylock, Dickens was obsessing over "red-headed and red-whiskered Jews" in Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers.  Here he is in Oliver Twist, likening Fagin to the Devil by emphasizing his red beard and toasting fork:

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantel-shelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villanous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and a clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. 

Interesting that Fagin is cooking meat the first time we see him.  Also interesting that Shockeye too has a fondness for silk.

Shockeye - which, I can't help notice, doesn't exactly sound unlike Shylock - is greedy, gluttonous and cannibalistic, recalling many anti-Semitic stereotypes including the ancient blood libel, which asserted that Jews would use the blood of murdered Christian children to make their unleavened bread.  (It might be objected that since Shockeye and his victims are supposedly of different races, he cannot be called a cannibal, but this concentrates too much on the sci-fi rationales of the text and ignores the visual impact of a person preparing another person for butchery and consumption.)  Shockeye menaces Peri in a way that is half cannibalistic and half lecherous, hardly a million miles away from endless anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish men preying upon young gentile girls.

It's also worth noting that, in the story, the Androgums are shown to be playing both the Sontarans and the Third Zoners off against each other in an attempt to seize power themselves... exactly the kind of triangulating conspiratorial machiavellianism imagined by the forger of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, or by the Nazis, who fantasized that 'the Jews' were behind both capitalism and communism.

In light of all this, it is deeply unfortunate - to say the least! - that the Doctor should end up killing Shockeye with, of all things, cyanide gas.

I'm not saying that Bob Holmes, or the make-up designer, or anybody involved was being deliberately anti-Semitic (or, for that matter, anti-Scots, anti-Irish, anti-Arab, etc). I don't believe that.  But the visual references got in there anyway.  These stereotypes - the red hair, the coarse features, the 'ethnic' trappings, the scimitar, the libels of blood lust and cannibalism, etc. - are so well established as signifiers for primitivism and inferiority in the cultural discourse of Western imperialist societies that they get rehearsed unconsciously, unthinkingly, naturally, as a matter of course.

Mind you, I do sometimes wonder if Holmes was deliberately drawing on the Jewish villains of the Renaissance stage.  Shockeye seems to have been meant to work rather like Shylock or Barabas, i.e. in the way Shakespeare and Marlowe were starting to re-use the old theatrical character known as the Vice. They both recoded the Vice - the stage embodiment of a vice or vices - in the figure of a villainous Jew... who nonetheless acted as a kind of dramatic highlighter, showing up the often less than pure moral condition of the gentiles around him. Shylock conforms to stereotypes, but his plight also shows up the materialism, hypocrisy and prejudice of the Venetians. Barabas is less complex, but even his outrageous villainy can be read as a satire of the emergent capitalist culture of the Christians around him.  Something similar is at work in Shockeye and, to this extent, I think Shearman and others have a point when they identify the Androgums as an attempt to interrogate some of the implicit values of Doctor Who.  Shockeye's behaviour seems - at least, at first - to show up the hypocrisy of the Third Zoners, the Sontarans, the Time Lords... not to mention the prejudice of the Doctor. Holmes really does seem to be doing this deliberately. Otherwise why go to all the trouble of having a scene where the Doctor is upbraided for not being progressive in his attitudes, right after he makes an odious remark comparing a minority to monkeys!

The Androgums seem to have been deliberately crafted as an exaggerated reflection of those they satirise. They are considered primitive yet consider humans primitives. They are power-hungry, as are the Sontarans. They assume the right to travel in time, as do the Time Lords. They are very much like Shylock and Barabas. They satirise a culture that despises them by sharing its values and turning them against those who have oppressed them.

Thing is... the production fumbles it. And fumbles it badly. The scene where Chessene can't help lapping up the gore shows that she's inherently, biologically, inescapably low and savage... thus justifying all the prejudice shown against the Androgums, removing any chance that they might represent a condemnation of slavery as lowering and degrading the slaves, announcing (in the, so to speak, authorial voice) that they deserve to be enslaved and/or killed, and so disspating any satire of the Third Zoners, Sontarans, Time Lords, etc.  So the Androgums end up working very much like Barabas (we're never meant to be in any doubt that he's worse than the Christians) and less like Shylock (who remains, until the end, irresolvably ambiguous).  After all, in 'The Two Doctors' even those 'generic' Sontarans are shown to be concerned with honour and to seethe at accusations of cowardice... noble attributes entirely lacking in the crude, philistine Androgums.

The story even compromises its own deliberate aim to poke at the meat industry. If the Androgums are meant to represent that aspect of humanity that is callous about farming and killing animals for food (which they clearly are - just look at the scene where Shockeye is 'tenderising' Jamie and saying that "primitive creatures don't feel pain the way we do") then this also is compromised by Dastari's specific comparison, when he says "and he calls humans primitives!" So even we heartless, meat-munching, human carnivores are better than Shockeye.

Moreover, the idea that, as generic monsters in human shape, the Androgums represent a rebuke to the assumptions of the programme is simply untenable.  The more one compares them to such generic monsters, the less of a fit they appear.  They are not generic monsters in their behaviour or outlook any more than they are in appearance.

Okay, since Grendel (no, the other one) many monsters have wanted to eat people... but this has hardly been a major preoccupation of monsters in Doctor Who, which has largely drawn its quintessential ideas of the monstrous from the nightmares of modernity (fascism, biological racism, industrial genocide, technological warfare, nukes, the autonomous product, etc).  And the Androgums are not just carnivores that prey on humans like, say, sirens or werewolves or zombies.  They are gourmands (their very species name is an anagram of this word), obsessed with food generally.  Since when has an obsession with culinary pleasure been a trait of the 'generic' monster?

Moreover, the Androgums are more even than just amoral gourmands.  They are ideologically devoted to the maxim that "the gratification of pleasure is the sole motive of action".  They are remorseless nihilists; parodic hedonists.  They cleave to the definition of the ethics of Satanism offered by Aleister Crowley: "do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law".  They are, in a sense, Satanists.

Added to this is their status as slaves.  Since when has the 'generic' Who monster been a slave?  Since when has the 'generic' Who monster been generally considered, by all other characters, to be inherently inferior and in need of genetic enhancement?  On the contrary, the more usual strategy in Who is for the villainous monsters to be the ones that think that way about everybody else... which, as noted above, would mean that 'Two Doctors' pulls off a nice bit of satire by ultimately painting the Third Zoners and the Doctor as akin to Daleks, were it not for the fact that the text backs them in their assumptions about the Androgums!  It'd be like if the Thals turned out to be evil at the end of 'The Daleks', or all Silurians were shown to conform to Miss Dawson's prejudices, or the Mutts in 'The Mutants' really were mindless and infectious brutes.

Jews, on the other hand, were a bullied, subjected, exploited and constrained people for centuries in Christian Europe.  And, at the same time, centuries of official Christian church-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Europe equated the Jews, either directly or as allies, with the Devil - as did Dickens (see above).  The Androgums are far from a perfect fit with anti-Semitic stereotypes... but they fit them much better than they fit the behaviour patterns of the standard Doctor Who monster.

In order to interpret the Androgums as a satire on the concept of the monstrous in Who, one must also - for instance - see the Celestial Toymaker the same way.  One must be able to see him simply as a humanoid who displays the villainy of a monster, thus satirising the usual assumption that a monster looks monstrous.  However, as has been irrefutably argued by Philip Sandifer (here), the Celestial Toymaker carries unavoidable connotations of China and the Chinese.  I don't think you can argue that he is the racial 'other' construed as monstrous without also having to concede the same about the Androgums (with the caveat that they are far less straightforwardly about one specific group).

Most damaging to the Shearman/Sandifer reading is the scene where, upon her death, Chessene reverts back to her 'true' form, the original self from which she was unable to escape even with those genetic upgrades.  Her racial biology trapped her into villainy.  This is not only the crudest kind of biological determinism, it also destroys the idea that the Androgum's human appearance makes their status and treatment into a mordant comment on Doctor Who's usual way of demarcating the evil by way of alien ugliness.  Chessene's 'true' and underlying alien ugliness reasserts itself at the end.  Her evil inner core is thus represented by the red eyebrows, the heavy features, the warts... just as it was earlier represented by her inability to resist tasting the sacrificial blood of someone outside her own race.  Even if you don't buy the connections I've drawn between these features and anti-Semitic stereotypes, it remains impossible to argue that the Androgums are not visually represented as monstrous.  If anything, their monstrousness is more clearly and deliberately visually represented than that of the 'generic' monsters they fail to resemble.  Chessene is the test case.  When she looks more or less exactly the same as Dastari, she is treated more or less exactly the same.  Her false 'human' appearance (apparently good) is explicitly contrasted with her 'true' Androgum appearance (bad).  The moment of her reversion from the former to the latter is also the moment when her irredeemable monstrosity is finally revealed.

In this moment, her racial 'otherness' is her evil.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

X Marks the Shit

‎"You need to see X-Men First Class Jack, you'll love it, I promise!"

Nope. Sorry.

Fassbender spends the movie auditioning to take over from Daniel Craig. Kevin Bacon excepted, none of the others can act at all.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is fidgeted with to the point of incomprehensibility. The Russians send missiles to Cuba despite a full US Naval blockade... because one general has been threatened... and this makes the entire politburo accede to nuclear suicide? Well, I guess that's why their culture produces mutants that look like Satan.

It's the usual reactionary farrago of lies.

The standard crap about how homo sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals is repeated yet again. It's an obsession of pseudo-thoughtful pop-culture and it's a lie. Nobody knows how homo sapiens and Neanderthal man interacted. There is no data. That the null hypothesis of capitalist culture is that homo sapiens went on a genocidal killing rampage tells you more about capitalism than about homo sapiens.

And the Nazi war criminal goes to work for the Russians, which is another lie. The ex-Nazis all went to work for the West. West Germany was run by ex-Nazis, a couple of cosmetic dissidents aside.

And, once again, evolution is depicted as teleological and going in 'stages' and quantum jumps, which is barely-disguised social darwinism. What makes this all the more revolting is the moralising about Magneto's supposed evil... for doing something so scandalous as to defend himself when attacked! Oh, what a twisted bastard!

And what exactly is Raven/Mystique's problem? So, her default setting is blue and scaly... so what? I'd have that as a default setting if I could make myself look however I wanted the rest of the time!

AND this film, which takes a moment here and there to jab at 60s-style sexism, takes every opportunity to get the female cast semi-naked! Fucking hypocrites.

Oh yeah, AND the only black character dies half way through the film - what a fucking shock! That hardly ever happens in movies!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Fear Them

"Does this mean that the Olympic Dream is dead? 

"There's a mystery man... he's picked up the flame... we have no idea who he is... he's carrying the flame!  Yes, he's carrying the flame and no one wants to stop him. 

"It's more than a flame now, Bob. It's more than heat and light. It's hope. And it's courage. And it's love."
- From the script of 'Fear Her'.

Heartwarming, I'm sure.  Absolutely certain to inculcate desirable attitudes in children.  Watching that will have them all full of hope and courage and love as they quaff their isotonic drinks and get exercising, hoping to one day be standing to attention as their national anthem is played and a bit of metal is draped around their necks, secure in the knowledge that all is for the best in the best of all possible social and political cultures.

On the other hand...

On 19 May, the Olympic torch will begin its journey, accompanied by 52 police officers, due to fears that the torch may be ‘targeted by radicalised protest groups’ or dissident Irish republicans, since according to the Telegraph ‘ experts on the IRA are warning the torch relay is vulnerable to attack.’

Other threats include ‘public disorder’ – a possibility that was identified as a risk after last August’s riots by assistant police commissioner, Chris Allison, the national Olympic security co-ordinator.

To eliminate these threats, the military/police ‘ring of steel’ around the Olympics will be buttressed by security infrastructure that includes an £80 million, 11-mile, 5,000-volt electric fence around the Olympic Zone, and a range of new surveillance and monitoring technologies in London itself.

The largest peacetime security operation in British history cannot be simply attributed to paranoia and an overzealous desire to protect the public. On the one hand it reflects an overlap between homeland security and corporate profiteering that has become a feature of the post 9/11 world.

As the urban geographer Stephen Graham has observed, the Olympics are ‘the ultimate global security shop window through which states and corporations can advertise their latest high-tech wares to burgeoning global markets while making massive profits’.

The Games also represent a more general marketing opportunity for their corporate sponsors. In 2006 Parliament passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, which upgraded the level of brand protection to Olympic sponsors and made any unauthorised marketing or commercialism connected to the Olympics a potentially criminal offence. 


 This highly profitable, publicly subsidised, sporting event always attracts the major, and wannabe major, cities of the world, using any and all methods to entice an unaccountable Olympic committee, each flexing their political muscle to ensure theirs is the next chosen location. The Olympics take billions of pounds, yen, dollars of their host countries’ tax revenue to build magnificent stadiums and housing facilities, militarise the city, trample civil liberties and construct elaborate installations with shelf lives of a few weeks.

London 2012, originally expected to cost £2.4bn, is now projected at £24bn, with contracts going to some of the world’s most egregious employers and global human rights violators. Some on the left have been critical of the massive transfer from public to private at a time of austerity. The London overspend has been portrayed by officials as a one-off, but a glance at the history of the Olympics shows that underestimating the cost is a consistent part of the Olympic experience.


But the real gains for the rich can be witnessed in the long-term implications, once the crowds have gone home. Contrary to popular belief, the devastation inflicted on the poorest and historically marginalised communities is not simply an adverse side-effect, but goes to the very essence of why cities battle to host the Games.

In recent days attention has been given to London’s policy of ‘cleaning the streets’ of sex workers and other undesirable elements in the lead up to the games. This should come as no surprise to students of history, and if the past two decades are any indication, this is only the beginning of a comprehensive strategy to restructure the character, makeup and politics of the city. Everywhere the Games injects itself, the story remains the same; beginning with the easy targets – sex workers and the homeless – the decision-makers soon move towards driving out ethnic minority and working class residents from their city. 


Why are McDonalds and Coca Cola the official food and drink partners of the London 2012 Olympic Games when these companies represent the antithesis of both healthy and sustainable food and drink? Why has BP been selected as one of six “sustainability partners” when its business assumptions imply a world of runaway climate change?

The apparent unwillingness to apply any of the Olympics’ supposed ethical principles to the selection of corporate sponsors, brushing aside numerous civil society complaints and campaigns, is certainly one thing that the games can claim to be consistent about. Official sportswear partner Adidas produces its goods in sweatshops. Communications partner BT has links with Bezeq, which provides telecoms to illegal settlements on the West Bank. Coca Cola is accused of draining and contaminating groundwater in a drought-prone area of India. And so on. 

And so on indeed.

So... hope, courage and love.  And bullshit.  And dystopian social control in the service of corporations. 

But the greatest of these is bullshit.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Green Day

This is a slightly-tweaked version of something originally published in the January 2011 edition of Panic Moon.  Back issues of this excellent fanzine (now, sadly, on hiatus) are still available, here.

Plant monsters. That’s an old one. Where does it come from? Maybe it’s about the Venus Fly Trap, the cactus or the thorns on the stem of a rose. Maybe it’s about the faces that we see in the gnarled bark of trees; the faces that gave us generations of tales about tree folk. We see this in 'The Seeds of Doom', in the initial humanoid shape of the monster, in its booming threats, in its communion with Chase, in the way that the Doctor keeps calling it Keeler ironically, having chided Sarah for referring to the transformed Winlett by name.

Maybe it’s the sheer unnerving silence and mindlessness of things that nonetheless seem to have flesh and veins and skin, that nonetheless grow and move and breed.  We see this in 'The Seeds of Doom', with all the emphasis on skin, blood and pain… and Chase’s obsessional desire to “see what happens when the Krynoid touches human flesh”. We see this in the way the Krynoid moves, unfettered by roots. The way it seethes and crawls. The way it is tentacular, like the octopoda or squid monsters that pervade 20th century literary/cinematic/political monsterology, standing
for the threatened global reach of the powerfully, shapelessly, amorphously unknowable.

Maybe the Krynoid is an echo of the trauma of the first humans to discover that sometimes delicious-looking vegetation gives you agonizing stomach ache… or kills you… or causes terrifying hallucinations. We can see this fear demonstrated in Stevenson, mesmerised by his pod… and Winlett and Keeler so “taken over” that they literally transform into nightmare images of the insane roots that have taken their reason prisoner.

Maybe it’s guilt at tearing up and eating beautiful, living, growing things; we see this in Chase’s later ideological hatred of “animal fiends”. Maybe we can’t help see it - on some level - as exploitation, hence the Doctor’s word: “revolution”. Maybe it’s guilt at the way we wipe out plant species with our industrialised carelessness, guilt that makes us imagine them turning on us. We see this in the existence of the World Ecology Bureau, and Chase’s accusation to Dunbar that the endangered plants are ignored because of a pro-animal bias.

Maybe it’s about ancient history, about wars between peoples over cultivated land covered in crops; organised violence that had been unknown to hunter-gatherer societies for thousands of years until the development of agriculture. Maybe it’s the old and persistent nightmare of the classes of priests and administrators who started to rise once agriculture came, who hoarded the surplus grain and used it to wield power over the people. We see these fears demonstrated in 'The Seeds of Doom', with Scorby the violent capturer of coveted plants, with Harrison Chase (the sole proprietor and abbot of a “green cathedral”) lording it over everyone else because of his wealth, owning people “body and soul”.

Maybe it’s to do with the way vegetation encroaches upon human civilisations, almost like an invading enemy, unless carefully held in check. We can see this in 'The Seeds of Doom', with its beautiful gardens and hothouses suddenly crawling with green enemies, with an outpost of human order in the howling Antarctic wilderness decimated by plant-life within hours of its introduction.

Maybe it’s the sheer terror of inversion, of a system upon which our world depends (in this case, the consumption of the vegetable by the animal) being inverted. Maybe it’s linked to the stunning changes that humans have suddenly had to face throughout history: warm climates turning icy without warning, for instance. We see this in 'The Seeds of Doom', with its very title, with all its apocalyptic talk of a global reversal of the natural order, of man consumed by vegetation. We see this in the way the Krynoid grows, becoming a man-shaped thing, and then a hill-sized thing, and then a house-sized thing. Humans have seen such runaway environmental processes before and we’re seeing them again now, possibly presaging the doom of our species. We’ve seen worlds end. We’ve seen the ruins of once-impregnable citadels swallowed by forest, mighty ziggurats smothered in moss, crumbling empty granaries engulfed by vine and creeper.

Maybe it’s our seemingly innate tendency to imagine monsters, to co-opt anything co-optable for the construction of chimeras made from bits and pieces. Maybe they just hadn’t done a plant monster yet. Maybe they remembered The Thing From Another World or The Day of the Triffids or The Little Shop of Horrors when they were deciding which schlock movie to raid next. Maybe Bob Holmes remembered falling into stinging nettles as a child. Maybe Robert Banks Stewart just hated sprouts.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Independence Day

This is a slightly-expanded/tweaked version of something originally published in the January 2011 edition of Panic Moon.  Back issues of this excellent fanzine (now, sadly, on hiatus) are still available, here.

In 'The Mutants', Earth’s empire is the British Empire in decline, as it disassembles itself out of economic necessity (true in general terms but misleading in particular; the British were usually savage in their resistance to independence). The Marshall echoes Ian Smith, who ran the racist apartheid state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and tried to hang on after the British cut him loose.

We get a positive view of a national liberation movement. Ky is clearly the figurehead of a powerful anti-Overlord groundswell; they’re called “terrorists” naturally, and maybe they are, but they’re fighting for their freedom. We get no patronising sermons to oppressed people about non-violence.

The system is depicted as inherently racist, featuring a version of apartheid. The Solonians are not black, but then neither were the Irish… and they were the first to come under the British heel. 'The Mutants' shows racism, quite rightly, as the ideology of empire, not the cause.

There is an apologia for empire that stresses the “progress” it can bring to its subjects. The concept of “progress” is really what this story interrogates. Earth hasn’t brought much to Solos, whatever the Administrator’s ceremonial bromides. Of course, Solos only seemed in need of 'progress' to the humans. It suited the Solonians just fine, as you’d expect. This expresses something very true about colonialism: that what the colonisers see as raw material needing to be shaped, the colonised often see as shaped just fine already thank you very much. To the Overlords, what they’d call “progress” (uniforms, racism and technology that destroys ecosystems) is all up on Skybase, their celestial seat. Understandably, Ky rejects it. The script backs him up with the descriptions of Earth as worn out, a wasteland of ash, slag and clinker: “the fruits of technology” as the Doctor says. This is the real reason for the humans’ presence on Solos. This is fairly accurate as a picture of a declining empire. An empire that, say, runs on fossil fuels that are gradually running out might be keen to control other people’s oil. Of course, you can’t really understand modern imperialism without understanding capitalism, which doesn’t appear in 'The Mutants', not even by implication.

Imperial “progress” often means people like Jaeger using their advanced technology to customize colonies for their needs in ways that will decimate the natives. This is pretty much what happened when the white man arrived in Africa and America. The Doctor is there to personify the other possibility; the humanistic, ethical science that we’d all like to believe in. There is no idiotic blanket condemnation of science, just recognition that it can be a weapon in the hands of power. We are also invited to condition science with an awareness that older forms of discourse might have objective validity. The Doctor brings the ancient artefacts of the Solonians to the attention of hippy-anthropologist Sondergaard and they find accurate accounts of history and biology in the native culture.

I used to think that this story represented evolution (inaccurately) as an upward progress from brutish animalism to enlightened and “higher” forms… but that doesn’t hold. The Solonians, it transpires, are involved in a process of biological change that is not linear but elliptical. The Mutt stage comes between the humanoid and angelic phases. The process presumably reverses itself when the Solonian climate shifts back. The angelic (i.e. glam-rock) Ky isn’t a Christ-like moraliser. He kills the Marshall quite happily.

Meanwhile, the Mutts are not good or evil; they’re no lower than the angels, though they are more vulnerable. This rubbishes the idea that 'The Mutants' is about a mistaken teleological view of evolution (or any racially-loaded cultural condescension like that seen in it by Salman Rushdie). The Mutts are just people undergoing change. That’s why the reactionary Overlords (and Varan, their
comprador) hate and fear them. Irrational prejudice, yes, but also terror of change.  Imperial “progress” is thus revealed as nervous stasis... or perhaps an entropic winding-down to those "grey landscapes" that the Doctor mentions.  Solos certainly seems to be headed this way under human domination.  As in later stories which tackle similar themes - 'Warriors' Gate' for example - this story depicts 'progress' as a flying-apart which creates a vast accretion of rubble in its wake.

The consciousness of Ky certainly changes, but not because he becomes “higher”.  Both his biological and political evolution comes from the struggle against imperialism, in which he joins with Stubbs and Cotton. They too join in the struggle alongside the people they were employed to oppress and kill. They come to reject the ideology of the empire that used them just as it crushed the Solonians. There is progress here, but it is the progress of the exploited united in search of liberation.

Of course, in the end, the Marshall gets blamed more than the imperial system and the legal bigwigs of the empire see the light... but all the same, 'The Mutants' asks big questions and offers genuinely progressive answers.