Wednesday, 19 September 2012

It Came From Uranus

I finished reading Stephen Baxter's Doctor Who novel The Wheel of Ice today.  The novel had its moments.  There is one description of an attack upon Zoe by a group of 'blue dolls' - fabricated avatars of an ancient artificial intelligence - that is rather well done.  The blank black eyes and needle teeth are fairly routine but there is something oddly disturbing about the descriptions of their paddle-like hands.

On the whole, however, I found the book rather uninspired.  The phrase I just used - "ancient artificial intelligence" - says a lot about the book's use of somewhat familiar tropes.  There seems to have been an attempt to evoke the 'base under siege' / 'humans in the future' formula so often said to be typical of the Troughton era... but with the 'siege' coming from within the colony.  However, Baxter is perhaps a little too interested in the technical details of the solar system.  We get an awful lot of scenes where the action stops dead so the characters can explain neutrinos to each other, or describe the chemical composition of Titan's atmosphere.  There's also a lot of stuff about how a space colony would actuallly work in technical terms, but it's not terribly relevant to the story.  So, once again, the action tends to pause so that people can talk about waste recycling.

There is an attempt to adapt the characters of Zoe and Jamie to new situations that also causes a slowing-down of the action.  It would be okay if they had genuinely interesting things to do... but Zoe gets to tell bedtime stories about the Karkus to a toddler and Jamie falls in with a bunch of naff 'rebellious' young people who say excrutiating things like "Cowabunga, granddad!".  I shit you not.

There's a rather likeable Scottish robot called Mac who gets developed only so far before being sidelined and then brought back for a rather twee 'emotional' bit at the end.  It's characteristic of the novel that this cathartic final scene for Mac is bordered by lots of technical talk involving him being sent to Uranus to mine tarranium (it came from Uranus, I knew it did!).  There are lots of continuity references in the book, if that's the sort of thing that spreads your marmite.

The book also has a go at being political... and that's kind of what I wanted to talk about.  There is a nasty corporation called, rather amusingly, Bootstrap... as thought it was set up by Norman Tebbit or someone like that.  The representative of the corporation is a nasty woman who is nasty because she's nasty, and a woman because she's a woman.  She does nasty things in a brusque, rude manner, because she's nasty and brusque and rude.  Everybody else in the story seems to be well-meaning, if equally characterless.  Some are delineated by being Spanish or Welsh.  The rest blur into one indistinct melange even as you read.  (So quite like a mid-Troughton space base story in fact!)  The point is that there is one nasty corporate person who causes problems for a whole bunch of people who seem less real than her because she at least has a distinguishing feature, i.e her nastiness.  She's obsessed with efficiency and profit, which is presented as surprising, as though that isn't what corporations hire people to do.  In the end, the Doctor defeats her (while she rants in an overwrought style so stereotypically villainous that it frequently feels like the writer is taking the piss) and the people of the colony suddenly decide to declare independence from Earth (and from Bootstrap).  The 'Planetary Ethics Committee' looks set to help them, because they're an ethics committe and, as such, are ethical... like the Spanish character mentioned above who is also nice because he works for them.

To be honest, it's no surprise to me that Steven Baxter's story is simplistic and sketchy in its representation of politics.  The Time Ships, his sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, chose to eschew anything resembling Wells' approach, which was to use the device of time travel as a way of satirircally examining the class struggle through the prism of Darwinism.  Instead, Baxter mistakes the literary device, the time machine itself, for the crux of the matter... and delves into lots of stuff inspired by 20th century theoretical physics.  Alternate universes, etc. 

The stuff I want to mention comes later in the book.  The Doctor makes a series of political pronouncements.  In response to the evil ravings of the nasty corporate utilitarian (who is so evil she sends kids off to work early in the morning!), he announces that "there are ways of achieving economic progress without exploiting people!"  Later, when helping the human colonists begin to set up their new, independent republic, he tells them they don't need to invent a new political system because they can just adapt the best systems yet devised by humanity, namely the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA.

Now, I'm not going to launch into a great diatribe about whether you can have non-exploitative capitalism (if you've ever read this blog before you can probably guess my position).  Nor am I going to be boring on the subject of what's wrong with the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA.  Nor am I going to dwell on better ways of organising society that have, occasionally and briefly, appeared before being crushed by... well, often by people like British parliamentarians and American statesmen.  Nor am I going to do anything more than glancingly refer to what I see as the stuntedness and narrow-mindedness of this manifestation of 'capitalist realism' and liberal contentedness.  'What is, is right', etc.  Apart from anything else, this is far from unprecedented in Doctor Who novels.  Terrance Dicks had Benny suggest the two Houses of the British state as a model of workable democracy in his New Adventure Blood Harvest.  Nor am I going to do anything more than mention the fact that this inspiring revolution of the colonists in Baxter's novel, this declaration of independence clearly modelled on the American revolt against British rule (even down to them having a 'constitutional convention'), happens without any mass revolt, mass involvement, mass discontent... without any apparent movement of the people themselves whatever.  The nasty corporate lady is frozen in a block of ice and, hey presto, everyone decides to be an independent republic.  The resulting political ferment is organized, terribly politely and calmly, by the Mayor.  The Doctor then tells them that they are "free to sell their labour to Bootstrap, or not"... he doesn't say how they'll survive if they chose not to.  I guess the labour market is so self-evidently fair (once the one corporate tyrant who spoils it for everone is disposed of) that nothing more need be said.

What I am going to make a fuss about is the sheer cheek involved in inserting sweeping political statements into the mouth of the Doctor, especially when he is being used as Baxter uses him: as the barometer of wisdom in the story.  Somehow it seems especially egregious to put such things into the mouth of the second Doctor.  I don't recall him ever making any such politically particular statements during his tenure.  General statements of principle, sure... but explicit political judgements?  That's more the province of his successor.

Look, let's just consider a counter case.  Let's just imagine a writer trying to make the second Doctor say anything more radical than this kind of contented liberalism and pro-market democracy.  What if this hypothetical writer wanted the Doctor to suggest... oooh, I dunno... basing the organisation of the new colony on the Paris Commune, or the Soviet workers' democracy of 1917, or the workers' councils of Germany in 1918?  Let's imagine a writer who tried to make a text version of Patrick Troughton declare the advantages of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  I'm not necessarily saying the Doctor should be given such lines, or advocate such ideas.  I'm just asking what would happen if anybody tried to make him.  I don't expect it'd make it into print, and I daresay it would be the cause of astonishment if it did.

On one level, this is nothing but the observation that minority views are less frequently treated as acceptable by the mainstream.  And to an extent this is fair enough.  But my point - such as it is - is wider than that.  I'm not complaining that certain views are 'under-represented'.  I'm offering an illustration of how prevailing ideology insinuates itself, even into the most seemingly innocuous contexts, via its very usualness and apparent neutrality.

I'm not a regular reader of the spin-off novels, but I'd be fairly confident in betting that, by and large, they feature a Doctor whose moral and political ideas never stray too far from the magnetic pole of contented liberal 'capitalist realism'.  I think it's potentially instructive to ponder just how much the franchise remains a product of a prevailing ideological system, almost certainly closed - as a matter of course, to the point where any alternative seems inherently laughable to most people - to seriously dissenting perspectives.

As I say, this isn't a complaint... as such.  I don't long for a Doctor who speaks like an anti-capitalist or a socialist.  I don't know that such a thing would be helpful, let alone interesting.  The reinforcement of prevailing ideology is useful to an ideological system because it forms one more note in a symphony of cultural reinforcement, a symphony that drowns out any other music.  The proffering of a dissenting view in a cultural product like Doctor Who would merely be an oddity, of little persuasive power.  The point is that it doesn't happen... and, by and large, we don't notice that it doesn't happen.  Nor do we notice, by and large, that established and prevailing ideology does make itself felt everywhere.  It's in the nature of a prevailing ideology to seem invisible, precisely because it is prevailing.

That's why I always laugh when I hear that popular cant about how dangerous 'Isms' are.  The people who say stuff like that never seem to imagine, even for a moment, that they themselves might be thinking within an ideology, an ideology that we might even want to call 'anti-Ismism'.

It's merely an observation.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I was hoping one of you more regularly versed in the world of Doctor Who than I would take a stab at this one. Phil says he's got it penciled in for his Troughton book but I'm glad you beat him to the punch here, for my own sake at least.

    "The Wheel of Ice" looked reasonably cool to me when it was announced (OK, OK I'm a sucker for space art like the kind on the cover) but I immediately began to have doubts when the first review came out and the writer acted all chuffed that Baxter came up with a "scientific explanation" for David Whitaker's alchemical Dalek time machine.

    One of my berserk buttons is when arch-rationalists go out of their way to explain away anything vaguely magical or fantastic with cobbled-together physics terminology and wind up doing nothing more than completely missing the point and effectiveness of the original concept (one of the primary reasons I was so recalcitrant towards and unwilling to accept Christopher Bidmead's take on Doctor Who for so long-I'm better now, in case you were wondering). Based on what you've written here it seems like the book turned out exactly like I feared it would.

    As to the political content I'm afraid I can't fully engage you here given that I've been avoiding this book (and justifiably so it seems) but I get the feeling there's an instinct to turn The Doctor into the moral centre of the story and the mouthpiece for the author's viewpoint, especially in certain spin-off media, because the series is ostensibly about him. This would be, I think, a gross misunderstanding of how Doctor Who is supposed to work and what The Doctor's role within it is. He's not Captain Kirk, and that sort of crass moralizing should have gone out of vogue with Roddenberry.

    Furthermore, you make a fantastic point about how prevailing ideologies work: They're exceedingly difficult for us to tease out from their cultural context because they are, after all, "the way things are". That's exactly what hegemony is, and that's exactly what The Doctor should be opposed to. Robert Holmes taught us that, and it's a lesson I wish more people would take to heart in their own lives.

    Also, I must confess, and this is by no means your fault, but I read your sentence "There is one description of an attack upon Zoe by a group of 'blue dolls'" and that was enough to turn me off "The Wheel of Ice" forever, frankly.

  3. I take a somewhat different tack in my book review of it (out sometime next week, I should think). Not that I disagree with Jack - the book does, in fact, come down to an endorsement of default-liberal-democracy in that irritating way that treats the default as non-ideological. But it's set in a period where Terrance Dicks was script editor, and there's nobody in Doctor Who history guiltier of that sort of approach than Dicks.

    What Jack omits is the moment where Troughton overtly sides with the Occupy movement. For which the book won countless points with me.

    As for the "scientific explanation" of the Dalek time machine, since I don't deal with it in the book, it's nothing of the sort. It's still intensely alchemical in its logic. The passage is this: "Mirrors reflect light, after all, and light is integral to the theory of time travel. Indeed, travelling faster than light is equivalent to travelling in time! And then if you cross-wire that, so to speak, to a generator of static electricity - if like poles repel, Zoe, perhaps like images can be made to repel, and then sent off to wherever you want them to go..." This is still thoroughly alchemical. The only scientific bit is the linking of FTL travel with time travel. There's still the as-above-so-below logic of "if like poles repel then like images can as well," and the alchemical equation of image and object.

    It's not God's gift to Doctor Who, but it's easily the best Troughton novel I've ever seen.

    1. Do you mean the stuff about kettling, etc? Yes, that *is* likeable. I meant to mention that and forgot... which was rather irresponsible of me, given that I was responding to the book's politics. Mea culpa.

      As for the matter of the era into which the book is supposed to fit... I'm not quite with you there. Dicks' tendency to treat the political status quo as a silent 'given' and a more-or-less unquestionable optimum is very pronounced, especially later (though I think it finds its highest expression in Brian Hayles' Peladon stories... which, admittedly, Dicks script-edited). But his era - and sometimes his scripts - can sometimes go surprisingly far the other way. I mean, late-Troughton contains some of the most eyebrow-raisingly 'radical' stories (I've put that word in inverted commas to indicate that I mean *relatively* 'radical', by Doctor Who standards.) 'The War Games', for instance (which Dicks co-wrote) is very anti-imperialist, even down to depicting British and German commanding officers in WWI as aspects of the same system, secretly in conspiracy against their mutually brainwashed troops (though, of course, the story stays carefully away from any history that is too recent). I mean, it's weak and vaciliating by wider standards - especially in 1968 - but it's strong stuff for tea-time BBC family viewing.

      Even without this, even taking Dicks at his most unquestioning... would that be a sufficient context for a novel published in 2012? Evoking the atmos of late-Troughton may be worthwhile (there are bits of the book that successfully do so and I confess to having liked them... its one of my personal favourite periods) but why be bound by the Dicksian ethos?

      I liked the bit you quote about the mirrors. It does indeed have that Whittakerian tang to it (what you have interestingly identified as the source of Doctor Who's "alchemical" streak). I have no problem with that bit. I did, however, find the longeurs (in which characters discuss the chemical composition of Titan's air) to be rather trying. I'm a great fan of science, but... Perhaps this emphasis was another example of trying to follow the ethos of 60s Who, even down to inserting 'educational' bits?

    2. It's more, for me, that I don't think there's a way to boil Dicks's "the status quo is apolitical" approach out of Troughton. (And it's more than a tendency - it's his outright opinion. There are some quotes in The Unfolding Text that are appalling in this regard.) That's the tension that underlies the era. Yes, there's a way in which the Troughton era would be "properly" completed by a story where the Doctor just starts quoting Guy Debord, but that would go beyond redemptive readings and into revisionism. Within the Troughton era there is a refusal and inability to go too far towards questioning the roots of the series. That's what my reading on The War Games posited as the thing that finally forces Troughton's regeneration. So to go further and have Troughton's Doctor be an outright Marxist hero would be, while terribly satisfying as a sort of "Troughton era taken to the extreme it never went to," would still be a betrayal of the era, which is defined in part by the fact that while it flirts with 60s radicalism, it never embraces it.

      As for The War Games, I think, given Dicks's overall approach and stated viewpoints and who his co-author was on that piece, that it's fairly easy to guess where the political radicalism within that story came from.

    3. I agree with all of that.

      Just for the record, I want to stress that I wasn't calling/longing for a Marxist Troughton.

    4. Equally for the record, I totally was and am longing for a Marxist Troughton.

    5. Really?? I would just find that embarassing.

  4. It's an interesting hypothetical actually... what would be the effect of an overtly Marxist version of a mass-market franchise?

    I tend to think that the commodity-nature of the product would neutralise the political effect of the Marxism. I mean, Tom Baker refers to Marx obliquely in 'The Sun Makers'. Much as i love it, I seriously doubt that had any effect on anyone politically. I was hinting at this in the main post above. There's more effective social and cultural reinforcement going on when a text reflects and supports dominant ideology, precisely because it's part of an integrated and overpowering ideological system. When a text occasionally bucks this (i.e. those Troughtons that reflect late 60s radicalism) it has less effect, precisely because the ideology being reflected and/or supported is not hegemonic. I mean, that's kind of obvious really.

    I'm generally far more sympathetic to Benjamin than to Adorno, but Adorno had a point when he criticised Benjamin for being overly optimistic when he said that cinema might have a radicalising effect. (I know he wasn't necessarily talking about cinema with an overtly radical message.) We know now, I think, that the effect is more likely to be stupifying than radicalising. Even more-or-less overt Anarchism gets commodified by cinematic treatment, i.e. V for Vendetta. It sold lots of V masks. Of course, the V masks are now a symbol of the Occupy movement, but I think people will do that sort of thing anyway. They'll appropriate anything when they move politically. Famously, Palestinian activists appropriated the Na'vi from Avatar, despite that being a deeply patronising, racist film. Similarly, the Harry Potter franchise is liberal bourgeois at best, very reactionary at worst... but protesting students appropriated aspects of it in the heat of struggle (i.e. shouting "expelliarmus!" at riot police, holding up signs saying "This never happened at Hogwarts" etc). In a way, I'm doing something similar here. I'm appropriating something - Doctor Who - that is not, generally speaking, politically radical, and making it the fodder for a left-wing blog. Of course, I think this blog is really just a way that capitalism has provided for me to feel better about the product I identify with / buy a lot of. Such is the suffocating, all-embracing, octopus-like grip of commodification in capitalist society.

    Can commodity fetishism be salvaged and repurposed? Can you have a radical commodity? Isn't even a copy of Marx's Capital pro-capitalist to the extent that it is a commodity? Wouldn't a Marxist Troughton be more likely to take the edge of Marxism than to sharpen the edge of Troughton? I mean, they quote Marx in Star Trek too (that DS9 episode when the staff at Quark's bar go on strike). The effect was to make Marxism into a quaint and comedic reference.

    1. Well, given Steven Moffat's grandiose celebration of heteronormativity and nose-thumbing at Doctor Who fans this week I'm going to go out on a limb and say the answer is a resounding "no". Unless a show is explicitly on the margins (or, in rare cases, really, really damn bold), it's completely unable to fully embrace the radical. I'm now more firmly convinced of that than ever before.

      That said, you have a very good point about how aspects of mainstream pop culture are appropriated by more radical forces, like the V For Vendetta Guy Fawkes phenomenon. Pop culture is a shared language that can easily be called on by different forces to make a statement that may not even be entirely present in the original work like, if I'm honest, my programmatic youth-positive reading of Scooby-Doo. I think that's where the real potential of mobilizing pop culture for anarcho/revolutionary means lies: In the ability to steal its symbols and turn them against it, like in the traditional pop art sense. This also gets back to our earlier discussion about radical play and Character Options and how action figure photography can be used as a weapon against commodity fetishism and top-down corporatism: We're using their toys, but not in the way they were intended to be used.

      Unfortunately, I'm not sure I see much of a chance to do, say, a truly radical Doctor Who anymore without going for flat-out revisionism and attacking the property itself with the same anarchic glee it occasionally hints at. Although that's the thing about the show we love the most, I think we have to be honest with ourselves and admit any reading of it that lands us at this is possible almost entirely by accident, the rare moments it was overseen by one of Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams or Andrew Cartmel possibly excepted (and notice how each one of those creative types first took the reins during a period when the show was going through an exorcism or was intensely marginal and each one seemed to gleefully rise to the challenge/leap at the opportunity on those occasions).

      I may just be enjoying my symptoms as Žižek and Phil talk about (it is, after all, fun and liberating to be the cancelled show), but I feel like I'm running out of ways to use pop culture in a constructive fashion. Can I do a history of pop culture and examine how it is interpreted by different individuals and groups? Absolutely. Can I take pop culture and use it as an agent of social justice and positive change? I'm not so sure anymore.

      Also, because I'm the Star Trek person and have to, I'd like to point out the situation re DS9 is a bit more complex, namely because DS9 is the most marginal Star Trek by far, ergo the most radical and experimental (though the second half of TNG comes close to it and lays the groundwork). Also, DS9 was seriously off its game in Seasons 3 and 4 for many reasons IMO so any episode from those two years (as "Bar Association", the episode you cite, is) ought to be taken with a significant shaker of salt. I might suggest "The Maquis" and "The Jem'Hadar" from Season 2 instead, as both are explicitly about challenging the Federation's cultural imperialism and sense of moral authority, and by association that of the entire franchise.

    2. Well, what you're describing largely amounts to the Situationist approach of détournement - parodic reappropriation in the form of a serious joke. Which is something both Doctor Who and the Doctor are good at doing, which is why I feel like a Marxist Doctor could work. Not in the crassly moralizing sense of the Pertwee Enlightenment Liberal Doctor, but in the sense of openly admitting to an ideology that's already latent in the character.

    3. Doctor Who may be good at détournement, but I still think it's only really been able to be in times when the show's having some kind of crisis. The anarchic, revolutionary nature of The Doctor may have been coded from very early on in the show's history (again, because it began as a show with no expectations or presumption of quality) but it now seems like so much has happened since then that the premise and the character now carry too much cultural baggage for that theme to be effectively explored anymore (at least that's what I'm being led to believe). Phil, you hinted at this in your “Terminus” entry: You don't get to be the longest running science fiction series in history (or one of the biggest shows on TV as it is now) without becoming part of the establishment. As clever as the Odininc take on The Doctor was, there don't seem to be that many writers working in the franchise who are interested in this angle of the character anymore: For my money it's basically Nic Briggs and that's it, and he doesn't even write for the TV show. I can't read “Angels Take Manhattan” as anything other than an explicit claim to and endorsement of the establishment and hegemony and a really frightening statement of purpose for the Moffat era.

      The Doctor may be inherently anarchic due to how he was created, but it seems more and more like the show can't be. Troughton may have been wonderfully anarchic and mercurial, but with the exception of “The Mind Robber” the show steadfastly refused to do anything with this unless it was written by David Whitaker or Robert Holmes. The Williams and Cartmel eras got to be as clever as they were because by then Doctor Who was pariah with the BBC in the case of the former and everyone else in the case of the latter (look at how Letts tread water, how Hinchcliffe was shot down for pushing the envelope and how Nathan-Turner began with the express intent of making safe, apolitical and non-controversial entertainment). The Williams era in particular was also devastatingly self-critical: You don't get stories like “The Ribos Operation”, “The Power of Kroll” and “Horns of Nimon” when the production team is happy with the way things are going. The Doctor might be a transgressive figure, but I fear the show by it's nature can't be anymore, or at least that it's not interested in being that way anymore. The best we can maybe hope for now IMO is some safe, boardroom-approved revolution (firmly within the boundaries of half-baked heteronormative character drama of course) or some really intelligent and angry fanfic writers.