Thursday 15 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Class Struggle in Trumpton

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

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

Missing the Target

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

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

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

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

Marching Onwards and Upwards

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

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

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

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

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


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


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  3. Superb essay.

    Part two soon please?