Sunday, 30 December 2012

Vixens and Saxons

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My Sontaran doesn't understand me."

2.  Sexism and the Citadel

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

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

Secondly, and more damningly, Sandifer indicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.  All Their Cadets in One Basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Eleanor is not amused.


  1. I don't know if you watched it, but the xmas episode confirms some of your thoughts on Sontaran gender.

    1. I didn't watch it... but I don't suppose anybody will believe that, will they? ;-)

      How's it going Ollie?

  2. This is wonderful.

    Can we make the case that Holmes secretly has sided with Irongron on the basis that Irongron (not to mention Linx) is accorded more interiority and characterization than any of the fancy-pantsed Normans?

    1. The Caliban Defence, one could call it... with all the ambivalences that Caliban brings to the issue.