Thursday, 31 January 2013

Apocalypse Below (or The Tractate Face-Off)

From Panic Moon, July 2011.  Edited, and with new material in a seprate coda.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end

At first, 'Frontios' seems like the odd one out amongst Christopher H. Bidmead’s Doctor Who scripts. Unlike 'Logopolis' and 'Castrovalva', it’s overtly political and doesn’t seem to be powered by any underlying scientific concept. Also, it has monsters in it.

Bidmead included monsters – reluctantly – at the insistence of John Nathan-Turner.  On reflection, this seems a dodgy call. Monsters from Bidmead were always going to be too concept-heavy to realise properly on screen. Sure enough, he comes up with giant woodlice that can disguise themselves as rocks until they unexpectedly uncurl… which was never gonna look good on the day.

Apparently finding the macabre more fascinating than he expected, Bidmead also included alien machines made with bits of corpses. This was very tuned in to the then-current turn towards biomechanics and ‘body horror’ in the fantasy genre, but it proved too horrific for Doctor Who to attempt on screen (though it livens up the novelisation).

The politics is also a departure. Aside from Tegan’s worries about sweatshops in 'Logopolis' and the hilarious sexism of the Castrovalvans, previous Bidmead scripts seem politically detached. He’s a world-builder, but not in the utopian or dystopian manner. So 'Frontios' comes a little out of leftfield... though that’s the only leftish thing about it. I’ve no idea what Bidmead’s own politics may be, but 'Frontios' seems to say that the ordinary people require stern discipline, that they want and need confident rulers. The story frowns on the ‘every man for himself’ ethic, yet implies that only hierarchy and obedience stand between society and what Hobbes described as the “war of all against all”.

In the absence of Plantagenet, there is “anarchy”, with the colonists turning to looting with a rapidity that is almost funny. Thrown “outside the system”, Cockerill is quickly attacked by ravening ‘Retrogrades’. However, when he apparently defeats the hungry earth, Cockerill is eagerly adopted as a replacement leader by the mob. Meanwhile, Plantagenet’s bravery proves he is genetically fit to rule (he is, after all, named after a line of kings). Brazen – the personification of authority – ultimately proves himself admirable, his noble final words being “that’s an order!”.

Actually, I think 'Frontios' has more in common with 'Logopolis' than it appears.  Bidmead never takes the series into the past – he’s too aware of entropy as ‘time’s arrow’ to believe that you can go backwards – and his view of the far future is one of maximum entropy. The “failure proof technology” that failed, the dwindling population, the wrecked ship, the malfunctioning generator, the “doomed planet Earth”, etc. Mine shafts collapse.  Lights stop working. The TARDIS falls apart. Even “eaten by the earth” sounds like a metaphor for putrefaction.

The politics reflects this state of decay. Order becomes disorder as Orderlies become disorderly. The structure of society crumbles, undermined from below, as people die unaccountably and the ‘Rets’ desert the sinking ship. Bidmead is always treating entropy as corrupted information; in 'Frontios', Range’s secret file is information uselessly pooled, like waste heat in a machine.

Even the monsters are “an infection”, like all Bidmead baddies. The Master is like a computer virus in both 'Logopolis' and 'Castrovalva', infecting the hard drive of reality and corrupting the information. Interestingly, however, the Tractators also fight entropy in their own nasty way. The gravity drive and excavating machine represent structure, after all. That’s why it’s such a shame that we never get to see the Tractators’ corpse engines, because what could better express their parasitic method of fighting entropy than machines patched up with bits of people?

Additional: Peter Davison as Rambo

Desperately in need of some stranger's hand
In a desperate land

The Tractators burrow away.  Like all burrowing creatures, they carry connotations of the busy and the unseen.  Like the 'mole of history', they are always working beneath our feet.  This must carry valences in a story so obviously predicated upon the human race having reached an endpoint.  Despite the ostensibly hopeful ending of the story, I think it's clear that the humans on Frontios are quite likely doomed.  This is the end.  This is what it was all leading up to.  The history that burrows beneath them has lead them to the point of maximum entropy (as noted), to isolation in a cosmos where everything has drifted so far away from everything else that space itself isolates you.

The Tractators are, from one angle, manifestations of History as busy industry leading to decay anyway, of the entropy inherent in time.  They lead the human race to an echoing, muddy telos... moreover, it's a telos of authoritarianism, necessary to counter our original sins as they are exacerbated by siege and starvation.  Yet Plantagenet is no Leviathan, however much the world he tries to rule conforms to Hobbesian pessimism.  He won't be able to save them.  In a way, the Tractators were their last hope.  Not to live, but to fight.  The Gravis could've been Leviathan for them... and his busy, selfish, greedy, industrious grotesques (they are, of course, echoes of the subterrenean Semitic dwarves of Wagner and Tolkien) were the humans' last hope to cheat the cosmic/social 'running down' endemic at the endpoint of space/time and History.  The Tractators could've used them.  They could've used the humans as raw material in their fearsome engines, their gravity drive, their anti-entropy machine, their anti-History contraption.

There is a strange, unsettling ambiguity here that chimes with the political implications of the face-off between the two races.  The humans are colonists and, as ever, it is assumed that colonists that look like whitey have every right to be there... and yet the Tractators don't convince as natives.  They don't come from this final F/frontier.  They are as much colonists as are the humans.  They are as much anti-entropists as the humans (though they're better at it).  They are as much Hobbesian authoritarians as the humans, with their one Absolute Leader whose brain is the key to their collective will (though again, as noted, they are more effective in this respect than their two-legged rivals).  Woodlice are actually crustaceans (which may even give the Tractators a touch of the Weird...) but they look and act enough like bugs to fool most of us into instinctively linking them with insects, and insects (with their hives and castes and hierarchies and group will) are always symbols of human society as an antheap, as a pyramid of the mindlessly obedient.

In short, there's little to choose between the Tractators and the humans in 'Frontios'.  The Tractators are the aggressors... but would the humans, so eager to stamp on each other when needed, forebear to do unto the Tractators as the Tractators have done unto them?  Again, the only difference is in efficiency.  So, at the end of History, it all comes down to ruthless Darwinian effectiveness... and/or how entropy-proof our machines are.  The Tractators machines, as noted, sidewind around entropy by roping in life itself, the only force that ever temporarily stalls entropy (this is not, by the way, necessarily my metaphysics).  We humans look doomed because, for all our best efforts to be as ruthless as we need to be, we can't cut it.  We go squishy when it counts.  Brazen gets himself killed by compromising (he lets himself be interrogated by an inquiry! he makes peace with Range the whining liberal backstabber!) and then having a bash at altruism.  We are outstripped by the utter mercilessness of the animals.  It's the sociobiologist's wet dream.  And, again, it's deeply Hobbesian.

Plantagenet's tottering camp is the old regime.  Decadent.  Gone soft.  Insufficiently strong and brutal to defend itself against the onrushing Puritans/Jacobins/Bolsheviks/Jews, etc., unable to make the grade in the bellum omnium contra omnes.  I've been reading Corey Robin on this just recently.  This contempt for the old regime as weak, this anger at the softness of the very regime for which it takes up the cudgels, is a staple of conservatism... right up to, to pick an instance entirely at random (honest guv), John Milius's script for Apocalypse Now.  'Charlie' (i.e. the Viet Cong) will win because "his idea of R&R is a little rat meat".  If Kurtz had a division of men strong enough to hack off the arms of babies, he could win the war.  Much as I love that film, one of its most prominent inner logics (to its credit it has several conflicting inner logics) is the same inner logic as Rambo II, which is itself a self-induced orgasm of the dreary ultra-conservative attitude to America's wars.  Kurtz/Rambo is the Leviathan the inferior liberal Americans need to carry them past cowardice, decadence or scruple.  At least Coppola's film has the decent queasiness to see that Kurtz has to go mad first.

Similarly, in 'Frontios', the only reason the humans ultimately win is because of the Doctor's intervention.  He becomes their (sane and reasonable) Leviathan.  He terminates the termites with extreme prejudice.  He saves the human antheap against the crustacean one.  He saves the ancient regime from the barbarians at the gate, and from its own softness. 

Even so, it's hard to quite read 'Frontios' straightforwardly as a celebration of the Leviathan, of the rule of law and hierarchy, of the victory of the strongest, of the defeat of the Niebelung by Wotan.  In the end - and we are definitely at the end, beautiful friend - entropy still lies in wait.  There's always something stronger than you.  Time and History (that burrowing little thing) will kill even Rambo one day.  Doctor Kurtz... he dead.


(Lyrics by The Doors... as if you didn't know.)

Categorically Speaking

Kant's categorical imperative is an expression of the bourgeois liberal ideas of the 18th century, expressed as morality.  It is progressive in the sense that it attempts to derive morality from Reason.  It is part of the Enlightenment.  It also expresses the new, universal promises of the bourgeois revolutions in that it universalises (i.e. "All men are created equal").  It is based on the principle of universality.  What you do must apply to all people or it fails to be truly moral. 

However, it is also based on a bourgeois notion of rights.  The concept of 'rights' is a product of the rise of bourgeois property/trade relations.  One brings one's rights to the market place and, on that basis, one participates in the putatively level playing field.  For Kant, one negotiates the conflicts between these rights on the basis of contractual clauses.  If the Party of the First Part undertakes to do such and such, the Party of the Second part will be understood to be obliged to do so and so.  It is this which finally inverts the universality of the notion into an entire bourgeois conception of individualism.  Through this embedded notion of contractual obligations, the decision as to universal moral actions rests with the individual's willingness to enter into a personal contract regarding his conduct, his willingness to be bound.

The sting in the tail lies in the fact that different people will always have different notions as to what is or isn't universally desirable.  One individual may consider it highly desirable that theft be considered universally immoral because they have a great personal interest in the institution of private property (i.e. because they own lots of it).  Another (who perhaps owns little) may be prepared to risk universalising the permissability of theft if he thinks he can steal what he wants and then protect his stolen goods by force.  Alternatively, there may be those who feel that there are worse prospects for the future than the fall of private property.  And, in practice, the guardians of morality will always be ready to claim the universality of laws that they themselves break, simply because they take a more pragmatic view of Reason.

The R/reasonable promises of bourgeois liberalism and Enlightenment will always have such loopholes in their social contracts and, as a result, will always find themselves in full or partial, official or unofficial abeyance.  The Enlightenment declared that all men were created equal, but oversaw (and, indeed, was partially built upon) all black men (and women) being crated equally... for shipping.  Why should a white man who profits from the slave trade care if 'enslave black people' became a universal moral maxim?  He knows the colour of his own skin will exempt him from the chains, and the inequality of property and opportunity will protect him from universal business competition.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Out of Eden

From the October 2011 issue of Panic Moon.  As ever, lightly edited and titivated... 'cos I just can't help tinkering.

When Doctor Who talks about evolution, it doesn’t usually bother getting the facts right.  'Evolution of the Daleks', for instance, seems to think species change when genes mutate morally because of lightning bolts.  Such ideas go right back to 'The Daleks', in which the two races on Skaro have changed totally in mere “hundreds of years” of mutation, with the warrior Thals becoming natural pacifists in the process.  (Incidentally, it’s ironic that this supposedly anti-Nazi parable speaks of blonde, blue-eyed, athletic specimens as “refined” and “perfect”.)

Real evolution does involve mutations, but they’re not sudden and drastic as depicted in, to pick another example, 'The Mutants'.  Instead we’re talking about tiny replication errors in genetic code which are preserved or rejected by natural selection, leading to big changes over very long periods.  This creates staggering variety on our planet alone.  However, most aliens in the Doctor Who universe look like British actors, which (accidentally) implies that the humanoid shape is a universal pinnacle or goal of evolution.  Again, real evolution teaches us the opposite.  There’s nothing “perfect” about humans.  We’re no ‘better evolved’ than worms.  Species succeed when they fit their niches.  'Full Circle' alone understands this.  The Alzarians are humanoid only because they evolved to fit inside the Starliner.

Doctor Who has sometimes been sceptical of such human hubris.  In 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', humans encounter ‘advanced’ reptiles who see them as errant apes.  'Inferno' implies that snarling beasts lurk beneath the lab coat or uniform.  'The Invisible Enemy' equates the “Great Break Out” of humanity with a viral epidemic.  In 'The Ark in Space', the Doctor praises humans as “indomitable”, but the Wirrn confront humanity with a lethal reflection of the same evolutionary urge to survive and inherit the Earth.

'The Ark in Space' retells the Old Testament myth of the flood.  'Genesis of the Daleks' also adapts the book of… well, Genesis.  Both stories are about species changing, about them subsuming and defeating other species.  But 'Genesis of the Daleks' is also fundamentally about creations disobeying their creator.  Hence the lack of scientific accuracy: the science isn’t the real interest of the storytellers.  Instead, evolution takes on religious connotations.  This is understandable.  Evolution, as a scientific origin story, thrives in the gap in the cultural ecology left by the decline of religion.  And, like much science-fiction, Doctor Who uses scientific and technological idioms to retell myths and legends.

'Genesis of the Daleks' also reiterates original sin: the Daleks are cursed by their genes to be bad.  Mutations of morality again!  This sort of thing mirrors tabloid stories about ‘genes for crime’, but Doctor Who has also tackled reactionary appropriations of evolution.  'Survival' critiqued Thatcherism by exploring what happens when the values of ruthless Darwinian competition are applied to society.  The term ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined by Herbert Spencer, a 19th century pioneer of libertarianism.  Natural selection was taken up by such philosophers of Victorian free market capitalism and made into a ‘natural’ explanation of inequality (though the much-traduced Spencer himself was actually a fair bit subtler than that).  This is partly what 'Ghost Light' is about.  As well as satirising “homo victorianus ineptus” who rails against Darwin on religious grounds, the story also swipes at Josiah, the newly-rising “man of property” who climbs the social ladder (explicitly linked with the “evolutionary ladder”) and keeps the deprived locked in squalor.

Josiah may be evil but at least he’s changing, unlike the archangel of stasis in his cellar.  Evolution keeps bringing the show back to angels and demons, as in 'Image of the Fendahl'.  But 'Image', unusually, really is about evolution.  Instead of using evolution to talk about myth, this tale uses myth to talk about evolution.  It shows the theory seemingly undermined by anomalous evidence and superstition, but the problem isn’t that evolution is untrue, leaving us at the mercy of the demonic.  The problem, rather, is that evolution is demonic.  As metaphor, this hits on something true: natural selection works by predation and extinction, i.e. by death.  The Fendahl is death, so the Fendahl is evolution.  And so are we, hence the "dark side of Man's nature" (those moral mutations again).  That's why the story has all those references to human paleontology, its central motif being an ancient human skull.  That's why the story has its rather oblique title: because, like God, the Fendahl shaped us.  It created us in its own image.  That’s probably also why Colby’s Christian name is Adam.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Last God Standing

This is a slightly edited and expanded version of something originally published in the April 2011 issue of Panic Moon.  Many thanks to Oliver Wake, the Editor, for commissioning it.

When the Doctor first encounters the White Guardian, we are encouraged to think – just for a moment – that the TARDIS might have been waylaid by God himself. Nothing so grand (or potentially offensive), as it turns out. However, the White Guardian is clearly a powerful, godlike entity. Yet he is suavely seated, sipping crème de menthe, as the Doctor stays on his feet.

Later, when we encounter the White Guardian again, he and his opposite number sit at a table on Wrack’s ship, while everyone else stays standing.

I wonder if you, Constant Reader, have ever noticed how often ‘gods’ in Doctor Who are depicted sitting? Sutekh spends most of his story sitting. Indeed, that’s his problem. The Keeper of Traken has to sit for thousands of years in a chair, but that’s the price of being the patriarch of an entire empire, able to flit about the universe at will... and meanwhile, all the Melkur wants to do is to finally take a seat.

In 'The Trial of a Time Lord', the judges who will decide the Doctor’s fate, the “supreme guardians of Gallifreyan law” who’ve enjoyed “ten million years of absolute power”, never rise from behind their benches. The dimension behind the Psychic Circus is presided over by the Gods of Ragnarok, who seem to be stone idols, carved into an eternally seated posture.

I think, on one level, this has to do with the deep link between ideas of divinity and royalty. For centuries, monarchs (who have been absolute autocrats until relatively recently in history) have styled themselves “little gods on Earth” and claimed the “divine right of Kings” (though it should be said that this notion declined somewhat in Europe in the face of the political realities of the Middle Ages, only to be consciously revived, perhaps most especially by the Stewarts). Such caveats being assumed, it's fair to say that the idea of god/s has long been utilised as ideology by monarchies. The Pharaohs claimed to be divine. Roman Emperors got up to the same thing (though they tended to be deified only after death). Like Monarch (the frog-god-king in 'Four to Doomsday' who spends most of his time imperiously enthroned) they sometimes believed their own propaganda.

Conversely, we may also draw our conception of God from our experience of kings. In 'Pyramids of Mars' the Doctor says that “Egyptian culture” was “founded upon the Osiran pattern”; in reality, the Egyptians probably partly derived their notions of feuding gods from their experience of their royal dynasties.

This is all pretty obvious really. You could fill books (and people have) with the ideological connections between royalty and religion. However, like a lot of obvious things, it can sometimes be a bit too much of a given, and thus fly under our radar. Like so many normative assumptions, it goes without saying. But just think about school. When you listen to the hymns and carols that children are still made to sing, you hear a lot about thrones, crowns and sceptres.

Doctor Who hooks into the visual aspect of the tradition, which is also part of a tradition of ideas. Gods in the show (or godlike entities, if you want to be pedantic) tend to be seated because of the longstanding tradition of depicting gods as enthroned. Indeed, in Sutekh’s case this appears to have been conscious: in his paralysed state, his appearance and posture clearly recalls depictions from ancient Egyptian friezes.

But Sutekh does something besides sit. He watches. This is something else that gods in Who tend to do. The Time Lords watch the Matrix – indeed, their whole culture seems obsessed with watching; they have a Panopticon (literally, a place where all can be seen) and an Eye of Harmony. The Guardians watch and recruit agents but “must not be seen to act”. The Gods of Ragnarok spectate at the Psychic Circus.

Moreover, the Time Lords and Sutekh both watch on screens. The Keeper of Traken borrows the TARDIS screen. Monarch watches the surveillance from his omnipresent monopticons on a screen. This suggests more than voyeurism; it suggests audience. The Ragnaroks even use a stereotypical nuclear family - seated in the big top - as avatars.

This all hints at a fearful inner theology of the show: a worshipful terror of the audience as a powerful, judgemental, scrutinising, outside force.

This isn’t new. In many theatres, the highest circle is known as “the gods”, with all that this implies. To respect a god is to be 'god fearing', after all, to fear what he can do to you by withdrawing his favour. In the down-at-heel Psychic Circus (long recognised as a metaphor for Doctor Who itself) you must entertain the petulant, demanding, autocratic audience or die. Clichés aside, the programme makers want us on the sofa, in front of the TV. Bums on seats or damnation. Our power to switch off makes us frighteningly omnipotent.

Fear of the audience becomes more marked towards the end of the classic series, for obvious reasons, with many examples of recumbent voyeurs who watch and pass judgement on the Doctor. There is Arak and Etta, Davros and the DJ, the Trial judges, etc. It isn’t hard to figure out a connection between this and dwindling viewing figures and hostile BBC bosses. Maybe the confidence of the reinvented show about its audience in 2006 is expressed in 'The Satan Pit', which depicts the Beast as standing up... as well as overpowered and chained firmly in his place. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

And the award for the most nuanced bigotry goes to...

This article - from Rachel Shabi in The Guardian - is really great.  It's about the Islamophobia encoded in the recent spate of much-lauded movies (and a TV show) about Americans, Arabs, terrorism... and all that kind of stuff.  Argo, Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty - all recently rewarded at the Golden Globes.  Supposedly nuanced and complex, they peddle the same old lies... just in a way acceptable to liberals.

Here's a snippet:

The three winners have all been sold as complex, nuanced productions that don't shy away from hard truths about US foreign policy. And liberal audiences can't get enough of them. Perhaps it's because, alongside the odd bit of self-criticism, they are all so reassuringly insistent that, in an increasingly complicated world, America just keeps on doing the right thing. And even when it does the wrong thing – such as, I don't know, torture and drone strikes and deadly invasions – it is to combat far greater evil, and therefore OK.

Funny how the culture industry obediently steps up when the imperium is trying to relaunch (yet again) a rinsed-clean project of Muslimcidal 'humanitarian intervention'.  I'm all for complex, structural analyses of these synergies between policy and popcorn... but I can be a bit of a vulgar Marxist on this subject too.  I can't help noticing just how thoroughly integrated Hollywood is with the fucking Pentagon (told you I was vulgar).  See this excellent book for a brief, persuasive documentation of the phenomenon.

Oh, by the way, here's blogger Matt Cornell with a roundup of Twitter reactions to the 'nuanced' Zero Dark Thirty.  Like this 'nuanced' response, for instance:

 Nothing like 'nuance' is there?

(Actually, I've blogged once before about the strange way that modern drama's aim to be all, like, morally ambiguous yeah? leads to reactionary effects - here.  Essentially, because some truths about the world are too damning and radical to seem neutral, they can not be allowed to play any part in dramatic ambiguity and complexity.  It works similarly to how some realities about the world cannot get into the news because the properly educated responsible journalist feels like she's not being neutral or balanced when she mentions them.)

Why do I care about movies and TV shows?  *Sigh*  Look, fiction matters.  In many ways, it matters more than non-fiction when it comes to influencing people's opinions (and I include myself in that).

Ayn Rand never proved anything as a 'philosopher', but as a best-selling and influential novelist she proved that popular fiction needs to be ruthlessly politically critiqued.  Fiction is such an enormous part of our daily cultural and social diet that to critique it is to critique the world as it is.




YET MORE (27/01/13):

"This awareness of the torturer's hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale." -

Review: 'The Reactionary Mind' by Corey Robin

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah PalinThe Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As an historian of ideas, Robin concentrates on the patterns of thinking within conservatism, but never seems to say that conservative actions and policies stem entirely from ideology. Indeed, he frequently points out the ruptures between theory and practice... yet he can usually find hidden resonances within the conservative idea/s that are consistent in ironic, unexpected ways, ways that often make seemingly paradoxical dissonances between theory and practice seem much more explicable.

Disjointed, of necessity (since this is a compilation of previously published essays on a variety of subjects), there are still clear and original linking ideas which are spelled out mostly in the new introduction. Conservatism is fundamentally a reaction to the loss of privilege, or the challenge to privilege from the oppressed. Conservatism is much less enamoured of stasis, familiarity etc than it thinks it is. Conservatism is much more depressive and melancholy than many people think. It is dependant upon left-wing ideas to provide it with negative stimulus. It is animated by a preoccupation with violence. It is more revolutionary than it pretends, being often as critical of ancient regimes as of radical challenges. Etc.

Robin delineates these ideas with a selection of profiles and intellectual traceries, hunting down the lineages of certain preoccupations through history. The most entertaining chapter is probably his thorough and brief (it need not be extensive to be thorough) takedown of that malignant mediocrity Ayn Rand. The most piercing is probably his analysis of the malaise that afflicted and spurred on conservatives after the supposedly-desired triumph over communism. The analysis of conservatism as an ever-changing yet essentially consistent range of ideas that prize the retention of privilege is tested and found highly persuasive as he charts conservative disillusion with capitalism triumphant after the end of the Cold War.

It's hard to imagine anybody interested in modern politics coming away from this book without a lot more to think about.

View all my reviews