Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Moment Has (Almost Certainly) Been Prepared For...

It's the end of an era.  He's quit and they'll have to find a replacement. 

Of course, the show will go on.  Eras end.  New ones begin.  The way they can just change the guy in the role every few years is key to the long-running success of the whole thing. 

Shame it's always a white guy.  Why not try a woman or a black person next?  Just once. 

I know some people have a problem with that notion, saying they'd be unable to relate to the character if he changed gender or skin colour... but I think that's just sexism or racism in disguise. 

If the role can be played by a completely different guy every few years - with a different height, different accent, etc. - then why can't he also have different naughty bits or epidermal pigmentation?  This last guy was much younger than the last one, for instance! 

I think it's silly to insist on such arbitrary notions of continuity when all the underlying notions are so fantastical and absurd.  Part of the appeal of the thing is that it's pure fantasy!  You can do whatever you want!

It's bad to let the hardline fanatics insist on a 'correct' version of how things should work.  It stifles creativity.  Makes the whole thing boring.  Inaccessible.  Off-putting.  Unappealing to outsiders.  It'll cause the crucial 'numbers' to go down.

Still, that's cults for you.

Fearful Symmetry

There are several answers to the question "who originally created the Daleks?"  You could say "Davros" with geeky fidelity.  You could say "Terry Nation", as many people have (Trivial Pursuit used to also credit him with creating Doctor Who itself).  One could even start listing the people who actually constructed the props (wasn't the job outsourced to a company called Shawcross or something?).  As is usually the case, the most accurate answer is probably the most complex and contingent, i.e. "A consortium of people including, most prominently but to various degrees of importance, Terry Nation, Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Raymond Cusick, Peter Hawkins, David Graham..." etc.  Without a doubt, however, the individual who did more than any other to make them a huge success was an in-house designer employed by the BBC called Raymond Cusick.  Cusick died a little while ago, widely recognised for his role by fans.

I'm a great advocate of 'ignoring the rat' or, as I prefer to put it, 'seeing past the bubblewrap', i.e. of giving weak aesthetics a pass if the story beneath them is interesting enough.  You shouldn't let the rubbishness of the big snakes detract from 'Kinda' and 'Snakedance', etc.  Indeed, those very stories are examples of when aesthetic 'failures' can actually make things more interesting.  However, there are times when aesthetic 'success' is absolutely crucial, when the way things sound and look really matters... and, for a show so widely considered to be cheap and shonky, aesthetics played a surprisingly big part in getting Doctor Who off and running.  The original opening titles, the TARDIS interior, etc.

Undoubtedly, the single biggest aesthetic factor in the early success of Doctor Who was Ray Cusick's designs for the Daleks.  Lots of people played a part in making the Daleks' first story such a big aesthetic success.  Tristram Carey's music, Christopher Barry's direction, etc., all made that story impressive, a strange and new kind of televisual experience.  But it was the Daleks that were the icing on the cake.

Oddly enough, the first bit of a Dalek we ever see, the bit which had the BBC switchboard jammed after the cliffhanger, was the bit most widely derided: the plunger.  It isn't until the next episode that we see the Daleks fully.  Their tanklike bulkiness, their strange mixture of sharp angles and curves, the obscure functionalism that makes them look almost like pieces of kinetic art, their shortness and wideness and sheer non-humanoidiness... and yet with enough that is intelligible about their shape (they have a eye which is part of something vaguely head-like) that they can be understood as sentient, intelligent, alive.

They are, undoubtedly, one of the design classics of the 20th century.  Distinctly 'of their time' and yet sufficiently detached from anything recognisably particular that they will translate.  Unlike the Cybermen or the Silurians, the Daleks remained the same - albeit with a few new little details - upon their return.  They didn't need changing.

If Cusick had done a bad job, if he'd bungled it (as, let's be honest, so many other designers would bungle in subsequent stories), not only would Doctor Who never have taken off the way it did (leading us all here, for better or worse) but Terry Nation would probably never have become the kind of person that Alan Whicker would want to interview.

The immediate success of the Daleks shows that, from the first, Doctor Who's success was built upon an aesthetic factor.  In this case, that factor was almost immediately translated into mass-produced merchandising.  The Daleks sold.  Big time.

Like all robotic monsters, the Daleks partly stem from anxieties about the autonomous product, which is what the fetishised commodity looks like to SF.  The Daleks are designed to look both inhuman and alive, mechanical and sentient.  They are, partly, one visual expression of anxieties about industrial production.  That's also why their appearance recalls the tank, a manufactured monster that, after two world wars, had probably become the quintessential image of the dangerous industrial product, overtaking even the steam train (which, in its early days, was likened to Frankenstein - the first fictional product monster).

There's a way in which the Dalek is a connective image between the anxiety about the product which centres upon its dangerousness (i.e. the tank), and the anxiety which centres upon its autonomy, the anxiety which centres upon its capacity to merge with us and contain us.  The Dalek is a war machine, a killing machine out of control that also threatens to be our eventual post-atomic shell... but by its very enigmatic attractiveness (all that suggestive-but-obscure symmetry, slightly disrupted by the clashing 'arms' which are obviously 'for' something even if its hard to guess quite what) also makes itself into a top-selling product.  This is commonplace now, with endless representations of film/TV monsters sold as toys or models.  At the time, however, the Dalek was quite new in this respect too.  (In some ways, they set the stage for the coming of the Kenner Star Wars toys and other such model/toys based on fantastic narratives.)  Those anxieties about the product already mentioned get immediately connected to the nature of the Dalek (in the real world that is, rather than in-story) as a commodity.  And, while this isn't conscious, it seems more liminal than the same set of connections implicit in, say, toy tanks or cap guns.  The Daleks were, after all, written to be a commentary on one trajectory of mankind, leading to eliminationist chauvinism and industrial/technological barbarism.  When you play with a Dalek, you're playing with something consciously created as a signifier for various political nightmares.  I don't say that this is terribly socially significant.  It's just another one of those interesting ironies of consumerism and its relationship with the wider culture.  I certainly don't think it's 'subversive' when embedded anxieties about capitalist modernity help to sell a product.  It's too commonplace.

There are all kinds of problems with Nation's original script (for instance, it's peculiar that his anti-Nazi parable has blonde, athletic, volkisch farmers as a physical and ethical ideal) but he deserves credit for providing a context against which Cusick's design can take on potent associations.  I'm quite happy to say that Cusick did more to 'create' the Daleks as we know them (their visual impact being so crucial to their success) but, on the other hand, Nation did (albeit using lots of cliches) give Cusick an idea with more potential resonance than just 'big, bad evil robot' to play with.  Cusick's acuteness (in making the Daleks both strange and familiar, robotic and alive) works with Nation's selection of certain tropes (the mutant, the cyborg, the post-Atomic, the Nazi) to create something that still seems to 'work' fifty years later.

Plus, when we were kids... we all wanted to get inside a Dalek and exterminate the kids at school we didn't like.

Or was that just me?

Friday, 22 February 2013

Changing Times, Nice Guys and 'Strong Female Characters'

I've gone on the record saying I think Moffat's version of Doctor Who is sexist and heteronormative.  A challenge I often hear - and it's a serious point - is the idea that Moffat's Who is, at least, no worse than previous eras on issues like depictions of gay relationships, and is frequently better.  There are positive depictions of gay characters, quite unlike anything in, say, the Hartnell era.  Well, firstly, let me say that I don't want to claim that things are 'worse' now (in any absolute way) than in the Hartnell years, when homosexuality essentially didn't exist at all in-story in the Who universe. And sure, many old episodes have displayed all sorts of heteronormative stuff, and also outright homophobic stuff (albeit usually by implication).  Harrison Chase is, in many ways, implied to be an evil gay man (it's not that I think gay people are like him, but rather that he is constructed partly of tropes that connote gayness in pop culture).

It isn't that there's a scale that pertains to culture now just as it pertained in 1963 and 73 and 83 etc, with Who scoring 3.7 points on the heteronormativity scale (or the racist, or sexist, or whatever, scale) in 1963 but now scoring 9.1 under Moffat. That's not how I see it (which isn’t to say that comparisons across the decades are meaningless). Normative assumptions shift and fluctuate with all sorts of social and economic changes (this is part of what I was getting at in my previous post with regards to upswings and downswings in the reactionary content of culture). There are ideas now that simply weren't widely accepted (or even much known about) in, say, 1963... but which are now widely understood and championed by large numbers of people.

Awareness of homophobia, discrimination against LGBT people, heteronormativity, etc, are all examples of issues where people’s widespread views have changed drastically. And this isn't the ‘condescension of posterity’, because I acknowledge that people's ideas have been changed by people, particularly as a result of the great breakthrough struggles of the mid 60s through to the early 70s. That's partly why Moffat's Who looks extraordinarily liberal and right-on by the standards of much of the old show... if we look at them with the same constant, reductive scale of measurement... which we can't do because it’s more complex than that, with struggles and changing ideas altering the normative assumptions against which we make judgements. 

To be crude about it, even today's crusading reactionaries in the Tory party talk the talk of respect for gender equality, racial equality, etc.  They have to... even as their actual policies reinforce division, discrimination, inequality and attacks upon the living standards of ordinary people that Thatcher could only fondly dream of getting away with.  But there are swings and roundabouts in people's consciousness.  Poeple today would be (and are) very unwilling to tolerate open racial prejudice from their politicians, yet there is widespread anxiety about immigration and asylum, carefull inculcated by the media.  People still, by and large, frown on the idea of privatising the NHS, yet they have (like the frog placed in a pot brought gradually to the boil) been slowly trained to tolerate economic assaults that would once have seemed outrageous.

I think the (speaking broadly) liberalisation of views on cultural matters is partly what people are getting at when they say that some old bit of sexism or racism (Toberman for instance) is "of its time" - and to an extent that's a reasonable thing to point out. The trouble is that it forgets that there were plenty of people in the world at the time 'Tomb' was made who would've recognised it as racist, and who were fighting to change things. That's how things shift. To leave that out is to end up assuming a sort of inevitable, whiggish upward march of progress that doesn't have much to do with people (a widespread assumption actually, especially in much media that tells stories about the past, cf Downton Abbey, 'Human Nature' etc).

I would actually argue that Moffat's Who is noticeably sexist and heteronormative even when measured (in that reductive and simple way) by the standards even of much old Who...  Amy seems a noticeably retrograde depiction even by the standards of, say, Jo Grant, who is at least not defined by her looks and her romantic/sexual relationships with men… though she ends up that way in ‘Green Death’, sadly.  But yeah, Moff-Who has overt and sympathetic gay/lesbian characters, which is definitely ‘progress’ (I take the concept of progress seriously, even as I see it as one side of one coin alongside barbarism). But it exists alongside all sorts of really quite outrageous gender essentialism, if not outright sexism. I mean, just look at ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, which pretends to have loads of ‘strong female characters’… but which is actually about women slavishly obsessed with men, defined by their heterosexual relationships, and prone to obsessing over clothes, hair and their weight.  It remains to be properly analysed, but there is a definite unhealthiness (verging on the abusive) about the Doctor's treatment of River.  Note the number of times when, in a crunch, he aggressively shouts her down and she instantly starts obeying him.  She's not a dishrag peril-monkey like some of the various versions of Victoria.  Nor is she a kind of rape culture dolly like Peri so often was.  But that doesn't mean she's an acceptable representation.  She, I think, is a reactionary, sexist depiction for our times, not previous times.  She's how a certain kind of male privilege envisions a certain kind of woman now.  As with River, so with Amy.  She's not the kind of sexist depiction who twists her ankle and makes tea for the men.  She's the kind that starts out with a 'nice guy' admirer who is stuck in the 'friend zone', pining for the girl he think he deserves because of his longstanding puppyish devotion, while simultaneously wanting her for her looks not her personality.  She's the kind that represents the terrified longing of men who feel they have a right to the devotion of glamourous girls, who interpret gender equality and 'strong women' as entailing a relationship in which they are (pardon me) 'pussywhipped'... while still being grovellingly grateful for permission to stare up their partner's skirt.  This becomes the basis of a romantic relationship we're all supposed to cheer on, our 'shipper-hearts all aflutter.

There's loads more to be said on this subject alone.

To elaborate on shifting scales.  Our present awareness of 'Trans' issues is much better than it was fifty years ago (precisely because of the social struggles of people, as noted)... and yet we still get astonishing bigotry, like that article recently written by Julie Burchill and published by The Observer. By the standards of the 'old days' the whole debate looks insane because it takes place within a drastically shifted set of assumptions about what constitutes normality, acceptable lifestyles, etc. Suzanne Moore writes an article rightly pointing much sexist pressure on women today (ideas that wouldn’t have been considered acceptable, or even intelligible, public discourse at many times in the past) and, in the process, makes a transphobic remark. Called on it by and politicised people on twitter, she goes into defensive mode and her mate Burchill swings to her defence with an article that is a really repellent exercise in excluding language, patronising comments, condescension, stereotyping and victim-blaming. The whole debate takes place within a shifted culture, where it is nominally agreed that trans people shouldn’t be the victims of discrimination, but there is still the possibility of people at a liberal paper okaying something that is utterly vile in its discriminatory language. By the standards of fifty years ago, Burchill is a progressive, maybe even in that nasty article. By the standards of today, she makes any decent person lose their lunch.

It’s the same sort of thing with Moffat. Yeah, the guy’s more liberal and progressive and ‘tolerant’ than that old racist homophobe William Hartnell. Yet his version of the show continually reinforces heteronormativity and gender essentialism in the context of a culture that has greater scope than ever to engage with the idea that there really isn’t any such thing as a sexual or gender ‘norm’, and that the idea that there is (and that it consists of white, hetero, cis-gendered people getting married and having babies) is a discourse of privilege at best, cynical power at worst. Yet this knowledge doesn’t get in, besides some gay/lesbian bit-characters whom the Doctor ‘tolerates’ chummily. And, lets be honest here, it’s obvious that the lesbian couple are there at least partly so Moffat can make sniggery jokes about girl-on-girl cunnilingus.

Up to what I’ve seen, the Moffat era seems to have been one long carnival of reaction… or, at best, sheer disinterested apoliticism in places where apoliticism is effectively a tolerance of established power (i.e. Nixon). This is a key point. At times, disinterest becomes reaction. At his worst, Moffat’s Nixon is dubious in his cultural views. He doesn’t like the idea of Canton marrying a black guy.  This is a problem; that he ordered the genocidal carpet bombing of peasant countries isn't. Beneath the sneering at Dicky the Intolerant, there is heteronormativity (we don’t like him because he doesn’t tolerate our good gay guest character the way we right-on people do) and beneath that there is a tendency to side with power by default. By silence.

Of course, quite a lot of viewers will share Moffat’s normative assumptions about heterosexuality, gender essentialism, blindness to the genocide of ‘our’ politicians, etc… but that’s precisely why and how normative assumptions in media culture work, because they pander to some people’s… well… assumptions. The assumptions pandered to are likely be the assumptions shared by a privileged group in society, precisely because people with that kind of power and platform in the media are, by definition, privileged. It’s a circle, with the assumptions partly produced by, and then picked up by, and then reproduced by, the culture industries. And assumptions like that are retrograde in a society being increasingly challenged by people who are marginalised and patronised by the supposed ‘norm’. 

Part of my point was that so many of the great pop-culture icons of capitalist mass culture are now openly peddling very explicit, comforting, reassuring, aggressively defensive versions of just such normative assumptions. More than usual, I sense. And largely unhindered by any influence from struggle movements like Occupy or the Arab Spring... if not actively in negative response to them. There is a mobilisation of capitalist culture against the anxiety caused by its own crisis, and against challenges from below/‘outside’. And we are, socially and politically and economically, in such shit nowadays that this is actually really insidious. And one reason why I think the spurious gender/sexual certainties in Moffat’s Who are so worrying is precisely because it’s a hugely influential bit of mass culture that is widely identified with ‘Britishness’ and ‘our’ culture and society (like Bond and Shakespeare… and Sherlock Holmes, for that matter!). You only have to look at how the London Olympics summed up Britain to see how such icons were pressed into national ideological service… yet that’s actually a really good example of retrograde assumptions continuingly promulgated within a shifted discourse. The Olympics ceremony also had loads of left/liberal stuff about how great the NHS is, mixed up with genuflection before the Queen, the flag etc… not to mention the overpowering corporate sponsorship and cynical social cleansing beneath the whole event.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fall and Rise

There was a fair amount of media chin-scratching last year about a supposed glumness and seriousness creeping into popular movies.  The real trend, I think, is not towards the 'serious' but towards the reactionary.

For one thing, there's recently been a spate of popular, lauded films and TV shows re-inflating Islamophobia (again) in a 'nuanced' form acceptable to liberals as well as to outright bigots.  The much-lauded Argo depicts a heroic CIA rescue of American hostages in Iran.  Always handy, being able to demonise Iran.  (Modern Iran's origin is, of course, a long and complex story, and does not present 'the West' in a good light... which is why nobody balanced and objective ever mentions it.)  The much-lauded Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture as being both effective and morally conscionable, with the only negative consequence in sight being the discomfort of the torturers.  It misrepresents 'enhanced interrogation' as being a valuable technique leading directly to the location of Osama and, by means of ambivalence and ambiguity (disingenuously used as a defence by the director), it effectively sides with the torturers.  To be neutral about torture is to be effectively pro-torture.  The enmeshing of the torture within a legalistic framework of neutrality and supposed utilitarianism is both very apt - the quintessential facet of torture as it is practiced by modern democracies is that it is steeped in punctilious legality - and very normalising.

These new liberal/Islamophobic popular movies, which also appeal to the criterati and the awards-boards, have come just as the American empire (and its allies) has beeing stepping up its rhetoric about the evils of Iran in particular, and the possibility of intervening in struggles in the Arab world.  Clearly, part and parcel of the imperium's cultural reactlash to/against the Arab Spring.  This isn't anything new.  The previous round of mainstream liberal-inflected movies about the 'War on Terror' and Iraq were similarly punctual in their ideological addresses; as with the Vietnam movies of the late-70s and 80s, they served as an ostentatious display of American culture in the throws of 'painful self-examination' and 'angst' about a military adventure held in increasing public opprobrium.  The Hurt Locker was more prompt than The Deer Hunter, but essentially peddled the same assumptions and the same normalising effects. 

The buzz lately has been about two big movies from big directors, both tackling the issue of slavery.  Spielberg's Lincoln and Tarantino's Django UnchainedLincoln makes the destruction of slavery seem like the accomplishment of old white guys in government offices.  It's not actually that much better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  (Okay, that may be an exaggeration.)  Lincoln nods in the direction of black soldiers and black resistance, but the essential story being told is the one long since abandoned by most historians: the story of the abolition of slavery being a legal coup handed down from Washington.  The reality is that Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was a recognition of something happening 'on the ground' as the slaves of the South rebelled in enormous numbers, stealing themselves from their owners and joining the Union armies.  The film depicts Thaddeus Stevens as a radical who needed to rein himself in so that the real work could be done by the moderate compromiser Lincoln.  Spielberg and his writer have both spoken of the film as a paen to political compromise.  The subtext is one of support for a moderate, compromising liberal president in time of war.  It is, in short, an exhortation to give Obama space to win at home and abroad through his moderate use of drones and kill lists, and his compromise with capital (which involves letting capital off the hook while making the American people pay).  Django's racial politics are also hugely problematic, with the rebellious black man depicted as a one-in-a-million phenomenon, with the dynamics of the story defined by white people, with Django freed by a white man instead of through his own struggle.  Django is not really about a black rebellion against racism or slavery.  It essentially depicts a white man using a black man as a revenge weapon against other white men.  Both movies fall into the same category as Avatar, in that they have been painstakingly crafted to appear 'on side' with an oppressed and enslaved ethnic group, while also objectifying them and stripping them of real agency, making their struggle seem like it has been shaped and won by Whitey.  Interestingly, Spielberg did exactly the same kind of thing in Schindler's List.  His movie about the Judeocide is not a story of Jewish resistance in the midst of one of the most catastrophic moral failures in human history.  It's a success story about how some Jews were saved by a gentile capitalist.  This is the American movie business for you, which has the heroic white gentile saviour (often exemplifying bourgeois values even if he's not an actual businessman) as one of its most enduring and central narratives.  This is one reason why Ayn Rand felt so much at home in Hollywood.

On the subject of the heroic, white, gentile, rich, businessman saviour... we should consider the latest mega-successful iteration of Batman.  Bruce Wayne may not disdain conscience and altruism, but in shape and style he is, in many ways, a Randian hero.  He takes it all upon himself, becoming the fountainhead of goodness and the Atlas upon which Gotham rests.  Tim Burton's movies downplayed Wayne's role as a wealthy businessman (though he gets to play the 'good' capitalist vs Christopher Walken's 'bad' capitalist in Batman Returns).  Schumacher gives Wayne Enterprises a profit sharing scheme.  These techniques slightly reduce the volume of the pro-capitalist blare inherent in the Batman myth, though without neutralising or forgetting it.  Nolan's trilogy, however, turns up the volume to 11.  Wayne Enterprises is a force for moral and material good in society.  There are 'bad capitalists' and 'good capitalists'.  Bruce's father is of the 'good' variety.  He prefers to be a doctor, but has his company build monorails to (somehow) help the poor, becoming an example to the rest of Gotham's wealthocracy.  The economic crisis in Gotham depicted in Batman Begins is an external event, artificially created and inflicted upon Gotham's capitalism by the fanaticism of the baddies.  The social conscience of the domestic rich is all that can save the city from being destroyed by the unleashed evil of the poor.  Bruce follows in his father's footsteps in that he offers an example.  He becomes - forgive my degrading weakness for puns - the Dark Knight Exemplar.  His violent, authoritarian project to beat law and order into people is the stick to his father's carrot - both imbued with the same moral sense.  That Bruce has a nauseating line in speechifying about the 'good in people' shouldn't distract us from the quintessentially Randian idea in his heart: capitalism is heroic.  Okay, there is bad capitalism (usually illegal) but ultimately the system is synonymous with social wellbeing, steered correctly through the efforts of a kevlar-coated Atlas.  In case there's any danger of us missing the point, Nolan gives us panoramas of glittering corporate skyscrapers, lush boardrooms, gorgeous secretaries, morally-minded executives, bad CEOs who ultimately get their comeuppance, etc.

Looking back a bit...  Recently, Charlie Brooker (for whom I still have some time despite that embarassing hair and stubble he has now) wrote that The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were, essentially, the same film.  In both, the hero of a big franchise is stripped of all his power and has to claw his way back up onto his feet.  Batman starts his movie a miserable recluse, blamed for things that aren't his fault, unshaven, hobbled and limping on crutches.  Later, he gets pulverised in a fight and is left to rot at the bottom of a pit.  Bond falls, literally and metaphorically, at the start of his film.  Assumed dead, he is in fact in the Bahamas, drinking Heineken, letting himself get unshaven (that motif again) and out of shape.  Both films focus on their hero's quest to get himself back in trim and then to defeat the baddie who has made hay in his absence. This seems, to me, an obvious and not-so-subtle metaphor for the state of capitalism.  The heroic, formerly all-conquering hero laid low by circumstances beyond his control and needing to climb back up into the light... well, this is essentially the mainstream narrative about where capital is at these days.  The same essential formulation holds in many sectors of what we might, for want of a better word, want to call the modern 'left'.  Huge swathes of what was Occupy etc held 'the bankers' to blame for the crisis, as though banking and bankers were something extrinsic to capitalism, and as though capitalism was a victim of the bankers and their free-floating, contextless 'greed'... which, as a description of what happened, is an example of accuracy becoming inaccuracy through incompleteness.  A bit like saying that a rifle killed JFK and leaving it at that.

It'd be easy to discount my reading were it not for the fact that The Dark Knight Rises goes out of its way to support the established hierarchy of capitalism, and to lay the woes of Gotham at the door of the rabblement.  The police and government, whatever their failings, represent order, stability, safety and noble sacrifice.  Even the partial repudiation of the lies told to the public (for their own good) by Gordon and Batman is couched in terms of a noble mistake.  Meanwhile, the envious unwashed ransack their way ruthlessly through the mansions of the rich, and the revolution is immediately tyrannical, setting up showtrials in a perverse people's court.  Gordon, brought to trial, gets to make a speech defending the establishment's virtuous conception of law against the arbitrary and malicious revolutionary justice of Crane.  Bane takes on the leadership of the angrily and inarticulately disaffected and, like all leaders of revolts against an established order, he is revealed to be an insincere opportunist, a self-seeking demagogue, simultaneously nihilist and fanatic.  The Randian-with-a-conscience-and-bat-ears, meanwhile, has been dumped in a deep hole, from which you can only escape by climbing on on your own, and without a safety harness... which, as Stavvers observed, is a metaphor for reactionary ideas about poverty and welfare dependancy.

British Bullshit.
Skyfall, meanwhile, also cast its hero as recuperating from a a fall (really, note the falling and rising metaphor here!) and was noticeably reactionary even by the standards of Bond films.  Whereas the almost-universally-loathed-but-actually-quite-good Quantum of Solace strayed as close to a 'realistic' picture of the world as a Bond film could ever get without ceasing to be a Bond film, Skyfall ventured back into the zone of camp jingoism that is Bond's traditonal territory.  There is a certain accidental subversion in the depiction of M (Judi Dench) and her agents (Bond included) as ludicrous incompetents - really, they fuck everything up from start to finish, which is quite accurate as a depiction of the British 'security services' - but, overall, the film is a near-grotesque exercise in flag-waving.  M gets to smack down the sneering bitchqueen MP at the inquiry (who has the temerity to accurately point out what a clusterfuck M's reign has been and suggest that she ought to be held accountable to the taxpayer) with stirring words about the dangerous world in which we live now (all those evil swarthy people who've been killing British moles) and the need for MI6 to protect the Realm (some hope) and Tennyson and stuff and whatnot and blah.  The villain, Silva, attacks the British anti-terrorism effort, and the palaces of the establishment, using his skills as a cyber-hacker.  He's al-Qaeda and Anonymous rolled into one.  There is not a hint of queasiness over the grotesque way that Bond and M end up, on an isolated farm, menaced by heavily armed men in helicopter gunships, even as the film champions a national state currently doing similar things to people in Afghanistan.  Yes, Bardem's character is a shadowy reflection of Bond, but like all such shadowy reflections he is there to emphasize the difference between himself and his heroic mirror image.  (Honestly, the Evil Reflection character is almost never there to undermine the good guy's moral status.  Belloq is there to show us that Indy is a good treasure-hunter.  The Master shows us that the Doctor is a good renegade Time Lord.)  The film mirrors its reactionary reassertion of British imperial values in the fractured world of today by being reactionary in terms of the aesthetics of the Bond series itself.  QoS took Bond as far as he could go from his political and aesthetic homebases (not that far really, but everything's relative); the post-recession Skyfall brings Bond back both politically and aesthetically.  It's very retrograde in every way, ending up with the mantle of sentimental/jingoistic/imperialist Britainishnesshood passed symbolically to Bond in the form of a Union Jack-clad bulldog, and then with Bond slinking back into his trad aesthetics, putting Moneypenny back in her place, recreating the old days of the patrician male M, now played by Ralph Fiennes.  This isn't the 'new seriousness'.  This is the old crap, still clinging to the bowl.

On the subject of Ralph Fiennes... I was rather startled by the forthright way he makes a small group of swarthy, cynical, disingenuous, manipulative agitators into the main cause of trouble in his film version of Coriolanus.  I mention this to indicate that the resurgence of outright reaction in recent cultural production isn't limited to the popcorn-shifting blockbusters.  Fiennes' film tries to position itself as an action-film and/or political thriller worked up from the basis of a Shakespeare text - and obviously aimed to be popular, albeit in a smaller-scale way than many of the movies in which Fiennes has recently had big supporting roles (i.e. Skyfall, and the Harry Potter films).  But take another recent Shakespeare production - the muched fawned-upon National Theatre revival of Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale.  Timon is a startlingly strange and subversive play about... well, it's about a huge number of things, but a central concern is the nature of money, both as a metaphor for other things and as itself... indeed, one of the most startling things about the play is that Shakespeare appears to have realised that, in the bourgeois culture emergent when he was writing, money essentially is a metaphor.  (This is something that Marx noticed when he quoted Timon's coruscating and corrosive speeches about money at length in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844... but I digress outrageously.)  One of the fascinating things about the NT staging was the way it strove to relate Timon's fall - from splurge-happy wealth to utter destitution - to the recession and its political aftershocks.  Tramp-Timon finds himself surrounded by protestors with tents and placards, becoming briefly a hero to an Occupy-style rebellion of the unwashed.  Alcibiades, a disaffected general in the text, becomes the leader of Occupy Ancient Athens (there must always, of course, be a single Leader in these bourgeois conceptions of protest and revolution), and his march upon the city becomes an uprising of the tent and placard brigade.  What makes this relevant to this essay is the trajectory of the Occupyesque rebellion in the NT staging.  It very quickly - automatically - betrays its rhetoric and becomes a cynical exercise, with Alcibiades making a dirty deal in dumbshow with the corrupt Athenian senators, and presenting himself at the head of a new coalition... smartly dressed in the trappings of respectable power.

This is an old, old set of assumptions being utilised... but see how it rides in, as though by magic, on any attempt by even this corner of the culture industry to engage with Occupy and all that it entails.  We've already seen how Hollywood responded to the Arab Spring and the demands of Obama's imperial project.  The top-level of the artsy British theatrical establishment reacted in essentially the same way to the recession and the Occupy movement.  It's no surprise to see poor old Shakespeare being pressed into service as part of an effort to reassert reactionary certainties in time of social strife.  This is a time honoured tactic of British cultural and social hegemony.  TV is getting in on the act too, with the glossy series The Hollow Crown, which turned the Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V) into something resembling a cheap version of Game of Thrones, crossed with a self-consciously 'straight' and 'trad' iteration of plays that have usually been presented steeped in heraldry and nationalistic bling.  Simon Russell Beale turned up again as Falstaff, leading into a version of Henry V that retreats from the politically ambiguous, grimey, bloody version put forward by Branagh in the late 80s, back to something more akin to Olivier's patriotic version.  The Hollow Crown has the guts to leave in the scene where Henry orders the murder of French prisoners (something which even Branagh wimped out on) but also cuts much of the cynical political wrangling at the start, as well as dumping the "upon the King" speech, during which an attentive audience might become squirmingly aware of Henry's disingenuous self-justifications.  This Henry V is slanted towards presenting the king as a justified imperialist who will do the dirty work if needs be.  It approaches becoming the Zero Dark Thirty version of this deeply ambiguous and ambivalent play.

Of course, none of this is anything new in and of itself.  During the trial scenes in The Dark Knight Rises, I was strongly reminded of - of all things - 'Encounter at Farpoint', the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The scene in TDKR that I'm thinking of is the bit where Crane (AKA Scarecrow) conducts rigged show trials of establishment figures in front of a baying mob.  It made me think of the scene where Q, dressed up as a judge, puts Picard and his crew on trial in a phantom version of a court from the "post-Atomic horror".  (I'd mention the offensively highlighted interracial make-up of both mobs... but that's pretty much par for the course. At least TDKR didn't have an evil oriental dwarf banging a gong).  Commissioner Gordon gets his little self-righteous whinge about "due process" (forgetting the wonderful Dent's Law he's been using for years to lock people up without possibility of parole) just as Picard gets to quote Shakespeare (him again!) at Q.  The line "kill all the lawyers" comes, of course, from Henry VI Part 2... in which Jack Cade is a cynical, machiavellian revolutionary who is fooling the idiotic mob into following his revolution and subjecting establishment figures to rigged show trials... just like the Judge/Q, and just like Crane, and just like Bane, and not entirely unlike Silva, or the NT version of Alcibiades, or the swarthy revolutionaries who stir the people up against Coriolanus, etc, etc, etc.

As I say, it's nothing new.  Coriolanus - on balance, a play that discounts the 'rabble' - was written partly as a response to grain riots.  Jack Cade is an Elizabethan cultural warning against the false promises of those, going right back to John Ball and Watt Tyler, who said that "all things shall be held in common".  Such techniques are then, obviously, at least as old as the beginnings of Modern drama.  They may be highly, even startlingly, consistent... but they are not constant.  There are periodic lacunae in their predominance.  The timbre and tenor of culture ebbs and flows with the times, with the level of struggle.  1968 penetrated the consciousness of even Terrance Dicks to the point where he co-wrote The War Games.  By contrast, the great recession, the Arab Spring and Occupy appear not to have made a dent in Moffat's solipsism... though this is perhaps unfair given that, although the worldwide tide of struggle is great, we (especially we in Britain) don't appear to be experiencing it culturally as anything akin to 1968.

Maybe that's partly why Doctor Who is playing it's part in this upswing in the reactionary content of narrative media culture.  The heroes of capitalist media culture - both fictional and real - have been wheeled out onto the battlefield.  Bond is defending the empire (what's left of it as an ideal) and Batman is defending private property.  Shakespeare is once again defending hierarchy against the placard-wavers, and a feminist CIA officer is torturing Arabs for freedom.  Lincoln is showing us all how great things can be when one moral man is in charge.  And all of them are enacting a wish-fulfillment fantasy of capitalism once fallen, now rising again.  Meanwhile, the Doctor is doing his bit.  He's hugging Churchill, palling up with Nixon (and, via his disingenuous rhetoric about slave revolts, effectively confusing him with Spartacus), championing the heteronormative at every turn and teaching clueless workers in high rise blocks how to solve all social problems by being better parents.

Unless it's all just my imagination.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Turnabout is Fairplay

We get nowhere by pretending to ourselves that we can ever break out of culture and view it, as it were, from the outside.  We're in it.  And we're there to stay.  By loving something and criticising it too, you kind of efface the nature of the all-embracing grip.  But how can you not?  You shouldn't pretend you can.

The solution (for me anyway) lies in using and abusing what you love, forcing it - and your talk about it - to become a way of criticising the society that created it.  You don't break out of culture but you do turn an aspect of it into a weapon of sorts, even if you just use the weapon to recarve the inside of your own head.  This, of course, comes from my personal ideological perspective.

More.  For me, the approach to culture can always be both for itself, for its own sake, for the sheer hell of it, *and* as a way into social criticism.  You can love it because you love it and also because you hate it, because of what your hatred for aspects of it allows you to do.  Assault everything.  You can have your cake and eat it too.  You can enjoy the 'use value' of the commodity (TV show, film, book, whatever) while also analysing it.  Where does my enjoyment come from, what does it mean, how to others enjoy it, why is it created the way it is, what does it do culturally and politically, etc.  I think any other approach ends up with you thinking you shouldn't enjoy stuff you find politically dodgy and then pretending you don't (which leads to strange neuroses that are actually pretty common on the left).

Of course, that model assumes that there can never be any positive critique in mass culture.  I'm not one to think mass culture can ever really be 'subversive'... but I do think it can (and does) sometimes provide uncompromised critique that can be used positively rather than negatively, i.e. you can supportively adopt aspects of what it 'says' as well as using some of what it 'says' against it. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Jack watches 'The Reign of Terror', Part 1

You can probably already guess where this one is going, Constant Reader.

Oh look, there's a guillotine on the cover.  It's a story about the French Revolution.  Hence, a guillotine.  I mean, of course.

The blurb on the back informs me that the French Revolution was "a time of great upheaval, bloodshed and terror".  Technically true, of course... if slanted.  The inside blurb informs me that the Revolution was "bloodthirsty".  Inside the box, we have clearly abandoned all pretence of objectivity.  Which is just as well, because any pretence of objectivity would be utterly hypocritical when talking about the Doctor Who story called 'The Reign of Terror'.

Okay, onto the programme itself.  As noted, the story is called 'The Reign of Terror'.  Just to hammer the point home, the first episde is called 'A Land of Fear'.  Because everyone in France was afraid. 

There's some rather charming interaction between the regulars at the start.  The Doctor is in a huff and, convinced that he has finally brought Ian and Barbara home, attempts to haul them unceremoniously off his ship.  They manage to charm him into coming outside to check that they really are in England circa 1963 before he zips off and leaves them.  Ian flatters him and Barbara hangs on his shoulder, brushing imaginary spots of dust from his jacket. 

They encounter a dirty-faced urchin out in the countryside.  He is terrified of them, saying "I haven't done anything wrong!".  It was a land of fear, you see.  Fear.  Got that?

The travellers soon realise that they're actually in France of the past... which is confirmed when they almost immediately stumble into a safe house being used by the Royalist counter-revolutionaries.  Upon Ian's realisation that they're in the time of the French Revolution, Barbara immediately responds with "yes, the Reign of Terror" because that's all the French Revolution was.  There was nothing else to it at all.  That 11 month period sums up the whole thing.

The Royalists point guns at the travellers to begin with, but the leader, Rouvray (whose very name sounds a bit like the French word for 'truth'), makes a little speech about trust and faith.  It's handy that he immediately decides to trust Ian, Barbara and Susan (the Doctor is lying unconscious upstairs) because the house is immediately surrounded by a bunch of Revolutionary soldiers, lead by a glowering Lieutenant and composed of rough, crude, vicious, sniggering, toothless, dirty thugs in Revolutionary uniforms.  Rouvray attempts to outface them and, for a moment, it works.  "You can put them in uniforms Lieuitenant," he declares, "but they remain peasants underneath!"  Yes, he actually says that.  Heroically.  This, presumably, is his explanation for both their viciousness and their natural inclination to obey any man of breeding who shouts at them loudly enough.  The peasants overcome their inborn servility, however, and shoot him dead.  They are practically drooling at the prospect of shooting Ian, Barbara and Susan too... until their Lieutenant reminds them that 'Le Maistre' (who sounds like the kind of guy who might tie James Bond to a chair and beat him on the balls with a tennis racket) might give them a reward for prisoners.  Being lower class, they all immediately (sorry but 'immediately' is a very necessary word when describing the plot of this story) begin salivating with venal delight at the idea of getting some money in return for supplying Madame Guillotine with fresh victims.  They drag our heroes away and, before they leave, set the house on fire.  For no reason at all... except, perhaps, a desire to stare at the results of their own wanton destructiveness, their mouths open in gap-toothed leers, relishing the beautiful purity of sweet, sweet chaos.  The Doctor, you'll recall, is still in the house.  Boooo!  The flames consume the building and the camera follows them up into the sky as the end credits roll.  It was a land of fear, and the enduring image of episode one is of a house in flames.  It's all burning down, you see.  The revolution will consume us all like the indiscriminate conflagration that it is.

So, what do we learn from this?  The revolution was an indiscriminate blaze, started by ignorant savages who had conquered their natural desire to obey respectable royalists by obeying other drives, i.e. their own venality and their desire to kill and destroy.  The revolution was a time when everybody in France (apart from the revolutionaries) was terrified of being arrested and guillotined... and they were right to fear, since roaming parties of revolutionaries were likely to arrest you for just existing.  These gangs would round up anybody they happened to bump into and send them back to be guillotined for no reason, with the government in Paris happy to hand out monetary payments in return for fresh victims.  B'wah ha ha ha haaaaa!

I wonder if we dare hope that the following episodes will provide any context.  I wonder if, for instance, anyone will mention that, at the time of the Terror, France had already chased away counter-revolutionary armies from its borders and was still surrounded by forces intent upon reconquering the country.  A coalition - comprising the Prussians, Austrians, British, Spanish and Italians - was arming for war, with the declared aim of restablishing the monarchy and slaughtering anyone who defended the country against them.  Meanwhile there were very real internal conspiracies to aid the foreign enemies.  France in 1793 was a 'land of fear'... but it might've had a fair bit to do with the likelihood that the country would soon be overrun by foreign troops aiming to reinstall an absolute monarchy (I suppose these days we'd call it humanitarian intervention).  I consider the bombing of Dresden to have been an act of wanton terrorism and mass murder... but I'd consider it very dishonest and distorting if a TV drama depicted it without even mentioning the wider context.

I wonder if it'll be mentioned that the Terror began as, in part, a response to a call from the sans culottes of the Paris Commune (not the later one) to outlaw hoarding of grain by farmers, as the population of Paris was in very real danger of starving to death?  Will it be mentioned that the Constitution of 1793, ratified by public referendum, introduced universal male suffrage and guaranteed many rights, such as freedom of association, the right to education, assistance, a job, and popular sovereignty?  (The implementation of this consitution had to be delayed because of the exigencies of war.)  Will it be mentioned that the French Revolution inspired the slave revolt on San Domingue lead by Toussaint L'ouverture, and that consequently the revolutionary Convention in Paris abolished slavery? 

These are, of course, rhetorical questions.  I already know that, like Simon Schama in his 900 page book Citizens, Dennis Spooner will find himself too pressed for space trashing the revolution to even mention a little thing like the abolition of slavery.

Of course, the Terror got out of hand and claimed thousands of lives.  The Revolution as a whole went badly wrong, judging it by its own early standards.  I'm not invested in trying to prove that the French Revolution was perfect.  Far, far from it.  But I can't help noticing that it was acceptable to do a Doctor Who story depicting the extremely long, varied, complex, contingent and in-many-ways-inspiring phenomenon that we call the French Revolution - an event which has helped spawn democracy as we know it - as nothing but an outbreak of mindless savagery.

I may blog about the other episodes.  I'll see how it goes.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Liberty in Space

From the October 2011 issue of Panic Moon.  Very slightly edited and revised.  This piece really only scratches the surface of its topic.  Please think of it as a 'place-holder' for something longer that I haven't written yet.

"In the end, the liberals always do what the empire wants."
- Christopher Hitchens (I got the quote via this.)

No story better demonstrates the ambivalence of Doctor Who’s liberal ethos than 'Colony in Space'.  It's an anti-corporate eco-parable.  Industrial technology has destroyed Earth’s environment and so the industrialists want to get their claws into other planets.  IMC even fit claws to their mining robots.  They lie, bully and kill for profit.  Interplanetary law seems to favour such corporations, even without Time Lord supervillains impersonating Adjudicators.  Big business is thus depicted as legal gangsterism.  Strong stuff for Saturday tea-time, as you’d expect from Malcolm Hulke.

"Here comes another one looking for a lost droid...
he'll feel the edge of my gaffi-stick and no mistake!"
Thing is, 'Colony' is also a sci-fi reiteration of the frontier Western genre.  Poor settler townsfolk versus unscrupulous railroad men.  And, like most such tales, it ignores the injustice suffered by the ‘Indians’, ie the Uxariean natives.  They may be innocent of Norton’s slurs, but their depiction mostly follows standard stereotypes: they’re inscrutable, sullen, silent, changeable, likely to attack and/or sacrifice you if the mood strikes them.

It’s not entirely straightforward.  The Guardian, the one Uxareian who speaks, displays a kind of humane wisdom. However, that’s because he’s the last ‘advanced’ Uxariean.  The rest of his people turn out to be the descendants of his ruined high-tech civilisation.  Still, this renders the humans’ dismissive term “primitives” rather ironic.  It also chimes with the backstory about an Earth devastated by technology: the "primitives” may be a glimpse of the future of Earth’s population.

All the same, the story ignores the issue that the humans – colonists or miners – threaten the aboriginal people with displacement.  Ashe and Winton fulminate about their rights against the encroachment of IMC, yet fail to notice that they are themselves encroaching on the land and rights of the natives.  Nobody questions that one or other group of humans has a right to appropriate Uxarieus.  Even the Doctor blithely says that any hostile alien life on the planet can be hunted and destroyed (how very eco-unfriendly of him!) and advocates human colonisation as an escape from lives “like battery hens”.  Meanwhile, not even the Guardian gets to speak about his people’s rights.

Hulke, a one-time Communist whose Doctor Who stories exemplify (ironically enough) the show’s liberal outlook, had previously explored the theme of ‘humans as newcomers’ in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', but there the situation is depicted as an ethical minefield: Silurian prior claims versus human squatters’ rights.  Both sides experience each other as immigrants and both are, in a sense, right.  In 'Colony in Space', however, the humans are just alien invaders.  This point is never addressed. Indeed, the Doctor supports the colonists on liberal grounds. In a story so otherwise sceptical about ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’, this is a serious stumble.

How do we account for such a blind spot?  The truth is that liberalism itself has frequently been pro-colonialist.  John Stuart Mill thought that “barbarians” should be ruled for their own good.  Alexis de Tocqueville approved of the French conquest of Algeria and British rule in India.  Bertrand Russell defended “the process by which the American continent has been acquired for European civilization”.  There’s plenty more where all that came from.  ‘Settler-colonial’ states always tended to use some combination of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and extermination against the people already there.  Liberals have often (usually, even) been found defending such measures, or at least their outcomes, in the name of the progress of civilisation.

One wonders how much room there will be for the “primitives” once Winton’s colony thrives and spreads.  Maybe, after a few million years, Uxareius will be renamed New Earth (which was portrayed as a neo-America built by refugees).  Why then didn’t we see any Uxareians in ‘Gridlock’?  Probably because the few that survived the progress of civilisation ended up crowded into reservations or some equivalent of the Gaza Strip.  Like battery hens.