Sunday, 3 March 2013

Skulltopus 13: Return to Fang Rock

My monomaniacal focus on the quasi-Weird(ish/esque) in Doctor Who resumes (after a bit of a hiatus... during which I just couldn't be arsed) and reaches the Graham Williams years, the heyday of the tentacular in the Baker era.  See here for links to all previous Skulltopus posts and here for the last one (which includes a summary of the whole thing so far).

I started the whole Skulltopus thing with 'Horror of Fang Rock', but that was ages ago (and before I really knew where I was going with this topic) so I feel the need to go back to it, if comparatively briefly.

Okay, so 'Fang Rock'.  Hmm.  Well, it's a Terrance Dicks script, isn't it?  Uncle Tel is, as we all know, well dodgy on politics.  He writes about how the working classes are happy being poor, and aristocrats are dandy, and the empire was kind of okay.  His baseline assumption is one of contented 'capitalist realism', of unquestioning acceptance of the status quo.  Plus he's rubbish on the question of women and sexism.  He's so bad on issues of sexual exploitation that he actually seems to be rather too keen on bringing up the subject of rape.


Weeeeell... however true the above charges may or may not be with regard to his spin-off novels, the funny thing is that, in practice, his actual TV scripts don't show much evidence of these traits.  For instance, 'Fang Rock' is obsessed with class, hierarchy, status, property and money... and not in an obviously reactionary, or smugly-liberal way.  In fact, it's kind of edgy (as these things go).  It's one of those relatively few Who stories outside the early Pertwee years which portrays people performing waged labour, let alone showing the working people of twentieth century Britain.  And, generally speaking, the story is greatly and openly more sympathetic to the working stiffs, and what they have to put up with, than it is to the gentry.  The world the Rutan comes to and fits into is a world of deep economic and social divisions between classes based on work, finance, empire and gender.  The workers have to work for a living, and do.  They are explicitly below the gentlefolk in a very visible social hierarchy that is painted in unmistakably negative terms, to the point where their lives are shown to be implicitly considered of less value.  The business of who does and who doesn't get a lifeboat when Palmerdale's yacht goes down foreshadows the sinking of the Titanic, probably the most famous example of 'gilded age' social injustice in popular consciousness.  We are evidently invited and expected to be angry about this, to side with Harker.  Indeed, in his rush to indicate his line on this, Dicks makes Lord Palmerdale just a tad too obviously despicable.  Palmerdale's wealth is evidently based on financial speculation.  Skinsale's position comes from his status as an M.P., as an old imperial soldier and (presumably) his respectable birth (i.e. he's a son of an old propertied family).  Adelaide is subordinate to these two because of her position as an employee and a woman (she entirely accepts her lower status and behaves according to cultural norms associated with her gender, presumably having been brought up a 'lady') but she's still above Vince, Reuben and Harker.  Vince is evidently taken with her but, to her, he's an instrumentum vocale (a tool that talks), not a young man.  Meanwhile, it's heavily hinted that she's also Palmerdale's mistress, which seems almost like one of her tasks as his secretary!  Thus sex is hinted to have been commodified, with the woman as commodity... something which is picked up on by various little details in the story, i.e. the commercially printed porn the Doctor finds under Reuben's bed. 

It'd be easy to mistake the portrayal of Adelaide (who is annoyingly snooty and then annoyingly wimpy) as misogynistic... but for the fact that Dicks writes Leela brilliantly, giving her guts, brains, determination, initiative and plenty of her own ideas about things.  When Adelaide gets hysterical and 'needs' a slap, Dicks gives the job to Leela.  The strong woman (Leela is a genuinely strong woman here - compare and contrast with Moffat's ersatz models) is impatient with the woman who has allowed herself to be infantilised by male rule.  (The slap is still an uncomfortable moment... it's like Leela has internalised male attitudes to 'the weaker sex' and has become an 'honorary man'.  Ewww.)

The story also strongly hints at an awareness of imperialist competition as a major force in the Europe of the new 20th century, linking this to the rise of new technologies.  The Rutan is an imperialist, speaks in a tone of snobbish and racist and militarist arrogance, has a peculiarly technological interior nature (it speaks of its shape-shifting as a "new technique"), has an affinity with electricity, adapts the electrical generator and leaves communications tech around the place.   Reuben's grumblings about the newfangled meshes with his anxieties about foreign spies.  He even names various competing imperialist nations who will be involved in the forthcoming 'Great War'.  Meanwhile, Palmerdale (the arriviste "money grubber") and Skinsale (the politician and old imperialist) are squabbling over financial dealings and clashing conceptions of social priorities (profit versus 'honour')... and their conflict comes to pivot on control of a wireless telegraph.

Class, snobbery, militarism, imperialism, new technology, new communications.  The Rutan is like the twentieth century itself, crashing in upon the stranded Edwardians like a lethal, inundating, incomprehensible "cold wave".  So recently they were Victorians, Britannia ruled the waves unrivalled, the balance of power in Europe (between "the French, the Russkies," etc.) was relatively stable and everyone (workers and women, for instance) knew their place, etc.  But here comes trouble.  The Rutan embodies this trouble, and the repressed fears of the Edwardian characters about this trouble.  We, the audience, relate to this via a sort of thematic dramatic irony.  We know what the Edwardian characters don't.  We know what awaits them just round the corner of history.

'Fang Rock' even gets closer than most stories to noticing that inequality, xenophobic nationalism, imperialism and modern war are things generated by capitalism.  The lighthouse is a workplace, staffed by people who've been "fisherfolk for generations" but who are now evidently proletarians.  The toffs embody empire, parliament, wealth, finance, speculation, sexual oppression and blatant disregard for even the lives of the workers.  The lighthouse showcases the twentieth century arriving, in the form of electricity, modern communication and the suspicious guarding of European coastlines... and because the setting is, above all else, a modern workplace, the story gets so close to noticing capitalism as a connective skein.  There have, of course, been lighthouses since ancient times... but the modern lighthouse - a technological workplace staffed by waged labourers - is explicitly counterposed with the ancient lighthouse powered by slaves.

Dicks was, of course, the script editor during much of the Pertwee era, when the evasive semiotic link within Doctor Who between capitalism and the tentacular was first developed.  He seems to carry the connection with him into the Williams years.  And so the monster - the locus where all this might have gelled (sorry) into coherent critique - becomes something gelatinous, protean and unpindownable, both in its physical form and in its metaphorical valences.  Part of the strategy whereby this is achieved is the utilisation of the Weird maritime, the tentacular. The radical incoherence of the tentacular is again resorted to as an escape route, as in 'Spearhead' and 'Claws of Axos'.  Once again the tentacles are linked to a fudging, an obscuring, a clouding at the central point at the story where these modern nightmares meet, where they threaten to join up.  The crux of the story, of its meaning - namely, the Rutan - becomes irresolveably fuzzy.  I'm not sure if the tentacular nature of the Rutan is what achieves this fudging, or whether the fudging leads to the choice of the tentacular form.  (Being a Marxist, I can simply wheel out my big cheat button and call it 'dialectical'.)  Either way, while we can still discern the contours of some kind of critique of imperialism in the Rutan, we cannot make a coherent and convincing case for it as representing either a critique of British imperialism generated by a system of class exploitation (which the rest of the story generally leans towards) or a defence of British inter-class national unity against foreign imperialist threats.  (I've gone into all this in greater detail here.)  And, of course, while the Rutan suggests many things - snobbery, militarism, new technology, modern communications - it pointedly fails/refuses to suggest capitalism in any way.  It's uninterested in commodities or profit.  Skinsale gets himself killed ducking back for Palmerdale's diamonds; the Rutan shows no interest in them at all.  At the place where the diagnosis might have been, we find instead an amorphous mass of phenomena.  This is the early-Pertweean mode of the tentacular repeating itself in the join between Hinchcliffe and Williams, thanks to Dicks (that relic of Pertwee, returning for the first time since 'The Brain of Morbius' got savagely rewritten).

Maybe Dicks' reinsertion of the old Pertwee-era tentacular mode is what sets the scene for the frequent recurrence of tentacles (and other Weirdish/esque things) throughout the next few years.

Next... 'Image of the Fendahl'.  That's a BIG one.


  1. The Rutan is either a post-capitalist nightmare, or a pre-capitalist one. Possibly both -- after all, consider the juxtaposition of past and future.

    The Rutan is singularly motivated by is *power*, so it can't be reduced to a capitalist critique, because this motivation is shared by all kinds of imperialisms and systemic power-over relations, not just capitalist ones. Even the word "Rutan" evokes getting to the "root" of the problem.

    Notice that the Rutan is un-named. I think it's necessary, given that it's also a shape-changer, slipping in and out of identities like cheap suits. Surprisingly, this creates a juxtaposition with Leela, who also plays the shape-shifter, changing her clothes from posh debutante to working-class prole, not to mention changing eye color at the end of the story, seeing "the light" of Power's destruction -- a felicitous happenstance on the production end.

    The other "crux" of this story, then, is another borrowing from the Pertwee era, namely that of Buddhism. The light comes from diamond centered in a flower of mirrors, a Jewel in the Lotus. The Enlightenment conferred is the transcendence of identity that comes from the dissolution of ego, whether it's the individual egos of capitalist Brits or the racial/nationalistic ego of the Rutans. All are obliterated.

    Except the Doctor and Leela, who are transformed yet again from tourists into people who risk their lives to save others. Again, the shape-changing of Leela comes into focus, as well as the Doctor's admission of ego-failure at the Part 3 cliffhanger.

    1. "The Rutan is singularly motivated by is *power*, so it can't be reduced to a capitalist critique, because this motivation is shared by all kinds of imperialisms and systemic power-over relations, not just capitalist ones."

      1. I don't think of it as a 'reduction' to associate something with capitalism in particular,

      2. I actually do say in the post that the Rutan evades a straightforward association with capitalism in any case. Indeed, that's part of its Pertwee-era style job. To be a scrambled zone where the themes won't meet (Dicks gets too close to a critique and thus brings in the Weird as obfuscation), and

      3. The Rutan is, nonetheless, explicitly associated with capitalist modernity via its affinities with modern industrial technology. If it's going to plug into any set of power principles, the only potential is for them to be capitalist ones.

    2. Oh, and the fact that the Rutan is, as you point out, nameless and collectivist (in the way we've talked about before) is, I think, another aspect of its task as a scrambling, an evasion. There's a felicity for Dicks in that the Weird connects with namelessness and 'Dr Who' uses namelessness as a way of suggesting collectivism, which is associated with non-capitalist monstrousness.

      (As ever, thanks for the great comments.)

    3. "Dicks gets too close to a critique and thus brings in the Weird as obfuscation"

      I guess I'm confused, because I'm not sure that obfuscation of a critique is what Dicks intends. Rather, I see him going for the "root" of the sickness that lies in capitalism, and discovering a sickness that's not exclusive to that particular political economy. Capitalism isn't the source of power-over; power-over is the source of capitalism, and many other isms as well.

      I'd agree, however, that regardless of intent, the Rutan functions to obscure a capitalist critique, extending its tentacles to other non-capitalist systems of domination -- while, as you say, continuing to retain capitalist associations via its technological proficiency. Where we differ, I think, is that I find such an extension completely apt.

      And maybe not just apt, but good, because now the Rutan can work at several levels simultaneously, including the interpersonal and interior levels. The monster of power-over exists in everyone, and it comes from Ego -- hence the "jewel in the lotus" solution devised by the Doctor.

      Interesting that both the Doctor and Leela participate in aspects of the Rutan -- the Doctor's namelessness, Leela's shapeshifting, the employment of technology. If I'm not mistaken, there's even a shot of the Doctor draped in the tentacular, coils of rope.

    4. "I'm not sure that obfuscation of a critique is what Dicks intends."

      I don't necessarily think any of this is happening intentionally or consciously. In fact, I'd be surprised if it were.

      "I see him going for the "root" of the sickness that lies in capitalism, and discovering a sickness that's not exclusive to that particular political economy. Capitalism isn't the source of power-over; power-over is the source of capitalism, and many other isms as well."

      Ah, that may well be it. The Rutan works in a way that I see as an obfuscation because Dicks is using it to refer to something transhistorical that he sees as underlying what's wrong with capitalism (or rather, with things about capitalism that he doesn't much like) and other such 'isms'.

      "Where we differ, I think, is that I find such an extension completely apt."

      In a way, of course, I actually agree that capitalism isn't THE source of "power-over"... though that's not because I subscribe to any idea of 'power' causing social phenomena (that sounds a bit too Nietzschean, and therefore also a bit too Foucaultian for me.. though that probably isn't where you're coming from). Personally, I think you have to look at class society (which has taken and can take various economic forms) more generally for that. So maybe 'Fang Rock' is more radical (or more open to radicalism) than I realised! Still, I think the broader point about the tentacular 'sign' being linked evasively to capitalism holds.

    5. "Still, I think the broader point about the tentacular 'sign' being linked evasively to capitalism holds."

      I think it's apt to link the tentacular to capitalism, but it by no means is exclusive to capitalism -- and perhaps that's the source of its "evasiveness."

      We see how capitalism can stretch its limbs into the furthest corners of the world, and the deepest reaches of our minds, how it shapeshifts (like a jellyfish) but also reacts with intelligence (like an octopus.) So it makes sense to employ this metaphor, a lot of sense.

      However, as is usually the case with metaphors, and especially monsters, this immediately brings up other connotations. Naturally, we might say, since we've used such metaphors in many other contexts prior to capitalism. These accretions don't go away; like barnacles, they cling to the symbol.

      It's even more problematic when we consider that the symbol has also been used in more positive contexts. The tentacular as the social network, as the ability to draw connections, as the mystery of the deep, of the psyche. Suddenly the octopus is a symbol of wisdom -- and so the attempt to link the tentacular to a particular historical phenomenon is evaded: that is part and parcel of symbols and metaphors themselves.

      It's the same with Cybermen. The attempt to escape death, the fear of industrialization, the fear of becoming nameless -- so many fears, but they can apply to many aspects of modern life, whether it's the Western fear of collectivism or the Western fear of capitalism by the time Davies trots them back out in 2006. The symbol always transcends its referent.

    6. Nicely put.

      I don't know how much of the previous Skulltopus stuff you've read but it's based on China Mieville's idea that the tentacular was new to the Western tradition when it was introduced into Euro-American Horror/SF, mainly by the Weird writers of the late 19th century/early-20th century (Lovecraft, etc). Its very newness enabled it to be incredibly meaningful (without all the baggage attached to, say, vampires and werewolves) but also to be deeply evasive, perfect for the Weird trend which wanted to express something of the unknowable terror of modernity. Thus it got into a binary opposition with the gothic, which was a better established way of treating modernity in fantastic literature.

      Of course, by the time Doctor Who came along, the tentacle was well established, but still without clearcut referents. My basic idea is that this very evasive/unknowable quality in the tentacle was adapted (via a previous connection made in the early show between monsters like the Brains of Morphoton and the Slyther and economic exploitation) to scramble a convergence on capitalism as a systemic generator of modern nightmares. A garbled echo of what Mieville describes reoccurs within Who. The crunch comes in 'Spearhead from Space', where Bob Holmes creates capitalist monsters that emerge from a factory. But Doctor Who can't transcend its place in the culture industry (as a show about liberal/Enlightenment morals for kids) so the tentacles get employed to (to put it in Situationist terms) 'recuperate' the detournement of the shop window dummy and the factory.

      So, the very fecundity and multiplicity of the potential meanings of the tentacle is part and parcel of what's going on. (I think.)

  2. I'm really looking forward to the Image of Fendahl analysis.

  3. I really hate to be pedantic on an otherwise excellent reading of one of my absolute favourite Doctor Who stories, but I have to plug you on what you meant by comparing the crash of Palmerdale's yacht to the sinking of the Titanic. If you meant the oft bandied-about story that the working class passengers were deliberately kept locked up in the lower decks and left to die as the upper class ones were evacuated, I unfortunately have to point out that's not actually true. Violet Jessop, a stewardess who was onboard and escaped from the Titanic the night it sank, mentions nothing about orders to give first class passengers preferential treatment in her memoirs (according to Violet there was an overwhelming sense of a complete lack of organisation or preparedness of any sort) and neither the British nor the US inquiries ever found any evidence third class passengers were deliberately locked up below decks.

    There was a higher death rate amongst third class passengers and they did reach the lifeboats later than those in other classes, but most historians attribute that to the fact the officers were overwhelmed and White Star Line had formulated no contingency plans for this specific type of emergency. Indeed the Titanic's lavish accommodations in fact extended to its third class passengers: Third class suites onboard the Titanic were unbelievably opulent by the standards of the time and guests in those rooms often had more and better food and a better quality of life on the ship then they did at home.

    Speaking of Violet Jessop, she's a fascinating person and I strongly recommend her autobiography Neptune's Greenroom (annoyingly retitled Titanic Survivor in 1997 to cash in on the Titanic fad) to anyone remotely interested in maritime life, especially that of working class sailors. Violet was the Argentine/Irish daughter of a gaucho who emigrated to England when her family fell on hard times and became a lifelong stewardess onboard White Star Line ships. She also had the unbelievable misfortune to be on all three of the flagship White Star Liners when they met with their signature disasters: She was on the Olympic when it collided with the Hawke, she was on the Titanic when it stuck an iceberg and sank and she was on the Britannic when it struck a mine and sank in World War I. She's a delightfully wry and poetic writer, has a thoroughly unique perspective on ocean liner life at the start of the 20th century and turns a lot of the presuppositions and assumptions about the era on their heads.

    1. I'd completely forgotten about Violet Jessop. I bought her book for my Mum years ago (she's a Titanic buff) and read it myself after she'd finished it. It was, as you say, a fascinating, well written book. As to the facts of the case, I'm happy to concede to your greater knowledge. In any case, the ratio of 1st class to steerage survivors has long been *percieved* as a social injustice (whether caused by deliberate interference or just incompetence). It's still something that 'Fang Rock' echoes with the business of Palmerdale's yacht crash. He's even speeding needlessly (which echoes another Titanic legend - true or false?).

    2. From what I can gather, the Titanic *was* travelling at full speed through the ice fields, but this wouldn't have been seen as reckless because that was the standard practice for ocean liners at the time. The ships' fifth officer later elaborated by saying the rule of thumb was "to go ahead and depend upon the lookouts in the crow's nest and the watch on the bridge to pick up the ice in time to avoid hitting it". The idea was that liners were supposed to prioritize schedule-keeping and arriving at their destination at the advertised time above all else: They were all pressured to travel at full speed constantly, not just the Captain Smith or the Titanic.

      In fact this is a microcosm for the Titanic disaster as a whole, and why it's so of its time. You had cutting edge ship design technology combined with maritime regulations and practices that dated to the dawn of western sail. You had a culture throughout industrialized western society, not just on ocean liners, that on the one hand celebrated and embraced modernity but on the other held rigidly to tradition. "Horror of Fang Rock" captures that just about perfectly.

    3. That very same combination of new industrial technology and old fashioned methods/attitudes would, of course, prove needlessly lethal to untold numbers of troops during WWI, sent to march carrying bayonets into the paths of machine guns. (Though there's a degree to which the same mismatch always occurs - it's a cliche that wars always begin being fought with the tools of today but with the strategies of the last war.)

    4. Precisely, although I'd also add World War I was also just as good at showing the limitations of the modernity facade, as the ensuing shellshock in Berlin and elsewhere shows. That's why we have works like The Outermost House, another one of my all-time favourite books, and the entire output of Weimar culture.

      It occurs to me a great deal of the works/events that resonate the most with me were made/happened between 1912 and 1929, or were inspired by that era.

    5. The 'Great War' is, of course, the metacrisis of the early 20th century, the culmination and explosion of those trends in modernity that shattered any easy utopian idea of the path from Enlightenment leading, via Reason and industry and technology and science, to the perfectability of man (an idea more indulged in by bourgeois culture than socialist culture, as it happens... which is why it always annoys me that Trotsky lets himself get a bit eugenicist and utopian about the human future). This crisis is what the ecstatic/reactionary Weird is all about - the scream of incomprehension at the savagery engulfing modernity. Hodgson wrote 'The Night Land'... and then wrote him from the war that he was IN the Night Land. I'd urge anyone who hasn't already done so to read Mieville on this:

      And, yeah, Weimar culture... wow! Though I'd add that the greatest triumphs of Weimar art/literature are as much a positivbe product of the German revolution as they are negative products of the war.

      Parenthetically... I've now switched off comment moderation, since I'm now lucky enough to get so many great comments. I can always delete the spam.

    6. "wrote him" is a typo. It should've been "wrote home". As it stands it looks like I'm saying Hodgson wrote to Trotsky... which he probably wouldn't have done.

    7. Oh absolutely Weimar culture has roots in positive things, for sure. It's that paradoxical confluence of systemic decay and collapse and revolutionary thought leading to a reconceptualization of the mundane that I find so captivating and fascinating. It's a unique tidal flat of various historical trends and cultural forces that we're not likely to see again, barring some other global catastrophe of similar size (although am I wandering into disaster fetishism now?).

    8. Given the parlous state of 'normality' and 'stability' for so many people, it's tempting to say that the real disaster would be for things to carry on as they are... though, of course, that's easy for me to say. I've got a roof and enough to eat and internet access.