Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A Town Without Context

On 'A Town Called Mercy'

The ends can justify the means, but there needs to be something which justifies the ends.
 - Trotsky

Jex experiments on people in order to create a cyborg supersoldier.  His motive is to end a war which is killing his people.  But were his people the attackers or the attacked?  That this is ignored tells us a great deal about the writer/s but deprives us of the possibility of making moral sense of the story.  It is ignored, presumably because it is considered irrelevant.  Yet, the whole point of the story appears to be the question of whether Jex is a bad man or a good one... with the answer being, of course, "yes".  But I'd argue that the wider social context of Jex's actions (beyond just saying that 'it was war') is as important as it is obscure.

The notion - that war is, as Jex puts it, "a different world" in which normality shifts drastically and morality becomes fuzzy - is, for a start, a somewhat glib truism.  Like all such glib truisms, it can be pressed into service (i.e. "Yes, an invasion will kill lots of Iraqi people... but we have to do something; Saddam has WMD!!!") or ignored (i.e. "Those Muslamic terrorists are killing Our Boys!!!  Why do they hate us???") according to ideological needs and preferences.

Kryten would find it easier to get rid of the Apocalypse Boys
now that he'd been assimilated by the Borg.

'A Town Called Mercy' actually tries to hone in on questions of moral ambiguity, and to try to represent that ambiguity in a sustained way, which is actually fairly good going for the series (at this time).  Usual practice for Moffat-era Who is to suggest extremely crude, superficially worrying moral equivalences in dialogue which are then papered-over by the actual behaviour of the Doctor and his gang (whom we might want to start calling 'Our Boys and Girls', since it is assumed that they deserve 'our' support whatever they do).  'Mercy', by contrast, briefly shows the lead characters in genuine quandries about what to do for the best.  Sadly, however, vital information is omitted from their calculations... and the omissions are interesting.

As I say, it's not exactly an earth-shattering observation that a basically good guy can do horrible things.  Orwell begins The Lion & The Unicorn - written during the Blitz - with a passage saying that, as he writes, civilised people are flying overhead trying to kill him.  The pilot in the bomber, Orwell remarks, "is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."

Jex is, of course, serving his 'country', so to speak.  But is he from Space Poland or from the empire of the Space Nazis?  To translate into geek: is he as much of a Bajoran as he seems, or is he a Cardassian?  Or is the situation more complex than that?  Is it more like America vs Japan?  Two rival empires clashing.  One the overt aggressor, but the other also implicated in bringing the conflict on via, say, provocation.

It matters.  War crimes are never excusable, of course... except that they are  excused.  All the time.  They're excused as long as they're 'ours', whoever 'we' happen to be.  In fact, if they're 'ours', they tend to not even be noticed, let alone excused.  When they cannot be ignored or straight-facedly excused (i.e. the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) they are ideologically neutralised as aberrations, quickly corrected by the putatively aggressive questioning of a Media who are actually pussycats sitting on the laps of the powerful and purring for bellyrubs.  The odd playful scratch does not a ferocious tiger make... and anything more than the odd playful scratch might endanger the reliable supply of Kit-e-Kat.

However, it is simply not enough to know that a horrible act was committed, to condemn it and leave it at that.  Atrocities are never excusable, but context must make us view violence committed in defence, or in the cause of liberation, differently to how we view violence committed by the aggressors... if only so that we can make intelligible sense of what is actually happening.

International law draws distinctions, at least formally:

 2. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle

- United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978

People have the moral right to use violence against their occupiers, to use any means available to rid themselves of those who have invaded their territory.  There is, of course, no such thing as 'legal terrorism' (though terrorism is subject to definition)... except that, once again, there is.  Terrorism is, generally, legal when it is committed by the powerful against the powerless.  State terrorism is so legal, it isn't even seen as terrorism at all.  'Terrorism' is something done by people with bolt-cutters or homemade bombs or hijacked jumbo jets.  Worse atrocities carried out by states (and/or their hired thugs) are called 'counterterrorism' or 'counter insurgency', etc.  The US government can organise genocidal levels of violence against those regimes of which it disapproves and this doesn't count.

Again, our culture tends to see these sorts of issues clearly enough when looking at the French Resistance, but runs into difficulty acknowledging the exact same principle with regards to the Iraqi Resistance.  It all comes down to who's side 'we' are on... or rather, who is on 'our' side.  Since 'we' are, by definition and by common sense, the goodies, then our friends must, ipso facto, be goodies too... goodies don't ally with baddies, after all... and so those who attack 'our' friends must, logically, be baddies.  This is what responsible journalists call 'living in the real world'.

Israel, for instance, is 'our' ally, ergo Israel is 'the only democracy in the Middle East', constantly fighting for its life against evil-minded Arab aggressors... despite the fact that Israel is a war-starting, avowedly racist, settler-colonial Apartheid state, existing in clear breach of international law (it holds territory it acquired through aggressive war) which is capable of nuclear devastation that Iran can only daydream about. (By the way... it is sometimes argued that the attitude of the Western left towards Israel - i.e. obsessing over it while paying less attention to equally bad or worse states elsewhere - is a mirror image of the hypocrisy of the Western establishment... but this ignores the fact that one has a greater moral obligation to protest the actions of ones own state than those of others, and Israel simply could not do what it does without the funding and support of the US and UK.  One wouldn't pay much heed to the wife of a serial killer who said "well, it's all very well, all these people going on about my husband... but what about Robert Mugabe?!"  We would rightly construe this as a distraction.)

Terrorism is never excusable, but it always has context... and the context is usually one of power relations.  It would be a travesty (as purblind as it is common) to simply wag a moralising finger at atrocities like suicide bombings by Palestinians in Tel Aviv without properly contextualising and historicising them, i.e. without properly explaining why they occur.  It's terribly easy to condemn things.  It's much harder to historicise them, especially when history doesn't support our ideological convictions.  Contrary to myth, it's not just people like me who have ideological convictions.  Even those who trumpet their own supposed scepticism are usually riddled with unexamined and unacknowledged ideology.  People like Sam Harris, for instance, would have us believe (using anecdotal examples of individual cases) that such attacks occur simply because of the intoxicating effects of Islamic dogma... leaving out the evidence which shows that suicide bombing is almost invariably a product of political anger in response to tyranny, despair, injustice and helplessness... say, in the face of the continued, illegal, violent, occupation of Palestine by the Israelis, or of the American occupation of Iraq.  This doesn't 'excuse' suicide bombing (whatever 'excuse' could possibly mean in this context) but it does historicise and contextualise it... in a way that shows the historical and political culpability of those moralisers who do so much to create the conditions for it.

Part of the problem with talking about this issue is what we might call the make-the-foundation-of-this-society-a-man-who-never-would fallacy: that to make moral judgements is the same thing as to moralise.  The assumption is one of moral absolutes, which are generally decried while being tacitly employed (including, of course, by me)... in much the same way that we tend to think of 'situational ethics' as lacking integrity, despite the fact that ethical judgements always depend upon situation.  Making moral judgements doesn't need to involve expressing categorical disapproval.  (The 'Thou Shalt Not!' model of ethics is far from the oldest and most venerable.)  Nor is the flipside true; to make moral distinctions is not to excuse.  People who'll tell you that it was 'moral relativism' to equate US/UK aggression against Iraq to, say, German aggression against Poland, are themselves the real moral relativists, because they see crimes committed by 'us' as being somehow less immoral than the same crime committed by another.  As I've implied, similar crimes are not always morally equivalent... but the key issue for parsing this is the issue of power.  Who has it and what are they using it for?  For instance, domestic violence is sometimes committed by women against men, and this is inexcusable... but it would be intellectually and politically dishonest to forget the context.  We live in a patriarchal society soaked in rape culture; males still have enormous social, financial, cultural, political advantages; domestic violence (and violence generally) by men against women is much more common; etc.

The moral status of unprovoked aggression by states is very clear according to international law going back to the Nuremberg trials.  It is the supreme war crime because it contains within itself all the crimes that always follow from invasion and occupation: theft, torture, rape, murder, etc.  That's why, as Chomsky observed, every US President in the post-WWII era would have been hanged if such tenets of international law were applicable to the most powerful empire of the post-war period.  As it happens, they were inapplicable from the start.  Axis criminals were simply not charged with crimes that were also committed by the Allies (i.e. indiscriminate terrorist bombing of civillians) precisely because the framers of the Nuremberg laws didn't want to set dangerous precedents.

The Doctor sometimes does the things that his enemies are portrayed as evil for doing.  Genocide, for example, in 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.  There is an extent, however, to which any attempt to put the Doctor's actions in 'Remembrance' into real world terms is always going to fail politically... since only the fantastical scale of the Dalek threat can possibly justify what he does.  In the real world, there is no level of threat or oppression which could justify genocide... the key point here being that any force in the real world capable of genocide on that scale would be, by definition, an immensely powerful political/economic/military imperialism.  By posessing the Hand, the Doctor becomes powerful himself.  In reality, the victims are never as powerful as the victimisers.  The reason 'we' want to attack Iran rather than, say, North Korea, is precisely because 'we' know that 'they' can't  chuck nukes at us.

It's likely that anybody capable of supplying Jex with the technical, technological, monetary and 'human' resources to create the Gunslinger would have to be pretty powerful.  It would've been nice to know for sure one way or the other, but my bet would be on Jex being from an imperialist power of some kind.  Modern warfare is always imperialistic when it isn't defensive.  So should Jex be killed?  I certainly wouldn't want to preach to the Gunslinger about morality.  I'd be much more inclined to think he had the right to decide than the Doctor.  Thing is, I just don't find this question particularly interesting.  Neither a 'yes' nor a 'no' answer changes anything or achieves anything real.  It gets us nowhere.  The question is strangely empty.  Debating the morality of hanging the Nuremberg defendants doesn't help us understand the rise of fascism or the imperialist nature of the European conflagration they helped oversee.  Hanging Blair in Fallujah wouldn't stop the system he represents creating any more Fallujahs.  Does he deserve to swing?  I don't really care.  It's a fundamentally uninteresting question.  We end up back with that old question about whether the ends justify the means?  Well, that's a no-brainer, obviously.  Yes, possibly, sometimes - it depends on the context.  That's assuming, of course, that the question is asked honestly... which it usually isn't.  Usually, all that needs to be ascertained by the commissar to whom the question has been posed, is who did what.  It's like that other cliche, about how "I was just following orders" is no defence.  In real-world ideological discourse, when 'we' (whoever 'we' are) were just following orders, then that's fair enough... and it constitutes extremist lunacy to even think otherwise.

I'd like to know about the context of the orders Jex got, and the context in which he obeyed them.  The episode, however, neglects to mention any of that.  It is clearly considered that a debate about the ethics of war can be carried out without such context.  I disagree.  I want to know.  Not because I want to know if Jex is 'good' or 'bad' (unlike the writer/s, I don't think these things can be settled so easily... certainly not by an act of self-sacrifice which doesn't actually change anything from the past one iota) but because I want to understand the political meaning of what transpires.  Sadly, like so much of 21st century Doctor Who, particularly under Moffat, 'Mercy' simply doesn't possess an interior political context. 

'A Town Called Mercy' actually does comparatively well in its awareness that morality depends upon context, that the social context of an act can alter its meaning, that the social context of a person can alter his or her moral status, etc.  It permits Jex to be both a 'war criminal' and to be capable of more than that.  Moreover, it allows the Gunslinger to do much the same.  Having been a victim, he becomes an attacker (the point is not that he attacks his tormentors but that he then attacks the town of Mercy) and then, later, to become the town's protector.

However, ultimately, the story flounders on lack of context.  What, one feels like demanding, was the context for Jex's actions?  The Doctor's initial enthusiasm for his people doesn't mean they were necessarily the victims of aggression (he's enthusiastic about America during the Vietnam war, when Nixon was dropping more tonnage of bombs than were dropped during WWII on the peasants of South East Asia).  It isn't that there may be some justification for having mutilated and murdered people, but that there may be some wider political and moral context which will help us to understand how he came to do such things.  Even if he was on the attacking side, I'd like to know about the culture which created a situation in which he got caught up in such a venture.  Was he an enthusiastic volunteer, like so many of the doctors who formed the single largest professional group within the SS?  Was he one of those 'ordinary men' who found themselves committing extraordinary atrocities out of an inability to resist social pressure?  Was he propagandized into accepting a pernicious ideology that he now rejects?  I'd really like to know this stuff.  This interests me, far more than a scene where the Doctor lectures the assembled townspeople (most of whom are, natch, fickle moral cowards) about non-violence.

This leads me to another issue.  The Doctor straps on guns when he becomes the Sheriff.  Well, I'm not a pacifist so I don't have an objection to that per se.  I'm not one of those people who wants the Doctor to be inherently non violent.  However, it does make me think of The Prisoner  episode 'Living in Harmony' (you know, the Western one).  This episode was not shown on American TV at the time.  The official reason was that it featured mind-altering drugs... but this is unconvincing, given how many episodes which did make it onto US TV also featured mind-altering drugs. The real reason, as Robert Fairclough has argued, is probably the anti-war subtext of the episode in the context of the Vietnam war and the protest movement against it.  It was just too near the knuckle.  An episode which evokes the primal myth of America (the Wild West), in which the hero refuses to strap on a six-shooter.  Now, context changes things.  I'm not, as I say, a pacifist, but 'Living in Harmony' acquires a political charge that is thrilling in the context of that moment of history, in which a generation were marching for peace.  So it's disappointing that, in the context of British and US troops still engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, Doctor Who does a Western in which the Doctor straps on his six-shooter without a qualm.

He also pins on that sheriff's badge eagerly too... which is a sign of the times, like his unworried acceptance of the Tesselecta's assertion that, like them, he stands for 'law and order'.  Who's law?  Who's order?  And are the two things necessarily linked, or even desirable.  Lots of laws are pretty fucking awful, precisely because of who's interests they serve.  There's that missing political context again.  What a gaping hole its absence leaves in a story that specifically tries to examine these issues!

Of course, blaming Steven Moffat or Toby Whithouse for this would be to miss the point rather.  They're not there to make political statements but to make fantasy TV.  That the fantasy TV they make seems depressingly conformist and apolitical (meaning, in practice, apologetical for powerful interests and prejudices) is, to a large extent, the fault of a society that has, by and large, abandoned anti-war activism and protest.  That's not to say that protest has disappeared, but we're a long way from the big march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  If people don't mind their country being engaged in murderous imperialism, then their fictional cultural heroes are not going to reflect any unease about it.  Like everything good, such anger and protest must flow upwards from the bottom.  Steven Moffat - and the media culture he embodies - isn't going to be pushed to the left by its own conscience.  Some hope.  Meanwhile, in the absence of any countervailing tendency, capitalist media culture drifts ever rightwards.

You know, a recent survey has suggested that most British people think the invasion of Iraq caused the deaths of under 10,000 people. The evidence seems to show that the actual figure is probably between 600,000 and a million... which is without calculating the death toll of the first Gulf War or the sanctions regime that Britain supported. This fact alone should shame the British out of producing or watching any televisual morality fables about war ever again. Really... just who the bloody hell do we think we are, swaggering around the globe, annihilating people for the convenience of the American imperium and for neoliberalism's access to markets, and then entertaining ourselves (and improving our children's morals) with comfortingly smug little homilies about war?

The anodyne smugness is a function of the lack of context.  And it gets everywhere, into even the most frivolous bits of narrative culture.  Leaving out the context and the history is an essential ideological tool of the capitalist media.  This is how the Israel/Palestine 'conflict' is portrayed as being about 'two tribes' who can't get on.  Every news report that tuts over 'conflict' in the West Bank or Gaza takes, essentially, the same tack as 'A Town Called Mercy' (and other Doctor Who  texts, including many from the classic series) in the way it presents us with a tragic drama about the horror of war, etc., while neatly and discreetly editing out any context which will help us make moral sense of it all.  The moral sense is always inextricably bound up with the political and historical sense.  That's why the capitalist culture industry usually thinks we don't need to know the context.

Punishing Viewing

Something I wrote a while ago, somewhat rewritten.  I'm re-posting it to mark the release of 'The Mind of Evil' on DVD.  In brief, being in colour doesn't make it any better.

There is a very old idea about ‘human nature’, that we are born with certain social characteristics already implanted or programmed in our brains, usually inherited from our parents and ancestors. You will find this idea laced throughout the whole of modern Western culture. Ruffians and villains in Conan Doyle are often said to have "vile antecedents". Oliver Twist is incapable of being a pickpocket because, despite being raised in a pauper's orphanage, he is a middle class child displaced amongst the scum classes. Similarly (because J.K. Rowling is nothing if not studiedly unoriginal) Harry Potter is filled with love just like his late mum, despite being systematically emotionally and psychologically abused up to the age of 11.  I could go on at great length.

This conception of human nature (please take the quote marks as read whenever I use that phrase) is directly and inextricably linked to class, and to questions of social role, crime, etc. It is still claimed today that people end up in prison because they have inborn tendencies which lead them there. These days we use the language of genetics. Before genes, people used the language of blood. Before that, people used the language of the Bible. The medieval church claimed that drastic and dreadful social divisions were justified because people were born into one category or the other, based on their bloodline. They were the descendents of Cain or Seth, and thus carried the blood of a vile murderer or a goody-two-shoes. Of course, the idea that the peasants were peasants because they had murderer's blood doesn't account for the massive amount of warmongering and killing and torturing and executing done by the supposed descendents of Seth (i.e the Kings and Dukes and whathaveyou). Of course, even today a great deal of chin-scratching cogitation goes into deciding what genetic factors might be causing black urban gun crime... while nobody wonders if the carpet-bombing Prime Minister must have killer genes. And, as John Ball pointed out, if we're all descended from Cain or Seth, that also means we're all descended from (non-murdering) Adam and Eve... so how does that work?

As many thinkers have pointed out, being in prison isn't necessarily a mark of violence or evil (or even, in many cases, actual criminality) so much as a mark of refusing to play your assigned social role. It starts in childhood, with kids medicated for personality disorders for such heinous sins as "disrespecting authority" etc. Also, prisons are a massive system of social control and punitive reinforcement. Vast numbers of people in the American prison system today (which increasingly resembles a kind of privatised system of gulags) are there for non-violent drug crimes. There are many examples of, for instance, disabled people sent away for life because they were caught with a few ounces of weed that they obtained to use personally as a palliative. Meanwhile, the captains of finance who devastate our world and societies, or the politicians who demolish populations in the Middle East, somehow mysteriously avoid trial and incarceration.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I don't like 'The Mind of Evil'.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that we're born without any innate characteristics. We're all born with the grabbing reflex, with "face recognition software", possibly with syntax (if you believe some people), etc... and we're probably capable of being born with the innate set of mental aptitudes that can lead to, say, musical ability, etc. But the tendency - even amongst people who, for instance, edit the journal Science or flog lots of popular science books - is to talk about "genes for homelessness" (which wouldn't be the only silly thing that Matt Ridley believes) or "genes for crime". "Crime" is artificially essentialized into something called, say, "aggression" or "anti-social behaviour" and all sorts of varied and contingent social behaviours are artificially lumped together under this term, while others (the warmongering of leaders, for instance, or the drug dealing of big tobacco firms) are mysteriously ignored, presumably because they are seen as inherently non-criminal.

There's a very interesting (and largely amicable) discussion about this stuff between Richard Dawkins and Steven Rose, here. I particularly like the fact that Rose is wearing a long, multi-coloured scarf.

It’s been pointed out to me that there’s nothing in the story that directly implies that the prisoners are ‘born bad’. They might, it is suggested, just as well contract the evil via their experiences. Well, okay, but that is still hugely reductionist. I’m no fonder of environmental or social or economic determinism than I am of genetic determinism. And the serial depicts prison simplistically as a place where violent, selfish, ruthless, brutal thugs go. No other perspective is even nodded at. We have to confront the text as it stands, and that is where it stands.

Plus, in a story that features an American ambassador during the time of the Vietnam war... well, the show seems completely unaware of any idea that an American ambassador during the Vietnam war (or a Chinese ambassador during the reign of Mao, for that matter) would probably be directly or indirectly complicit in more murder, destruction, violence, rape and torture than all the crims in Stangmore combined. Imperialism is even namechecked at one point... as a bit of rhetorical Maoist flim-flam for the Brigadier to smirk at.

None of this would be quite so bad if the story didn't also revolve around a dirty big nuclear missile. The cumulative impression is the standard bit of wishy-washy liberal twaddle about "oooh, the darkness of mankind... oooh, there's violence in us and that's why we have nukes and stuff...". Crime can't possibly stem from alienation caused by hierarchical and unjust societies, nor is it something that leaders do too... these notions are completely beyond the story's ken.  Crime is something that people with Evil in their heads do, and people like that go to prison. If you're in prison, you're Bad. It's that simple. This is implicit. Also implicit is the assumption that humans are clockwork oranges.  Use technology to remove the Evil from the brain and the brain will function properly again.  A 'properly' functioning brain, at least for the working class, seems to be a brain that makes you mild, quiet, childlike and inclined to doglike obedience.

If the story was intended as a 'homage' to A Clockwork Orange, it seriously misunderstood that text.  Whatever its faults, Burgess' story understands that behaviour is more than just mechanistic conditioning.

Also implicit is the notion that the weapons of mass destruction with which imperialists threaten the planet are not economic phenomena, or chips in a power play, or actualisations of the conflict inherent in capitalist competition between states, but expressions of our collective guilt, our original sin as a species. My question, as ever, is: who's "we"? 

Judging by the story's racial and gender politics, 'we' are the Westerners, lead by proper male, ruling-class authority.  Chin-Lee, being both Chinese and a woman, is a puppet.  Meanwhile, the ultimate horror - at least as far as the American Senator Alcott is concerned - is that this deadly combination of sneaky otherness - the Eastern, the Communist, the woman - will bare its fangs and burn 'us' all with its breath.  If 'we' have to worry about the working class getting uppitty as well, 'we' are in serious trouble. 

In other words, this is a classic bit of reactionary Cold War ideology, albeit mediated through the Doctor's occasional bouts of scepticism. 

Still, at least it looks colourful now.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Hulking Metaphors

From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.  Slightly edited.

There’s no ambiguity about the dinosaurs in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs'. They’re rubbish. In other respects, however, this is a deeply ambiguous tale. The ambiguity allows the script to make some scathingly ironic political observations, but ultimately leads us to a very bleak and bitter place.

this story, contrasting with other scripts from the period, the eco-activists are the ‘baddies’. It’s like Malcolm Hulke, influenced by the decline of the radicalism of the 60s and early 70s, was reacting against the whole idea of changing the world. It’s possible to read the people on the (space)ship of fools as a jaundiced parody of the left: a tiny, closed-off, self-appointed vanguard who plan to “guide” others while ruthlessly policing their own internal orthodoxy. But they’re also like Daily Mail  readers, with their “pure bread”, their plaintive cries of “I sold my house!” and their TV room where they can go to tut at the modern world. The film in the Reminder Room blames protestors even as it shows them being truncheoned. Ruth seems more worried by “moral degradation” and “permissiveness” than she is by the mercury in the fish.

e script is full of such queasy ironies. For instance, the conspirators oppose and blame technology, but their plans depend upon it. Whitaker’s Time Scoop is high-tech stuff, powered by a nuclear reactor. We need hardly comment on the absurdity of a man sitting in a spaceship (as he thinks), waggling hand-made wooden kitchenware as proof of his non-technological simplicity! Such idealising of the pre-industrial is undermined by the medieval peasant accidentally caught in the Time Scoop. He speaks of getting his priest to burn a ‘witch’. Meanwhile his king is off sacking the Holy Land. Some Golden Age! But then feudal standards of law and order would probably be quite convivial to General Finch, a man eager to use live rounds on looters.

Are these people radicals or reactionaries? Seemingly, they’re both. However, the leaders of the conspiracy can be summed up by their prefixes. Rt Hon, General, Professor, Captain. They hide in a bunker designed to protect the government during a nuclear war. They will emerge safely after they have obliterated the world, just as the politicians of the Cold War planned to. They are the establishment, the powerful, the privileged. This is the brontosaurus in the room. Even the fake spaceship is run by ‘Elders’, one of whom is a peer.

But who are the REAL dinosaurs?  Eh?  Hmm?  Yeah?  Makes you think, doesn't it.

Moreover, the plan of the ship-people sounds like colonialism. In the novelisation, Sarah even compares them to the Pilgrim Fathers. They will, so they think, “guide” the “simple, pastoral people” of “New Earth”. These refugees from civilisation will bring civilisation to the natives. They assume that right. They despise the ‘evils’ of modernity, yet take it for granted that they won’t replicate them because – and this is the unspoken basis of their whole plan – those evils are somebody else’s fault. Looters, meanwhile, can be shot for their “greed”, the abstract original sin (in others) that the conspirators seem to blame for everything.

This story doesn’t counterpose establishment reactionaries with middle-to-upper class hippydom; it depicts them as intertwined, as equally cynical or deluded. A disillusioned ex-Communist might’ve come to see a similar deluded cynicism in his own political background. This, I think, is why the ship-people are simultaneously vulgar Leninists, Puritans (complete with Biblical names), Mary Whitehouse types and ringers for that couple in The Good Life. A spectrum of ideologies – blue, red, Green - are tacitly implicated as lumbering dinosaurs: outdated, ungainly, but deadly. One dinosaur might fight another, but they’re all essentially monsters (deeply unconvincing ones at that), and people get squashed under their scaly feet as they rampage through the world.

This is Hulke’s darkest, most nihilistic story. It contrasts sharply with 'The War Games', which he co-wrote during a high point of worldwide protest. Hulke’s last Who script reeks of disappointment. In it, the Doctor proclaims (as tritely as the conspirators) that the real problem is “greed”. However, the script seems to say that the real real problem is belief. Belief in anything.

Unhappy Soldiers (The 1917 Zone - Part 2)

On 'The War Games'. From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.

The last Doctor Who story of the 1960s is the high point of the show’s attempts to engage with the radicalism of that era. It was made just as the worldwide protests against the Vietnam war reached a crescendo. It’s been called an ‘anti-war’ story, but this is wrong. It’s an anti-imperialist story and, up until the last episodes, it supports revolution.

Pacifism is not advocated. Carstairs uses his pistol to protect the Ambulance and the Doctor never bats an eyelid. The Resistance kill guards all over the place. The Doctor’s aim for much of the story is to raise an army to fight the aliens. 'The War Games' supports revolutionary violence.

The violence that 'The War Games' condemns is that of imperialism. The aim of the aliens is conquest. That’s all that lies beneath everything that goes on in their War Zones. Meanwhile, ‘Butcher’ Smythe and von Weich amuse themselves playing Risk with human lives. It goes beyond noticing that top brass can be callous. The British and German commanding officers have more in common with each other than with their men. They are fundamentally different – alien – to the grunts whose lives they control and squander. They report to the same system of aggressive expansion, and both keep their communication devices hidden behind portraits of their monarchs. Under patriotism, imperialism lurks.

This is really about class. The generals are one class, the soldiers are another. Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are posh but, otherwise, the soldiers in 'The War Games' are the workers (and peasants) of the world. They’re pawns on the board of the ‘great game’. The map of the War Zones even looks like a game board. Those soldiers who throw off their mental processing (ie the ideology of their rulers) start cooperating across lines of nationality and race. Russell looks like he comes from a British imperial war of the 19th century, but he treats Harper, a black man, as a trusted ally. They even start to overcome sexism. Zoe lectures Arturo Villa about tactics and forces him to listen. Kidding aside, Jamie supports her. When the soldiers fight together instead of against each other – like Jamie and the Redcoat with whom he’s imprisoned – they can end the war. That’s why the First World War Zone is constantly referred to as “the 1917 Zone”, because it was in 1917 that a revolution in Russia started a chain of events which lead to a revolt against the Kaiser and the end of the slaughter.

Terrance Dicks’ story about people on a game board (which he tells repeatedly) probably got inflected with revolutionary politics via ex-communist Malcolm Hulke. 1968 re-radicalised him, it seems. However, in the end, although the Doctor’s vanguard conquers the imperialist stronghold and stops the war, they don’t take over. Instead, the Doctor calls in the ‘good’ establishment to clear up after the ‘bad’ establishment. The Resistance will end up back in their ‘real’ wars, their minds wiped of the internationalism and solidarity they learned through struggle. Dumped back in Scotland in 1745, his memory altered, Jamie goes back to attacking Redcoats rather than teaming up with them.  In fairness, he is ousting an invader, but this turnabout still highlights faultlines in the radical subtext. The Resistance is never a mass movement. There’s elitism in the idea that only a superior few can see through the brainwashing. The Doctor’s aim turns out to be reformist rather than revolutionary. He collaborates with the forces of law and order to curb the worst excesses and then put things back the way they were. So Russell, for instance, will go back to his imperialist war without any memory of his alliance with a black comrade.

All the same, this story remains remarkably radical in its portrayal of war as a great conspiracy of conquest, perpetrated by a cynical ruling elite to whom all generals on all sides belong, reliant on the brainwashing of the ordinary soldiers who - if they only realise it - can stop the whole thing by cooperating in revolution. Perhaps this sort of thing was only possible in 1969. Perhaps.

Happy Workers

From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.  Slightly expanded.

Some people say that 'The Macra Terror' is about holiday camps, but I think there’s more to it than that. The Colony is obsessed with work. It organises communal entertainment, but this seems to consist of revues about how great it is to be worker. The aim is to make people “happy to work”. These people are not on holiday.

The surveillance and brainwashing suggests totalitarianism, but the area where Barney provides makeovers looks less like Russia and more like a health spa or a salon on a Western high street. Polly is told she’ll win a competition that sounds like Miss World (which the U.S.S.R. disdained until 1989). The Pilot sits at a desk attended by a secretary, looking like a sitcom businessman. Ola’s guards look like the kind of American or British riot police who were, by this time, often being seen on the news, clashing with demonstrators.

.The key to understanding this strange tale is the fact that, by 1967, a lot of people saw tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain. In the 60s, Western society was largely prosperous but also lived in the shadow of the bomb, of Vietnam, of racial and sexual discrimination. There was inequality, protest and repression. In 1967, the turbulence was just about to peak. The media might have presented Western culture as happy, free, even ‘swinging’, but the counter-culture began to critique mass advertising and P.R. as methods of thought control. Trendy theorists like Herbert Marcuse identified totalitarian currents within capitalism and saw consumerism as creating alienation. (It's interesting, in light of this, how often Doctor Who - a product of the 60s after all - combines its strongest hints at a critique of capitalism with the aesthetics of totalitarianism, i.e. 'The Sun Makers', 'The Happiness Patrol'. This is also interesting in light of the analysis of Stalinism which sees it as a bureaucratic form of state capitalism.)

'The Macra Terror' is perhaps Doctor Who’s earliest attempt to engage with the radical 60s. The Colony is mainstream Britain in denial. The Colony media seems very ‘ITV matey’ but also quite ‘BBC formal’. Both the commercial and state style conspire to keep the drones chirpy. The main work is gas mining. In 1967, Britain was switching over to North Sea gas. It was all part of Britain’s prosperous future, if everyone would just pull together, work hard and keep smiling. The protestors and hippies were just spoiling things.

The big problem with Medok is that he isn’t happy. He talks about the Macra. They represent the repressed knowledge that something is very wrong with society. They’re everywhere but are unseen. Nobody believes in them but everyone knows their name. People who talk about them are silenced with telling desperation. When the Colonists do see them, they remain uncertain whether they are insects or bacteria… interestingly, the only suggestion nobody makes is that they are crabs. The Doctor calls them germs in the brain of society. They are the unease beneath the fixed smile.

The Macra are the reason why the humans mine gas they don’t need. The implication is that totalitarianism and capitalism not only use similar methods of thought control, but both demand that people work, happily, not for their own benefit but for monstrous, hidden, incomprehensible… possibly even insane reasons. Even the establishment (and the British government in 1967 was Labour) works for them, without realising it.

In the end though, despite the Doctor’s gleeful anarchism, the Colony without Macra seems indistinguishable from the Colony with Macra. The repressed knowledge is faced, the hidden exploiters are defeated, and society remains the same. We can’t help feeling that the colonists will go on obeying rules and whistling while they work. You have to wonder if maybe the Macra weren’t the cause of the problem but just took advantage of it. If they were germs, they thrived in a social wound that was already festering. However, the end of the story seems to endorse the Colony. The wrong people (if we can call them that) were in Control, that’s all.

As the decade progressed, later stories would imply even more radical critiques of Western society, but they’d all come to similar diffident conclusions.


1. There is also a view of 'The Macra Terror' which sees it as an apologia for colonialism. The Doctor unquestioningly uses lethal force to protect a colony from natives. I find this unconvincing because, of all the valences the Macra take on, race seems a very muted one... although I don't dispute that the story reflects British unease about the dissolution of its empire in the post-war period. If the Macra are the disposessed natives, the story has a paranoid view of how settler-colonial states work that is borderline terrifying in its lack of relation to reality.

2. I've gone into the Macra in greater detail, with special reference to how they evoke the Gothic mode in a quasi-Weird way, here and here.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dreams About Unicorns

On 'The Mind Robber'.  A regurgitation of something originally buried in the middle of an old post.

1. The Review

Just one of the best things ever, this story is a gloriously trippy metafictional journey into Doctor Who's own status as a text.

'Robber' picks up the Troughton era handbook for writers, stamps on it, scrawls insulting and anarchistic slogans upon its pages, rips it up and sets fire to the pieces. There is no isolated base, no croaky computer, no catalgue of disposable characters who are laser-beamed to death, no unstable authority figure, no creeping infiltration, no standard fight sequence for Jamie, no scene where someone goes into a bonkers tirade and storms out of a control centre... instead we have a deeply trippy ride through sheer weirdness; a totally unpredictable variation of content, style and pace from episode to episode; an intelligently created elllision of symbolism and literalism; a classic surreal quest narrative drawing on Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland yet beholden to neither.

The Doctor and his friends leave their universe and enter a non-spatial, non-temporal buffer zone... and this buffer zone is a world of fiction. An empty nothingness until imagination works upon it, it soon fills with robots and unicorns and princesses and forests of words.

They've landed in a metaphysical space instead of a physical one, and the threats they encounter are metaphysical too - they run the risk of being translated into other identities, of losing their faces, of being turned into bit players in other people's stories, of being made into fiction themselves (which, as this story constantly reminds us by constantly saying the opposite, they already are).

They are stalked by the ultimate variety of faceless, functional, baddie goons: toy soldiers. As if to swipe at the mechanical nature of so much scriptwriting, these goons have got dirty great wind-up keys sticking out of their backs. In this story, the ultimate threat is to become the functional plaything of the desperate hack writer. The soldiers not only hunt our heroes, they also represent what our heroes are threatened with (both literally and figuratively): being clockwork cyphers who just 'go' when the lazy writer winds them up and sets them off.

And this is the central threat, even of the somewhat contrived Earth-invasion plot that surfaces towards the end. Mankind would become fiction. Ironically enough, via the creative imagination, we'd all be stripped of our free will. We'd be crushed inside the pages of a book by a domineering Master Brain that controls even the writer with a stentorian bark that is channelled through his own mouth. That's what it would be like to be a character in someone else's book, or a fact pushed around by someone else's editor, or a mortal pushed around by a god (which is exactly what a writer looks like from the point-of-view of a character).

This is Doctor Who investigating its own nature as part imagineering stream-of-consciousness fantasy, part lumbering and mechanical genre hack-work. This is Doctor Who investigating its own origins in myth and legend, in children's fiction and historical romance, in satire and allegory. The Doctor wanders around in a pseudo-Narnia. The Doctor solves the kinds of puzzles to be found in kid's annuals. The Doctor becomes Perseus. The Doctor co-writes a face-off between a succession of heroes and villains who are part historical reality and part fictional confabulation (Blackbeard, Cyrano, etc). And the Doctor meets Gulliver.

It cannot be an accident that Gulliver is one of the Doctor's own antecedents in fiction: a restless traveller who finds himself banked on foreign shores where he encounters strange people and uncanny creatures representing human foibles and political follies. Swift's story is often mistaken for pure escapism for kids, but is packed with the bitterest and darkest satirical comments on human politics and behaviour... very much like Doctor Who, though ironically enough not for most of the Troughton era up until this point.

Perhaps, above all, the thing to admire most about 'Robber' is that it triumphantly makes the best of its behind-the-scenes problems. An extra episode needed at the last minute? Just get Derrick to write a new Episode 1 featuring only the regular cast! Result? One of the most unusual and sinister openings of the show's history. Frazer's got the lurgy? No trouble, just write a temporary change of actor into the script! Result? One of the most amusing, memorable and strangely unsettling events ever depicted by the series.

Now that, we must surely all agree, is the sheerest of sheer class.

2.  The Attempt at Marxist Analysis

It occurs to me that 'The Mind Robber' can also be read as being about aliention and reification in the Marxist senses of those words.

The Master of the Land of Fiction is clearly offering the Doctor a job when he asks him to take his place. He even refers to it as a "responsible position". He (the Master) is clearly the servant or employee of the Master Brain. He was also a paid employee of Ensign magazine, churning out thousands and thousands of words for them to print and sell. In other words, he was (and still is) a worker. He toiled to produce a product, was paid a wage and (presumably) watched as others pocketed the profits. Whatever the Master Brain (and the power it represents) gets out of running the Land of Fiction, the Master clearly doesn't see any of the coin.

You can argue about whether writing stories constitutes "socially necessary labour" (I'd say that it does, personally... human culture is in many ways based on stories and it's pretty clear that we need them in order to be fully human... they're part of what the young Marx called our "species-being"... which is something that the Land of Fiction implies by its very existence) but clearly the Master spends much more time than he really needs to churning out all those words. His labour creates a surplus which is pocketed by the publishers... or a profit of some kind that is taken by the Master Brain.

Moreover, the necessities of the market demanded that he write a certain type of story, commercial adventure stories which may not really express his full creativity. (Certainly, the story as a whole strongly hints at a feeling that trite adventures involving handy swords and with-one-bound-he-was-free endings are highly unsatisfactory. It hints at this in an ironic and self-aware way, as it must.) Similarly, in the Land, the Master tries to construct a story about the Doctor and his friends that pleases the power he serves... a story that the Doctor resists being a part of, partly by rejecting handy swords.

On Earth, his stories would have risen up to confront him as a vast block of printed type, as piles of magazines, as things outside of himself or his control... that's what happens when workers make things under capitalism. They are not expressions of his creativity exercised for its own sake; they are not the produce of an unexploited person and a free producer... unless the person happens to be lucky enough to be a financially independent artist or something like that. Similarly, the work he does in the Land is not an expression of his unalienated self-expression. He works for the Master Brain and works to produce the effects it desires. (You could almost see the Master Brain as a personification - thus a reification, in the Marxist sense - of the market itself, which is so often treated or spoken of as a kind of infallible god which should be allowed to rule society for our own good.)

In short, the Master fits (broadly) the Marxist picture of the worker who is alienated from his species-being and from the products of his labour.

He is clearly a slave to the Master Brain. As such, he's really as menaced by the Land of Fiction as the Doctor. He is confronted by products of human intellectual labour in the form of books, characters from books, characters from folklore (the telling and retelling of legends is a human production as much as anything else), wind-up soldiers, etc. In the Land, words (themselves human productions) confront humans as things outside of human control, as trees and forests. Books - commodities produced by labour - attack and threaten to swallow you. If that isn't a way of depicting alienation, of humans estranged and menaced by the products of their own labour, then I don't know what is.

Capitalism materialises the labour of humans into commodities with use-values and exchange values (i.e. books and magazines), thus reifying human labour time. The Land of Fiction takes it further, continuing the process of reification until the characters (themselves commodities and products of labour) are fully materialised, to the point where they walk about and speak for themselves. Again, alienation is depicted when the product of human labour materialised in the form of the Karkus attacks the Doctor and Zoe.

Alienation appears in another way when Zoe and Jamie are "turned into fiction" and appear before the Doctor as blank, empty cyphers who get stuck in the grooves of their dialogue. They've been alienated from their human nature by being made into a commodity (fiction being a commodity, remember). They start behaving like stuck records, like people on an assembly line suffering from line hypnosis.

All this might seem like a helluva stretch... but you have to bear in mind that all the books alluded to, all the legends invoked, all the proverbs cited, all the characters who appear in the story... they're all products of human labour of one form or another.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Blog Association

I've never been a Trekkie, but I've seen enough of the franchise over the years to make me think I could talk about it with some familiarity, hence this post from a while ago.  It started out as an outgrowth of something about the Cybermen and the Borg that I'm still tinkering with.  I stand by a lot of what I wrote, but I'm preparing to have to revise some of my views because of the arrival of a truly excellent new blog called Vaka Rangi, written by my online friend (and frequent Shabgraff commenter) Josh Marsfelder.  He describes the blog as

an attempt at a critical history of utopian futurism in televised science fiction, particularly science fiction involving voyaging starships, from a specific perspective and using the Star Trek franchise as a "guiding text"

I'm posting this not simply to get you to check out this blog (which you should utterly do, if the subject interests you) but also to address a remark I made in my own essay on Trek.  This remark:

it's astounding that apparently intelligent people can tout Star Trek as a great example of progressivism in popular culture

Well, there you go.  My tendency to slip into that ghastly denunciatory tone so common on the left.  Yeurch.  As I say, there's now a blog by a demonstrably intelligent person (as if I'm an arbiter of that!) who will, I think, argue that Trek is (or at least becomes) an example of progressivism in popular culture.  He's currently working his way through the original series and is frequently taking it to task for all sorts of horrible attitudes... but a journey of a billion miles would probably have to begin with a few missteps.