Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Gothic Marxism

For Hallowe'en, here are some talks to enjoy.

Here's David McNally, talking about the ideas in his book Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, which I mentioned (and cribbed from shamelessly) in this recent post.

Here's Silvia Federici, talking about her book Caliban and the Witch, which links the witchhunt craze to the rise of capitalism.

And here's China Mieville, giving a Marxist view of Hallowe'en (which is more fun than it sounds).

Monsters of the world, unite!


ADDITION 01/11/13:

I didn't know this, but there's a video of the China Mieville talk I linked to above:

Friday, 25 October 2013

Love & People

This paving slab thing really seems to bother some people. 

Some of it seems to be just good, old-fashioned prudery.  Personally, I don't have a problem with kids hearing an oblique fellatio joke.  Think about the dreadful things we're happy for them to watch (they were still watching Hannah Montana when 'Love & Monsters' aired, for example).  By contrast, a mild joke about consensual sex between people who love each other seems quite nice.  Besides, we turn off the TV in disgust because there's a joke about sex and then the kids go to school and spend all day giggling about bottoms and willies.  I know I did.

If she really is stuck in the slab (and we can't be sure of this, given that Elton is an unreliable narrator and we never see Ursula's slab-embedded face from the POV of his video camera), there's no reason to suppose that the Doctor didn't ask her if it was what she wanted.  Why assume that he'd force it on her?

There is something potentially disturbing about a woman being so utterly in a man's power... but Elton doesn't read like an abuser.  Of course, the problem is that he can abuse her if he wants because of her extreme physical vulnerability.  This seems at least as pertinent as the gender issues in this episode.

There is, of course, no reason why a 'disabled' person can't have a happy, fulfilling life.  They can and do... at least when they're not reliant on ATOS for access to basic human dignity. 

I'm making the link between Slab-Ursula and 'disability' despite the fact that she connects with this complex social phenomenon in very broad, Fantasy terms.  Aside from the origins of her 'disability', she represents near total immobility, which is not unheard-of in the real world but which is unrepresentative of the huge matrix of different 'disabilities'.  She could, if read too closely as 'disabled', be considered offensive as a representation because of her extreme helplessness.  Taken that way, she could tie in with the perception of 'disabled' people as like objects lacking agency.  Pity dehumanizes the pitied; that's why common humanity and solidarity are infinitely preferable.

I think a major bit of the unease over this scene - and the joke in particular - is actually submerged anxiety about sex between 'disabled' and 'able-bodied' people.  The conscious worry is perhaps over abuse... but abuse is not peculiar to relationships involving the 'disabled'.  Of course, there is a horribly high level of abuse of the disabled, but abuse is, by definition, not about consensual sex between loving partners.  The idea that Elton and Slab-Ursula's relations might be inherently abusive probably stems from that very perception of the 'disabled' as weak and helpless, semi-people, in need of protection.  The object without agency, as above.  Like kids.  (Children in our society are too often seen as passive receptacles.)  For an adult, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a child (which is true).  Ergo, for an 'able-bodied' person, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a 'disabled' person (which is not true).  Of course, the analogy rests on the correct perception of a common power imbalance (the essence of abuse)... this is why the extreme nature of Ursula's 'disability' becomes a potential problem when she is related to real-world 'disability'.  Real 'disabled' people are not always so utterly dependent... and focusing on the power differential as a physical thing fails to grasp how socially-constructed it is, how dependent upon social structures of privilege.  'Disability' is relative to how the social world is culturally and materially constructed.

I'm not saying, by the way, that anybody who doesn't like 'Love & Monsters', or that scene, hates 'disabled' people, consciously or unconsciously.  Society in general needs to do better in our perceptions of these issues.

What the 'disabled' actually need (besides Iain Duncan Smith consigned to a slave labour camp where he spends all his time making stretch limousines customised for wheelchair access) is to be treated like people, just like everyone else.  (I feel able to pronounce on what 'they' need in this instance, because all I'm saying is that they need to be accorded the baseline status that I get automatically.  For anything beyond that, my job is to shut up and listen.)

The episode makes it plain that, if she is really stuck in the slab, she's also in a non-abusive relationship, whatever the potential problems.  If we get caught up on those potential problems, we run the risk of discrimination, i.e. of over-emphasizing the potential problems in 'disabled' relationships while forgetting about the huge amount of abuse that takes place in 'able-bodied' ones, thus embracing the hubris of privilege.

Having "a bit of a sex life", or at least being accorded the ability to have non-abusive sex if you choose, is surely part and parcel of being treated like a normal human being (which is how 'disabled' people should be treated because its what they are).  The kind of ruthless, inhuman, results-driven neoliberal world that Kennedy/Absorbaloff represents (a call-centre-verse where all human enthusiasms and capacities are slaved to a maniacally ravenous, pinstriped monster of consumption) is the kind of world that produces monsters like ATOS and IDS.  Children can see them on the TV and nobody turns a hair... and they're far more offensive than a joke about a 'disabled' person giving the man she loves a blowjob now and then.


(Note: I put the term 'disabled' in scare-quotes because, while it seems to be the best term, I like to treat it cautiously.)


EDIT (26/10/13): Clunky clarification added in brackets at end of the first sentence of the last paragraph.  Just in case anybody decided to deliberately misinterpret my meaning.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Maximum Utility

The literature of terror is born precisely out of the terror of a split society and out of the desire to heal it. 
- Franco Moretti

People often compare the Borg, the cyborg gestalt from the Star Trek franchise, to Doctor Who's Cybermen.  Both races were conceived as humanoids physically augmented with technology, hence a certain superficial visual resemblance, particularly between the Borg and the earliest Cybermen, from 1966's 'The Tenth Planet'... which has just been released on DVD, if you want some way for this post to be halfway relevant to anything.

But the Cybermen were written by various different writers, under different conditions, with different levels of interest and different levels of knowledge of past depictions, over the course of nearly five decades.  The Borg, by contrast, were written by a small number of tightly associated people, under the aegis of a carefully controlled franchise, over the course of just under 15 years.  The two 'races' differ markedly in the circumstances of their production and in cultural profile.  As noted, the Borg's various appearances weren't separated by the same kinds of time-lags, and weren't a product of the same kind of radical turnover/variety of 'authors'.  Also, the Borg's concentration in time, and their near-immediate claiming of a significant and visible role in global 90s narrative culture (owing to their success and the global success of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs), gave them a prominent position within a concentrated historical moment: the 1990s.  The Cybermen, by contrast, disappeared from television during that same historical moment, and before that they had only enjoyed a smaller cultural spotlight in one country - Britain - during the late 1960s.  By 2006, when the Cybermen tried to reclaim their place in culture, and went on to be more globally recognisable than they'd ever been before (owing to the international success of 21st Century Who), the historical moment of the Borg was long over.

Even so, the similarity of the Cybermen and the Borg is real, and rests upon kindred incoherent anxieties about capitalism.


There's a real incoherence at the heart of the Cybermen.  They are definitely communistic monsters, expressing a 'Soviet-version' of the associations between the loss of individuality and collectivism.  They seek the total upgrade of the universe, working towards a chilly utopian telos lacking any inequality or freedom.  But they are also deeply corporate monsters.  They merged or allied themselves with International Electromatics in 'The Invasion'.  IE was an expression of capitalist standardisation and mass production.  Everything they make is the same, from their disposable radios to their CEO's offices.  This is explicitly linked to capitalist production and business practices, and is implicitly linked with the uniformity of the Cybermen.

Someone's not a very efficienct typist.

In many ways, the alliance between Tobias Vaughn and the Cybermen is a business partnership, with the invasion a hostile takeover.  The partnership is possible because, in Vaughn's ultra-streamlined corporate context, there is a synergy with the Cybermen.  In the new series, the alt-world Cybermen actually emerged from a corporation, Cybus Industries.  They were a Cybus product, complete with a corporate logo on their chests.  (With their divided nature, it's fitting that they take over Battersea Power Station, which began life as a venture of a private company, got nationalised and then closed down, and has since been waiting for a private venture to find a use for it.)  The Cybus-Cybermen are linked with the internet, computer software and mobile phone technology, even acquiring the concept of conversion as an "upgrade" which expresses deep ambivalence about the frenetic rush of capitalist technology in the digital age, and the word "delete" (an everyday word now owing to home computing and text messaging) as a euphemism for 'kill'.  Moreover, as Simon Kinnear pointed out in Doctor Who Magazine #410 (June 2009), the Cybermen behave like the psychopathic corporation described by the 2003 documentary film The Corporation, and the accompanying book by Joel Bakan.  More than this, the Cybermen

conform to the lean mentality of business.  Like so many companies, they use aptitude tests to secure the best candidates for Cyber-conversion: what else are the Tombs of Telos but a (somewhat unusual) recruiting station?  The Cybermen's standardised functions sound suspiciously like a corporate hierarchy, with job titles (Controller, Leader) to match.

Yes, I'll go on the record: I quite like this.
(At the time, I told Simon I thought this connection was tenuous; but he was right and I was wrong.)   Also, remember how the Cybermen adapt themselves so well to England during the Industrial Revolution in 'The Next Doctor'.  It's a flawed episode certainly, but it might just be the best televised Cyberman story (which is faint praise, but there you go) because it connects the Cybermen to the innate and submerged unease about industrial capitalism that has always lurked within them... and, in the process, does a much better job of noticing the problems usually glossed over by Steampunk than Moffat managed in 'The Girl in the Fireplace'.  Steampunk fetishizes the commodities of the Industrial Revolution (literally, in the case of cosplayers, etc.) while forgetting the conditions under which they came into being, i.e. the horrors of primitive accumulation, the factory system, imperialism, colonialism, etc.  Moffat has his clockwork men trying to cut the head off a French aristocrat (which doesn't really get at the nub of the problem for me) while Davies has his retro-industrial monster as a rampaging mad god, built by the sweated labour of (mostly) poor children, stomping through Victorian London, driven by the gothic returning-repression of a victim of respectable philanthropy.  This is, of course, the much-maligned Cyber-King... the product of a smooth and fruitful union between the Cybermen and the methods of high Victorian capitalism.  SF has always been very much about the products of capitalist modernity and industry running amok.  The Cyber-King shows us a literal intersection of this with the Cybermen.  It is itself a massive factory, filled with workers, made of chimneys and pipes and dark, satanic mill-wheels.


I've written here about how the Cybermen are a Soviet version of the same set of associations that make the (Nazi) Daleks tick: namelessness, robotic/cyborg nature, collectivism, 'totalitarianism'.  It's intially tempting to simply characterise the Borg as also an expression of the bourgeois liberal horror of collectivism, or of the widespread mainstream idea of collectivism, i.e. of communism.  However, the Borg share much the same ambivalence as that already detected in the Cybermen.  Indeed, in many ways, they express the same ambivalence much more clearly and completely.

You will be assimilated.  Your culture will adapt to service ours.
It's actually rather unconvincing to describe the Borg as collectivist monsters in the Soviet sense.  Apart from anything else, they appear at the precise moment when the Soviet Union had never looked less collectivist or less threatening.  They arose in the immediate post-Cold War era, making their first appearance just before the demolition of the Berlin Wall.  The Borg appeared just as communism was crumbling. Glasnost, perestroika, decay, strife, queues for cabbage, branches of McDonalds opening in Moscow. Walls were about to fall. The Enemy had never looked more wobbly and vulnerable.  The Borg, by contrast, are monolithic, powerful, undefeatable in their first appearance. So, in short, they weren't Russians in 1989.

There is a deep sense of ambivalent confusion embodied within the Borg.  While they undoubtedly speak to the horror of collectivism as widely perceived (loss of individual freedom, political tyranny, etc.) they also represent a lurking horror of capitalist rationality, of rationally self interested utility maximisers  This is the de facto herd of individual rational actors who are supposed to make up the population in mainstream economics, all of them seeking their own rational self interest and thus giving rise to an unstoppable (and, for the late C20th left/liberal, sometimes destructive) market system.  It isn't necessary for us to accept the scandalously absurd descriptions of capitalism offered by mainstream economics to acknowledge that many people do accept them, worry about them, or about what they perceive to be their effects.  If our culture doesn't really run on rational self-interest and maximised utility, that doesn't mean that people can't perceive ruthlessly rational self-interest and utility maximisation in the system... and fear them.

Sometimes people fear the effects of capitalism and perceive then as the effects of what they think of as socialism.  Such people are a constant source of titilated anxiety for liberals, as the obsession of American liberal publications with the Tea Party shows.

I didn't know this, but apparently Barack Obama is a Marxist. 
He's also black, which seems to worry some people.

The fear of such mentalities usually coincides with an idea that they float freely in a society that is split, but not fundamentally divided on lines of class.  Thus, the acceptance of anti-social ideas - or the pushing of rational ideas to anti-social extremes - is something that happens within decentralised pluralities.  This liberal fear is of dangerous ideas spreading virally through society.  The memetic view of religion pushed by Richard Dawkins is an example, albeit an example of dangerous 'irrationality'... but then, for Dawkins, it is the genes or memes which are the selfish rational actors, not the people who carry them... thus making the people a bit like drones.  These kinds of fears are always tied to a fear of the decentralised crowd: the 'mob', in one form or other.  Look at the view of consumerism that sees it as a kind of emotional disease which has infected all of 'us'.  What is that but a fear of the decentralised crowd, mobilised en masse by a dangerously selfish rationale of consumption?  This left/liberal complaint rests upon assumptions based in, or at least supported by, mainstream economics: that the movements of the market are determined on a large scale by the trends created by the small scale rational choices of selfish actors.  This very decentralised crowd - an orderly mob - is the personality of the original Borg.

One essential trait of capitalism is the impulse to turn everything into more capitalism.  It exists to convert all resources into commodities or productive forces, i.e. to turn everything into capital which then dominates further production, to assimilate everything and convert everything into itself.  It is, as Q called the Borg in their debut, "the ultimate user", going after everything it identifies as something it can consume, utilise, transform and make into an image or aspect of itself.  You don't have to be a Marxist to notice the ravenousness of the system.  Indeed, non-Marxist currents of left/liberal thought in the 90s - often very much the same currents that were working out theories of consumerism - developed this idea further than the moribund, disoriented Marxism that was clinging on (at the extreme margins) at the time.  (There is also the left/liberal unease at the Western cultural imperialism, itself piggybacking on neoliberal expansion in new markets... just look at the above image of the McDonalds in Moscow, an emblem of such processes in the 90s.  The worry is about the assimilation and homogenization of other cultures.  The relevance of this is obvious.)

It isn't necessary to accept as true the notion that the market 'works' because of atomised individuals flocking in formations of rational selfishness, or the details of the attendant left/liberal critique of consumerism, in order to see how these ideas - if accepted - might become a source of anxiety to liberals within a triumphant capitalist world.  We can see how such liberal anxities - about an all-conquering capitalism, newly unrestrained, ravenous and consumerist, fueled by a dangerously selfish form of rationality which supposedly permeates society in a decentralised way - might well manifest as something like the Borg... something unstoppable, ruthlessly utilitarian, utterly self-involved, blankly arrogant, destructive, acquisitive and all-consuming, and manifested as a monolithic force composed of an aggregation of atomised individuals.

Liberalism - particulary C20th Liberalism - has always had the divided character that both supports capitalism, and capitalist notions, as liberating or at least optimal, while at the same time fretting over the imbalances, inequalities and injustices which seem - puzzlingly - always to beset the system.  Liberalism in the 90s was uniquely placed to have bad dreams about this contradiction, about the horrors lurking within the best of all possible worlds, precisely because of the seeming final triumph of the 'market system'.

Speaking of liberal bad dreams, just look at the 'Descent' two-parter, which becomes a clunky parable about the rise of fascism (complete with red, white and black banners) by showing the disoriented, individualised Borg spellbound by a charismatic warmonger who offers them unity and purpose.  Hands up anyone who spots the contours of the classic liberal interpretation of the rise of Hitler.  The bewildered people, dizzy after a catastrophe, become mesmerised by the false promises of a demagogue.  Here again, the Borg express liberal anxieties about the faultlines in the capitalist millenium.

The Borg are a nightmare that liberal capitalism had about itself.

This is, of course, why the Borg are a dark mirror held up to the Federation.  If the Federation is the ultimate flowering of liberal hopes for capitalism (or, at least, Western liberal modernity) as a liberating, utopian force, then the Borg are the atavistic 'dark side' of the same system, repressed but - in the classic gothic move - returning with a vengeance.


Gothic is, of course, very much the word.  It can hardly be a coincidence that, as they evolve, the Borg develop features of previous such liberal nightmares about capitalism.... and that these features make them more and more openly gothic.  They acquire the decadence of aristocracy, and with it the traits of vampires.  The Borg gradually became the nomadic nosferatus of the Trek universe, spreading their plague with a bite and an infection of the blood.  From Star Trek: First Contact onwards (i.e. from the moment they are shown to have a Queen), they are shown to shoot tubes into the neck (often leaving two little puncture marks) and assimilate by pumping Borg nanotech into the veins, which are often seen to ripple and turn greyish green beneath the skin as Borgness (i.e evil) flows into them.  They become the Undead, the moment they start being lead by Countess Dracula.

This can hardly be an accident, this confluence of vampirism and aristocratic hierarchy.  The greatest C19th Gothic vampire story - Dracula - traded on the disdainful, fearful, insecure, resentful, supercilious inferiority-complex felt by a rising professional middle class for aristocracy, something that Stoker took from the iconoclastic Byron's 'Lord Ruthven' and which ended up getting taken up by C20th vampire pop-culture.  The vampire is nowadays quite unpicked from his/her previous semiotic entanglement with aristos, when he/she appears in his/her own person (the semiotic entanglement of female vampires with lesbianism is a whole different essay).  Your actual fanged, blood-drinking coffin-sleeper can be an emo youth these days.  But when vampirism is subtextually invoked in a disguised form - as in the later Borg - it also tends to bring its blue-blooded baggage with it, albeit in submerged ways.  Hence, the Borg get a Queen when they get vampiric.  (Of course, the Queen also comes from the bee-hive analogy... which is part of the 'surface level' of the semiotics of the Borg, the thematic miniscus that the writers consciously 'get'.) 

Also, as has long been understood, the vampire is connected to fears of monopoly capital vs free trade.  What can be more monopolistic than the vampire, converting everyone into copies of itself, threatening to infect the race with its bacillus and reconfigure us all in its own image?  The vampire is a nightmarish figure of exponential expansion... to the point where one of the great mid-C20th vampire stories - Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - takes them to their logical extreme and puts them in the majority, their monopoly achieved, the last non-vampire brought to the point where he - the rarest of creatures - will become their folklore.  It isn't hard to see that these vampiric traits and significations fit the Borg like a glove.  The nightmare of capitalism as the great user, the great converter of everything into itself, becomes - in the liberal imagination - the nightmare of monopoly, restriction, control, all configured in terms of a return of the feudal and aristocratic.  The Borg eventually slide perfectly into this set of associations.

"It's 3 for 2 on Dan Brown at Waterstones!"
As they become vampires, so the Borg drones among them also become zombies.  The zombie, initially to do with slavery and imperialism (i.e. as the Haitian black slave reduced to mindless physicality, pure labour), later became transformed by Western horror into being profoundly about things like class and - once again - consumerism.  George Romero's Dawn of the Dead makes the zombies (with their grey faces) into mindless consumers of more than just flesh; they become the shambling and clownish denizens of a shopping mall.  Again, the Borg absorb the gothic category of the zombie, absorbing also the imminent critique of consumerism, which gained traction in the period after 'the 60s' when the global tide of struggle and protest receded, along with the Black Power movement, etc.  The dodgy basis of this critique is, as we've seen, the fear of the decentralised mass of atomised individuals collectively infected with, and ruthlessly acting upon, bad and empty ideas about what will make them happy.  As it fits perfectly onto the zombie, so the zombie - now containing this anti-consumerist anxiety - fits perfectly onto the Borg drone.  Indeed, the reconfiguration of the Borg as vampire/zombie is an almost inevitable development as soon as the idea of 'assimilation' takes shape.  This idea was itself almost inevitable given that the Borg emerged into a world of strong capitalism confronted by weak, disorganised communists... which almost immediately gave way to a post-communist world in which capitalism seemed to have been finally vindicated, to have emerged triumphant, unbeaten and unbeatable, challenged and challengeable no longer.  If Dracula was the nightmare that the liberal bourgeois world had about its own systemic terrors in the 1880s, the vampire-Borg are recognisably a version of the same nightmare reshaped in the global political landscape of the 1990s. If the zombies are the insane consumers of the 70s and 80s, the zombie-Borg are their inheritors in the 90s: organised and unbeatable.


The Borg drive to consume, adapt and utilise all technology they come across is also an echo of primitive accumulation, the process by which capitalism assembles the material and materiel it needs in order to function and expand.  Capitalism achieved this, most drastically, via enclosures, which gradually brought the land out of feudal forms of ownership and control, and into the new bourgeois forms of property.  Attendant on this process was the steady appropriation of the common lands, and the displacement of millions of people, no longer able to make a living from the land and thus forced into cities, into factories.  Proletarianization.  Essentially the same process was repeated in the great colonial empires of the C19th-20th, with mass deracination a constant product.  Primitive accumulation was also built on the ruthless suppression of women, pushing them into new roles that accompanied the atomised bourgeois family, subjugating unpaid female labour to the reproduction of employable workers (both in terms of the creation of new people and the maintenance of already existing workers, ie husbands who needed feeding).  Primitive accumulation reached its horrific apogee in the slave trade, with millions of Africans abducted, traded, bought, sold, dragged in chains to plantations in the 'New World, sold again, and forced into the work upon which the 'New World' was 'opened' to the conquest and expansion of Western capital.  The genocide of native peoples in these 'New Worlds' - as in the gradual expansion of the United States across the American West - was a similarly crucial aspect of the rise of the modern capitalist world.  The shockwaves of these epochal crimes still reverberate today.  Modern sexism and racism are creations of this era, to name only the most obvious such legacies.  Capitalism came into the world "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" as Marx puts it.  If we decide (as I think we should) to see Stalin's Russia as a 'state-capitalist' form, in which a bureaucratic class of managers takes the place of private capitalists but, essentially, still runs a capitalist economy (with wage labour and surplus value) albeit a heavily state-controlled one, then we can see just the same process of primitive accumulation and disposession taking place when Stalin industrialises Russia.  Ironically, the 'failure' of 'communism' thus helps prove Marx's analysis of the nature of capitalism.  And the very 'mirror-image' aspect in the relation between Western 'free market' capitalism and Soviet state capitalism... especially for those liberals who, like Chomsky, see Western capitalism as also statist in a different way... is part of how figures like the Cybermen and the Borg develop with these incoherences and ambivalences within them, especially their dual capitalist/collectivist (Soviet) nature.

There are problems with relating the Borg to capitalism, partly engendered by such incoherences.  Capitalists are not a collective intelligence, much as they share underlying class interests and allegiances.  They are, as Marx put it in Capital vol.3, "hostile brothers", constantly at each other's throats, compelled to competition.  Indeed, capitalists have personal interests that are at war with the capitalist class as a whole, let alone their direct competitors. But remember, the idea is not that the Borg correspond directly to capitalism, but that they express ways in which capitalism is perceived, particularly by sections of liberalism.  It certainly looks, much of the time, as though capitalists share a single mind, especially when they flock to the same investment opportunities.

But even this hive-minded collectivity can be seen as expressing liberal anxieties about capitalism.  It certainly functions much in the way I described here (as an elision of the nameless, the robotic, the cybernetic and the collectivist... reliant upon the assumption that all alternatives to capitalist freedom lead straight to totalitarianism) but the thing about the collectivism of the Borg is that they collect people as a workforce.  To become part of the collective is to become a drone, a worker.  In this way, assimilation echoes that proletarianization of humans which took place during primitive accumulation.  The Borg appropriate human bodies, acquire an incoherent and heterogenous mass of people, and assemble them into a concentrated mass of drones (i.e. workers), crowded together and co-operating in a factory-like area of technological and industrial production.  A hive of activity.  This collecting of drones can be read as a retelling of the historical process whereby peasants were forced off the land and into the towns and factories, of how complex social and familial ties were destroyed by the coming of a more atomised (and supposedly more rationalised) society, of how human labour was violently reorganised into massively concentrated and complex sites of industrial or intellectual work (i.e. the factory system, the office).  And don't think that the element of compulsion invalidates the analogy.  The story of the creation of the proletariat is the story of centuries of ferociously violent and venemous compulsion.  Even 'free labour' (ie those other than black people dragged to plantations in chains) found that they had to submit to capitalist wage labour or starve... and if they tried to find 'unlawful' ways to avoid starvation, they found themselves liable to be tortured and murdered by the state.  For centuries, anyone considered to be resisting the drive to the assimilation of all workers - ie tramps, bandits, beggers, those who clung to the forest or the land, those who refused in any way the imperatives of working for the new system - were considered objects of terror and evil, whipped and beaten into line, or executed. There was a lot of this, because the transition to wage labour was bitterly resented and resisted.  It still is, in every place where it continues today as neoliberalism restructures the world.  But there is no alternative.  The "archaic culture" (to use Borg phraseology) of the pre-capitalist world was "authority-driven" by God and Church and King, Headman and kin-group, season and harvest and tide... but the new culture smashes all such distinctions, all such old ways.  (Of course, capitalism is authority-driven in different ways... but then so do the Borg prove to be.)  All that is solid melts into air.  The culture of the people must adapt to service the capitalist system.  Freedom is irrelevant.  The worker, separated from the land and thus from any way of producing the means of life for him/herself, has the freedom to work or starve.  Death is irrelevant, since the workers are an amorphous mass of 'hands', each instantly replaceable.  And, as we've seen, capital spread across the globe.  From 1989-onwards, it really looked as if there was no way left for anyone, anywhere to resist it.  Resistance is futile.

Even as some of the anxieties the Borg express rest upon a classless view of society, formed of a decentralised 'mob' (one way of seeing the uniform Borg), so other anxieties they express rest upon a deep awareness of the reality (and potential threat) of the working class.  This shouldn't surprise us.  The gothic has never been internally consistent; indeed, part of its unique power is its ability to allow dialectical oscillations of meaning within single signs.  The 'assembledness' of the Borg, mirroring the same assembledness of the proletariat, is deeply gothic, in that a very similar thing occurs in Frankenstein.  The monster is a proletarian monster, assembled just as surely as the proletariat was assembled, a collective whole constructed from heterogenous parts artificially brought together in the process of production, made from the assembled fragments of the poor (the kinds of people who were dug up by grave robbers and sold, on the C18/19th 'corpse economy' to anatomists).  Maybe some of the paupers who furnished Victor Frankenstein with parts were hanged for 'crimes' that amounted to violations of private property, or refusal to meekly accept entry into the wage labour system (see above).  To quote Moretti:

Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of 'a Ford worker'). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature.

Denied a name and individuality, the assimilated person is a Borg drone, like 'a Ford worker'.  Collective; in the capitalist workplace, quite different to pre-capitalist forms of collectivity from which the proletariat were drawn.  Literally collective, in the case of the Borg, but also bodily concentrated, like the proletariat, in a totally 'rationalised' space.  Artificial; a new class, surrounded and dominated by machinery (ie capital).  Literally artificial in the case of the Borg; a newly synthesised race, surrounded and penetrated by technology (ie capital).

So, once again, the Borg express liberal anxiety over capitalism.  Once again, the anxiety is ambivalent.  And, once again, the anxiety is both relevant to the 90s context and a reiteration of older liberal anxieties.   The faceless, mindless, collective entity: the mob.  Engulfed in the horror of labour under capitalism.  To be pitied.  Also to be feared.  This ties directly in with the faultlines in the Godwinian liberalism with which Frankenstein is soaked (Godwin was Mary Shelley's father).  Godwin's Political Justice and Caleb Williams demanded democratic reform, and savagely criticised injustice and inequality, but recommended fireside chats with educated people as the only form of agitation.  He begged Shelley not to get drawn into organisation among the proletariat themselves, saying "Shelley, you are preparing a scene of blood!".  Mary's monster is many things, but among these he is the terrifying threat of the monstrous proletariat, back for revenge for the way he has been abused and mistreated.  Also, remember the fear that makes Frankenstein finally and irrevocably reject his creature: the fear that, by making him a mate, he will allow this new race to breed, expand and cover the world.  Conversion and monopoly again.  As noted, there is ambivalence and incoherence embedded in the Borg, and it's deeply gothic.  The liberal terror at capitalist monopoly, expressed by the vampire, has a flipside in the liberal terror at proletarian takeover, expressed by Frankenstein's monster.  The Borg reiterate both.  In so doing, they express perhaps a submerged fear of the 90s liberal: that he faces either the eternal, capitalist 'end of history' (an unstoppable juggernaut) or, in the absence of Soviet style communism as a domineering force on the left, some new and unknown and uncontrollable way in which the disavowed and repressed underlings of the world will return to express their displeasure.  The Borg become the system, and its own internal gravediggers, in one.


Another aspect of both the Cybermen and the Borg is their basis in fears of bodily mutilation.  From the start, the Cybermen threaten to physically invade the humans.  Becoming like them implicitly involves the cutting-up and dismemberment of the human body.  And this dismemberment, this invasion of the body by technology, is linked to work.  Both 'The Tenth Planet' and 'Earthshock' show remnants of the physical body (hands and jaws) still integrated into the machinery.  'Attack of the Cybermen' has Bates and Stratton (and the other rejected subjects the Cybermen use as slave labour, pure working meat), with their arms (the things they work with) replaced with cyber technology.  The Cybermen started with Toberman's arms too.  He was also a slave, remember?  Lytton ends up being the only human we see in the process of conversion in the classic series.  Again, the Cybermen have made the arms a priority.  On the whole, however, the suggestive emphasis on arms notwithstanding, Doctor Who never made as much as it could've done from the horror of Cyber-conversion, despite such things being very much in the wheelhouse of Eric Saward at just the time when SF/Horror cinema started concentrating on the meshing of the body and the machine.

This penetration of the body by the machine is explored far more thoroughly by the Borg in the various Star Trek franchises.  The Borg episodes, and the movie, repeatedly focus on machinery that infibulates and conjoins with the body.  We see cables plugged directly into head sockets (very 90s, via Cyberpunk) and various body parts removed and replaced by technological appendages.  As noted, the Borg insert tubials into their victims and inject their essence, causing the skin to turn zombie-grey.  Indeed, the Borg adopt something that is only obliquely hinted at with regards to the Cybermen: cellular bio-mechanics, ie nanobots that restructure the body on a cellular level, and which allow technology to grow and sprout and breed like an organism.  This is all deeply connected with perennial fears generated by capitalist modernity: the fear of bodily invasion and mutilation.

David McNally's brilliant book - Monsters of the Market - states and explores this topic in greater detail (and if you find what I'm saying here interesting then you should totes go and read McNally because I'm getting tonnes of it from him).  Pared right down to the bone, the idea is that capitalism not only disciplines and punishes the body of the worker (see above), it also breaks up her life experience, dividing labour, subjecting her to the rigours of a new kind of measured and organised time, dissecting her life into sections of work (whether at home or 'at work'... because home isn't a workplace, oh ho no).  There is, for instance, the working day, and then the various subdivisions of the day.  The day is made up of "dead time", when the worker must labour for the capitalist to make her wage.  This is the alienation of life activity from the worker, just as the products of her labour are alienated from her control.  The result is that the workers experience working life as a kind of living death.  The intersection of dissected life and dead time finds literal expression in the "corpse economy", ie the punishment of proletarian bodies even after death in the dissection halls of the ruling class, often via the theft of bodies by 'resurrectionists' and their sale to anatomists.  This was fiercely resisted by the London crowd of the C18/19th (that ever-present mob of bourgeois nightmare) at public executions, when riots would break out as people attempted to stop the bodies of the pauper criminals being handed over for further, posthumous, punishment.  The cultural expression of all this is in tales of evisceration, dismemberment and anatomisation... and in the various nightmares of capitalist modernity which centre upon terror of (and terror of becoming) the living dead.  It stretches right back from that evening in 1816 when Frankenstein and the Vampyre were simultaneously born, right up to today as we swim in a cultural sea of zombies.

Again, it isn't hard to see how the Cybermen and the Borg tie into this.  If, as I've tried to show, both (most explicitly and clearly the Borg) are totally products of liberal anxieties about capitalism (as both unstoppable system and generator of the terrifying mob) then the mutilation fantasy implicit in both can be interpreted in light of McNally's ideas.  Capital not only surrounds and controls the worker, embedding the worker within technology and the factory and the office, etc., it also penetrates the worker physically, looms over the worker as a force that historically and potentially violates/punishes the working body.  The product of this violent interpenetration is the creation of an army of the walking dead.

(By the way, there's a lot more to be said about this issue with relation to other Doctor Who stories and monsters.  I'm getting dizzy just contemplating how to apply these insights to 'Revelation of the Daleks' or 'Parting of the Ways'.  Let alone most of the Hinchcliffe era... which fumbled its one attempt at Cybermen inexcusably.)

Look him in the eye and tell him he's not gothic.

This is all gothic, you see.  It's gothic all the way down.  Listen to the language we're compelled to use.  It's the language of death.  Gravediggers, vampires, Frankenstein's monster, zombies.  The Cybermen are steeped in it too.  Think of their first appearance, wrapped in bandages like mummies, their white faces skull-like with their big round empty eye sockets and their inexpressive straight mouths.  Think of their appropriation of the cursed-Egyptian-tomb narrative in 'Tomb of the Cybermen'.  As I've noted in the past, whatever its flaws, 'Attack of the Cybermen' is probably the best Cyberman tale of the 80s because it remembers that the Cybermen are bodily imperialists who convert you into a zombie... and also because it seems more in tune with wider society than other later-Cyberman tales.  It hooks into the decade of Thatcher, with its smash 'n' grab crooks run by a suave pinstriped businessman (Lytton), and its decidedly more anxious post-Falklands approach to militarism than 'Earthshock' manages (depicting the Cybermen as military conquerors of the Cryons).  It's better, if still pretty weak.  But at least it reconnects the Cybermen with work, bodily mutilation and economic factors.


The Cybermen never quite attain the clarity and force of the Borg, precisely because of the different circumstances of their production (I mean, their TV production) which means that, once they're out of the 60s, they never again hook directly into the anxieties of their age the way the Borg do.  Indeed, the Cybermen have lots more decades to try covering than the Borg did.  Born into the post-Cold War world, the Borg had a field of distinct cultural anxieties to connect with... and, in many ways, they manage it.  The Cybermen are a product of the 60s.  Alongside those left/liberal anxieties about the self-interested rational actor that we mentioned earlier (expressed by the Cybermen as "logic"), they are also born from worries about the "white heat of the technological revolution", about technocratization (not least, of the Labour Party), about computerization, about the ambivalent potentialities of new tech that (50 years on from Wilson's speech) has indeed proved to have deeply ambivalent legacies.  This was the post-war boom world, worrying about exactly what kind of utopia was going to be built, given that it was ostensibly going to be built by exactly the same kind of scientific instrumentalism that also built Auschwitz and Hiroshima.  You might be tempted to bring up the word Luddite... but, of course, the Luddites were fighting the dispossession and disenfranchisement brought by just such ambivalent new technology.  And Luddism is a profound inflection within Frankenstein; not in the crude sense of worry about 'the dangers of science' and 'playing god' (the mainstream philistine view of the book) but in the sense of worry about the failure of the Enlightenment project, of modernity itself, in the face of social injustice.  None of which is to say that the Cybermen don't contain some pretty reactionary anxieties about the future of technology... not least their Soviet inflection.

This incoherence and ambivalence - found within the Cybermen and Borg - expresses the liberal anxiety over the splits in society (fundamentally, we're talking about class), and the desire to heal them, to resolve them.  The splits are forced together into one (splitless; classless) form, a monolithic threat that must be destroyed... and yet, when destroyed, the monolith becomes a great mass of equally-threatening rubble within which totalitarianism will plot against democracy (cf 'Descent').  So even the liberal fear of 'extremism', unleashed by any challenge to the system, finds expression in the Borg.  There is something about the splits that always adapts to any attempt (within Liberalism) to contain or eradicate it.  Parenthetically, this may be way the concept of 'adaptation' is so central to the Borg threat, with their seemingly endless ability to adapt to new assaults (while also, of course, hinting at unease about the constant revolutionising of production... something hinted at in the evolution of the Cybermen and their latter-day concept of the "upgrade").

We know that the years since the recession have produced a slew of zombies.  Indeed, Time Magazine called zombies "the official monster of the recession", and there's been lots of talk about "zombie banks" and "zombie economies" and "zombie capitalism".  The economy continues after its death.  As noted, the zombie has, in the past, stood for rather conceptually dodgy ideas about consumerism run amok... which has an obvious relevance to the credit crunch, if a superficial one that tends to blame the victims.  But, as also noted, the zombie was also an expression of horror at slavery, at the reduction of the worker to labouring meat.  (There is, by the way, a resurgence of zombie tales in those parts of Africa being restructured and socially demolished by neoliberalism... including Nigeria.  Ahem.  See McNally, again, for details.)  In zombie cinema, the zombie runs riot and smashes up the world.  And, if the world as it stands is not to your liking (if, for example, you're not a fan of recession, neoliberalism, imperialism, austerity, corporate rule and drastic inequality), there is pleasure to be taken in this spectacle, this violent carnival.  The zombie is the faceless, mindless, proletarian mob of bourgeois nightmare, in open urban rebellion. Which we could do with, to be honest.  That's why it's a shame that the Borg have disappeared from our age.  In the absence of any apparent desire on the part of present-day Doctor Who to make the Cybermen engage with this crisis, the Borg would be uniquely placed to exploit it and express it.  In many ways, having been born at the moment when capitalism seemed (to many) to have achieved a triumphant 'end of history', the Borg really ought to come back now, at the moment when capitalism-in-crisis seems to have begun a catastrophic version of the same thing.


It's only fair to acknowledge that this post is deeply indebted to the work of Franco Moretti and David McNally... indeed, any genuine insights here are almost certainly theirs; I've just adapted them to my topic.  It's also necessary to stress that I diverge from them in my own directions, that I fail to do their ideas justice above, and that any consequent errors are entirely my own.


ADDENDUM: I should've made it clear somewhere above that ambivalence and anxiety were built-in to the idea of the 'end of history' from the start, even in the work of Fukuyama.  That's important. 

CORRECTION 4/12/13: It wasn't Byron who created Lord Ruthven, it was Polidori.  Duh.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Present

I created this meme the other day... be used in online debate when someone evades a sincere demand for answers.

Just don't say I never give you anything.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Obligatory Returned-Episodes Post

Hurrah, etc.

As Lawrence Miles says, there's no point trying act all cool at a time like this.  It's great news and I'm very happy about it.  Sincerely.  You'd have to be a miserablist of a more perverse and determined stamp than I not to be as pleased as punch.

Of course, I could whinge about some things.

And will.

This blog has a USP after all.

I could, for instance, mention the way Nigeria - where the episodes were found - has suddenly swung briefly onto the mental radars of people who, until a few days ago, probably had only a dim idea that it existed at all.  It's ironic because, at more or less the time when those missing episodes were made, the Wilson government was helping the corrupt Nigerian military dictatorship crush Biafra.  Britain continued arming the junta for years, despite government denials.  The regime was engaged in a longstanding war against the Ogoni people - one of the forgotten persecuted peoples in the world.  Shell's exploitation of oil reserves in their region has had untold environmental and human costs, making the Niger Delta one of the most petroleum-impacted regions on Earth.  In 1995, the Nigerian government - utterly in thrall to and bound up with Shell - began a campaign of ruthless repression against the growing anti-Shell protest movement.  The 'Ogoni Nine', including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were arrested and executed, causing a (brief) international outcry.  Nigeria achieved formal democracy in 1999 but the corrupt government still wages war against the living standards and rights of the Nigerian people in the service of international oil profits.  Indeed, as in so many places, this war is a condition of IMF debt relief and loans.  The American government occasionally declares itself troubled by the rigged elections and violence in Nigeria, but Nigeria supplies them with large amounts of oil - the country is up there with Saudi Arabia when it comes to oil exports - so they never do anything beyond the pious declarations.  The crippling economic situation in Nigeria, with a huge portion of the population living in slums, is the root cause of ongoing ethnic and religious violence.  Even the BBC is capable of making the connection between the violence and the poverty rate (above 60% and rising).  Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group responsible for many attacks - including this last month - are based in the predominantly Muslim north-east, hardest hit by poverty.  Go figure.

But they also had 'The Enemy of the World' and 'The Web of Fear' on a shelf somewhere, so I guess its swings and roundabouts, yeah?

Back in what I like to call my TARDIS Whingeorium, I could also mention the relative importance given by some to the release of these old episodes and the wanton sell-off of Royal Mail, which was announced on the same day and which constitutes a swindle on the taxpayer to the tune of millions, possibly billions... with much of the benefit available only to huge international 'sovereign wealth funds'.  And that's without mentioning all the inevitable good stuff that always comes with privatisation (i.e. downsizing and spiralling inefficiency, etc).

On the subject of huxterism and profiteering, there's also the BBC's grubby co-operation with iTunes (*spit*) and the cynical decision to release the episodes as DRM-laden m4v files before the hasty (and reputedly extras-thin) DVD releases which will shortly follow, and which fans with disposable income will buy even though they already downloaded the eps from iTunes.  Shame about anyone without access to iTunes.  Luckily, however, the internet is one commons that can never be entirely enclosed, so torrents of people will get to see the stories anyway, one way or another.  Meanwhile, the BBC suck on Steve Jobs' nasty, hard software and swallow the money shot that ensues. 

Buuuuuut... sooner or later I'm going to drop all this bellyaching and start talking about the episodes themselves, right?  I just have to run through stuff like the above to make myself feel better about it... as you, Constant Reader, know full well.  We know each other pretty thoroughly by now, don't we?

The Enemy of the World

Capitalism.  See above.

Har-de-har.  Sorry.  I'm such a kidder.

The Enemy of the World
Okay, 'The Enemy of the World', as in the Troughton serial in which the Troutmeister plays two roles: the Doctor (as usual) and machiavellian mariachi Salamander, dictator-of-the-world-in-waiting.  

Well, first things first.  Troughton is darked-up to play an evil Mexican who, natch, dresses in quasi-Mariachi clothes and says things like "da son he don fall oudda da sky".  So.  Um.  That's unfortunate.  Especially since there are no non-evil Mexicans in it.  (This isn't the first time we've had a problem regarding the portrayal of Mexicans.)

Also on the racefail radar is Fariah.  She's... debateable.  She's there to bolster the serial's attempt - in quintessential 60s style - to depict the future as an international melting-pot.  Because racial equality is a dream to aspire to, a distant and way-out possibility, the next generation's project, something to put off until we have hovercars and moving pavements.  But kudos for i) putting a black person on TV at all, ii) putting a sympathetic black person on TV, and iii) finding an actual black person to play the black person on TV.  It's sad that such bare minimums should warrant kudos but they probably do.  She's a bit of an Angry Black Woman, but her resemblance to the stereotype is actually pretty tenuous.  The ABW thing rests on the notion that black women are domineering ballbusters whereas Fariah is shown to be clearly in the power of Salamander.  But this does lead us into the most serious possible objection to the character: she's a slave.  A black slave.  A black woman represented as still trapped in that role.  Asked what she does, she replies "I serve".  This could be seen as an acknowledgement of racism continuing even in the future.  After all, we're not meant to pass over her servitude without a qualm, the way we clearly are with Toberman.  She's not happy about it and the story supports her discontent and rebellion.  The anti-racist reading is a bit compromised by the fact that her 'master' is a Mexican (and not a real one at that) and also by the way nobody actually seems to notice that she's black.  That cuts both ways.  It pushes the idea that, in the future, race is no longer an issue... which seems progressive, within limits.  However, it also undercuts the idea that institutionalised racism is why she's in a subordinate position.  In the absence of this critical notion, her enslavement starts to just look like a black woman's destiny.  Hmm.  Also, like so many black supporting characters in TV/film, she dies.  She at least makes it a good way through instead of dying almost immediately (of course, you could say that about Toberman).  The other potential issue is that she's a victim of blackmail.  We don't find out what she did wrong (if anything) because the Doctor, charmingly, instantly comes to her defence when she is questioned about it, saying "we're none of us perfect".  It doesn't end up looking like a smear on her character so much as a facet of her character.  On the whole, I think that there are problems but that they're not egregious, certainly not by comparison with a lot of other TV - Who included - from the same era... or ours.

Fariah is a Strong Female Character™, despite her victim-status, as is Astrid.  Astrid is, in many ways, the hero(ine) of this story.  (Mary Peach is great, but what a shame Astrid couldn't have been played by the equally good Carmen Munroe instead... indeed, the fact that the role of Astrid goes to a white woman and the role of Fariah goes to a black woman - as a matter of course - is the clearest indication of an underlying problem.)  Astrid is, wonderfully, defined by her ethical/political commitments... which makes her quite different to most Strong Female Characters™ today, most of whom are defined by their ability to sassily kick ass, and their slavish emotional dependence on a wonderful impossible man.  So, things are fairly good genderwise, I think.  Of course, Astrid does wear unnecessary skin-tight PVC trousers... in fact, the back view of those skin-tight PVC trousers is pretty much the first thing we see after the TARDIS-arrival scene on the beach (by the way, how 'bout them longjohns?).  But today the Doctor would spend all his scenes with Astrid indulging in innuendo about her plastic breeches, so I guess progress goes both ways.

Of course, I'm a white dude, so I'm not going to take upon myself to tell anyone that there definitely aren't any serious problems here.  I don't want to whitesplain or mansplain if I can avoid it.  My positionality could well make me wrong. 

On the subject of Fariah... her death is one of the many scenes which is definitely enhanced by having the visuals.  It comes over as genuinely savage and tragic.  Carmen Munroe gives a good performance, as does Milton Johns as the loathsome sadist Benik.  Completing the scene is Elliot Cairnes as Benik's Guard Captain.  He gives an excellent little performance as a man reluctant to obey the nastier orders of a superior he obviously finds contemptible.  He looks on as Benik enjoys tormenting the dying woman and objects to the more wanton cruelty... but then what good is that?  The man is decent enough to be bothered by it but not bothered enough to do anything?  (Plenty of those guys, of course.  We all fall into that category sometimes.  I haven't personally done much about Nigeria or Apple lately.)  It's a lovely touch from David Whittaker, yet another example of the social texture that runs through this story, the concentration on character.  And the Cairnes does it well... something that you only really realise when you can watch him.

Milton Johns too is fun to watch.  He plays Benik like a rat with oedipal issues impersonating Josef Goebbels (which is a bit redundant actually because 'a rat with oedipal issues' is just a description of Josef Goebbels).  His lank hair flies about as he gets more and more excited by any opportunity to hurt people.  He simpers over Salamander and clearly relishes the smile of gratitude he gets when handing him Fedorin's file (again, this scene is enhanced immeasurably by being able to see the performances).

While we're talking about performances, we have to pause to crawl on the floor making 'we are not worthy' gestures towards the shade of Patrick Troughton.  This is an ensemble piece but, when Troughton's on screen, you can't look at anything else.  His Salamander is totally different to his Doctor (he reminds me a bit of Tony Montana from Scarface... I always half expect him to conclude one of his threats to Fedorin with "... you fockin' cuckaroach").  Of course, the Doctor and the Leader are both larger-than-life characters painted in broad strokes... but that sort of thing isn't necessarily easy to do just because it is BIG.  It needs an accomplished character actor to pull it off.  Fortunately, they had Patrick Troughton, who is pretty much the definition of an accomplished character actor.  Charlie Chaplin pulls off very much the same trick in The Great Dictator (an obvious influence on this story) but that was comedy; Troughton has a harder job in some ways - he has to play it nominally straight.  And he does.  He doesn't send it up.  And he gets away with it.  Think about that: he doesn't send up this material and he still gets away with it.  Phil Sandifer has pointed out (amidst loads of other good points) the brilliance of Troughton in the scene where the Doctor has to improvise a hurried impersonation for the benefit of Bruce.  It takes a helluvanactor to play a non-actor acting just well enough to pass muster.

The visuals are, for the most part, enriching rather than embarassing.  You have to take the dated style as read, of course, but that shouldn't be a problem for us.  Like other stories from this era, 'Enemy' is decorated with deliciously overripe op-art pop-futurism.  And yet, there's an awareness of history in various instances of something archaic being repackaged or held-over into the future.  The most striking is Astrid's kinky PVC Regency costume (already mentioned), but there's also the entropic mansion in which Salamander stays while in Hungary, Griffin's old fashioned kitchen, the disused and rotting jetty, the monitor screen in the Records Room which looks like a submarine periscope, etc. Something similar is seen in the previous story 'The Ice Warriors'.  This seems to be an idea that was around at the time: the future as built upon and around the remains of the past.

Some of the visuals are astonishingly confident.  There's a lovely bit where Jamie approaches in the distance... and he's part of the back projection!  Salamander's speech to the UN (or whatever it is) and his journey down into his secret bunker are strikingly well done.  You get a true feeling of depth and verticality in the depiction of the shuttle going up and down the mine shaft.  Sadly the bunker itself could've been done better.  It's altogether too roomy and bright, and the people down there are far too clean and healthy-looking.

All in all, though, this looks damn good.  Barry Letts treats it like the character-piece it is, letting the camera get close in on faces at crucial moments of drama.  The snappy editing helps too.  Both techniques (combined with Troughton's performance) contribute to adding a genuine dramatic frisson to the scene at the conclusion when Salamander swings round to see the double (whose existence he has deduced... though nothing much is made of this in the story) standing behind him.  Holding back the meeting between the Doctor and Salamander until the end is very effective.  It's all over a bit quickly, but it has an impact above its fleeting, tacked-on position.

Beyond the visuals, there's a real sense of a global society here.  Of course, we're mostly concerned with the relations between various members of what I'd call the ruling class.  Kent, Salamander, Denes, Fedorin, etc are all global politicians or ex-politicians.  Benik and Bruce seem to be global policemen.  But we do have Fariah and the wonderfully miserable Griffin representing the lesser-mortals caught in the midst of it all, and it helps that they're both such vivid individuals.  There's a texture of character and social relation in this story.  Even the baddies' coppers seem like real people.  Even a guard is likely to have a repressed conscience, a tendency to roll his eyes at superiors (another little present that the restored pictures give us) or a name and a penchant for charmingly-inept chat-up lines.  It brings the proceedings above much of the James Bond stuff on which they so clearly riff.

Politically, it ain't progressive, to be honest.  As in 'Power of the Daleks', Whittaker's depiction of politics is nebulous, deliberately vague, all about structure rather than ideology or policy.  Less of an allegorical space is opened by such vagueness in 'Enemy' than in 'Power', sadly.  This global society is hierarchical, run by professional politicians and policemen, formally utilitarian, prosperous and apparently based on some kind of workable settlement of imperial competition.  In a way, the specifics don't matter much.  This is a pretty simple story about one man's (or two men's) corruption and lust for power destabilising a more-or-less smooth functionalist framework.  As such, it fits happily into a nice, simple bourgeois schema of political normality and villainy.  Things are pretty much okay until a Salamander comes along ("like Napoleon" as Victoria puts it, recalling a symbol of revolution who became an Emperor) promising things, giving charismatic speeches, getting popular with the people by giving them stuff, manipulating the paranoia of a dissatisfied minority (the bunker people), etc.  The absence of democracy in the Zone system doesn't seem to be a problem for Whittaker as long as the people have the good sense to like the right boss (Denes) rather than the wrong one (El Mariachi)... which, sadly, can't be counted upon.  Just look at the peaceniks isolated in their little bunker.  Deluded by a cynical political machiavel, they pass judgement on the nuke-using world and, with callous self-righteousness, set about their own revolution from below.  In so doing, they turn the world into a fiery mess and help bring a populist dictator to power. It's not their fault, of course... the swarthy firebrand outsider has tricked them.  The Mexican bastard.

This is, essentially, a response to the ferment of the 60s which says "calm down guys, there's not going to be a nuclear holocaust and we're gonna work things out for the best... there's no need to throw hierarchy and bourgeois order out of the window... and there's certainly no need to be idolising any Latin revolutionaries because they'll just become the new boss, worse than the old boss".  We were just talking the other day about how 'The Space Museum' opened up a potential within Doctor Who for revolutionary energy... well, much as I love it - and I genuinely do adore it - 'Enemy' doesn't grab hold of that potential, I'm afraid.

Luckily it has all the good stuff already mentioned, plus a pacey plot and lots of lovely, crackly dialogue like:

"Whatever made you take a job as a food taster?"

"She was hungry."


"You must have been a nasty little boy."

"Oh, I was.  But I had a very enjoyable childhood."

Back in the Whingeorium... why wasn't more of Season 5 like this? 

Oh, and did you see how the BBC blew the plot twists in the trailer they released?  Okay, people like me have listened to the CDs about 40,000 times... but what if there'd been someone watching who didn't know?  Y'know, a kid or something.  Boo.

The Web of Fear

The Web of Fear
Blah blah... sets the stage for the UNIT era... blah blah... first appearance of the Brigadier... blah blah... the audience at the time didn't know he'd become a regular goodie... blah blah... he's supposed to be suspicious... blah blah... London Underground refused them permission... blah blah... so they built their own sets... blah blah... London Underground found them so convincing that they... blah blah blah.

Less thrilled by this one, though I'm delighted to have most of it back of course.  This is considerably less interesting, less fun and - despite some bravura Camfieldian effort - less well done than 'Enemy'.  Lots of it is just people in dull uniforms discussing technical stuff about train stations, or walking around in the dark.  It doesn't really matter that the Yeti look daft (though their new, big, round, bright eyes look appropriately like train headlights) but it does matter that we spend two episodes too many watching them wandering around doing nothing much besides looking daft. 

When they do swing into action, things get better.  There's a superb battle sequence in Episode Two.  Camfield stages it beautifully - with lots of quick cuts and even what looks like some very modern shakey camera stuff - and adroitly choses some excellent stock music which really enhances things, the way adroitly chosen stock music sometimes can.  Some of the bits where soldiers get webbing full in the face are quite effectively nasty.  It's great to have this stuff back.  The brightly lit outdoor battle set-piece later on works less well because you can actually see the Yeti properly.

It's a shame that Episode Three is still missing.  Episode Three has Troughton, unlike Episode Two (when he was on his hols), and Two is paddingtastic.  Two does have that first Yeti battle I mentioned though, and the spooky cliffhanger with the foam pulsing in the Underground tunnels.  I'm a sucker for spooky London Underground stuff (i.e. An American Werewolf in London, Creep) so this pleases me.  Episode One is the best of the bunch, with the scenes in the museum at the start, accompanied by Bartok... but we already had that one.

On the subject of Episode One, I suppose we have to talk about Julius Silverstein.  Well, there, I've said it.  Julius Silverstein.  Just saying it covers it.  Makes Fariah look breezily unproblematic.

On the subject of offensive stereotypes, we also have to talk about Evans.  I must confess that I've always been a bit dubious on this one.  I've never been aware of a particular stereotype about the Welsh that they're cowardly.  Of course, there is more to it than that.  Evans is still a comedy idiot, boyo-ing and there's-lovely-ing it all over the place... which ties in with the perennial patronising infantilisation and quaintification of the Welsh in English culture, the culture of the nation that conquered Wales.  Indeed, such depictions of the Welsh as hilarious "baa lambs" (to use Arnold's phrase) were the favoured way of degrading them before jokes about sheep-shagging and the chavviness of Splott were discovered.

Thing is... Evans is kind of my hero (at least until he actively starts trying to sell other people down the river).  Yes, I know he's untrustworthy and selfish, just interested in number one, but there's something Yossarian-esque about him too.  He's the little guy, utterly unimpressed by the conception of duty and honour peddled by the stiff-upper-lip brigade, or the obedience of their willing subordinates. 

"You're just trying to save your own skin!"

"Well it's the only one I got!"

Too bloody right, mate... especially since the whole situation turns out to be a personal grudge match between two big wheels, the Doctor and the Intelligence.  If the little guys of the world all just got some chocolate and pissed off and let the big wheels duke it out... well, the world would be a better place.  The lunatics would have no asylum to rule, no pawns to play chess with, no troops to send into battle against each other.  I realise that the standard, piss-obvious objection to this would be "well, what if all the little guys had refused to fight Hitler?" to which it might be responded "well, what if all the German little guys had refused to fight for Hitler in the first place?"  Don't get me wrong, I'm not putting this forward as a practical plan for ending war; it's just that there is a part of my soul that is incapable of not cheering for a Private who tells a Captain or a Colonel to get stuffed when they order him to risk his neck for them.

Next to Evans, the most authorially frowned-upon character is Chorley, the reporter.  The script tries to tell us that he's despicable.  However, while I'm no fan of slimey, sensationalist journos (see the above picture), nor am I a fan of the axiomatic assumption that the Press should keep out of anything the military says is none of their business.  I like the way that the Robin Day/David Frost analogue Chorley is ostensibly a populist but betrays an elitist contempt for Anne because she's a "smug little red brick university..." something-or-other.  But I'm supposed to hate this guy - and automatically suspect him of being the traitor - because he has the temerity to be down there trying to get the story for me to read about?  Piss off.

As I say, a lot of this actually looks a bit dull... though it's worth having the visuals back for three scenes that are heavy with effective character stuff and great acting.  The first is the lovely scene where Anne Travers deals with Knight's rather awkward, cheesy and patronising attempt to chat her up.  Who never did enough of this kind of thing.  (Anne, by the way, is another Strong Female Character™ from the 60s who puts modern ones to shame.  She has some scenes after the Yeti attack on HQ that get perilously close to sobby dishrag territory, but otherwise she's a forceful, expert and necessary presence all the way through.)  The second is the strangely affecting scene where Professor Travers meets Victoria and Jamie again after 40 years.  Who never did enough of this kind of thing either.  The third is the scene where the Intelligence, in possession of Professor Travers, abducts Victoria.  Troughton and Hines react splendidly, with Hines giving a particularly passionate rendering of anger and distress.

End of the day, this is saved from being just another Season 5 base/monsters runaround by the sheer arbitrariness of it all.  Yeti.  In the London Underground.  Armed with cobwebs.  I'm not the kind of dickhat who says things like "they must've been on drugs when they wrote this" about classic kids' TV, but there is a hallucinatory randomness about much of what goes on here.  It has the jumbled quality of a dream... which even holds true for the silly reveal of the arbitrary and illogical traitor. 

Also, it contributes to the overall feel of stream-of-consciousness free-association that the actors playing Captain Knight and Driver Evans look uncannily like the young Terry Jones and Michael Palin.


So there you go.  There's my response, for what it's worth.  My response now, that is.  When the announcement was made, my response was simpler: pure delight... and, everything above notwithstanding, it fundamentally still is.

EDIT: Thanks to Al No for reminding me that Splott has two 't's.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Nearly Silent

Simon Schama gets a huge slab of BBC money and airtime to obfuscate the truth in the service of Apartheid state Israel, taking official Israeli lies as the basis of his 'case'.  See here

Simon Schama, thinking profound thoughts about history 'n' stuff.

Licence-fee money well spent there. 

Best bit, on the wall:

“I want to say, nobody, including me, ultimately has the moral right to say that shouldn’t have happened, the wall shouldn’t have happened. Before the wall happened, hundreds of people were dying every year from terrorist attacks; after the wall happened very, very few...."

Actually, since the start of the wall, over 4,000 Palestinians have died... but they obviously don't come into the category of 'people' for Professor Schama, no more than the Haitian slaves who didn't get mentioned in his massive book on the French Revolution.

He continues:

"In some senses, if you don’t live in Israel — I don’t live in Israel — you are morally obliged to be nearly silent.”

So shouldn't that mean that Professor Schama should be "nearly silent" about it?  No, of course not.  He means that people who disapprove of the wall should be "nearly silent".  That's the viewpoint that is invalid if it comes from a non-Israeli.  Fascinating how clever people can talk circular, babyish drivel and think it profundity... while being totally unconscious of how they themselves are broadcasting - in this case literally - their own moral hypocrisy.

Or maybe Schama's programme constituted 'near silence'... it was, after all, of little substance. 

If only the Palestinians were allowed to be as "nearly silent" on the 'objective' BBC as the Zionists.  

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Cut

On 'The Space Museum'

Recently, while tracking some hits this blog received, I discovered a new Doctor Who podcast called Pex Lives.  It's great stuff, well worth listening to... and I'm not just saying that because the guys who make it - Kevin Burns and James Murphy - kindly linked to me and mentioned me in one of the episodes.  Their third and latest podcast is just out, and centres upon 'The Krotons'.  Their second podcast is about 'The Space Museum' and they delve into the piece with lots of wit (in both senses of the word) alongside anarchism, Tolstoy, progress and political change.  Not many Who podcasts touch on stuff like this.  My favourite quote: "we're both ambivalent about violent revolution".  (For the record, so am I.)   It also helps that they both have likeable voices.  Kevin sounds like Terry Gilliam (i.e. he has one of those American voices that sounds as though it is filtered through a permanent grin of enthusiasm) and James sounds like a gigantic, sentient, wryly raised eyebrow that has somehow gained the ability to talk with the voice of a hip-hop DJ.  Even so, I kept on wanting to interrupt them... which I mean as a compliment.  So I made some notes instead, and they turned into this:

1. Freeze Frame

The Doctor, Vicki, Barbara and Ian spend episode one wandering around the museum unseen and unheard, unable to interact with events and apparently seeing glimpses of their own future, culminating in their encountering themselves as exhibits. The explanation for this is that they’ve “jumped a time track” and arrived before their arrival, so to speak. Vicki ponders what this means in a speech that, as the Pexcasters remark, is as poetic as it is scientifically meaningless:

Time, like space, although a dimension in itself, also has dimensions of its own.

However, I think that “time”, as used here, really refers to narrative, particularly TV narrative. One of those inner dimensions of narrative is, of course, metaphor. So when Vicki uses the word “time” metaphorically to refer to TV narrative (hereafter TVN), and thus says that narrative has dimensions of its own, she identifies one of those dimensions by using it.

But let’s look at the moment when the ‘time track’ is ‘jumped’. This happens at the very beginning of part one, which is also a reprise of the cliffhanger at the end of ‘The Crusade’.  This cliffhanger was a sudden and uncanny 'freezing' of the characters.  The Doctor & Co. are still frozen in their medieval duds at the beginning of 'Space Museum'.  They then unfreeze in their regular clothes (Ian in suave catalogue menswear, Vicki in teenybopper pop-socks, Barbara in her oh-so-practical cardigan, and the Doctor in his usual quasi-Edwardian proto-Adam Adamant gear). The Doctor, upon being questioned about this by the baffled Ian, says that the answer is “time and relativity, dear boy”.

This 'jump' occurs at the junction of two stories, one ending and the other starting.  At the start of the new TVN, the characters are still, so to speak, stuck at the end of the last TVN.  They're frozen, despite the fact that a new TVN has begun without them. This is, of course, just a literalization of what always happens: the characters freeze for a week.  But this time we actually see the freezing at the end of one story, continuing into the start of the next.  Indeed, as noted, the freezing was the cliffhanger.  The extra-diegetic business of the freezing of the characters has become a diegetic occurence.  It is an in-narrative effect of which the characters are conscious. 

But boil it down: what have we actually seen? 

We’ve seen a cut.

(Pause to recall the momentous, primal importance of the cut in Doctor Who up to this point… the fact that a cut makes it possible for ‘An Unearthly Child’ - in a moment of pure television amidst what would otherwise look very much like televised theatre - to put the TARDIS console room inside a police box, to move Barbara and us instantly from the junkyard to the alien ship via an apparently instantaneous physical movement through impossible space, to put the latter inside the former, to do something that is possible now that we’ve “discovered television”, i.e. to put the massive building inside a small box.)

The jumping of the time track in ‘Space Museum’ is a cut. Moreover, it is the kind of cut that indicates a temporal gap, the skipping over of a movement through time. It is the moment when the narrative jumps forward, using the grammar of television; snipping out the boring and non-dramatic bits that are not relevant to the audience, slicing away the mundane ‘dead time’ of the characters which we don’t need to see and can happily take on trust. It is the kind of cut (between the reprise of a cliffhanger at the end of one story and the first scene proper of the new story) that represents a movement not only through time but also from one unit of TVN to another. It’s the kind of cut that signifies a dramatic/televisual moment, thus unifying dramatic time and TVN. The break in time is, in this kind of case, also simultaneously a break between stories. Just as the break in time sews together two discrete but separate dramatic moments, so it sews together two narratives.  (In so doing it also undermines the rather dodgy premise that there really is such discreteness in the separation of narratives - a premise that fails to hold up when you delve into the actual behind-the-scenes business of writing and script-editing.)  Thus it is, strangely, both a moment of progress and of stasis.

The cut signifies not only an implied/annihilated fictional half-hour of cleaning-up, wardrobe diving and changing, but also a handover - at least in broad terms - from one story/writer to a new one.  The difference here is that the characters notice it. Or rather, they notice the absence/break that it signifies. They notice the stitching along the join. They notice that this hypothetical half-hour never existed for them. They have moved and not moved.  They notice that strange unity of progress and stasis.  They have not inherited the obliviousness to this that should come with a cut. They notice that their clothes changed in an instant. That isn’t supposed to happen… at least, not in drama. Such moments of meta-awareness are a staple of comedy (and have been long before the 60s when they started to become the vogue in TV comedy) which may be why the moment of awareness in ‘The Space Museum’ is marked by a comedic moment (the “Doctor we’ve got our clothes on!” bit).

In noticing the cut, the characters have noticed the syntax and grammar of TVN which ought to just underly their actions as structure. Just as sentences become nonsensical when you concentrate on their arrangement, or on the brute fact of the arrangement of letters, so a fissure opens up in the story by the characters’ awareness of narrative structure. This single glitch is enough to put them out of proper contact with the story into which they have just hurtled. It is enough to leave them stranded, skewiff in relation to the narrative. Out of phase, out of synch, out of time. The Doctor’s casual dismissal of the moment may be persiflage, but it also gets right to the root of the problem. His words make sense, as long as we take “time” to mean TVN (and, if you think about it, how could “time” possibly mean anything else within a story on TV?).

The Doctor and his friends have been propelled into one of the other interior dimensions of narrative: the relative distance between the characters and the narrative. Their freak moment of awareness of the functioning of the TVN (in which they are trapped like ball-bearings inside a mechanism) has allowed a distance to open up between them and the symbolic order that makes narrative function... and so, because narrative essentially is this symbolic order, the distance is between them and the narrative itself. This is how they can arrive and not arrive… and, really, this is just an extrapolation of what Doctor Who always does by its very nature: it unglues characters within TVN from the conventional causal rules of TVN, allowing them to see the future and the past, allowing them to move freely (more or less) within the interior, relative dimensions of narrative.

2. Empire Hears the Sound of Doctors Toppling

So, thus freed, they see a possible future, a possible - as yet unsettled - narrative conclusion, to which they would not otherwise have advance access... and what they see is their own possible, nay probable, defeat.  I don't buy that they've arrived before themselves.  That doesn't work.  They have arrived on Xeros after themselves, after their probable defeat.  They find the TARDIS and their own frozen selves in the Museum.  They have already arrived, wandered in, been captured and frozen and exhibited.  What they see is the aftermath of this, of the whole trajectory of a Doctor Who story going wrong and being aborted.  And it's not just this story that goes wrong... it's a whole new kind of trajectory for Doctor Who (the Doctor/show with an anti-imperialist and revolutionary energy) being truncated before it can get going.

The skewiff time travellers, detached from their own assigned dimension within the TVN and stuck in a subsidiary one, walk around in the remains of a story after it has ended, in the aftermath of an alternate story, a story that is literally impossible within Doctor Who but which nevertheless seems to have tried to transpire. The version of the museum they wander through in episode one is itself an exhibit of a long-settled past. Like museum exhibits, it is a mute testament to a deactivated, finished, concluded story. In the case of the desynchronised world of episode one, it is a frozen exhibit of the concluded story of the Doctor and his friends being defeated. This story is already over. In that story, Our Heroes were captured and frozen and turned into exhibits, never to travel again, never again to jump from one narrative to a new one.

The great consequence of the Doctor's capture and pickling is that the Xeron revolution never happened.  Vicki never got the chance to bully the Xerons into it.  So, in the version of the last episode that the TARDIS crew get to spectate at during episode one, the Xerons are still slaves and the Moroks are still masters.  The museum endures.  And Doctor Who is over.

You want proof?  There is a Dalek, dead and hollow, displayed as a harmless exhibit, a thing of the past.  Already, by this point, the Dalek was the other part of the dyad that made Doctor Who into itself.  If its dead, so is the show.  (The final proof that the Doctor has won comes at the very end, when a new cliffhanger brings a new TVN... and it features reactivated, reanimated, resurgent Daleks.)

What the travellers see as they wander around the museum in their disconnected state is nothing less than post-Doctor Who.  It is the Doctor Who universe continuing after the character and his show have been destroyed.  It is the universe without the Doctor.  And it manifests not only as a universe of eternally preserved blandness and futurelessness, a universe of frozen entropy (and thus of frozen time and frozen narrative), but also as a universe of eternal empire.  Tyranny will last forever now that the Doctor is just an exhibit in a museum.  The Doctor's failure to foment revolution (by proxy... because we're still feeling our way cautiously into this new energy) is what destroys him and his show.  Empire gets him before he can escape it or topple it.  This is not a connection that the show would ever have made before.

This is new.

3. Strange Matter

All this can happen only because of the material practices of TV production, because of their recursive re-entry into the narrative as a creatively distorting force.  Just as the console room can only be within the Police Box because of the material reality of the cut influencing what is physically possible for the characters within the story, so the time track can only be jumped through use of the same technique. When they walk out onto the surface of Xeros, the time travellers leave no footprints and, when they don’t speak, there is nothing but silence. In being detached from the plot (and TVN and diegetic time) they have become materially detached... or, to look at it from the other side, re-attached to the material reality of production.  They have become diegetically aware of another inner dimension of TVN: the material dimension, i.e. the setness of the set, the studioness of the studio... all this as a follow-on from their awareness of the cuttedness of a cut. I’m surprised they don’t notice their own shadows cast upon the supposedly distant mountains. This is an astonishing intrusion of the material reality of TV production into the diegesis, into the ‘consciousness’ of characters within a television story. Without actually breaking the fourth wall (which is always rather glib and obvious and bathetic whenever it actually happens) there’s very little more that can be done to make material production intrude deliberately into the narrative it produces.

In the time period / narrative dimension that Our Heroes get temporarily stuck in, their feet make no impression on the sand… because it’s a studio floor. The diegetic rationale is opaque. What matters is that the in-narrative consciousness of the material reality of TV production allows the proliferation of TVN’s interior dimensions. That’s also how Vicki’s glass can break and reform: the material reality of film (wind forward, wind backwards) can increase and decrease entropy for the characters (remember, entropy cannot decrease in our universe, which is why we can’t really travel backwards in time… but in the interior dimensions of TVN, it can… hence the possibility of time travel within TVN).  The material reality of TV production is how the characters can inhabit the strange zone of skewiffness in which they spend episode one, even when inside the museum.  This is how Vicki can wave her hand through the exhibits.  It's how the TARDIS can be transparent and insubstantial. 

4.  No Future

Entropy is, of course, a perennial obsession of SF, and decidedly of Doctor Who. Who has an ambivalent relationship with the concept. The ethical value attached to order and disorder swings back and forth, and this oscillation is inherently political in its implications. There is an enormous difference between the imposition of order and stability at the end of ‘The Web Planet’ and the gleeful abandon with which disorder and instability reign at the end of ‘Power of the Daleks’. On Vortis, the Animus (a communist cancer) is defeated, the proper lords of the planet return to rule again and the formerly “militant” beasts of burden resume their due subservience. On Vulcan, various competing forms of political domination are allowed to annihilate each other while the Doctor chuckles. Arguably, the Hartnell era up to this point (’Space Museum’) has the Doctor largely playing the role of a force for entropy-minimisation. He either escapes historical narratives in which disorder is depicted as political ferment (’The Reign of Terror’) or ‘primitivism’ (too numerous to need adumbration, but...), or re-establishes order by catalysing some bourgeois political settlement (’The Sensorites’). Despite his debut as a force of anarchic interruption of bland, post-war, liberal normality in ‘An Unearthly Child’, he soon settles into the role of Guardian of Order in past and future. You can’t rewrite History: not one line. Etc.

However, in ‘The Space Museum’ something changes. Not totally, not for all time and in all instances. But the balance shifts, or begins to. The centre of gravity of the series/character starts to change. At the very least, the potentialities become wider, more open, more radical. (James and Kevin note that, in this story, Hartnell's character becomes, for the first time, something like the Doctor as we know him.)  The threat which catalyses this shift is the threat of the utter foreclosure of potentialities, the loss of future, the doom of becoming an exhibit in a museum.

A museum is, of course, a place built to house objects with no future, objects upon which all potentialities have foreclosed, objects for which all possible destinies (apart from eternal static preservation and display) have collapsed. The threat of the Morok museum is of freezing, of the complete minimisation of entropy, and hence of future time… and hence, as we’ve seen, of the future dimension of TVN. The threat is of No More Stories. To Doctor Who, an anthology series to end all anthology series, this is an existential threat in both senses, i.e. a threat to its meaning and to its continuance. (See section 2, above.)  Such a thing has already been hinted at in the previous story, ‘The Crusade’, in which Saladin interprets Barbara as a member of a troupe of travelling players, casts her in the role of Scheherezade, and tells her that if she runs out of stories to tell, she dies. In ‘The Space Museum’, this threat stems directly from the political project of a declining empire. It goes beyond narrative collapse.  It looks more like narrative annihilation. It is a directly political threat.

5. When the Sky Falls / When it Crumbles / We Will Stand Tall / Face it All Together*

In ‘The Space Museum’, the threat to the Morok’s declining empire is directly the threat of entropy. They fight entropy with stasis.  That the emblem of their empire is a museum is telling.  A museum is, as noted, the place where the future is frozen and stasis eternally preserved.  In order to preserve the exhibits, the Moroks have to literally freeze them, which seems to also freeze them in time, thus arresting entropy (which is, of course, both waste heat and time's arrow).  On Xeros, their colony which they have overwritten with their own history in the form of their museum, all is silence and stillness.  Morok anti-entropy has leaked out and freeze-dried the planet.  The Xerons themselves have been reduced to a race of children.  Nobody seems bothered by the idea that they might grow up.  If they prove to be capable of it, they can always be exterminated - that's Lobos' stated plan.  Meanwhile, frozen at the point of adolescence (a curiously bland and placid adolescence, but with all the essential impotence of that part of life), they hang around doing nothing.  The Moroks hang around doing nothing too.  The exhibits hang around doing nothing. Nobody visits the museum. The Moroks can’t wait to get home. Boredom reigns. It prefigures Doctor Who’s great fixation upon eternal, existential boredom in the 80s. And for the same reason.  Like those 80s episodes, which came during Thatcher's great quest to freeze social progress while dressing her project up as a resurgence of national/imperial status, 'Space Museum' dramatises the calculated and cynical freezing of imperial decay.  As in the 80s stories, in 'Space Museum' it leads to the stunting of progress, the dawn of a bland circularity, a smothering silence and stiltedness, the feeling in everyone that they're rolling a boulder eternally up a hill without ever getting nearer the top.  Just think of Vicki's irritation at the way the Xerons just sit around indulging in melancholy dreaming.  (Vicki, of course - as Kevin and James recognize - is the emblem of a hopeful, Moddish, 60s optimism about the future and about youngsters.)

As the Pexcasters also point out, the Morok empire is, of course, the British empire in decline. But the metaphor actually does the Morok/Brits some favours, depicting them as pitiably bored and mostly-passive, all assuming that their glories are in the past, doing little that is proactive to defend their standing and influence, sitting around bemoaning the way their own people seem uninterested in past glories. They have, the odd bit of half-hearted repression aside, apparently accepted that their empire is over. This at a time when the British (under Harold Wilson) were still fighting a rearguard action to shore up their influence by getting militarily involved in Malaysia (a country pretty much created to serve British tactical interests in that region), and assisting General Suharto’s bloody coup in Indonesia, which entailed displacing the neutralist Sukarno and massacring leftists, and paving the way for Suharto’s genocidal invasion of East Timor. The Moroks are part-and-parcel of the widespread idea that Britain dismantled her empire largely peaceably… forgetting about the bloody rampages against the Mau Mau, and plenty of other sanguinary attempts at holding back the tide of anti-colonial resistance. If Britain sometimes yielded to the the inevitable a bit more easily than other European colonial powers, the underlying reasons were economic rather than moral.

Glyn Jones was, of course, an exile from South Africa, and ‘The Space Museum’ clearly swipes at colonialism… but you have to wonder if he was thinking of British colonialism against the Boers, forgetting that the South African state was built on the bloody, racist colonialist repression of native Africans by the Dutch settlers. The Xerons are often observed to be “kids” but they are also definitely “white kids” (as Ace might put it). In some ways, this is preferable to the attempts at implying ethnic and/or racial difference in the ‘oppressed natives’ in other stories. The Swampies are bad enough (though their portrayal as characters could have been a lot worse, as Avatar proved) but even the Kinda - characters in a much more complex and politically sophisticated story - are problematic, being an example of Whitey taking it upon himself to represent a version of conquered peoples. Even so, the Xerons are white kids displacing, in true settler style, the real victims of Western imperialism and colonialism. They are an echo of very old imperialist stereotypes of ‘natives’ (who were, according to Kipling, “half child”) as helpless, clueless, passive and foolish, while also being a negation of the whole existence of people of colour as victims of colonialism. It might be observed here that programme makers can’t win. They either leave people of colour out completely, thus negating their existence, or put them in and thus practice the inherently imperialistic project of appropriating their experience and representing their stories for them. And it’s true: they can’t win. The necessary response to this isn’t to look harder for ways to square the various vicious circles of liberal media in imperialist, white-dominated societies… the necessary response is to stop society being imperialist and white-dominated. (If pointing out the impossibility of squaring such circles on a little-read blog contributes towards this aim, then I’m doing my part. /irony/)

Of course, the 60s had Vicki as a possibility because, even as it was the era of British imperial decline (often resisted with great savagery) it was also the era of burgeoning social and political struggle, resistance and cultural insurrection.  The link was there between the liberation struggles of the colonised peoples and the struggles of Western students and workers (which is, of course, why the Xerons are both colonised 'natives' and dissatisfied youngsters).  Even outside or before the realms of radicalism, there was a widespread feeling that progress was, if not inevitable, certainly hard to resist.  In the 80s, what radicalism there was was reactive and defensive... and 80s Doctor Who (the odd bit of mordant satire notwithstanding) doesn't really start engaging with this until Cartmel comes along.  Hence the fixation of the pre-Cartmel 80s upon entropy and decline and tedium.

'The Space Museum' is when the show really begins any attempt to engage with these syndromes.  When you start looking for it, the whole of 'The Space Museum' is about entropy stalled and/or reversed, with this minimisation being the central threat and the imperial project. The intersection between the narrative manifestations of this (the jumped time track, the empty museum) and the thematic/political manifestations (The Decline and Fall of the Morok Empire, artificially paused) is what makes this story tick… or rather, not tick.

This is key.  The big threat to our heroes, to their and our presumed values, to the show itself, is not entropy (or its effect/appearance: time).  The threat is no entropy.  The threat is the restriction of entropy, the stopping of the clocks, the freezing of decay.  We want the Morok empire to decay.  The Xerons and the TARDIS crew need entropy in order to liberate themselves via the continued crumbling of Morok power.  The effect of the Morok effort to preserve their tyranny in amber is the creation of a massive system of freezing, of stalling, of pickling, of preserving, of exhibiting.  Their museum is more than just a standard way of imposing imperial power and knowledge over the conquered, using their world as a palimpsest.  Their museum is the ultimate symbol of their attempt to arrest entropy - and thus time, and thus progress (as an anti-imperialist would define it) - itself.

Now, given that we've already established entropy as synonymous with time, and time in a TVN as essentially synonymous with narrative, and narrative as essentially synonymous with the symbolic order that makes it work, so we can now see how and why that time track got jumped.  When the TARDIS - the device that unglues characters from the conventional rules of narrative and allows them to travel within its interior relative dimensions - got too near to Xeros, a world overwritten by the Morok museum - and thus soaked in the toxic by-product of the Moroks' cold, anti-entropy juice - it juddered, stuttered, stammered, faltered and froze along a vulnerable fault-line of TVN - that cut we were talking about earlier, that unity of stasis and progress - thus throwing the characters off at an angle.

The material reality of TV production is the machine, the dimensions of TVN are the product, and the anti-entropic politics becomes a spanner in the works.  The machine lurches and the ball-bearings inside get to see a glimpse of its destruction.

The end of Doctor Who nearly comes about because the machine nearly chokes on the way post-imperial decline and resistance to progress effects it.  Why is it so effected?  Because it's a series so open to radical possibilities.  And why is it so open?  By virtue of all those interior narrative dimensions which proliferate because of the unique way the show harnesses the material methods of TV production!

To stop his entropy being minimised - and thus his future ended - the Doctor must become different… or rather, his show must.  Hence Vicki’s revolution and the story's frank embrace of the idea of revolt, insurrection, violent overthrow, etc.  The show has reached the moment when it must move forward or freeze. 1965. The crux of the 60s.  In many ways, Doctor Who instinctively wants to sit on the fence (it is, after all, the product of a patriarchal, authoritarian, elitest corporation), and this causes it to judder to a halt, to stumble.  It is hardly the first or last institution to trip over such social contradictions.  It falls over the tricky, trippy moment when the narrative dimensions generated by the material conditions of its production bump up against the figure of an entropic empire.  The moment itself demands that the show make a decision.  It's clear - so clear that I might even be tempted to invoke some kind of dialectical law of history - that the show’s survival depends upon the anti-imperial, progressive choice.  Otherwise there is nothing but the freezing, the minimisation of entropy, the defeated embrace of changlessness.  No more history.  No more story.  That's why, for all its faults and failures and compromises, this is the first revolutionary Doctor Who story. To go forward, the show must embrace revolution. This choice unfreezes time, history, progress, narrative, etc.  Like us - then and now - the show must accept the necessity of pulling the communication cord of revolution (as Walter Benjamin put it) to avoid the train crash of history. 

The cut that makes the TARDIS jump a time track is, ultimately, a cut between the show's past and its future. This is, in a way, a conflict that the show - especially the 60s show - goes over again and again and again. Entropy must be released. Time restarted. Progress made possible. Future stories depend upon it.  The battle needs to be constantly repeated.  The superb Vicki becomes the wretched Victoria just a few years later... but then Zoe arrives.  It is partial and imperfect and imprecise and compromised.  It repeatedly fails.  But the process, the dialectic, starts here.  And it opens up the future of the show.  In their podcast, Kevin and James call it "the beating heart of Doctor Who".  This is just a tad romantic and exculpatory for a cynical, Frankfurt School-influenced grump like me... but I know what they mean.  We all do.  And if we don't, we should.

The moral of this story?

Feel free to touch the exhibits.

Come on.

You know you want to.

It can't be insignificant that the Doctor's souvenir of this adventure is a massive television that interprets the entire universe and all of history as TV programming.

In London we have a Science Museum and a War Museum.  As though they're separate things.  Walk around the Imperial War Museum.  It's a museum of science and technology.


*I fucking hate this song.  It is an anthem of British imperial/capitalist values in the face of crisis.  Just like the wretched film it accompanies, it is the heroization of the fallen hero Capital/Empire/Country climbing and clawing its way back to potency and moral authority after a near-fatal collapse/fall/wound/recession.  We're all in this together, etc.  Yeah.  Fuck off.