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.


  1. Wow, thanks for the very kind words about the podcast; both James and I are appreciative of the support you've shown to us as we're getting up and running and we're extremely pleased that we've sparked such an impressive and thoughtful response.

    I always feel a bit sheepish responding to such thought provoking and compelling posts with something short that amounts to "good points" but, well, this is one of your finest posts that I've read and it's going to leave me thinking for quite a while. I find it all ringing true. And they /are/ good points.

    Your take on the action in episode one sets the table for all that follows. It's a fabulous way to frame the story. It convinces me more than ever what a gem the story is.

  2. Replies
    1. "Wow" as in "Wow, now he's REALLY lost it! I'ma stop reading this bollocks!" ?