Thursday, 1 July 2010

Workers of the Whoniverse

(This was originally written for May Day.)

Some people think Doctor Who is inherently left-wing. This is bullshit. But… like much bullshit, there’s a fibrous grain of truth in there somewhere if you don latex gloves, break the crust and delve deeply enough into the contents of the pat.

Doctor Who started just before the worldwide explosion of dissent and protest that represents the real point of what is called (inaccurately) “the 60s”. It ran through the years of the Vietnam war, the end of the post-war economic boom, the worldwide wave of protests by students and workers, France in ’68, the Prague Spring, the height of the civil rights movement, the ascendancy (and murder) of Martin Luther King Jnr., the rise of the women’s movement and feminism, the rise of the gay liberation movement, etc. It ran during interesting times. It reflected the massive changes in social attitude that were transforming Western culture – how could it not, being a product of Western culture? It reflected something amorphous and overhyped (but real) that we call “the liberal consensus”, which is easy to take for granted now but which was a drastic change in the whole nature and consciousness of Western capitalist society, brought about by the struggles of kids, students, minorities, oppressed people and workers. It was, for the most part, shaped by creative people who were interested in their world and had a tendency to be open-minded, liberal and tolerant in their outlook, i.e. people like Barry Letts. And, later, it reflected the backlash against these changes which were lead, on this little island, by Margaret “Evil Edna” Thatcher, a backlash of which a younger generation of lefty/eco/liberals like Andrew Cartmel were strongly disapproving.

Moreover, the show was originally a product of a state-funded public service broadcaster that didn’t have to compete in the marketplace in order to survive and had a mandated role to reflect the entire nation. Beyond wanting there to be someone for the kids to identify with (and Dad to lust over) there wasn’t much time spent on demographics and other such marketing preoccupations (at least not compared to today). Reith may have been a reactionary old patrician, but Reithianism in the abstract is almost a quality-not-quantity ethic with paternalistic distortions. And the cheap-and-cheerful nature of the old series gave it a strange freedom, at least some of the time. The BBC always used the show as a cash cow, but it has only become so near-crucial to BBC prestige and revenue in recent years. And there is also the philistinism of management to remember – a BBC bigwig might send an angry memo to a producer if he thinks an episode is too scary for the nation’s chidlers while missing the fact that the same episode is sub-textually critiquing Western imperialism.

Given all this, and given the variety of writers who contributed to it over the years, it would be amazing if Doctor Who hadn’t occasionally aligned itself with workers – especially during times of heightened class struggle. After all, there were times during its original production run when even sobre and pessimistic people thought that youngsters, workers and radicals might change the world a very fundamental way. As it was, the struggles of such people heavily influenced mainstream culture, if slowly and unconsciously. In a time during which being a Maoist was to be mainstream in most universities, it’s no more surprising that the (presumably non-Maoist) makers of Doctor Who should have their hero claim friendship with Mao than it is that they should have him tripping through psychedelic surrealism (as in ‘The Time Monster’) despite not themselves being LSD users. Memes are bullshit, but ideas can be viral. When counter culture is strong and insurgent, it effects the mainstream… if only because the mainstream is heavily influenced by what is commercial and therefore tries to sell counter culture back to people when it becomes popular.

Frequently, Who will point out the corruption, callousness and brutality of masters, but they tend to be masters of slaves rather than of labour. Frequently, economic relationships are not depicted at all. When workers do appear, they tend to be stick figures in the background who are either irrelevant or need the Doctor to help them. Or they are ignorant, semi-comedy oafs. The best example of this is probably ‘The Green Death’, the culmination of the Letts/Dicks tendency towards right-on, tree-hugging, soft liberal/lefty polemics. The workers are portrayed as “funny little Welshm[e]n” who can be quite nice and kind at times, and who grumble at the nasty boss, but who also sneer ignorantly at the people with the real solutions: the middle class, University-educated, scientifically-trained, semi-hippy, right-on, soya-munching kids in the cute little commune. The other representation of workers to turn up like a bad penny is the “hotheads” thing. The Peladonian miners have legitimate grievances (the show is lefty enough to admit as much) but their sensible, moderate leader is the good guy while the radical amongst them is a “hothead” who descends into homicidal madness because he suspects that his comrades are being sold out. Meanwhile, the Doctor notes approvingly how the moderate miners’ leader stands shoulder to shoulder with the Queen and the High Priest (who have been oppressing his fellows) once they are threatened from outside. Yeurch.

When not being patronised and/or pitied, workers tend to be ignored. They just get left out, even when the show is at its most bolshy. We get a brief mention of “plebeian classes” on Gallifrey but we never see them. (This blog is named for these disdained, policed, strangely absent, seemingly vandalism-prone proles of the Doctor’s home world.) The show harps on about the evil of militarism, imperialism, fascism, racism and slavery. The show has some criticisms of organised religion. It frequently lashes out at the rich and the powerful. Sometimes it even takes on capitalism itself, situating evil forces within the context of business and corporate power. The show often seems to be sympathetic to revolution. The show has many nasty oligarchies felled by rebellion. All well and good. Inspiring even. But the rebels tend to be cookie-cutter resistance fighters rather than ordinary working people driven to revolt. Once in a while you get mention of a strike… with fish people on the picket line. There is a stripping away of wider context, even in some of the series’ most powerfully political episodes. You get sub-textual attacks on fascism… but you don’t, for instance, find any hint of it as a counter-revolutionary reaction against high levels of working class struggle (fair enough really – the Trotskyist analysis of fascism isn’t the kind of thing that keeps viewers glued to the screen between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury). Even some of the most angry attacks on capitalism lack any portrayal of workers, i.e. ‘The Caves of Androzani’.

But, as I said, occasionally a story comes along in which the workers are strongly present, in which they seem to be real people, to have a chance of winning (by themselves as much as with the Doctor’s help) and to have a chance of being a positive force, of changing the world. And it even happens occasionally in our dreary present. The series is today made by people who grew up watching it and loving it. Once in a while, even a New Labour-supporting writer with an O.B.E. and a future career in Hollywood will find himself writing a script in which an ordinary working woman stands up to the soldiers who are taking the immigrants away. Maybe it’s the influence of the old show working on his soul. Who knows?

And so… here it is, the Shabogan Graffiti guide to the three best Doctor Who stories that show the people who create all the wealth of society throwing off their (mental and/or physical) chains and fighting back.

'The War Games'

Soldiers are workers too. The guys at the front, bearing the brunt, are usually not (for the most part) the sons of privilege. The cannon fodder is drawn from the ranks of the poor and propertyless. On the ground, the Iraq war was kids from American urban wastelands devastated by domestic neoliberalism vs. reluctant Shia and Kurd conscripts. ‘Twas ever thus. And the soldiers we meet in ‘The War Games’ are clearly workers (or peasants). Okay, Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are posh, but the rest of them are common as muck.

From bluff Yorkshireman Russell to the defiant black Northern soldier Harper, the kidnapped soldiers are the workers of the world. They’ve been duped and brainwashed by their cynical leaders. They’re pawns on the chessboard of the ‘Great Game’.

And the players of the game? The English General Smyth (“the Butcher”), the German von Weich, the Confederate (also von Weich – are they clones? ...well, the Generals are all the same!) who sneeringly calls Harper “boy”… The commanders on all sides are actually allies in a conspiratorial abuse of the workers who are fooled and forced into fighting each other for no reason but to further imperialist ambitions. The real war is the war waged by the rulers against the people.

But the people see through the conditioning (or some of them do – Lenin would’ve probably called them a vanguard) and form the Resistance. Black and white, all nationalities… even Arturo Villa joins his bandits to the cause. Scared kid Private Moor saves the day by fragging the officer. Jamie and the Redcoat with whom he’s imprisoned join forces despite their natural mistrust and escape together. In the end, the War Games are stopped by this international union of soldiers in revolt.

And when was this made and shown? 1969. The year that the worldwide anti-Vietnam protests reached a crescendo.

'The Mutants'

Two words: Stubbs and Cotton. They’re a cut above yer usual sci-fi guards. Why? Because they behave like real people. Well, they behave a bit like real people (this is still Doctor Who after all). They call their boss “his nibs” when he’s not about. They grumble when the alarm goes off because they’ve got to cut short their tea break. They’re not idealised. Stubbs is prepared (though obviously not eager) to kill “Mutts” before he gets savvy to what’s really going on in the system he serves. For ages they’ve carried on standing their posts, despite casually saying that the Solonians should’ve been given their independence years ago when anybody bothers to ask them.

These are clearly meant to be normal working stiffs. Stubbs has a regional accent (a rarer and therefore more pointed detail back then) and Cotton is a black man with a Caribbean accent (again, a rare and pointed detail). The choice of a Caribbean actor (albeit a very bad one) to play Cotton is indicative (I don’t know if it’s specified in the script that Cotton should be a black man but it hardly matters). The Caribbean was a nexus point of empire – the natives were all but annihilated by Westerners and the islands were subsequently used as a crucial staging post of the slave trade. (Also, in the context of black slavery, the word “cotton” is itself redolent of many pertinent associations.) And it had to be a conscious anti-racist statement, in the early-70s context of racial strife and a resurgent National Front. Stubbs and Cotton are best mates, despite their ethnic difference. The sci-fi context makes them both “Overlords”, i.e. both defined by their common humanity… but they go on to redefine themselves as being against some of their fellow humans, i.e. the Marshal and what he represents. This is the key thing about them: in the course of a struggle against the forces of reaction, they undergo a change. They see and hear things that bring about their political awakening. They shrug off “false consciousness” as they fight alongside Ky and the other Solonians. Just as white and black workers can join forces, so can they join forces with colonial people that their own nation has subjugated.

Everybody knows that ‘The Mutants’ has things to say about apartheid, but mostly we nowadays think of apartheid in connection with the old South Africa. But Rhodesia was an apartheid state too. It had only been a self-declared independent republic since 1965 and, in 1972 was still run by the racist white-minority government of Ian Smith. It would not be until 1979 that pressure from nationalist resistance fighters and revolutionary guerrillas would force Smith to come to terms and hold proper elections, in effect granting “majority rule”. The Marshal is very reminiscent of Smith. He refuses to go along with the official policy of peaceful relinquishment devised by a crumbling system. He dreams of doing what Smith did, declaring independence from the Empire while retaining the minority rule of the “Overlords”.

In 1972, people could still see the turmoil in Britain’s colonies (or former colonies) on the TV news. A generation had lived through a process of imperial divestment, during which the British Empire dismantled itself because the Second World War had left Britain economically bankrupt. The Earth Empire in ‘The Mutants’ is clearly the British Empire (rather than the French or Portugese) because it is taking itself apart. Britain had little choice but to peacefully grant independence to her former colonies once they achieved non-communist “stability” because empire had become too expensive. France, by contrast, squandered lives and treasure trying to hold onto her possessions, only to be defeated at length… but in France in ’68, many students and workers and ordinary people had expressed their solidarity with those brutalised by their own country’s empire, which had once included what the French called Indochina… which had since become the target of another empire, and the focus of more protest.

'The Sun Makers'

Some idiot once wrote that, in this story, the rebels are worse than the baddies. I dunno what story he was watching, but it ain’t the one I know as ‘The Sun Makers’. The Others might be a motley and even unsavoury lot but they’re hardly as bad as the planet-enslaving Collector and his pet Gatherer. Mandrel makes nasty threats that he doesn’t try very hard to make good on. The Doctor, ever a keen judge of character, doesn’t seen worried by Mandrel even when he’s waving a red hot poker in his face. Leela has some choice words for them that are very pertinent. She calls them cowards and that, essentially, is the trouble with them. Mind you, you can’t blame them for running away from life in Megropolis 1.

Some other idiots have occasionally argued that ‘The Sun Makers’ is a right-wing allegory because it depicts a tyrannical state and rails against taxes. Well, that’s fine if you’re dumb enough to buy the bullshit lie that conservative politics really is all about defending personal liberty from big government and punitive taxation. In fact, ‘The Sun Makers’ couldn’t be clearer about its political sympathies (even if you stick your fingers in your ears during the playful misquoting of Marx). The tyrannical state in this story is the Company. They are effectively one, or the Company exercises such control that they might as well be. This isn’t a big state stifling the liberty of free enterprise and free consumers. This is a big state as a vehicle for corporate domination. The Company is a private concern, engaged in “commercial imperialism”. The Company has, essentially, carried out a hostile takeover of the government. This is one big state that’s been privatised.

The icons of modern conservatism (i.e. Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Bush II) are usually, for all their populist anti-government rhetoric, ultra-statists. They might reduce bureaucracy here and there (usually by cutting public services, etc.) and deregulate business, but they always strengthen the state’s machinery of enforcement, regulation, control and surveillance of its citizens, i.e. the poor schmoes who do all the work get spied on and arrested more. Meanwhile, we have de facto economic planning in the hands of radically undemocratic and monolithic organisations. We just call them corporations, but they act like states within states. And they get more and more powerful all the time.

Was the Iraq war a state affair? Well, the costs were pretty much covered by the state (i.e. by the American taxpayer) but the opportunities and profits were tendered out to the companies that swarmed in like vultures. Neoliberalism wants to turn the state into a heavily armed enforcement service that monitors and controls and taxes the population while acting as a munificent pimp for corporations, farming out every other task of the state to them, garnished with massive subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare).

The state gathers and the Company collects.

This is pretty much what Bob Holmes wrote about in ‘The Sun Makers’. His income tax bill seems to have got him thinking about the future of neoliberalism. Strange but true. Maybe he was looking at Chile and General Pinochet’s great experiment in merciless Chicago school ultra-monetarism, which he inflicted on his people via brutal repression. How else did he manage to write a Doctor Who story in 1977 that can be read as a companion text to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein?

But the key thing for the purposes of this little essay is the way the workers are portrayed as changing in the course of the struggle. The Others are clearly former workers who’ve opted out. Mandrel’s grade status and former workplace even become plot points. Cordo is the lowest of the low; a timid, despairing and bankrupt drudge, the son of a lifelong corridor sweeper. But they end up uniting across the grade barriers, across their former differences. The Others go from cowardly hiding and petty criminality to leading a general strike. Cordo goes from contemplating suicide to jubilantly leading a revolution. Bisham is an executive grade whose moment of curiosity lands him in detention; initially, he lies back and accepts his doom.. but he ends up uniting with B and D Grades to topple the government. The workers with hand and brain.

Okay, they need the Doctor to get them started, but in this story the Doctor is almost like a personification of Information itself. He tells them things. He makes them curious. He makes them angry. He poses the right questions. He turns off the gas that makes them anxious and passive (surely this is thematically linked to his taking over the TV station and the news service?) and thus gets the ball rolling. It isn't long before he wanders off with Leela and leaves the united workers to pursue the revolution on their own.

The Doctor’s role as catalyst notwithstanding, this is a full scale workers’ revolution. Moreover, it’s explicitly linked to industrial action in the scene where Goudry and Veet incite the strike. It’s idealised, sure, but the portrayal is not without sceptical irony or some healthy moral ambiguity. Mandrel’s former colleagues Synge and Hackett obviously join the revolution from fear rather than immediate enthusiasm (though they seem to end up happy enough to help), and Marn simply switches sides when she sees which way the wind is blowing.

And then we have the matter of the Gatherer and his little tumble... Well, you can wring your hands about him if you like. I have to do my own tax return so, frankly, I’m not feeling merciful.