Monday, 27 September 2010

The Power of the Zargoids (Reconstructed)

What follows is a substantially rewritten version of something I wrote AGES ago and originally posted at my old site. The original version struck me as woefully inadequate (and embarassingly gushy... which is a fault of mine) when I reread it recently.

Is ‘The Power of the Daleks’ a parable about a democracy destabilised by fascists or about an authoritarian society destabilised by liberals, or even people who think of themselves as leftists? Well… the answer is, of course, yes.

If this is about the rise of fascism, there are some problems with it. Bragen works as a sort of fascist, scheming to replace a relatively soft regime with an authoritarian one which he will rule with an iron fist. But the presence of the Daleks muddies this, separating the barbarism of fascism from fascism as a political movement. The Daleks have always been symbols of totalitarianism so, when they turn on the astonished rebels, it makes it hard to see the rebels as analogous to the Nazi party. If the rebels are Nazis, it should be they who are persecuting the ethnic minority in the colony… and that’s the Daleks! And the depiction of fascism is inadequate anyway because it is depicted as the work of one man acting on his own psychological motives. The story manages to notice that fascism emerges from social democracy, that it is a mass movement which can mobilise some popular support and appear radical… but predicates it on one man’s ambition and offers no context for it, no recognition of the fact that it is a form of class war waged at times when the capitalist system is (or perceives itself to be) under intense threat from crisis, instability and rising working class resistance and mobilisation.

But a full analysis of fascism as an actual historical phenomenon isn’t what the story is trying to do. And, in any case, the rebels are never conclusively identified as a fascist movement… and nor is the Governor’s regime ever conclusively identified as democratic. It might be an unelected oligarchy, for all we know. It has military undertones, almost like the colony’s social superstructure is built upon the ranks and hierarchies of a military expedition. Hensall seems happy for Bragen to acquire more and more police muscle as long as he thinks they’re his to call upon. Hensall’s government certainly seems to operate very much behind closed doors amongst small groups of plummy-voiced men… but then so does ours and we’d call ours a “democracy”, meaningfully enough as long as all we’re doing is distinguishing it from places like Saudi Arabia. In any case, it’s perfectly possible that the rebels are a liberal or leftist movement reacting to an authoritarian regime.

The rebels don't seem to be an ideologically revolutionary organisation. They certainly behave like one… although they may simply be a non-revolutionary organisation forced into clandestine meetings by authoritarian repression… though, the guards who’d do the repressing are commanded by the rebel leader, so…. hmm, it’s all a bit confusing. In any case, if they are ‘left-wing’ then they’re unusually uninterested in class or exploitation. It’s hard to say what they’re motivation is, beyond purely pragmatic objections to Hensall’s style of leadership, or his husbandry and management of resources. Such concerns are the real interest of social-democratic parties, though historically they have tended to cloak their managerial leanings behind nice rhetoric about reform and rights and freedom and equality… which the rebels don’t do. Janley makes it clear to Lesterson that the rebels would not radically alter the status quo when she assures him that he’d do better for resources under their regime. The rebels are reformists who start a revolution in order to make reforms. Whittaker is a little confused here, perhaps. I know I am.

One problem we have is that we never really get a sense of what sort of economy the colony has. Private property doesn’t seem to exist in the capitalist sense, but this certainly isn’t feudalism or communism either. The invisibility of economic relations creates difficulties analysing quite a few of the most superficially political Doctor Who stories, ‘The Savages’ for example. The key is to realise when a story is disinterested in specifics and is working with generalities; ‘The Savages’ offers an essentialised portrait of exploitation… and ‘Power’ offers an essentialised picture of power politics.

Fundamentally, the title holds the key. The story is about power. It's not about specific ideologies but about how people fall into power relationships, how such relationships fall apart, how power is linked to both survival and violence, how violence becomes a deciding factor in politics, how violence becomes the continuation of politics by other means. From Janley's moral blackmail of Lesterson over Resno's death, to the way the rebels are fetishistically fascinated by the Dalek gun, the story is full of themes and moments that revolve around the concepts of power, control and survival. Even the Doctor is concerned with his own personal survival, recovering as he is from a regeneration. Interestingly, in this story, it is hinted that the Doctor's change was triggered by (and powered by?) the TARDIS. "Without it I couldn't survive!" declares the Doctor. The TARDIS is a survival machine for him, feeding him power. Like the colony complex to the humans; like the Dalek machine to the creature within.

There are many Dalek stories in which the barking little Skarosian bastards are almost bit-players, or could be substituted by the Zargoids of Splarg for all it would matter. This isn’t one of them. This is one of the few stories that not only really thinks about what Daleks are, how their minds work, etc. but also thinks about what they highlight about the people they bully and zap.

The Daleks want to enforce their will, their dominance. The Daleks, as ever, are a figurative representation of military/totalitarian cruelty. They are a reflection of Bragen, just as Bragen is a reflection of them. But they are seen as fundamentally worse than Bragen, as inimical to all human life. This is how they work within the rather confused politics of the piece. They are the mirror in which Bragen the fascist sees himself both reflected and magnified. Confronting them, he confronts his own values writ large and espoused by beings with bigger guns than him. But this goes for the rest of the colony too.

The Daleks need power - like the humans. The Daleks have to scheme, deceive and manipulate because, at the outset, they are weak and outnumbered – like the rebels. The Daleks know, instinctively, that their survival depends on their domination of the humans. True to their nature, they instantly see that they and the humans are two species trapped in the same survival situation. They must dominate and destroy in order to be resurrected. They realise that the best way to charm a human is to grovel, to serve "LIQUID" and profess servitude – just as Janley serves Lesterson to start with, just as Bragen defers to Hensall while he has to. The Daleks claim to be servants... but the concept of self-submission is so unfamiliar to them that they don't even quite know how to inflect the words. By the end of the story it is Lesterson who, in his childlike insanity, declares to the Daleks "I am your servant". Full circle. Like the Daleks, Lesterson wanted to use and exploit another life form, like the Daleks he recognises that the superior race must survive and the inferior be eliminated. He starts out taking his own superiority for granted. By the end - awestruck by the Dalek production line - he is quivering before the Daleks, his evolutionary superiors.

The entire story picks over the ways that the Daleks both differ from and, crucially, resemble the humans. The Daleks personify the pitiless quest for literal power, political power, evolutionary power. To the extent that the humans resemble them, they contribute towards turning their colony into a tyranny and then a slaughterhouse.

But the ways in which the races differ are also interesting. In perhaps the greatest moment of the story, a puzzled Dalek asks Bragen, who has just murdered the Governor, "WHY-DO-HUMAN-BEINGS-KILL-HUMAN-BEINGS?". The Dalek, a member of a race that exists to kill, is genuinely astonished by Bragen's action. Bragen has acted to decrease the numbers of his species, thus lessening their chances of survival (the exact opposite of what the Daleks have been up to throughout the story). To the Daleks - the great social-Darwinists of the cosmos - ideology and personal feuds are irrelevant (this is before the 80s when they got bogged down in their own civil war). Only race matters; race, power and survival. To a Dalek, a member of a species that are all the same and are implacable in their sense of purpose, the murder of a fellow Dalek is ridiculous. It's our individuality that makes it thinkable for us kill each other. Of course, that doesn't answer the Dalek's question. Neither does Bragen. He doesn't know. Hyperbole alert... but I find the irony of this almost Swiftian.

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