Monday, 30 May 2011

Three Act Tragedy

And so it came to pass that Series 3 ended with a trilogy.  And Jack looked upon the trilogy.  And Jack saw that it was... umm... er...


Good stuff; the Master's return at the end is the least of it.  We have to put up with some of the obligatory "gee, aren't humans just neat?!" stuff from the Doctor, but it passes soon enough. Yana is a touching, melancholic figure. Chantho is one of my favourite characters in all Who. The scene where the Doctor and Jack finally discuss Jack's immortality is beautifully scripted and acted. The desolated conglomeration is beautiful.

The whole set up is pregnant with intricate, sombre, uncomfortable implications. At the end of everything, with even the galaxies disappearing... amidst a wasteland, haunted by a dead city and one lone survivor (who still clings to her obsolete cultural norms)... amidst all these things, there are two groups of humans... the unreasoningly fierce and cruel "futurekind", with their gnashing sharp teeth, their flaming torches and their mindless desire to destroy... and the refugees who huddle together for warmth; who value family and friendship; who have created structure and purpose out of bits of scrap, food and dreams of impossible deliverance... and the Futurekind want to smash these aspirations for no real reason, while the refugees keep building even as they near the point of maximum entropy.

This is 'Gridlock' part II... but it's less comfortable than 'Gridlock'.  More bleak.  More gloomy.  More fully liberal.  Hence, more reactionary.

The faith of the refugees is in a better world, like the faith of the gridlockers... but they refugees have given it a name that has political rather than religious associations. 'Utopia' is usually thought of now as representing some age-old impossible dream of social perfection and total human equality.  In the mainstream discourse, to be Utopian is to share the putative mistakes and delusions of the founders of the 20th century totalitarians. Lenin wanted to make a paradise; that's why he ended up making Hell on Earth. (This isn't my view, by the way. It is as simplistic and ahistorical as it is popular.)

'Utopia' is one of those stories that I love despite the fact that it's highly open to a reactionary reading (like 'Frontios' for example, with which it shares some ideas).

In 'Utopia', the supposed dual nature of humanity is externalised in the form of two seperate tribes (who fight for no reason, as tribes always do in this view of the world), one of which is 'civilised' and one of which is 'barbarous' for no real reason. There is no reconciling this 'clash of civilisations'. The nice people, who are associated in the text with science, technology, modernity, family life, democracy (via the concept of Utopia itself), must fight and/or escape the barbarians (with their medieval ways)... or be destroyed.

In the end, they simply have to leave the Futurekind behind (to die) as they blast off in search of Utopia. At least this story holds out some hope that Utopia (i.e. some form of social/political optimum) might be reachable... an avenue of hope that 'The Last of the Time Lords' closes decisively and brutally.

It isn't hard to see what all this points to. RTD is far too influenced by the Dawkins/Hitchens/Hari axis-of-liberal-culturalism for my liking.

But ambiguity isn't a bad thing per se. This story is very interesting and rich, so (as with 'Midnight' next season) the fact that it carries connotations that I find open to a reactionary political interpretation doesn't spoil my enjoyment.

In the end, the greatness of the story lies in the perfection of its construction. Every time I watch it I find myself wondering how it's possible to create a script that functions with such clockwork perfection without also creating something that ever feels mechanical. It has a organic feel to it. Every event grows from the events before. Every character moment similarly. Casual lines of dialogue kickstart psychological chain reactions that result in major plot eruptions.

It's a thing of beauty. It's very apt (on several levels) that the major emblem of the story should be a watch. A watch symbolises time. And structure. And technology. And the human desire to control the universe into which we're born. And it also stands as a pretty good metaphor (precise yet graceful) for the workings of the plot itself.

'The Sound of Drums' / 'Last of the Time Lords'

I still feel very ambivalent about these episodes. I've never really been able to resolve my feelings about them. This is a deeply mythological story which also expresses a great many political ideas. The Master in ‘Sound of Drums’ / ‘Last of the Time Lords’ is not just the Anti-Christ, bringing the tribulation and controlling mankind through their own follies, he is also a Blairesque opportunist who flashes his fake smile at the TV while using the state apparatus to arrest innocent people and scheme for war.

Trouble is, it's also highly steeped in both genre/cult mediocrity and self-referential/reverential Whoness. And the political notions are incoherent and self-contradictory.

The episodes hint at issues to do with propaganda, media manipulation etc. (even down to the Master commenting approvingly on the Teletubbies having TVs in their bellies). Are we to interpret the Archangel network as an expression of how modern technological media functions as a tool of power? How our media has now burrowed deep into us and become part of our being... this is psychologically true, and is on the brink of becoming physically/biologically true. A meshing of man and media/machine is a future dream/nightmare that many Who monsters express, not least the Toclafane.

Okay... but it essentially boils down to brainwashing, or rather hypnotism... which makes it hard to read the story as being an attack on the system itself, or even a reactionary whinge about stupid, ignorant voters giving their assent to dodgy characters (which would at least link up thematically with the Utopia thing).

But in this story, the system is usurped by a man who murders the real politicians... and he hasn't secured the consent of the electorate, just hypnotised them! Seems to me, everyone is let off the hook... despite some potential which we glimpse in the Cabinet session scene (a scene that seems all the more pointed in these days of the ConDem Coalition). It's all very well for Martha's dad to shout accusations at people on the streets... but even this scene, which potentially could've been extremely powerful and edgey, is rendered essentially meaningless. People voted for the bad guys that take away innocent people in unmarked vans... because they were brainwashed. So... what? This story seems to determined to assert that we're all guilty while also absolving us.

There is a determination in this story to acknowledge that people get deeply hurt by violence, tyranny, etc... there is an attempt at showing emotional trauma... there is an attempt to show people profoundly changed by long, hard struggles... there is a depiction of emotional/physical domination (especially with Lucy)... and an attempt to depict such emotional/physical cruelty as having sources beyond pure evil. However, people also behave in ways that are as convenient in plot terms as they are inexplicable and unbelievable. And there is a great big cheaty Reset button which sets everything right... except that it doesn't because, for some reason, some people don't get time reversed and have to live with their pain. Which seems a bit confused.

The Master is shown as a sort of wounded, vicious, sniggering, narcissistic baby... his triumph is the triumph of madness and delusion superimposed on reality by power. Yet John Simm plays him, at least for large sections of the time, as just an irritating pratt. And much of his immaturity is expressed in pointless villain posturing and/or equally pointless continuity references.

The cliffhanger to 'Sound of Drums' is a summation of the Master's malicious madness, a vision of the apocalypse reiterated in terms of technological alienation, a savage swipe at the dark inner sociopathy of necon messianism, etc... but its also a tired, wheezing genre cliche... not to mention the exact same mechanical-monsters-swoop-down-from-the-skies-and-kill-people-for-no-apparent-reason scenario as we got at the same point in Season 2 (still, at least this is only the second time we get it... I'm looking at you, 'The Stolen Earth').

And the dark heart of the story is the business of the Toclafane being the humans of the future. This continues the pessimistic, arguably reactionary message of 'Utopia'. Attempt to reach Utopia (the word carries unavoidable political connotations, even without the concentration of the rest of the story on politics) and you end up with tyranny, totalitarianism and mass murder under the auspices of a mad, opportunistic demagogue. Humans, in this view, are inherently savage creatures that will become sadistic monsters if just given the right push by the right kind of lunatic... and don't such ruthless loonies always tempt "us" with the promise of Utopia? This is political philosophy as practiced by Andrew Marr or Jeremy Vine. It's a perfect expression of 'original sin' as a political concept, of the idea that "we" are in some way collectively responsible as a species for tyranny and destructiveness.  It's as mainstream as it is cretinous.  As orthodox as it is ahistorical.  As thoroughly a foundation of liberalism as it is of elitism, authoritarianism, neoconism and even fascism.

This is why the sniping at the politicians and the Americans is so unsatisfying... because it's hypocritical.  We're obviously supposed to despise the sharp-suited politicos and the hubristic US Prez for their arrogance and untrustworthiness... and yet the story that lampoons and slaughters them backs a view of people and society (the classical liberal view of individualism = freedom / collectivism = destined to end in tears) that has just as much contempt for ordinary people.  Beneath all the superficial rhapsodising of humanity, the best they can do it find a saviour to pray for. 

Yes, the people of Earth find their 'better' side and express it... through the very technology that enslaved them and turned the future humans into the Toclafane. So, is technology our salvation or our damnation? I suppose it depends what we do with it. But we can't choose what to do with it if we're brainwashed, can we? Is this story about political opportunism and public gullibility (hence Utopia leading to Toclafane evil and the Master's dictatorship)? Then why is the brainwashing needed in the first place? The Archangel network business really does balls things up.  It even ballses up the reactionary interpretation!

Also, the Christianity of the thing becomes smothering. The Master must be defeated, and we get there via prayer, resurrection and forgiveness. It's recast in technobabble... but it's still evidently prayer, resurrection and forgiveness. The Doctor's hubristic and morally meaningless decision to forgive on behalf of others is exactly the same as Christ's. So, pray to the saviour and he will rise to save you from your misery, misery that stems from your own sheeplike haplessness in the face of power... and/or your guilt in bringing that misery upon yourself (we haven't quite worked out if you're guilty or innocent yet - see above)... and he will then make everything better and forgive your oppressor on your behalf, despite himself being deeply culpable in your suffering.

So, we're all guilty... and we're all innocent... collectivism (i.e. Utopia) leads to Hell... but collectivism (i.e. prayer) also leads to salvation... and we're all forgiven, whoever we are and whatever we did...

In the end, this trilogy is cast as a 'three act tragedy'.  The greatest tragedy, however, is that it could've been so good if the writer had only worked out what he was trying to say.

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