Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Skulltopus 2: Bad Night at Fang Rock

Further to this post, in which I sketched out the ideas of the author China Miéville concerning the relationship between the tentacular and the Weird, and the superpositioning of the Weird and the hauntological in monsterology (please read that before you read anything below), here's my first attempt to look at Doctor Who through that lens.

'Horror of Fang Rock' (1977) seems like an obvious first port of call.  Set just before the First World War (in other words, in the years of the rise of the semiotic octopus, just before the explosion of the Weird), the Rutan is a tentacular monster, though the tentacles are rarely seen and, on the whole, the creature seems more like a jellyfish (even down to its "affinity with electricity").

It seems to be a manifestation of the nebulous electrified military modernity that the character Reuben so resents and fears.  It seems permeated with technology through its affinity with electricity.  It uses the generator, speaks of its ability to shape-shift as a "technique" and leaves bits of its own alien tech all over the place, including a "signal modulator" that chimes thematically with all the concentration on the lighthouse's wireless telegraph.  It also espouses an ideology of empire and militarism, and uses an arrogant tone of snobbery with regards to the Sontarans, which is entirely fitting with the story's intense focus on class.

(So, there's an obvious connection here which I've made before.  'Fang Rock' is set in the early 20th century and features a tentacular monster which seems to carry metaphorical weight to do with imperialism, technology, militarism, global conquest... just the kinds of things that tentacles were being used to signify in the early 20th century political propaganda posters mentioned by Miéville and in my first Skulltopus post.  Obviously, this connection is complicated by the fact that the story I'm talking about was written, made and broadcast in 1977, not 1907 or 1917... but the connection is tempting all the same, as a possible example of semiotic drift, of the cultural bric-a-brac of one age hitching a ride into another via that previous age's representation as a period.)

The story, as a whole, seems more sympathetic to the working class characters than the 'upper class' ones. However, the various strands of the drama which explicitly deal with class only arrive at an open and easily comprehensible liberal critique of snobbery, privilege and inequality, albeit a barbed one.  The nature of the Rutan threatens to sharpen the critique, though it is ultimately far too contradictory a figure to function as a straightforward metaphor, of either a reactionary or radical nature.  The Rutan personifies the oncoming dangers of the twentieth century in a form that associates itself with militarism, military technology, class and imperialism.  However, beyond this core of metaphorical specificity, there is a difficulty in pinning down the Rutan.

It cannot be said to metaphorically embody British imperialism, specifically.  True, it appears in a story in which British imperialism is referenced... but then so is the imperialism of other nations, albeit via the xenophobia of Reuben, who mentions various nationalities engaged in imperialism at this point, saying that none of them can be trusted.  Moreover, the Rutan attacks an island populated entirely by British people.  This is not a difficult semiotic point to parse.  Nor can the Rutan be easily and clearly identified as representing ruling class imperialism.  The story as a whole is intensely concerned with the dynamics of social position, yet the Rutan fails - or refuses - to resolve itself into a part of any clear polemical strategy.

The destruction the Rutan wreaks is general.  It kills all ages, sexes and classes.  It kills the self-consciously 'honourable' officer-and-gentleman who made his name enforcing empire in India.  It kills the titled nouveau riche and his secretary/mistress.  It kills the lighthouse keepers, old and young, and the sailor.  If it stands for the lethal destructiveness of the oncoming era of technology and imperialism... i.e. the 'Great War' that is, to the people in the lighthouse, only a few years away... then it depicts the dangers as generally applicable, regardless of social position.  This is a very deliberate tactic of the text.  There is no other real reason for all the guest characters to die...

...unless it's to imply that Fang Rock will become the setting of a Marie Celeste-style legend.  The last episode ends with the Doctor quoting Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's The Ballad of Flannen Isle, a poem about an actual mystery concerning the unexplained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900... which suggests that the story was structured in such a way as to make such a quote appropriate.  This is interesting because it suggests the incomprehensibility of a puzzle, of an attempt to reconstruct a 'crime scene' that will defy accurate reconstruction, of subsequent mythic retellings of the weird goings-on at Fang Rock.

Whatever the rationale, this kind of general slaughter is quite usual in Doctor Who.  The best examples of something similar (i.e. the monster kills all but one or a very few survivors) are to be found in horror films, or horror-inflected films.  In SF, the examples that immediately suggest themselves are Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing... which is interesting.  In both films, as in 'Fang Rock', the alien menace is nearly/almost/kind-of/not-quite tentacular in the full octopoidal sense.  In both films, as in 'Fang Rock' (which antedates them both), there are small groups with complex patterns of social status and hierarchy within them (think of Ripley's initial amused contempt for Parker and Brett; of the way Bennings rudely barracks Nauls the black cook).  Also, both films are heavily "Weird-inflected" (to use a term Miéville has used to describe Alien), in that both feature monsters of unstable physical shape and unknowable mentality (incidentally, that's why I don't like the Director's Cut of Alien - because by reinserting the 'cocoon sequence' Ridley Scott makes the complete disappearance of Brett and Dallas more comprehensible, more purposeful, thus less frightening).

For now let's simply note that 'Fang Rock' depicts a miniature 'British community' - various ages, sexes and classes represented - attacked indiscriminately from outside without regard for the differences within.  You could argue that the reason for the general slaughter is to be found in the failure of the humans to 'pull together'.  In other words, the barbed liberal critique of class collapses into a somewhat moralistic sermon about how, divisions and inequities aside, the British must unite across such barriers to defend themselves against attack from outside.  Looked at this way, the story's liberalism slips into conservatism.  It becomes not merely moralistic but nationalistic.  The imperialism that the Rutan seems to represent becomes forthrightly foreign and aggressive, an alien imperialism of which the British are the victims, to which they must respond, and to which they will collectively fall - if they don't pull together, realise that they're all in it together, keep calm and carry on, etc.  The 'upper classes' come in for some stick, as they sometimes do from various strands of reactionary conservatism, for no longer being sufficiently responsible and effective to 'do their part', unlike the idealised 'rough diamonds' that are the dutiful and comparatively morally elevated working men.  In this mode of reactionary thought, the nation demands that each man do his duty... the responsible working man is to be admired for doing so, whereas the decadent aristocracy is to be scorned for failing.  It's worth noting that the position of lighthouse keeper is freighted with associations to do with duty, lonely sacrifice, guarding the nation's coast, protecting trade, keeping all sea traffic safe, etc.  However, it's also possible to read the text as demonstrating the various ways in which class privilege makes it impossible for the people who enjoy it to co-operate effectively with those below them.  There are constant misunderstandings in the story across the lines of class, with the toffs missing as many cues as the workers and the workers displaying as much savvy as the toffs (think of Vince's naivety about the telegraph message, immediately followed by his understanding that he must burn Palmerdale's bribe or risk being hanged).

When the Rutan steals or copies a human form, it chooses the form of Reuben, the most entrenchedly and doggedly 'old-fashioned' of the working class characters.  His form becomes its chosen vehicle.  Even when it discards his "ridiculous shape", it retains his voice, albeit altered (a point to which I'll return).

But again, it is impossible to fully resolve how this aspect of the text effects the meaning of the Rutan as a depiction of imperialism.   The Rutan remains indeterminate.  Reuben is idiotically xenophobic (much to the Doctor's weary irritation), an aspect of his personality which itself might be seen as undermining the possibility of reading this as a story about the foreign imperialism that he mentions, or as implying that imperialism occurs because of (or functions through) the ignorance, hostility and suspicious nationalism of common people.  In this view, the Rutan's racial chauvinism becomes associated with the xenophobia of the proletarian within an empire; it becomes relocated from the imperial system to the imperial subject.

On the other hand, if we choose to interpret the Rutan as 'using' Reuben (it does, after all, kill him and dump his body in a dark and dirty hole in the course of copying him) then we might see the story as imputing a view of imperialism as the callously lethal forced employment of the working class and the subsequent post-mortem treatment of them as refuse; as a process whereby even the bodies of the workers are stolen from them.  Moreover, when the Rutan appears as itself but continues to use Reuben's voice, that voice is altered... not only by a vocoder, to suggest mechanical reproduction (referring back to the Rutan's strangely and invisibly mechanical interior nature) but also by losing all traces of Reuben's accent and working class modes of speech.  Indeed, the Rutan's voice - though recognisably still voiced by the same actor who played Reuben - has a posh edge to it, an arrogance and swagger which chimes with the militaristic, propagandistic, snobbish, elitist, officer-class tone it strikes in its comments.

So, is there any kind of case for calling 'Horror of Fang Rock' an example of the Weird, albeit only a kind of temporarily resurrected and anachronistic example of it, hauntologically repeating on us via semiotic drift?  Well, we have the early 20th century setting, a tentacular monster which is explicitly formless (even in its 'true' shape it looks more like a dollop of jelly) and protean, with an ability to 'shape shift'.  There is an intimation that the desired effect was to leave the aftermath of the events on the lighthouse as an impenetrable puzzle in the manner of the Flannen Isle mystery.  Furthermore, the monster appears to represent - in a politically irresolvable manner that suggests, from some angles, a reactionary reading - the oncoming nightmares of 20th century modernity: military technology, ruthless imperialism, conquest, general and ignoble slaughter, etc.  The monster has a core of unplaceableness, of unpindownability.  It seems to represent both British imperialism and foreign imperialism attacking Britain, to be both a rebuke to Britain and an alibi for Britain.  Perhaps most particularly, there is the hauntological feel of the piece, which gives way to a non-hauntological monster.  Reuben's talk of the legendary "beast of Fang Rock" and of Ben's soul being likely to walk since those who die unnatural deaths "never rest easy", along with a certain BBC ghost story aesthetic, combine to suggest the hauntological as a feint, only to push such possibilities away once the monster makes its pseudo-fleshy pseudopodia fully visible.

Well... for the reasons above, it might be fair enough to go ahead and call 'Fang Rock' "Weird-inflected", but only to a slight degree.  Many Weird tales are maritime (Hodgson's Sargasso Sea stories, for example), but so are many non-Weird stories.  The mystery of what happened at the lighthouse will be a mystery only to those who find the bodies.  We know exactly what happened.  We saw it all.  The Rutan killed everyone.  We know how and we know why.  Its lethality is clearly and (pseudo)-scientifically explained in terms of electricity.  Its motivation is clearly explained in political, ideological and pragmatic military terms, even if the precise inflection of its imperialism is impossible to fully parse.  If we accept Miéville's definitions, then the Rutan fails to be Weird at the most fundamental hurdle: it is intelligible.  At the crudest level, the problem is that it speaks.  It converses, rationally and intelligently.  It has a point of view, stated aims, even an ideology.  It has a being, an ontology rather than a hauntology or a Weirdity.  (Though it does retain enough of the spectral or phantasmic to make itself insubstantial when Leela throws a knife at it.)

Moreover, it means... and, however irresolvable (confused might be a less charitable word) that meaning may be, it doesn't mean meaninglessness.  It evades a single, unitary, clear-cut political meaning, but it doesn't evade meaning itself.  It might reflect the bemused and suspicious fear of modernity seen in the character of Reuben, it might reflect a kind of oncoming 'general imperialism' in which imperialism of an international and thus non-localisable kind is 'the problem', but however fuzzy and deferred that meaning becomes, it still is a meaning intended to mean.  The problem embodied in the Rutan is blurred, nebulous, non-local, indeterminate, irresolvable in linear terms... but it isn't fundamentally unknowable.  And it seems to convey things that we (like Reuben) recognise and already fear, hauntology style.  Moreover, we're clearly being asked (as we so often are in this show) to draw moral conclusions.  'Fang Rock' rejects the idea that the horror of modernity makes modernity incomprehensible in principle, and rejects the idea that it is morally neutral.  For all that it flirts with reactionary import, it doesn't come anywhere near that radically scared fugue state in which the 'reactionary ecstatics' of the Weird despaired of meaning entirely.  Doing something like that - i.e. a monster with no apparent motivation, no mentality, no ideology, no discernible purpose, no comprehensible methods even - would likely have been percieved (probably wrongly) as too extreme or unsatisfying for the kid viewers.  It would also approach something that the Weird often does but which Who can never do, simply because of its function within the culture industry: abandon or neglect narrative.

All the same, there is something interesting in the way 'Horror of Fang Rock' comes close to the Weird in some ways, suggests it, skirts it, toys with it, distantly reflects it, attempts (unsuccessfully) to meld it with the hauntological.  This - I'm probably going to argue - is a recurring inflection in Doctor Who.  It's to be expected, given that Doctor Who is a kind of shaggily indiscriminate collage, rudely assembled by too many cooks from the cultural debris of a century and more of genre, pulp and semiotics.

Last word (here anyway):  It's interesting how Doctor Who's constantly repeating foreclosure upon the idea of the supernatural, which is part of its (generally spurious) inner identification of itself as supporting empiricism and materialism (which itself stems from the original idea of it as 'educational') seems to also foreclose upon hauntological readings... something that 'Fang Rock' demonstrates, with its refusal of the hauntological logic despite the employment of the hauntological affect, its use and subsequent disavowal of "fisherman's tales" of "mythical sea creatures", its rumination on the superstitions of the different classes, the moment it gives Leela to express her (paradoxical) 'belief' in science over shamanism.  And yet, the more I look at the show as a whole, the more I seem to see attempts on its part to 'get around' this foreclosure and to represent the haunting, implicating, being/non-being monster that returns the repressed. Hence the peculiar materialist gothic, a strain that runs through it.  Think of the Cybermen, who are simultaneously the embodied nightmares of the technological and bandage-wrapped crypto-Mummies... but with cloth-faces like the linen thing from the Weird/hauntological buffer zone of M. R. James.

I shall probably be looking at Zygons in this series.  And Krynoids (which, in passing, become much less scary when they speak and explain themselves).  And Axons.  And, I suspect most especially, the Fendahl.  And I'll probably have to look at that Tennant two-parter... you know, the one which attempted to grapple with metaphysical themes, the gothic, the satanic... by invoking the resolutely non-gothic, non-ghostly visual tropes of the Weird, ie Lovecraftian Cthulhu-esque slave monsters in revolt.

More later.


  1. Excellent piece (or pair of pieces), and where else would I be able to read a Doctor Who article talking about the rise of the semiotic octopus? It’s fascinating to look at what I’ve always thought of as near-textbook Who in a new light, with your thorough examination of potential meanings – or protean lack of them – to the Rutan, and ultimately the story itself, being both and neither cape nor tentacle. Perhaps I’m just too familiar with it, first as one of the children it was designed to frighten and later through knowing too much of the background to it (the hauntological – and “Fang”, and parasitic aristocrats, and a man named Harker – I can’t help seeing as Terrance sticking two fingers up at Dracula, for infamous behind-the-scenes reasons, and the Weird-inflected because he’s stated he was thinking of a creature that would be the opposite of Sontarans). It hadn’t occurred to me that the Rutan speaking should be a problem, so I’ll have to mull that over in your Skulltopic context, but I’d certainly go along with you on the Krynoid; that story would do much better without that scene (and with a less prosaic resolution)…

    For once, I’d also agree on “the story’s intense focus on class,” too. You probably won’t be surprised if I see Doctor Who stories in terms of class analysis less often, but here it’s so blatant it’s impossible to miss. Back when I wrote about Horror of Fang Rock a few years ago, I called it “the series’ story most about social class”, with the different layers of snobbery ranging from the Doctor being the only one to call Vince “Mr Hawkins” at one end to the extreme-through-social-insecurity of Palmerdale’s mistress at the other, and its straightforward Terrance Dicks moral: ‘being greedy gets you killed, and you deserve it!’

    One thing I’m mildly surprised you didn’t focus on more – perhaps because you see it as a given – is the level of Skinsale’s corruption. You call him “the self-consciously ‘honourable’ officer-and-gentleman”, contrasting that with his part in the Empire, but for me he’s far more of a nasty piece of work than that usual sort of character, for all their implicit baggage; most fans seem to pigeonhole Palmerdale as “greedy” and Skinsale an “affable old soldier”, one there to dislike and one to warm to, and while I’m sure you’d attack the likes of both, I’m always surprised that pretty much every other review falls for Skinsale on his own terms. Even “self-consciously ‘honourable’” is too kind, as if he’s got his own false consciousness; I’d say he’s more self-styled, and ruthless in defending that façade. I dislike Skinsale even more than I do Palmerdale because at least his Lordship is honestly nasty; the Colonel is just as greedy, though not as good at it, and wants to have it all in a way that not even Palmerdale does – “good name”, position, money – without doing the work, and is prepared to be selfish, reckless, criminal, arrogant and possibly treasonous, threatening people’s livelihoods and ultimately lives so he can get away with it. In that context, I’d have expected you to point to him as the ideal exposé of his class…

  2. Thanks Alex, nice to get such a full and thoughtful comment (plus praise, which is is always welcome).

    A clarification: I didn't necessarily mean to say that I think it's a mistake for the Rutan to speak. On the contrary, I like its words and voice. I just noticed that its explanation of its motives, together with its clear iteration of an ideology, hugely diminish any 'Weirdness' it may possess. Indeed, its articulation makes it veer back towards the hauntological - which the story as a whole had been edging towards disavowing - because "the empty rhetoric of a defeated dictator" makes the Rutan back into something recognisable (ie a militarist, an imperialist), thus turning it back into the 'returning repressed', the fears of Reuben (coupled with oncoming horrors of history that *we* recognise, even if they lie ahead of the characters) incarnated as a monster that is meant to mean. Reading myself back, I could've been clearer on this.

    Also, you're quite right about Skinsale. "Self-styled" would've been better than "self-consciously", since his persona of "officer and gentleman" is pure hypocrisy. His sneering at Palmerdale as a "money grubber" is particularly telling, as is his refusal to blame himself for the loss of his reputation. There's a complex dance of class here that Dicks depicts really very well indeed. Palmerdale has a title, yet he comes over as decidely *arriviste*. One senses a fortune based on trade and, specifically, finance. In short, Palmerdale smells of big, 20th century capitalism. That's why Skinsale, who is not an aristo as such, looks down at him. He considers himself socially superior despite being skint, presumably because his family cache is unsullied by 'making' any money. His is the status based purely on blood (which is what would allow him to be an "officer and gentleman") that Palmerdale would long for, hence his crashingly inappropriate attempts to ape it. BUT, people like Skinsale were relics. They were losing out to the rise of people like Palmerdale - and found themselves bumming money off them! So you have the 'dollar bride' phenomenon, for example. Rich American families (wealthy from business and finance) wanted the cache of English titles... English aristos needed dirty 'new' money. But, as an added twist (which 'Fang Rock' notices!) a few of the British 'new money' people, the business and finance millionaires of Britain, were titled... because it was the social privileges of the old class system that often provided titled people a way into the new system (particularly through rents).

    What's especially interesting about all this from the angle of discussing the hauntological (or gothic, to be broader about it) is that... well, you mentioned 'Dracula'. Now there's a brilliant Marxist reading of this book by a chap called Moretti, in which he identifies the vampire as standing for global monopoly capital (he wants to import and export his infection, branch out, conquer foreign markets and eventually bring the whole globe into conformity with his own system) vs. liberal free trade... Dracula's great enemy is, after all, a Dutchman!

  3. My pleasure, and thanks for the reply. Perhaps I was doing what Mary Whitehouse would have said about me when I was a boy and watching the story, and letting the end linger in my mind (given that, although you talk about it earlier in a different context, I remembered the last time you mention the Rutan speaking). But, yes, good points, and thanks for disentangling them. Glad you enjoyed the points about Skinsale – I have a feeling I’d always assumed he was ‘nice’, reading the book and not questioning it, then saw the VHS when it was released in the ’90s and suddenly thought, ‘But he’s a complete git!’ But excellent expansions on all that and the historical background. Suddenly, I’d like to see Terrance Dicks’ version of Downton Abbey, with Skinsale as his Lordship.

    I’m tempted by that Marxist reading of Dracula, now. Not least because it sounds like I’d side with Van Helsing. When I’ve written about ‘Breaking up monopolies’ before now, it’s not usually by literally cutting their heads off and burying them at a crossroads…