Wednesday 9 November 2011

Things Fall Apart

Here's a round-up of my Timelash II on Season 18.  I was holding this (and some of the stuff about Seasons 19-21) back because I was going to rework it into something bigger, but that isn't happening (too much else to do), so...

The Leisure Hive

Bidmead's script tinkerings somewhat dilute the essential idea of a leisure planet in favour of wannabe-big-conceptual stuff... which is pretty dull and lumbering, if we're honest.

The planet fails to convince as a leisure resort, which kind of undercuts all the lengths they go to to stress that the whole race have become employees of a going concern. All that boardroom stuff where they discuss investments suddenly looks redundant. What's it there to contextualise?

The stylistic overhaul is huge, ambitious and largely successful. There's a new willingness to try stuff out. They're happy to go all dark and quiet during the scene where Timson is stalked by the West Lodge Foamasi. I particularly like the slow, melancholy opening.

Mind you, the seeds of the later-80s problems are already visible. The Doctor is now wearing a uniform, etc.

The politics is weird. The war was about... what? Argolin militarism? So, their response to their catastrophic defeat was to become capitalists specialising in leisure? Umm, okay... And their enemies, who now want peace, are apparently statists who have outlawed "private enterprise"... apart from a kind of mafia faction... er...  Y'know, it's potentially good stuff but, somehow, it fails to fit together.

It's darn good as a first attempt at an overhaul of the basic dramatic and aesthetic values of a show in decline... but we'll have to wait until 'Full Circle' before they get it to work.

You wouldn't think this was the start of one of my absolute favourite seasons, would you?


This is daft. But I have to confess to having a seriously soft spot for it.

There are some good ideas buried in there. The Dodecahedron makes me think of Kepler, and his obsession with the perfect shapes that he thought contained the secrets of the universe... which was a conflict within him between science and mysticism which he sought unsuccessfully to reconcile... the problem is that the nearest thing to such a character in the story is Zastor, who's hardly there at all.

Some of the music is great. The Screens have an impressive monumentalism to their design.  They suggest (to me anyway) some ruined statue of Ozymandias lying rusting in the silicon desert of the real.

Sadly we have a silly jungle planet too. And someone who wants to run the universe for no particular reason.

Also, we have casual racism in the casting: the Gaztaks are multi-racial because they're a band of criminals.  Of course, I realise this happens because they're pirates... and pirates were supposedly (I know next to nothing about the actual history of pirates) a multi-racial bunch... but this also explains why there are no black Tigellans... which underlines the fact that, in this story, normality is civil society and civil society (i.e. scientists, religious people, police, politicians... all inside the city, within the community, under the state) is exclusively white.  A multi-ethnic mix becomes a sign of the external, the motley, the threatening, the lawless, the anti-social, the nomadic, the uncontrolled and uncivillised outside force.  It's an implication, nothing more.  And quite mild by any standards.  Nothing to get worked up about.  But it's still there, all the same.

Full Circle

Season 18 finally comes together.

Okay, we get pretty much the first 80s-style soapy domestic scenes aboard the TARDIS... but in their melancholy nature, they're still rather lovely and a far cry from all the bickering that would later clog up 80s tales. No Tegan with bad US-sitcom style insults. Just two people who are rather fond of each other, quietly beginning to face the need to part.

The story itself is steeped in irony of a particularly caustic kind. The Doctor's barely-concealed contempt for the initiative-free Alzarians contrasts nicely with his rage at Dexeter and at what he takes to be the cynicism of the Deciders... but it turns out to be less cynicism than just more ineptitude (intellectual and moral), which stops the story from being a simplistic morality tale about shifty leaders. Instead we get a story in which everybody seems to be doing everything more or less wrong without meaning to, in which the best intentions are obscured and hindered by incompetence, prejudice and/or fear. Even the kid rebels (who prove themselves more gutsy and intelligent than the adults) are blundering around in ignorance.

In a story which seems so concentrated on the process of maturation, it can hardly be an accident that we get one of the few depictions of an alien/monster that is also a child. Of course, the child dies. Partly through the workings of science (which this story depicts as intrusive and violating as much as enlightening), partly through the hamfisted glory-seeking of Dexeter, partly through its own ignorance of technology, partly through its trust in the only kind face it has ever seen. True pathos (as opposed to sentimentality) leads to the Doctor's glorious tirade against the Deciders, but he has the maturity to calm down when forced to admit that he doesn't have a monopoly on understanding... and he leaves the Deciders with the choice whether to press the button or not.

The themes of the story are highlighted and enriched by the notion that the Alzarians can't pilot their own ship. They must travel aimlessly, like evolution... if they have the guts to travel at all. This final revelation heaps on the absurdity and irony whereas a more straightforward and less interesting story would just have left the Deciders as cynical procrastinators. Social entropy resulting in the loss of knowledge. Class and hierarchy based not on the rottenness of rulers but on control over surplus (the technology and the ship and the books, which are cultural capital when the Deciders can decipher them and just the baubles of authority when they can’t).

Of course, it gets evolution wrong in all sorts of ways... though it's better than I've previously given it credit for (when I said that it depicted evolution working by "a kind of teleological lamarckism") because, as I recently realised, the Alzarians are only humanoid because they evolved to fit inside the Starliner.

Ultimately, you can forgive the technical errors because the story expresses (with careful irony) some essential truths about our kinship with the beasts: we bear the lowly stamp of our origins, we look on our ancestors with a kind of existential horror, we have insight that they lack, but in our technocratic comfort we've lost the spark of ruthless initiative that must have helped them survive until they became us.

State of Decay

...depicts feudalism as literal blood-sucking. It offers a luridly symbolic picture of how such a society works. To be flippant and theoretically inexact (in the extreme), the Great Vampire is the base and the tower is the superstructure. The architecture of tyrannical hierarchy is constructed on the basis of absolute exploitation. But the structure is tottering. The reversion from the high-technological civilisation of the astronauts backwards to feudalism is ‘the wasting’, the loss of social traction upon the forces of production that leads to the wasting of lives and thoughts and machines and methods and people, that leads to rooms full of rusting computers and unused rocket ships masquerading as castles. The forces exist to provide a better life for all, but they are outlawed and neglected into entropic disintegration by a system that refuses to relinquish its power.

Also, it’s also got vampire bats in it, which is kewwwwl.

I looked at Warriors' Gate, here.

The Keeper of Traken

Fourth masterpiece in a row.

The ancient man in the throne. The statue in the decaying grove. These are images that are hardwired into my brain. I saw them as a small child and they have stuck with me, the way that ideas from myths and fairytales do. The rest of the story may not always live up to the amazing aesthetic impact of these two elements (it all gets a tad twee and art nouveau for my taste...) but still, there's no denying that this is a richly drawn world... richly drawn in story too... because this is a "real" world... with living rooms and safes, cloisters and private offices, groves and public streets, bribeable petty officials and weddings and step-mothers and kings and... ahh, we're back to fairytales now, aren't we? But that's okay... fairytales have their origins in real times and places, in real fears and social conditions.

This tension between the 'realistic' social complexity of the world and its alternate nature as fairytale may well be what makes this story so interesting... as well as the usual (consistent is a less perjorative way of putting it) Season 18 emphasis on entropy and history.

The idea of a place so good that evil beings are immediately paralysed and calcified seems too simplistic... but, as we see more of Traken society, the more we realise that their ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are more to do with order and disorder... actually with stasis and change... than anything truly ethical. Maybe it isn’t “infinite evil” that gets turned to stone but, rather, anything that tries to bring disruption and disorder… or just change. Is there social perfection here or mass lazy acquiescence? There certainly doesn't seem to be any democracy; more like a relatively benevolent oligarchy… of course, an oligarchy can afford to be relatively benevolent in times of plenty. But there is still talk of summary executions. There is still greed, ambition, class snobbery, distrust, superstition. A smothering complacency... that the Master is waiting to exploit.

This is one of the best manifestations of the old bastard. He isn’t calcified, he is hidden inside a pretence of being calcified. He complains of his immobility… but that seems more like a self-inflicted side-effect of waiting so long for his chance at grabbing the Source. He's playing a waiting game with Kassia and her whole world, without ever daring to venture out into it… just in case. He plays upon and uses the original sins of the Trakenites, fuelling his jealousy and resentment. He is, almost literally, the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Again, the tension between the fairytale and the social complexity.

What does the Serpent do? He lurks in a garden and misleads a woman with temptations and false promises, leading to her causing the downfall of a utopian mode of life. Well, obviously, the Melkur/Master chimes with this. But it's more complex than this. Genesis is an immensely powerful text because it says deeper things than that. It's an attempt to understand where the world of work and pain and alienation came from, when we all feel, deep down, that we were meant for a better life. It places the deeper blame - rightly in some ways, wrongly in others, I'd argue - on history itself. Change and decay.

Change of any kind is inimical to the Trakenites. They live in a cloying “web of harmony” that stifles nature and all the chaotic and entropic things that nature needs. But they also seem to live outside history. They've reached the 'End of History', a bland millenium of bourgeois order. The Master reintroduces the Trakenites to death and disorder and change… and, however nasty his motives (petty spite and small-minded imperialist delusions), he actually may have done them a kind of favour. Like the serpent, he’s kick-started history by destroying bland perfection and offering dangerous knowledge. He’s brought them back into history by bringing them back into the nightmare of conquest and expansion and political innovation. This is 'progress' and we don't have to like it to see that, sometimes, it needs to happen.

He has restarted the clock, albeit briefly… of course he will soon stop their clocks forever.


'Logopolis' (literally, "City of Words") brings Season 18's preoccupation with entropy to a culmination. Entropy has been a preoccupation of Doctor Who from the very beginning. What is 'An Unearthly Child' about if not social entropy... it's even about the loss of heat for Godel's sake! What is 'Gridlock' about if not the breakdown of a social system, with chaos infiltrating the layers where the energy has drained away, with human physical and social energy uselessly pooled in a cul-de-sac?

Funny thing is, in 'Logopolis' entropy behaves more like a corruption of information. Entropy has of course been adapted to information theory... especially with regards to transmission which, interestingly enough, is a key concept in 'Logopolis'. The story seems to think that reality is made of information and, indeed, this is one way of interpreting the trend of the physical sciences. Oddly, this chimes with many ancient religious ideas.

'Logopolis' is much more myth and legend... theology even... than it is science. The Logopolitans may be superficially mathematicians, but as sages who "mutter, intone" reality into existence (or transformation) they are much more like wizards uttering spells or priests reciting the scripture. They're like monks... and monks, historically, were the people who created and preserved all the texts, all the history and philosophy. They created their world - and much of what we know of their world comes from their words - by means of language. Moreover, the idea that reality is made of words - implicit in 'Logopolis' - is one that has resonated through many religious conceptions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Christian Genesis ("In the beginning was the word") in which God literally speaks the universe into existence and need only utter a decree for new structure to arise.

In keeping with the idea that entropy is more a corruption of information than a measure of uselessly pooled energy within a system, the cosmic apocalypse in this curious tale is as much a silencing or darkening as it is a crumbling. The pages of the book of the world are being erased, leaving only terminal blankness and silence. Time ends, history stops, silence engulfs all reality and all structure unravels... all because the Master imposes silence upon the speaking, muttering, chanting, thinking world. His callous, self-seeking philistinism is the antithesis of all speech and all language, hence of all physical and social reality, of all history and all future.

Parenthetically... it's interesting how the work of a science-minded guy like Bidmead, who is probably a materialist or physicalist of some kind, instead relies upon such an idealist conception of reality... but then this does often happen.  Look at Dawkins.  He presents himself as the arch-materialist... yet memes are pure idealism.

Back with 'Logopolis', we also have Tom's final turn as a man who has lost his old friends but must soon change to fit his new ones, a man warned by his own future (by his own immortal soul?) that he will soon have to watch the universe shudder and totter, and then that he himself will die. He's quiet, heavy, sad... and wonderful.

Okay, it looks very cheap. But this is Doctor Who after all, and such things go with the territory. How can you really complain about the aesthetics of a story that serves up so many dazzling and haunting images. The TARDIS inside itself like Russian Dolls; the TARDIS as a sinister labyrinth; the TARDIS as a cloistered thinking-space made from crumbling masonry and overrun with vines; the TARDIS as a puzzle box rather than a spaceship. Then you have the dish, emblematic of transmission and information, glowering over a city of monastic cells that also look like the crenulations of a massive brain.

Much of the plot is... odd, to say the least. And Episode One is seriously clogged up by the unnecessary saga of Tegan's journey to work, complete with her monomaniacal wittering about planes and the "hilarious" business of silly females who, natch, are hopeless with machines. And then there's the Master. He just manages to stand for the silencing of thought and knowledge... but he does it inspite of his inherent feebleness as a character. Really, a story like ‘Logopolis’ needs more than a bog-standard, black-clad, moustache-twirling, megalomaniac Dick Dastardly.

But, in the end, I think you have to applaud 'Logopolis' with all its flaws. It's a unique piece of television: mythic, erudite, heartfelt and thoughtful. The inconsistencies of the plot, the weakness of some of the characterisation, a few moments of horrible dialogue and the presence of Tegan make it impossible for me to quite rate this as highly as the four masterpieces that preceded it... but it's a close run thing.

1 comment:

  1. You've made me see season 18 in a new light. Thank you.