Monday 2 January 2012

The Empire of Vanilla

Some things I've noticed about 'Spearhead from Space'

There's a lot of wood in this story.

This suggests a contrast, a conflict even, between older forms of production - the appearance of the hospital, and the Seeleys' cottage, suggest artisanship - and newer industrial technology and mass production, represented by the factory and the evil plastic which creeps out of it.

There are lots of workers in this story.  There's a Nurse.

There's Mullins.
Mullins, one of the many wage labourers in this story...
seen here in the act of labouring for his wage.  

There's a workman in the street, talking to the copper before he investigates the (off-screen) breaking of shop windows (implying the role of the police as protectors of private property and business).  There's the guard at the front gate of UNIT HQ.  There's the guide at Madame Tussauds.

There are the workers in the plastics factory.

I don't know, but I'd guess that these women - together with the male worker
seen earlier in the episode, operating heavy machinery - are actual workers
in the factory where these scenes were filmed.  One of the women is Asian,
which is a pretty big clue that she's a 'real person' rather than an extra.

Some of the workers are 'fake'.  There are Auton Porters who help kidnap the Doctor.  There's an Auton secretary at the factory.  Note how the Nestenes still employ a young woman in a short skirt as a secretary, even if she is made of plastic... but then such women are usually treated like mannequins in practice anyway.

These waxen-faced, blank, zombified workers strongly suggest an extreme form of alienation: line hypnosis, a psychological condition where people are lulled into passive, unresponsive fugue states by constant repetition of the same mechanical tasks - found most famously in people who perform extremely simple tasks at conveyor belts.  More broadly, it suggests the deadened, flattened affect of people who find their Fordist jobs dull beyond belief.

Think this is a stretch?  But the story makes a point of commenting upon automation.  The monsters are called Autons.  We see, as noted above, faceless factory workers at their tedious, repetitive, assembly-line jobs.  And General Scobie, the swaggering old reactionary establishment figure par excellence, upon hearing that the plastics factory has become largely automated (which means a load of people have lost their jobs), makes a crack about automation being a splendid idea because "you don't find machines going on strike!"  In other words, workers should be treated like and behave like machines.... and replacing them with machines is the next best thing.

There is much literal commodification - often of people - in this story.  Ransome is paid off... even his name suggests a payment for a person.  Seeley tries to sell his "thunderball" and nearly gets his wife killed.  Mullins sells the Doctor to the journos.

"I understand you pay for stories?"

But 'Spearhead' really harps on about life being commodified... most particularly by its concentration upon production.  The factory is where human-shaped commodities are produced.  We know why the Autons are so threatening, so uncanny... Ransome helpfully tells us.  It's because they walk and chase and attack, despite having been "made in the factory".  They are the product, the commodity - after us.  As with much SF, including - perhaps especially - Doctor Who, they are evil conceptualised as/through the autonomous product.  They are the unit that shifts itself.


 In the July issue of Panic Moon fanzine, I sketched the outlines of a Marxist reading of 'Spearhead from Space'.  The gist of it was that the Autons are an expression of alienation and commodity fetishism.  Please bear with me while I reiterate some basic principles.  We'll get back to Autons eventually, I promise.

Alienation and Commodity Fetishism

Human beings have always made things.  Productive labour is perhaps the most important aspect of what the young Marx called human 'species being'.  How we make things changes over time.  The rise of capitalism brought the factory system.  The division of labour.  Specialisation without expertise.  Organisation of time.  The creation of new kinds of cities that worked as battery farms for thousands of corralled workers.  Mass production.  Heavy industry.  Conveyor belts.  Fordism.  Mechanisation.  Computer-run facilities.  Humans started to make things faster than ever before, in greater numbers than ever before. And the things started to confront the thingmaker as alien, autonomous, controlling, dominating.  When you have to watch a clock to make sure you clock in and clock out at the right time, it's hard not to feel like you are answerable to the clocks, even if you work in a clock factory making clocks.

The things we made became increasingly wondrous.  The engines became bigger, faster, more powerful.  They allowed man to fly.  And to drop bombs that killed hundreds of thousands in seconds.  Products are double-edged things, to put it mildly.

The things we make... the engines... the artefacts... they behave like this because they are the products of capitalism.  They are commodities.  Made to be sold.  The system demands continued production and circulation of commodities, so products seem to breed and teem and change and mutate and multiply like bacteria.  Increasingly, they seem to have minds of their own.  They move without us, they talk without us, they do things and say things we don't understand, they assail us with cryptic error messages, they catch viruses.  They fly without pilots and destroy villages in Pakistan.  Those last ones we call "drones", naming them after living things (with irony as mordant as it is unconscious, we call them after the mindless worker bees in the rigid insectile hierarchy).  It's amazing, when you stop to think about it, just how CONSTANTLY we think and talk about inanimate stuff, about products, about commodities, as though they are alive... and powerful.  The stock market is a product.  Yet we report upon its twitches and tremours and undulations and ululations and sneezes and farts as though we are reporting the natural bodly processes and moods of some great beast, to who's whims we are subject.  This is an expression of what Marx called commodity fetishism.

Meanwhile, humans are made into commodities.  Capitalism created and depended upon the modern slave trade... and even 'free' labour (which is better than slave labour) is bought and sold on a job market.

The stuff breeds and teems as people die in swathes.  From hunger, from AIDS, from despair, from by-products, from environmental backlash, from sheer grinding poverty.  This happens because the ruling principle is profit rather than need, and because the people who make everything do not do so under conditions of their own choosing.  They are on the job market, so they end up making stuff for the stuff market.  We make what we're told, as many as we're told, for purposes we don't choose.  Indeed, there is no purpose beyond the creation of commodities.  Things are made to be sold.  The iPad is not made in order to express human creativity.  The iPad is made by people whose creative lives have been yoked to the creation of iPads by people who think they can sell iPads in order to make profit that will keep their iPad-making racket going.

Stuff is made in order to be saleable in order to fund the making of saleable stuff.  Marx contrasted this kind of labour - the forced labour of those who must work to eat - to the labour that we undertake because it is part of our humanity.  "Milton" Marx wrote, "produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature."  The waged labourer who works in the mass production of copies of Paradise Lost produces only capital - and capital is not hers.  Her human productiveness is redirected into work for the production of something that does not express her nature, that she does not own, that does not enrich her, that she produces only in order to put food on the table.

That is human creativity slaved to a system of general commodity production.  This is alienation.

At least the dolls seem happy.

Not only is human creativity subverted into the production of commodities, human creativity is also subverted into the production of the materiel of the system of commodity production.  We are all glowered-over and dominated by the stuff we and previous generations have made but which confronts us as enemy force. This is old labour, petrified into threatening and ruling facts.  The machines that drive people out of work, or make their work excrutiatingly dull, or make their work dangerous... everything that is owned by the capitalist, or which goes into the capitalist system of production, which enables the system to expropriate the surplus created by the alienated worker... all capital, in other words... was made by workers, by their past labour.  This is 'dead labour', lording it over the living.

The power relationship is omnipresent yet hidden.  Consumerism offers spurious control of and through products.  We in the rich world splurge at the shops, investing in things as though they are charms and icons and totems.  Sexuality is branded, packaged and commodified too.

We expect the sexy things to change how we look, how we are perceived, how we feel, how we think, how we eat, how we have sex.  Our bodies are translated into fake, airbrushed, inhuman objects and then sold back to us as icons of unreachable perfection that we must strive (and pay) to attain.

"They're flexible, that's why we've captured the market"

The Autons look, to me, like the product, the stuff, the commodity, (all of which is capital by means of its expropriation from the worker and its entry into the system of accumulation, circulation and profit)... come alive and attacking.  They are labour that has been expropriated, made alien to the labourer.  They are the automation that is made by workers and then squeezes workers out of the production system.  The dead labour that dominates living labour.  They are the manufactured thing, the thing that is "made in the factory", confronting us (as Marx put it) as something "hostile and alien".  They are perfect emblems of the way that capitalism (and, distinctly, consumerism) turns the human image and human needs into commodities, of humans themselves commodified through the sale and purchase of their labour power.

Note that they attack in the consumerist high street,
surrounded by shops and advertising and brand logos.
Note that they have price tags on them.

House of Cards, House of Wax

There is something uneasy about the modern world as 'Spearhead' presents it to us: it is filled with displays of hierarchy, deference and contempt. 

The military hierarchy is much in evidence, as are the attitudes of ranks to inferiors and superiors.  Munro snaps at the UNIT soldiers who shoot at the Doctor, despite their having orders to keep anyone away from the police box at all costs.  The Brigadier creeps round General Scobie and even Liz - who has been drafted unwillingly into UNIT - makes nice to him.

This is something that we see a great deal in the Pertwee era's representation of life in Britain, though it will soon prove to be found mostly in government projects and naval bases, the contempt usually displayed by a succession of easy hate-figures... bureaucrats, men from the Ministry, etc.  In 'Spearhead' we see (as already noted) a great many ordinary people, often workers in ordinary workplaces, with the hierarchy, deference and contempt ingrained in the everyday functioning of life.

Dr Henderson is contemptuous towards Mullins (gesturing at him impatiently to stop hoovering the corridor), snaps at his Nurse and snarks at lab technicians whom he supposes to have faked an x-ray... but he's creepily ingratiating towards his bluff, posh, arrogant superior.

Everybody's at it.  The journalists curtly address Mullins as "Porter".  Even the Doctor is extraordinarily rude to the guard at the entrance to UNIT HQ.

Seeley is treated as beneath contempt by everybody in a uniform, even lowly grunts.  He is detained - by people who have no stated right to detain him - against his will, patronised, interrogated, threatened, etc.

He is a poacher, of course.  But this raises the issue of private property again, and of the power of the law to punish those who dare to trespass upon the privileges of the propertied.  Whigs & Hunters, and all that.

Seeley, of course, attempts to assert male authority over his wife.  Wonderfully, she tells him to mind his manners.

But hierarchy appears in a more explicitly political way, reflecting something about the wider society... yet it does so in a way that is hardly noticed.  It appears as an almost incidental, background detail.

In 'Spearhead', Madame Tussauds has a room full of leaders and rulers.  Statesmen, presidents, politicians, bishops and pontiffs.  We see Lincoln, Washington, LBJ, Kennedy, Nixon.

The Nestenes have chosen to hide amidst these people.  They have substituted their replicas for all the "top civil servants, government types" and hidden the real oligarchs in a museum.

This may be the most telling detail in the story, yet it masquerades as background colour, as a gimmick, as a setting and nothing more.

It reminds me of how the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's The Shining is absolutely draped in Navajo designs, thus turning the film into one of the most disturbing meditations I know of on the conquest of the West and the genocide of the Native Americans - all the more disturbing for being almost entirely silent about it.  Torrance and his family trek out West and camp on the site of an "old Indian burial ground"... and the place is haunted, not by the Indians but by the malignant memory of the decadent highpoint of the society that displaced and slaughtered the Indians, that built its imperialist prosperity on their ransacked graves.

Note the Navajo designs around the elevator doors.

Note the gallons of blood.

Torrance is driven mad by his weak and self-serving sympathy with a temple of luxury and consumption (and, in a related way, of male power and mysoginy), constructed on a lake of blood.

In the same way, though less overtly hauntologically, 'Spearhead' smuggles in - silently, unconsciously - a diagnosis with what's wrong at the top of capitalism, to put alongside its diagnosis of the fetishized commodity which confronts the worker as an alien threat.  It notices that we live in a society that is ruled, that this power is both fake and immensely powerful.  It shows us the rulers of the world, in a line from the great bourgeois revolutionary Washington right up to the political administrators of Britain (mirroring the Atlanticist nature of post-war Britain's alignment with America).  It presents the rulers as a grand spectacle for paying tourists to gawp at, but also shows them as fake things, hollow dummies, tatty replicas and, potentially, as stalking killers waiting to awake.  Power becomes a collection of unreal images, potentially zombified tools (weapons) in the hands of something that is "hostile and alien", that manifests as walking products, as the human form commodified, as work alienated from workers, as evil animated parodies of the human image and human labour, as autonomous manufactoids with hands that - far from performing work - flip open to reveal annihilating weapons.

As if all this weren't unsettling enough, the story goes on to hint - silently, unconsciously, as before - at white power, at the racial hierarchy which exists within Western capitalism, at the link with imperialism and colonialism.

You doubt me?  Watch the scene where we see the dummy bigwigs are waiting in Madame Tussauds to take their places at the apex of capitalist society and rule on behalf of the evil commodities.  You'll notice that, alongside all the generals, politicians and presidents, there are dummies of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

We've already seen Washington hovering over the other presidents.  Washington was a slave owner.  We've already seen the British generals and politicians.  Capitalist Britain ruled India through military force.

And what are the Nestenes?  Channing tells us.  "We have been colonising other planets for a thousand million years," he says.  They are, self-confessedly, imperialists.  Invaders, enslavers, colonial masters. 

And all the Autons, without exception, are pink.  Pink is their default colour scheme.  Pink is what they think is the colour of human.  The pink Auton is the vanilla model.

They are this way because of the inherent racist hegemony of white faces on British TV (and the Western capitalist culture industries more generally) in the early 70s.... but that doesn't undermine the point.  If anything, it underlines it.  The episode comes quietly, furtively, unconsciously, inadvertantly, dangerously close to a critique of the values embedded in its own implicit aesthetic.

Coming over here, taking our jobs...

In light of this, let's go back and have another look at the Auto Plastics factory.

This may be the single most politically
charged image Doctor Who ever created.

In a story that seems unconsciously preoccupied with capitalist alienation, that depicts the system as profoundly white, that associates the system with conquest and imperialism, these images are 'ground zero'.

This is getting dangerously close (without any conscious intent, I've no doubt) to expressing a joined-up, radical unease about capitalism as alienating, exploitative, racist and imperialistic.

This story situates the 'alien' threat within a very visible depiction of a system in which people are arranged in hierarchies based on their relations of production.

The main monsters are emblems of workers commodified, and of the commodity itself - the product of human labour - as an alienated and hostile force.

It depicts human production - via a capitalist factory - materialised in a form that dominates and attacks people.

It depicts people attacked by walking media images that smash their way out of shop windows and go on the rampage in the consumerist high street, still wearing the (once) fashionable clothes they were supposed to be advertising and covered in price tags.

This all smells strongly of an implicit critique of how people are alienated from their own labour by working for others, and from their very human image via consumerism.

Also, the story hints that, at the apex of all this, there sits a powerful bunch of people who are fundamentally fake and fundamentally white.  By putting Washington, Lincoln, King, Gandhi and a bunch of ruling-class Brits in the same room - not to mention adding LBJ and Nixon, during the era of Vietnam and only a few years after worldwide anti-war protests had peaked - the story gets very, very close to openly and implicitly critiqueing racism, imperialism and colonialism as parts of the same system.

And the presence of the near-invisible non-white working class, busily producing units of white capitalist culture for the profit of a white man who runs a white company, threatens to openly notice how non-whites have been gobbled up as cheap labour by this system.

The potential conclusion is that if you're a non-white worker within this system, you are subject not only the same alienation awaiting the white worker but also to another kind: the kind that sets the basic image of humanity as white and then contrasts you with it.... and sets you to work in the factory, maintaining - via the production of the commodity, i.e. capital - the very system that creates all these layers of oppression.

The presence of the emblems of racism and imperialism (masters and opponents) within the museum, and the imperialist nature of the Nestenes (who tessellate and merge so perfectly with the human system of which they are planning a 'hostile takeover'), nearly takes this story into the realms of outright, but sub-textual, subversion.

One casual mention of the East India Company would be all it would take to bring these threads together openly.

The Nestene entity itself is where all this might have met in some kind of coherent form.  Instead we get something - and this is surprising- almost unprecedented in Doctor Who up to this point: something tentacular, something drawn from the relatively new Western literary style/affect/trend known as 'the Weird'.  We get something radically incoherent.

It's almost as if terror of the themes being played with in this story - themes that so nearly converge to become a joined-up and radical critique of capitalism as systemically exploitative, imperialistic and racist... and, moreover, to do this in the context of modern Britain - has caused Doctor Who itself to flee for comfort and disguise in the realms of the undefined, shapeless and incomprehensible.

When the monster that sits on your Tooting Bec loo is so freighted with things that kids' telly isn't supposed to notice, let alone mention... the realm of the Weird tentacular could be a place to hide.

But that's another essay.


There is also the question of gender. 

In 'Spearhead' the Autons are all male, including all the shop window warrior Autons.  The replicas are all male.  Almost all the powerful people represented in Madame Tussauds are male. 

Explicitly sexist relationships are demonstrated.  There is Seeley.  There is the female nurse in the hospital, patronised by the doctors.  There is Liz Shaw, dragged away from her work at Cambridge against her will and judged for her looks by a male authority figure.  There are the male executives at Auto Plastics, playing with female dolls.  Ransome hoped to profit by further commodifying the female form.  In the novelisation, Ransome's doll wanders around saying "Mama", further showing the way consumer culture markets female roles. 

And, as noted, there are the female workers in the factory.  They work to reproduce capitalist culture's commodification of women, of its characterisation of them as children, of its socialisation of little girls to think of themselves as mothers-in-waiting, etc.  They are shot in such a way as to leave them faceless, as nothing but pairs of hands... which is, of course, a way that working people are described.  "We need more hands," etc., as in Dickens' Hard Times.  There is the waxen-faced female secretary in the short dress who subserviently leads Ransome to her male boss's office.

In addition to the many threads of potential radical comment that I've already listed, 'Spearhead' also contains the worrying potential to notice female commodification and marginalisation in Western capitalist society, and to link this (as it might link racism and imperialism) to the locus of capitalist production and reproduction: the factory, the assembly line, the point of alienated labour.


  1. Another top-notch analysis, nicely put! :)

  2. Wow, really impressive. Nice tying together of a lot of different themes, when it's easy to see the Autons as kind of a goofy villain.

  3. Brilliant analysis, adds so many more layer to the story for me. I look forwards to watching it again with this essay in mind.