Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Skulltopus 6: Macra Revisited

According to China Miéville, the classic, early 20th century haute Weird of Lovecraft and Hodgson is the nebulous, meaningless, reactionary scream of incomprehension that greets the onrushing horror of modernity.

I think that, for 70s Doctor Who, a resurrected and processed form of the Weird is what the show draws upon when it finds itself haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot face: the knowledge that the modern nightmares upon which it dwells are generated by capitalism.  When the themes of a 70s Doctor Who story suggest the possibility that capitalism could be noticed and indicted in systemic terms - particularly in terms of the exploitation of the worker, race and/or imperialism - the show tries to jettison the hauntological (realising that it is itself being haunted... nay, stalked) in favour of the Weird.

I intend to justify these outrageous claims in a forthcoming post.

In my last post - here - I casually asserted that the Weirdish ab-crabs in 'The Macra Terror' are a "prelude" to the connection the show will make in the 70s between the tentacle and capitalism.  It occurs to me that I need to expand a bit on my Skulltopus post about the Macra - here - in order to make myself clear on this point.

I think that the Colony in 'The Macra Terror' is a picture of mainstream Britain in denial during the radical late 60s, of a prosperous capitalist world that runs on repression, oppression, obedience, media conditioning, hierarchy.  The Colony strongly hints at being capitalist in various ways, not least the Butlins vibe that everyone talks about, the Pilot's sitcom businessman manner, Barney's salon and spa, etc.

Most explicitly, the story concentrates on the mining of gas... and Britain in 1967 was right in the middle of switching over to North Sea Gas.  In the story, the gas (a toxic substance that humans don't need and which actively endangers workers) is mined for the benefit of other, hidden, possibly insane reasons/persons - in this case, the Macra.

The Macra, as I noted elsewhere, are extremely hauntological (in that material/pseudo-materialist way that things are hauntological in Who) in that they actively and literally haunt the Colony while clearly representing something that the characters all know must be denied.  In the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon, I hint that this repressed knowledge is the knowledge that they are exploited - specifically and explicitly as workers - by an irrational tyranny, and that this ties into the way that the radical currents in the late 60s were popularizing a critique of Western consumerist capitalism as tyrannical and alienating.

And so, whether it be cause or effect, we get Weirdish monsters.

They are giant crabs, as in some classic Weird fiction... except that, when you listen to the story (especially since you have to listen to it) they are also categorically indeterminate, big/small, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly, even - especially - when they see them.

Moreover, the Macra's own mentalities are extremely contradictory, incoherent, self-denying... to the point of bordering on psychosis. They are so desperate to deny that the Colony's happy and prosperous capitalist world of makeovers and mining (i.e. of productive industry and leisure industry) exists to serve their needs that they end up frantically denying their own existence!

The hysteria of the Macra's screams of "Macra do not exist!  THERE ARE NO MACRA!!!!" (over a TV screen, lets not forget) sounds, to me, very much like the way that mainstream media in capitalist society will go round the houses - sometimes to farcical degrees - to steer conversations, debates, discourse and criticism away from the central economic facts of our society (on the rare occasion that anyone liable to raise them in the first place ever gets on the media).  The Macra deny their own existence, just as capitalist media culture tries to make capitalism vanish into 'democracy' and 'the West' and 'free trade' and 'the economy' and many other euphemisms.  Capitalism tries to make itself invisible, and to make its exploitative core invisible, via its hegemony over culture (back to Gramsci we go) and through the obscuring of class consciousness by various forms of alienation and commodity fetishism (back to Lukacs we go).

Once again, the social wound in which the Macra breed is all to do with hierarchy and exploitation, it operates through productive work for the benefits of people other than the workers, it guards itself using a leisure industry and a hegemonic system of ideas that touts notions of social cohesion, cheerfulness, pulling together, altruism, team spirit, the state as honest broker, enjoy your time off, etc... and all this, not in a totalitarian state (when people say that the Colony is totalitarian they are totally missing the point) but in a society that strongly hints that it is capitalistic even while it uses methods of thought control and repression.

Of course, the production draws heavily upon the semiotics of totalitarianism - most particularly the Cartier/Kneale TV adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four - but it also subverts them and... well... de-Sovietizes them to a large extent.  There's a makeover salon and a version of Miss World for Polly to enter.  The holiday camp thing has been noted many times... but the really important thing about that is that holiday camps look like (to use Miles and Wood's phrase) "a little bit of Eastern Europe just outside Cromer".  The regimentation, the smiling authoritarianism, the moral puritanism, and the solidly working class background of most guests, makes the holiday camp an ideal - almost inevitable - way of commenting on the way capitalist Britain and communist dictatorships had certain eerie similarities.  In the late 60s, when people like Herbert Marcuse were suddenly selling lots of books, this was a notion whose time had come.  People were starting to see tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain.  This is why 'The Macra Terror' prefigures The Prisoner.  In that show, Number 6 is never sure which side is holding him.  The unspoken horror of it is that it could be either or both.  It doesn't really matter.  As one of the Number 2s says, both sides will one day regard each other and realise that they are "looking into a mirror".

That's why 'The Macra Terror' (which came before The Prisoner, let's not forget) was near-the-knuckle stuff.  I know this sounds like a strange thing to say about Doctor Who at the best of times... but all the same, this was about as close as mainstream popular TV could get to noticing that capitalism was pretty bloody horrible, not as an exception but as a rule.

The way in which the Macra are radically obscured (Weirdified) is the camouflage, the misdirection.  They - and many of the other Weirdish monsters in Who - arrive when the show itself is being haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot notice or accept without ceasing to be what Doctor Who is (that is, a staple aspect of the culture industry catering for children in capitalist Britain, existing within that cultural hegemony).  The show, via its materialist or pseudo-materialist gothic dynamic, is constantly drawn to the nightmarish effects of capitalism, often unable and always reluctant to notice that they are capitalist effects, occasionally drawing on the fundamentally non-gothic monster (while still, paradoxically, using the non-gothic in a hauntological way) as a method of escaping from or fudging the conclusions it is edging towards, the conclusion... or perhaps realisation would be a better word... that industrial war, modern imperialism, modern slavery, fascism (all repeatedly addressed by the show) all have their roots in the same system.

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