Tuesday 10 January 2012

Strange Matters

There is something very gothic about Doctor Who, in the hauntological sense.  I mean that the show keeps on doing monsters that represent, in various ways, 'the return of the repressed', monsters that represent buried anxieties, or anxieties that we have attempted to bury.  But the monsters tend to be steadfastly material in quite straightforward ways... and to embody material, social, historical nightmares (fascism is a big one that immediately suggests itself).

It's important to stress that this isn't a contradiction, as such.  Indeed, in many ways, it's 'business as usual' for the gothic.  You can't get more hauntological than vampires, but they tend to be interpreted as representing deeply materialist concerns, from veneral disease to monopoly capitalism (and, these days, teen romance... which is about as materialist as anything gets).  However, while they may represent material, social, historical anxieties, vampires are not straightforwardly material.  They are, like most classic gothic/hauntological monsters, profoundly spectral - or at least ab-physical.  They dissolve in sunlight, cast no reflection, can appear and disappear at will, can physically transform into bats or wolves, can reverse physical time by becoming young again after feasting, can defy gravity by crawling down sheer walls, etc.  And vampires are at the more solid end of the hauntological spectrum.

However, Doctor Who has tended to (rather spuriously) consider itself a champion of an empiricist, scientific approach rather than one which has any truck with the supernatural, making vampires into alien races or mutations created by pollution, for example. (This is, as I say, rather spurious, partly because the writers of the show have usually been less interested in scientific accuracy and more interested in telling stories, often reiterations of myth - and quite right too.)  But the thing to notice here is that, despite the very gothic/hauntological method of many of the show's monsters (haunting us with our repressed anxieties), the show does not usually represent them as spectral or phantasmic or undead in the full supernatural sense.  They may appear and disappear, but its because they've got transmats, not because they're immaterial, undead things that flit in and out of tombs.

In other words, the show wants to have its cake and eat it.  It wants to have hauntological monsters that are alive, that are physical, that are hard and material things, that are organisms or robots.  This is not a denial of the hauntological-as-supernatural, but a recoding of it.  Like much SF, Doctor Who is immensely concerned with myth-reiteration, with retelling legends in the idioms of the age of science and technology and industrialisation.  I'm not here going to go into the various ways that Doctor Who's conception of reality is fundamentally magical.  What I'm trying to tease out is the way that, despite its repression of magical thinking, magical thinking keeps returning to the show and sneaking its way in.  It does this (if I may briefly anthropomorphise a concept) by disguising itself in a materialist form, and by inserting the hauntological method into narratives that are fundamentally about materialist concerns.  The inner logic is magical, the language is materialist.  The thematic preoccupations are drawn more from the language than from the inner logic.  Doctor Who uses the language of materialism to tell magical stories about nightmares of modernity.  This is why the show repeatedly tells stories about monsters that haunt us in a material way with the repressed knowledge or fear of modern nightmares like fascism, industrial genocide, high-tech war, nukes, imperialism, etc.

This is partly why there seems to be something of the trad gothic... something vampiric, zombieish, Frankensteinian, demonic... about so many monsters that, on paper, are straightforward automatons or war machines. Again and again, monstrous flesh lurks within the clanking technological enemy.  A webbed claw emerges from a Dalek casing.  Androids per se are always just the tools or weapons or foes of other races... they are never the main enemy.  The main enemy has to be more gothic.  It has to be Davros, awakening from death and covered in cobwebs.  It has to be Cybermen: walking techno-zombies with cloth faces and empty eye-holes that make them look like bandaged skulls.  When robots are the star threat, a big deal is made of them being like "walking dead".

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