Sunday, 9 October 2011

SON OF THE RETURN OF ‘DOCTOR WHO AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND’


Previously on ‘Lucid Frenzy’, in a two-part piece, I tried to transcribe what I saw as the essence of ’Doctor Who’ and ascertain how well the revival was preserving and updating that essence. As the title might suggest, this looked into the political philosophy of the show, but of course that wasn’t the piece’s raison d’etre.

Except this time it is. No more sitting on the fence. The Doctor has probably hung around England long enough now to acquire voting rights, so it’s time to pin down just where he pins his rosettes. (Just in case anyone ever figures which constituency the Tardis should be counted in.)


“I think that I shall not listen to reason.”
-       Madame du Pompadour

Let’s start with ’Girl in the Fireplace’, if for no other reason than it lets me use this line – what was it that made those clockwork robots tick? They not only had mechanisms in the place of brains, they were forever attempting to make the organic into components of the machine - eyeballs into spy cameras and so on.

Of course they turned up during the Ancien Regime for a reason. They came to represent the imagination-deficient revolutionaries, the uprising of shopkeepers who, lacking the aristocratic grandeur of imagination, take everything literally – “thickies from thick-town.” In this literal-mindedness, they attempt to remove the head of the Madame de Pompadour, gormlessly unaware that her head was only ever symbolically important.

The Doctor, meanwhile, falls in love with that head, countering their clockwork noggins with the beating of both hearts. He was never more the dashing romantic hero (well at least not since ’The Christmas Invasion’), charging through mirrors on horseback and risking all to save her.

And she is saved – only to die anyway. Rescued from the robot’s beheading she simply dies of old age, and their life together can never be. We’re reminded that a whole history dies with her. The bureaucrats the Doctor forever encounters, the bean-counters and rule-followers who disbelieve his tales and clog his path, these analogues of the clockwork robots come to inherit the world she leaves behind. It’s a pessimistic view of history, in which the present is only a grey delineated sequel to the more colourful carefree past. It’s a fantastic episode, it topped polls and won awards. It’s also almost the very definition of reactionary.

So big it doesn't need a name; just a great big ‘the.’”
-       The Doctor, ’Silence in the Library’

Of course it’s absolutely in character for the Doctor to both choose love over operating system, and choose a mate within class confines. He is full of aristocratic signifiers – titles instead of names (the Doctor, Time Lord), costumes instead of clothes, has neither need of nor interest in money or work, and above all inhabits an air of mystery which suffuses his ‘specialness.’ The Doctor first visited the French Revolution in his first ever season, in ’The Reign of Terror’, and he took the aristos’ side then as well.

But then that’s hardly the sort of thing we should be surprised about. We’re talking a long-running prestige BBC drama, not some agitprop theatre company operating above a pub in Haringey. The BBC is government-funded, so what to expect from them except the art of the state?

But let’s look at it from a different angle...


“Everybody lives! Just this once! Everybody lives!”
- The Doctor

’The Empty Child’ was from the previous season to ’Girl in the Fireplace’, when Christopher Eccleston was still the Doctor. He stumbles upon a collectivised child group  stealing a slap-up feed from a hoarding nuclear family, who have been cheating on the rations. Enthused he cries “I’m not sure whether it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical!” (Though even here the group is notably a pretend family, with the mother figure Nancy at the head, insisting upon table matters.)

Yet beyond that family there are no real villains. Problems arise from good intentions misdirected, which the Doctor is called upon to re-route. This applies not just to the nanobots, who are only trying to fix up the injured, but also to Nancy. Unable to care for her own child, born out of wedlock, she sublimates this urge into looking after the gang of street urchins. To quote myself (well no-one else does)...

“Evil in [the Doctor’s] universe tends to be less an absolute force and more a product of the misguided or misunderstood. It’s less about kicking bad guys and more about healing the sick. In ‘The Empty Child’, for example, the malevolent monster disguised as a child crying for his mummy turns out to be nothing other than a child crying for his mummy.”

This time the future is coming up roses. Almost the last line is the Doctor calling “Don’t forget the Welfare State!” Wars will cease, poverty be reduced and single mothers given public assistance not ostracisation. (“Twenty years to pop music! You’re gonna love it!”) It’s almost the polar opposite of the previous story.

Okay, but what do you expect? A long-running series stretching back to the early Sixties, invented by committee, written in relay... that’s scarcely a recipe for consistency, is it? Yet, as you’ve probably guessed if you didn’t already know, both storylines actually came from the same author – Steven Moffat. What gives? Maybe we could go for a third example from him, establish a triangulation point to try and sort this sorry mess out.


“This dream must end, this world must know,
We all depend on the beast below”
’The Beast Below’ is perhaps Moffat’s most explicitly political storyline so far, and is a much closer successor to ”The Empty Child’. With the absence of anything resembling a West End musical, we are forced to conclude it must be Marxism in action. (I am only half-joking there.)

Society ‘above’ is predicated on both repression, and on repressing the very knowledge of that repression - which itself sends shock-waves through everything. The ‘beast below’ on which we all depend is the slave subject of imperialism, the sweatshop workers who clothe us, the migrant labourers who put food on our plates even as we grumble about them. The whole notion of England, pulled from its white cliffs and green fields, as a city thrusting itself through space, powered by the labour of others reeks of colonialism. (Even if we weren’t tipped off by our intruders being “Scottish.”)

Of course I was half-joking when I said it was Marxist. As in ’The Empty Child’, everyone really wanted what was best for everyone else. Problems can be solved by a push of a button rather than a messy revolution, and life goes on much as before only more nicely. (If I was that space whale who’d been tortured for decades after turning up just to help out, I might be a bit miffed about the whole thing.) It might make an interesting comparison to the SF classic ’Metropolis’ and it’s call for “a mediator between head and hand.” But it’s clearly packing an inclusive, socially progressive message. Two onto one, Moffat’s a liberal, Job done. We even got to finish early.

And yet... what about the character Liz10, who later turns out to be Queen Elizabeth 10th? She not only becomes their key ally in fixing the problem. It’s notable what a Queenly role she plays within the storyline, she is simultaneously above her subjects and represents them. Her button is simultaneously the same as everyone else’s and vital. First it appears the truth had been kept from her, that her power is actually only symbolic. Then it transpires she is as in denial of that truth as anyone else – and has held the power to fix up everything all along.

Her character is a clutch of contradictory signifiers; regal, commanding, decisive, while at the same time black and street-talking. (“I’m the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule.”) Which makes her an interesting companion for the Doctor - who himself epitomises a similar set of contradictions, aristocratic saviour and social leveller.

As George Orwell once said of himself, the Doctor “preserves the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible.” Of course his most regular foe was always the Master, a fellow Time Lord. But this is even truer of the revived show. Three times now the enemy have been not a species but a family group who felt they should be running things (‘Aliens of London’, ‘Family of Blood’ and ‘Vampires in Venice.’) And the Time Lords themselves are seen in a schizo, polarised way, either a sober, regulating force who keep us from the abyss (’Father’s Day’) or malevolently destructive megalomaniacs (’Death of a Time Lord’).



“Hang on a minute. Who put you in charge? And who in the hell are you anyway?”
“I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey... and I'm the man who's gonna save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
- ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Of course it would be pointless to take all the episodes in the show’s history and separate them into little lists marked ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’. Art is not about getting the right answer, and art criticism is not about accountancy. The point is that the two things are intertwined, that this is not some paradox or error on the show’s part but a reflection of the British society which spawned it.

This is enhanced by the fact that we most compare our popular culture with a New World nation – the US. In attempting to define and defend what is special about ourselves, we tend to reach to (and then rewrite) our past. But this only exacerbates a tendency that is already there. It’s something which would still be true if we compared ourselves to another West European nation. Can you imagine a French Doctor, proffering baguettes instead of jelly babies? A German Doctor? Think how smoothly that would make the Tardis run!

To dig deeper, we need to not only look at what is present but what is absent. Though there’s been two takes on the French Revolution, the show only touched on the English in a short two-parter transmitted a decade into the show’s history. This is indicative of our culture in general, the English Revolution is not held as a totemic event the way the French one is across the water. There is no English Bastille Day. It is not held up even by the mercantile class who it took to power, even under the cosier rebranded name the English Civil War.

Arriving much earlier than the French, this event was never as root-and-branch. It’s not simply something like our monarchy being retained (at least after a brief inter-regnum), for even other European countries with monarchies do not match ours for status or grandeur. Aristos retained a stronger symbolic importance in no small part because they retained their actual existence, heads attached to shoulders and everything.

But there’s another, more recent factor. Britain escaped much of the social turmoil that swept the continent in the early Twentieth Century, not just the great wars but the worker’s movements. As well as no Bastille Day, we have no May 1968.

So, from the anti-French antics of the Scarlet Pimpernel through to today, we retained our fondness for aristocratic heroes. And it must be admitted that, functionally, toffs make for effective heroes. An aristo is not promoted according to merit, his superiority is held to be inherent and self-evident. He is constrained from acting out his will by no day-job. (There’s a strong overlap with the emblematic hero, a point I argued here.)

Plus there’s a twist. Since the medieval Robin Hood ballads had noble origins grafted onto them, the aristocratic hero has tended to be an outlaw. Created in the era of the Welfare State, the Doctor was first an exile then the only one left. This threw the aristo off his antique furniture and into the maelstrom, like Robinson Crusoe forced by events to reassert his essential superiority.

”Planet Earth. This is where I was born. And this is where I died. For the first nineteen years of my life nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever. And then I met a man called The Doctor. A man who could change his face. And he took me away from home in his magical machine. He showed me the whole of time and space. I thought it would never end.”

Rose, ’Army of Ghosts’

Moreover, an aristo who disdains social dues might even one day brefriend you, and take you on a life of adventure away from clocking-in cards. This was true of the Doctor even during the ban on hankey-pankey in the Tardis, but is out in the open now. The new Doctor’s companions have all been taken away from jobs rather than careers, a shop worker, an office temp, a kissogram. (Martha, true, was a trainee Doctor. But then she was a different colour to most aristos.) A tall, dark stranger takes them away from all that.

Of course to think of the Doctor in this way is tantamount to suggesting that he occupies a fixed point in the narrative, that he merely appears mysterious to the rest of us. True, he often operates on a meta-level to the mere humans around him – possessing secret knowledge, pulling off impossible feats. But he is not and never was a short-cut to a copycat morality. He’s also prone to expressing doubts, making mistakes, even feeling regret. This departure from conventional hero status is a major attraction for the show.

Yet this apparent departure from the description actually confirms it. An aristocrat in a post-aristocrat world, he still has his privileged birth but no longer occupies the same place in that world. Stripped of his formal status, he is forced to extemporise.

Some take this character as a signifiers of a golden past where all knew their place. Others turn him into critiques of the post-war era; the target culture, the snooping, the petty regulation. Yet such characters were not a result of these divergences so much an expression of a paradox in our culture, one which expressed itself within as much as between ourselves. Popular characters like the Doctor are not offered as a solution to social concerns so much as a signifier, as a worrying-tooth which we might use to worry them through.

I ended the previous piece by quoting him saying “you need a Doctor.” But perhaps all this time he's merely been a symptom...

1 comment:

  1. It is our unfortunate duty to inform you that, as is as common, your anti-radical inability to ask the real questions makes your piece merely a charade of critique. A job appears done through exercise of a formal gesture, with no consideration as to content.

    The real question is of course – where are the Time Proles?

    Of course this narrative absents them. Gallifrey is a planet entirely composed of the overlord class, with no consideration as to who they may be lording over. It is never asked who builds the fine chambers in which they sit and pontificate.

    The ‘magic’ of the Tardis most clearly encapsulates the way class exploitation is made to ‘disappear’ through sleight of hand. It being impossibly bigger on the inside than the outside represents the bourgeoisie’s supposed ability to extract surplus value without the exercise of exploitation – an impossibility which must be covered up with conjuring tricks.

    But of course the productive classes, the motor of history, cannot be entirely extinguished. The repressed always returns. They appear to some extent through the Doctor’s ‘companions’. These tend to be shop assistants or office temps, emphasising the difference between them and their Lord. However this arrangement also demonstrates them to be happy in their subordinate role, acknowledging it as part of the ‘natural order’ of things. They are the class equivalent of the fawning “house negroes” that Malcolm X so disparaged.

    In a patriarchal society they are always the ‘inferior’ sex. And of course history teaches us, as if common sense were not enough, how Lords actually treated their servant girls while society feigned to look elsewhere. And yet such inevitable and sordid truths are placed the other side of one of the show’s most sacrosanct rules.

    But of course the main place the proletariat appears is cloaked in villainy – in the guise of the Doctor’s enemies, such as the Daleks or Cybermen. These are X’s “field negroes.” Needless to say collective identity, rather than demonstrated as a collective becoming, is presented in the most negative terms. The extinguishing of decadent petit-bourgeois liberties is week after week transformed into a totalitarian impulse.

    Take for example the fan favourite storyline ’Genesis of the Daleks’> This spins a metaphor for the period of the First World War. Historically this was the high-point of the assertion of the proletarian identity, as workers worldwide mutinied against slaughter and seized control of the units of production they had previously been forced to toil in. But this distorting mirror has eyes only for Lords flitting by to rescue us from our folly, and for the tyrannical Daleks.

    Though we recognise these caricatures for what they are, true revolutionaries will nevertheless side with them. (Much as in anti-imperialism, where we side in struggle with the lesser evil.) We therefore respond to the Doctor by siding with his enemies, and assimilating their slogans into the revolutionary cause.

    “The bourgeoisie are incompatible! Delete! Delete!”

    “You are the Doctor! Exterminate the expropriating class! Proles rise up and destory!”

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