Saturday, 24 July 2021


Beware! Plot Spoilers below!

Given that Natasha (aka the Black Widow) first appeared in the third Marvel Comics Universe film, ‘Iron Man 2’, back in 2010, there are those who have seen this solo outing as somewhat overdue. And this is almost literally true, you need to retrofit its events between already released films.

But perhaps the much-criticised delay was in part down to a wariness over how to do it. Natasha’s more spy than superhero, a creature of the shadows. And how do you spotlight that? As I said at the time, despite all the shared screen time, ‘Captain America The Winter Soldier’ (2014) got its title for a reason - Cap was the moral centre of the film. She inhabited the blurred line between right and wrong he fell into and struggled with. But what does a shadow do when there’s no goody-two-shoes for her to cast against?

One solution is to hold her at a distance. She’s twice shown as ahead, not just of other characters in the film but of us in the audience. Early on, she leads an enemy - and with him us - to believe she’s still in a building she’s already flown. And in the finale her plot to defeat Dreykov is revealed to us piece-by-piece, by repeated flashbacks. In this genre plots and calculation are more commonly seen as a villain’s thing, against which the hero brings his innate virtue and bulging biceps. All this helps her keep her anti-hero credentials.

And so we’re given not a new Cap but more Widows. With the help of one real sister (Yelena) and several proverbial ones (the amassed Widows), she works to overthrow the manipulating Dreykov. It’s almost the ‘Marvel Team-Up’ scenario, where the girls first tight one another, then figure out they’re better off working together. Even the armour-clad adversary Taskmaster, this film’s equivalent of the Winter Soldier, turns out to be another Widow, and hence turnable. (I plead guilty to first assuming she was male, and now have to march at the back on demos.)

The only man in on their plot is the sisters’ father, Alexi, a boastful but bumbling and ineffective figure. (Though there seems no continuity between how he’s played in the opening flashback and later.) In one gag he speaks into his comms, only to be told they didn’t bother issuing him with any. This isn’t just to give the show a clown, it provides a contrast between the weak father and Dreykov, the ‘bad Dad’. In a great gag, once free of Dreykov’s control Yelena immediately goes for every girls’ dream - clothing with pockets.

When Natasha confronts Dreykov, the twist is that he’s saddled her with a “pheromone lock”. This latest piece of sci-fi gobbledygook makes less sense than usual. Once she smells him she’s rendered incapable of fighting him. So did he have to avoid showering prior to the showdown? But pheromones are used by animals to perpetuate kinship, a notion often reinforced in popular culture. (Remember those Lynx adverts?) So this establishes Bad Dad as Natasha’s True Dad, the strong man, rather than the semi-useless Alexi.

And Natasha reacts in typical fashion. Just as she did with Loki back in ‘The Avengers’, she uses her enemy’s hubristic boasting against him. She goats him into breaking her nose, blocking her capacity to smell him and so breaking her link to him as pack leader.

So does that make this an anti-patriarchal film? Plenty will argue so, and from both sides of the ‘culture war’ divide. And Marvel seem smart enough to have clocked that the frothings of the anti-woke mob give them free publicity, so are worth stirring up. (Though intriguingly, and alarmingly, Marvel boss Isaac Perlmutter is a yuge Trump donor.)

But there’s another way of reading that moment. Remember her now-notorious line in ‘Age Of Ultron’ (2015)? Revealing to Bruce Banner she’d been sterilised by the Widow programme she adds “you still think you’re the only monster on the team?” And we’re reminded of this when Alexei sarcastically asks Yelena “is it that time of the month?”, for her to explain the details of her forced hysterectomy. (Admittedly a good moment in itself, nailing us boys’ yukkiness at female biology.)

In that context the significance of that nosebleed takes another turn. You don’t need the most vivid of imaginations to see it as representing the return of menstrual blood. Tied in with her gaining her freedom from Bad Dad, with her de-monstering of herself, is the re-establishing of her womanhood. In other words, if this film is opposed to patriarchy it’s a patriarchy which doesn’t define and then place you in the role of ‘woman’, it’s one which specifically denies you that role. In other words, it’s not any kind of anti-patriarchy at all.

And the film pulls off another conceit on the back of that. The backstory has to be dated to the Nineties to work chronologically, but it breezily folds that era into the Cold War in order to re-establish the familiar formula: East = tyranny, West = individual freedom. Natasha’s family may be somewhat matrilinear, but family is still what this film is somewhat obsessively about. Sheep would be easier to count than the number of times that word is used. And as their family is split up immediately on returning to the East, it’s effectively treated as an American import. (Anyone familiar with the sexual politics of Stalinism is here invited to laugh risibly.) So when family = good, we can bet collectively = bad. In fact here collectivity isn’t associated just with conformity but complete mind control.

What we have then, is an apparent individuality which is actually based on a kind of essentialism. A contradiction which is liberal thinking in a nutshell.

It might be objected that most viewers are unlikely to think any of this, and are more likely to come out the cinema saying “cool white costume” or “that Black Widow, she kicks ass!” And even Freud once said a broken nose was just a broken nose. (Or something like that anyway.) But the subliminal nature is precisely the problem. It’s the odourless smells which travel the furthest. And patriarchy is probably the most deep-rooted, the most ‘naturalised’ of all oppressions. You almost don’t need to try to reinforce it, you just need to rub with the grain.

And the serum comes in here, Soviet collectivist ideology in bottled form, at odds with ‘human nature’ and therefore switch-offable by a plot MacGuffin, which essentially provides instant deprogramming.

We are probably better off looking to Hollywood for textbook examples of the disease rather than expecting them to administer any cure. (Particularly any cure not reducible to magic red pixie dust.) But then neither should we entirely forget the first explanation for that busted nose. Perhaps it comes down to the nature of the ‘culture wars’, where legitimate questions about representation are reduced to a crude form of accountancy, until supposedly progressive voices become no more than a kind of mirror image of the anti-‘woke’ mob. Many fans uncritically lauded ‘Black Panther’ (2018) for having a a black lead, overlooking a plot about a born royal reclaiming his throne from an ignoble troublemaker, in order to restore peaceful relations with the West.

The metafictional elements of the film come in here, with Natasha watching James Bond and Yelena teasing her for posing in fights and generally being a cover girl. But this gag rebounds. ‘Black Widow’ is much closer to the corporation who put a woman on the recruitment poster, and considers that job done. A cover girl with a broken nose is still a cover girl.

Saturday, 17 July 2021


”I’m A Space Invader” 

The amount of science fiction in Ziggy can be overstated. There's at least as much animal imagery. But, much like gay culture, futurism and pop music seemed like natural bedfellows. It promised, in the famous phrase, tomorrows' sounds today. Tomorrow had already been the name of a Sixties psychedelic band. Phrases then still hip, such as “far out” (used on the album), also suggest this connection. Three years after Ziggy, the equally glammed up Slade would sing “many years from now there will be new sensations/ and new temptations/ how does it feel?”

Back then a pop star seemed so exotic, so at odds with your drab existence of school ties and table manners, that to see him as an alien didn’t seem so much of a stretch. Bowie effectively played with this with the video to the earlier single ’Life On Mars’. It’s essentially a succession of close-ups of him, filmed like his brightly made-up face is Mars. The cover to ’Ziggy’ shows the space invader juxtaposed with standard, drab London locations – backstreets and phone boxes.

Perhaps the most overtly science fiction song is ‘Starman’. And reasonably enough, someone first hears Ziggy by stumbling across him on the radio. (Yes, the man playing a rock star so he could become a rock star made a hit single about hearing a hit single.) He immediately picks up the phone: “I had to phone someone so I picked on you/ Hey, that's far out so you heard him too?” (I like to imagine that he phones a total stranger.) The radio and the phone are of course rock song staples, going back to the Fifties. But there’s a special significance to the radio here.

Bowie said of his own suburban teenage years: “I spent so much time in my bedroom. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player.”

And for my generation it was the same. A strange mixture of introspective self-isolation and exile from the world. And despite that drab normtown, every now and again something brightly coloured would fly briefly past your window. You’d only recently discovered you had your own will, and didn’t seem to have much of anything else. So you imagined you might be able to will another world into being. Having lived in that bedroom isolation, Bowie knew how to write directly to people still inside it.

Lemmy has said, when it first appeared, “rock ’n’ roll sounded like music from another planet.” But for their generation, that has an extra poignancy. Radio One didn't begin until 1967, when Bowie was already twenty. He’d have spent his formative years catching the new music through pirate stations, broadcast by necessity from beyond British shores. This strange new music was beamed in from outside, beyond the workaday world of suburbs and school uniforms. Alien form and alien content were in perfect alignment.

(Bowie himself recalled “It was very hard to hear music when I was younger. And therefore had a call to arms feeling about it”. The song compares radio waves to cosmic rays - “That weren’t no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive.”

And that theme was in the airwaves back then. Back in ‘66 the Byrds had released ‘Mr. Spaceman’ about hitching a ride from a UFO like a souped-up hippy van. And, tho’ not in the lyrics, Roger MgGuinn had speculated about aliens hearing his song through the ether. The psychedelic band Gong released the ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ trilogy of albums centred round a telepathic radio station, the first appearing only a year after ‘Ziggy’.) 

Yet ‘Starman’ is also based on the musical number ‘Over The Rainbow’, to the extent that live Bowie would sometimes swap the lyrics over. And as science fiction is really only useful as a metaphor for otherworldly, ’The Wizard of Oz’ meshes quite tightly. Bowie’s only real change was that he was now bringing someone from Oz to Kansas.

Also, science fiction was cosmological and quite often eschatological. And Ziggy is at least in part an angel, sent down to rescue the fallen of the earth. This is a belief system triggered by a starman rather than a star, but same difference.

In ’The Death and Resurrection Show’, Rogan Taylor argues “showbiz was the stump of shamanism”, surviving in disguised form into modern times. Unsurprisingly, it takes in Bowie and focuses on the Ziggy era. Bowie's described as “celestial… the most beautiful example of a modern master of heavenly flights” and “an Upperworld shaman”. He goes on:

”Uncontainable by any one mould, he was bound to become a sex-change shaman. Aerial spirits are very often depicted in myth as either sexless or androgynous, as in the paintings of medieval angels. It is as if their refusal to be bound by the either-or-ness of sexual identity provides them mysteriously with their power of flight. They cannot be held down in any one classification, so they drift upwards in consequence.”

And of course a shaman primarily has a healing role. The album repeatedly suggests only rock ’n’ roll can save the world – “I could make the transformation as a rock ’n’ roll star.” And if that seems more a Sixties than a Seventies notion, especially for the man simultaneously writing ’All the Young Dudes’ then Ziggy is very reminiscent of the title character from the earlier song 'Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud', “the missionary mystic of peace/love”. (The only track from the first album, bar 'Space Oddity' itself, to get played at the final Ziggy gig.) And the whole album is in the slipstream of the elegiac 'Memories of a Free Festival', which “talked with tall Venusians passing through.”

To date the furthest Bowie had taken this was 'Oh You Pretty Things' with its suggestion youth were “the homo superior”.

“Look at your children
”See their faces in golden rays
”Don't kid yourself they belong to you 
”They're the start of a coming race”

Yet, to quote myself (well somebody has to) when looking at ’Quatermass’: 

“It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that. The future would either turn into a fluorescent silver techno-fix or else fall into pieces, with neither middle ground nor third option.”

It's easy to get the idea from this that the Seventies were ideologically split between hope and despair, dystopian and utopian SF flicks occupying alternate weeks at the cinema. But, as was not at all uncommon, in Ziggy the two are compressed together. This juxtaposition is at its keenest on 'Lady Stardust':

”Lady Stardust sang his songs
”Of darkness and dismay
”And he was alright
”The band was all together”

Early Bowie songs had tended to be epic, sprawling, multi-part numbers. But with 'Ziggy' they grew shorter, fell into conventional verse/chorus structures, both music and language becoming more direct. (The stream-of-consciousness style of 'Diamond Dogs' lay in the future.)

Bolan had made a similar journey from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T Rex, and it’s scarcely a secret Bowie used him as a role model. But there’s more than concision and simplicity, it’s also the sound of T Rex which is borrowed.

As Simon Reynolds pus it: “It is precisely as a lightweight that Bolan was a marvel. T Rex took the ponderousness and grit out of blues-based tock, made it lithe and succinct…. Cock rock became coquette rock. Instead of wham-bam bombast T.Rex songs moved to a reciprocal groove… active and passive roles slipped and flipped around.” (‘Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy’)

Bowie’s songs are more theatrical, less playful, less fey than Bolan’s. But he uses lightness positively in a similar way. Rock ’n’ roll has greasy knees protruding from ripped jeans. Rock ’n’ roll commonly cries “Get down!” Here the music seems to gleam and glide. The album sounds, in a literal sense, unearthly. This isn’t just true of the more show-like tracks such as ‘Starman’. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ is riff-based, but soars spaciously.

In other words, for an album about rock ’n’ roll mythology Bowie gives it a very un-rock ’n’ roll sound. A sound Simon Reynolds describes as “not particularly cosmic or futuristic but… cleanly produced rock and soul tunes… Rock is the theme that governs the album, but it’s not really the sound here which is lean and clean, light and almost unbodied.”

Think of Taylor’s description of Bowie as celestial, unweighted. Think of the line “Look out your window, I can see his light.” Perhaps we should even see Ziggy as some kind of Gnostic saviour, a being of light projected down into our tawdry material realm. It’s as if he arrived not from another planet but some ideal realm, where everything “sparkles” and nothing is worn-down or debased.

Perhaps the strangest part of Taylor’s description is “sexless”, particularly when Bowie was considered such a sex symbol at the time. As said earlier, the album has a predilection for nudge-nudge animal metaphors. (“I’m an alligator”, and so on.) But despite that, it’s not particularly sexualised. The animals are more flamboyant than bestial, strutting peacocks not rutting stags. Even on the jaded ‘All The Young Dudes’ they scoff at “television man” for “saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks.” (Though he may have a point about their shoplifting.) A thick line of innocence runs through it.

And this is made clearer by including one song which was all grit, all grind, very much wham-bam bombast. If the rest of the album is polished till it gleams, ‘Suffragette City’ sounds like a raw slice of something. And this time, that something is definitely sex. In lines like “don’t lean on me man, cause you can’t afford the ticket”, with a garnish of implied violence.

The album’s known for borrowing Nadsat slang from ’Clockwork Orange’, but it’s actually only used on this track. And Burgess’ gang of street-aristo apex predators are quite removed from the Dudes.

Again, serendipity saves us. This was the song Bowie first offered Mott the Hoople, perhaps because it sounded so unlike the rest of the album. Only when they refused it did he offer them ’All the Young Dudes’. 

Which means that the album starts out sounding ‘clean’ but gets dirtier as it goes along, the groupie tale ‘Hang On To Yourself’ leading into ‘Suffragette City’. From purity and innocence to decadence and corruption. (Which may be reading too much into it. Then again, that’s pretty much what we’re here for.)

Bowie’s next single (bar one) was ‘The Jean Genie’, described as “all muscle and sinew.” 'Starman' was a song, 'Jean Genie' a riff with an attitude wrapped round it taking the form of a lyric. It heralded a sound much less influenced by Bolan and much more influenced by the Stones.

Admittedly we’re now moving to the next album. But then, chronologically as much as with Bowie’s character, it’s hard to pin down where Ziggy ends. 'Aladdin Sane' never mentions him by name, but its concept was often described by Bowie as “Ziggy in America”.

And where best to get lost? Arguably the songs there take up the missing section from ’Ziggy’, and chronicle the character’s dissolution. Taylor called Bowie “an Upperworld shaman”. Yet, in the shamanic flight as anywhere else, what goes up must first go down. Ziggy merely lived the story in reverse.

In fact, so powerful is the rock ’n’ roll myth that, as if it possessed its own inexorable force, Bowie’s subsequent years mapped to it. After 'Diamond Dogs’, he became increasingly isolated, paranoid and delusional, sensing black magic plots against him everywhere, his lifestyle effectively a slow form of suicide. Simon Reynolds describes his state of mind as a kind of private apocalypse:

“In the nadir of cocaine dysphoria, Bowie made a total identification between his fractured ego and ‘World Collapse’. That’s Daniel O’Keefe’s term for narcissism turned apocalyptic: a state of mind that’s the inverse of being in love. Where romantic ardour reaches out for ecstatic fusion with the Other, paranoia withdraws from an external reality that’s become all Ominous Otherness.” 

And what’s the solution but to invert the inversion, try to find that ecstatic fusion once more? And, being Bowie, as seen another time, he tries to bring that about by writing a song about it. ‘Station To Station’ sounds nothing like ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, but follows the same formal structure – dissolution leading to renewal, disconnection yielding to reconnection.

And this may be part of the appeal of ’Ziggy’. If it kicks off a Glam trilogy it’s the only album to have this idealised sound. A friend once told me he always likes the idea of bands more than the actual band. ’Ziggy’ may be the ultimate album where it exists just so the idea of it can exist, and that idea is itself the idea of rock ’n’ roll.

The Stations of Rock ’n’ Roll

The closing 'Rock and Roll Suicide' cyclically brings us back to the themes of 'Five Years' - an isolated figure wandering the streets. We’re used to that, but it should feel odd. If this is the height of Bowie’s dalliance with Glam, then Glam was not normally given to this sort of downer vibe. Marc Bolan, Bowie’s big inspiration to go into Glam, wrote songs with titles such as ‘Life’s A Gas’ and ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’. Melancholia was the business of blues-based rock music. At least at the time Glam was seen as pop music, its home turf the singles not the album chart.

Almost every other track is sung about him, this one is sung to him. And this time Ziggy himself is the fraught, isolated figure. (It’s not specified it’s him, but come on - it is. Certainly, this is the only second-person song on the album, unless you count the filler ’It Ain’t Easy’.)

Bowie did explain at one point “it was his own personality being unable to cope with the circumstances he found himself in, which is being an almighty prophet-like superstar rocker who found he didn’t know what to do with it once he got it.” The man who’d showed up to save others, turned out he can’t even save himself.

In ’Shock and Awe’, Simon Reynolds points out that “Pop is a personality cult; it’s based on the belief that some people are extraordinary and that the ordinary can achieve elevation only by direct contact or through emulation”. But, when discussing Bolan’s later plummet from stardom, he comes back to refine the point:

”Charisma could be the attribute of a gifted preacher, a miracle-worker, someone endowed with gifts of oratory or oracular utterance. But charisma could also be possessed by the congregation itself, which in the early days of the Christian church was more like a band of outcasts than the hierarchical bureaucracies of subsequent centuries. It is arguable that charisma of this kind – collective single-mindedness – is a ‘vibe’ that generates itself within any cultic group that shares a marginal world view and renegade value system.”

And live music is all about the transference of energy between the performer and the audience, each giving back to the other. And this is formalised by the ritual of the encore, the star disappearing and having to be called back. It’s our “we believe in faeries” moment.

The song’s conceit is to start out descriptively, as if a dispassionate and omnipotent narrator is recounting the character’s actions. But then it jumps into addressing him directly, as if deciding it couldn’t stay uninvolved after all. At which point, as it cries “you’re not alone”, it becomes as rousing as a chorus. If Ziggy came down to save the kids, it’s they who now save him.

And in a sense he does die. The end of the album means the end of the character, this is in Bowie’s well-known phrase “the last show we’ll ever do”. But what dies is his ego, he discards his messiah status and accepts his own mortality. (Hence the “time takes a cigarette” opening.)

Try to think back to it. Those teenage years alone in your room, feeling at odds with the whole world, what did you most want to hear, but “no, you’re not alone”? Live this must have been magnificently effective.

In the film 'Velvet Goldmine’, loosely based on Bowie’s life, a character reflects sourly on the Glam era: “We set out to change the world... ended up just changing ourselves.”

Which is the story of most of our lives, I’d imagine.

Saturday, 10 July 2021


(First part here.)

”I Smiled Sadly”

’Ziggy Stardust’ opens, logically enough, with an announcement of the end of the world: “News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in”. As the song starts Bowie sounds mournful but strangely resigned. There's none of the “hey man” hep-cat slang that peppers future tracks, the language is direct and even flat. 

Mysteriously, the song never spells out just how or why this time limit came to be set. But we're lucky, because at one point Bowie did explain it, when he was being interviewed by William Burroughs:

”Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes 'Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don't have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping.”

More precisely, we're lucky that this was said three years after the event (and for a musical that never happened), so we don't have to be bothered by any of it. (If you read the whole thing, you can follow him musing about the logistical difficulties associated with putting black holes on stage. While saying “I usually don't agree with what I say very much, I'm an awful liar.”) Just as we're lucky the Orwell estate scuppered his plans for a 'Nineteen Eighty Four' musical, meaning that instead we got 'Diamond Dogs'. Every reference you read to it suggests it would have been to Ziggy what 'Phantom Menace' was to 'Star Wars', elaborations which added nothing and in fact took everything away.

Of course we're better off not knowing. The disaster is like the shadowy monster in shadowy monster films, best kept that way rather than shining a spotlight over an extra sweating in a rubber suit. It’s the unspecified nature which makes the song so haunting and evocative. But there's more, which goes to the core of the concept...

At the time, he was less erudite but probably also less an awful liar:

“It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn't have fitted into the story of Ziggy... it could be within the last five years of Earth... I'm not at all sure... Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends on which state you listen to it in.”

And notably he doesn't seem to have ever played the songs live in album sequence.

So if Bowie wasn't yet applying Burroughs' cut-ups to his lyrics, he effectively cuts up the album. Every song comes from a different perspective. Though Bowie ‘played’ Ziggy on-stage and even in interviews, and though the majority of the songs are from a first-person perspective, few are from Ziggy’s. ('Star' is a possible exception.) We see him through others’ eyes. The classic line is “Ziggy played guitar” not “I played guitar”. (Just as well, as he wasn’t playing guitar at the time he sang it.)

You could, if you wanted, try to pin each one to it's narrator - 'Starman' to a suburban teen keeping his dreams of “sparkling” from his parents, 'Lady Stardust' an early fan watching others glom on, 'Ziggy Stardust' two rival fans in conflict and so on. But that's not the point. The point isn't where those different perspectives come from, it’s what they add up to. You can examine a mosaic by stepping up close, working out the size and colour of each piece. But the point of a mosaic is to step back, to take in the whole thing impressionistically, individual pieces disappearing into the pattern.

And is this even new? Earlier songs, such as ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Cygnet Committee’ had been built from multiple points of view. But each character was carefully tagged, most obviously through the radio call signs on ’Space Oddity’. The lyric sheet even helpfully wrapped their speech in inverted commas. But as those epic narratives condensed to hit single length, those identifying tags were lost, long speeches and passage of description were compressed into gnomic aphorisms.

Plus Ziggy himself was a mosaic, a Frankenstein assemblage Bowie made from rock stars already existing. Except when people try to work out his recipe, it always seems dissatisfyingly limiting. Ideally he’d be based on every previous star. Bowie said “it’s an archetype really, it’s the definitive rock ‘n’ roll star. It often happens and I was just trying to document it as such.”

As well he might. Smart, striking-looking, talented… Bowie may have been a natural star. But he was not necessarily a natural rock star. For years he flitted between many paths. So he approached the role as an actor would, studying actual rock stars and copping elements as they struck him.

And before Bowie, appreciation of previous stars was normally expressed through cover versions or copycat numbers. Whereas on his previous album ’Hunky Dory’ Bowie had openly dedicated multiple numbers to his heroes. And he’d go on to use rock imagery, such as “Jagger’s eyes”, the way Romantic poets might have cited Aphrodite.

Plus seeing him through those multiple lines of sight, like a mosaic viewed through a prism, enhances this sense of him as something inscrutably strange, slightly beyond our understanding. Looking back years later, Bowie sounded less interested in Infinites in Greenwich Village: 

"I think that probably the best thing I did with Ziggy was to leave himself open-ended. It wasn't a specific story, there were specific incidents... but it wasn't as roundly written as a usual narrative is… because Ziggy was kind of an empty vessel you could put an awful lot of yourself into, being your own version of Ziggy." 

And yet the mosaic metaphor's imperfect. Here the pieces are just big enough to suggest they might fit together. We get a fractured perspective on a fractured figure in a fractured situation. And that fracturing is foregrounded. It may be significant that Bowie so frequently described himself as “mixed up”, as a synonym for “troubled”, when he was playing a character who was literally made from a mix.

Google-image “Ziggy Stardust” and most finds will be of the later Aladdin Sane. You can see why. It was all about being iconic and that was the icon that trumped the others. Aladdin was used for the mural made for him in Brixton after his death, he even has a zigzag constellation named after him. That zigzag became his motif, and it couldn’t be more clearly an emblem of a fractured personality.

And the fracturing may even be duplicated in the individual pieces, like Mandlebrots. When people argue over the recipe for Ziggy, the one most overlooked is the least known but possibly the most important. Through the medium of consuming too much acid Vince Taylor had come to believe he was an alien, or Jesus, or possibly an alien Jesus.

Bowie said of him “I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both, probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely over the edge. Especially at my age then, it seemed very appealing: ‘Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts’. And so he re-emerged into this Ziggy character.” (From Clinton Heylin’s ’All The Madmen’) So Ziggy was based from the off on a broken prototype. Not Jesus but a John the Baptist who predicts himself, and is still proven wrong.

The script that Bowie wrote which called for Ziggy’s rise also had to call for his fall. And it was ever thus. In the Simpsons episode 'The Otto Show' Bart falls into a fantasy where he and Millhouse become rock stars. Before you know it he’s becomes bloated and strung out, lying backstage unable to go on. “You've changed, man”, yells Millhouse. “It used to be about the music.” Returning to reality Bart mouths to himself “cool”.

In rock ‘n’ roll if it’s working, that’s a sign it’s not working. It's meant to end up in failure, the car crashed into the swimming pool not retained and resold for its full market value. So in rock mythology “he took it all too far” is a compliment. 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' is always going to trump 'Rock 'n' Roll Retirement With an Superannuated Pension Plan'.

’Ziggy’ is the rock 'n' roll story - rags/riches/rags again – blown up on a more cosmological scale. And if it wasn't rooted in rock 'n' roll, it wouldn't work. We're like a tribal group told a new iteration of its core myths. Just a few key words and phrases is enough. 

Which is why, in the moment of listening to it, Ziggy seems to make total sense. It’s only when you try to focus on it that it slips away. Because in a way we don't need to be told the story of Ziggy. We already knew it, from the very beginning, without even thinking about it.

And so rock music becomes almost innately built on a paradox, between the rock star as icon of cool and as shunned outcast. As Lennon said "Part of me suspects I'm a loser and part of me thinks I'm God Almighty,” no messing with Mr. Inbetween. Ziggy himself epitomises the ambiguity, built around the oxymoron of “a leper messiah”. And one way of resolving that paradox is to make it into a timeline, into a rise and fall.

And so, though Ziggy’s fall is telegraphed in the title its passing is barely recounted. It comes in the middle of the song ’Ziggy Stardust’, intercut with the triumphant. We’re expected to intuit these are two contrasting voices, the euphoric fan interrupted by the more cynical protopunk asking what the Spiders have done for them lately.

He “make[s] love to his ego”, the kids fall out of love with him, “kill the man”, “break up the band” and leave him alone and despondent. Or something like that. (It’s not clear how any of that happens, or even who turns against who first. Or how you can develop a messiah complex when you’re already a messiah.) And that was one of the songs demoed even before 'Hunky Dory', suggesting that however much it's elided over Ziggy's fall had been hardwired into the thing from the start.

Whereas in ’Lady Stardust’, just as we're being told of Ziggy's ascendancy the tone is elegiac, almost mournful, someone looking back on those happier times. The past tense seems important. The payoff line is “I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey”.

”Pushing Through the Market Square...”

So in short 'Five Years' makes no sense and was never intended to... well, perhaps in a way it does. But, despite the “Earth really dying” line, what it suggests is social not ecological collapse. The patchwork array of people in the street come off as disconnected, linked only by hearing the news guy's words. Reduced to a series of pronouned types, (“a girl my age... the black... the cop”) just like the agglomeration of discrete objects that assail the narrator (“boys, toys, electric irons and TVs”) all apparently walking single file, each internalising the portentous warning.

The most obvious assumption is that they act in this way in response to the news guy's words, shocked out of the ability to look one another in the eye. But what if the situation is the other way up? The news guy isn’t relaying to but reporting what’s happening in the street, that we can no longer relate to each other, that social breakdown is literal - it’s simply stopped functioning at the most fundamental level, and now each and every one of us is alone.

“I felt like an actor” should be a positive line, another iteration of the Glam credo about reinventing yourself. Here it's reversed. Everyone in the song is an actor without an audience, reduced to a role and trapped within it. Only the social outcasts, “the black” and “the queer” respond to what anyone else is doing – which in the queer’s case is throwing up.

With the line “never thought I’d need so many people” it’s the ‘need’ which sticks out. We’re expecting ‘see’, maybe ‘meet’, not so strong a term. Its people who are the problem here. But also, potentially, the solution. “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare” is about carrying the image of that fractured world in your mind, with no way to interact with it. Bowie said, if years later, “I'm feeling like a society in myself. So broken up and fragmented.”

And, you may ask, how does this theory explain the five year time limit? The answer to that is it doesn't really. But then that's happily forgotten from this point anyway. What it does convey is how it can feel to push your way through a crowded street, your brain auto-assigning descriptive tags to those you pass as if that helps you navigate them. Like you're a cut-out piece stuck in a collage, unable either to cross the bifurcating scalpel lines and interact with the other pieces or to remove yourself from them.

Bowie’s often said to have countered the collectivised radicalism of the Sixties, to be about individual self-transformation. But this is a song about the downside of individualism, the perils of too much of the heady stuff. He often said himself that he primarily wrote about alienation. But perhaps never more so than here.

”Ripping off Stars From His Face”

And, with the world collapsing around you, what’s left to do but act cool?

The album contains an out-and-out filler track, which doesn't even tangentially relate to the Ziggy concept – 'It Ain't Easy'. (Already rejected from 'Hunky Dory', it should have been knocked back again.) So it might seem a shame that a classic song which did (sort of) fit the concept got left off the album. Of course this is ’All The Young Dudes’, which Bowie gave to Mott the Hoople. (Some claim he wrote them the song on the spot.)

In fact, much like the musical getting aborted, it's the hidden hand of fate at work. Firstly, it was too similar to the album to actually find a place on it. Too many motifs recur – television men, suicide and so on. Chronologically it would have had to come before the Starman landed, but would then risk vying with 'Five Years'. 

But more importantly Ian Hunter sung Bowie's song better than he would himself. Bowie would have sung it poignantly and theatrically, pretty much the same way as 'Five Years'. Hunter just sounds jaded, soured on life. (Though Bowie did perform the song live, he never released a recording of it until a 1995 compilation album.)

So what’s so cool about Cool? It could be seen as just a more condensed word for people who can't be bothered to say insouciant. Except that ignores the term’s origins:

”The sum and substance of cool is a self-conscious aplomb in overall behavior… Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.”

(And yes, it doesn’t count as cool to look up what Wikipedia says about cool.) Hence affected nonchalance became important enough as a survival strategy to acquire an almost spiritual devotion. Baudrillard described cool as “aestheticised nihilism”.

In fact, in today’s bid for Pseud’s Corner I’m going to suggest this song suggests a dialectical relationship. In one sense it’s acknowledging the hopeless situation society has pushed upon you. (As in the immortal line “is there concrete all around/ Or is it in my head?”) But being a “dude” is also an avowal, something taken up akin to being a monk, and so becomes your source of inner strength. (“That revolution stuff” of the previous decade is specifically rejected.) Which creates the paradox – you pose as if your very life depended on it.

To get more reductive about it than we probably should, the verses are a list of individuals feeling that concrete all around. (It starts with a planned suicide.) While the more euphoric chorus involves the dudes banding together. Even the recorded version carries instructions as if to a live audience - “I want you at the front”. 

Rags are the New Riches

I once watched one of those BBC4 music histories which cheerfully rolled out the old saw about music not reflecting the lives of alienated urban youth before punk came along. Scarcely ten minutes after they’d actually played ’All The Young Dudes’. 

Glam was naked aspirational, and often that meant a chance to do some social climbing. It involved many figures from working class backgrounds who affected middle class accents. Take for example Brian Ferry, son of a Geordie miner who took on a gentleman-about-town persona. Punk might seem the very opposite of all that. We could counter Ferry with Joe Strummer, ex-public school boy who learnt to drop his H’s in the newfound impolite company.

Nevertheless this still was the promissory note Punk inherited from Glam, embodied in Rotten's clarion cry “you don't need permission for anything!” If it replaced dressing up with dressing down, it took up dressing down as if it was dressing up, rags paraded like they were riches. Glitzy alter egos like Stardust and Glitter were swapped for ersatz names like Poly Styrene.

And the connection’s possibly at its clearest here. The “ripping off stars from his face” already seems Punk’s ostensible anti-Glam. While the discarding of the Beatles and Stones seems to presage the Clash’s “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones.” In fact the Clash were such fans they brought in Hoople’s producer Guy Stevens for ’London Calling’. (Though perhaps the bizzarest connection is anarcho-punk fundamentalists Crass naming themselves after a ’Ziggy Stardust’ lyric “the kids were just crass.”)

Last part incoming...

Saturday, 3 July 2021


“Please don't ask me to theorise on Ziggy... its all too personal. He's a monster and I'm Dr Frankenstein. He's my brother, and God, I love him."
- Bowie

”Man is least himself when he talks in his own person... Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth” 
- Oscar Wilde

Ziggy and the Zeitgeist

After Bowie's death, when Call-Me-Dave Cameron tried to paid tribute to a man he barely even had a first name in common with, Newsthump cheekily suggested he'd cited 'Sergeant Pepper' as his favourite album. And like a lot of satire, it's not that far off.

'Ziggy' may to some extent be Bowie's 'Pepper', the name non-fans have in their heads as the correct answer to the question. Truth is, not only is it not his best album it's not even the best of his Glam era. Bowie himself thought so, preferring 'Aladdin Sane'. I’d most likely go for 'Diamond Dogs'. So how can we explain this fixation on 'Ziggy'?

It was that album which broke Bowie, and so the way most fans first heard of him. But there's more to it than that. Bowie may at other times have made better music. But arguably 'Ziggy' achieves a more important task of popular music - 'Ziggy' is zeitgeisty.

In look and sound Bowie intended Ziggy to come across like a landing Martian, like something so strange he'd beamed down from a different reality. And yet the genius of the thing was the way he plugged so neatly into early Seventies culture. His was just the strange our normal needed.

Perhaps significantly, Ziggy is the archetypal figure for Glam as much as for Bowie. Even though Glam was already well underway at the time. (It’s launch is often considered to be Marc Bolan’s ’Top of the Pops' appearance in March 1971. Bowie’s ‘Starman’ wasn’t until July 1972.) So what was there in Ziggy that allowed Bowie to eclipse Glam’s originator?

It was Bolan who said “pop songs must be like a spell”. And, as said over the later 'Station To Station', Bowie often wrote songs as a form of sympathetic magic. Adam Sweeting wrote in his Guardian obituary “the [Ziggy] album effectively wrote the script for his own stardom”. Like wheels within wheels, he would perform as Ziggy but Bowie was already an alter ego. (He'd been born David Jones.) Bowie became a rock star by playing one, on and off stage.

But this was also the Bowie album which most addressed the audience, and in the most literal sense. Bliss it must have been to be young in that very dawn, and watching that legendary 'Top of the Pops' version of 'Starman', where he pointed out of the screen straight at “yo-hoo-hoo”.

And who was in that audience? Remember the opening monologue of 'Trainspotting'? Culminating in the spat line about “the brats you spawned to replace yourself”? Though set in the following decade it’s a statement even truer of the Seventies, when it wasn't at all uncommon for children to entirely replicate their parents' lives. As workplaces were often localised, sons would take up not just similar work to their fathers but the same work in the same workplace. While daughters were even more likely to stay home and change nappies, just as their mothers had changed theirs. The lines in your parents’ faces mapped your own future.

But this was also the time where fixed careers first started to erode, effectively the first generation for who replacing your parents wasn't an inevitability. In the Sixties, Mod had been about dressing up, looking smart and becoming a “Face” on the scene, in a way which related to social aspiration. But it was still tied to the fixation on your Saturday night respite from the daily grind. Glam took this further, into a form of self-transformation.

Young children, noting they have the power to name things, sometimes re-name themselves in an early act of re-self-branding. But we’re expected to grow out of that. Glam took it up at a higher level. Why did you need to keep the name your parents had given you? You could create an alter ego, and then become that person just by dressing up as them. Sartre had said “Man makes himself by acting.” Why should play-acting prove any different? The Glam credo was actually spelt out the clearest by neither Bowie nor Bolan but ’The Rocky Horror Picture Show’: “Don’t dream it, be it.”

And the spells Bolan spoke of are at their most potent in our teenage years. We wrap ourselves up in them, play their magic words over. Melita Dennett, frequent Brighton gig-goer to this day, has recalled why she found seeing Bowie so significant: “This was it: I knew there was another life, another world because I'd seen it, here in Brighton Dome. It wasn't just about Bowie, it was the realisation that you could step outside of stifling conformity, normality and find that other world for yourself.”

And Bowie himself said at the time: “If I've been responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they'd had, them I'm pleased. Because that's something I feel very strongly about. That one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is.” 

(And this self-transformation was central to Glam. Genesis’ Peter Gabriel dressed up as his characters onstage. But not only was their music quite different to Glam, his were actor’s costumes to be worn and then discarded. Whereas Glam set up shop in the slippage between costume and identity.)

And its probably no coincidence that another great album of the early Seventies, Patti Smith's 'Horses', also plays with gender identity and general themes of transformation. If in her case with a more surrealist emphasis on metamorphosis.

From our vantage point, where varied careers have come hand-in-hand with precarity, we naturally dwell on the downside of this and tend to look back rather fondly on the time job security was actually a thing. Besides, how many times have Madonna or Geri Halliwell ‘reinvented’ themselves now, with ever-diminishing returns? The payoff line from the 2004 film ’The Edukators’ - “some people never change” – may prove a more salutary credo for us today. Nevertheless, in the early Seventies transformation was a powerful idea.

”He Played It Left Hand” 

In that legendary ’Top of the Pops’ performance, the moment where Bowie puts his arms round Mick Ronson's shoulder would now scarcely be noticed. At the time it caused astonishment. Just before the album was released, Bowie told the music paper ’Melody Maker’ he was gay.

Seeing as he was at that point married, even dedicating a song from his previous album to their child, a slightly cynical response might be in order. It’s true Bowie was bisexual to a degree, but this was at best a vast exaggeration. (He later conceded “I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well.”)

Is this any different to Tarantino notoriously claiming “there's part of me that is black”? It could easily be argued gay had simply become the new black - with black culture now so successfully strip-mined something had to be next. So a form of 'gay drag' was hit upon by a fledgeling music star. He later said he'd given the interview in character as Ziggy, something he did increasingly.

Yet notably only in 'Lady Stardust' is the title feminised, and even there every gendered pronoun is “he”. And arguably this was merely upping the ante of what was already present in popular music. From the Sixties, Jagger's stage persona had been a mix of high camp and hyper-masculinity.

...which is perhaps a bit too cynical. For one thing perhaps this is simply what Glam does. As Simon Reynolds argued in ’Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and it’s Legacy’ “isn’t it more radical – more glam – to say ‘I wasn’t born this way, I’m choosing to go against nature.’” For another it underestimates the degree of homophobia which was then prevalent. At the time he made that claim, legalisation was less than five years old. Many gay people were still to come out, playing it straight in public life. Now here was a predominantly straight guy saying loudly he was gay.

And why was that arm around a shoulder so significant? Culture was then not just homophobic, it was virtually expresso-phobic. These were the “felt nowt” years, when doing anything remotely out of the ordinary – particularly if it suggested some form of emotional expression - was met with the catch-all accusation of “that sounds gay”. “Queer” wasn't just wrong, it was a signifier term for all that was wrong. So the response to that accusation inevitably became “alright then, I'll be queer”.

It wasn't about arguing gay people could be considered normal. In many ways it was the opposite, the far more potent message we could all be “queer” if we chose to. Appropriating some gay tropes became a way of taking the stopper out of your own bottle. During the same era, Eno, neither gay nor trans, wanted to wear glamorous clothes, and the only ones he could find were made for women. In the previous decade, Timothy Leary had said we needed to go out of our minds to use our heads. By Bowie's time we needed to go a bit gay to use our hearts.

And, despite his first using the word “gay”, ultimately bisexuality became not just more accurate but more important. He may even have been using the more graspable term to acclimatise his audience. Bisexuality isn’t the same thing as gender bending, but they’re popularly associated and Bowie did little to separate the two. In both, sexual identity isn't fixed but fluid.

Partly this just turns flamboyance into a moving target. As a character in the film ’Velvet Goldmine’ says to the blatant Bowie stand-in: "You live in terror of not being misunderstood”. After all, what’s being a teenager all about except the desperate urge to be misunderstood? And what better element to set in motion than the one everyone had almost assumed was most fixed – gender identity? You could decide who you wanted to be, but you didn’t need to ever quite decide.

More to follow…

Saturday, 26 June 2021


After the Patrick Troughton era of ‘Doctor Who’ has put us in the mood for all things Sixties, here’s the unofficial soundtrack. This was the time when the post-war, black & white world seemed finally done with, when suddenly there were more colours that you had known existed and everything was going to change.

Some pointers... Yes, Donovan was in many ways the Bono of his day. Still, listen to that opening track shimmer. Hawkwind could hold a riff down with the best of ‘em but they could dream too. Gong come up with perhaps the most Om-out riff of all… And whatever else you do, stick with ‘Trust Us’ past the half-way mark. Yes the Magic Band were mavericks who operated with absolute indifference to musical trends. But this one time they really channelled the zeitgeist, Beefheart intoning like a master mesmerist. "The path is youth, let the dying die, let the lying lie…”

Donovan: 'Hurdy Gurdy Man’
Jefferson Airplane: ‘White Rabbit’
The Electric Prunes: ‘I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)’
The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band: ‘Suppose They Give a War and No One Comes’
David Peel + the Lower East Side: ‘Legalise Marijuana’
Mick Jagger: ‘Memo From Turner’
The Mothers of Invention: ‘Trouble Every Day’
Hawkwind: ‘You Know You’re Only Dreaming’
Caravan: 'The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again’
Soft Machine: ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’
Love: ‘Live and Let Live’
Captain Beefheart + His Magic Band: ‘Trust Us’
13th Floor Elevators: 'Slip Inside This House’
Gong: ‘Master Builder’

Pink Floyd: ‘Take Up This Stethoscope And Walk’

Saturday, 19 June 2021


"Time... is only something we have invented for ourselves. It's a trap. I wanted to destroy that trap."
- Nicholas Roeg

“Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” 
- Marx

(A sort of sequel to this, though the order you read them doesn’t really matter.)

Chronic Argonauts 

There must have been a first time travel story. Even time travel has to have a starting point.

And that’s because the passage of time was originally held to be illusory, a trick caused by restricted perspective. Time isn’t really time at all, but just another dimension in space. “Second sight”, prophesying and all the rest wasn’t a form of travel but an enhanced ability to see. Another term for a shaman or a soothsayer is a seer. And the seer has an elevated viewpoint to see from, which allows him or her to see across time. It’s like we all live down in a deep valley, but they inhabit a tower. They can simply see further.

People can confuse this with predestination. But it’s not the same. Predestination presumes linear time, as if all is scripted in advance, your fate lying inexorably in wait for you like the station awaits the train. Here both time and space are part of the web of wyrd, where tugging on one part will cause waves across the rest. This is how Brian Bates had his sorcerer character Wulf explain it, in his novel ’The Way of Wyrd’ (1983):

“It is a mistake to assume that events far apart in time are thereby separate. All things are connected as in the finest web of a spider. The slightest movement on any thread can be discerned from all points in the web…

“Omens frighten the ordinary person because they believe them to be predictions of events that are bound to happen: warnings from the realm of destiny. But this is to mistake the true nature of omens. A sorcerer can read omens as pattern-pointers, from which the weaving of wyrd can be admired and from which connections between different parts of patterns can be assumed…

“There are no laws. The pattern of wyrd is like the grain in wood, or the flow of a stream; it is never repeated in exactly the same way. But the threads of wyrd pass through all things and we can open ourselves to its ripples as it passes by. When you see ripples in a pool, you know that something has dropped into the water.” 

Linear time, causal events, all arose later. Along with notions of social progress. Time travel, relying on linear time like a train needs tracks, became conceivable as a consequence of this. But whenever it was, it’s long since been lost to time. So let’s ask a more precise question – when was the first time machine story?

With time travel we’re time’s passengers, susceptible to its whims. If people crossed time it was often not through their own doing but by the whim of fate, by supernatural or just plain mysterious means. In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle (1819) time literally runs away with him, he’s beguiled to discover years have passed in what to him was a night. In what’s become his signifying feature, even his beard has grown long. But that’s a more extreme version of an experience we all have. You have it every time you see a clock and say “what, quarter to five already?”

Which places Irving’s story in a strange interchange. It happens to Van Winkle essentially because he drinks magic mead. But he doesn’t just reappear in a later iteration of his home town, small children now adults and so on. In a much-forgotten feature, the American revolution happens in his absence. Time hasn’t just advanced, society has changed.

Things developed from there. But development is never even. Buck Rogers’ 1928 origin, for example, effectively rips off Rip Van Winkle to get its hero into the world of the future where the action is. Nevertheless, the time machine dictates to time, just as the car engine lets us dictate to space. If we have never invented an actual time machine, their fictional existence has always been linked to real contemporary levels of technology. Wells' 'The Time Machine' (1895) claimed to feature “the first of all Time Machines”, and this has since become a widespread belief. But though with ’Time Machine’ he may have coined the term, Wells himself had already written the shorter, lesser-known 'The Chronic Argonauts' (1888). And more timely still was Edward Page Mitchell, with 'The Clock That Went Backward' (1881).

As with Irving, Mitchell’s story inhabits an interchange. It’s based around a predestination paradox which enables the revolt of the Netherlands, which it strongly suggests was a precondition of American Independence – the path of progress being paved. It strongly links time travel with clocks, to the point of suggesting it could only be possible after clocks were invented.

Yet it only portrays time travel working backwards, through a clock whose two operatives are themselves elderly. (It’s said of the Aunt owner: “The old lady was surrounded by old-fashioned things. She seemed to live altogether in the past.”) And while time is only portrayed as linear, as if it has a reverse to be added to forward gear, there are also verbal hints of wyrd time: “Past, present, and future are woven together in one inextricable mesh.” Ultimately, though some pseudo-scientific explanations are offered up, it’s really a piece of weird fiction.

But it’s central feature, up there in the title, is a piece of magical thinking about technology - as if the thing that measures time could somehow also control it.

Unlike Mitchell’s august Aunt, Wells made his protagonists respectively a brilliant but remote inventor and a Victorian explorer. But there’s the same emphasis on time travel as if it were another direction in space. In ’The Time Machine’ the original working model is even described as the size of a clock. All of which reflects the increased prevalence of clocks in our lives by that point. Its controls are literally a forward and a reverse gear.

The globe had become increasingly demarcated and colonised. So, after space, time was next to fall under human dominion. The shift from agricultural to industrial work brought with it the imposition of clock time onto the working day, to a degree not previously conceived. Standardised 'railway time', co-ordinated between towns, was introduced between 1840 and 1855. The first commercial telegraph arrived in 1837, with early lines often running beside railways. By 1861 the coasts of America had been connected. But there’s more...

Eadward Muybridge's photographic motion studies had started in 1878, just before Mitchell’s story. Previously, anything moving too fast for the human eye was simply ungraspable. Cameras still couldn’t snap in such rapid succession. But by setting them up in series, triggered to click seconds apart, he found he could break actions down into analysable steps. For the first time, we could for example figure out how a horse actually ran (see above). And it turned out artistic depictions had been doing it wrong all along. The essence of time had been that it passed, a succession of moments which slipped inexorably through your fingers. Now it could be grasped, could be scrutinised.

The Royal Academy’s ‘Degas And the Ballet’ exhibition associated Impressionist art with photography, and in particular with Muybridge. This movement gained its name from Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1874, above). Which was itself named because, in the early morning haze, so little of the topography of the harbour could be discerned. It wasn’t a mapping of a place, but an impression of a scene. The sun didn’t light the subject, like a spotlight on a stage or table lamp above a writing desk. The sunrise and the light effects it produced, these were the subject of the work.

Colours were sometimes placed adjacently on the canvas, to mix together in the viewer’s eye, duplicating the way we perceive the real world. As said another time Monet often painted the same subject in series, at different times and under different conditions, purely to capture the changes.

This fed from twin developments. Modernism was about developing the subjective view of the artist, art’s job no longer to reflect a supposedly objective reality. But at the same time, scientific enquiry had become increasingly interested in the effect of light upon vision. Griselda Murray Brown argued:”Many of the artistic movements of the early Twentieth century were in essence an attempt to open visual art up to the dimension of time.” (’Music to the Eyes’, Art Quarterly, Summer ‘15). True, but too late. This was something which started in the late Nineteenth.

Nature had previously been thought of as timeless. Yes of course seasons passed, but as part of the eternal round. Time was circular, it simply served up more of the same. Whereas Impressionism was described as “the discovery of the present moment.” The world was no longer set, endlessly reiterating according to custom and precedent, but transitory.

Think of time as people passing you on a crowded street, a succession of moments, each with its unique character, swiftly replaced by the next. Once our activities just seemed to reproduce what had already happened, like adding another sedimentary layer to the weight of history. Now everything was happening fleetingly, for the first time, and soon to be replaced by something else. To misquote Dylan, whatever you needed to paint, you’d better paint it fast.

And Impressionism spread quickly. Pissarro recalled feeling encouraged when he first encountered Monet’s work, but always maintained he’d already been entertaining the same notions. So it may not be co-incidental that, much like Muybridge, this new approach relied on technical innovations. Earlier generations of painters had made at most preparatory sketches in situ, then knocked the painting up back in the safe confines of the studio. Now, newly built trains took the Impressionists to newly accessible country locations. And the technology that took them there also gave them new tools to depict what they saw, such as paint in portable metal tubes. Containing new manufactured paints, literally brighter than before. Those vibrant colours we all exalt in, partly they just can out of a can.

Gombrich, in ’The Story of Art’, commented “the painter was a man who could defeat the transitory nature of things, and preserve… any object for posterity”. Abandoning that to try and capture the moment was like relinquishing your main power. 

Yet it’s analogous to the way that, pre-Romanticism, few saw anything aesthetic in nature. When crossing the Alps, it was common to draw the shutters on your carriage, to keep out the awful sights. It was human technological developments which made nature seem comparatively less threatening, to the point it could be framed as a scenic view. A similar thing is true of transience. Before it could be captured, it was best not thought of. Now Monet could talk of “the instability of a universe that changes constantly under our very eyes”, not from fear but relish for the challenge.

And what happens when we apply this new concentrated sight not to nature but human society? Scientific enquiry was no longer broad in scope, like mapping a new continent, but acute – aiming to home in on something. Producers of goods had originally been independent craftsmen. Merchants were essentially their customers, even if their intent was to sell on what they bought to other customers further down the line. 

But by increments the craftsmen would fall under the employment of the merchants. Who would now supply their raw materials, own their premises and pay them at guaranteed fixed rates. In this way the relationship of worker to capitalist, which now seems so inherent to production, was first founded.

Yet there’s a twist to this. The early capitalist’s motive was to regularise supply, to maintain profits. But, lacking the producer’s craft skills, he could at most stand and watch the worker work. His control was really only over input and output. How the worker worked still lay under his own control. Gradually, mechanisation changed that.

Marx referred to this as the formal subsumption of labour by capital yielding to the actual. He wrote: “Through the subordination of humanity to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives.”

Ever prescient, he was writing in 1863. But it reached it’s apogee with Taylorism, named after Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theories of ‘scientific management’, which effectively began in 1882. What Muybridge did to the horse, break a previously unanalysable blur of activity down into a discrete set of measurable steps, just a few years later Taylor was doing to the craft worker. The gestation of the production line is here. And with it time and money became inextricably entwined. Phrases like “I can’t spare the time” became common parlance. As EP Thompson said of the era: “Time is now currency, not passed but spent.” (‘Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, 1967.)

Time On Tracks

George Pal's film adaption of Wells' 'The Time Machine' (well, sort of) came out in 1960. Let’s focus here on the time travel scene itself. (Elaborated from a much briefer sequence in the novella.) The machine itself (barely described by Wells) is of course made to look deliberately quaint and Victorian, essentially an easy chair with a clock, calendar and gears attached to it. The brass plate with the manufacturer’s name is a particularly nice touch. (Even if it raises the question how an extended warranty would work.)

But it all accentuates the notion of the time machine being stationary in space, sitting still in the basement as all changes around it. Like the machine, time only has a forward and reverse gear. Time’s a direction, just a different kind of forward to the one space has. Imagine instead of reading down a page of a book you pressed through it. You’d come out at the same point on another page, further along. And where the time machine will take you is just as pre-set as skipping ahead in a book.

An earlier post looked at how the Hartnell era of ‘Doctor Who’ butted against the limits of Fordist time. What was there accentuated is here assumed.

But there’s another element… look less at the chief barometer of his travel – the shop front mannequin, with her raising and lowering hemline – than how it’s shown. Its double framed, first through his own window and then the shop window across the street. These devices are used to convey the passing of time, they happen to a character in the film. 

Yet at those points he's not really within the film at all. He's an observer. He's like a member of the audience who managed to get the most front of front row seats, but screens still separates him from the action. Pretty much every member of the 1960 audience would have seen fast-froward and time-lapse film. But pretty much all would have witnessed it passively, something that wouldn’t change until the first video recorders two decades later.

Which encounters and over-rides the most obvious objection. Of course the time travel section is simply built around the technical possibilities of the day. Fast forward film and time lapse photography was what they had. How else could they have done it? They filmed it not to convey any kind of temporal philosophy they may have conceived of, but simply in a way they could.

But the framing shows that’s the point. It’s not that these kind of technical developments constrain our perceptions. In many ways they do the opposite, enable us to see things in a new way. But by enabling they restrict them to what’s thinkable. It’s like building a road network. You can drive places you couldn’t before. But the places you can’t drive, you’re less liable to think about.

To quote Marx again: “The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.” 

And that one direction was now… well, directional. It had a forward and back. We’ve seen in the previous instalment how that related to working life. But it was equally true of our leisure pursuits. TV, for example, then had just one channel to choose from.

A Remote Control For Reality

But if linear time was a conception of the Fordist era, of a job-for-life endured on a production line, how do we tell time today? A more recent development is bullet time. Defined by Wikipedia as “a visual effect or visual impression of detaching the time and space of a camera (or viewer) from that of its visible subject.” In general, it’s used to describe two film effects at once - slow motion combined with camera pan, so we traverse moving objects as if they were effectively still.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be captured on film. Take Cornelia Parker’s 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View' (1991), of which she said “it’s not the explosion, it’s more the contemplation, you know, the quiet contemplation of these things in the air.” It’s hard to think of anything more reactive than an explosion. Yet here we can stand in a gallery and mull it over, even wander around it.

It could theoretically have been made at any time, all you really need are debris and string. (Plus, presumably, enough patience to assemble it.) She genuinely tried to recreate a moment from the explosion, presumably captured from some hi-res photograph. True the artwork doesn’t rely on this, just as galloping horses could be painted before Muybridge. But the work comes from a culture which has absorbed those technologies.

A more popular example would be the Centre Parcs ad which recited the WH Davies poem ’Leisure’, (1916) (“What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare”) as squirrels’ leaps and swans' wing-flaps are soothingly slowed down. The poem is of course a cod-Romantic chill pill, not worth examination. Its conceit is that we live a “poor life”, but the poem itself can act as medicine for this, allowing us “to stand and stare”. But what’s significant about it here is the context, it’s combination with a technical innovation. What if you could hold a remote up to life and press freeze frame, every time life gets too hectic?

However, in general use bullet time has another element. In what’s almost a reversal of Pal’s film sequence its most used to insert a character into the drama, who has the same slo-mo perspective as the viewer. A character so likely to be found dodging bullets that it became named after such a thing.

You can see an early use in the video to Roni Size and Reprazent's 1997 track 'Brown Paper Bag'. With its payphones and box TVs it may now look of its era. But then the first Matrix film was only two years later. It lacks the whiplash pan and most of the time just ‘scratches’ time back and forth like a DJ cueing vinyl, a kind of 'budget bullet time'.

But the basis is here. It sets up a busy bustling city-time, which is buffered for everyone but our hero. And he manages this by technology, by possessing a kind of remote control for reality. Which looks like a cosmic version of a Kinder egg. The key image comes and is gone in a few seconds, of a car hurtling by a traffic queue.

Imagine chronokinesis (power over time) and time travel have become distinct things. Time was once seen as the ultimate levelling measure. Exam contestants needed to be allocated the same amount of it wherever they sat, and so on. But now we have the notion that time can somehow work for you differently to the way it works on others. Time is not universally speeded or slowed, like a record played at different speeds. Time has become subjective. Yet the irony is that these impossibly fast reflexes are also those of us, the passive viewer. The protagonist is identified with us not just from their character or actions, but in a material way.

It’s the Matrix films with which bullet time is most associated. And instead of a power-granting device Neo evolves the ability to see in bullet time - just as he sees past the consensus-reality world of illusory slumber he's been in. And this becomes more literal still with Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Time constrains others, while allowing you to pass idly through it, picking its fruits. Which is underlined by his slacker character (a break from previous depictions), his ability to mix work and leisure by goofing off mid-mission. His role in the film even works like this, he’s not a full-time worker like a regular team member but a hired contractor. He's analogous to Kevin Bacon’s superior mobile connection allowing him to avoid “buffer face”, while others freeze-frame in the street.

Perhaps what’s bizarre is that a form of viewing, which is of course shared by the whole cinema audience, in this way becomes individualised. The remote control is of course not a device you have in the cinema, it’s confined to the home. This is achieved by its becoming associated with the perspective of a single character – in fact it becomes a super-power of the hero. As TV Tropes put it: “It is a convenient way to depict Super Reflexes, by allowing the audience to experience the same powers of enhanced perception that the protagonist is using.”

The Time Machine’s fast-forward worked by a lever. Yes, it took a genius inventor to create it, but now it’s built anyone could pull that lever. Davies’ poem is predicated on its curative powers for anyone who cares to read it. Roni Size had a cosmic Kinder egg. Whereas bullet time by definition divides up the frame, into those inherently endowed with chronokinetic powers and those without.

Neo-liberalism isn't sold on the notion that we can adapt to these new social conditions we find ourselves in, but that you can - that this is your chance to get ahead and leave the bewildered herd behind. The Victorians had seen time frugality and ‘industriousness’ as a form of virtue, which would benefit any who applied it to their lives. Now society is like a lottery, predicated on winners and losers. So even social conditions come to be seen as individualised, where the side we’re on is determined not by morality so much as identification. The elect few gain the perspective of bullet time against the mass still stuck in their Fordist linear time tracks.

But if that doesn't convince you, consider this. Bullet time is simultaneously a description of our modern perception of time and a registered trademark of Warner Brothers. What could be more neoliberal than that?

Saturday, 12 June 2021


First broadcast: May-July 1967
Written by David Whitaker
Plot spoilers happen!

“Somewhere in the Dalek race there are three Daleks with the Human Factor. Gradually, they will come to question. They will persuade other Daleks to question. You will have a rebellion!” 
- The Doctor

Yesterday's Past Today

Not just by acclaimed writer David Whitaker, not just a slap-bang season ender, but originally planned to be last Dalek story ever. (Because Terry Nation was trying to wrest control over his creation rather than any desire not to rely too heavily on their popularity. But with the same result. And it would be more than five years, and with the next Doctor, before their return.) This has perhaps unsurprisingly proved popular among fans. In this poll, it became the most popular Troughton adventure, while a thirtieth anniversary poll claimed it to be the best story of all.

And it's different even in it's set-up. Traditionally, 'Who' stories follow an anthology format. The Tardis appears somewhere, the crew emerge and blunder into an already existing situation. The predecessor story, 'The Faceless Ones’, would be a classic example. The previous Dalek story would be another. But this time not only do we follow directly on from what was before (the nicking of the Tardis), the situation is an already-set trap to bag the Doctor. It may be significant that the nearest we've had to this so far, 'The Chase’, was also a Dalek story. Originally by default, but now by decision it's the pepper-pots who are the Doctor's prime antagonists. With them, it's personal.

And this plot involves a breadcrumb trail of clues so elaborate as to be self-parodic. (Rather than just leaving a note saying “We have your Tardis. No funny business, alright?”) As the Doctor and Jamie follow this trail, it becomes almost the epitome of the SpyFi-ness of the Troughton era, established from the get-go by 'Power of the Daleks' – we're in an almost numinously paranoiac world crammed with spying, surveillance, secret rooms and general deception.

And this is combined with a strangely self-referential setting. We’ve become used to how later dramas retrospectively set themselves in a hyped-up Sixties, overloading the screen with mini cars, mini-skirts and lava lamps just so nobody misses them. With the pop music playing in the trendy Tri-Colour coffee bar (the Beatles before rights issues arose), ’Evil’ effectively does the same. It’s not set in its own current day, in the world that went on outside the studio. It’s set in ‘The Sixties’ of popular perception.

But then things take an abrupt left turn part-way through the second episode, and the Doctor and Jamie find themselves sent back to Victorian times. Some have criticised this, as an arbitrary reset akin to 'Keys of Marinus’. And perhaps throwing time travel into a 'Who' story isn't exactly a prize twist.

But that misconstrues what happens. First, as we'll come onto, the Sixties spy paranoia is not left behind. Also it's not a twist but telegraphed – as we note that Waterfield, dealer in unusually well-preserved Victorian antiques, is stocking up via visits back to his own time. Partly this throws the emphasis on who is behind him. (Though, as is not unusual, the title gives us a bit of a clue.) But more importantly it exists as a device to contrast the Victorian with the Sixties. Which is why the Sixties has to be so Sixties. Of course any audience inevitably sees the past through the filter of its own times. But starting things off so showily in the Sixties foregrounds this, encourages us to do it. We see in the country manor in the context of the Tri-Colour coffee bar.

Perhaps this is most foregrounded in the sequence where Jamie strives to rescue the “very beautiful” damsel in distress, Victoria, by navigating a series of death traps. As he's even accompanied by a mute ethnic stereotype sidekick, it couldn't be more of a Victorian melodrama. (And if that makes it sound tedious, try watching it.) But the whole thing is observed by the Doctor and the Daleks, in a kind of meta-commentary, like a DVD extra before it's time. (We'll come onto why. But it won't make any sense.)

In fact it could be argued the show was always pulling heirlooms out of the era, but had previously been unable to visit it because Victoriana had been so embodied by Hartnell's Doctor. It would have been too much like him coming home, and he was supposed to be an exile and wanderer. We needed to wait for the Troughton Doctor who, while shown as knowledgeable of the era, is not of it in the same way.

When Science Was Weird

But the real clue as to why we need to be told we're in a constructed Victoriana rather than anything resembling an actual Victorian past is the time machine. Waterfield and Maxtible, two gentlemen scientists, have built their own home-made one. Out of mirrors and static electricity. It is not stated whether string and brown paper were also elements of its manufacture, but the possibility seems high. And, being Victorians, they built it in a cabinet.

For any self-respecting science fiction fan, this is risible nonsense. Whereas for the rest of us it’s audaciously brilliant, one of the most gloriously deranged pieces of pseudo-science in the show's history. Is it something which could work in the real world? No. But that's what we have fictional ones for

And it needs to be a Victorian time machine to have even this semblance of functioning. Because science was then still in it's Wild West era, was still weird. The study of natural forces and development of machinery, which went on to make our modern world, went alongside the strangest kinds of spiritualism and even occultism. Nor did they merely co-exist, folk beliefs slowly vanishing to the shadows as lightbulbs started to light up. Conversely, electricity and magnetism were often considered in themselves evidence of spirit forces. We see one side of this around us every day. So now the distorting lens of fiction can play up the other.

Yet fan lore, dissatisfied with this, has it that the Daleks don't arrive through anything as undignified as this Babbage Engine Tardis. We're told they actually show up through their own power, and use the thing as a cover story to allay the superstitious locals. Which suggests fans don't always have much of an idea of how their favourite show works. For not only is it fitting, it's vital that they emerge that way!

As Waterfield says “If only we could have known the powers we were going to unleash... creatures burst out of the cabinet, invaded the house, took away my daughter...We had opened the way for them with our experiments.” It's like the cabinet was a Pandora's Box, unleashing evil spirits. While the Doctor reacts to the news it contains static electricity with mounting dread, like that has some elemental power to summon Daleks.

Dalek presence in the Victorian mansion is put down to haunting. We first hear Waterfield responding to their unheard voices through the time portal, like a medium. They often appear to people singly, like familiars. As well as Waterfield calling them “creatures” above, they're also “devils”. As Wood and Miles put it in 'About Time', “they're no longer just robot beings from space but demonic forces from another plane of existence”. Notably, unlike the capsule in 'Power', we never see inside the cabinet – just Daleks (and the occasional human) appearing from and disappearing back into it. This adds to the sense of it as some magic object.

Faustus Times Two

Many, as a way of describing Waterfield and Maxibile's summoning of the Daleks, have described this story as Faustian. So many that maybe that’s worth taking a look at...

When we first see Waterfield he's travelled through time but, no Wellesian explorer, then shuttered himself away surrounded by artefacts of his own era. He describes time travel as a “horror”. Which is a pretty effective metaphor for old age, which is after all a slow form of time travel with the element of choice removed. Get past a certain age, and it’s the present which becomes the foreign country. As a child, it always seemed to me my parents filled their home with totems of the past and begrudgingly engaged with the modern world only when compelled. But this also has the effect of humanising Waterfield, of making clear what an unwilling participant in this he is. And, as he says above, the Daleks force him into doing their bidding by kidnapping his daughter.

Maxtible is given a daughter too, who is presumably just as kidnappable. But his relationship with the Daleks is quite different. It largely works around denial. When told he is their servant and to obey their orders he replies “you have a funny way of putting things”. As it transpires they've offered him the alchemists' secret, the transmutation of lead into gold. And his carrot proves a more effective galvaniser than Waterfield's stick.

It's significant that Daleks manifest as voices in the head to Waterfield but never to Maxtible. He's the one forever saying “we are not to blame for everything that has happened”, while becoming the most active agent of everything that happens. To Waterfield they’re “devils”, to him “a higher power”.

So why is transmutation so effective a lure? It's quite carefully demonstrated that Maxtible is wealthy, the mansion his not Waterfield's, so it isn't the value of gold. But then historically its pursuit was never so much about material gain as attaining secret knowledge. (It was often used as a metaphor for - or magic version of - the ability to leave our base existence behind, gold assumed to be earthly matter with the impurities taken out.)

When Maxtible states he wants “power and influence beyond all imagination”, he pursues knowledge but with the lusty fervour others might chase wealth. Which does sound similar to Marlowe's play 'Doctor Faustus', whose lead tells himself “the God thou serv'st is thine own appetite/ Wherein is fix'd the love of Belzebub”. Though the character had roots in folklore, Marlowe makes him into a proto-modern figure. He starts the play having absorbed all Earthly knowledge and finding it wanting. Mephistopheles' first gift to him is books.

But Marlowe's Faustus is a divided figure, endlessly changing his mind over whether to sell his soul or not. When Faulkner said, “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself” he could have been talking about Faustus. This is represented externally, by (a Marlowe addition) the continual reappearance of the characteristic Good and Bad Angels. Whereas with Waterfield and Maxtible this divided figure is divided. Literally so, there is two of them. Like Faustus, both die. But how they die is significant. Waterfield is exterminated trying to rid the world of Maxtible and save the Doctor. Whereas with Maxtible...

First the Daleks blow up his mansion. (Causing him to cry “my laboratory, the only real thing in the whole of my existence, destroyed”.) And of course the burning down of the house is a Jungian symbol for the destruction of the old self. But they don't use their familiar “your use-ful-ness to us is o-verr” line, followed by a quick bit of exterminating. Instead they make him a Dalek.

To Maxtible the Daleks are classic Bunyanesque monsters, his own lust for power and knowledge so strong it first appears to him as an alien force, before overcoming him entirely. In becoming a creature entirely single-minded and devoid of scruples, in a way he gets the transmutation he wanted. Like Mephistopheles, they never really lied – they baited with selective truth.

Maxing the Factors 

Okay so what is the Dalek plan? Now it is possible that not all elements of it entirely make sense, though they make a good stab of explaining it all themselves here. It goes something like...

Having noticed the pesky humans keep defeating them, they decide to isolate 'the human factor' and bottle it for use. This is best achieved by setting Jamie those death-trap-surmounting tasks, then getting the Doctor to capture the emotions he emits 
in a jar. (“Jamie... produced a whole battery of emotions”, the Doctor states proudly.) 

The Daleks would seem to have got to know the Doctor by now, so bait him first with curiosity (that absurd trail of clues) then his optimistic belief the human factor will win out - rather than strengthening the Daleks, it will... well, humanise them. Honest. Yet it transpires he's been double-bluffed, and their plan is to expunge the human factor, thereby creating a Dalek factor. Which will allow them to turn humans into Daleks. Which is, presumably, the distilled stuff referred to in the title.

Which makes sense. Well, provided we use a very generous definition of 'sense', asking only what sense it makes within the story. The isolated factor is itself a kind of transmutation, a purified essence. And the Dalek factor being the inverse human factor only makes sense if we conceive of these as opposites – each as lead to the other's gold. (As Wood and Miles point out in 'About Time' “the story's driven by big dramatic symbols rather than logical details.”)

But while this plays out what's the Doctor up to? In a story where his non-human-ness is not just played up but made a plot point, he counters their manipulative schemes with manipulative schemes. On finding out he was set up into running those death traps, Jamie is not understandably a bit put out:

"Anyone would think that it's a little game, and it's not. People have died... Well, I'm telling you this, we're finished. You're just too callous for me. Anything goes by the board, anything at all. You don't give that much for a living soul except yourself. Just whose side are you on?"

And in a way Jamie's right. Even had his original plan worked, the Doctor's life would have been forfeit. He says to the Daleks “I've beaten you and I don't care what you do to me now”. And not just his but the others. In a line which you can imagine no subsequent Doctor saying (save perhaps McCoy) he calmly tells Victoria he was willing to let that happen. “Five lives against a whole planet. Well, it's not a choice, is it?” And in an indication of the subsequent infantalisation of our culture, even the timid Victoria calmly agrees with this clear-cut sense.

And with the timid Victoria... well, we've left the last till least. Deborah Watling plays her with charm, but she never really transcends her melodrama role of the passively virtuous damsel in distress. Even of the three Victorian maidens within the story, she seems the least blessed with gumption. 

We first see her via a portrait. (Actually of her mother, but to whom she's a likeness.) This may be part of the general alchemical theme, where owning an image of something equates to possessing that thing. (As seen in the mirrors in the time machine, or with Jamie and the Doctor first being captured via pictures of them.) But it also feeds the notion she's a stock image of beauty and innocence propped up onstage, masquerading as a character. In a story about character essences, a Victorian woman called Victoria seems all too obvious.

(It’s another of the show’s great bizarrenesses the original plan had been for Samantha from ‘The Faceless Ones’ to become the new female companion. A modern woman who inserts herself into the plot when she goes searching for her missing brother, she could hardly be any more unlike the passively virtuous Victoria. But that plan only failed when actor Pauline Collins turned down the permanent role. You start to picture a female companion generator in the production office which is just a coin with ‘modern woman’ on one side and ‘damsel in distress’ on the other.)

Hope I Exterminate the Emperor Before I Get Old

Fan lore will have it that Terry Nation was at odds with David Whitaker's depiction of the Daleks. I've no idea how true that is. But it's notable that Whitaker's version is not only wildly different, it even counters Nation's plan - then at its height - to spin the Daleks off into their own series. Which can work for some villains. Dracula doesn't necessarily need Van Helsing, who only shows up in some of the Hammer films. But here, particularly, with the Dalek/human factor business, the Daleks seem locked in opposition to the Doctor. Even in their plot, precisely because their plot is against him, they need him.

‘The Daleks’ had scenes where they discuss between themselves what they’re going to do. They gang up together, in fear and loathing of the world outside their city walls, but they’re an agglomeration of individuals. Whereas the Daleks of ‘Evil’, even more than in ‘Power’, work like a hive mind. They have a rigid hierarchy, from grunt Daleks to black-domed order-barkers up to the Dalek Emperor. But there's more. At one point they suddenly say “We are called. All Daleks are ordered to return to Skaro.” There's no messenger Dalek come onstage, no incoming transmission. They just seem to suddenly know, the way that communication can pass along lines of ants.

And about that... When the story jumped from the Sixties to the Victorian era, it had been Whitaker’s solution to an imposed problem. Ben and Polly were intended to appear in the first two episodes, at which point the actors’ contracts expired. The time jump provided the necessary break. Against the odds, he found an ingenious solution. (We might remember Whitaker also penned the simultaneously expedient ‘Edge of Destruction’.) Albeit one that proved unnecessary when both ended up bowing out in the previous story.

But the return to Skaro, while imposed by no-one, proved a jump too far. When the Daleks step out of the shadows, when they take us back to their place, what had become “creatures” and “devils” are robots from space once more. In that way it's similar to the two halves of 'The Moonbase’.

Fan lore has it that the Skaro scenes are set in the future, presumably because the three sections can then be present, past and future. But there's no textual basis for that. Rather like the fan notion ’Tribe of Gum’ is actually set not in prehistory but a post-apocalyptic future, the idea’s enticing but entirely speculative.

You’re better off ignoring these attempts to find coherence in this story. Not only are they not likely to work very well, the very intent seems to rub up against the grain of the thing. Planned to be the last Dalek story, it does often feel like the ideas left over from all the other Dalek stories stuck together. And it doesn’t seem terribly interested in hiding any of that. Andrew Hickey, picking this as one of the fifty most significant ’Who’ stories, pointed out: “’Evil Of The Daleks' [is] almost a collage… Never mind the lack of coherence, just look at the clashing images!” Which is good advice. Things aren’t put together so much as juxtaposed.

For the first time on the TV show the Dalek Emperor appears. Though he was presaged both in the 'TV21' Dalek comic strips written by Whitaker, and less directly by the Glass Dalek of his novelisation of 'The Daleks'. So he’s retconned with “at last we meet” dialogue. Twelve foot tall, he looks mighty. Yet immobile and plugged into a nexus of leads, like a spider at the centre of its web, in a way it's like encountering the opposite King in chess. Getting close to it suggests an endgame. (The Glass Dalek is even specified as weak like the chess King, for “it spoke with a different kind of voice altogether, not like the dull, lifeless monotone of its fellows but more of a dreadful squealing sound”.)

The Doctor wins, essentially, by sneakily swapping the two factors over so all the Daleks get given the human factor. The consequent questioning 'good Daleks' have since become something of a classic and are another example of ‘Doctor Who’ making itself immune to parody, by effectively parodying itself and getting away with it.

There’s something very ’Who’ about this. The show often upends what might seem a basic genre convention; here it’s the bad guys who want to bring about order, and it’s the good guys who seek to stop them. Except it’s quite possibly more deep-rooted than that, the primal state of the universe is disorder and attempts to impose an order upon it will not only result in sterile rigidity, and so they’re doomed to fail. Talking about the “human factor” and “Dalek factor”, having a plot that doesn’t even fit together on its own terms, just bring this more out in the open.

But it’s also very Sixties. As pointed out over ‘The Chase’, collage was a very Sixties medium. And as Sarah Hadley says “it's a very hippy story, in its way... [the Daleks are] the establishment. They're the people who will never change and never understand.”

This is perhaps truest in the way the ensuing Dalek civil war is played as a clash of generations. Having the human factor and being young are essentially conflated. The 'human Daleks' are on creation playful toddlers, but soon become questioning youths. Given orders, they never say “no” but merely “why?” (Or at one point “Why not question? Why?” Parents might feel tempted to side with the Emperor there.) It's only when they won't stop with the whying that battle commences.

The underlying optimism of which, rather than jar against the paranoia of earlier in the story, actually creates a fitting counterpoint to it. It's almost like the final episode of 'The Prisoner', finding contradictory elements of the Sixties but instead of explaining them away actively colliding them. And notably, the human Daleks are not left to make Skaro a hippy commune but effectively manipulated into battle by the Doctor, much as he did with the guards in 'Power', and with the result that the whole race is wipe out. (Or is it? Time will tell...)

Yet, as we’ve previously seen, Whitaker was very much a BBC writer. He took his craft seriously, but with that came a conservative worldview. In fact it's so at odds to 'Power', where the point of the Daleks was their overriding unity, that perhaps one story became the other's impetus. Let's see what would happen if dissent was sewn into their ranks. Perhaps what's most bizarre is that things have gone from 'Power's really-rather-conservative worldview to the down-with-the-kids attitude here. It's almost the polar opposite to the 'Star Trek' episode 'Miri', broadcast the previous year, where youth protest is literally infantalised into children braying “nyah nyah nyah” and everything is solved by their listening to their elders.

But by following the same schema, it merely duplicates the problem the other way up. It becomes as mythologising of the Sixties as it was of the Victorian era. In a story full of mirrors it's too much of a mirror, showing the Sixties in a way they liked to see themselves. It's Jim Morrison singing, with swaggering confidence, “the old get old and the young get stronger”. Yet if this was just a generation gap, wouldn't a similar conflict emerge every generation?

Antagonistic youth of the Sixties would sometimes characterise their elders as Victorian. Of course this wasn’t at all accurate. But it had benefits for them, redefining an era once characterised as a golden age as the death-grip of reaction and rigid conformity. In the Eighties, free market Tories played the same game the other way up by venerating “Victorian values”. It might have been neat to portray the clash of generations as a time travel story. Steam punk where it's steam vs. punks, exploding things into a grand narrative as a way of exposing the contradictions. But that’s not what ‘Evil’ does and there’s not much point pretending otherwise.

It’s tempting to give up on a ‘Who’ story making plot sense and go for thematic sense. But every now and then... well, fairly often actually, you have to give up on thematic sense too, at least in terms of thematic consistency. Its link, between its three settings, is the Victorian time machine – and that's fitting. It’s not the mirror held up to human nature that some insist it is, it’s more a hall of mirrors which results in a picture fractured a thousand times. 

Within those fractures are some bizarre juxtapositions and compelling images, and sometimes a few pieces even manage to line up. Which can at times be enough. The human Daleks asking “why” isn't something you forget once seen. But overall, it’s too much of a collage. It's not the classic fans claim, and certainly not the equal of the much more focused 'Power'.

But perhaps that’s part of its appeal. Unlike ’Power’, which stuck rigidly to one setting and firmly to one there, ’Evil’ is so incohesive it may appeal to those whose hobby is patching plot holes and devising explain-aways.

And another apparent stumbling block, bar one episode, no-one can actually see it. Andrew Wixon astutely refers to “our collective fan belief that at some point in time the series had to have touched indisputable perfection - and as that moment doesn't seem to be recorded in any of the stories left to us, well, then, it must have occurred during one of the stories that isn't”. It’s so much easier to say “lost classic” than “found classic”. Added to which, it's equally fannish to conflate ‘last Dalek story ever’ with ‘best Dalek story ever’. Even when it didn’t turn out to be either.

Coming soon! We’ll be back to the Troughton era one fine day. But first some more of that time travel…