Saturday 24 June 2023


(The first part of new series Pariah Elites, as they appear in popular - mostly science - fiction. PLOT SPOILERS lie below.)

”Alone in a world of lesser beings, he found he could read their minds… but all he could see there was hate.”

The Novel That Spawned a Slogan

“I have nothing against the book itself,” mused Cheryl Morgan after it won a retro Hugo “but ’Slan' has become a byword for fannish elitism.”

…and hers is a not uncommon view. Except in my case I only knew the second part. My SF-reading youth was as avid as yours, but somehow I skipped over not just this but the entire output of AE Van Vogt. But then, as my Mutants Our Our Future series shows, I grew curious about the trope of Pariah Elites.

And ’Slan’ (1940), his first novel, could well be where it was begat. That cover blurb (reproduced in the opening quote) will be by some since-forgotten sub-ed, but isn’t an inaccurate summary. Fans certainly took to it. It was a hit from the off, serialised in ’Astounding’ in 1940, in 1946 becoming one of the first pulp novels to actually be published as a novel, then bagging that retro-Hugo in 2016.

But, more pointedly, this was the book which generated the infamous revenge-of-the-nerds mantra “fans are slans”. So here I am, after many years living clean, holding in my hand a paperback with a giant airbrushed Chris Foss spaceship on the cover.

It’s not by any measure well written. It’s much like a sports commentator has been asked to write a novel. Naturally, they use short sentences, exclamation marks! There’s the odd yet familiar combination of rapid-fire action intercut with pages of stilted debate. Debate comprised of phrases no-one has ever said out loud, or could possibly ever say without dislocating their tongue. And it’s at its worst when called upon to provide evocative descriptions, something sports commentators don’t do that much…

“The whole great mass had donned its night time splendour with a billion lights twinkling in far-flung panorama. Wonder city now, it spread before her, a vast, sparkling jewel, an incredible fairyland of buildings that reared grandly toward the heavens and blazed a dream picture of refulgent magnificence.”

It's almost appealing that the bog-standard word ‘buildings’ appears in the middle of that incredible fairyland, like the thesaurus was somehow missing ‘B’. But ‘buildings’ at least creates some kind of mental image, if a bog-standard one. ‘Refulgent magnificence’ is mere flim-flam.

Yet pulp novels are rarely well-written. Serviceable is all we really need. Does the prose get over the information required, without any fuss, or does its limitations get in the way? And this book isn’t stodgy or leaden, it rattles by at a pace, keeps you on board. Perhaps more sports commentators should have written more pulp novels. And AE can have his moments of rhetorical flourish:

“The light that forced its way through fell across the end of the iron bedstead in a little pool and lay there as if exhausted.”

Overall, it’s relentlessly breathless outpouring made me think of Jack Kirby’s comics, where a cavalcade of crazy concepts and events seems to teem out of the creator’s brain, barely corralled into a narrative. (Perhaps notably, both were originally writing for serialisation.)

Why Must I Be a Teenager And Slan? 

The standard theory of ’Slan’, that it was based on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, is as widespread as it is absurd. In 1940, American calls for war were much more a reaction to Nazi expansionism than their anti-semitism. In fact, the guilty secret of the time was how widely those views were shared.

And we should be glad this theory falls, for the trope would more lend itself to anti-semitism than anti-racism. (“What more natural than we should insinuate our way into control of the human government? Are we not the most intelligent beings on the face of the Earth?”) The scenario seems to be that the humans are so convinced the slans are trying to take over the world, their only recourse becomes to take over the world. Not sure that helps much…

Yet can ours be said to fare better? That it’s all a metaphor for teenage travails? If the equation underlying this particular trope truly is ‘puberty equals powers’, 1940 is some way before what’s normally considered the rise of the teenager. This question is pretty much what made me read this book. Let’s sneak up on it…

As you might expect in this sort of thing, the scale is simultaneously epic and intimate. There’s a general conflict of kind, human against slan, yet everything is individualised. We travel between planets, while our cast is absurdly small. Jommy, our hero, escapes a raging mob by attaching himself to the back of a car, which happens to have seated in it another major character.

And age similarly ramps up and down, with ‘slan’ used as a permissive handwave for this. Jommy is told on the first page “you may be only nine years old, but you’re as intelligent as any fifteen-year-old human being.” We’re told our heroine Kathleen has a “child’s voice.. yet immensely unchildlike”.

And you can see the effect this would have on the target audience. No self-respecting twelve-year-old wants to read about some kid who’s nine. The device allows the reader to pick the age they most want from the range on offer, which will doubtless be their own. Further, there’s a way in which it’s accurate. In those formative years we do tend to flit between ages in our behaviour, acting younger and older at apparent random.

And more… As we saw, ’Scanners’ started with a recognisable location and two human characters discussing what turns out to be our lead Scanner. Whereas from its first sentence, ’Slan’ starts with our lead character, Jommy. Slan powers and differences are therefore assumed, and divulged to the reader by seemingly casual remarks. (Hearts being used in the plural, the hair-like tendrils which grant slan powers not mentioned until the second chapter, and so on.) This plunges us straight into the action, pulp style. But it also keys us in to identify ourselves with the slan, not the mere humans. What it is to be a slan, of course you get it, dear reader. You’re not like the lesser beings.

Yet at the same time Jommy and Kathleen orient themselves around adult characters. Jommy’s mother is killed, off-stage, in the first few pages. After which all the adult figures are essentially adversaries, anti-parents. The rule is absent parents good, present parents bad. The woman who goes on to kidnap him is even called Granny. When we’re first introduced to Kathleen, she’s being nyah-nyah teased by a human boy, but is soon in the company and quasi-protection of world dictator Kier Grey.

We discover slans to be the creation of biological scientist Samuel Lann, S. Lann morphing into slan. (Well, sort of. Evolution, in response to modernity, was slowly making slans of us anyway, but he sped this up with a selective breeding programme. There’s more than a whiff of eugenics to this, then still not regarded as a dirty word.) They’re referred to as his “children’, and the first few literally were.

Nine to fifteen, it’s a range which straddles and blurs the distinction between Tween and Teen. But this collapsing of everything into familial relations seems more Tween. Teen Lit tends to be about leaving the nest, young adults making their own way in the world. While a Tween’s world still orbits their parents, with fantasies taking the form of ‘real’ fathers suddenly appearing, lost lineages discovered and the like. (Think of the difference between ’His Dark Materials’ and ’The Hunger Games.’)

Yet fairly swiftly the book turns into the Teen territory of a rite of passage story. (Very much unlike ’X-Men’, ‘Tomorrow People’ and ‘Codename Icarus’, which stuck to the puberty years. In its first third, Jommy is already making mental plans for what to do in six years time.

After which we reach the ‘montage’ chapter where he builds up his knowledge for his mission, just as Rocky did his biceps. Closely followed by him picking up a weapon his father left him, a metal rod. In other words, his passage into adulthood is marked by his getting a magic wand off his dad. Dr. Freud, you look like you are about to speak…

After which even his name shifts, from Jommy to Jommy Cross. Then, after another fast-forward, just Cross. (Though at the same time even this doesn’t fully shift from Tween to Teen. Granny hangs around in the story after what seems her obvious exit point. It’s like leaving home but for some reason your grandparents come too. Van Vogt keeps hold of his age range.)

With ’The Tomorrow People’, as we saw, the plural was significant - it was about joining a group. Here the title is singular. The two slans don’t meet for much of the book. The lone slan, then, of course becomes a hyperbolic metaphor for the lone fan, desperately searching among the small-minded humans for others of his kind. And lurking close to the surface of the definition of teenager is someone who defines themselves against society rather than as part of it, who has to find his tribe. “I’m an SF fan” and “I’m an Accountant” are both self-descriptions, but not of the same kind.

Further, of their three Ts only one shows up here, there’s no telekinesis or teleportation. (Further evidence, perhaps, that they’re concepts of the microchip era.) The assumption is that mind powers can only affect other minds. Though slans do have enhanced physical strength, in this sense more X-Men than TPs or Scanners.

And those mind powers differ. ’Tomorrow People’ telepathy is essentially “mind talk”. (Maybe they can read minds, but don’t consider it polite.) While, with slans such solitary creatures, here it really means mental eavesdropping. To the point van Vogt concocts another ‘race’ (his term), a type of slan whose special power is “mind shields”, the ability to block the mind reading of the slans. (Referred to as tendriless slans, but essentially anti-slans.)

Telepaths would surely also be empaths, almost by definition, for thoughts cannot be entirely disentangled from feelings. A telepath would get to see the world the way others see it, feel it the way they felt it, not just read the invisible thought balloons above their heads. Something like the witnessing Angels of the film ‘Wings Of Desire’.

Here it’s effectively the opposite. ’Slan’ feeds the familiar SF phobia of the common herd. Crowds (“this vast ignorant mass of people”) give off collective readings which are lowest-common-denominator - “excitement, tension, dismay and uncertainty - an enormous dark spray of fear.”

“What you have to realize”, one character tells us, “is that men as a mass always play somebody else’s game - not their own. They’re caught in traps from which they cannot escape. They belong to groups; they’re members of organizations; they’re loyal to ideas, individuals, geographical areas.”

In fact not far below the surface is the suggestion that slans don’t really have an extra sense, it’s all a metaphor even within the story. Regular humans have their minds read simply because they make for such easy reading. Like road signs or billboards, you’ve parsed them before you’ve even thought to. It’s a bit like in ’Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where Marvin reads Arthur’s human mind, only to comment “it amazes me how you manage to live in something so small.”

Jommy controls their simple minds with as much impunity as Professor X in 'The X-Men’. Van Vogt goes out of his way to demonstrate how moral his lead is, avoiding killing wherever possible. But this is not considered an issue worth worrying about. They’re not players, they’re born supporting cast. (However, not just the other slans but a few humans manage to keep their minds concealed. Usually the special ones, who are important to the plot. It isn’t quite on the level of those who have plans get to hide them, but it’s close.)

While the slan-built palace would be a synecdoche for the slan mind:

“Human beings will never know all the secrets of that building. There are mysteries there, forgotten rooms and passages, hidden wonders that even the slans no longer know about except in a vague way… all the weapons and machines the human beings have searched for so desperately are buried right in that building.”

Human beings could even occupy the building and not be able to penetrate these secrets, and we know because that’s precisely what’s happened.

Unsurprisingly, the SF elements of the story are haphazardly applied. While buildings are made from plastic and have “refulgent magnificence”, characters sport revolvers, shop with cash in department stores and get around by what seem to be regular automobiles. (Favourite barmy pulp notion; either that minefields would be effective in space, or the electrified filing cabinets “that yielded their information at the touch of a button.”) But it’s noticeable how so many of the SF elements come from the slans, while the humans seem to inhabit a more workaday world. So, when a spaceship first appears it’s about as much a rupture as if it had shown up in a regular adventure tale. And it’s a sign of slan.

But then the twist. When human hate is based on the belief slans had first waged war on them, like Jommy we assume this is all black propaganda. But later he, and us, are given reason to fear they fought against both the humans and the other slans. In this way van Vogt plays with reader expectations. And this game is based upon a tacit acceptance of the concept’s more dodgy notions, for its all stuff the slans could credibly have done. He takes the problem and manages to turn it inward, into a source of narrative tension.

Except that device ultimately only defers the problem until his final chapter. Cross makes his mission to kill global dictator Kier Gray. Who is discovered to also be a slan, at which point his murderous Machiavellianism is immediately relabelled Not a Problem. And the humans? Turns out they’ll all be dying out soon, a discontinued line now nature no longer has need of them. Everybody will live happily ever after, apart from those who don’t. But those who don’t, they don’t don’t really count.

Slan Boy, Slan Girl

The Wikipedia entry on SF fandom gives its first appearance as New York in 1929, commenting “almost all the members were adolescent boys.” And it’s unlikely that had changed much in the next decade.

But if fans normally were young, being young wasn’t a core part of their identity. They weren’t a youth cult. Their slogan is “fans are slans” not “kids are slans”. Their cult was just dominated by youth, those with enough excess energy to turn the mimeograph machines. And this is just the way it works in the book. There’s no equivalent to ‘breaking out’ here, slans are born as slans. The ones we meet just happen to be young, that’s all.

Further, teenagers didn’t erupt out of a box and leap into the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show, when Elvis first appeared in 1956. Even if that’s the way it’s shown on TV documentaries. Like all social phenomenon, their development was slow and – at least in the early stages – largely subterranean.

And essential to the development of the teenager was youth purchasing power. Teens needed to be buying, and buying different things to both children and adults, and identify themselves by those purchases. Which meant those things needed to be not just produced but marketed towards them. Inevitably, this had a more rapid growth in affluent America than elsewhere. (John Lennon, born the year this was written, once recalled that in his youth “America had teenagers and everywhere else just had people.”)

But don’t just take my word for it. In ’Teenage: The Creation of Youth’ (2007), Jon Savage dates common coinage of teenager to 1945, already earlier than commonly thought. But then goes on to establish a “pre-history”, dating back to 1875. And, as he considers himself, even this date may be too late, and we should really be looking back to the Romantics.

And pulp magazines provided useful for this. Like singles to LPs, they were more affordable than books. But at the same time, for the longest period our society assumed there to be some inherent virtue to the written word. There were of course moral panics about pulps. But a youth reading ‘trash’ might be on the path to reading proper books, whatever the perceived quality of what they were holding right now, while a youth listening to rock ‘n’ roll was not seen as possibly progressing to Mozart. This made it easier for teen lit as a genre to grow. And science fiction proved to be one of the branches it could grow along. Heinlein’s series of novels written specifically for young adults began in 1947. Later, but no much later.

We shouldn’t be too schematic, however. Take the tendriless slans. Humans alone would be ineffective antagonists, their minds blurting out their plans all over the place. The anti-slans become the necessary supervillains of the story, Lex Luthor and kryptonite in one package. But if slans are fans, what are they? They don’t fit the schema. They’re needed for the narrative, not the metaphor.

Star-crossed Slans

Let’s focus now on another word from the quote above, as well as teens the first SF group were predominantly boys. And even by 1948 ‘Astounding’ still had a female readership of under 7%.

In ’The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction’, Paul A Carter comments: “The old science fiction pulps have a reputation for gaudy cover paintings that featured attractive young women struggling in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters. Actually, for the first four or five years, the magazines’ covers all but ignored women as a possible subject.”

True, it was ’Astounding’, in December 1930 which “introduced what was to become science fiction’s version of the Eternal triangle: the man, the woman and the monster all sharing space on the cover more or less equally.” But when John W Campbell took over editorship in 1937, the gals got booted off again.

This shouldn’t be seen as non-sexist so much as pre-sexist. Had a babe in the improbable yet common combination of silver bikini and space helmet strode onto a cover, the young male readers would have probably shooed her off again to get a better view of that enticing circuitry. They were still effectively at the “girls spoil it” level of development.

Yet amid all of this we have a boy-meets-girl story, it’s impact emphasised by alternating chapters between Jommy and Kathleen. Was van Vogt being unusually progressive here?

Not really, no. This same alternation device delays their actual meeting till two-thirds through. So, more accurately, is this a boy-discovers-girls story. In fact, he literally discovers interplanetary travel before he does women his own age. Again, Jommy’s discovery not just of a girl but girls is again something which mirrors the reader’s world.

And boy-meets-girl is of course primarily a boy story. If ostensibly a two-hander, in practice more time is devoted to Jommy. And, while Kathleen’s no shrinking violet, most of her chapters are effectively oriented around her second-guessing what dictator Kier Gray might decide to do, decisions on which her life depends.

But meet they do.

“And she was a slan!

“And he was a slan!”

… is of course a science-fictionalised way of saying “and he was a boy, and she was a girl.” You may be glad to hear that things improve from that moment.

In fact the following sequence, which slides between one’s thoughts and the others without identifying which, is the book’s most serious attempt to think through what being a telepath might entail. And it’s managed by making a connection between telepathic communication and love.

“A queer, glad thought welled up from deep inside him. It was wonderful to have found another slan at last, such a gorgeously beautiful girl. 

“And such a fine-looking young man.

“Was that his thought, or hers, he wondered sleepily?

“It was mine, Jommy.

“What a rich joy it was to be able to entwine your mind with another sympathetic brain so intimately that the two streams of thought seemed one, and question and answer and all discussion included instantly all the subtle overtones that the cold medium of words could never transmit.”

And, as at this point they’re still the only two slans in the story, it’s effectively the literary device of the lovers against the world, which seeks to pull them apart. The 1968 Book Club edition seems to focus this moment, demonstrated by their tendrilled locks becoming entwined.

But almost as soon as the star-crossed lovers meet van Vogt kills one of them off. And… no spoiler at all… it’s Kathleen. He later reveals her to have only been Marvel dead, but only at the very end. In other words ’Slan’ tiptoes up to the moment boy meets girl, then freeze-frames. Twice over.

But wait! Of course this novel doesn’t have just one girl character in it. That would be a ludicrously low number. No, in fact there’s two. While Kathleen is the effective blonde of the story, anti-slan Joanna Hillory is the brunette, as sharp-witted and distrustful as Kathleen is open and loving.

’Slan’ has a production history about as tangled as the plot, you can Google-image a myriad of covers from multiple editions. Numerous are those where the artist seems to have not encumbered his vision by referring to the contents of the book. (Chris Foss, as we’ve seen, was doubtless struck by inspiration to airbrush another great big spaceship!)

And those which do bother with such a thing focus heavily on Jommy. Sometimes throwing a generic-looking woman under his protection. The Book Club edition is rare not only for showing Kathleen, but giving her equal weight. And I could find one, precisely one, which featured what could be called a pin-up girl, the Dell edition of 1953. Who is given the cover all to herself. And I’m pretty sure we can assume this gun-totin’ brunette is Joanna.

At the same time as offering a narrow range of women characters (not even a redhead), this shows something of the appeal of the novel. Dell were an early pusher of cheap paperbacks, alongside pulp magazines and comics. As the two covers suggest, they were something of a world away from Book Club editions.

In brief, then, Jommy’s quest to find his destiny mirrors the proto-teens’ to find their identity, against what they perceive as a lesser but thwarting world. There’s no real way of knowing how much van Vogt intended his readers to see themselves in slans, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. The upshot is that they did. And invented a slogan to confirm it.

Saturday 17 June 2023


Abandon hearing all ye who enter here! Another playlist of looong tracks, starting with Michael Gira of Swans in another of his many guises. Then two double acts, as legendary Kraturockers Faust team up with left-field New Jersey HipHop outfit Dalek, and equally legendary post-punkers the Ex ally with the wild squalls of Brass Unbound. Then just-as-legendary-as-the-other-legends, the industrial ambience of Lustmord segues into my bloody valentine going even more free noise than they usually do. And as if that wasn't enough, the knockout blow's the opening movement from ‘Hallucination City', Glenn Branca's hundred-guitar symphony. Happy listening!

(The illo's a Brassai photo of Parisian graffiti.)

The Body Lovers: Part One
Faust vs. Dalek: Collected Twilight
The Ex + Brass Unbound: We Are Made Of Places
Lustmord: Er Eb Os
my bloody valentine: glider
Glenn Branca: March

Saturday 10 June 2023


Rarely is the question asked - would Sigmund Freud have been a ’Doctor Who’ Fan?

Martin Belam, writing in the Guardian,recently complained: “Just as 70s ‘Doctor Who’ looked cheap and wobbly beside blockbusters such as ‘Star Wars’, the show now suffers by comparison with Marvel TV shows.” (20/7/21) ’Who’ fans have all heard this over-familiar jeer, condensible to “wobbly sets”. Our natural tendency is to respond defensively - “they really only wobbled every now and then, you know”. But instinctively we know that the accusation makes a category error.

It’s tempting to invert the accusation, to say we love the show for such things, which lend it a quirky charm which money can’t buy. Which is, in itself, true. But that’s not really it either. What we need to do is examine the accusation.

The assumption the detractors are making is that science fiction is inherently about scale and spectacle. But were the script-writers forever conceiving of imaginative realms, only for a weary special effects department to sigh as they once more reached for the used washing up bottles and spray paint? The short answer is no. ’Doctor Who’ is not ’Star Wars’ done on the cheap. ’Doctor Who’ is ’Doctor Who’. 

You can see this clear as day in the different ways they open. ’Star Wars’ with a huge spaceship taking time to rumble across a cinema screen, followed by an even huger one. ’Who’ with a police box in a junkyard that emits strange sounds.

For one thing, those scriptwriters clearly knew the constraints. This was a series made from bakelite and sticky-back plastic, with episodes expected to be filmed on a nine-bob note and come back with change. The avoidance of “large and elaborate” settings was a rule established in pre-production. Original script editor David Whitaker once had to write a story in a weekend that used neither new sets nor characters. (‘Edge of Destruction’, but you knew that already.)

Yet when he came to write the spin-off comic strip ’The Daleks’ (in 'TV21', from 1965 to '67) he took a quite different approach. The Doctor wasn’t to appear. And rather than replace him with a surrogate protagonist he effectively abandoned human scale to tell an epic history of the Daleks, with no continuing characters bar the pepperpots themselves. With the only special effects budget to draw on being the imagination of the artists, the strip lit up with some pretty eye-popping spectacle indeed. And soon became so removed from the TV show that it widely contradicted established Dalek history.

Because why try to do something you couldn’t, when you could do something you could? Like most British TV of its day, production limitations steered the show towards theatre conventions, in what’s often called a filmed play. Confined to that single set, ’Edge of Destruction’ must be the paramount example, but of a general rule. Think of ’Web Planet’, a frequent target of critics, and even some fans. Imagine coming across stills from it out of context, would not the first thing you thought of be theatre? Quiz nay-sayers and, while they will say “wobbly sets” a lot, it’s often these conventions they’re thinking of.

And what lies behind those theatre conventions? Where a ludicrously superficial disguise still functions as a disguise, where a person hiding from another will naturally find a place where they’re still visible to the audience and so on. It’s representation, the thing we see is there to stand for something else. That swapped hat and sunglasses is only there to represent the concept of disguise. You might watch a theatre production where umbrellas stand in for swords and, provided they are used consistently, get used to the device quite quickly. After which, Police Boxes which double as time machines don’t seem such a step further.

The point here isn’t so much that these conventions were commonly adopted by TV of the time, though they were. The point is that this way of working necessitated an aesthetic. One which, through the show’s long history and still-longer list of creators, it stuck to remarkably closely. How might we try to define it? There’s two ways…

Mark Fisher, writing under his blogging alias K-Punk, argued the show demonstrates Freud’s concept of the Uncanny. Go to Freud’s essay and it can feel littered with show staples - doppelgangers, remotely animate body parts and so on. But on the other hand….

Keen to home in something more specific than such catch-all terms as ‘frightening’ or ‘creepy’, Freud insists what might be unfamiliar to the audience can’t be considered uncanny if it’s consistent within the world of the drama. (“Many things that would be uncanny if they occurred in real life are not uncanny in literature, and in literature there are many opportunities to achieve uncanny effects that are absent in real life.”) He gives the example of ghosts in Shakespeare. And surely aliens in ’Dr Who’, a science fiction show at least of some kind, fulfil just the same role as the Bard’s spirits. But let’s stick with it…

When some claim to favour Freud’s original German term, unheimlich, they may sound a little pretentious, nicht warr? Yet, like zeitgeist, it may be a term for which we’ve no adequate translation. It means less the strange (as in coming from outside our frame of reference, the UFO showing up in Central Park) but the strangely familiar, something which should be parseable by us – yet somehow isn’t. Freud himself said: “the word Heimlich… belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.”

Fisher elucidates: “The uncanny, that species of dread evoked by the strangely familiar, what is here but which should not be....“ The example he gives is the Autons, one of Freud’s examples made manifest, the lifeless become animate. “Children were mortified when these everyday objects - objects which any way evoked a frisson of uneasiness - came to life.”

We’ll look more closely at activating Autons when we reach that episode. For now, our focus is something mores specific. The intra-story explanation is sentient plastic. Yet were the plastic to actually plasticate, in a CGI-fest like ’Terminator 2’, the effect would be quite different. More vivid, perhaps more arresting, but less uncanny. These shop-window dummies need to just start walking the streets as they are, simultaneously just as we do and not like us at all.

Fisher refers to children and this might seem more a childhood phenomenon, based in a lack of experience about the world. But this was a family viewing show, so we must also ask how the adult audience responded. Think of more ‘adult’ horrors. Were there really a maniac in a ski mask running amok with a cleaver, that would be enough to scare most of us. But that would be a fear with a rational basis.

Whereas Freud speaks of the unheimlich as the re-rearing of repressed notions: “This uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed… something that should have remained hidden and has come into the open… We once regarded such things as real possibilities… Today we no longer believe in them, having surmounted such modes of thought. Yet we do not feel entirely secure in these new convictions; the old ones live on in us, on the look-out for confirmation.”

In short the uncanny comes out of that marginal space you send things when you tell yourself they’re banished from your mind, yet you never quite have. The strange sense of recognition you feel when they return is its essence. And in that instant all our convictions about our adulthood seem undermined. Uncanny fears strip away our adult rationalisations and reduce us to childhood uncertainties.

But overall let’s take a slightly wider definition than Freud’s, which is after all psychological rather than aesthetic. Let’s take the uncanny as when the sinister is found within the domestic. In this sense ’Who’ wasn’t about making the incredible seem convincing, like ’Star Wars’, but twisting the seemingly everyday into something strange.

Which would mean that, just as spectacle requires the cinema screen to bombastically fill, the uncanny is at home on TV - the strange transporting box which sits in the corner of the living room. The Tardis is compared to television in the first story, it can take you to foreign places, screw with your senses of big and small, and so on. And as a child I always associated the ‘time vortex’ opening sequence with the white static that TV would then go into between channels. And we should remember that for about the first decade of the show Police Boxes were still a common sight in the street, almost as familiar as televisions.

But there’s a bigger example than the Tardis. As Fisher says “more even than any of the monsters, it was the Doctor himself, the familiar stranger, who was uncanny.” As our protagonist, the Doctor’s role is to subject the incomprehensible horrors to a scientific explanation. (Or at least a science-fictional one which passes for the same, demons turning out to really be aliens and so on.) These stranger worlds are not traversable without a stranger as a guide, a local to show us around, someone at home among the unhomely.

And the other side of this is that the Doctor must remain alien to us. Quite literally, in fact. For a protagonist we know very little about him, the tidbits and tales he feeds us are most likely lies. The title character, the one onstage the most is also the most inscrutable.

Perhaps, in ’Star Wars’, Obi-Wan played a roughly similar role as the guardian of magic knowledge, with Luke as his ‘companion’. Yet it was clearly Luke who was the protagonist. In the prequels, when Obi-Wan took on this role his personality shifted. Similarly Luke, always more initiate than companion, took on the Jedi master role for the sequels.

Whereas in ’Who’, we identify with a companion who is often as beguiled by the Doctor as us. To return to Whitaker, in his novelisation of ‘The Crusades’ he has Vicki “staring fascinated at the lights that flashed and the wheels that spun” as the Doctor pilots the Tardis, “a constant source of never-ending delight to her.” Which are of course a metonym for the foreign workings of his mind. Highly unusually, the protagonist and audience identification figure are split.

It couldn’t be emphasised too much how much that aesthetic was driven by necessity. Andew Hickey has commented how we’ve come to hold a kind of displaced folk memory of ’Doctor Who’ which actually belongs somewhere else - to ’Sapphire and Steel’ (1979 to 1982), a memory which then attached itself when ’Who’ was relaunched. But it might be closer to say that ’Sapphire and Steel’ chose the uncanny, while ’Doctor Who’ had it’s uncanniness thrust upon it. Perhaps its lesser longevity is partly down to this. It cleaved firmly to its chosen aesthetic, while ’Doctor Who’ was freer to wander, reinvent itself from era to era.

Yet there’s more. Remember the fundamental theatrical rule that things are there to stand for other things. That rule took us here, and yet the uncanny isn’t the only destination on this route. Those same theatre rules also take us to the symbolic, and within the show we see the two in constant tension. There’s a perpetual battle where order attempts to impose itself on the strange, with neither ever really winning out. This can happen diegetically, within the stories, but at the same time it’s wider - as if the two are tussling for the show’s soul.

For classic case, let’s go back to ’The Web Planet’. On one level it was an attempt to go all-out and show a truly alien planet, where none of the life we encountered was humanoid. Yet on another it’s a quite transparent analogy for the Nazi occupation of France, with insect types representing the sides much as you might devise for a political cartoon. (The Nazis as a regimented hive-mind, the free French as flamboyant individualists who unfortunately aren’t terribly good in a fight, and so on.) So the Animus is simultaneously a sinister outside force, not native even to Vortis, and a transparent stand-in for Hitler and his supposed swaying powers of oratory.

Yet, of all the debates and differences of opinion you’ve heard among ’Who’ fans, how often does that one come up? There’s no uncanny devotees at odds with symbolic-show fans, sitting on rival sides at conventions. Neither could you divide the stories up into the two categories, most likely because their combination is so deep-rooted. But this seeming contradiction isn’t a spanner in the works but an engine. Rather than ripping the show apart it powers it, grants its longevity. Who knows? It might even be the force that’s making the sets wobble…

Saturday 3 June 2023


“Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant”
-‘Penda’s Fenn’

Subtitled 'Viewing Britain Through The Rectangular Window’, Rob Young’s latest book is self-described as “a riveting journey into the psyche of Britain through its golden age of television and film.” (Though I’ll concentrate on TV here, for reasons which will hopefully become obvious.)

It’s not intended as a compendium, cheerily mentioning only in passing things you might expect to see covered more closely. Though as comprehensiveness is not lacking I soon found myself using it as one, jotting down a list of things I’d not seen which I now wanted to.

But it does veer towards compendium, throws its net widely, and so more thinly than you might want. It can at times feel maddeningly uneven. The treatment of some examples is somewhat perfunctory, little more than plot summaries. But just when you’re rewiring your reading head to accommodate this, Young goes and says something striking. (As just one example, how had I ever missed the Arthurian references in ’Kill List’?)

And if it feels uneven but at unpredictable points compelling, then that makes it remarkably similar to much of the material it covers. Overall, this doesn’t read at all like a career writer working through a shopping-list of marketable subjects, it doesn’t even read like someone with an affinity for their subject. The book goes into occasional anecdotes of Young’s own screen-fixated youth. But even without them you’d guess he’d been fed on this diet from an early age, and now has it in his marrow.

Young never names his subject, finding the commonly used ‘folk horror’ too narrow, and worries little over coming up with a robust definition. About which he’s probably right. Much of the dramas covered here are made up of things nearly said and sights nearly shown. The twisty, animate, billowing sheets of ’Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ seem a synecdoche of the whole thing, an apparition you’re not quite sure what you saw even as you’re seeing it, darkly ineffable.

Young speculates whether the protagonist has gone insane and is hallucinating this, akin to ’The Innocents’. But this may be a rare case of him missing the point. The order of events that got us here seems moot. The apparition is so sense-defying, not conventionally horrific yet so oblivious to our consensus reality, to see such a thing… it would doubtless drive you mad whether you were before or not.

Given which, trying to delineate all this may seem contrary to the spirit of the enterprise. It would be like trying to map the contours of that ever-shifting sheet. Grasp at ghosts, and they’ll just slip away. But then while words are inadequate, they remain all we’ve got. Let’s at least try to lay down some fuzzy chalk lines. True, it’s not as narrow as a genre, (which ‘folk horror’ may well be), and is better seen as a milieu.

We can say it’s more than just the stuff we liked when we were kids. I obsessed over, for example the space age shenanigans in ’Blake’s Seven’, but they would have no place here. I might sketch the boundaries a little more tightly than Young. To me there has to be at least a hint of the eerie.

So the children’s information film spookily narrated by the “spirit of dark and lonely water” does belong, with Donald Plesence’s voice-over, simultaneously lugubrious and sinister. Whereas for example ’Brideshead Revisited’ doesn’t, even if Young has illuminating things to say about it. (Or alternately am I trying to read a different book to the one Young has written? Reader, you must decide that one!

But this doesn’t restrict us to the literally supernatural, any more than it does the literally literal. It doesn’t have to feature wicked nudie Diabolists or New Agers dousing for ley lines. (In fact in the second case I’d prefer that it didn’t.) Watkin’s ’Culloden’, for example, has no hauntings. But its friction between historic warfare and modern reporting methods, allowing us to see the brutality of the past in current-day up close, includes it. And if any explanation were added, that these were a time travelling film crew or some such, it would only take the effect away. In fact “hint of the eerie” might well be a tautology. Too eerie and the eerie will negate itself.

Given which, its perhaps appropriate that one of the book’s central questions is only nearly said. Is this a milieu which, once coined, could be ongoing? Or was it the product of, and therefore something confined to, a specific era?

Busying himself with case studies, Young is quieter on the macro forces which led to this. But, to simplify somewhat widely… The post-war rise of America as the dominant super-power usurped Britain’s self-appointed role.The economic axis shifted from Old to New World. So we compensated with what we had - history. Which we claimed nourished culture, almost as an automatic process, maturing it like vintage wine. We might not have rockets and skyscrapers but we had Shakespeare and Stonehenge, or so we reasoned. Culture and nature, history and heritage became synonyms, and from them we drew our sense of specialness.

So, more and more, Britain fell back on exploiting itself. But not just the coal and iron it was already at work on. It started to strip-mine a projected image of its own past, when people either talked proper or knew their place. As Laurie Penny has pointed out: “With nowhere left to colonise, we gleefully strip our own history for the shiniest trinkets to sell. The past is a different country, so we’re allowed to invade it, take its stuff, and lie relentlessly about the people who actually live there.”

We did this at least initially to make ourselves feel more secure. But we also found that culture become monetisable, an export product to those who currently lacked it. Young tells us British TV’s export market in 2019 “amounted to £1.34 billion.” As Adorno said, culture is an industry. (How much this consolidates the trend and how much it changes it, made Englishness into an export good is a good question, but one for another time.)

And TV itself was a fine example of this. It was surely more cost-effective to buy in American shows than make our own, and they often proved popular with audiences. Instead they were strictly rationed, taking the same rare but treasured place in schedules that sweets did in my childhood diet. While heritage TV was the fibre and roughage, the “good-for-you” for forced mastication.

And what was more natural in that environment than to invert it? That past we identified with, that past we thought was ours enough to give us the right to sell it, was it even truly ours? Did we really grasp it? Wasn’t it actually foreign to us, ever-elusive but at the same time inescapable, forever seeping through into the present?

The past turned out to not be an heirloom like we thought, but a cursed object we now can’t return to the shop. Young calls it “the sinister inverse of a British Transport Films documentary-style portrait of the countryside.” By being associated with old cyclic notions of time, the past could be shown as still-present, unendable.

As Young recounts, the past, the buried, the concealed and – above all – the eerie are often taken as interchangeable terms. (Significantly, ‘buried’ includes names. Both ’Quatermass And the Pit’ and ’Penda’s Fen’ include the ‘real’, historic name of places as a revelation.) At a time when, as he he also recounts, American anxieties were fixed upon the sky.

There were inevitably those who took to this from the start. But, equally inevitably, it was most taken up by the succeeding post-war generation, and so reached its peak in the Seventies.

Which is why it’s so fitting that Young’s previous book was ’Electric Eden’, on the adoption of folk music. This often took the form of a younger generation claiming the folk tradition from their parents. But it had as much to do with de-claiming it, giving it back its unfamiliarity.

Which makes for a strange rebellion, in some ways a reactionary one. Youth in revolt didn’t just not reject what Marx witheringly called “the muck of ages”, it actively rejected the possibility it could be rejected. In fact it purposefully raked through that muck of ages, hoping to come across something thrillingly dangerous that could be set loose. 

Kneale’s vision of us in ’Quatermass’ as the lemming-like Planet people was an old man’s phobia, bur perhaps contained a smidge of truth. If folk horror isn’t the whole of this milieu, it tends to be where these contradictions come to a head. (As said over ’Blood On Satan’s Claw’.) Turning into, as Young terms it, “I fought the lore and the lore won”.

Further, form and content are never truly separable. The television technology of the time was ephemeral, its images dependent on (and akin to) our fickle weather, often fuzzy and indistinct, lending themselves to the spectral. ‘Ghosting’ was a literal feature, frequently coming up on our family TV. Added to which, TV wasn’t a constant. You would see it come on in the morning, and go off again in the evening. It arrived and left, announcing itself both times, it wasn’t ubiquitous.

(Young recalls wishing he was old enough to stay up for the closedown signal. I can remember watching the daily opening ceremony of Anglia TV, a camera revolving around a statue of a fittingly regal horsebacked knight. It was tedious but somehow also enthralling, the magic ritual by which the programmes were conjured up.)

Which lends itself to the notion that there’s something mediumistic about it, a metaphor to which Young often returns. So does that make all this the product of an era, enhanced further when combined with our own semi-ephemeral memories?

Perhaps we should push this more rigorously. Perhaps all this only comes into being when framed in our memories. After all the Seventies, where most of this material comes from, is now itself the past - a foreign country we only half-recall being citizens of. I cannot imagine a sleek updated version of ’The Stone Tapes’, it needs the clunky analogue technology of its time. Similarly, the box TV with its turny dial navigating a vortex of white noise can feel like a interchange between todays’ hi-def flatscreens and the medium’s table.

But of course at time of transmission that technology wasn’t an aesthetic choice, any more than Seventies London was in ’The Sweeney’. Today it feels perfectly natural to bundle all this material up together, whereas back then it wouldn’t at all. (Historical dramas, some of them literary adaptions, alongside science fiction shows aimed at kids?) Back then it just looked like TV, because that’s what TV looked like.

Added to which, we were the TV generation. Unlike our parents we were born after the box, took its presence for granted. Their regarding it as a semi-foreign object, whose transmissions needed to be carefully curated, seemed strange and arcane. Which means its nature only strikes us now, in retrospect.

Yet there’s also contemporary examples. A relatively small number, perhaps, but they’re there. True, because they’re riffing off this milieu. ’Kill List’ for example, has a quite Seventies aesthetic. Yet it’s contemporary-set, suggesting the milieu is not spent yet. 

Besides, new technology always opens new avenues. Mass broadcast was thought by many as a standardising, homogenising force which would kill off what remained of folk culture, something like the regulating Judge in ’Blood On Satan’s Claw’. Instead like was attracted to unlike, and it exploited its own nature to marinate with that folk culture in creative ways.

But there is something which has changed. It is never times that are creative, they only ever provide a context to be creative within. Only people can be creative. But they can only act creatively when given the opportunity to do so.

At the book’s end, Young points out how almost none of these programmes would have been commissioned today. “Television has become the source millions turn to for long-form episodic narratives, the media has had to focus on story and forward drive over ambience and atmosphere… the television has become part of the digital data flow and and the never-ending conversation of social media.”

Contrary to every single piece of received wisdom we’ve been spoonfed since the late Seventies, it was the stuffy old bureaucracy of the BBC (and similar institutions) which commissioned these left-field shows. And this was precisely because they weren’t micromanaging and focus-group-testing every single thing they produced. With income guaranteed from the license fee, they could afford to experiment with what might interest people. Not so today. Much of what’s ludicrous about the current moral panic over ‘cancel culture’ is its failure to grasp that most censorship happens at the commissioning stage.

But if this milieu isn’t over, it’s gone on some decades - making it possible to ask how effective it was. That quote from ’Penda’s Fenn’ up top, that can be a tricky combination to pull off. On one side, the past can’t just seem dark and foreign. ‘Bad stuff happened back then’ is in itself barely even a banality, and by itself merely suggests a haunted house whose door needs nailing shut. We need to feel estranged from the past, but also that we belonged there.

And as time went on, there was a counter-tendency which was possibly worse. The Right seemed in such control of the present, that the future was surely theirs too, and so the past became something of a refuge. To quote Evelyn Waugh, via Young, “when the waterholes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage.”

This yearning for a time before there were, like, corporations and stuff reached a risible terminus in doctrines such as Primitivism. Yet much like racism and the Right, it’s proponents were only saying out loud which seemed outrageous, but which others were already thinking. And so the colonialist projection of the Noble Savage reasserted itself. And ’Avatar’ ain’t eerie.

Watch this space! Of course the real question is - how does any of this apply to ’Doctor Who’..?