Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 11 (Doomwatch, The Atrocity Exhibition)

As we watch the at times compelling, at times just kind of sad spectacle of Doctor Who frantically trying to reinvent itself on a brand new formula and premise, it may be worth looking at other contemporaneous British attempts at Earth-based science fiction to get some idea of what genre Doctor Who is trying to impose itself on. It's not, of course, as if Doctor Who has never imposed itself on other genres before. The historicals, in their latter days, were all about genre crossing. But note the specific wording - a story like The Gunfighters was about taking Doctor Who and crashing it into the western then filming the explosion. With the UNIT stories we are by and large seeing something different: a fair swath of the production team does not seem to be trying to cross Doctor Who into another genre. They're trying to make Doctor Who as an example of another genre. Until we understand what that genre is, it's going to be difficult to say what can be accomplished by turning Doctor Who into that genre.

To some extent we've already seen what that genre is via Monty Python. Or, more to the point, we've seen that whatever Doctor Who is trying to do, it's so flamingly obvious within the context of British culture that it can be parodied prior to Doctor Who doing it. Of course, if we rewatch the Science Fiction sketch, we can see that it's just as much a parody of the old Quatermass formula. In other words, there's an established sort of science fiction here that Nigel Kneale invented with Quatermass that Doctor Who, under UNIT, comes perilously close to faithfully and blindly discharging. Of course, we've also seen with the Brigadier the beginnings of a response, which we'll see expanded on when we get to Terror of the Autons.

But Doctor Who wasn't even the only contemporary sci-fi thriller airing on BBC1, little yet the only one being made in Britain at the turn of the decade, so let's look at two others to set up some signposts. The first is obvious - Doomwatch, created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, is, like Adam Adamant Lives!, a case of "what Doctor Who people did next." And like Adam Adamant Lives!, the answer is "something that is almost, but not quite, what Doctor Who did next." Just as Adam Adamant Lives! prefigured the charismatic lead model of the Troughton years, Doomwatch was an attempt by Davis and Pedler to work through their issues (well, Pedler's issues mainly) regarding contemporary science via contemporary earth-based sci-fi.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Doomwatch is that it's actually quite good. This is alarming because the creative talent on it was, as I mentioned, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. We discussed the seeming nature of Pedler's Doctor Who scripts in the past. Gerry Davis, on the other hand, is responsible for The Celestial Toymaker, The Tomb of the Cybermen, and, to be fair, The Tenth Planet. And yet with Doomwatch, somehow it all picks up and turns into something extraordinary.

How good is Doomwatch? I actually bothered to watch a second episode of it instead of just the premiere episode, "The Plastic-Eaters." Although I did watch the premiere, and it was actually quite good - certainly by miles better than anything Davis did for Doctor Who. (My assumption at this point is that Pedler continued to be an ideas man as he appears to have been on Doctor Who.) Part of it may be that Doomwatch, with its single episode stories, enjoys some pacing advantages over the serialized Doctor Who. (If we're being honest, the model of Doctor Who being a sequence of serialized stories was an oddity, especially compared to any comparable show when it was on.) The result of this is a taut thriller of a story. And to some extent, this really does come down to format. Davis, one gets the sense, has a certain amount of ideas per story. And that number is better suited to single 45-minute stories than it is to stories made up of four 25-minute episodes.

Put in a 45 minute container, Davis's existing talent for set-pieces (which is considerable) sings. The cold open of the first episode, which ends with a plane falling out of the sky as all its plastic components melt in front of its crew, is a thing of wonder. Indeed, to some extent Davis benefits from having a container that is slightly too small for his stories, requiring him to actually be deft in his plotting and structuring. If I'm being perfectly honest, the first thing I noticed about Doomwatch - and it was genuinely a surprise given everything else I've covered for this blog - is that I couldn't watch it while doing something else. Unlike the vast majority of television, Doomwatch moves at a pace that requires attention, avoiding overstressing its points with dramatic "look at me" pacing and incidental music. It's smart and subtle.

"The Plastic Eaters" itself, of course, is a bit silly. But even in it there's a sense that this is a more mature and interesting depiction of contemporary science than we've gotten elsewhere. It gives a strong sense of how much things have changed in the seven years since Doctor Who showed up. Remember in the early days of Doctor Who how whenever the Doctor met another scientist there was a ton of chinwagging about how they were both scientists, and thus part of some elite and enlightened order of rationality. The clear ethical assumption was that scientists were special people we should all listen to by virtue of the fact that they're scientists.

Doomwatch, on the other hand, displayed a far more pessimistic view of scientists, viewing them largely as amoral obsessives playing with fire and underestimating the dangers of doing so. The scientists at fault for the plastic-melting virus, for instance, are not lunatics bent on power. Rather, they're driven by the amount of money on offer if they can figure out how to make it work, and willing to cut corners on safety to get there faster and cheaper. The Doomwatch team exists to protect the general public from the consequences of this recklessness. The opposition they face isn't from people who want power at any cost - people like Zaroff or Stahlman - but from bureaucrats loathe to cut a promising and prestigious project who are willing to blind themselves to evidence that it threatens the public. In other words, Doomwatch essentially tracks a civil war among scientists between those who work for their funders and benefactors and those who work for the people.

But if "The Plastic Eaters" is an interesting piece, "Re-Entry is Forbidden," the second episode I watched, is an extraordinary one. The conflict in this one stems over an experimental nuclear rocket that has a fault during re-entry and nearly risks exploding and spraying nuclear fallout over half of Britain. The rocket, launched by NASA, turns out to have one of Spencer Quist's former students (Quist is the head of Doomwatch and the main character of the series) on it, and speculation arises that the reason for the error was human error on his part. First we should acknowledge the degree to which this episode has a firm confidence in its mastery of television. In a characteristic moment of Doomwatch subtlety, we see the mistake on camera as Larch, the astronaut, makes an error in punching in some numbers. The error is never commented upon explicitly, or even acknowledged - it's down entirely to the viewer to notice that he gets a number wrong when pushing buttons. Similarly, when the rocket starts to take flight at the end of the cold open, the camera begins cutting to test patterns and static, with the soundtrack from the space launch carrying over for a few seconds, thus blurring the line and making the dissolution of images at the start of the credits sequence (which always begins that way) a part of the narrative, with the cold open breaking up into the credits sequence. It's remarkably savvy.

But what's really fascinating about "Re-Entry is Forbidden" is the way in which it handles the space program. As the investigation into what went wrong on the rocket continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the problem is that Larch is suffering from severe mental illness, specifically intense paranoia. The seeming reason for this paaranoia? The fact that his wife is cheating on him, a fact subtly but repeatedly stressed through the episode. (In one of the better lines, a member of the Doomwatch team observes that behind every jealous husband is an unsatisfied wife)

It's worth comparing this to the equivalent Doctor Who episode (in fact, the space set used in this episode is the same as the one used in The Ambassadors of Death, and was co-financed by the two productions). As good as The Ambassadors of Death was, and it was, for my money, one of the great Doctor Who stories of all time, this beats it in a significant regard in that the motivating factors are so intensely human. It's extremely gutsy for a science fiction program to engage in a plot that hinges on human concerns like mental illness (in a genuine sense, as opposed to a Stahlman sense) and marital infidelity. It's a far more interesting, human take on science fiction. And this is, more to the point, a good thing. The merging of human concerns with technological ones is what science fiction should do. Watching Doomwatch, the sense is as much "yes, of course this is how it should be done" as it is "wow, that's really impressive." It is in other words, a damn fine television show that does the same general sorts of stories that Doctor Who does, albeit with fewer aliens. But frankly, it upstages Doctor Who by a considerable margin, at least at this point.

Even more extraordinary is JG Ballard's 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition. I will freely admit that there is a certain madness to citing Ballard in relation to Doctor Who. Doomwatch, although radical in some key regards, was at the end of the day still a BBC1 show and thus in the same general ballpark as Doctor Who. It is, on the other hand, very difficult to imagine Doctor Who coming anywhere near an episode title like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," little yet the (absolutely brilliant) "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan."

On the other hand, it's important to look at the fringes of the culture in understanding its progression. Anyway, eventually we'll ht an era of Doctor Who where JG Ballard is the explicit inspiration for a story, so no harm in getting him into the conversation now.

All of which said, The Atrocity Exhibition is a bit of a staggering work. Part of this is its sheer obscenity, which pushes buttons and limits even today. Its basic premise is that each chapter follows a different facet of the same protagonist (whose name changes among similar names - Travis, Talbot, etc). This protagonist has suffered a sort of psychotic break, and is obsessed with, as the novel puts it, causing World War III, though not in a conventional sense, given that World War III will apparently take place entirely inside his own head.

The result is a novel that plays with the boundaries between sex, celebrity, violence, technology, and the human body. No. Not plays with. Detonates. Take, for instance, a more or less randomly chosen passage (The list structure it uses is common in the novel):
(1) The flesh impact: Karen Novotny's beckoning figure in the shower stall, open thighs and exposed pubis - traffic fatalities screamed in this soft collision. (2) The overpasses below the apartment: the angles between the concrete buttresses contained for Talbot an immense anguish. (3) The crushed fender: in its broken geometry Talbot saw the dismembered body of Karen Novotny, the alternate death of Ralph Nader.
What is interesting here is twofold. First, of course, is the extremity of Ballard's writing - the fact that he's pushing the limits of taste and sense to paint a disturbing picture. This is, of course, something the BBC would (one assumes) have trouble doing. But the second and frankly more interesting thing he's doing comes in the way in which his book uses the visual thought processes of film and television. Look at the first numbered item - the description of the naked body of Karen Novotny, which asserts traffic accidents are screaming in her public area. This is clearly not literally true. Instead, it depends on a logic of actualized metaphor - some visual similarity between her public region and traffic fatalities (other sections of the book elaborate on these similarities in disturbing detail) that gets turned into an actual equivalence.

But this is exactly what cinema and film do via cuts all the time. Spearhead From Space did it repeatedly with a trick where someone would ask a question and then the camera would cut forward in time, but the first line of the new scene would be an answer to the previously asked question, thus collapsing time via camera work. This is what editing is for. The human mind makes a link between two consecutive shots, and if that link is not immediately literally obvious, instead metaphoric links get made. All Ballard is doing is fusing the two parts of a visual equivalence into a single object - appropriating the capacity of film editing to suture into his novel.

What Ballard does in the novel that's so incredible, then, is to engage in a massive project of suturing that conflates wildly disparate objects into a semi-coherent whole. These objects are picked from the mundanity of everyday life - sex, celebrities, car crashes, war, etc. But Ballard builds them into a collaged edifice that is striking and horrific. And, notably, he binds the process by which this edifice is built into the edifice. At one point it is commented that "for Traven science is the ultimate pornography, analytic activity whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space." Science is explicitly granted a power equivalent to film editing. The scientist is not a detached figure in a labcoat, but a figure who wields the power of television over reality itself.

This, in theory, is something Doctor Who could do - use its structure to expose and comment upon the parallels between the military, science, everyday life, the alien, and the flashy dandy aesthetics of Jon Pertwee. The result would not need to be car crash pornography (although there will always be a part of me that wants to see a Doctor Who story entitled "Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty"). But like Doomwatch, it would be compelling and challenging in a way Doctor Who in the Pertwee era has yet to be.

3 comments:

  1. I never saw the Science Fiction Sketch as being a parody of Doctor Who, but of the whole '50s sci-fi B-movie genre. The scientist is not the Doctor but a B-movie "professor from the local university" and the ditzy blonde is not Jo Grant but a B-movie damsel in distress.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to agree wtih Jesse Smith. That's very much the way I read the sketch, in the same vein as sub-Wyndham sci-fi.

    Interesting comments on Ballard. Have you read This Town Will Never Let Us Go, by the way?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not sure if you guys have read the entry for Monty Python, but calling it a parody was a bit tongue-in-cheek as Philip eventually noted that it predates John Pertwee. It was a "parody" of a Doctor Who era before that era occurred.

    ReplyDelete