this end of the Doctor Who pool, and with the Troughton era coming to an end imminently, it seemed like a good time to pop back over and look. Especially because last time we were looking at the World Distributors annuals, and this time we're looking at the Polystyle TV Comics strips.
What's funny, though, is that despite being a completely different company and publication, it's tough to make too much out of the differences between the two sets of comics. This might not seem surprising given that they are both telling Doctor Who stories, and thus presumably have some unifying influence. Except that both are so wildly different from the television series that it ends up being mildly surprising to watch them end up more or less on the same planet given how far afield they are from the target.
And yet somehow the comics end up with an odd consistency to them. It's tempting to allude to some vague sense of a proper order of things in Doctor Who here - the occasional and uncanny sense we've had before that this ship is not as rudderless as it should be. But in this case, it seems to me there's a much more prosaic option - given what British comics were, there was only one way the strip could have been, and both World Distributors and Polystyle did it that way.
For an American comic book fan, there is a lot about the British comics industry that is puzzling. But the thing that should be noted first is that virtually nobody talks about British comic books. It's not that there aren't any. It's just that there aren't very many, and fewer still that actually matter. Instead, the primary form for British comics is the anthology magazine. The most famous of these are probably, in terms of children's comics, The Beano and The Dandy, and in terms of science fiction, Eagle and 2000 AD. (Though some would make a case for Eclipse, those people are inevitably Americans who forget that the British comics scene extended beyond Alan Moore. Or, more depressingly, Brits who forget that.) The format of these was generally simple - a couple strips of maybe 4-8 pages each, published weekly.
I could - and really should some day - write a book about how this format shaped British comics. But one of the big things is that it meant that comics often had a bit of a house style. A magazine still had to feel coherent, after all. Furthermore, there's a fairly tight structure to these strips. With eight pages, fitting a cliffhanger, resolution of last week's cliffhanger, advancement of the plot, and some exposition to catch people up who have forgotten since last week is a challenge. And so the pace of any action-based strip had to be fairly frenetic.
Even in a setting like the World Distributors Annuals, which don't serialize stories, the structure this implies is prevalent simply because it's the structure people expect action comics to be in. And so it's not a huge surprise that World Distributors' Annuals and Polystyle's TV Comics ended up with similar seeming Doctor Who comics - that was just how comics were.
How are they, by the way? Well, grabbing a random strip - a serial called "The Witches" from when the comic was a two-pager, here's a summary of a strip: The annual universe-wide reunion of witches is going on on the planet Vargo. Two late arrivals talk animatedly about the Grand Witch talking, and eagerly await her sharing new spells. Instead she offers a demonstration of her power, turning a tree into stone. Immediately thereafter the TARDIS arrives, with the witches speculating that it might be the Grand Witch's doing, but she denies it. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor tells his grandchildren John and Gillian (Oh yes, them. I should maybe have mentioned these two strange characters) to hide while he investigates. He puts on his utility belt, then proclaims himself the Wizard of Omega. The Grand Witch declares she will test his power, and summons a giant monster to attack him.
Characterizing all of this is a lot of spoken exposition - not just technobabble, but characters loudly explaining what they are doing while they are doing it - and a lot of scenes that almost but not quite connect together. But it's pretty standard as British comics go - not a highlight of the medium by any stretch of the imagination, but not unusually bad.
The larger question might be why Doctor Who would take such a strange shape. A utility belt? The Wizard of Omega? John and Gillian? What the heck is this? Certainly the comic exists in a sort of orthogonal reality to the television series. Jamie takes ages to appear, and is the only companion other than John and Gillian that the Doctor has. Ben, Polly, Victoria, and Jamie simply don't appear in the comics. The Doctor also never really develops, being pictured with the stovepipe hat that Troughton in practice abandoned in The Underwater Menace long after that story had aired. He's hardly the only one, though - the Cybermen stay stuck in Tenth Planet form, for instance.
There are a couple of reasons. First, the comics were done fast and on the cheap. The Cybermen were probably drawn by someone who hadn't seen the show, or at least hadn't paid much attention to it, and who had photoreferences that happened to be from The Tenth Planet. Second, we're lucky they had Cybermen at all, since generally the strip avoided the actual TV characters because they would require royalty payments to use. Which also explains John and Gillian.
Stranger are things like the utility belt. Or, for that matter, the witches themselves. Who are, a perusal of the rest of the story suggests, actually witches, with the Doctor having to find a proper spellbook to defeat them. Especially when you learn that the strips were usually written by the assistant script editor of the series - which meant at one point Terrance Dicks was writing these. So it's not that they were written by somebody with no clue of what Doctor Who was. This meant that occasionally the strip would even tuck nicely into continuity - at one point in the Hartnell era the Zarbi made an immediate sequel appearance in the strip. More strangely, late in the Troughton era, after The War Games had aired but before Pertwee was announced as the Third Doctor, the strip managed to come up with the bizarre conceit that the Doctor had adventures between his trial and his actual regeneration. (In truth, apparently, his regeneration was at the hands of a bunch of scarecrows. Really.)
Which suggests again that what's going on is simply that the sorts of comics being written simply nudged the show in particular ways. After all, it's not like the Doctor behaves completely wrong in the strips. Yes, he's more violent than the Doctor should be, but if you look at the things he actually does, they're still somewhat Doctorish - he's still an unpredictable, chaotic figure who is in constant action - which is what Troughton plays. They even have him correctly being good at chemistry and the like. The problem isn't quite that they don't get the Doctor. It's that they don't seem to get what a Doctor Who story is. In fact, they seem almost hell-bent on not doing Doctor Who stories.
No, really. The logic behind the comics seems often to specifically be that they should do what the TV show can't. Not just in terms of budget, although they are happy to enjoy their lack of one. But also in terms of approach - stories about, for instance, witches, or, less absurdly, stories that are about action sequences with giant robot or reptile monsters. These fit within science fiction, but they don't fit within Doctor Who, because Doctor Who is a low budget television show that requires that the Doctor usually defeat a menace by talking to it or by touching some wires together.
But look at what that requires. If the plot is going to involve more action - and both to distinguish itself from the series and to fit in with the expectations for a British comic strip of its genre, the plot is going to have to involve more action - the way the Doctor interacts with it will have to change too. The comics aren't so much mischaracterizing the Doctor as accurately characterizing what would happen if the Doctor were in action hero plots all the time. (And if we're being honest, Venusian karate is just a different way of approaching the same problem.)
Perhaps most significantly, we should note that the comics retain a certain degree of Doctor Who logic. Remember what I said earlier about the way in which the comics don't quite fit together correctly? The way events do not necessarily seem like rational responses to one another, and that exposition is shouted out at random because there's nothing else that would make it clear? Right. But think about it for a moment - much of what is effective in Doctor Who comes from the careful and memorable use of set-pieces. Robert Holmes, in particular, is going to master this someday, but even this season, look at something like The Seeds of Death, which chains together its space travel setpieces and foam setpieces with a perfectly pleasant but not particularly logical plot that involves Ice Warriors with really dumb invasion plans that rapidly multiply to incorporate new elements that appear out of nowhere, often to provide cliffhangers. This is how Doctor Who works - it smashes together some odd ideas (Pirates, cowboys, and space travel! Martians, teleporters, and rockets! Cybermen, London, and the military!) and then works its way through the implications, stringing the cool bits together with some basic plotting. The comics are the same way, only with a completely different pool of set-pieces because of their action tropes. But the basic logic - that a series of interesting and memorable impressions is more important than a coherent plot - is familiar to Doctor Who viewers.
The Polystyle comics, in other words, don't so much get Doctor Who wrong as get Doctor Who right through the strange looking glass. Which is, perhaps, why people care enough about the comics that an entry like this is worthwhile. Because for all their freakish wrongness, there's something oddly appealing about them. Indeed, Gareth Roberts has twice nicked plot concepts from Troughton-era TV Comics for his Doctor Who episodes. They are unmistakably Doctor Who, and unmistakably part of Doctor Who history.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
|One odd thing about The Space Pirates is that, with|
Milo Clancy here, Doctor Who has another one of those
odd "it invented X many years too early" as it
inadvertently creates Firefly in 1969.
While in real news, Apollo 9 returns safely to Earth. A small dustup in the colony of Anguilla results in British troops being quasi-peacably deployed there, and the TV mast at Emley Moore collapses due to ice buildup. In other countries' news, former US President Dwight Eisenhower dies, Golda Meir becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the Martin Luther King assassination, which, to give you an idea just how much was going on in 1968, I really missed covering in any detail because I was too busy doing Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in that entry. Oh, and if you want to be technical about it, The Impossible Astronaut takes place between the transmission of episodes 5 and 6 of this story.
So this story. Another entry into the bottom ten of all time - in fact, this is apparently the worst Troughton story ever. It has a seriously bad reputation - largely due to the "one surviving episode" problem we've mentioned as afflicting The Underwater Menace. But this lets us segue into something else that's really important about this story - it's a missing story.
We've evaded talking about this phenomenon at any great length, and now we're at the last missing episodes of Doctor Who (although some colorization gaps exist in the Pertwee era, everything from that era exists in some form), so I suppose we'd better. The idea of missing stories is a strange one to people. Inevitably a new fan of Doctor Who, high on the fumes of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, will declare that they want to watch the whole classic series, and one of us old-timers will have to gently explain to a baffled 21st century television viewer that, actually, you can't do that. This is very strange to them. And understandably - as Miles and Wood point out, it's difficult to imagine 15% of Buffy the Vampire Slayer simply not existing in any form.
Historically, what happened basically comes down to "The BBC didn't make preservation a priority." Miles and Wood have an excellent essay in the first volume of About Time (available from Amazon in both the US and UK) about this, in which they talk compellingly about how the BBC's vision of televised plays was so rooted in the logic of transmission as live performance that nobody at the BBC thought about preservation. For the bulk of Doctor Who's original run, past episodes were things that had happened and were gone. You moved on. There's a reason that 1981's Five Faces of Doctor Who repeats, which we mentioned back in The Krotons, was so important - it was actually the first time old Doctors had reappeared since The Three Doctors in 1973. It wasn't until the early 80s and the home video market that the idea of a past story being available existed, and until you have that idea you really don't have the tools to realize that the recordings are something to keep.
And so, between recycling videotapes for future use, purges of film libraries for storage space, and sloppy record keeping, 108 episodes of Doctor Who are simply gone. This is actually down quite a bit from the original tally when the junkings were stopped, in a great part due to the intervention of both Sue Malden, the BBC's incoming Archive Selector in 1978, who grew concerned about the junkings and happened to pick Doctor Who as her case study to see what was going on and of Ian Levine, Doctor Who's first superfan, who has personally told me to "go phuck myself." The former will probably never be mentioned again after this entry and deserves a massive hat-tip for her work in saving episodes of Doctor Who. The latter will have an entire entry devoted to him when we reach 1985 and deal with "Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For Tea X (Doctor in Distress)," so we'll leave him be for now. At the point where the tally of existing episodes was made, it was 139 missing.
So 31 episodes of Doctor Who have been recovered, many from borderline surreal sources - often overseas television networks that hadn't complied with orders to destroy them, or from private film collectors who had nicked them from inside sources who were happy to, for a small payoff, inadvertently confuse the furnace door with their mate's car door. Others came from borderline surreal sources - the cellar of a Mormon church that had used to be a BBC property turned out to have two episodes of The Daleks' Masterplan being the most notable. 108 are still missing. Realistically, there is no chance that all of them exist, and fast diminishing chances that any of them exist, although the most recent find was "only" seven years ago.
In truth, although Doctor Who fans look at the junkings as a particular travesty, Doctor Who is actually extremely lucky as 1960s BBC programs go. The fact that Sue Walden used it as her test case and that Ian Levine raised as much of a stink as he did preserved large swaths of the show, putting it in far better shape than a lot of other programs. Countless major moments of British TV history are lost - the earliest episodes of The Avengers, swaths of Adam Adamant Lives!, much of Z Cars, early work from the members of Monty Python, chunks of Spike Milligan, the coverage of the moon landing - all gone. Doctor Who has 108 missing episodes from its first six years, but the more incredible point is that Doctor Who has 145 existent ones.
This is the glass half full/half empty debate. On the one hand, Doctor Who's history is wildly impoverished compared to that of other major science fiction shows. On the other hand, it is in wildly better shape than any of its BBC stablemates. On top of that, due to a global network of fans, audio exists for every single one of the missing stories, and many of them also exist in the form of telesnaps, a product sold by a man named John Cura where he would point a camera at his television and take repeated photos of a TV program to sell to the producers in order to have a visual record of what they did.
Unfortunately, Cura died in early 1969, and The Space Pirates is not one of those blessed with telesnaps. Other telesnapless stories like The Daleks' Master Plan and The Massacre do fine for themselves, but The Space Pirates turns out to be a heavily visual story, which means that the reconstructions of it are more dubious than most - a lot of repeated use of publicity photos and stills from other episodes, and, in a first for Doctor Who reconstructions, the folks at Loose Cannon sometimes had to just throw up their hands and put up a text card explaining what was happening.
Which is sad. Reconstructions are usually pretty watchable, but the fact of the matter is, The Space Pirates is kind of brutal. This hasn't helped its reputation any. But a flip side of that is that, very often, particularly when you're someone who has done a big marathon of reconstructions like Season 5, you start to assume that the reconstructions are up to the task of showing what the episode would have been like. Often they seem to be - among my favorite stories are reconstructions such as The Enemy of the World and The Power of the Daleks. But not always. And at the end of the day, we may just have to admit that The Space Pirates is a missing story - one we can't see, and can only guess at what might have been.
Because other than the fact that the surviving episode is a bizarre bit of men in comedy accents arguing and the fact that the audios are an utter mess, everything about The Space Pirates looks pretty good. In fact, if instead of trying to watch a story that can no longer be watched, we try to approach the story archeologically - to try to see what it must have been like - we discover some interesting things.
First of all, let's admit that the ratings were poor. The audience appreciation figures were average. But there's not the sense that this was hated. Unlike The Gunfighters, a story that was clearly despised at the time but has had its reputation redeemed in later years, The Space Pirates was perfectly enjoyable at the time - essentially indistinguishable from the two stories before it, save for a dip at episode two which is, to be fair, the episode everyone judges it poorly on today as well.
Why was this seeming mess popular? A lot has to do with the fact that this took place right at the height of space mania. This was a mania every bit as much as Beatlemania or Dalekmania. The culture, understandably for the time, was mad for space. And, as Miles and Wood point out (This time in About Time Volume 2, also available from both the US and UK), this is actually structured much like the news coverage of space flight, with anticipation and waiting a fundamental part of the narrative. More than almost anything else in 1960s Doctor Who, this is a story that is in part about expectation - about setting up a confrontation and then making us wait to actually see it play out. It's a structure we've seen used successfully before - The Enemy of the World and The Power of the Daleks both depend on this sort of delay structure. (In fact, Whitaker is arguably the master of this structure.) Holmes uses it here as a structure wrapped around the setpieces of model work, spacewalks, and other payoffs for the space mania crowd - basically the machine waltzes of 2001.
But if we're being honest, that's probably still too flat to appeal to people. So Holmes goes a step further. Here one gets the sense that he's making lemons out of lemonade. His original pitch was apparently "space realism with a Wild West tone," and he got asked to stretch it to six episodes. This stretching explains why he adopted the space launch structure of delays and anticipation - because it would pad the story out while, instead of adding running-in-place episodes, giving it a structure that would still feel fresh and exciting for the audience. But the story he's telling isn't just space porn. He's got a complex thing going on under that.
Calling a story "The Space Pirates" makes its genre relatively clear. We know what pirate stories look like. The British know this doubly so - it was a core adventure genre there for some time. And one of the archetypes of that genre is the story where a ship of good guys - usually led by a bland but fairly competent British military type - chases a ship of bad guys who are, inevitably, much more fun and charismatic. This is the basic frisson of the pirate story - the good guys win, but the bad guys are more fun, so we get a sort of structured enjoyment of the taboo by quietly rooting for the wrong side even as we get to pretend that we're watching good wholesome fare. And for the first episode of The Space Pirates, this is what we get - indeed, as is often remarked, Holmes all but leaves the Doctor out of the first episode, instead setting up a very traditional pirate yarn.
This is often taken as a criticism, but it really shouldn't be. Holmes actually needs most of the first episode to set up the pirate yarn, because in the second episode, he blows it up by introducing Milo Clancy, a character who clearly is not supposed to exist in this story. Clancy, you see, is a cowboy. Miles and Wood make much of the adjacency of the British pirate genre and the American Western, but while they may have been similar genres, this ignores the fact that they're still different genres. The central brilliance of The Space Pirates is shown here - Holmes creates a standard pirate story in space, then drops a cowboy into it and watches the sparks fly.
If there are two seeming weak spots, they are these. First, it's not clear the actors understood what Holmes was doing, layering comedy voices over his script that in no way help or improve what's going on. The script relies on the juxtapositions of the genre tropes, and when the actors play comedy voices over it, we can't take the genres seriously enough to see their interplay as anything other than a high concept "Look! Pirates vs. Cowboys!" joke that gets old long before episode six.
Second, Holmes makes the mistake here of forgetting about the Doctor, getting too wrapped up in his pirates and cowboys idea to quite fit him into the plot. Troughton is left with the task of holding yet another script together based on the Doctor's charisma instead of on the idea that the Doctor should be doing something interesting. Unlike the myriad of times he's been given this job in the past, however, he's sick of it, and declines to do it, playing the Doctor with the grim seriousness that everyone else in the story lacks. With the guest stars stealing his comic ground and the script stealing his serious ground, we're left with a script Troughton visibly wants out of.
He still gets some good scenes - playing his failed attempt to use magnets to pilot the fragment of the beacon he's stuck on completely straight and visibly kicking himself for his own arrogant stupidity when he makes the problem worse, he manages a real sense of danger and vulnerability. But mostly he's left without a way into the episode, visibly counting the days until he gets to go home.
But none of this erases the fact that Holmes has what's actually a pretty interesting idea here. Pirates vs. Cowboys paced like a space launch. If we're being honest, it's probably not an idea that would play well post-space in 2011. If, incredibly, these episodes were to turn up, The Space Pirates would still be, in some sense, missing, because it's simply of a time that doesn't exist anymore.
But that's not a fault. If anything, it's to the story's credit, and certainly to Robert Holmes's. One of the things that's always tough with Holmes is dealing with the outsized nature of his reputation. But it's largely a deserved reputation. Not because his stories were all timeless classics - many, perhaps even most, actually weren't. But because he understood the language of television well enough to, in three different decades, write compelling Doctor Who stories. Porting the narrative logic of a space launch to Doctor Who to collide two pre-space genres is a brilliant move that could only be made by someone who gets how to do television.
But part of television in 1969 was that it was a one-time occasion. Holmes was writing television plays to be acted once, amuse the crowd, and then be forgotten. He did them extremely well, but, like all of television, did them for their own time and nothing else. In this regard, it's hard to say seriously that a story like The Gunfighters - a failure in its time that we happen to appreciate later - has anything on The Space Pirates, a success in its time that we can't appreciate now.
But what's truly strange is that the attitude that got it destroyed - that television was a live event that happened and was gone - was also the attitude that was why it was good. The Space Pirates is missing. But in a way, it has to be. These gaps are as much a part of what Doctor Who is as the TARDIS or the Daleks - something that is not just a DVD set for obsessive 21st century fans, but that has been a living, breathing part of every year since 1963. Without stories like The Space Pirates that flicker on in an imagined 1969 we can never reach, a vital part of the show's magic would be lost.
Friday, June 24, 2011
|The Doctor after an encounter with the|
Seeds of Death. There is no
innuendo about this, right?
It's January 25, 1969. Marmalade are still at number one with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but after one week are overtaken by Fleetwood Mac, who are here seen in their early stage, i.e. not the one anyone recognizes as Fleetwood Mac, in that Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks were not yet in the band. From there it's The Move with Blackberry Way, a bleak and dour song from a band previously known for cheery psychedelia. Welcome to 1969. From there it's two weeks of Amen Corner's (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice, then, for the last week of this story, Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)," which is apparently a big deal, but I confess I've never heard of the song.
In other news, Ian Paisley is arrested for political demonstrations in Ireland and jailed for three months, one of the more radical moments in his long political career, there’s some vandalism of art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yasser Arafat is elected leader of the PLO, and, ironically, St. Valentine is stricken from the Roman calendar of saints on Valentine’s Day. But perhaps most importantly, The Beatles give their last public performance, an impromptu rooftop concert broken up by the police.
The elegiac feel of this concert mirrors an elegiac feel to The Seeds of Death that has been remarked upon by more than one commentator. This makes sense – especially through the lens of history. This is the last time Troughton appeared in what was by and large his archetypal mode of story – the base under siege. It was the last time Troughton met one of the big monsters. And Troughton’s departure was announced during this story’s filming. The sense of an era coming to an end is unavoidable.
But there’s more that’s elegiac than that. The most elegiac aspect, in fact, seems audacious for the time: space travel is portrayed as an outdated and abandoned technology. Miles and Wood, quite cleverly, relate this to the common news story of the day of train lines running their last service. This is the central cleverness of The Seeds of Death – it takes the hottest and most advanced form of transportation technology of 1969 and treats it like the one that’s going obsolete.
From our post-space vantage, this seems oddly prescient. Even if space rockets were rendered obsolete not by teleporters but by, essentially, their own lack of relevance, the image of an old man in a museum full of rockets mourning the abandonment of space is a crushingly familiar one in 2011 as the US prepares to abandon the Space Shuttle program with no clear plan for a replacement emerging. (Yes, a replacement program exists, but nobody would be so absurd as to call it a certainty that it will ever happen.)
I suspect in many ways that my generation is the last one to really feel this. Certainly when I grew up there was still the sense of space as something that humans were going to figure out. The idea of a Mars colony in my lifetime seemed plausible, and concepts like terraforming seemed important. Individual Shuttle flights were not usually a big deal, but space as a whole was still assumed to be a part of the future. In hindsight this seems silly – it should have been obvious by the time I was born that the Shuttle was an ill-conceived mess that had effectively set the space program back by decades. But more than that, it should have been clear that space travel was not going to be useful without massive technological breakthroughs that showed no signs of coming.
But for whatever reason – perhaps out of the sheer momentum of 1969 (only 13 years ago when I was born – there were still teenagers who remembered the moon landing then) or out of the fact that black holes, wormholes, and other things that might render real, proper interstellar travel possible were trendy, space was not dead when I was born. Nearly 29 years later, however, it seems to compare unfavorably with doornails.
And so there is an oddly prescient power in the image of a discarded future here. Especially given how often Doctor Who in the 60s appears itself to be a discarded future – one overwritten by the rise of portable digital technology and global communications. It’s not just (or even really at all) that the future seen in The Seeds of Death seems more accurate and plausible in 2011 than most 1960s Doctor Who futures. It is that The Seeds of Death is specifically concerned with identifying a portion of its present that would go on to be a discarded future, and, incredibly, it got it right.
More than that, there are numerous ways in which the tone of The Seeds of Death is more on target for the future than much of what we’ve seen. Even The Enemy of the World, the Troughton story most immediately concerned with providing a glimpse of a near-future world (as opposed to The Invasion, which, while clearly near-futuristic, takes as one of its central premises that no essential changes in the day-to-day life of people have occurred), does not seem quite as on-target. The tone of that story gestures towards a world government, which is another fast-receding bit of futurism. (And while we’re talking about Enemy of the World again, can I just ask why the official Doctor Who Facebook page describes Salamander as Castro-esque? The only similarity, surely, is that both are Hispanic and viewed as bad guys.)
The Seeds of Death, on the other hand, largely presents T-Mat as a business venture. One does not get the sense that T-Mat is a government operation so much as that it’s a mutli-national company, possibly with lots of government contracts. This is a world where mass starvation happens because a company gets stuck with some shipping delays. This seems almost inevitably to be a much more believable future.
But look further and the underlying strangeness starts to become a bit clearer. We're clearly supposed to sympathize with Professor Eldred when he sighs that the moon was "far enough" for humanity, and to mourn the lost future of space. But that requires that we figure out which ideology of space is being mourned. Which brings us back to Wednesday's post, and to the job of responding to some of the points raised in comments. First of all there is Jesse Walker's excellent point that I'm acting as though there was only one mode of liberalism in the 1960s.
Mr. Walker is, of course, absolutely correct that liberalism cannot be collapsed into the radical tradition of the 1960s. After all, in America at least, that tradition turned viciously on LBJ for his failings in Vietnam, forcing him out of contention for the 1968 Democratic nomination. The LBJ/JFK tradition of liberalism did exist. And the space program owed huge debts to it. But that doesn't in any real way undercut my observations about the space program as a military proxy program. Because New Frontier liberalism was essentially just a kinder, gentler militarism. Although to a later generation of American liberals the ousting of the most effective anti-poverty President since FDR over the Vietnam War stings, the fact of the matter is that it is not as though the Vietnam War was an anomalous datapoint in the Johnson Presidency. His vision of what America was held that American ingenuity and spirit provided the humane counter-narrative to the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union, and that America was obliged to spend its military might spreading these cultural values.
But equally crucially, this flavor of New Frontier liberalism was, as Mr. Walker points out, the underpinning of Star Trek. Which brings me to the other point to which some readers objected, my claim that Star Trek represented a sort of deferred fantasy of American imperialism, which several people pointed out seemed to ignore things like manifest destiny.
Well, no. I mean, far be it from me to ignore the systematic destruction of numerous cultures and the wholesale genocides committed by Americans in the Indian Wars – genocides that were unsuccessful more because America is appallingly ADD about such things than because there was some redemptive “nice side” to our massacres. My point isn’t that American history was lacking in chilling historical atrocities. It’s just that there’s more than one kind of imperialist tendencies. The one that was on display in Manifest Destiny was primarily a local, backyard land grab – “That stuff you have. We’ll be taking it now.” Every country goes through that, generally to their shame.
But that’s not the sort of imperialism on display in Star Trek. Nor is it the type of imperialism most associated with Britain, whose imperialist tendencies had a bizarre moral foundation behind them. Take a tour of Rudyard Kipling and chill at something like “The White Man’s Burden” and you can see the bizarre moral logic of British imperialism, which was founded not on the nationalistic desire for power but on a sort of messianic altruism.
In practice, of course, the British Empire was based on economic exploitation as well. But the fantasy of the British Empire – which was at least as important as the actual empire (upon which the sun eventually did set, whereas the fantasy lives on) – was about bringing culture to the savages. The nationalism came in the form of the genuine belief that British culture was superior to all others and thus the culture most needed by the savages.
This is what Star Trek was about, and it’s what New Frontier liberalism was about. It’s also what the American nationalist myth about rescuing Britain in World War II (despite the fact that Britain had already successfully repelled the German attack by the time the US entered the war, and Germany had moved on to Russia) is about – the idea that following World War II, since we’d saved Britain and Europe, we had supplanted them and it was our turn to form a cultural empire across the world. Or, as that started to run aground into the reality of the Cold War, across the stars.
What’s oddly dissonant about The Seeds of Death, then, is that Eldred is visibly mourning for this vision of space. Look closely at what it is he regrets. He wants to explore Space. He’s positioned, in other words, as a version of the pith-helmeted Victorian explorer. Interestingly, although his ideology is clearly Victorian explorer, his demeanor is Victorian scientist – which is why he’s so able to connect with the Doctor, who always derived from the Victorian scientist archetype. It’s easy, when you look at him between Hartnell and Pertwee, to imagine that Troughton dropped this aspect of the character, but here we see that what he actually did was much more complex. He didn’t drop it so much as rebel against it, playing the Victorian scientist who had dropped acid and become enlightened. See also The Mind Robber. But it’s interesting the way that these two Victorian archetypes are shown here to be adjacent, with a real slippage between them. (In a story with more radical leanings, this equation of Victorian science and imperialism would be a fascinating point of departure. I say this because, many seasons from now, we’ll see that story.)
In terms of The Seeds of Death, where all of this becomes problematic is in the Ice Warriors. Although their plans are solidly in the category of “genocidal,” it is worth stopping and looking at what they’re actually doing. Hailing from a dying world, they are desperate to ensure their own survival. And so they are attempting to colonize Earth, and specifically to terraform it to their liking. This will, of course, result in the extinction of humanity. But remember, earlier in the thread I talked about terraforming as something that was an expected outcome of the future when I was growing up. This was something we fully expected to do to other planets.
We might duck and cover behind the idea that we would surely not have done it to populated planets, but saying that requires us to ignore the reality of imperialism at every stage of human history. Both manifest destiny-style imperialism and Victorian imperialism led to massive deaths among the conquered, generally with little fanfare or worry on the part of the empire.
In other words, The Seeds of Death on the one hand romanticizes the pioneering spirit of imperialism and creates villains who are evil because they act like imperialists act. In just four stories we’ll encounter a story that takes the question of an indigenous population rebelling against an occupying force much more seriously, but for now the real problem here is that the Doctor is so ruthlessly unsympathetic to the Ice Warriors. We’re miles here from the mad self-sacrificing Doctor in something like The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky who can’t destroy an invading alien force without giving them a choice first. Instead the Doctor casually dumps an entire fleet of Martians into the sun, runs around with what amounts to a solar gun shooting down Ice Warriors, and generally shows no problem whatsoever with all of this.
But in an odd way, this all becomes part of the vaguely elegiac feel of the story. The series, squeezed by budgets, suffering declining ratings, and seemingly on the brink of cancellation and saved, by the accounts of the production team, less because of their clever earth-based reinvention to come but because the BBC didn’t have any better ideas and so kept Doctor Who around, is in a real sense running out of ideas for this direction. We saw in the last story an alternate version of the Troughton years. But here, in The Seeds of Death, we see, albeit inadvertently, as clear an argument for the obsolescence of this version.
I’ve displayed a marked lack of patience with base under siege stories over the course of the Troughton era. The Seeds of Death essentially shows why. The central tension of the base under siege is that “they” are on the outside and trying to get in to hurt “us.” Sometimes – even most of the time – the show is able to dance around the immediate xenophobia of this. When the base is under siege from the Cybermen, well, they’re very consciously our own shadows. When it’s the Yeti, well, they’re robots. When it’s seaweed, that’s hardly a big deal. But all of this in aggregate starts to become xenophobic. Sure, there are terrible things bred in corners of the universe, but surely not everything that isn’t human is a faceless evil. The base under siege itself is fine, but as a mode of being for the series, it’s maddening in its overall portrayal of the alien.
And in The Seeds of Death, that really becomes clear, because the argument for why the Ice Warriors should be treated as generic evils to be slaughtered is really, really weak. And suddenly we can see the whole flawed structure of this era. For all that Troughton’s Doctor was an anarchic source of enlightenment, the series never quite worked up the strength to turn his anarchic tendencies against the Victorian imperialist values that still, to a great extent, underpinned the series. Consider, after all, that when the Doctor was traveling with two companions from Earth’s past, one of them – the Scotsman – is the primitive idiot, while the other – the Victorian girl – is never used to be comically thick, but is instead treated as the fetishized and perfect body-in-peril, the adoring object of the male gaze.
And so it comes to this, in which the Doctor praises neo-Victorian adventuring imperialism with one hand while gunning down imperialists with the other, the only difference seeming to be that one set of imperialists is human and British and the other is green. The Troughton era’s one catastrophic blind spot stands revealed – for all of its anarchic and psychedelic charm, it could never bring itself to hurl the brick through its own window. And as the psychedelic spaceship crashes back to Earth, this contradiction becomes fatal. There is no way past it without completely altering the entire structure of the show.
This is the real elegiac content of The Seeds of Death. It, more than any Troughton story, explains why the Pertwee era was necessary. Because before the Doctor can fight aliens in space again, he’s going to have to be forced to throw the brick through the window of the culture that made him – mainstream contemporary Britain.
The Seeds of Death, like most Doctor Who, is available on DVD where it will not suck all of the oxygen from the atmosphere and kill you. You can buy it in the US or the UK. Please do.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
In the White Wolf roleplaying game Changeling: The Dreaming, the point in the 60s that is flagged as being the zenith of hope and dreams and beauty is the moon landing. I adore Changeling, and am actually writing this blog entry in between preparing to start running a new campaign of it, but really, what rubbish.
For one thing, as we've already seen, the idealistic aspects of 60s culture were inexorably tied to political liberalism, to an extent that Doctor Who, by embracing a psychedelic aesthetic, lodged a politically liberal approach at the heart of what it does. It is in no way the case that liberalism ended in 1968, but the fundamental shift described in this entry was that political liberalism shifted from being in the ascendency to being on the defensive. Which means that the idea that any culminating event in the realm of hope and utopian ideology happening in 1969 is fundamentally ludicrous.
And indeed, the moon landing was no darling of the 1960s left-wing, with the usual refrain being some observation about throwing money away in space when there are so many problems here on Earth. Certainly nothing coming out of the Nixon administration had anything resembling a claim to 1960s utopianism.
So what was the moon landing, if not one of the high points of the utopian 60s? By and large, it was a dead end. The reality turned out to be that space is enormously expensive and lacking in all practical value. The moon wasn't our first step into space - it was our last one, with no realistic plan in existence over forty years later to even return there, little yet to push on to Mars or elsewhere. Why? Mainly because there's no visible point. No cost-efficient way of gathering any materials from foreign worlds exists or appears to exist. No life or habitability appears to exist. And after a point that's right around Mars we rapidly reach a point where we are putting people in capsules for obscenely long amounts of time so that they can walk on rocks no more habitable than the last uninhabitable rock they walked on.
In other words, all visible evidence regarding any point in space that we can get to suggests that we are alone and would be spending massive amounts of money for nothing other than the sake of getting there. As long as this remains the case - and there's no particular reason to think it's changing at any point in the near future - space travel will never be a major priority of any organization with the money to accomplish it.
If we're being honest, the moon landing is a military victory in the Cold War more than anything. We should rewind a bit, actually, and look at how we got to the moon. Mostly, it's Hitler's fault. In all seriousness, as Neal Stephenson points out, the use of rockets for space travel mostly comes down to the fact that Hitler was oddly obsessed with the things and happened to have (before he destroyed it by driving all the Jews out) more or less the best science program in the world. And so rocket technology advanced considerably.
Once that had already happened, rockets became handy things to strap atomic weapons to. If you happened to have, as the US and USSR both did, obscenely deadly weapons of mass destruction that you really didn't want to be near when they blew up, rockets were great for this. Since accuracy is not a massive issue with a hydrogen bomb, the fact that rockets were crap at accuracy was no particular barrier. And since the US and USSR were both decked out with high quality Nazi scientists (indeed, Eisenhower is supposed to have remarked, when asked why the USSR was ahead of the US in the space race, "their German scientists are better than our German scientists.") who were, by dint of their last projects, all very good at rockets, they developed rockets.
Space, then. Here's the thing. It's not very nice to show off your rocket technology by nuking people. And so the US and USSR had to, in order to thump their chests and proclaim their superior ability to blow things up, find something that quietly implied their blowing-up ability while not actually engaging in unfortunate and likely apocalypse-producing acts such as blowing up major metropolitan areas in horrific nuclear holocausts. The obvious choice was space travel. And so to the moon we went in what was basically a nice, sanitized PR proxy for the arms race.
In practice, that's all the space race was. A high profile public relations front for the business of preparing for the slaughtering millions of civilians in the Cold War, dressed up in patriotic bunting. And once the agreed upon goal had been reached and the US reached the moon, that was basically it for the space race. After that, space served precious little purpose. We went through the motions of Mir and Skylab, Soyuz and Shuttle, but it was by that point something else, and it's hard to be surprised now as manned spaceflight steadily peters out. Even if it does come back in a private form - indeed, even if we return to the moon or make it to Mars - the fact of the matter is that space travel has no visible future except as a richer and more eccentric version of climbing Mount Everest - something people with a lot of money do to satisfy their thrill-seeker urges.
Which brings us to the other key aspect of the space race. The thing that was not so much what was happening as what a particular segment of the population - namely those interested in science fiction - imagined to be happening. The space race we dreamt of, as opposed to the one we had. For where we are in history, there are two key texts. One, like the moon, actually postdates where we are in Doctor Who by a fair margin, at least in England. The other is actually a fair bit older, but I somehow never got to it when we were dealing with it coming out, so we'll have to do it now.
Let's start there, actually. Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 is an odd film largely because of its strange fusion of an extremely hard SF attitude with an exceedingly wide-eyed mysticism. In some ways it's hard to see how these were meant to fuse, though as with so much of 1960s science fiction, hindsight is our enemy here. Arthur C. Clarke belonged to the classic golden age of science fiction movement in the US. This is the John W. Campbell-assembled school of writers who made their name in the American science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction - Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and the like.
The thing about this movement is that there was an odd juxtaposition to it. These were mostly (though not entirely) writers who were very serious about science. The sorts of people who these days would post on Less Wrong and talk very passionately about secular humanism. But in the 1940s and 1950s when they were writing, there was, to be blunt, a much more spiritual dimension to rationalism than is normal today. Science was viewed as an ideology that could bring about productive social change so that if we organized the world around scientific principles, it would be a better, more rewarding place. And nowhere is that clearer than Arthur C. Clarke, who tended to combine hard SF, a detached, emotionless writing style, and a continual sense of mysticism. This was not a contrast, but rather a logical combination. Science was depicted as mystical because science was where we would find the enduring truths that would save humanity.
(You can see echoes of this all over early Doctor Who, where the usual shorthand for "This is a sensible person that the Doctor can attempt to reason with" is that the Doctor and the person in question both recognize each other as scientists. Even into The Underwater Menace, this is the operating assumption when the Doctor meets a scientist - we're meant to be surprised that Zaroff is off his rocker there, because he's a brilliant scientist and those are supposed to be sane, reliable people.)
Under Kubrick's direction, the mystical elements of 2001 were boosted considerably. Lengthy sections of what we now sarcastically refer to as "space porn" in which spaceships move with languid beauty through the stars served, in this film, to stress the degree to which the machinery itself was an object of sublime awe. But this is nothing compared to the 20 minute dialogue-free opening sequence of 2001 featuring a bunch of monkeys experiencing a great leap forward because of a mysterious black obelisk from space. Nor to the equally bizarre space acid trip at the end of the film (a sequence that is the direct inspiration for the title sequence of Doctor Who that appears in season 11 and remains until season 17).
It's worth being specific here. It's not just that 2001 pushes a spiritual dimension of science. It pushes a spiritual dimension to space. This isn't entirely surprising. As the famed piece of dialogue from our other main text today says, space is the final frontier - the place that is left for mankind to go. If spiritual fulfillment has not been found on Earth, it must come from the stars. And so we got the image of the starchild, already discussed in relationship to Vicki, and persistent all the way through the early glam rock days of David Bowie in the Pertwee era.
The other myth of space, of course, is Star Trek. Perpetually the comparison point for Doctor Who, the first thing we should say about Star Trek is that at the time in Doctor Who we're writing about, nobody on either show had ever heard of the other. Star Trek made its UK debut in the gap between seasons six and seven of Doctor Who, and Doctor Who didn't make it over to the states until long after the show ended. Once we get into the Pertwee era of Doctor Who and into the Next Generation era of Star Trek the influences between them fly fast and furious, but right now the shows are actually completely independently developed science fiction shows. So when we make comparisons between 1960s Doctor Who and the original series of Star Trek, we're making raw comparisons between the iconic sci-fi television of the US and UK.
I say comparisons, but actually, there aren't very many. For all that Star Trek features a similar premise of "the ship arrives somewhere and there's trouble," the shows are diametric opposites for the most part. The biggest difference, of course, is their relationship with military power and colonialism. At the end of the day, Starfleet is unambiguously a military organization, and the mission of the Federation is unambiguously a 23rd century version of empire building. Sure, the Federation is enlightened, scientific, and democratic, but then again, so was the British Empire - a pinnacle of reason bringing enlightenment and civilization to the darkest corners of the world. Which is to say, no empire is built by people who are short on self-belief.
At the end of the day, the basic structure of Star Trek is not, as it was pitched, Wagon Trail to the stars, but rather Master and Commander in space. It is a show about loyalty, valor, and the chain of command. And if we're being honest, Star Trek is an embodiment of a particular American anxiety following World War II - the realization that they missed their chance to be an empire. And so in Star Trek an international crew in which Americans are firmly in charge discovers that there's no end of new planets to explore, and that America can finally have its vast empire in space.
(Again, in contrast, pretty much whenever Doctor Who gets into galactic empire territory, it's a trainwreck. More or less every single empire we ever see humanity have goes completely wrong. This is because Doctor Who was written in a country that had an empire and watched it go completely wrong, whereas Star Trek was written in a country that never had one and was frankly jealous over it.)
The place this is clearest is probably in the classic episode "The City on the Edge of Forever." Acknowledging that Harlan Ellison disliked the version of that episode that actually aired, and that his complaints were specifically about its treatment of pacifism, the most significant thing to note about "The City on the Edge of Forever" is that its end message is very obviously that the anti-war movement risked destroying the planet. Putting, as it did, a story in which a vaguely hippie pacifist in the World War II era nearly destroys the entire future by letting Hitler win out during the Vietnam War protests leaves very little room for ambiguity. Ellison was, as I said, furious about this change, but let's be honest - what did he expect? He was writing military science fiction. Of course it turned anti-pacifist. What else could it possibly do?
The space race, outside of its militaristic dimensions, largely fell between these two stools of spiritual enlightenment and empire building. The latter of these, of course, was a better fit for the militarist dimensions of the space race, but on the other hand, for any country that wasn't the US, the idea of the American empire in space was a bit of a non-starter.
But in practice, as I said, space was empty. And continues to seem so. Neither narrative was right. And the period of Doctor Who we're looking at was, in many ways, the last time it was possible to be optimistic about space without seeming just a bit silly. Once the moon landing goes off, all that's left is the slow decades-long deflation of a particular dream of science fiction.
Not that space ever leaves science fiction - or Doctor Who for that matter. After all, the last episode to air was about a big space battle around an asteroid with lots of humans running around. But over time those images have stopped being images of the future and become images of themselves - images that, like the archetypes of Tolkien-esque fantasy, resonate more as tropes of a genre than they do as images of what we might someday become. (And of course eventually we'll deal with the film that ensured this transition, Star Wars.)
The end point is summed up by one of my favorite moments of Joss Whedon's science fiction series Firefly, in which one character expresses skepticism of the existence of psychic powers, calling them "science fiction stuff." At which point his wife remarks, "Honey, you live on a spaceship." Some people objected to this joke, viewing it as anachronistic. And perhaps it was. But on the other hand, it's a surprisingly cogent comment on the nature of our futures. Space travel, even in a world where it exists, seems more like science fiction than reality.
Sadly Apollo 11 is not for sale, nor is Neil Armstrong's foot, but Star Trek: The Original Series (US, UK) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (US, UK) are both out on DVD, and would love for you to buy them from those links. They turn out to be big fans of the blog, despite being films and thus inanimate objects without eyes to read it with. And so they think you should financially support the blog.
Monday, June 20, 2011
|At least this time the monster design successfully|
hit "iconic," albeit more like a car hitting a pedestrian
than like an arrow hitting its target.
Out of the charts, the first photos of the far side of the moon are taken by Apollo 8, Rupert Murdoch makes his entry into the British press by buying News of the World, The Troubles get more troublesome, and the Waverly Line is abandoned for good. So really, not a great month for Britain, with continued echoes of 1968 richoeting through the culture. Though again, as awful as Rupert Murdoch is, it's tough, in historical terms, to view his entry into the British press as anything other than a pale echo of Richard Nixon's re-entry into American politics. As I've said previously, Britain had a pretty good 1968 as 1968s go.
So The Krotons, then. This story has an odd reputation not helped by the fact that it was the Patrick Troughton story picked for the 1981 Five Faces of Doctor Who string of reruns. The importance of these reruns can't be overstated - in 1981, a whole generation of Doctor Who fans existed who had either never seen Troughton or only seen him in The Three Doctors. Not that they were unaware of Troughton - the existence of the Target novelizations and a genuine working memory of the show ensured that. But there were simply no opportunities for people to see him. The thing is, The Krotons is not what people expected. A story that would have left most viewers saying "the whats?", it was picked, if we're being honest, because in 1981 it was the only four-part Troughton story that existed.
So the initial reaction to this one - and we've discussed enough times how initial reactions from the 80s and 90s colored fan reaction for decades to come - was puzzlement, and, predictably, that has endured with the general reaction to the Krotons still being puzzlement in 2011. Miles and Wood suggest that the root problem is that it doesn't quite fit with anyone's memory of what the Troughton era should be. If we're being honest, what this means is that it's not a base under siege. But having endured the classic "monster" season and found it somewhat wanting, one struggles to, watching it in sequence, get particularly upset about the fact that it's not the bog-standard monster runaround everyone expects a Troughton story to be.
In truth, nobody would think this a strange season four story, and if it were a missing story its reputation would probably be right around that of The Savages, The Faceless Ones, or The Macra Terror. Except that there's a confidence to the program in season six that it didn't have two years earlier. (Two years earlier, for reference, is The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace) The result is that The Krotons has a composure and intelligence to its construction, even if the overall product seems ever so slightly out of step with what we expect Doctor Who to be heading into 1969.
Which is a strange thing to be saying about the debut of Robert Holmes, who will go on to write for the program through to 1986 and become its most prolific and acclaimed writer. But the fact of the matter is, Holmes handed in a script that feels distinctly like Doctor Who of old - it's just that at this point in the series history, Doctor Who of old feels oddly fresh. Which is worth remarking on. It's worth specifically noting that Doctor Who, in its first six seasons, was making 40+ episodes a year, as compared to the 26 it will settle on as the norm from seasons 7-22. (I know all three exceptions to that. Down, fanboy, down.) Doctor Who 18 episodes into season 6, in other words, has actually produced about 11 seasons worth of material by later standards. In other words, this is in no way a young show right now, and we're at a point where "this is an updating of a story stile from a previous era of the show" can't be taken to be a problem. At this point, showing off what the show has learned by redoing old classics is part of what the show should be doing.
So let's look at what The Krotons does that moves things forward. I mean, it's not that it doesn't have silly problems as well. I'm pretty sure the acting in this one is what Moffat had in mind when he famously snarked that some of the actors in the Troughton era should never have gotten their equity cards. Both Hines and Padbury are off their game here, but worse is the supporting cast, almost all of which is, in this story, barely watchable. On top of that, the monster design is... well, actually, quite good until you run into the problem that the costumes were made way too short and had rubber skirts tacked onto their bottoms to actually cover the actors.
But past that, there are some things here that make The Krotons, if not a revolutionary moment where Doctor Who steps forward, at least one where one can see that there is forward momentum in the show. For one thing, Robert Holmes can actually be bothered to create a world in which things happen instead of slapping together some base commanders and a monster and calling it a day. The Krotons doesn't satisfy the concerns I raised back in The Ice Warriors and The Enemy of the World by any stretch of the imagination - it's impossible to come up with any sense of what the Gonds did in a normal day before the Doctor arrived. They seem completely ill-suited to normal day to day life.
But on the other hand, the story is actually about them. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are external forces that intersect with this world and throw it into chaos. Yes, the idea of the world before they showed up is painfully underdeveloped, but that overlooks something really unusual for a Troughton-era story - the characters here have traits that are not directly related to their competence in dealing with monsters. Compare that to any of the bases under siege, where any given character has basically no traits that don't directly relate to how they're going to handle being under an invasion, and The Krotons stands in sharp relief - its characters have distinct approaches and worldviews that come in conflict. When Eelek and Selris come into conflict over how to deal with the Krotons, it's not that Selris is a better leader and Eelek is a spineless incompetent - it's that they have two very different views of how to handle the situation.
Part of this comes down to a subtle but interesting thing. If you want to do a story in which evil aliens menace people, there are two basic approaches - invasion and liberation. Base under siege stories are, generally speaking, invasion stories - a defined territory is penetrated by aliens that must be repelled. But this is the opposite - Gond society has already been taken over by the Krotons. By definition, that means that the story is about the world as opposed to just about fighting monsters. This is, by and large, a more interesting take, in that it requires the show have an idea beyond a cool costume for a nasty. (This observation, unfortunately, has some unfortunate implications for the Pertwee era.)
The second big thing that Holmes manages here is to use the Doctor and his companions' character traits in interesting ways that get the characters to do things more complex than just pragmatic concerns. As good as Hines and Troughton are together (and they are a quite good comedic double act), they've basically not had a scene as good as the one in which the Doctor and Zoe get progressively irritated at each other as they try to pass the Krotons' tests, with the Doctor snapping at Zoe "Now go away and don't fuss me... no come back, what's this?... It's all right, I know," and Zoe insisting that the Doctor is "almost as clever as I am" and pouting that the Doctor only got a higher score because he answered more questions than she did.
What's interesting about this scene is that it's character-based comedy of a sort we haven't really seen from Doctor Who before. The companions aren't just there to fulfill the plot functions of being menaced or beating things up here - they're actually people who act in a particular way, and do so for more than just one-liners. In the past, this sort of thing has been confined to the TARDIS scenes at the beginning or end of a story, with generic comedic banter that was, if anything, based on the endless "Jamie is thick" jokes. That's distinctly different from Zoe and the Doctor having an extended scene in which how they act is defined by who they are. And it's clear Troughton relishes it - he's having as much fun as he's had on the series in ages in this story, to the point where one imagines that if it had come where The Dominators did in the run we might have had a Troughton season in color.
We also have, with this story, one of the clearest moments of the embrace of psychedelia in Doctor Who. The Doctor teaches the Gonds to mix up acid and overthrow their bland and cruel masters who fill them with a head full of useless facts and don't prepare them for the real world. How very, very Troughton.
My point is not that The Krotons is some work of profound genius. It's not. But on the other hand, those who first saw it in 1981 with the strange sense that this was not what the Troughton era was supposed to be like were wrong. This is, above everything else, a strange and intriguing tease of what the Troughton era could have been. And indeed, all things considered, what it should have been.
Friday, June 17, 2011
|The Doctor and Tobias Vaughan make their way through|
In other news, Richard Nixon is elected President of the United States, bringing, in effect, all hope the left might have ever had over the 1960s to a crashing end, as we talked about last Friday. In more subtle news, Douglas Engelbert demos the NLS, or oN-Line System, in an event called the "mother of all demos." Although at the time known only to a small core of technical users, this is one of the most important events in the history of computers, and the technology Engelbert shows off here ends up being the basic underpinning of the modern desktop computer. Among the concepts debuting here are the mouse and the idea of "windows" within a computer system, and the first major debut of word processing on the computer.
This is not, of course, the first time that the series has been set in London. In fact, it's the sixth major instance. First of all, An Unearthly Child opens there. From there contemporary London is avoided until the end of the third season, but futuristic London is attacked by Daleks in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Contemporary London finally gets its day in the sun in The War Machines, where it gets attacked by evil computers. From there we nip off to Gatwick Airport for The Faceless Ones and the start of Evil of the Daleks, before returning to the Underground (and brief aboveground shots) in the aforementioned Web of Fear.
But something is different this time. For the first time in a story set in a more or less contemporary London (the "more or less" aspect of it will be dealt with later), we have a focus on the idea that London - the very home of the program - is under real attack, with the sixth episode culminating in one of the great money shot cliffhangers of Doctor Who as the Cybermen burst from the sewers and storm down the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral.
In other words, to understand this story we must first understand London itself. And so it is time here for the blog to pay off a debt. I've quietly described what we do here as psychochronography - a term adapted from the existing concept of psychogeography, in turn yanked from writers such as Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair, both of whom I saw give a talk this week, making this a particularly opportune time for some debt repayment. Psychogeography describes a form of writing in which the nature of a place is captured via the experience of moving through it. Its most common technique under Iain Sinclair is the walking tour, in which the physical experience of walking through an urban space provides the narrative frame for an exploration of its history and future. (Psychochronography, a term of my own invention, attempts to move through stories and histories, providing a "walking" tour of a time period, generally through a specific cultural object.)
To that end, and since I was there anyway on vacation, I decided I'd go full psychogeographic for an entry. A walking tour of the London of 1960s Doctor Who - the major locations of the four of the six London stories to be set in central London, culminating in the steps to St. Paul's Cathedral, in the hopes that through this walk it is possible to understand The Invasion. An attempt to see what was invaded in 1968, and what remains of it over forty years later. The result, I fear, is an oddity for TARDIS Eruditorum. But Doctor Who, for its first 26 years at least, is a story of many things, and one of those things is London.
Begin by emerging from Westminster station, a bizarre monument to neo-brutalist architecture renovated around the millennium - the most recent one, to be precise. Exit straight onto the Thames at one end of the Westminster Bridge. Originally slated for a good Dalek menacing in 2150, some four hundred years after its initial construction, plans for this invasion were shelved unexpectedly in 1999 when another one of London's myriad of architectural war crimes to celebrate the new millennium was committed. London, never a city with an excessive investment in its own skyline, was perhaps uniquely suited for the perversity of slapping up a Ferris wheel for the purposes of a broad city view.
The erection of Merlin Entertainments' London monument rendered this the first of many abandoned futures scattering London. Cross the bridge away from it and towards the Houses of Parliament, mysteriously visible from every window in every American comic book set in London, and you can just about feel it pulsing out the thoughts of the Nestene Consciousness - another future, unimaginable in the 1964 Lime Grove heat to which Jacqueline Hill, Alan Judd, and Ann Davies returned following their run.
Walking on, past the pipers and living statues that make up the mass and fabric of the modern London, past the monument to Boadicea, 1st century queen of the Iceni tribe who led a rebellion against the Roman occupation of Britain, torching their settlement at Londinium. Boadicea is neither the first nor last person who will be honored for London's destruction, nor is she the first or last woman with which London shall have a strangely ambiguous relationship.
A block past the bridge, turn onto Parliament Street amidst another iteration of that fantasy - the 21st century version of trench warfare in which London's streets are vivisected in the name of progress. On one corner, the row of anti-war protesters outside the Houses of Parliament, a mockup of the TARDIS inexplicably sitting next to a sign exhorting Obama to close Guantanamo. Given the distance of Obama from this place, it is difficult to say which is the more inappropriate monument.
Turn away from it and work your way along Parliament Street and Whitehall to the north, a sea of white stone edifices, monuments to the very offices of government now turned to watchtowers. Pass Downing Street, or rather, the mass of roadblock and security that constitutes David Cameron's literal public face. Then continue, past cabinet offices and more - the functions of government stocked behind a tourist facade that calls into question just how far from the American politics one is. On the right, down the middle of Whitehall, are a row of monuments to Britain's modern military history and its dead, most notably the Cenotaph under which Barbara and her friends from an abandoned future sought brief refuge.
Emerge at last in Trafalgar Square, our final stop in our tour of this lost 2150. Encircled by a seemingly unbroken chain of double decker busses, this square pulls an odd double duty for Ms. Wright. Made strange and hostile in 2150, with Daleks milling about the famous lions, upon her return to London a year later it is one of the destinations in which she and her apparent lover Mr. Chesterton celebrate their return. In this gesture, we see the odd core of London - its abandoned futures and ossified pasts stacking up upon each other until every location has become strange. Even with its unceasing crowds and countdown to the London Olympics, seemingly little more than another excuse to shred the city in the name of that ever-withdrawing future, there is the sense of stability here, four lions anchoring it through all these imagined destinies of London.
Move on, up Charing Cross Road. Here the process Trafalgar Square began is under way in full, with London giving way to its tourist trap twin. This stretch of road seems a mortuary of former television stars - Diana Rigg headlining Pygmalion, and, of course, David Tennant and Catherine Tate holding down Much Ado About Nothing. As Charing Cross ends and we depart Westminster, pass the latest film remade as a West End Musical, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert shoved, complete with garish high heeled shoe, into an otherwise innocent theater.
Move on towards Tottenham Court Road, where expat American retailers like TJ Maxx and formerly McDonalds owned burrito joint Chipotle sit across the street from Foyles, the landmark London bookstore where I was finally able to acquire a decent set of Iain Sinclair books, the author being maddeningly out of print in the US. Cross Manette Street, complete with helpfully labeled "licensed sex shop" and emerge to the ruins of Tottenham Court Road tube station, now a smoldering pile of "improvement."
Ease slowly around the construction border, around metallic-tinted plaster cast of Freddie Mercury advertising the West End hit musical starring his zombified essence. At last round to Great Russell Street, turn once, and arrive at Bedford Square. Here, in another lost future, the TARDIS alit upon Bedford Square, a private garden ringed by distinguished tenants. Here we arrive in the false London of The War Machines. Continue down Bayley Street to return to Tottenham Court Road, then cross it and continue into Percy Street. Here we reach a tangle of small streets. The main, Rathbone Street, vents to several pedestrian alleys - Charlotte Place ahead, where the titular War Machines menaced London.
Duck through a small passageway to reach Eastcastle Street, and then the small throughway Berners Mews, which exits out to Goodge Street. Cross it and take Charlotte Street until it becomes Fitzroy Street. Here Doctor Who's false pasts meet its real past, as we are in the immediate vicinity of the famed Fitzroy Tavern, where those portions of fandom not too notorious for their work on the series itself meet monthly for a drink. Stories abound of puzzled fans resplendent in cosplay showing up unsuspecting and wandering the tavern bereft, assuming they have the wrong place. I'd not know, having never been in London on the right day of the month.
Here also we duck around the central setpiece of The War Machines, the BT Tower, then known as Post Office Tower. This bizarre building - officially a secret until 1990, despite the fact that it looms massively for blocks in every direction - remains a communications hub for London, but casts now, as it did in 1966, a strange aura, its inappropriate architecture another lost future. Designed by Eric Bedford and G.R. Yeats in a striking and visually iconoclastic status, the building had a clear whiff of futurity around it when it was constructed across the early 1960s. But the future aesthetic it augured never arrived. It sits there still, unable now to look either forwards or backwards, left merely to spin madly in place.
By legend, then script editor Gerry Davis asked prospective scientific advisors to the show what menace might lurk in Post Office Tower seeping evil into London, and Kit Pedler proposed a computer which became WOTAN. Traces of this future still stand - the officefront of a random business named City Electrical Factors Ltd oddly evoking Tobias Vaughn's International Electromatics. But by and large, looking at these comfortable pedestrian alleyways, it is difficult to imagine this lost future. The paranoid aversion to the mainframe computer - the only kind known to 1966 - seems ridiculous. I photograph Post Office Tower with my iPhone, itself more powerful than WOTAN could have dreamed of being, the slip it back into my pocket, leave this abandoned future to rot, and make my way down Cleveland Street, cthonic tower receding behind me.
Here we make our transition away from the lost future of The War Machines and continue approaching the most vexed of Doctor Who's lost futures. Our final War Machines location is a minor one - a bustle of morning activity shot at Covent Garden Market. Here we must pause to consider the arc of history and of this walk. The name Covent Garden comes from the Anglo-French, and is synonymous with "convent." The convent in question is the Abbey at Westminster, where first we set foot in the vicissitudes of London's streets, and this space originally formed a garden for that monastery before it was leased out in 1515. In 1552, Edward VI granted the land, seized from Westminster by his father in the process of dissolving the monasteries, to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford.
The plot stayed under control of the Russell family, who leased it out for various purposes, until 1918, becoming, at various times, a posh neighborhood, a red light district, and an outdoor market. For our purposes, the most notable fact about it is probably the opening of the Church of St. Paul's in a 17th century redesign, creating a through-line from here to our final destination. But for now, let us turn our attention to the stretch of Covent Garden along Floral St - a row of archways caught on camera in The War Machines. This is more or less the furthest reach of WOTAN's malign influence, the last gasp of our Post Office Tower-centered tourism.
Pushing through the archways, we discover, then, the nail in that future's coffin - an Apple Store. This observation may seem nitpicking. Surely the ubiquity of computerized phones, still responding to the signals of the BT Tower, is in some sense a confirmation of The War Machines. But look again - this image of gigantic robots moving by the control of a single computer depends on the idea that these massive machines are extraordinary. Flip open a copy of the Guardian to read about the latest US drone strikes in Pakistan, or just look at it on your iPhone, and the idea of a single computer exerting such control becomes mad. The fear, like so much else, has dissolved into the cloud - or, as we see standing here, the iCloud.
From here we need step forward only in time to reach The Web of Fear in 1968. Where before we have been tracking the London of spires - Big Ben, Nelson's Column, and the Post Office Tower, here we switch to what Neil Gaiman memorably called London Below in his own homage to this mythic city, Neverwhere. Far below Covent Garden rumble the trains of the Picadilly Line, carved out in the early days of the 20th century in an outbreak of unexpected science fiction through the very ground of London.
We must pause here to look at the opening strains of a problem we deferred in The Web of Fear entry itself - one that will be a growing concern through the looming Pertwee era. Indeed, here in Covent Garden we must begin to face one of the great thorny continuity problems of Doctor Who: UNIT dating.
I will not spend excessive time tracing out the basic issue here. The crux of it is this - there are at least three completely contradictory accounts of when the UNIT stories take place which range from them taking place more or less in the year they're transmitted to, in the most extreme option, based primarily on dating information in The Web of Fear, The Invasion taking place in 1980. Given multiple accounts that cannot be reconciled, we have a situation where fans have broken in to various camps on the subject of when the UNIT stories "happened."
In 2011, standing in Covent Garden and staring at these abandoned questions, there is a sense of ludicrousness to it. Essential to the question of when the UNIT stories happened is dating events that firmly did not happen. When Doctor Who takes place in lost pasts or distant futures, it has a realism it can never have when it takes place in London near the time of broadcast. Whether The Web of Fear was meant to happen in 1968, along with its broadcast, or in 1975, some seven years later, it runs into the real problem - that London was never evacuated to escape the Yeti menace.
So when we walk two blocks north to Shelton Street and look at the ground the Yeti did not trod upon. These monsters, from a different sort of monastery, are not entirely dissonant with this territory, but then, what is dissonant with London? A palimpsest of a city, even its spires seem below ground, buried under their contrasting histories. What is there that cannot be in London?
Walk on towards our final destination. Here the web of symbols and histories begins to crystalize. Down Long Acre until it becomes Great Queen Street, we pass London's Freemason's Hall, advertising a by then long-closed exhibit entitled "Building Solomon's Temple." Reach Kingsway, and Bush House, still for another year the home of the BBC World Service, and turn south, reaching St. Clement Danes, 17th century design of Christopher Wren, although the idea of a church in that spot reaches back to the 9th century. Across the way is Australia House, the interior of which serves as Gringott's Bank in the Harry Potter films, and the exterior of which was an establishing shot in The Invasion before the Cybermen burst from the sewers.
From here proceed to The Strand, which descends towards Fleet Street, named for the buried River Fleet. This is the sort of city London is - whole rivers lurk below the surface of its present. It is on Fleet Street that another spire makes its appearance on the walk, the peak of the Swiss Re building, another bit of millennial construction replacing the proposed Millennium Tower with the somewhat less ambitious Millennium Cucumber. By and large, however, that awful spire is the outlier here. Fleet Street marks a descent - a sloping down hill through increasingly aged buildings.
If London is a palimpsest city, nowhere is that more evident than Fleet Street. How much is entombed here. The river is just a start. By tradition, stemming off from the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet street is the haven of barristers, and legal bookstores dot its aged storefronts. Past that are the banks, with every major British bank holding an office on Fleet Street, most notably Child & Co Bankers at 1 Fleet Street. Buried deeper than these are the origins of the British printing industry, Fleet Street still being associated with that industry. Towards the eastern end of the street is St. Bride's Church, another Christopher Wren design, although the church itself dates back to the 7th century. Exploded by a German bomb in 1940, the layers of palimpsest traumatically peeled back revealing the crypt below, now wrapped in tourist bunting, electrical conduits weaving through the ancient stonework.
St Bride's, whose Wren-created design is said to be the model of the wedding cake (not Wren's only inadvertent brush with fertility rituals, as we shall see), is known as the printers church by dint of the fact that the first moveable type printing press was brought there by Wynkyn de Worde in 1500. Here also was where Mary Ann Nichols wed printer William Nichols, who later abandoned her to have an affair, leaving her to slip into prostitution and become the first victim in the canon of Jack the Ripper. This, in turn, points to the last great strand of Fleet Street, and indeed one can just about smell Mrs. Lovett's pies from any of the street's numerous pubs.
Fleet Street gives way to Ludgate Circus. Here climb Ludgate Hill to reach the highest spire of Christopher Wren's churchbuilding - St. Paul's Cathedral. This towering edifice is familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the imagined depths of London, serving as the centerpiece of one of the key scenes if Alan Moore's From Hell. In this scene, itself a buried text beneath this one, William Gull, fingered by Moore as Jack the Ripper, completes his own psychogeographic tour of London, tracing a pentagram of symbols around the center point of St. Paul's.
By tradition, a force far stronger than mere history, Ludgate Hill, upon which St. Paul's rests, is named after King Lud, apocryphal namesake of London, making this edifice the very beating heart of London. Strange then, that by tradition it is also on the site of an ancient temple to Diana. This strange fact forms the heart of Moore's monologue. Walking through the cathedral, his claim seems compelling - that something about the lunar cannot be erased, even within this manifestly solar sanctum. The cathedral brims with statues a mere breath from the Weeping Angels, cold stone reflecting a dreaming darkness that extends beyond the radiant displays of gold. Moore makes much of the fact that, into the 20th century, women hugged the pillars of the building as a superstition to evoke fertility, the Goddess myth, like all other lost myths of London, having sunk into the very earth and stone itself. Raze London a thousand times yet - and have little doubt that, given time, this will happen - and Diana will always live upon this hill. Or does she rise up separately. Does this hill dream endlessly of a lunar goddess? Or was the lunar goddess - perhaps the moon itself - nothing more than the idle dream of Ludgate Hill?
Depart, down St. Peter's Steps towards the Millennium Bridge, then turn to see the ground the Cybermen stormed down. Let us pause here to consider the basic spectacle here - the very idea of Cybermen in London. If London is a palimpsest of a city, then there are perhaps no monsters more suited to its streets than the Cybermen, themselves endlessly reinvented and reconceptualized. And likewise, if the lunar glow of Diana cannot quite be erased from the heart of London, leaving the city eternally a land of dreams and imagination, then the qlippothic terror at the heart of the Cybermen too cannot be erased.
Miles and Wood suggest that the real point of The Invasion is to relaunch the program, with the Cybermen just being invited along for the party. But it is more than that. The Cybermen, from the start, have been agents of strange and alien change. This is in the very idea of them, as much as Diana is in the very idea of St. Paul's, or the buried river is in the very idea of Fleet Street. As much as tearing London down is in the very idea of London.
Is this, then, the key to UNIT dating? Had the UNIT stories emerged with any setup other than invasions of London it might be different. Instead we are faced with impossible monsters whose very setup - a non-existent invasion in 1986 - marks them as a lost future invading a city whose very nature is that no version of itself is truly lost, merely buried, waiting to be dug up and gutted anew. A city where nothing lasts and everything remains.
The true strangeness of the UNIT dating controversy is this - to anyone who came at the stories after all possible dates they could have happened - someone, in other words, of my generation - it is transparently obvious when they happened. The Brigadier's line about the length of time from The Web of Fear to The Invasion not withstanding, it is clear that both are set in 1968. A lost future belongs nowhere but the time it was dreamed of. And The Invasion's future was lost within weeks of transmission. Its first episode includes a shot of the far side of the moon, a vista revealed for the first time only a few weeks later by Apollo 8, which launched the same day the final episode of The Invasion aired.
To put it another way, it does not, in the end, matter when the UNIT stories happened. It is enough that the place the place they never actually happened is some imagined London, buried underground like everything else, and thus as real as anything that actually happened in London. The stories themselves are about the years they were transmitted, and their fears and terrors are fears of their audience. It does not matter if they never happened in the year they were broadcast or if they never happened in some future year that itself never really hapened. It is enough that they never happened in London, and thus live forever in its stones.
Move on. Glance down a few more streets where Cybermen marched in jackboot formation, recreating perfectly the steps of German invaders who never came. Step on the Tube at Mansion House Station, marking the site of the home of the Lord Mayor of London, itself the gravestone of one of the handful of churches Christopher Wren did not rebuilt. Return to a home you do not live in to rest and dream the dreams of London.
Tragically, London itself is not available from Amazon, but The Invasion is out on DVD in both the US and the UK, and buying from either of those links helps keep your friendly neighborhood blogger fed and happy.