Saturday, 23 April 2011

Slaughterhouse-22

My plan to post Doctor-by-Doctor compilations of my better stuff from Timelash II has gone a bit squinky, mostly because what I tapped in about Seasons 18-20 needs expansion before I'm happy to post it.  So, I'm going to skip them for now and proceed to post stuff from later.  Here is... well, the clue's in the title.  Season 22.  The Nasty Season.  Not much new stuff here... but some great quotes from excellent Gallibase contributors, who said what (I think) needed to be said.  Enjoy, Constant Reader, enjoy...


'Attack of the Cybermen'

Objectively, this is bad. Padded, garish, unstructured, naff, continuity-porn.  Subjectively, there's something interesting starting to happen. The perverse, off-colour, queasy, brutal, resolutely uncool vibe that runs through Season 22 is already in evidence... and it's kind of fascinating.

The hand-crushing scene, for instance, has real balls.  Unsuitable for kids?  Well, I remember watching it as a kid and loving it.  Not because I was bloodthirsty (if anything, I was - and still am - rather wussy about gore and violence) but because it suddenly seemed to raise the dramatic stakes (not that I could've articulated that at the time).

The story also scores big points for remembering something that most other Cyberman stories forget: the Cybermen are technologically reanimated zombies.  Amidst all the stuff they get wrong, they remember that the defrosting cybertombs would smell.


'Vengeance on Varos'

 A bit like an episode of Fame Academy directed by General Pinochet.

More topical than prophetic.  More interested in the at-the-time current "video nasties" thing than in investigating the territory of The Year of the Sex Olympics, upon which it draws and which turned out to be more prophetic.

Still, it's hard not watch this and see foreshadowings of the way we live now.  Reality TV of increasing nastiness keeps the impoverished and sweated workers of an austere 'Big Society' preoccupied with schadenfreude.  Meanwhile, democracy is a media sideshow that entails a succession of men being briefly trusted and then spurned by disillusioned masses... and no matter how well intentioned such men may be, they're all drawn from one class and all find themselves trapped in an insane system that allows them no room for manoeuvre.

Moreover, Varos is a client state of a huge corporation. Sil could be one of those oil company execs who ends up as a politico in Washington and visits the dictatorships that are important to American imperial interests, shaking hands with the Justice Minister and praising the enterprise and initiative of the local exporters.

Sadly, there's little sense of public resistance. We hear a reference to unionisation, but the public are personified in the useless, reactionary and passive Arak and Etta.

And can the Varosians really expect things to be okay now, simply because they've got a better deal and a good, reformist leader?

Actually, there's a hint of reactionary sneering at the square-eyed, apathetic drudges lurking beneath the apparently angry satire.


'Mark of the Rani'

Oh dear. I hate this one.

Firstly, it's a departure from the perverse feel of the rest of the season. It's weak and watery compared to everything around it.

Secondly, it gets the Industrial Revolution completely wrong in about the crassest, stupidest, most reactionary terms imaginable.

Apparently, it was all about the GENIUS of a few GENIUSES who used their GENIUS to change history. That's all. No economics, no social movements, no historical context. Just a sudden mysterious emergence of some clever people who changed everything. Take them out and the modern world wouldn't have happened. This chimes with the biological determinism inherent in the idea that you can turn ordinary people into rampaging lunatics by simply taking a chemical out of their brains. This sort of balls is part-and-parcel of much sci-fi and much Doctor Who, but the context of this story makes it extra annoying to me.

It's a story set in a period in which massive and dreadful social divisions opened up between the classes... but, if you follow the 'logic' on display here, you can see that some people are able to rise and earn the coveted respect of Lord Whatsisface by their innate GENIUS... and enterprise and initiative. Meanwhile, the drudges stay where they belong. How very Thatcherite.

(Oh, by the way... most of these people who are usually vaunted as the GENIUSES of the Industrial Revolution were actually pretty rubbish.)

Of course, the only possible rebellion against the system that sweats them is the insane aggression of the "Luddites". Yes, the story has a disclaimer about them not being *real* Luddites, but still the elision is clear. And the Luddites weren't vicious maniacs or mindless vandals. They were a progressive movement of oppressed people against a ruling class that wanted to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them and then throw them on the scrapheap. But the implication here is that rebellion is a matter of savagery and lunacy. You can view this lunacy as being created by the Rani's exploitation of the workers... but the approving way that Lord Thingummyjig is depicted stops any radical analogy in its tracks.

The workers are depicted as playthings of the real people, like the patronising Lord ThatblokeoutofBergerac, the patronising Doctor and the cynical Rani... with the Doctor's complaint about her behaviour basically taking the form of a plea for benevolence towards the beasts.

Whatever he may say about the Rani treating people like bundles of chemicals, the Doctor is the hero of a story that essentially shares this view... which the writers seem to realise late and so, in an attempt to subvert it, they insert the ridiculous business with the tree and the Doctor's obligatory bit of Shakespeare abuse... which is supposed to suggest the existence of the soul or some such bollocks.

Oh, just go away.


'The Two Doctors'

As I've said before, this is proof that even geniuses can make terrible mistakes.  This tale smuggles in a rather wonderful and satirical anti-meat subtext… while depicting the second Doctor as a reactionary genetic determinist who thinks in terms of inferior and superior races. “Really Doctor,” says Dastari, “I expected something more progressive from you.” So did I. In the end, the Doctor’s disapproval of tinkering with Androgum DNA is proved justified, with even Dastari realizing that the Androgums are just inherently inferior. And how are the Androgums depicted? As heavy-browed, warty, big-nosed, red-haired people incapable of controlling their lower urges… i.e. in terms of racist stereotypes used, at one time or another, against Jews, the Irish, you name it. Utterly unforgivable.

To expand, I can't do better than to quote the excellent Richard Pilbeam on this one:

Immediately after a story where the "rebels" are brutish, ignorant reactionaries opposed to the "progress" being made by an intellectually and morally superior caste of posh rich people, and the Doctor's attempt to stand up for them basically boils down to "Be nice because it's not their fault they're too stupid to have money"... We find out that Androgums are genetically predestined to savagery, and any attempt to "elevate" them is doomed to failure. Even if you're changing their basic biological makeup. However that works.

It's not a case of "you gave a creature powers it doesn't understand and can't control properly" - which the 2nd Doctor's analogy of teaching an earwig nuclear physics suggests - because Chessene does understand her powers, and has been able to control them to the point of being even more scientifically brilliant than Dastari. She's at "mega-genius level", and far more calm and rational than anyone else in the story. But none of this matters in the end, because she's an Androgum, and therefore can't leave her "place" in society, which is to be - oh God - a brutish, savage, lustful "servitor". Absolutely repellent.

All this in a story where - Hey! - it turns out that the Time Lords aren't predestined to be time-travellers, but artificially grafted on some genes that make them time-proof. But they're not "beasts", so it's OK. Even though, you know, The Master, Omega, The Rani and Morbius wouldn't have been able to kill - between them - potentially billions of people had they never got hold of time travel. Like in the story that comes immediately before this one. That's apparently fine, because the Time Lords are a proper species with the capacity for good and evil... whereas an Androgum is just an Androgum.

I could accept this as a deliberate commentary on the Time Lords' hypocrisy, which the first episode seems to be leading toward ("Your experiments will be allowed to continue" "Allowed?"), but the plot ends up validating it. Chessene really is a monster who can't control herself, the High Council's intervention was justified in stopping Dastari's experiments, and the Doctor shoots off in the TARDIS without worrying about the consequences of "unleashing" himself on time. In a story where he crossed his own timeline.

By the way, meat is murder.

Mind you, I'll say one thing for this story... it contains one of my favourite ever Doctor moments.  The computer on the space station speaks up and the Doctor responds with "I will not be threatened by a computer!". Peri asks nervously "how do you know it's a computer?" and the Doctor replies, with a wonderful air of weary, seen-it-all/done-it-all condescension: "My dear girl, I know a computer when I talk to one."  That's the best of Sixie in a nutshell and Colin aces it.


'Timelash'

I laughed derisively at this when I was 9. Mind you, remake this on a big budget and put Matt Smith in it and a fair few people would be prepared to call it a masterpiece.

It's sad to watch Paul Darrow ham it up so archly, especially when you remember what a promising actor he'd been back before four seasons of Blakes' 7. Mind you, he at least manages to be fun - unlike just about everything else here.

Once again, I will quote Mr Pilbeam:

It devalues - no, ignores - the idea that speculative fiction, like any form of fiction, can have social relevance and act as a commentary on the world around it. The War of the Worlds isn't about Martians, it's about imperialism. The Time Machine is about Marxism colliding with Darwinism. Wells didn't use aliens and time travel as set-pieces because he "had an idea" and thought they'd be cool, he was inspired to use them as rhetorical devices to make a point about the world he lived in, and every half-decent SF author works on the same principle. "Timelash" doesn't care, doesn't notice and doesn't have any ambition beyond being A Space Story... and it seems to think that all SF works this way, too. Especially Doctor Who.

This is the most important criticism to be made of this story, in my opinion.


'Revelation of the Daleks'

I've blithered on about 'Revelation of the Daleks' at great length, here... and there is more blather to come, at some point.  It's easily one of the most rich and strange Doctor Who stories ever made.  

In addition to my own views, here are some from my longstanding forum-buddy, the awesome vgrattidge-1:

[M]ortality - Colin seizes on this element, playing the Doc as a reflective old man until he confronts Davros, when all the bombast and attitude returns. When he's not bantering/bitching with Peri or facing the enemy, this is a meloncholy Doctor aware of his age and feeling the weight of his personal history.

The suspended animation stuff is hilarious - the elites make provision to live again, not knowing that they will either make it into Davros' idea of the ultimate elite (the Dalek), or into the bellies of those who will join that elite at a later date. Wonderful satire.

The famine issue is germane in the wake of Ethiopia...the solution is the kind of macabre ickiness Bob Holmes would have come up with. After years of mediocre or frankly crap script, Saward finally looks to the Master and works damn hard to emulate him. And he gets it right!

Davros the corporate villain is a brilliant evolution of the character. He's learnt. He continues to grow and adapt. Kara's attempt at a hostile takeover is out done by his old brand coming in to halt him developing Dalek Version 2.0. Brilliant and deeply funny!

The Doctor, once again, is provider of knowledge - re: the weed plant, how to disable the incubator room (echoing 'Genesis' it's a Dalek that accidentally sabotages it), how to get Peri to warn off Vargas, how to earn time so that Orcini can attack Davros - oh, he's certainly not incidental to requirements. Plus, Orcini is used to reflect him - two men of action at difficult points in their lives, contemplating their mortality and standing outside of the market system to attain similar goals - the honour of vanquishing tyrants. Orcini's fee goes to charity. The Doctor never takes money. They are both strange anachronisms on Necros.

Sublime. Novel-like. Gorgeous. Unsettling. Radical. One of the best ever.

 *

Overall, Season 22 is more than the sum of its (sometimes shambolic) parts.  I loved it as a kid.  And no wonder - given how much like a nasty, ambiguous fairytale so much of it is.

The Doctor floats around in a universe that seems dirtier and creepier and messier than it ever was before. Cannibalism, sadism, blood and Freudian implications all over the place. And there's this guy who is so far from cool he's actually melting. He's got a big blonde mop of hair, a tubby bulge and ludicrous clothes... and he's totally unapologetic, totally confident, loud and proud, sarcastic, rude, grumpy, overtly emotional... and ruthless, when he needs to be. He's a passionate, intellectual avenger in clothes that make the stupid and the mean think he's just a harmless pratt. There is a definite appeal.

And Colin is great, delivering a performance that is engagingly modulated between outward bluster, big passions, ruthless pragmatism and an ever-working mind.

Just look at that bit in 'Revelation' after Peri kills the mutant.  As vgrattidge-1 has pointed out, many another actor might've tried to drown the line "You had no choice" in sympathy and pathos and consolation.  Peri is, after all, very upset.  But Colin doesn't do that.  Nor does he cuddle Peri, or even pat her on the shoulder.  He does something better.  He uses simple, direct, loaded words to make moral sense of what just happened.  The way he says the line is "You had no choice".  He hits the word "You".  In other words, Peri isn't responsible for the death of the mutant... but some fucker is.  In the end, the Doctor engages in none of the wannabe-badass nonsense of the type we now expect from #11... but if you look at Colin's eyes when he delivers that line - and see the Doctor's icy rage - you're very glad that the fucker in question isn't you.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Dark Half

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: 'Tomb of the Cybermen' is really very racist.

The only black guy in the cast of characters is a huge, musclebound, grunting, largely-mute, henchman/thug who is shown apparently delighting in his ability to inflict violence.  His speech - when it occurs - is monosyllabic, stilted and semi-coherent, with tenses that veer all over the place.  He refers to himself in the third person: "they shall never pass Toberman!".  Apparently, he was originally supposed to be deaf (with a visible hearing aid).  Some people say that this would have contextualised his behaviour.  I say it would just have made this story offensive about deaf people as well as black people.  Toberman's main positive personality trait seems to be unquestioning, doglike loyalty to his 'mistress'.

His 'mistress' is a woman called Kaftan.  This really can't be said enough.  Her name is 'Kaftan'. 

I mean... fuck.

She's evil.  The actress playing Kaftan - Shirley Cooklin - gives her a nice line in insolent sneering, ruthlessness and fanatical, unblinking stares.  The actress has been darked up.  Common practice in 60s (and 70s) TV productions.  Of course, there's no reason why this character had to be dark skinned.  She just is.

Astonishingly, some people will defend this story on exactly those lines:  Kaftan and Toberman don't need to be ethnic minorities, they just are.  But the question is why?  If it isn't necessary to the plot that the baddies should be explicitly and/or implicitly non-WASPy then why are they so characterised?  And would it actually be any better if the plot demanded it?

Kaftan is the partner-in-crime of the story's main villain: Klieg.  Another non-specific name.  Sounds German.  Possibly derived from the German surname 'Kliegl'.  The character, however, is played by George Pastell, a Greek Cypriot who spent his career playing fanatical Egyptian Mummy-wranglers, Thugee High Priests, Russian spies and other generic foreigners in British /American film and TV.

In some ways, it is this very generic foreignness that is most offensive.  Toberman is a black man... and that's it.  Klieg and Kaftan have no clear ethnic identity of any kind.  The name 'Kaftan' might suggest (by very broad association) that the character is Turkish or Moroccan... or possibly from somewhere in the Persian Gulf.  Or Russia.  The vague, generic 'foreigner' accent helps as little as the fake swarthy skin.  Klieg, meanwhile, probably most resembles a fiendish stereotypical German in the script (the Germanic name, the arrogant manner, the desire to be master of the world and impose his viewpoint on everyone) but is played by a man with an Eastern Mediterrenean accent.

There is no detail and no consistency in the way they are presented.  The implication is as clear as the effect.  It doesn't matter where they're from or who they are, what their nationalities or backgrounds might be... such things may be as garbled as they are indistinct.  They are just foreign, in the most unspecific way imaginable.  This seems to be more than good enough as a context for their villainy.

Klieg and Kaftan, aside from being the baddies, are noticeably gauche.  Kaftan is touchy and sly.  She also flashes her wealth about ostentatiously.  Klieg is an arrogant bully who likes putting people down and is infuriated when anyone reminds him that he's not in charge.  By the end of the story, Klieg is acting like, and being explicitly described as, a lunatic.

There are some pushy, brash, loud-mouthed WASP characters... but they're American (thus proving that the use of stereotypes in this story is part of a wider strategy) so they also get to be pithy wisecrackers and brave men-of-action.

All the other characters are thoroughly and identifiably Northern European in nationality and/or ethnicity.  And, whatever their flaws (i.e. nervousness, recklessness, touchiness), they're all essentially nice.  And decent.  And sane.

No wonder Parry orders Hopper to put his gun down as soon as he hears that the Doctor speaks English with an English accent.  In this kind of narrative universe, it makes perfect sense to instinctively trust the Anglo-Saxon.

Of course, a lot of this must stem from the fact that the story is heavily derived from the kind of horror films that feature posh Anglo archaeologists breaking into ancient Egyptian tombs, thus activating old curses and murderous animated corpses (which is implicitly what the Cybermen have always been... the original Cybermen were even bandaged like Mummies!)

In 'Tomb', the ancient subterranean stone burial chambers of Mummy films become technological freezers.  "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" becomes the electricity coursing through the big doors.  The curses upon those who disturb that rest of the Pharaoh / Princess / High Priest become a long-ago formulated Cyber plan to snare new recruits.  The buried treasures become the power that Klieg and Kaftan hope to co-opt.  The faded, dusty friezes become the Cyber icons that decorate the walls.  The sinister hieroglyphics become the cryptic patterns of symbolic logic.  When Klieg (with the inexplicable assistance of the Doctor) manages to work out the logic sequences which open the doors, he is also translating the magic "open sesame" contained in the sacred, arcane symbols of a tattered scroll.

Just as the tropes of this kind of colonialist fiction - which migrated into late C20th popular consciousness from Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard via Universal and Hammer movies - finds its displaced form in high-tech control panels, freezing chambers and logic junctions, so the inherent orientalism and British imperial chauvinism finds a displaced form in the way the story implicitly distrusts swarthy, fanatical, cruel, ruthless old Johnny Foreigner.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Victory of the Icon

In the course of preparing myself [to play Churchill in a biopic]… I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history…. What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, ‘We shall wipe them out, every one of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of the earth’? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.

- Richard Burton. (He got banned from the BBC for writing that. Which must’ve really burned him as he lounged around in Hollywood with Elisabeth Taylor’s head in his lap.)


In ‘Victory of the Daleks’ by Mark Gatiss, Winston Churchill is depicted as a wiley and cantankerous old fox, as a twinkly-eyed yet determined fighter against the Nazi menace, as a moral force, as an impish and roguish but unequivocally good man. This is very much the mainstream view of Churchill, in both ‘pop culture’ and in much of the trash that masquerades as history in our society.

Moreover, Churchill is an old mate of the Doctor’s. They go way back. In other words, he gets the endorsement of Our Hero, the narrative and moral locus of the series.  Here is Gatiss' reasoning:

I think in the end it came down to sort of printing the Churchill of legend, because Doctor Who is not the place, really, to examine those sorts of things, except wherever possible, as it were, in the gaps, in the shadows, you can suggest his pragmatism. So in this episode when the Doctor, despite the fact that the Doctor's telling him that the Daleks are the worst thing in the entire universe, he thinks 'I can end the war quicker, I can save lives'. So that sort of thing was interesting to play with. But I did, you know, it just isn't the place to try and have those conversations, because it's an adventure series.

This reminds me of a page at the BBC website about whether Churchill was “as good as we think?”. As ever, “we” is left undefined. The page lists Pros and Cons. The best Cons they can come up with are a couple of military blunders, the return to the gold standard and Yalta. In other words: was he as marvelous as “we” apparently all believe or did he sometimes make mistakes? The big one on the list is Yalta, so the worst thing he can be accused of is handing much of Europe over to the real evildoers. Pravda would have been proud of such framing.

(The Yalta thing seems especially unfair to Churchill. He assumed that Russia would renege on the agreed post-war frontiers of Europe and advocated ‘Operation Unthinkable’, a lunatic plan to launch an unprovoked attack upon Russia as early as July 1945, thus starting a new war against one of his own allies.)

For Gatiss, Churchill’s “shadows” consist of this kind of “pragmatism”. The closest the man had to a dark side was a ruthlessness about allies and tactics… but even this was all about wanting to “save lives”. Thus, even the “shadows” we are allowed to see make him look noble.

This is from a telegram that Churchill sent to the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, 28th March, 1945:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

Note that this memo frankly acknowledges that the firebombings were calculated and carried out as acts of terrorism. Note that the main reason for stopping seems to be the fear that “we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land”.

This, presumably, is what Gatiss means when he refers to Churchill’s “absolute pragmatism”.

(On the subject, it might be observed that many of the ostensible ‘military targets’ that are frequently trotted out as justification for the Dresden atrocity still stand today, since they were quite a way out of the city itself… and many of the RAF pilots dropping the bombs didn’t have proper maps in any case.)

In the end though, for Gatiss, Doctor Who isn’t the forum for investigating Churchill’s ‘flaws’… and yet, somehow, it is the forum for celebrating his greatness. It is obviously considered somehow neutral (i.e. unpolitical or apolitical) to depict Churchill in an entirely positive light (i.e. as “the legend”), whereas introducing a critique of the man would be inappropriate, presumably because it would be seen as evidence of a political agenda. The positive depiction is seen as neutral and acceptable to peddle to kids, whereas a negative or critical depiction would be out of place, probably precisely because it would be perceived as harbouring political valences that a forthrightly positive depiction is somehow supposed to lack!

This is the properly educated orthodox mind at work. This is heavily ideological thinking which perceives itself as non-ideological, precisely because it hugs the doctrinal orthodoxy, which is perceived as normal and mainstream and neutral, and hence appropriate. I’ve even read critics of how Churchill is depicted in this story describe the problem as one of the writing being “apolitical”. But there is nothing neutral or “apolitical” about praise, about approval, about presenting a politician in terms of his “legend”. In any other context, this would be obvious. Would we be happy if a Russian children’s programme portrayed Stalin in terms of his “legend” and excused this on the basis that a critical approach would be inappropriate? Hopefully, we’d call that what it was… and what it is when “we” do it with “our” leaders and their legends: propaganda.

Mind you, I’m not accusing the Doctor Who production team of consciously taking on the roles of ideological commissars. That would be to credit them with too much self-awareness. In the minds of the production team, foremost seems to be the issue of Churchill’s status as a “British icon” (this being assumed to be self-evidently good and implicitly appropriate subject matter). The various interviewees on the ‘Victory’ Confidential episode do a lot of blithering on about how Churchill and the Daleks are both “British icons”. Indeed, so steeped in this kind of thinking is Gatiss that, when commenting approvingly on the redesigned Daleks, he describes them as looking “like Minis”.

This kind of ideological thinking covers itself in the supposedly ‘self conscious’ ‘irony’ (it’s actually the opposite of self conscious or ironic) that revels in Bond films because, as Gatiss himself put it, they’re one of those things “you’re not supposed to love”. It’s only a short step from such thinking to the delusions of Daily Mail columnists who imagine that people who dare to express patriotism are hounded by the Political Correctness police.

At another point in the Confidential episode, Gatiss says that the horrors of the Blitz are “the sort of thing that you simply can’t imagine today… the idea that you would see someone like this and then, the next day, maybe everyone else in this room is dead.” Unimaginable, huh? Well, no… not to the people of, say, Iraq. They can imagine what it is like to have their friends and neighbours and family wiped out by bombs in the space of seconds. Many of them can remember such things happening in their own lives. And such things continue to happen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya.

What’s any of this got to do with Churchill? Quite a lot actually.

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be good… and it would spread a lively terror…

- Winston Churchill, on how to treat Iraqis, 12 May 1919.

In his thuggish way, he has a point. Why commit mass murder with bombs and then flinch at a bit of gas? In the end, gas doesn't appear to have been used against the "uncivilised tribes". Bombs were good enough to teach them who was master, or pulverise them if they failed to learn the lesson. But we can forget those slaughtered victims of imperialism, because they were slaughtered by "us" rather than by the officially-sanctioned baddies.

Mind you, "we" didn't always think they were baddies. Churchill certainly didn't. In fact, he admired the fascists greatly for their refusal to brook any unpardonable challenges to the state from workers.

What a man! I have lost my heart!... Fascism has rendered a service to the entire world... If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely from the beginning of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passion of Leninism.

- Churchill on Benito Mussolini after his 1927 visit to Fascist-run Rome.

Indeed, so enamoured was Winston of this new, blackshirted "way to combat subversive forces" (i.e. striking workers and communists) that he called Mussolini the "Roman genius... the greatest lawgiver among men."

Later, he learned to be slightly more circumspect in his open admiration for jackbooted, union-busting, chauvinist dictators:

One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.

- Winston Churchill, “Hitler and His Choice” The Strand Magazine, November 1935.

This from the man who, according to Gatiss, was “vehemently opposed to the Nazis from very early on, and never wavered from that.”

There’s no mystery here. No contradiction. Churchill was an enemy of the working class, of unions and of all attempts by working people to challenge hierarchies that exploited them. Fascism, to him, before it began to threaten the hegemony of the British Empire, was to be applauded as a counter-revolutionary, anti-union, anti-left force.

Even after the war, Churchill’s attitude to fascists was still ambivalent, to say the least. They were still better than socialist or communist workers in revolt. He authorized more than 200 Nazi troops to assist British soldiers putting down the partisans who liberated swathes of Greece from Fascist control. That wasn’t the kind of liberation Churchill wanted at all.

He didn't, as it happens, order troops to quell the Tonypandy miners; that's a myth. He stopped the troops and was criticised for it by colleagues. But he was a class warrior who saw the General Strike of 1926 as... well, let’s let him speak for himself again:

An industrial dispute about wages, hours, conditions etc., in a particular industry ought to be settled in a spirit of compromise, with give and take on both sides…But a general strike is a challenge to the State, to the Constitution and to the nation. Here is no room for compromise.

- Churchill in the West Essex Constitutionalist, December 1926.

Yes, I mean... how dare workers challenge the State? The nerve. Don't they realise they should simply be grateful for being permitted to ask for compromises over conditions?

Churchill was clear on how to respond to any profound challenges by workers or commies or darkies to the system of privilege and empire and property that he rested his fat behind on so comfortably for so long: violence.

Churchill was a vociferous cheerleader for what is always called the "Allied intervention" in Russia after the 1917 revolution, i.e. unprovoked military aggression and terrorism against a workers' state that had attacked no foreign power. Churchill was perhaps the prime mover in persuading the British cabinet to authorise British troop deployments to invade revolutionary Russia, so fervent was his hatred of any threat to capitalism and privilege. Britain had to destroy “a poisoned Russia, an infected Russia of armed hordes not only smiting with bayonet and cannon, but accompanied and preceded by swarms of typhus-bearing vermin.”

The invasion of the new Soviet Union by 14 capitalist powers, together with the West-supported "white terror" (which was far, far worse than the defensive "red terror"), succeeded in doing what Churchill hoped: Bolshevism, as a force for working class self-liberation, was "strangled in its cradle", leading to the near annihilation of the Russian working class, the degeneration of the soviet system into a hollow Party-run bureaucracy and the subsequent ascendancy of Stalin.

Even after British troops were finally pulled out of the "Russian Civil War", Churchill was still funneling money to the Poles for their invasion of the Ukraine.

Bolshevism, for Churchill, was an International Jewish conspiracy. Here he is, writing on the subject, in an article which one can nowadays only find on neo-Nazi and far-right websites, mysteriously enough. For Churchill, there were the good Russian Jews (i.e. the nationalist ones, the “liberal and progressive” ones, the “bankers and industrialists”, the “upholders of friendship with France and Great Britain”) and then there were the bad Jews, the “International Jews”:

The adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account of their race. Most, if not all, of them have forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world. This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.


There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews. It is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders.

The solution was to support Zionism.

Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. Nothing could be more significant than the fury with which Trotsky has attacked the Zionists generally, and Dr. Weissmann in particular. The cruel penetration of his mind leaves him in no doubt that his schemes of a world-wide communistic State under Jewish domination are directly thwarted and hindered by this new ideal, which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal.

Meanwhile, Churchill’s real priority in supporting Zionism was to create a Brit-friendly settler-colonial statelet in the strategically vital Middle East. We can see his attitude towards the people already living there in his authorization, when British Colonial Secretary, of the use of brutal force to suppress Palestinian resistance to the Mandate.

This was consistent with his racist conception of imperial ‘progress’:

I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time.  I do not admit that right.  I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia.  I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldy wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

- Address to the Palestine Royal Commission, 1937.

His contempt for colonized people who dared to think they should govern themselves is found in his sneering comments on Gandhi:

It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.

- Commenting on Gandhi's meeting with the Viceroy of India, 1931

Note the way that ‘sedition’ against and “disobedience” to the Empire is assumed to discredit Gandhi; note the incredulity that he should dare to “parlay on equal terms” with the British colonial ruler.

Churchill’s determination to preserve British imperial hegemony was impressive and ruthless. He said "I will not preside over a dismemberment." He diverted troops from the war effort to put down colonial problems in Africa and the Middle East. He sent troops to quash the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, where they indulged in a horrific rampage of terror and torture that our government is still now trying to cover up. He sent troops – at one point as many as 35,000 - to crush the rebellion against British rule in Malaya, a country that had evidently become ‘ungovernable’ as a colony.

Churchill’s post-war care for British interests is clearly seen in Iran. In the early 50s, the elected government of Iran, under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, decided to nationalize Anglo-Persian Oil, majority owned by HM Government. Britain placed a worldwide embargo on purchases of Iranian oil. Later, Britain froze all Iranian assets in sterling and banned the export of all goods to the country. Atlee was all for storming in and seizing Iranian oilfields by force (I wouldn’t, by the way, be any happier if we ever got a Doctor Who episode in which Atlee were presented whiter than white). However, Churchill’s new government put together a coup plan – ‘Operation Ajax’ – which Churchill backed enthusiastically. The Americans were talked into it after Churchill put up $1.5m of British money (which was a lot of money in those days) and agreed that the coup could be run by Kermit Roosevelt, nephew of former President FDR.

The coup goes ahead on 15th August 1953. Black ops undermine Mossadegh, spread fears of a communist takeover, confect street riots (featuring CIA-hired local mobsters) and bring down the democratically elected government in four days.

The CIA got the Shah to sign off on Mossadegh’s dismissal and appoint Nazi collaborator General Fazlollah Zahedi (newly sprung from jail by the plotters) the new PM of a new military government. Mossadegh was thrown in jail. Many of his supporters were rounded up, tortured and/or executed. This ultimately lead to the dictatorship of the Shah, which lasted until the Iranian revolution of 1979. Under the Shah, Iran was terrorized by the SAVAK secret police, an organization that systematically tortured, imprisoned and liquidated opponents of the Shah’s absolute rule.

Of course, the new regime quickly came to heel over the matter of oil. A consortium of foreign oil companies – AIOC, Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil (NJ), Standard Oil of California, Socony, the Texas Company, Gulf Oil and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles – secured their control. Meanwhile, Iran paid compensation (!) to Anglo-Persian totaling $70m. Anglo-Persian is now called British Petroleum (or BP).

So, another victory for democracy and human rights, conceived and supported by the Doctor’s old buddy.

There is much made in the Confidential episode about the Daleks being a bit like Nazis. Indeed, Gatiss even has them use the phrase “master race” in the story itself, just in case we missed it. Gatiss’ remarks in Confidential on this subject lead, by the way, to the following voiceover link, which deserves a chapter to itself in any yet-to-be-written history of the crashingly inappropriate: “…and the concept of total Dalek racial purity leads to a new paint job…”

However, there is little or nothing in the episode which connects Dalek ideas to the ideas of Fascism. This is a shame because I’ve always thought it would be good to have a story in which Nazis meets Daleks, in which the Nazis were confronted by their own values, espoused by people with bigger guns.

‘Churchill vs. the Daleks’ was the way Moffat supposedly described his requirements to Gatiss. So Gatiss delivers a story in which the evil Daleks deceive and then fight the good Churchill. The evil “British icon” vs. the good “British icon”.

The unintentional and unconscious irony is that Churchill was – though this story hides it from us, in line with mainstream ideas of propriety – an imperialist, a racist, a bigot, a fascist sympathizer, a subtle anti-semite, a man given to eliminationist rhetoric, a ruthless defender of unaccountable power, an anti-democratic conspirator, a gangster, a warmonger, a terrorist and a mass killer.

A man who wrote this:
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate ... I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.

Churchill vs. the Daleks? Churchill was a fucking Dalek.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Panicking Again

The April issue of the excellent fanzine Panic Moon has just been released.


In have two articles in the new issue: a consideration of realism (or lack thereof) and a debt to modernism in 'Snakedance', and a rumination on why it might be that 'gods' in Doctor Who tend to be depicted sitting down.

Lots of other stuff too.  Full details here.

Oh, and here is a link to the fanzine's Facebook group.

An Epic Whinge

A review of 'The Stolen Earth' / 'Journey's End'.  This is from the old site; heavily edited and partly rewritten.  Not much politics in this.  It's mostly about what I see as shortcomings in dramatic values.  


So, it’s the end of the season again and it’s time for the Earth to be invaded again, by semi-mechanical aliens again, some of them flying down from the sky to shoot the people who are conveniently milling about in the streets like targets. Again.

Meanwhile, the obligatory soldiers are dying as they fight their obligatory pointless last stand while General Dempsey (or is it Makepeace? I never could remember which was which) gets to say things like “Ladies and Gentlemen… we are at war!” (how original) and hand Martha the obligatory Ominous Bit of Unexplained Technology, which this week has a name that sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel.

But all that stuff is happening in the background, ceding the foreground to the Meeting of the Spin-Offs.

The fact that we are watching the linkage of bits of a franchise (rather than, say, characters meeting each other) is underlined by the fact that they meet on a screen, as though Rose (who’s been off doing all the stuff that would’ve constituted Rose Tyler: Earth Defence if it’d got made) is watching four different Doctor Who programmes at once.

But what is the point of all this multi-show and multicontinuity convergence? ‘The Stolen Earth’ is behaving like it is trying to “sum up an era” (i.e. the last four years) in order to provide a fittingly epic swansong for David Tennant. In fact, it seems almost as if this vast fanwank panorama has been created in order to gull the unwary (all those people who hadn’t seen the pics from the filming of the Christmas special) into thinking that a proper regeneration really is on the cards.

The approach taken by ‘The Stolen Earth’ might be the kind of thing that the general public would expect from a Tennant bow-out. A ‘Greatest Hits’ medley before the curtains come down. How strange that ‘Rose’ insisted on behaving as though the fans didn’t exist and now ‘The Stolen Earth’ treats the entire nation like fans, expecting them to put up with acres of technobabble and to be thrilled by the reappearances of Harriet Jones, Captain Jack, Sarah-Jane, the Judoon, etc., etc., etc. They are even expected to be thrilled by the return of Davros. Even the continuity announcer talked about “the return of an old enemy”. Hearing that, those millions of non-fan viewers watching probably expected to see the Master turn up, or Margaret Slitheen, or the Dalek Emperor.

The only explanation seems to be that RTD & Co. are actually thinking of their viewership as all being fans. That’s why they can pitch ‘The Stolen Earth’ as David Tennant’s Epic Last Story (Or Is It?), Featuring All Your Old Favourites.

Thing is… from amidst this vast collision of back-references, something bigger does emerge. A feeling of unity. And, with it, a feeling of mythic hugeness. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems aware of its vastness and seems to be trying to unify its disparate but interconnected parts. Sadly, the feeling is very superficial and entails the further fetishisation of Our Hero, shown in the way people are talking about him in hushed tones when he's not around.

The end result? A sort of volcanic eruption of a story, caused by the tectonic plates of three linked TV shows (and at least two more untelevised ones, if you follow me) smashing into each other and grinding against each other over a fault-line.

And what a massive fault-line it is. A great big crack up which the programme is disappearing.

The thing that could've made the first episode worthwhile was a follow up episode that closed into a smaller and more intimate drama about people with conflicting viewpoints trying to survive. Not 'Midnight' all over again, but something which nonetheless played to RTD's strengths as a writer about people trapped together in boxes.

Sadly, we got an avalanche of mindless technobabble in the service of a contrived and clunky plot that was, despite some nobler intentions, fundamentally about things exploding.

Davies began in 2005 by trashing the paradigm of Doctor Who as a culty programme about monsters and technology and instead tried to make it human drama against a sci-fi backdrop. How strange that he should end his tenure as show-runner with a dramatically inert orgy of Sawardian narrative spaghetti and Douglas Adamsesque technogobbledegook. And, continuity. Lots and lots of continuity.

There is a quite breathtaking disregard for how stories work. Previously unmentioned plot devices pop up by the dozen in order to do things that don't need to happen, which mean nothing and which don't lead anywhere. Sudden eruptions of apparently improvised nonsense materialise in order to subvert the Doctor’s regeneration, create a second Doctor, turn Donna into a demi-Time Lord, and so on.

Mickey and Jackie are brought back for no reason. There wasn’t anything done by Mickey and Jackie that couldn’t have been done by Gwen and Ianto, or more properly by Wilf and Sylvia, but they’d all been clumsily written out or sidelined in order to make space for… Mickey and Jackie.

The sidelining of Wilf is a particular shame. The Cribbmeister really was the jewel of the season and I did enjoy seeing him running around a Dalek-infested London in ‘The Stolen Earth’. I kept on expecting to see adverts for Sugar Puffs behind him.

The TARDIS ends up crammed with pointless passengers in a way not seen since the limp final scenes of ‘The Awakening’. The actual story (regarding the threat to the universe and other little things like that) ends ages before the credits in order to let the Doctor say “emotional” farewells to passenger after passenger. There simply wouldn’t be time for this sort of thing, plus all the febrile technobabble, plus the ridiculous sequence in which the TARDIS tows the Earth home, plus the nonsense with the Osterhagen Thing (of which, more later), plus all Davros’ sub-Lecter taunts, etc., etc., etc… except that RTD was by now in a position to get an extra 20 minutes of episode length into which it can all be crammed.

As for Donna’s destiny… well, the companion gets infused with yellow energy that gives her special powers that enable to her save the day when all seems lost; this event ripples back through time causing peculiar foreshadowings to occur in the previous episodes of the season. Heard that before somewhere.

Thing is, Donna's thunder is stolen by the totally unnecessary duplicate Doctor, who seems to be in the episode solely so he can go back to the alt-universe with Rose and become her Time Lord-shaped love toy. We don’t need the duplicate Doctor. He does nothing for the plot that a Gallifreyanised Donna couldn’t do. Apart from doing the genocidal dirty work for the real Doctor (a particularly weasley cop-out), he’s just another flapping indulgence in a whole script full of them.

At least the Osterhagen Wossname gave us the only really witty and pointed sequence in the episode, the scenes in Germany with Daleks gliding around the sylvan birthplace of legally sanctioned Nazi anti-semitism, shouting at the locals in German!

Sadly, this whole sequence seems like an afterthought. The reference to Nazism is clearly deliberate (the Osterhagen Thingummyjig could’ve been anywhere, it didn’t need to be Nuremberg) and links up to the running themes of ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ about xenophobia and hysteria, but in the middle of ‘Journey’s End’ it just floats there, looking promising but not really doing anything. The Daleks’ plan is, presumably, predicated upon their conviction that nobody in creation deserves to live except them, but at no point did the episode try to bring their ultra-racist ideology to the fore.

There was, seemingly, an attempt to hint at a sort of sub-theme regarding apocalyptic human destructiveness. Nuremberg has inescapable connotations. Osterhagen turned out to be a load of nuclear weapons (tediously enough). But, sadly, none of the hints add up anything particularly interesting or intelligible… which is a shame because the episode tries, several times, to hark back to one of the most sophisticated and intelligent of all classic Who stories: ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. We have a Wisher-style Davros who once again meets Sarah-Jane. Shame Sarah says something silly about having “learned how to fight”. She knew how to fight in ‘Genesis’! She organised a slave rebellion, bravely endured torture and egged the Doctor on to commit genocide!

Audios aside, in ‘Journey’s End’, Davros was probably at his best (at least as a character in his own right) since his first appearance... though that isn’t to say he was particularly interesting. Julian Bleach gave a superb performance and relished those few scenes in the story in which Davros is allowed to do anything vaguely interesting, i.e. the scenes in which he taunts the Doctor for his alleged hypocrisy. Once again, Davros becomes worthwhile (just about) whenever he starts talking like a person with a viewpoint. The view of the Doctor that he expresses is quite fitting. To him, the Doctor is a war criminal with a sanctimonious line in false pacifism.

Davros accuses him of taking “ordinary people and turning them into weapons” and “murderers”. But, the thing is, Davros doesn’t really have much of a point. He contradicts himself by earlier accusing the Doctor of being a mass murderer. Well Dav, which is it? Is the Doctor a coward who gets other people to do the dirty work for him or is a he “a Time Lord who butchered millions”? You can’t have it both ways. The Doctor’s response to this incoherence is to go all wobbly-lipped and stare at the floor having sad flashbacks.

If the episode is to be anything more than just a load of CGI explosions and continuity porn, then this scene has to amount to something. Davros has to have a point and the Doctor has to have his nose rubbed in it. This is obviously what the episode is aiming for, but it doesn’t happen.

The Doctor’s soul is revealed, we are told, when the “Children of Time” appear and threaten to blow lots of people up. This, supposedly, reveals the Doctor’s inner darkness by demonstrating how he takes harmless people and makes them killers. Davros then lets loose with some spiel about the Doctor “never looking back because he dare not, out of shame.” But shame about what? Turning people into killers? Very little evidence of that in those anguished flashbacks. Harriet might kill the Sycorax but she does so without the Doctor’s prior knowledge or approval. Jabe doesn’t kill anyone. The Controller of the Gamestation organises the harvesting of humans for the Daleks; it’s nothing to do with the Doctor. Lynda doesn’t kill anyone. That bloke from ‘Tooth and Claw’ doesn’t kill anyone. Mrs Moore doesn’t kill anyone. Neither do any of the people in ‘Love & Monsters’, or the Face of Boe! Chantho tries to kill the Master entirely on her own initiative. Astrid kills Max Capricorn, I grant you. Luke kills a load of Sontarans but the Doctor doesn’t ask him to. To be honest, ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ was so boring that I can’t remember if Jenny kills anyone or not, but if she does then it’s because she’s bred for war. River kills no-one (up to this story anyway). The Stewardess from ‘Midnight’ is prepared to commit murder without needing the Doctor’s persuasion or approval, and – apart from herself - she only kills Sky, whose consciousness is probably already dead.

So what, exactly, is the Doctor remembering with such shame. A trail of deaths? Okay, well, that means that the focus has shifted from the Doctor’s hypocrisy in making people into killers (which seems a weak charge on the basis of the evidence so far) and is now on how many people die when he’s around. But, once again, the Doctor is personally responsible for few of those deaths recalled by the flashbacks. It might be sad to remember all those dead people, but I can’t see any reason for the Doctor to feel ashamed.

It’s also interesting that some people are left out of the Doctor’s quivering, angsty, flashback-fit. He forgets about Morvin and Foon and Bannakaffalatta. He also forgets about Gwyneth from ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Funny that she should be left out, because he’s probably more directly responsible for her death than he is for any of the other people in the flashbacks.

Then there’s his failure to remember all the people who died because he drew the Family of Blood to Earth. Surely, if the Doctor was going to feel genuinely conscience-stricken, he ought to be thinking about that poor little girl with the red balloon.

The unfortunate fact is that this sequence, as it stands, fails to say anything meaningful about the character of the Doctor. All it really does is underline the annoying frequency with which people in nu-Who suddenly decide to sacrifice themselves in order to end plots and force the audience to mist up.

Moreover, none of this ersatz soul searching is followed up. There is no scene in which the Doctor is forced to confront a choice that undermines his sense of himself, as in ‘The Parting of the Ways’ or, far more intelligently, in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. The issues are left unresolved, though not in the same way that ‘Genesis’ refuses to give pat answers to its own knotty questions.

‘Journey’s End’ weasels out. The real Doctor doesn’t have to decide to kill all the Daleks (again) because his double does it for him. Martha’s situation with the Osterhagen device is potentially interesting. In a sense, she’s in the same situation as the Doctor in ‘The Parting of the Ways’: should she destroy the human race in order to end their suffering? But she isn’t forced to make the choice. She is transmatted up to the Crucible for the Big Confrontation… meaning, in practice, to stand around like everybody else until Donna and Doctor2 sort things out with technobabble!

Donna’s doom, being forced to once again become her former self, was probably the best part of the episode - the harshest, most disturbing, most uncompromising part. The only bit with any guts.

So, the season 4 final√© proved not to be a big farewell party for the tenth Doctor, with all his old friends invited; instead it looked like a big farewell party for Russell T Davies, with all his old characters invited. Trouble is, it’s a self-organized party and, like all self-organized parties it’s rather embarassing.