Apocalypse Below (or The Tractate Face-Off)


From Panic Moon, July 2011.  Edited, and with new material in a seprate coda.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end

At first, 'Frontios' seems like the odd one out amongst Christopher H. Bidmead’s Doctor Who scripts. Unlike 'Logopolis' and 'Castrovalva', it’s overtly political and doesn’t seem to be powered by any underlying scientific concept. Also, it has monsters in it.

Bidmead included monsters – reluctantly – at the insistence of John Nathan-Turner.  On reflection, this seems a dodgy call. Monsters from Bidmead were always going to be too concept-heavy to realise properly on screen. Sure enough, he comes up with giant woodlice that can disguise themselves as rocks until they unexpectedly uncurl… which was never gonna look good on the day.

Apparently finding the macabre more fascinating than he expected, Bidmead also included alien machines made with bits of corpses. This was very tuned in to the then-current turn towards biomechanics and ‘body horror’ in the fantasy genre, but it proved too horrific for Doctor Who to attempt on screen (though it livens up the novelisation).

The politics is also a departure. Aside from Tegan’s worries about sweatshops in 'Logopolis' and the hilarious sexism of the Castrovalvans, previous Bidmead scripts seem politically detached. He’s a world-builder, but not in the utopian or dystopian manner. So 'Frontios' comes a little out of leftfield... though that’s the only leftish thing about it. I’ve no idea what Bidmead’s own politics may be, but 'Frontios' seems to say that the ordinary people require stern discipline, that they want and need confident rulers. The story frowns on the ‘every man for himself’ ethic, yet implies that only hierarchy and obedience stand between society and what Hobbes described as the “war of all against all”.

In the absence of Plantagenet, there is “anarchy”, with the colonists turning to looting with a rapidity that is almost funny. Thrown “outside the system”, Cockerill is quickly attacked by ravening ‘Retrogrades’. However, when he apparently defeats the hungry earth, Cockerill is eagerly adopted as a replacement leader by the mob. Meanwhile, Plantagenet’s bravery proves he is genetically fit to rule (he is, after all, named after a line of kings). Brazen – the personification of authority – ultimately proves himself admirable, his noble final words being “that’s an order!”.

Actually, I think 'Frontios' has more in common with 'Logopolis' than it appears.  Bidmead never takes the series into the past – he’s too aware of entropy as ‘time’s arrow’ to believe that you can go backwards – and his view of the far future is one of maximum entropy. The “failure proof technology” that failed, the dwindling population, the wrecked ship, the malfunctioning generator, the “doomed planet Earth”, etc. Mine shafts collapse.  Lights stop working. The TARDIS falls apart. Even “eaten by the earth” sounds like a metaphor for putrefaction.

The politics reflects this state of decay. Order becomes disorder as Orderlies become disorderly. The structure of society crumbles, undermined from below, as people die unaccountably and the ‘Rets’ desert the sinking ship. Bidmead is always treating entropy as corrupted information; in 'Frontios', Range’s secret file is information uselessly pooled, like waste heat in a machine.

Even the monsters are “an infection”, like all Bidmead baddies. The Master is like a computer virus in both 'Logopolis' and 'Castrovalva', infecting the hard drive of reality and corrupting the information. Interestingly, however, the Tractators also fight entropy in their own nasty way. The gravity drive and excavating machine represent structure, after all. That’s why it’s such a shame that we never get to see the Tractators’ corpse engines, because what could better express their parasitic method of fighting entropy than machines patched up with bits of people?

Additional: Peter Davison as Rambo

Desperately in need of some stranger's hand
In a desperate land

The Tractators burrow away.  Like all burrowing creatures, they carry connotations of the busy and the unseen.  Like the 'mole of history', they are always working beneath our feet.  This must carry valences in a story so obviously predicated upon the human race having reached an endpoint.  Despite the ostensibly hopeful ending of the story, I think it's clear that the humans on Frontios are quite likely doomed.  This is the end.  This is what it was all leading up to.  The history that burrows beneath them has lead them to the point of maximum entropy (as noted), to isolation in a cosmos where everything has drifted so far away from everything else that space itself isolates you.

The Tractators are, from one angle, manifestations of History as busy industry leading to decay anyway, of the entropy inherent in time.  They lead the human race to an echoing, muddy telos... moreover, it's a telos of authoritarianism, necessary to counter our original sins as they are exacerbated by siege and starvation.  Yet Plantagenet is no Leviathan, however much the world he tries to rule conforms to Hobbesian pessimism.  He won't be able to save them.  In a way, the Tractators were their last hope.  Not to live, but to fight.  The Gravis could've been Leviathan for them... and his busy, selfish, greedy, industrious grotesques (they are, of course, echoes of the subterrenean Semitic dwarves of Wagner and Tolkien) were the humans' last hope to cheat the cosmic/social 'running down' endemic at the endpoint of space/time and History.  The Tractators could've used them.  They could've used the humans as raw material in their fearsome engines, their gravity drive, their anti-entropy machine, their anti-History contraption.

There is a strange, unsettling ambiguity here that chimes with the political implications of the face-off between the two races.  The humans are colonists and, as ever, it is assumed that colonists that look like whitey have every right to be there... and yet the Tractators don't convince as natives.  They don't come from this final F/frontier.  They are as much colonists as are the humans.  They are as much anti-entropists as the humans (though they're better at it).  They are as much Hobbesian authoritarians as the humans, with their one Absolute Leader whose brain is the key to their collective will (though again, as noted, they are more effective in this respect than their two-legged rivals).  Woodlice are actually crustaceans (which may even give the Tractators a touch of the Weird...) but they look and act enough like bugs to fool most of us into instinctively linking them with insects, and insects (with their hives and castes and hierarchies and group will) are always symbols of human society as an antheap, as a pyramid of the mindlessly obedient.

In short, there's little to choose between the Tractators and the humans in 'Frontios'.  The Tractators are the aggressors... but would the humans, so eager to stamp on each other when needed, forebear to do unto the Tractators as the Tractators have done unto them?  Again, the only difference is in efficiency.  So, at the end of History, it all comes down to ruthless Darwinian effectiveness... and/or how entropy-proof our machines are.  The Tractators machines, as noted, sidewind around entropy by roping in life itself, the only force that ever temporarily stalls entropy (this is not, by the way, necessarily my metaphysics).  We humans look doomed because, for all our best efforts to be as ruthless as we need to be, we can't cut it.  We go squishy when it counts.  Brazen gets himself killed by compromising (he lets himself be interrogated by an inquiry! he makes peace with Range the whining liberal backstabber!) and then having a bash at altruism.  We are outstripped by the utter mercilessness of the animals.  It's the sociobiologist's wet dream.  And, again, it's deeply Hobbesian.

Plantagenet's tottering camp is the old regime.  Decadent.  Gone soft.  Insufficiently strong and brutal to defend itself against the onrushing Puritans/Jacobins/Bolsheviks/Jews, etc., unable to make the grade in the bellum omnium contra omnes.  I've been reading Corey Robin on this just recently.  This contempt for the old regime as weak, this anger at the softness of the very regime for which it takes up the cudgels, is a staple of conservatism... right up to, to pick an instance entirely at random (honest guv), John Milius's script for Apocalypse Now.  'Charlie' (i.e. the Viet Cong) will win because "his idea of R&R is a little rat meat".  If Kurtz had a division of men strong enough to hack off the arms of babies, he could win the war.  Much as I love that film, one of its most prominent inner logics (to its credit it has several conflicting inner logics) is the same inner logic as Rambo II, which is itself a self-induced orgasm of the dreary ultra-conservative attitude to America's wars.  Kurtz/Rambo is the Leviathan the inferior liberal Americans need to carry them past cowardice, decadence or scruple.  At least Coppola's film has the decent queasiness to see that Kurtz has to go mad first.

Similarly, in 'Frontios', the only reason the humans ultimately win is because of the Doctor's intervention.  He becomes their (sane and reasonable) Leviathan.  He terminates the termites with extreme prejudice.  He saves the human antheap against the crustacean one.  He saves the ancient regime from the barbarians at the gate, and from its own softness. 

Even so, it's hard to quite read 'Frontios' straightforwardly as a celebration of the Leviathan, of the rule of law and hierarchy, of the victory of the strongest, of the defeat of the Niebelung by Wotan.  In the end - and we are definitely at the end, beautiful friend - entropy still lies in wait.  There's always something stronger than you.  Time and History (that burrowing little thing) will kill even Rambo one day.  Doctor Kurtz... he dead.


(Lyrics by The Doors... as if you didn't know.)


James S 7 years, 11 months ago

Excellent, excellent work as usual Mr. Graham, really enjoyed reading this. And again you make me view stories I've seen repeatedly in a new light

If you've got the time, can I strongly recommend you listen to Bidmead's lost story The Hollows of Time. I found strange and fascinating and rather wonderful, if flawed as an audio play(far too much description)

What is more, it's really interesting how the themes you bring up here recur in different forms. Particularly the idea of The Master as a computer virus corrupting reality. It's all set in a quaint English seaside village, with references to string theory, early robotics and the codebreakers

It's worth adding tractators are portrayed slightly differently in that story, disappointing some, but perhaps showing Bidmead's disregard for monster species in Who, in favor of individual evil characters.

Anyway I'd love to know what you think. I found it positively Bidmeadian.

Keep up the good work

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

"He terminates the termites with extreme prejudice. He saves the human antheap against the crustacean one."

It's suggested that the human colonists didn't intend to colonize Frontios, a place without wood or any combustible material. The ship crashed, their failure-proof technology failing as they're drawn to the planet -- just like the Doctor. If so, then the Tractators are the cause of their own suffering.

Which brings me to how the Doctor defeats the Gravis. He doesn't exterminate with extreme prejudice, he lets the Gravis defeat itself, letting its desire to possess the TARDIS to cut it off from its followers, rendering it inert. The bugs are left to burrow their holes, and the Gravis is carted off to a barren planet, a leader with no one to command -- "exercising his animal magnetism on the rocks" as if he were some disaffected prophet.

Unfortunately, the humans are left with their military structure intact and unchallenged. As you rightly point out, Bidmead is more interested in telling a story of Order vs. Chaos, rather than a pointed dissection of power structures themselves,

Also, what to make of the Doctor's constant worries about the authority of his own people?

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Jack Graham 7 years, 11 months ago

The humans were going to colonize *somewhere*. Yes, the Tractators bring them to Frontios. I wasn't saying that the Tractators weren't the aggressors, just that their aggression has its analogue in the humans (as do so many other of their traits).

And the Doctor tricks the Gravis very deliberately (I'm not moralising). Thus he terminates the Tractators plans, their future, even if he doesn't exterminate them... which isn't a word I used. I used 'terminates', largely because of the parallel I was drawing, and because of the consonance (or should that be 'alliteration'?) with 'termites' was irresistible. ;-)

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