Dialectic of the Doctors, Part 2


Just a quick reminder that I was recently a guest on the fabulous Oi!Spaceman podcast hosted by Daniel Harper and Shana Wolstein.  They had me on to talk about 'Planet of the Ood', and you can listen and/or download here.


1. Omega, Mirrors, Jargon

Omega was originally going to be called OHM. ‘WHO’ upside down. He was always conceived of as a negation of the Doctor, while also being in a unity with him: the unity of opposites. Formally similar (a lone, exiled, renegade Time Lord)… but then mirror images are similar, and eternally linked, but are also inversions of each other. Mirrors, by the way, are a key thing in this story. It is a mirror which enables Omega to see himself… or rather to not see himself.   The shadow of his sorrow has destroyed the shadow of his face.

Omega wants the Doctor to stay and take his place. To keep his universe ready for him. He sees the Doctor as fitting into the hole he will leave when he goes. He assumes only one set of ideas and thus only one way his universe could be, even with someone else in charge. He reaches out with his ‘organism thing’, which is itself a unification of contradictions. Alive (organism) and not alive (thing). Material (matter) and yet ideal (anti-matter). There (visible to the characters, visible on screen) and yet not there (blatantly Chromakeyed in). The way these oppositions are unified is why the effect and the plot point work: most crudely, it works because it is soooooo amazingly 70s, that fetishistic insistence upon using and flaunting tatty, flagrant video effects.

Omega is destroyed (or negated) by a contradiction: his will creates him but destroys him in the process. This negation is then negated by the recorder which creates a new unity (or synthesis): the supernova. The symbol of suction - the black hole - is replaced by the symbol of production - the supernova. The cosmological jargon is scientifically dodgy but expresses a deep dialectical view of reality as created materially. It also works on the level of individual personalities and on the level of societies.

Omega is asocial. Expelled and disavowed, his complaint against the Time Lords is a just one - at least in principle (so, to that extent, he has my sympathy). But he is also atomised and alone… which wouldn’t be a problem as such except that his loneliness is that of a king, a despot. He’s Universal Will, God, King and atomised individual, creating personal reality without recourse to others. He brings a society in microcosm to his universe and it rebels against him. He’s not just anti-matter, he’s anti-social.


2. Anti-Matter, Authority, Revolution

Omega exists in a universe of anti-matter. In SF, particularly in pulp-SF, the term ‘anti-matter’ rarely refers to the actual scientific concept. ‘The Three Doctors’ stands in this grand and noble tradition of flagrantly utilising the term without any concern for scientific realism… except that ‘The Three Doctors’ does not just use it as technobabble. Baker and Martin show no concern for mere accuracy, but they do show concern for verbal profligacy. They’re happy to use the exciting jargon of science. And they also show concern for philosophical placement… but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves.

It does not, of course, matter a damn that none of the jargon they use is used correctly, or even consistently. SF doesn’t depend upon accuracy, or even the appearance of accuracy. It depends upon authority, and the willing acceptance (real or performed), by the reader or viewer, of the authority of some notional expert (author, god, whoever) somewhere within or above the text who understands stuff, and sanctions it, and oversees it, and decrees it sensical.

There is a sense in which all SF worships a mystical authority… but then there’s a sense in which all fiction does that. That may even be the fundamental difference between fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction identifies the person whose claims are to be evaluated. Fiction doesn’t. The author of a work of fiction is not the person whose authority is tested when one questions the ‘claims’ made in the story. Fiction relies upon pure, abstract authority. Indeed, the authority becomes all the more abstract (and thus all the more mystical and powerful) for being invoked in the service of ‘claims’ that are openly fiction. Fantasy and SF even more so, since the truth claims being playfully made require even more authority, since they are even more fantastic. And SF even more than Fantasy because SF claims even more authority! The claim that a dragon exists needs no further explication… but if the authority making the implicit claims to expertise wants to assert that it knows how tachyons work, that requires a greater capacity for bafflegab. That’s the irony lurking behind the widespread insistence that SF has more ‘possibility’ or ‘rigour’ than Fantasy; what this actually means is that it relies more upon abstract authority. In other words: for all the supposed inner-fascism of Fantasy, SF is inherently more authoritarian.

And speaking of the abstract authority of some ‘other’ who is ‘out there somewhere’, behind or above the text… ‘The Three Doctors’, while not the first Doctor Who story to rely upon the Time Lords as a plot device, is certainly the first to position the Time Lords as the abstract authority which rules the SF universe of Doctor Who’s narrative. ('War Games’ gets close, but there’s no cigar; ‘Three Doctors’ sucks on that Havana like Michael Grade.) This is perfectly apt, since the kind of lurking, hidden authority being tacitly appealed to and trusted within SF is always at least potentially the authority of the bourgeois intellectual, the technocrat, the expert. The Time Lords thus arrive within the narrative of Doctor Who as - amongst other things - a reification of a tacit aspect of the narrative of the show, and of SF itself: the embodiment of hegemonic bourgeois rationality.

This is the underlying reason why, for all the Doctor’s hostility to them, for all that he ran away from them, and resents being trapped and used by them, they are fundamentally viewed as worthy of protection. It is not so much that they themselves are noble or likeable or even competent… but rather that a universe without them is unthinkable. They have always been there. At first, before ‘The War Games’, they were a nebulous principle, a non-diegetic fact about the functioning of the narrative. ‘The War Games’ literalises and reifies them. Once they are stated, shown, and invoked, they are suddenly obvious, and obviously necessary. Repeatedly, in the pre-’Three Doctors’ Pertwee era they are invoked, used to get the Doctor to places (having originally been used to get the writers into the very trap that they then help them escape!) by sending him on missions, etc. Repeatedly throughout the Pertwee era and onwards (with this habit arguably only starting to be undermined in ‘The Brain of Morbius’) they are assumed to be more or less integral to the proper functioning of the universe. ‘The Three Doctors’ demonstrates this conception of them perfectly, explicitly, and - once again - with sudden consciousness. In ‘The Three Doctors’ they are more or less synonymous with universal order, with structure itself, with the future existence and functioning of the material universe… with the realm of matter itself.

Like the Doctor, they are ‘in’ history and ‘of’ history. Unlike the Doctor they are not ‘in’ or ‘of’ our history, but they more-or-less explicitly underwrite it and make it possible. Like the Doctor, they are material… or rather, they are associated with materialism. For all that they oversee both the universe and the text in ways that I find objectionable - owing to their implicit status as the great Authority of technical bourgeois rationalism, a status which remains in place however much it might be critiqued within the text - they are, nevertheless, still part of material history. They are the Great Men; history from above; above our history (at least that is the position to which they pretend, and which the text tacitly grants them); and yet they are at least - philosophically - a part of the muck and mire of how stuff actually works and moves and changes. They might not realise that they are, but they are.

Because in ‘The Three Doctors’, the philosophical realms of idealism and materialism are not demonstrated but represented. Materialism - the philosophical notion that material reality is pre-eminent in history, and primal in reality - is not demonstrated by showing history actually working according to material laws and processes. History - human social history anyway - is represented in thoroughly ahistorical terms, to the extent that it is represented at all. Meanwhile, Idealism - the philosophical notion that ideas are pre-eminent in history, and perhaps even primal in reality - is not demonstrated by showing ideas causing and changing history. Rather, the opposition is represented in terms of reified metaphor. In ‘The Three Doctors’, Materialism is represented as a material realm (our realm, the universe, the place we share with the Time Lords - albeit in a hierarchical relation), and Idealism is represented as an ideal realm, a realm of thought, a realm where something only need by thought about to be conjured into existence, where will is what makes matter rather than the other way round. This is Omega’s realm… literally (in that strange way that metaphor and figuration often achieve obliqueness via crashing literalism), the realm of anti-matter.

Omega is blasted out of the material universe into a mental one where his will is universal and all progress culminates in his head (which is, as Eagleton says, what Hegel modestly thought about himself). In the process of being blasted out he goes from being material to being ideal - literally! He loses his material form and becomes an idea clothed in robes and a mask.  We see his shape only because stuff accretes around it.  He is a lurking empty space, an immateriality, under those glittery togs.

The idealist, reactionary, hierarchical, religious dialectic is destroyed by contact with unprocessed matter from the material, progressive dialectic of the Doctors and Earth… the emblem is the pipe of the Second Doctor, the anarcho-Pied Piper, which has stubbornly stayed material, kept that way because of its continued connection with real material history, shielded and protected inside the TARDIS.  

The threat of Omega is, essentially, the threat that the idealism of the Hegelian dialectic will suck the cadet/offshoot/outgrowth/child/rhizome of the material dialectic back out of existence and reduce it back to a game of ideas, a mad dance of categories. Material social progress would be reduced to slavish obedience to the Universal Will/Spirit/Mind/God (of, say, Hegel). It is to be remembered that, ultimately, Hegel became a reactionary, a de facto monarchist.

It must also be remembered that Hegel’s Dialectic started out as an attempt to understand change in a time of revolution. Hegel was of that generation inspired by the French Revolution, the moment when the apparently impossible became possible, when a king and a monarchy was overthrown from below. Year Zero.

The Left-Hegelians (also called the Young Hegelians… of which the young Marx was one) said that Hegel had betrayed his own system by seeing absolute monarchy (the Prussian state, for example) as only way of overcoming the contradictions of bourgeois society (of which he was critic and product, and eventually servant/apologist). Marx went on to say that his fundamental mistake is that his Dialectic is upside down (i.e. Idealist) and that he sees thought as creating reality. This is what Omega does. He is product of the Time Lords, critic of them, and ultimately a servant of them (in that his ultimate effect is to make them stronger). He goes from a revolutionary who aims to harness and restart time (as all revolutions do, trying to restart and control history) to a reactionary who aims to impose his absolute will on the world. He literally creates a world where his thoughts are all there is, his will creates everything.

Like a revolutionary leader who is betrayed by a regime which survives him (Danton, Robespierre, Trotsky, etc) Omega is left behind. His intentions - to bring time travel - i.e. to bring access to time and change and mutability and freedom to his people - results in a regime which speaks of having “sworn to protect” while also clearly being based on stasis, isolation and hierarchy. And yet, again, remember that the Time Lords - for all the rotten things they represent - are fundamentally material and historical. They are of the world, of time, of progress. For all that they are themselves static, they are also the ‘guardians of the arc of history’. It’s just that guardians get to think of themselves as proprietors if left on guard duty long enough. But like the bourgeois revolutionaries who made the great bourgeois revolutions, they are needed. They help to light the spark that causes history, even if they later come to think they own spark and history and all.

Omega is of them but also against them. He is part of their revolutionary project but also the enemy of it. He is Napoleon, or Cromwell: product of the revolution but also authoritarian killer of it. He is the Leviathan that the start of bourgeois history requires and brings and then fears.

Omega’s ideology is that of the hierarchical and authoritarian revolutionaries he fathered, but is also destructive of it. He is the revolutionary principle, held over to a time when the revolution is no longer needed because the revolutionaries are all ossified old autocrats. This was mirrored in the Soviet Union when historical contingency stifled the proletarian revolution and brought the bureaucracy, and then Stalin, to power (though most of the original revolutionaries were actually liquidated by Stalin rather than themselves becoming apparatchiks). Stalinism (or 'Marxism-Leninism' as it was fatuously misnamed) became a dead, dogamatic, doggerel Marxism. State religion.  Literal and empty and contentless and flat and - via such vulgar materialism - thoroughly idealist. It became a kind of Hegelianism, thus not only traducing Marxism but actually zombifying it by inverting it back into the thing it killed in order to live. “The other lot” are even mentioned in ‘Three Doctors’.

This is part of how we can identify Russia’s C20th transformation as a bourgeois one. The revolutionary thought of the bourgeois revolutions is stridently idealist. From the Puritans, through the Jacobins, to Jefferson. Even those to whom I’d be far more sympathetic. Even the Levellers and Diggers. Even Tom Paine. And the great scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment too. And Hegel, of course.

The idealist Hegelian Dialectic - the formal, self-replicating triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis - is itself a revolutionary, a bourgeois, and an ultimately authoritarian formation. Liberating in original context; still liberatory in formal appearance - much as its distant doggerel echo in the memetic moral zeitgeist of Richard Dawkins is formally a liberatory doctrine of improvement. But underneath there is the authoritarianism of authority, the positivism of the cultural supremacist, and the disempowering of human agency through the elevation of ideas above and beyond actual people.

This is what Omega represents. This is why the chair he conjures with a thought is just a comfy, opulent detail inside a prison.


3. Threats, Renegades, Alterations

The idealist dialectical logic extends to this very opposition however! The Time Lords are the unity; Omega the negation; the destruction of Omega is the negation of the negation. The triad threatens to suck the material Dialectic back in, to reduce its dynamic formulations to dead, static, rote formulae.

But the Time Lords, their backs to the wall, manage to step out of the Dialectic as schema or sequence. They manage to embrace mutability and change, feedback and contradiction. They manage to get at the meat inside the shell of the Dialectic - albeit cynically and temporarily. They break into history and the material world. They break the First Law. They bring the Doctors together. Of course it is the Doctor who is their conduit to real history, their connection to the material. He is at one end of the line just as surely as Omega is at the other. Omega lives in Omegaland, the land of disconnected and immaterial ideas which function at the behest of authority only. The Doctor, on the other hand, is UNITy and Earthy. He lives in Alphaville, if you will (though I’m sure his name is not ‘Alpha’).

It’s fitting with the Doctor’s refusal to quite fit into their schema (no more than he can fit into Omega’s) that the story ends with the defeat of the Time Lords’ project to slave the Doctor to one place and time. Though again, here is a contradiction. The Doctor’s link to human material social history is strangely lost - or at least attenuated - by his victory in this story. And it is the Time Lords who, in an apparent act of defeat, achieve this. It’s like they’re saying “Yes Doctor… but don’t go too far”.

But, even here, there is yet another contradiction. Because the Time Lords are changed by all this, by Omega and the Doctor, by their near brush with oblivion, with anti-matter. They are never the same again.

Ultimately, the renegades are the signs of the contradictions within the Time Lords that will force them to change. This isn’t about ideas - I imagine you can have any ideas you like in the Capitol, as long as you have them in the Academy and you don’t do anything about them. This is about actions. Even Omega, in spite of himself, is a force for change - and it’s because of his actions, ironically enough, rather than his ideas. This isn’t historical materialism in that there’s no class struggle (though it’s valid to read Omega as working class because he’s described as an engineer with a duty - which makes the Doctor’s hero worship interesting) but it might be dialectical materialism because - yet again - it sees change coming through contradiction and negation, and thus the transformation of quantity into quality (i.e. tiny changes add up to big ones).  

Even the Doctor/s are fundamentally changed by this skirmish between the material and the ideal, between the internally inimical impulses within the bourgeois Time Lord project. Hereafter, the original Doctor is the ‘First Doctor’, and he knows about Time Lords. Hereafter, the ‘Second Doctor’ is always the doggerel folk-memory version of himself. Hereafter, the ‘Third Doctor’ is a space traveller. They’re all now in a unity… which is a nicer way of looking at it than seeing them as subsumed to a new canon or continuity… which happens, of course… and yes, it’s a bit Time Lordish, in that it is authoritarian like all canon… but it is also another set of internal contradictions. And the contradictions within are, ultimately, what push everything forward (or at least onward).

All history, all regeneration, all change, can be traced back to contradictions. Which is why you ultimately can’t have a world like Omega’s, all ideas and authority and stasis. It won’t work. Effectively, it would be a world without time. A world of “being without becoming” as the Third Doctor says elsewhere, illustrating what he rightly calls “an ontological absurdity”. Doesn’t work.

Ultimately, luckily, however powerful you are, some scruffy little guy turns up with a pipe and blows everything up.



ScarvesandCelery 1 year, 2 months ago

For the First Section I had a moment of "huh, this is Jack Graham doing a Jane Campbell essay." Then the Marxist critique kicked back in a big way.
This was a cool essay.

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Jane Campbell 1 year, 2 months ago

I love how this explains Dialectics in terms of Doctor Who. So, in thinking about this in terms of production of the show, would the realm of idealists kind of be like writers and the realm of materialists be like directors?

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Daibhid C 1 year, 2 months ago

I'm not sure, but I feel like maybe Lance Parkin's excellent novel The Three Doctors: McGann Remix fits here somewhere? I'm thinking of the scene where the Doctor's reaction to Ohm's idealist world is that the opposite of matter is "doesn't matter".

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Roderick T. Long 1 year, 2 months ago

"Omega was originally going to be called OHM."

I wish Finn's callsign in STAR WARS had been OHM. Then we could have had the line "I'm Ohm; I'm with the Resistance."

"Non-fiction identifies the person whose claims are to be evaluated. Fiction doesn’t."

On the Purva-Mimamsa interpretation, the Vedas have no author (extradiegetically, but presumably diegetically also) and yet are nonfiction. How would you take that?

"Stalinism (or 'Marxism-Leninism' as it was fatuously misnamed) became a dead, dogamatic, doggerel Marxism."

As i see it, what Stalinism did to Marxism, Marxism did first to authentic revolutionary leftism. Marxism is the theory, Kronstadt is the practice.

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Anton B 1 year, 1 month ago

Permit me a mad fan theory conflating the Chair Agenda with dialectical materialism.

Even Omega, in spite of himself, is a force for change - and it’s because of his actions, ironically enough, rather than his ideas. This isn’t historical materialism in that there’s no class struggle (though it’s valid to read Omega as working class because he’s described as an engineer with a duty…

…the disempowering of human agency through the elevation of ideas above and beyond actual people.
This is what Omega represents. This is why the chair he conjures with a thought is just a comfy, opulent detail inside a prison.

DOCTOR: What do you know?
PERKINS: Well, I know that when I find a man fiddling with a chair that someone died in, it's best to play my cards close to my chest.
DOCTOR: Really? Well, I know that when I find a man loitering near a chair that someone died in, I do just the same.
PERKINS: Perkins. Chief Engineer.
DOCTOR: The Doctor. Nosey Parker.
PERKINS: (chuckles) Pleased to meet you, Doctor.
(They shake hands.)
PERKINS: Course, there's a rumour that someone or some thing else might be responsible.…

…DOCTOR: Someone of immense power and influence has orchestrated this whole trip. Someone who I have no doubt is listening to us right now. So, are you going to step out from behind the curtain and give us our orders?
PERKINS: The engines. They've stopped.
(In a flurry of electronic activity, the 1920s railway carriage decor is replaced by a high-tech laboratory.)

Mummy on the Orient Express

Omega the engineer is Perkins is Gus.

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Anton B 1 year, 1 month ago

Seriously. Fantastic essay Jack. Much food for thought, thanks.

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